Misty Moon 2-4 Queen’s Head: A Match Report

12:10, Sunday afternoon. The referee’s whistle blew for the last time and instantly alleviated the final jinx from the collective shoulders of two generations of Queen’s Head players. It was the Pub Clasico, and Misty Moon hosted the Queen’s Head. Two of Chesham’s most popular establishments, alike in stature, poles apart in quality.

Queen’s Head FC, now into their third season, have made considerable progress since their formation; from waiting patiently for their first win, an emphatic 4-0 over FC Eagles and a taste of a successful future ahead, to lifting their first silverware last summer, a disciplined victory over the now top-flight Dinamo Chequers in the Junior Invitational Cup final. Club first after club first had been achieved, record after record had been broken, but one aspect of the Queen’s ever developing history remained unchanged through the generations – from the school of 2012/13 through to Queen’s Head nuevo – Misty Moon FC remained undefeated against the Church Street side. Five games. Five losses. 12:10.

A sense of cautious optimism permeated the hot and humid atmosphere at Bellingdon Village Hall ahead of the 10:30 kick-off. The Queen’s Head of last season managed to run Misty close on the two occasions the clubs met, and with the home side newly promoted and struggling to adapt to life amongst the Sunday League elite, the visitors sensed that a long overdue victory could be there for the taking.

It soon became clear that although Misty Moon had been dropping points in the early stages of the new season, they hadn’t lost any quality in their personnel. The home-side lined up with a typically strong starting XI in a typical, flat, 4-4-2. Queen’s Head, in the unfortunate absence of the caring and watchful eyes of owner and chairwoman, Lisa Walker, and fellow oligarch, John Walker, set to the field in an unfamiliar but cohesive combination of players. Notably, it was Joe Matthews, after an excellent two-week promotion to caretaker manager in the absence of Phil Meier, who saw his excellent work both on and off the pitch rewarded with a start in the right-midfield slot of a flexible 4-4-2, which involved striker, Casey Birkett, dropping deep to forage and force mistakes against a Misty back-line that looked vulnerable to lapses in concentration.

Goss, on the ball for the Queen’s Head

And so at 10:30 Queen’s Head kicked off. At 10:31, after a smart, overtly attacking move which almost lead to an own goal and resulted in a corner for the hooped away side, Misty decided to start playing, too.

Every credible success story needs a protagonist, and every member of the impressively organised and sharp Queen’s Head team who featured and supported filled the role well. The back four of
Ollie Buckingham, Alex Jones, Dave Wild and Phil Meier expertly dealt with the fast pace of the Misty attacks ahead of Darren Kelly, who has entered the new season in exceptional form.

It was David Goss, however, fresh and fully immersed into a brand new air of confidence, who underlined the collective quality of a team sensing a historic first win over the Queen’s rivals by winning a penalty following an intuitive run, which he duly converted. Lift off.

Soon it was two, with Goss chasing and forcing a mistake from the Misty goalkeeper before finishing acutely into an open goal – a move which began with a David Luiz-esque piece of nonchalant brilliance from manager and left-back, Phil Meier, who decided against heading a stray through ball, choosing to chase back and turn between two attackers before sending the ball on its way up the pitch.

A commanding lead. Not an unfamiliar early scoreline in the Pub Clasico, as Queen’s Head held a similar scoreline in the early stages of a home league match versus Misty Moon last season – only to be pegged back before ultimately, and painfully, losing 4-2. Soon history was to repeat itself. A deep and dipping cross managed to plant itself directly into the very top corner of the Queen’s goal. Later a brief moment of confusion in the box lead to a Misty equaliser. 2-2. Crash landing.

The 4-2 scoreline recorded at Westwood Park last winter was difficult for the still developing Queen’s Head team to get over. But, significantly, the months that followed allowed Queen’s to learn from their shortcomings. The midfield of Joe Matthews, Dan Benning, and Ben Mack rallied, upset Misty’s rhythm, closed players down before the home side could unleash their characteristic long balls through to their pacey attackers. Pedro huffed and puffed on the left of the midfield four before finding momentary pockets of success in a more advanced role. Soon the collective quality of a team transformed would shine through.

