"As for Maidenhead, the conga (which was amusing) aside, quite a strange bunch really – some the oddest chants I've ever heard at a football match" ~ localboy86, Amber Planet forum, 26th April 2015

Monday 27 December 2010

Away Day Diary: Cheltenham Saracens Reserves 3-5 Maidenhead United Reserves (20/11/10)

Following our opening-day ejections at Ebbsfleet - and MUFC Ltd's all-too-predictable draconian and overblown reaction to them - the upcoming Hellenic League Reserve Division One fixtures of the newly-reformed Maidenhead United Reserves were heavily scrutinised for possible train away days as early as the end of August. While places such as Highworth, Fairford, Wantage and Wootton Bassett immediately intrigued, closer inspection revealed that - even if the dates we were due to play them were convenient for everyone - Dr Richard Beeching's infamous cuts of the 1960s meant that we wouldn't be journeying to them by train (if at all). The fact that Cirencester Town away was scheduled for a Tuesday night left only one stand-out fixture - Cheltenham Saracens Reserves on Saturday 20th November. It was duly inked in.

It wasn't until early November that I was reminded to look into train times and, to my horror, it soon became apparent that the two words KSG Away Day veterans dread like no others - namely 'rail' and 'replacement' - reared their ugly heads on the aforementioned Saturday, with buses running between Reading and Swindon which, unfortunately for us, was smack bang in the middle of our intended route. A good hour or so was spent looking into alternatives and, after much deliberation over the coming days, we decided upon giving the buses a wide berth and travelling to Cheltenham via Worcester Shrub Hill. It would mean spending little or no time in Cheltenham on the way back (and being sent more or less an entire 'pack of cards'-worth of tickets), but re-familiarising ourselves with a couple of Worcester pubs (and attempting, at the third time of asking, to have a drink in The Horn & Trumpet - pub #8 on the Worcester City pub crawl - without getting refused entry/thrown out) was but a small price to pay.

Due to a family illness, Steve H wasn't able to make it on the day and so there were only three of us on the 10:25 from Maidenhead (which meant that our crate of Guinness once again had it's own pre-booked seat!). After my now-customary chicken sandwich and pint of milk at the Reading changeover, it soon became clear that the train we were on was experiencing intermittent engine problems, ensuring frequent stops or go-slows as we attempted to navigate the rolling Cotswold hills. After an entertaining and surreal conversation with an eccentric photographer from Evesham called John (who was en route, flowers in hand, to meet a 'lady friend' in Worcester and introduced himself to us with a masturbation joke after over-hearing one of the Macleods – possibly Callum – describe Alan Sugar as a merchant banker) we finally arrived late at Worcester Shrub Hill. So late, in fact, that our connection had been well and truly missed and the next train to Cheltenham wasn't until after kick-off. So late that the rail company felt compelled to commandeer a taxi (or seven-seater scum bus, in GLC parlance) to take us and the four other travellers (including an Irishman in clogs and a blond-haired public schoolboy running late for a rugby game), in the same predicament, to Cheltenham.

After a drop-off in Ashchurch-for-Tewkesbury (not Pont – see 'Dragon Cars' by Goldie Lookin' Chain to make sense of this reference), the KSG were the second group to disembark the taxi after Macleod (M) was able to determine that the main road we were on was the very same as that featured on his printed map of ground directions. Sure enough, the floodlights of Petersfield Park, home of Cheltenham Saracens FC, were in view (as well as a giant KFC and other multi-national outlets typical of out-of-town retail parks) as we exited the black cab. After crossing the busy road and meandering through the outskirts of a run-down council estate that resembled something from Channel 4's Shameless (a quad bike driven by a multi-ear-ringed, tracksuit-wearing twenty-something - with a toddler clinging to his back - roared past us at one stage, and it transpired that there was a muddy BMX bike track right next to the football stadium) we arrived at the entrance to the football club (or, more accurately, the ground - the Saracens' clubhouse was miles away, literally, in the town centre).

"Do we have to pay to get in?" was the question at this point.

"No" was the answer.

Unlike that fateful Saturday in August, on this occasion we did take alcohol into the ground (and further ground regulations were later breached when we crossed the pitch at halftime - no swearing or threatening behaviour though...then again, there wasn't at Ebbsfleet either!) and we readied ourselves for kick-off by finishing the crate of Guinness (I needed a drink, after learning of T*ttenham's sadly inevitable comeback at New Arsenal Stadium) whilst sitting in the small, broken-seated stand (at least the seats were in the correct colours, however, unlike those at York Road!). The weather was gloomy, the pitch was terrible ("worse than Oaken Grove" was Murdo's accurate description), the crowd virtually non-existent (aside from a handful of home side volunteers and a couple of Dad's following the youthful MUFC team, we were the only ones there) whilst the game, it was to transpire, was entertaining; my brief, post-match report on the MUFC Ltd forum read as follows:

The young United side were clearly the more technically gifted but, after we took an early lead and then missed a penalty, the home team fought their way back into it (almost literally - some of their tackling was decidedly x-rated) and held a 2-1 lead at one stage. 

United’s class told in the end and a couple of stunning strikes in the second half sealed the win, much to the delight of the players, the management and the travelling support. 