Louis Street entered the fray, maintaining the solidity of a defence hell-bent on snuffing out would-be attacks. Louie Shanahan added an invaluable level of intensity in closing opponents down as well as supporting Queen’s attacks with a high energy.

The second half saw Sam Nolan introduced, whose quick feet immediately caused problems for Misty – and it was a Nolan ball which found David Goss, who sprang the offside trap and completed his hat-trick. 3-2 to the visitors.

Ashley Cole featured heavily in the second half, tirelessly chasing opponents high up the pitch and forcing errors in what is usually a watertight defence.

Soon it was four. Goss was bundled over for a second time in the box and powerfully converted his penalty. A glut – for the first time in the club’s history. Another record. But by this stage all that mattered was chasing the all-important, now three season long, scalp. So many times plucky performances have yielded undeserving defeats at the hands of Misty Moon FC, so many times the monkey’s remained unshaken from hooped backs.

The ever-reliable Graham Noble was brought on and did an outstanding job in an unfamiliar right-back position. As the Misty attacks became more desperate, the brighter the centre-back pairing of Alex Jones and Dave Wild shone; continually outleaping and outsmarting the frantic Misty attackers. The midfield link-up between Dan Benning and Ben Mack was exceptional; with Benning doggedly fighting for possession while Mack expertly orchestrated attack after attack. 2013/14 saw an overwhelming change in personnel at Queen’s Head, while the squad has largely remained the same since, it feels like the club has progressed even further; it’s not so much a generational matter anymore, but Queen’s look smarter, slicker than at any other stage – a real Queen’s Head 2.0.

Kelly, continuing with his exceptional early season form

A rare one-on-one opportunity for Misty was dealt with by an extraordinary save from Darren Kelly before normal service was resumed at the other end of the pitch. David Goss appeared to have taken a leaf out of the Casey Birkett school of hunting for space and finding the ball out wide – it seemed to be paying dividends as he forced some smart saves from the Misty number one. Louie Shanahan later almost looked to have wrapped up a conclusive win as he arrowed a shot narrowly over the far corner of the goal.

12:10 and the final whistle was greeted with a roar from both the Queen’s Head players and support. The final taboo had been lifted. So too had the monkey from hooped backs – a Clasico victory over two years in the making.

David Goss picked up Man of The Match for what was a hard working and prolific display. But the manner of victory, over a premier division team, over rivals, will take centre stage. The wins over fellow premier division side, Dinamo Chequers, proved that Queen’s Head should start taking themselves seriously as a team destined for a big future in Chesham Sunday League. Now the Misty Moon have finally been dealt with, it’ll be time everyone else starts taking them seriously, too.

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Sussing out Tottenham Hotspur’s season

The last few weeks have been testing times for Andre Vilas-Boas (Picture from http://www.sport.co.uk)

It’s been a mere 474 days since my last post here so I thought it might be a nice idea to dust off a few cobwebs and talk a little bit about the curious case of Tottenham Hotspur. The quality of the season Spurs are currently having has been very difficult to chart; while Vilas-Boas’ men sit just three points adrift of second place and notably above Manchester United, they have also suffered huge disappointments in heavy losses to both West Ham and Manchester City, as well as having drawn criticism for the team’s inability to score goals.

With a summer spend clocking in at £110.5 million, the season ahead looked very promising despite the high profile departure of Gareth Bale. But fast forward to late November and much of the early season optimism had descended into dissatisfaction and doubts over manager Andre Vilas-Boas’ aptitude.

Most frustrating for Spurs fans is how impotent their team has been in front of goal. At the time of writing, the last Tottenham striker to score a goal from open play was Harry Kane, in a League Cup match against Hull City in October – 40 days and nine matches ago. Since the 6-0 drubbing at Man City, Tottenham have begun to find the net a little more, and have since taken seven points from their last three games, but is this indicative of a change in fortunes? Or is Andre Vilas-Boas’ gameplan fundamentally flawed?

Analysing Vilas-Boas

At the time of Harry Redknapp’s dismissal, Tottenham were initially linked heavily with Brendan Rodgers as well as Roberto Martinez to a lesser extent, but Daniel Levy ultimately entrusted Andre Vilas-Boas as the man who could propel Tottenham into the Champions League. However, today, a year-and-a-half on, it’s both Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez whose teams sit above Tottenham who are in 6th place in the Premier League, with Liverpool in 2nd and Martinez’s new team, Everton, 5th respectively.

It’s silly to draw conclusions just 15 games into a league season, and credit should be given to Vilas-Boas’ for how Tottenham performed last season, considering that he inherited a squad built to cater to Harry Redknapp, a much different manager in a tactical sense. A credible Europa League run and 5th place is a good campaign to build from if the club’s goal is to begin to qualify for the Champions League as soon as possible. But it’s the view of some fans that Vilas-Boas, or at least his evil media persona, ‘AVB’ as depicted by the tabloid press, has committed a number of faux pas since the summer.

After a string of unspectacular home performances, featuring a 3-0 collapse to West Ham, and culminating in a narrow and laboured 1-0 win over Hull City, Vilas-Boas criticised the home fans in White Hart Lane: “We looked like the away team. We played in a difficult atmosphere with almost no support,” he said after the match versus Hull. This was an unexpected response taken from the manager and prompted a chicken-or-egg style debate: what comes first, the lack of support or the lack of competence on the pitch?

Spurs’ 6-0 humbling at Man City raised questions over Vilas-Boas’ competence. (Picture: http://www.theguardian.com / Martin Rickett/PA)

One month later, on the 24th November, there was little to debate about Tottenham’s performance. A 6-0 humiliation at Manchester City had compounded some fans anxiety and news outlets started running reports of daggers being drawn in the board room. “We have to be ashamed of ourselves after this,” Vilas-Boas said after Spurs’ biggest league defeat in 17 years, a feat not even managed by Christian Gross and Glenn Hoddle et al during Tottenham’s period in the league wilderness. #AVBOut began to do the rounds on Twitter not long after the full time whistle at the Ethiad.

Vilas-Boas promised a response following the 6-0 loss and Tottenham have since been on a positive run of form, a good performance and 2-2 draw versus Manchester United was followed by a rallying 2-1 win at Fulham as well as a highly impressive win against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light – the 2-1 scoreline proving deceptive in almost every sense but for Spurs’ ongoing difficulties in finding the net.

A team in transition

Tottenham have spent much of the last 20 years transitioning from one manager’s ideas to the next. Vilas-Boas spent 2012-13 attempting to manoeuvre his new staff into his own philosophy, and appeared to do so rather well, with Spurs going 12 games without defeat around the turn of 2013. Though it’s important to remember Tottenham’s stuttering start to the season and similar press pressure to what was exerted following ‘that’ recent Man City game illustrated that Vilas-Boas’ North London dynasty wouldn’t be built overnight when he took over.

This season Tottenham have also had to adjust. Not after a managerial departure, but a player. Last season’s talisman, Gareth Bale, had departed for Madrid, and after the team adapted tactically (thanks to some fantastic foresight by Vilas-Boas) to allow Bale the freedom to run riot last season, this year they had to learn to work amongst themselves, to use possession wisely. Where before Spurs were compact, always looking to release Bale or for Bale to release someone else, while relying on Hugo Lloris to sweep any loose balls at the back, now Tottenham look to keep the ball and build up slowly – but this approach usually means that by the time the move progresses to within 30 yards of goal, the opposition defence will be as organised as possible – and with no king pin to start and finish moves this is problematic.

Tactical naivety?

Can Soldado adapt to life in the Premier League? (Picture: http://www.bleacherreport.com / Getty Images)

Andre Vilas-Boas is a man with a mantra; a vision of how football should be played. In the Tao of AVB there’s no room for Graham Taylor or Helenio Herrera. Even his superior at Porto, Jose Mourinho, was someone Vilas-Boas didn’t see eye-to-eye with in many senses.

Possession is key for Vilas-Boas, a man who prefers – but is so far reluctant to use – the 4-3-3 formation. To provoke the opposition with constant possession and then to exploit any space they leave in error.