Indiscipline crept in at times (perhaps they’ve seen the odd first team game?) and a couple of experienced older heads are required, methinks, to nurture talents such as the slight, right-footed(?) left back (Josh Waldron?), the James Milner-esque Ryan Jones, the Theo Walcott-clone Jordan Brown, the "more-stepovers-than-Ronaldo" No 10 and the ball-playing No 4, amongst others. 

By far the best player on the pitch, however, was the Saracens’ No 10 (Sonnie Burrows); he was excellent and should have the scouts flocking to Petersfield Park.

The players seemed to appreciate the support; without prompting and to a man, clapping us from the centre circle at the final whistle. Manager Sam Lock and coach Nigel Wright (who had, weeks before in Noctor's, expressed his disbelief when we had told him of our plan to travel to Cheltenham) came over for a chat and Sam asked after the MUFC Ltd score. A quick check on Steve J's Twitter account (only the second most popular MUFC Twitter feed on the interweb, and by no means the original...) confirmed that they had lost 4-2, at home to lowly Uxbridge (managed by Tony Choules and, apparently, 8-1 also-rans according to the bookies), in the FA Trophy. One of the laziest players I’ve ever seen wear a Maidenhead United shirt - Dean 'Work rate' Clark - scoring twice for a side that, aside from a 4-2 win over Burnham immediately prior to the York Road game, had lost 6-1 at home to Daventry Town, 6-2 at Staines Town (in the County Cup) and 3-0 at Woodford United in other matches during the month of November. Ouch!

As aforementioned, the Cheltenham Saracens' clubhouse was away from the ground and so, as we had a train to catch anyway, we politely declined Coach Wright's offer of a post-match drink and instead started the 30-minute walk to the station. After a quick stop-off for food at Popeye's fish and chip shop (recommended), we made the 17:48 to Worcester with seconds to spare.

The plan was for a couple of hours in and around Foregate Street before catching the 20:15 train, via Shrub Hill, back to Maidenhead. After a drink in the The Cricketers (usually pub #7 on the Worcester City pub crawl), a couple in The Horn & Trumpet (first time in three goes that we hadn't been refused entry/thrown out!) and a quick stop-off at the Tesco Express next to the station for supplies (pasties and a £2.60 440ml bottle of Jacques each) we were back at the relevant platform in good time for the train...that never came! It transpired that First Great Western HQ had made the genius decision not to stop at Foregate Street (and, crucially, not to tell anyone!), which left us with literally minutes to get to Shrub Hill. We didn't even try (to rush and make our intended train), instead taking our time walking to the other Worcester station, stopping en route to purchase a bottle of cheap Latvian vodka (Murdo obviously wasn't sure, at this point, about the Jacques!). 

Passing what seemed like pub after pub, after pub, after pub, after pub (Worcester must surely rank highly in the 'pub per capita' league table of reasonably-sized towns/cities) we completed a full circle by reaching the station we had arrived late at, and caught a taxi from, earlier in the day (Callum was to point out a tent, bizarrely pitched under tree on a patch of grass out front, that he had apparently noticed, but not mentioned, first time around). It transpired we had quite a wait for the next train, time we would pass while undertaking our very best teenage Chav impressions; listening to music (the Chain, of course) on a mobile phone whilst swigging from bottles of cider.

The train, when it arrived, was deserted. So much so that the ticket inspector was only too happy to chat to us (primarily about the impending major redevelopment at Reading; apparently it is to be turned, in the New Year, into a 16-platform super-station) before we stopped at Oxford and the masses descended, several complimenting us on the nearly-completely demolished array of drinks. After changing again at Reading we found ourselves on the same local train as an ex-work colleague of mine, who plays for Holyport. An experienced Hellenic League campaigner, he had barely heard of Cheltenham Saracens, let alone their Reserves, and so was mightily impressed/fearful for our sanity after learning of our journey and - after making it clear that he wasn't, contrary to my understanding, the older brother of one of Maidenhead United Reserves' more accomplished performers on the day - implored us to attend a Holyport (or Maidenhead North End, as we like to refer to them) game before the season is out. Travelling several hours on various trains to watch a youthful Maidenhead United Reserves side play out an eight-goal thriller on a muddy pitch in front of tens of people is one thing. Holyport? Not gonna happen!

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Away Day Diary: Hamburg (October 2010)

I had been to Hamburg, for my mate Alex's stag do, in May. Unfortunately it was outside of the football season and, for various reasons including me making the schoolboy error of not sleeping (much, if at all) the night before travelling, I ended up wandering aimlessly in the rain around a very swanky gated community in the suburb of Große Flottbek, during the early hours, while the others enjoyed a Smokey Joe's-esque nightclub off the Reeperbahn. I let myself down, basically. As such, when Macleod (M) broached the idea of journeying to Germany before the year was out, I was not altogether disappointed when Hamburg was decided upon as the destination. A chance to make amends.

As it happened, there was virtually only one weekend that fitted in with everyone's schedules and it worked out nicely (or so we thought ... ) that HSV were at home to Bayern on the Friday, with nearby VfB Lübeck at home on the Saturday, and Altona 93 at home on the Sunday. Flights and hotels were quickly booked. Job done ... except it soon became apparent that, as it was the 'Manchester United of Germany' that HSV were playing, it'd be unlikely we'd get tickets. Anyone but Bayern (and St Pauli?) and we'd have been OK. Hey ho, Victoria Hamburg were due to play SC Condor on the Friday night as well; a few days in Hamburg to see two fifth-tier Oberliga games, a fourth-tier Regionalliga match and no Bundesliga would, IMO, equal big points!


On arrival at Hamburg airport the commercialism of the two local Bundesliga sides was immediately to the fore: an HSV sandwich-maker and St Pauli wellington boots just two of the many branded products on sale in one of the first shops that we encountered after passing through passport control. Perhaps you might expect this from HSV - one of the country's oldest, most well known and best performing clubs (with the unique distinction of having played continuously in top-flight German football since the end of World War I; HSV has never been relegated from any top-flight league and is the only team that has always played in the Bundesliga since its foundation in 1963) - but St Pauli as well? It seemed strange for such a 'right-on' club (I'm not actually sure it's appropriate to describe a club famous for it's alternative fan scene, built around left-leaning politics, as right-on'??) to be so mercenary with their marketing. Then again, I suppose it was only their ability to shift t-shirts that kept the club from financial ruin, not so long ago ...

Into the city centre; Craig recommended we headed straight to the Brauhaus Joh. Albrecht, close to the Rathaus. The beer (dunkel) was excellent and so was the food. After a relaxed and enjoyable afternoon in the pub, then a quick stop at our hotel (the relatively new Holiday Inn Express on Simon-von-Utrecht-Str.; a short walk from the nearest subway station past the St Paul Eck bar, complete with two Bristol Rovers stickers on the window!), we wandered over for a look at St Pauli's nearby Millerntor-Stadion. Macleod (M), who was dismayed (as was I) to read on a plan of the stadium that there was a designated "singer's corner" (I love German football but ... dislike the way that much of the crowd noise, formidable though it is, isn't spontaneous and is instead orchestrated via a ring-leader, often with megaphone in hand), posed for photos outside with our last remaining European Football Weekends logo (the black and white one hadn't survived it's first and only trip, to Worcester City, last season) and commented that one rickety stand looked about as sturdy as the 'dance floor' (directly above the cellar) in the Anchor! Apparently a total renovation of the stadium (expanded seating, new amenities etc.), costing around 30M Euros, is underway and expected to be completed in 2013. The stadium, as it stands, could certainly do with a facelift. Arranging for the demolition of the huge, grey factory-like eyesore that overlooks one end of ground would certainly help.

As darkness and drizzle began to fall we found ourselves walking around the borough of Eimsbüttel, searching for a bar that Craig had visited on a previous trip. When located, it transpired that the bar was closed for renovation and the landlord of the pub next door was more interested in taking a new delivery than serving. All was not lost, however, as across the road was a place called Hardy's. Although the increasingly wet weather meant that we wouldn't be able to make use of the decent seating areas at the front - and the establishment resembled more a restaurant from the outside - it actually turned out to be a warm and welcoming bar where, a la Cheers, everyone seemed to know everyone's name. As such, our arrival created somewhat of a stir. 

During our second round of Jever's (not nearly as enjoyable as the dunkel from earlier in the day) a middle-aged local woman, previously sat at the bar, approached and - in near-perfect English - requested that she join us. After asking where we were from (the entire bar fell silent in anticipation of our answer) she explained that her name was Veronica and she had studied in London years ago, residing in Walthamstow (we offered our commiserations!). As expected, she was somewhat dumbfounded to learn our reason for being in the area (Victoria Hamburg vs SC Condor). After covering topics such as 'Britishness', the single European currency and Turkish immigration to Germany (apparently Altona now resembles the Bosphorus ... ) Veronica said her goodbyes and returned to her husband. Not long afterwards, we too were on our way. 

Passing a confectionery store that had an advert for Victoria's upcoming Cup game with Steve McClaren's Wolfsburg in it's window (I love German football but ... what's the point of them arranging it so that the lower ranked teams have home advantage in the early Cup rounds, only to allow the lower ranked teams to switch the tie to a nearby neutral ground for financial, as much as security, reasons?), we headed on foot up the busy Gärtnerstr. before arriving at Victoria's 11,000-capacity Stadion-Hoheluft. We had been hurrying in order to make the kick off time but we needn't have bothered as, to our horror, the ground was under cover of complete darkness! A rain-damaged sign attached to the front gate informed us that the match had actually taken place the night before, brought forward at the last minute due to Victoria's aforementioned big Cup game (I love German football but ... find it frustrating that they leave it so late to change fixture dates/times; I'm off to Köln next month and have only just discovered that 1.FC Köln's game against Eintracht Frankfurt that weekend will take place on the Saturday afternoon). After cursing our bad luck (and cheering ourselves with the news that Condor had beaten the newly-despised Victoria) we decided to head for the Sportpub Tankstelle to watch the HSV-Bayern game on TV.

The famous HSV stronghold was virtually empty upon our arrival but this enabled us to get good seats and Macleod (M) to try out the jukebox (12 songs for a Euro; "Joe in the Anchor is gonna hear about this"). Songs by Stiff Little Fingers, The Pogues and Oasis, among others, plus the Glasgow Rangers anthem 'Follow Follow' were belted out as the cavernous, gig-venue-like boozer began to fill up; as the game reached it's conclusion, the atmosphere was rocking. Disappointingly, the beer (Holsten) was flat and the match was a dire goal-less draw (I love German football but ... the standard of play can often leave much to be desired). Nevertheless, watching an HSV game in the Sportpub Tankstelle is something I'm pleased to have experienced. We finished the night in the stylish Nachthafen bar on Clemens-Schultz-Str. Macleod (M) was the first to leave for bed, around midnight, and - with only the syrupy Astra and no silly-coloured drinks on the menu - I followed not long afterwards. Macleod (C) and Craig apparently lasted another hour before retiring. The latter would find me asleep in our room. Fully clothed. It had been a long day.