This creates a problem and possibly the only time I’ll be able to liken Spurs to Barcelona for the foreseeable future: Tottenham have been found guilty of sterile possession – which has served to make their attacks reminiscent of Barcelona’s attempts to attack Chelsea in the second half of the Champions League semi-final second leg in 2012. The term ‘sterile possession’, frustratingly made famous by Arsene Wenger, is used to describe possession for the sake of possession, without any real end product. And as Fernando Torres broke through the desperately high pressed Barça defence who were searching for a decisive goal, so did Ricardo Vaz Te and Ravel Morrison for an extremely well prepared West Ham side at White Hart Lane in a game that saw the hosts retain 61% of the possession but ship three goals.

Some tactical concerns had been raised last year, with the 1-0 home losses to Wigan Athletic and Fulham, two teams whose gameplans where to absorb pressure and look catch the hosts unaware. This season, Tottenham have struggled against teams willing to defend from the off. Perhaps the reason for Spurs’ inability to get out of second gear in home games is actually that their opponents are less willing to have a go at them away than at home?

There could also be questions over the suitability of players to their roles in Vilas-Boas’ default 4-2-3-1 formation and philosophies. The case of Michael Dawson’s unveiling as captain and subsequent transfer listing and un transfer listing bemused the media and fans alike. It may well have been the case that Vilas-Boas realised that a man of Dawson’s pace and last-ditch attitude, while very suitable in a Harry Redknapp inspired 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, wouldn’t be well catered to a high defensive line of players who can contribute with strong passing ability. In a recent match versus Fulham at Craven Cottage it was actually Dawson attempting to carry the ball out of defence and failing to play a horizontal pass that led to Tottenham conceding the opening goal. Though, everything considered, Vilas-Boas may have seen a willingness to adapt by Dawson before deciding to keep his captain, and this season Dawson has featured in six league clean sheets in the 15 games he’s played so far – despite any perceived failures to conform.

Is Roberto Soldado the right man to play as a lone striker in the Premier League? We’ve heard the most regurgitated Soldado stat en masse: ‘He scored all of his 24 goals last season from inside the box you know?’ But as he’s up top on his own, Soldado would also be required to drop to aid the build-up of attacks too – something he hasn’t had much success in doing here. We saw him painstakingly attempt to fit in a similar role for Spain at the Confederations Cup this summer, where he looked to get into channels and keep possession flowing, but so far in England Soldado looks like he’s too easily outmuscled and outpaced by Premier League defences. Having already been labelled as a flop by some, Soldado’s record in front of goal at previous clubs has been outstanding, once he allows himself a better understanding of the pace of the Premier League and of how Vilas-Boas intends to use him, it would be hard to see how he could fail to justify his hefty £26 million price-tag. Ironically, one man who, when in form, would seem a perfect fit for Andre Vilas-Boas’ 4-2-3-1 would be Tottenham’s very own Emmanuel Adebayor – strong, with the ability to bring attacking midfielders into the game and circulate possession, not to mention very familiar with English football. But after a promising first season at White Hart Lane, and barring a phenomenal performance in the Premier League at Stamford Bridge last season, Adebayor seems to have lost interest in life at White Hart Lane, and it may be the case that our surviving memory of Emmanuel’s time in a Spurs shirt was the penalty he nonchalantly blazed over the crossbar in the Europa League quarter-final tie shoot-out versus FC Basel.

Where do we go from here?

Fifteen games into a league season is no time to pass judgement on a team that is still in every cup competition it entered and within three points of second place in the league table. But it’s the futility of the defeats suffered so far – the misguided use of possession football against teams willing to wait for their moment to counter – and the boring displays offered to fans at White Hart Lane that suggests that something’s wrong with Tottenham this season.

Bale: The £85m alchemist who has been sorely missed at times during Spurs’ early season (Picture: http://www.dailystar.co.uk)

Granted that Tottenham have had to look for a slightly less direct route to goal than through the alchemy of Gareth Bale last year, but with over £100 million invested into some of World football’s most exciting players, it all felt that Tottenham would undergo a much more seamless transition than seasons before.