VfB Lübeck vs Wolfsburg II ... and this game was definitely on! The train to the former capital of the Hanseatic League only took 45 mins or so. It was sunny, but with a chill in the air, as we got a taxi from the station to the ground; hidden from the main road by a massive supermarket. "Enjoy the game," said the mustachioed taxi driver as we got out, before breaking into a barely-stifled snigger! The colour green is seemingly synonymous with VfB Lübeck and their 18,000-capacity Lohmühle-Stadion; the team plays in green and white, Holsten are the drink suppliers of choice, and several astroturf pitches were in view and in use as - on a grassy bank behind the impressive main stand - we supped on our pre-match pints and bought a scarf (for the Anchor scarf mural). We were in F-Block, an uncovered terrace behind one of the goals. The other end was similarly uncovered. To our left was a compact stand (adjoining the supermarket) and to our right was the aforementioned main stand. The flag-wearing Ultras were stationed at the other end of the main stand from us, towards where the away fans would've been if Wolfsburg II had brought any (I love German football but ... II teams in the pyramid is a stupid idea; give them an atmosphere-less league of their own). The crowd was later given as 2,379 and there seemed to be as many policemen in attendance on top of that! The fuzz were everywhere (with their predominantly green vehicles fitting in nicely with the aforementioned colour scheme).

The game itself was, by German standards, a good one (almost as enjoyable as the beer - Holsten, much better this time - and the currywurst!). Some feisty tackles right in front of us set the tone early on and the home side's tenacious left-winger Danny Cornelius - after initially resembling a bull in a china shop (Murdo likened him to ex-Maidenhead United striker Craig O'Connor; a name many a Conference South referee will remember) - caught the eye, as did Wolfsburg II's mulleted keeper Jonas Deumeland (who, unfortunately, didn't appear anywhere near mad enough to be labelled the 'new Jens Lehmann') and their elegant, creative midfielder Tolga Cigerci (who reminded me of Abdul Osman and, like the former Maidenhead United man, has a style of play that will likely be more effective the higher up he goes). 

Two other individuals involved in two other incidents stole the show, however. Firstly, Lübeck's No 18 Bastian Hennings scored a stunning overheard volley, a la Dimitar Berbatov against Liverpool earlier this season (the Lübeck subs, warming up directly in front of us, had their hands on their hips in disbelief at their teammate's audacious skill; click here to see for yourself how good the goal was). Then, after the final whistle had sounded and Lübeck's players were celebrating their 3-1 win (Hennings scored twice) with a deserved lap of honour, no 23 Michael Hohnstedt misunderstood our request for a photo of him with the EFW logo and swiped it from us!

Reeling from this outrageous theft, we got the bus (free with our match tickets) back into central Lübeck (10 mins or so) and decided to find a bar to watch the Bundesliga games. After an abortive visit to what we thought was a Turkish bar next to the station (which had an inordinate amount of scarves and plasma TV on the walls, but didn't serve drinks full stop, let alone alcohol! I think it might've been a taxi office) we decided to follow the early evening foot flow ... and I'm pleased that we did as it meant we walked right past the historic Holstentor and Rathaus - plus several other architectural gems of this understandably UNESCO-listed world heritage site - before finally finding the tiny but delightful Meykade Pub down one of the many brick gothic cobbled streets. Here we watched as the action on TV switched regularly between the various Bundesliga games (forget Jeff Stelling and his cohorts, THIS is the real Soccer Saturday) and discovered that Charlie Mpi (or Charlie Magpie, as he will now be known) - recently signed by Maidenhead United after I had forwarded to the club an email he had sent to musa2006@fsmail.net - had made his debut as Berkshire's finest fell to a 1-0 defeat at Forest Green Rovers in the FA Cup. More pleasing, for me anyway, was the news that Bristol Rovers had scored twice in the last five minutes to snatch a draw at Hartlepool, despite not having a shot on target until their first goal went in!

Back to Hamburg on the train (sitting next to a Hen Party for part of the way) and, after a another quick stop off at the hotel, we hit the infamous Jolly Rodger (stickers and scarves galore; more Astra) then Nachthafen again. Craig retired at this point and the rest of us headed to the Reeperbahn. One of the few places I did remember from my previous visit to Hamburg (aside from the Dolls House) was Bar Centrale, with several framed goalkeeper's gloves on the wall. We enjoyed a drink here - and Macleod (C) a photo with Andreas Kopke's gloves - before the rather alluring barmaid recommended a club on Große Freiheit. We only stayed for one drink in said club as, although a decent venue, the music ('death metal', I think) was too much. After stops at a Thai karaoke bar (you'd be forgiven for thinking you were at a drinking den in downtown Pattaya), an Irish pub (another alluring barmaid!), a kebab shop (or two; no wonder I'd ended up walking for miles when trying to find a decent one last time!), various photos (with the statues at Beatles-Platz; a seemingly officially-sanctioned graffiti image of Father Christmas baring his hairy backside; a nightclub sign indicating the tunes being played inside the venue were 'R&B, House and Black Music') - plus several propositions from prostitutes and pimps - we ended up back at the very same 'death metal' club as before! Breakfast was being served by the time Macleod (C) and I made it back to the hotel.


Altona 93 vs TSV Bucholz 08 at the Adolf-Jäger-Kampfbahn stadium - reportedly one of the oldest in Germany - would be the final game of our triple header. Not long after entering the rather stark ground through the simple but striking main entrance - and buying another scarf (again, for the Anchor) - we found ourselves talking to Jan, who Craig had met before at an Altona game through our mutual friend Gavin. Jan was wearing a jeans jacket covered with various badges; probably the largest of which was a Heart of Midlothian one, courtesy of Gavin. Jan was selling the latest edition of the Altona 93 fanzine, to which Gavin had contributed an article (in English). Aside from the main (i.e. only) stand to one side, and a clubhouse facility in one corner, the ground was uncovered; as bleak as the weather, TBH. After the (relative) excitement of Lübeck vs Wolfsburg II, the previous day, this game was an unfortunate return to form. The only amusement first half was the sight of the linesman in front of us, who resembled the character Meat Loaf plays in Fight Club, running (or, more accurately, wobbling) the line!

A shot each of some strange spirit, poured from a kindly stranger's hip flask, numbed the pain somewhat at half time; the second period was actually a little better. I enjoyed a much-needed pint, we explored the vast terracing behind one of the goals (that stretched way back into thick trees; "I think they've got a corner"), discovered ancient and now-disused turnstiles, were treated to a goal (from the away side, cheered by a small band of hardy supporters among the total crowd of 357) plus a penalty save from the visiting custodian (which Callum 'Nigel Keene' Macleod managed to capture on camera). Craig donated his Maidenhead United badge (the classic 1950s design) to Jan as we exited, en route to the hotel to collect our bags. Soon we were at the airport and, before long, we were home.

Hamburg is not my favourite German city. Far from it. Too sleazy (and I never thought I'd see myself writing that!). I thoroughly enjoyed this weekend, though (despite our EFW logo being stolen!), and would certainly recommend a trip to Lübeck (to see both the historic sights and also VfB). As aforementioned, I am back in Köln with the family next month and I look forward to that and my next overseas trip with the KSG.

I love German football but ... no buts.

Saturday 6 November 2010

Hit The Road, Jack

When the signing of Cliff Akurang was first mooted by Drax, a week or two ago, it was made clear that the budget (which is currently being exceeded?) wasn't going to be increased and, as such, players were going to have to make way for the new arrival. With Akurang's signature now dry on the dotted line - and a partly supporter-funded Will Hendry set to follow - it was no surprise to learn yesterday that the squad-trimming has already begun: right wing-back Jack Bradshaw leaving to join St Neots Town (who?) of the United Counties Premier (what?). 

More players will, no doubt, soon follow. In fact, if the budget really isn't going to be raised (and who believes that it won't be or, if it isn't, that Drax won't be allowed to regularly go over?), I question whether we'll be able to field a side shortly (Drax to be named, embarrassingly, as a sub again?); Akurang has a decent pedigree and I doubt he signed for Maidenhead United for the prestige of playing at the oldest senior football ground in the world used continually by the same club TM. Then again, Thurrock are one of the few clubs in the division with a lower average attendance than us so perhaps Drax enticed him with the prospect of playing in front of 311 people, on average, every home game rather than a paltry 306?

Anyway, Bradshaw is the first but he won't be the last. The fact that he is the first, however, got me thinking (always a dangerous thing). I like Jack Bradshaw ... and not just because, when coming over to applaud the fans at Dorchester following last season's Fancy Dress X, he readily held aloft the Pinky Punky that I threw onto the pitch (Rasher's letter re that breach of ground regulations presumably got lost in the post)...

Although there is little or no dispute that he was not nearly as impressive after signing permanently as he was during his spells on loan with us from Stevenage Borough (where, apparently, he started out as a striker), it could be argued that this was in no small part due to injuries (one serious) and the fact that the manager never seemed to have much confidence in him. IMO he was a more-then-serviceable right wing-back, though, and the fact that at least one other club (albeit one playing in a league I've barely heard of) was keen to sign him is probably as much the reason why he is the first to leave, post-Akurang arrival, as anything else.

On the face of it, then, Akurang's arrival lead directly to Bradshaw leaving. Methinks that's an over-simplification, however, and the seeds of Bradshaw's departure can actually be traced back to a misguided decision (or series of decisions) that continue to have an adverse effect on the team. Allow me to elaborate ...

One of my major - note I didn't write 'many' there -  gripes with Drax's tenure at York Road is that, having stumbled upon a winning formula towards the end of his first season in charge (when we won 14 out of our last 16 league games to gain promotion from the Southern Premier via the play-offs), he needlessly tinkered with/broke-up one of the top two teams I think Maidenhead United have had in the last twenty-odd years. For the record, the side that beat Team Bath 1-0 in the play-off final at Twerton Park that season was as follows...