Is sacking Andre Vilas-Boas the answer? Certainly not in the short term, and any dismissal would need to be justified by replacing him with an even more accomplished and adept manager – whom would be pretty hard to find and expensive to prise away considering that Vilas-Boas’ credentials aged 36 stand at one Portugese league title, one domestic cup, one domestic super cup, and one Europa League trophy – make no mistake:  Vilas-Boas is a talented manager. The bigger question is whether or not he can ultimately harness his talents in the Premier League, and considering his age, it would be a surprise if he didn’t adapt further into life in the English game – though whether or not the time he needs will always be on his side remains to be seen.

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Diary of a broken man-ager

My name is Peter Jobes, and I’m an addict. Like countless others, I’ve succumbed to the lure of the infamous time-killer Football Manager.

I didn’t want to do posts on games, for fear of making the extent of my addiction public knowledge –but that was until my York City promotion campaign of 2011-12 happened.

It started innocently enough, after a calamitous honeymoon period of a five-game winless run the campaign began to gather pace. Free signing Omar Koroma began to flourish playing ahead of the playmaking maestro that is Matthew Lund, averaging a goal every-other game. York began to climb from the foot of the Blue Square Premier and into contention for the top spot, which was being kept under siege by early leaders Gateshead.

As the season began to take shape, the results began to make our rivals take notice. A Matty Blair inspired 4-0 win over Luton Town drew some murmurs of satisfaction from the fans, while a Jamil Adam glut in a 5-1 home win against Tamworth caused some media rumblings: Could this really be York’s year? A return to league football?

January and February would prove to be pivotal in the quest for promotion. Gateshead’s lead at the top of the league stood at six points over second placed York City, and the title six-pointer at Bootham Crescent was fast approaching. Before the business-end of the season really begun there was the matter of a cup distraction: We had somehow managed to progress far enough in the FA Cup to set up a 3rd round tie versus Tottenham, at White Hart Lane. With Spurs being the team I support, I thought I’d reserve special praise for manager Harry Redknapp in my pre-match media commitments – but it appeared he got a quote in before I even had a chance: “I’m not Peter Jobes’ biggest fan, put it that way.” Oh, never mind then.

We battled like beavers, but it was futile: York were duly dispatched by a makeshift Tottenham team with a respectable, but flattering, 1-0 scoreline (Steven Pienaar hit the crossbar twice alone). The cup dream was over, but the £140,000 television revenue from the fixture at least made me feel better about spending the whole season £3k over my wage budget. Silver linings.

Gateshead. At home. This would be the game that could ignite a title-race so exciting that people would realise that England really is home to the greatest league in the world – the Blue Square Premier. The match was a cagey affair throughout. An injury crisis of biblical proportions meant that we were forced to play a 4-4-1-1, instead of our typical counter-attacking 4-4-2. Lund put in a shift as CAM, for almost the whole game, ‘almost’ because he managed to give away a penalty on 42 minutes while defending a corner. The penalty proved decisive. Gateshead were gifted a 1-0 win and the race for the top spot was all but over.

Realising that Gateshead had only lost twice all season prior to our match in mid-February, I was forced to accept that the now nine-point gap at the top of the league was probably not going to be recovered. Driven mad by the stark realities of falling out of the running for the only automatic promotion spot as early as spring, I decided to do some Italy-at-Euro-2012-esque tactical experimentations. I looked at how well a 4-2-3-1 could retain possession in non-league football, and how safe a flat 4-3-3 could be against the better teams in the league, knowing full well that I’d likely have to pull out all the stops in the play-offs at the end of the season in order to achieve the season’s dream of promotion.

The experiments ended fruitless, the change of strategy clearly too bewildering for my players to cope with so deep into a campaign – we would have to soldier on with our somewhat generic 4-4-2.

The season came to an end, we, like the rest of the league, were steamrollered by Gateshead, who finished on 104 points. York City had to make do with 2nd and their comparatively meagre 86 points. The dreaded prospect of the play-offs loomed.