Nisbet – Cooper – Sterling

Telemaque – Lee – Behzadi – Brown – Smith

Newman – Hughes

Subs Used: Romeo, Parsons, Osman

Subs Unused: Fenton, Preddie

All that team needed in order to comfortably survive and, IMO, prosper in the Conference South the following season was a goalscorer (we actually got one, almost by default, when Leyton striker Emmanuel Williams asked to train with us in pre-season and was eventually signed on). Instead we inexplicably reverted to 4-4-2, with big-game-bottler Louis Wells (signed by Rasher during his ill-fated spell as Director of Football) replacing Chico between the sticks. Dwane Lee, meanwhile, was indulged and moved to centre-back (or wherever he fancied playing that week). The imperious centre-half Dominic Sterling was shunted to left-back (where he was far from imperious) to replace 'Ryman' Parsons (RP any worse than current incumbent, Bruce Wilson?). Grant Cooper (Lee Kersey was often favoured), Lee Newman (Carl Wilson-Denis anyone?!) and Errol Telemaque (who fell out with Drax after Dwane Lee fancied  a stint at right wing-back) were gradually sidelined while, crucially, Wes Daly's signing from AFC Wimbledon (for the obligatory 'undisclosed' fee) meant that Bobby 'The Daddy' Behzadi was moved to right-back. The team struggled throughout the season and only three consecutive wins at the beginning of April (following the loan signing of Richard Pacquette) kept us up.

Now, I realise that Behzadi was apparently a marauding right-back during his early days at Hayes and then Yeading but, as anyone who saw him bossing the midfield exchanges during our triumphant close-out of the 2006/7 season (and anyone who has played as Maidenhead United on Football Manager) will testify, his best position is - unarguably - central midfield. If Daly - who's red card in his last game for AFC in the play-off's essentially cost them promotion that season - had to be signed (and I, for one, was never as critical of him as many other Magpie fans) then it should have been as replacement for the Gretna-bound Abdul Osman (whatever became of him?) or the ageing Darthaniel Brown. Behzadi in central midfield - as virtually the first name on the team sheet (in that position) - was a no-brainer.

As it was The Daddy was quickly moved to right-back and, in October, unfortunately suffered a serious knee injury in an FA Cup game against his old teams (Hayes & Yeading). Obviously the injury could well have happened if Behzadi had been playing centre-mid that day. That's not my point. My point is that right-back is not Behzadi's best position for Maidenhead United – it wasn't before his injury and it certainly wasn't when he returned from it, as he had lost much of his pace and mobility.

I think/presume that it was during Behzadi's lengthy injury lay-off that Bradshaw first came to the club on loan, a move that would eventually (after two temporary spells) become permanent. With Bradshaw impressing (albeit decreasingly so) at right-back and a slower, post-injury Behzadi back, The Daddy did eventually return to a central midfield spot last season after Wes Daly's replacement, Ashley Nicholls, left York Road after just 12 months for his 9th club in as many years (soon to be followed by his 10th and 11th).

After an inauspicious start to the campaign (our first win came in our 9th game) the young and inexperienced team steadily improved and, despite dodgy periods (one point in five games around February, for example), never looked like finishing in the relegation places (not that doing so would've seen us drop a division anyway, of course). As well as the addition of Kieran Knight, the eye-catching form of Sam Collins (who inexplicably began the season behind Steve Barnes and James Hamsher in the left-wing pecking order), five goals in a month from Will Hendry, and solid contributions throughout from Mark Nisbet and Chris Tardif, one of the major factors behind our relative success last season was the combative midfield pairing of Behzadi and Bradley Quamina.

During last summer, with Steve Williams and Andrew Fagan replacing Tardif and Nevin Saroya, I was looking for Drax to add a striker (or two) and, ideally, sign a creative midfielder who could add a touch of flair to supplement the more defensive-minded Behzadi and Quamina, and mentor the promising Lewis Ochoa (where's he gone, BTW?). Instead we went into this season with no significant additions in the striking department and our marquee signing (again) being exactly what we didn't need: another defensive midfielder (and one, in Ashley Nicholls, who had no hesitation in leaving the previous summer after the budget had been cut).

The re-signing of Nicholls meant, of course, that Behzadi went to right-back again and Bradshaw found himself warming the bench. Is Behzadi a significant upgrade on Bradshaw at right-back? Is Nicholls a significant upgrade on Behzadi at centre-mid? No and No, IMO. As such, why, when the budget is apparently so tight - and we have pressing needs elsewhere (upfront) - did we re-sign Nicholls? We needed a goalscorer in the summer and, if some of the Thurrock fans' comments on Akurang are to be believed - “a great winger and average striker ... has the potential to be the best player in the league but is more likely to be a weight around your necks” - we still do.

Bradshaw is leaving, therefore, not solely because of Akurang's arrival but because Drax needlessly wasted a proportion of the summer budget on another defensive midfielder (Ashley Nicholls) and because he continues to play Bobby Behzadi out of position at full-back. Who will go to right-back if, for whatever reason, The Daddy is missing? Marcus Rose (a centre half by trade, and one who is coming back from a serious injury himself)? Ashley Smith (a winger)? 

Either the budget is unrealistic and/or it is being mismanaged.

Hey ho, all the best Jack.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Away Day Diary: Cinderford Town 0-4 Maidenhead United (09/10/10)

Maidenhead United were the last team out of the hat in the draw for the 3rd Qualifying Round of the 2010/11 FA Cup: an away tie at either Alton Town or Cinderford Town. While certain fans lamented the lack of a home fixture many, including myself, were delighted that sleeping/ gardening/ DIY'ing/ shopping would be taking a back seat on Saturday 9th October, as a train journey to a previously unknown and relatively far away place was too good an opportunity to miss. The replay would be at Cinderford and, as the higher-ranked of the two teams, they were favourites to win through. They did and, bearing in mind the small Gloucestershire town was further and trickier to get to, I was not displeased about this.

Advanced train tickets were purchased (£18.50 each for a return; not bad) and journeys planned. Cinderford's train station was a victim of Beeching's cuts in the 1960s and so the 10:04 from Maidenhead would be taking us as far as Gloucester. While some intended on sharing taxis to the ground, the KSG were adamant that they would be on the No 31 bus to Coleford, which would drop us off in Cinderford after an approximate 35 minute ride through the Gloucestershire countryside.

Texas Pete and his clan, Stefan, Stefan's daughter and the Anchor Crew (McKendrick, Woody and Kenny) joined the KSG on the early train. Those with children seated themselves away from us, presumably because they concur with the Yes-man of the Year - re the allegation we made a child cry at Ebbsfleet - that "where there's smoke, there's fire". 

Change at Reading (where an M&S sandwich and pint of milk were consumed to ensure that Callum and Murdo didn't have to carry me home from the game, unlike at Ebbsfleet!) preceded a 16-can carry-out, a brief chat about former Magpie Abdul Osman with a Northampton Town fan who was en route to their game at Cheltenham (the conversation ended rather suddenly when the Cobbler mentioned he was from H*rsh@m and was in attendance for our infamous capitulation there in November 2007) and discussions about various topics (including the recent MUSA committee meeting, Reserve team games we plan on attending and how/ where/ if to publicise this blog) before we arrived in Gloucester, just after midday, as scheduled.

I'd have been happy to experience a swift pint in the derelict-looking pub directly outside the train station (and opposite the bus station) - called, imaginatively, the Station - but the real ale connoisseurs among us had their heart set on the Famous Pint Pot, a five minute walk away (or two minute jog; I went to check on the bus times and, while attempting to catch the others up, tweaked a calf muscle that would keep me out of 6-a-side football the following Monday). While the parents/ Guardian-readers supped on their pints of Doom Bar (in what was a rather gloomy bar) and waited for their taxis (they'd have quite a wait, it transpired), the KSG polished off their Guinness & Blacks and headed back to the bus station. 

Now, admittedly, I don't spend much time at bus stations - and realise that not many are renowned for their architectural elegance - but Gloucester's was a truly abhorrent concoction of grey brick and dilapidated shops; easily the worst I'd had the misfortune of visiting since Newport several years ago. Anyway, after inspired purchases of sausage rolls and a six-pack from a Co-Op (that seemed to be doing a fine trade in selling spirits and tobacco to 'gentlemen of the road', as I think they are euphemistically termed), we were joined by Rainey, Bobby P and others off the 11:04 train from Maidenhead, in time for the 13:10 bus to Coleford.

The KSG sat at the front of the top deck and enjoyed unrestricted views of the Cotswold hills rolling by but, in truth, the weather - in stark contrast to previous days - was dank and grey; the scenery was as uninspiring as the A48 trunk road on which the bus spent much of the journey. This - plus the fact that the three cans of lager in addition to the carry-out were sitting heavy on my bladder - meant that I, for one, was delighted to arrive in Cinderford, despite it resembling more a 'seen-better-days' Welsh mining village than a quaint countryside town.

Still, time for a quick pint before kick off and so we headed straight into the pub opposite the bus stop (called, I think, The Swan). This establishment didn't have Guinness (what sort of pub doesn't have Guinness??) and wouldn't have looked out of place in The League of Gentlemen. One of us remarked that they were glad they hadn't come in alone! (An over-dramatic comment, for sure, but you get the drift.)

As we exited the pub and prepared ourselves for an unenviable walk up a steep hill towards the football club, a white van thundered past, honked it's horn and took a sharp left into the nearby rugby ground. It transpired that Coxy and his travelling companions had gotten lost. After confirming that we knew the way (well, sort of!) we were invited to clamber into the back for a lift. It was pitch black in there and difficult to remain standing but a novel way to travel to a game and actually great fun! Plus we made it in good time for kick off ...

… not that we saw much, if any, of the first half! Discussions with a blazer or two regards the fall out from Ebbsfleet, interrogating Callum's work colleague (below) who was attending her first ever football match (Cinderford Town vs Maidenhead United as your first football match; WTF??) and wondering why 'Jerusalem' is played instead of 'Land of Hope & Glory' at the medal ceremonies when England win Gold at the Commonwealth Games (CTFC, like MUFC Ltd, don't have satellite TV and so the final of the Men's Compound Archery, or something, was on) took precedence and, before we knew it, half time was upon us with Maidenhead two goals to the good.

As we were moved from the small bar into the large function room it became apparent that a good many United fans had made the journey, in addition to those that had come by train; Payney and Leicester Les among them. The Mothership estimates that 50-odd in total were there, which puts to shame the pitiful amount that went to Chelmsford for the league game the week before. After Murdo had chatted at length with the Chairman - and I had called the wife to confirm, much to her relief, that we wouldn't be making an impromptu stop-off at her Mum and Dad's, in nearby Monmouth, on the way home - it was finally time to venture outside to take in some match action. 