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Easing into the season…

The semi-final put us against an Ebbsfleet side who managed to recently fall from challenging us for second place to clinging to the final play-off spot in 5th. The away leg was a nervy 2-2 draw, which required an 87th minute Paddy McLaughlin equaliser to save us from having our work cut out at Bootham Crescent. The second leg started well enough, Argentine brick-wall Martin Camano picked the perfect time to net his first York City goal and put the Minster Men 1-0 up early on. York had 17 shots but couldn’t seem to kill the game off, our failure to finish Ebbsfleet off came back to haunt us seven minutes from time when a looping cross found Michael West, who had crept in at the far post, 1-1. We were heading for extra-time. Ebbsfleet held their own for the first period of extra-time, but a Ben Swallow inspired breakaway on 112 minutes ultimately found Matty Blair, uncannily cropping up at the far post to put York ahead. Eight minutes of ultra-defensive containing later and York City were in the final!

It has taken a while to get here, it’s been a long season after all; but the events of the following match are an absolute roller coaster. You may as well forget the last 913 words, what’s important is that you strap yourself in for this one:

Wembley! Do I suit up? It’s 5am but it would be rude not to, after all, we’ve managed to get a crowd of 38,820 down the M1 and A41 for this promotion decider! York City versus Wrexham will be the match to define a season, a season of toil, sweat, blood, and 90th minute losses. A season that played host to an injury-crisis that put five first teamers out for between five weeks and two months all at the same time. A season of anguish that would be all worthwhile should we be victorious today…

I opted for a Mike Bassett inspired four-four-f***ing-two formation, fearful of trying to play keep-ball against a Wrexham team that were on a run of form that culminated in them winning their play-off semi-final second leg game 4-1 versus Mansfield. All we needed to do was to be tight in defence, while allowing Matthew Lund to feed the prodigal goats that were Omar Koroma and Jamil Adam up front.

The game began extremely well. York took the lead through an own goal on 20 minutes. First blood.

The second came 10 minutes later, a close range Jamil Adam header had the Yorkshire club dreaming, “Wrexham’s gameplan is being undone!!” The commentator was flattering us, and we loved it.

Wrexham clearly needed to press on and find a goal, but in doing so they let Jamil Adam in again, this time to square the ball to Matthew Lund, who finished calmly. 3-0. It was at this point I remember whispering to myself ‘not even we can mess this up now!’ The rollercoaster had reached its summit…

…and immediately began to crash to earth. Wrexham get one back straight from kick-off – 3-1.

Half-time came, and passed. I was feeling fragile, their goal was unsettling. I decided not to ruffle any feathers and told my players to ‘keep it up’. They didn’t. Wrexham score two minutes into the 2nd half. 3-2.

By this point, I thought I’d better put the open-top bus parade order on ice. I panicked, and chose to make the defenders sit deeper, and look to counter whenever they could. It didn’t work, and Wrexham were, amazingly, on level terms by the 53rd minute, a quite incredible collapse.

The season had been turned on its head once again, success had become failure in all of 20 minutes. The rollercoaster continued…

While the immediate collapse of a healthy lead was clearly down to poor management, the decision to utilise more grit and ball-winning players in the middle of the pitch whilst concentrating on attacking down the flanks worked a little better than my idiotic attempt to sit on a 3-0. Ben Swallow tirelessly sprinted down the left wing before squaring to Omar Koroma, who netted a timely 4th on 69 minutes. This time I was sure no more mistakes would be made.

I went defensive as the clock ticked on, we even managed to have the better of the chances, five minutes from time we looked to see out the win, using our last sub to bring loanee defender Ben ‘Gibbo’ Gibson in to shore up the defence. We were 5-4-1 and tentatively treading into the big time.

Luck had been pretty elusive throughout our season, but it seemed to be helping us cruise to a win here, because that’s what we were doing – cruising. We were cruising, that is, until lady luck upped sticks and deserted us, leaving York up a creek with no paddle in the process…

The 91st minute, three were signalled for stoppage time by the fourth official, and Wrexham were chasing a lost cause of a through ball. The City fans were whistling for full-time while Michael Ingham collected the loose ball – and then a real whistle sounded: the referee’s. Mr Ross had adjudged Ingham to have carried the ball outside of his area when collecting it, a red card offence. “That was a dubious decision!” snapped the commentator, and I felt I had to agree.