The Causeway - which the Foresters apparently plan to leave sometime soon - was a strange little ground. One half - the side that included the dressing rooms and social facilities - had a small grandstand positioned to the left (as you exited the bar) and narrow, covered terracing to the right. The covered terracing was actually below pitch level so your eye-line was approximately the same height as the players waists; almost like an extended dugout! One goal had a gravel walkway behind it and the other two sides of the ground were made up of steep grass banks from where, at the top, you almost had a birds eye view (I exaggerate, obviously); not just of the pitch, but also of the surrounding area (nondescript housing, mainly).

I took time out from the less-than-enthralling action (Maidenhead's second goal, just before half time, had seemingly ended the match as a contest) to tour the ground (making sure to avoid direct contact with a certain Director and his cronies); photos taken of the small band of home fans (complete with Union Handkerchief), Dereck Brown pacing the technical area - and David Gumbs doing his thing - before I re-joined the thronged mass of Magpie fans in the corner of the 'dugout' for a sing-song, as the final whistle approached.

A few of the old favourites - 'Soggy Sombrero', 'Dereck Brown's my Grandad' etc. - were belted out as Maidenhead scored two more goals to put a gloss finish on an efficient performance. A prolonged and admittedly somewhat ring-rusty 'Johnson Hippolyte's Black & White Army' (which some, bizarrely, tried to sabotage) saw us through to full time, when the players were applauded off as they exited the pitch directly in front of the travelling fans. A few choruses of 'We love you Maidenhead ... ', an inspired debut of 'There's only one Mark Steward' and Murdo taunted with 'You're banned and you know you are', as he took down the flag, ensued before everyone retreated to the bar.

Time started to fly at this point and, before we knew it, all the other Maidenhead fans had left in their return taxis and the relevant bus back had long since departed; the KSG were in real danger of missing the 19:17 train from Gloucester, as increasingly desperate calls to local taxi companies proved less than fruitful ("Ow bist thee awld butty? The next 'an fo yer be at noin"). Just as we were resigning ourselves for a very belated arrival home, a woman in her 60s, (who might've been knitting, if my memory serves, and was sat at a nearby table) said that she'd overheard about our plight and would get her husband to give us a lift to the station. Initially we politely refused but, after she insisted and her husband came over to say that it really wasn't a problem, we accepted their charitable offer and were soon in a car en route to Gloucester. 

It transpired that our chauffeur was called Ray and his wife (who didn't accompany us for the car journey, BTW) was called Beryl. They apparently follow the Foresters home and away and were keen for our experience of Cinderford - and Cinderford Town in particular - to be a favourable one. Catching our appointed train home (by a whisker) after a 30+ minute drive through, at times, winding country lanes certainly helped! We gave Ray £30 as way of payment (which he initially refused to accept) and all readily agreed to attend a Cinderford away game before the season is out, to re-enforce our gratitude at their humbling gesture of kindness. I suspect that Ray thought we were being facetious but we WILL keep our promise; Ray and Beryl are a credit to their club and non-league football in general.

The train journey home was a relatively good one (i.e. I can remember it and it passed rather quickly). One of us slept, some of us played Goldie Lookin' Chain - with added MUFC Ltd - top trumps (Strength of ten? Eleven!) ... 

... while another flirted with some peroxide-haired, tan-tastic grandmothers who were looking forward to a night out in Reading. As we approached the county town of Berkshire, we were joined by some Basingstoke Town fans on their way home from a 4-0 win at Didcot Town. It transpired that they had bumped into Texas Pete and the others in MUFC replica shirts further up the train and had immediately asked if the 'Ebbsfleet 3' were on board! 

They were pleased to meet with us and interested to hear the update of our (latest) run-in with the club. Talking (if not shaking hands; I'm sorry, I just couldn't!) with them, as we left the train at Reading, caused us to miss the first available connection to Maidenhead. But we weren't too bothered; we'd spent various parts of the day sitting away from other Maidenhead fans on trains (aside from when it suited them, of course) and it will be good to meet with the 'Stoke fans, as agreed, in the Anchor when we play the Dragons (what a stupid nickname!) over Xmas.

Back to Maidenhead, then, and into the aforementioned Anchor; the usual tunes on the jukebox and an argument between Steve H and Bobby P (unsurprising, after a day on the beers). The night should've probably ended there but, as it was, Noctor's (where my extremely grumpy woodwork/ metalwork teacher of yesteryear was jauntily playing bass guitar - badly - in a covers band) and then the Smoke beckoned (the latter for just Callum and I). The 'Bell End' t-shirt I was wearing brought nearly as much female attention as did the Superman costume after Fancy Dress VI @ Histon, much to my embarrassment when a teetotal colleague who was also in the Smoke asked, on Monday morning, which one of the harem was my wife! 

I woke up on Sunday morning with £35 in crumpled notes, another £25 in one-pound coins (suggesting my wallet had taken as much as a battering as my liver and throat) and a throbbing headache (that lasted for a good couple of days); getting too old for these train away days! This was, of course, our first outing since Ebbsfleet - nearly three months previous - and so we were out of practice, TBF. Fortunately, it won't be another three months before our next trip as we're off to Hamburg this coming weekend for games at HSV (hopefully), VfB Lubeck and Altona 93. 

On the Saturday we're in Germany, Maidenhead will back in the Cotswolds to take on Forest Green Rovers in the next round of the FA Cup. Despite the Conference National side being recently named, by The Ball Is Round blog, as one of the top five non-league away days in the country - and our day out at Cinderford being an excellent one - I know where I'd rather be ...