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The fine line between winning and losing.

‘Wait. I’ve no subs left! Umm, Paddy McLaughlin, he looks like he’d be a good ‘keeper in a crisis, naturally a CDM, but all he’ll need to do is deal with Wrexham’s freekick and hoof it up the pitch and we’ll probably survive.’

McLaughlin gets his keeper’s jersey on and scurries from the middle of the park to the goal, but wait, they’ve taken the free-kick before he got on his line!? They’ve scored! 4-4.

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Note: A quick free-kick is even more effective when the ‘keeper is still walking towards his line…

York’s improbable recovery has just become impossible. My ‘sitting-on-a-lead’ tactics have now cost me twice. I have a midfielder in goal and a formation that vaguely resembles a 5-3-1. I put my fastest full back on the wing and prayed for a miracle…

For York to win from here something big needs to happen, a pivotal incident. Said incident comes in the 106th minute – a red card – to York midfielder Scott Kerr. We’re down to nine men, and our central midfield has completely disappeared. We limp on…

Full time in extra time? They didn’t manage to register a single shot on target against my makeshift ‘keeper? Well now all he has to do is show that he’s secretly Bruce Grobbelaar and we’ll surely be up into League Two!’ But we have another problem on top of having an outfielder in goal, York ended with one striker, two natural midfielders, and five defenders; there wasn’t much penalty-taking pedigree available. It begins…

They score, we score, they score, then, inevitably we miss. McLaughlin was clearly too preoccupied with his new-found goalkeepeing duties to concentrate on converting his penalty. 2-1 down in the shoot-out we carry on. But Wrexham go on to miss their next three penalties in a row! (all missed rather than saved, of course), amazingly, 9-man, goalkeeper-less York City are one kick away from promotion. James Meredith, the reliable, perpetually moody, lightly-injured left-back steps up to answer the Minstermen’s prayers…

Blazed over. There was still at least one more round of penalties to be taken, but we knew. We all knew. Our chance was blown.

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No pressure, then…

Wrexham goalscorer Ryan Jarvis, rather oddly took the sixth penalty, and scored. It was all down to centre-back, Dave Winfield to keep us in it. “If there was ever a time to score, this is it” the commentator advised. The penalty was cleanly hit, and high. Too high. The ball rattled off of the under-side of the bar and away from the goal. The Wrexham players began to sprint to their ‘keeper, they were a Football League team.

The nine remaining York players trudged off of the pitch, and into the dressing room to a heroes’ welcome from manager Peter Jobes: ‘it was a valiant effort out there, now let’s try to go up automatically next time, eh lads?

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See you next season? Rather not.

Peter.

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Football flutters: The wonders and the woes

I didn’t want this to become a gambling blog. I wouldn’t condone it to anyone as a hobby, either. But I emerge from a hiatus caused by relentless university deadlines to bring you an account of the last month of my turbulent relationship with Paddy Power. The last thing a student should do is become enticed by the fickle succubus that is the British bookmakers, with her collective jaws arbitrarily bleeding the wallets of the working classes dry. But it’s too late, for me at least. Despite this, I’m still keen to claim I’m not obsessed. Not obsessed – by anything other than the sport I’ve become hopelessly entwined with, that is.

I’m still in the midst of uni deadlines, but this post has been a couple of weeks in the making, so it would be rude to neglect it any further. It was forced out of me looking at my monthly history of bets with the bookmaker Paddy Power, for the first time ever. I’d always been fearful of looking at my history before, but today I decided to override that fear and total up my incomings and outgoings – for the last 30 days, at least – and the results were alarming.

The cause for alarm wasn’t from the money I’d blown gambling, I was actually in relatively healthy profit – £325.09 of wins had me feeling quite smug, for all of 30 seconds, until I looked at how much I’d spent to get there. £149.50 placed on bets was shocking, around double the amount I thought I’d put in, and way too much for someone who’s student loan had all but ran out in early February.

£175.59 seems like a credible margin for gross profit, but of all the games I’ve put money on between February 11th and March 11th, but in five tense minutes it could have all been so different. Those particular five minutes came between 9:25 and 9:30pm on Wednesday February 22nd 2012. The location was Baker Street, London – for me at least…but I spent the majority of my time there peering into a stadium in Basel, Switzerland. It was the day of the Champions League 2nd round, first leg match between FC Basel and Bayern Munich. The odds were heavily stacked in favour of Bayern, but the overwhelming favourites were on an underwhelming run of form – drawing 0-0 with bottom-placed SC Freiburg domestically underlining their disappointing position of 3rd in the German Bundesliga. Basel, by contrast, were six points clear in their Swiss Super League, and had a history of upsetting larger teams at home. I was cautiously confident.

Running parallel to Basel vs Bayern was another Champions League game, between Marseille and Internazionale, of France and Italy respectively. Like Bayern, Inter were the better team on paper, but they too were having problems domestically, and were on a three-game losing streak in Serie A. I fancied a double of underdogs Basel and Marseille to win, and placed £5 on it. But so drawn to Basel was I that I felt obliged to make a separate bet, another £5 on the 5/1 Swiss side. Once I arrived in London, I realised that it would be likely that Marseille v Inter would be easier to find on TV, so I decided to enhance the excitement of it by placing £10 on an anytime scorer – Andre Ayew immediately caught my eye as the star from the recent African Cup of Nations campaign with his native Ghana, I placed my faith in him.

After half an hour of wandering the capital, me and a friend finally found a pub in Baker Street showing the Basel v Bayern match, unexpectedly. We sat watching a wholly eventless game while constantly checking an equally eventless Marseille v Inter game on my phone. In the 85th minute of the regulation 90 I turned to my friend and lamented that that it was a shame because ‘it would have come in on another night’. Less than two minutes later, a brief spell of pressure from the Swiss team culminated in a through ball that eluded the Bayern back-line – Valentin Stocker applied a finish that nutmegged Manuel Neuer in the away goal – 1-0. My seat was suddenly became redundant, £30 was salvaged from a night in danger of being a washout. The Livescore app on the iPhone was being refreshed every three seconds now, Marseille 0-0 Inter, I gave up to concentrate on watching Basel see out a historic win, after four minutes of stoppage time the whistle blew, and I was content, I sunk back into my seat. I checked the Livescore app – Marseille 1-0 Inter, I was on my feet again. This was £67.50 on top of the £30 for the Basel win – £97! Fantastic for a night’s work! I checked the goalscorer, after a tense search for signal, it was revealed – ‘A. Ayew’ I was now doing shuttle runs in excitement between the seat and the bar, a £10 bet on a scorer at 23/10, the total was £130.50! From rags to riches in 5 minutes of regulation time! I felt like retiring from the betting world, for I had myself a taste of what it was like to be at the pinnacle of the fortunate side of football’s fickleness.

The God-like feeling of winning a long shot is nice, but it only serves to make your fall feel so much greater – and this is the reason that prompted this particular post. I try to use time wisely, to pick, not only matches that look call-able, but to pick matches that could be enjoyed from afar. I know little of Chilean football, other than that Universidad de Chile are Copa Sudamericana champions and play some fantastic football. The same goes for Italy’s Bologna, I know little, apart from that they are capable of inflicting misery on 2010’s Champions League winners Internazionale – what they both have in common is that they’ve aided my betting endeavours. Yesterday I turned my attentions to Argentina, with the sole aim of transforming what I hoped would be an entertaining Boca Juniors performance into a profitable one. They were 2nd in their league going into their match with Independiente – a team that were winless in all four of their matches this season. Boca, in contrast, hadn’t so much as conceded a goal this season, and at that only conceded six throughout the whole of their campaign last season.

I decided to bet in order to turn a disappointingly dull Sunday into a slightly livelier one. It was for a similar reason that made me veto a planned double on Sunderland and Southampton to both win at home the day before due to the fact that I would probably not be awake in time to enjoy checking the scores in-play (a bet that would have come in, frustratingly). I put everything behind a Boca Juniors handicap win…I first checked the scores 10 minutes into play – Boca were 2-0 down, an unbelievable scoreline coming out of Buenos Aires. Boca got a goal back…Independiente scored a third. I was furious, not because an inexplicable loss was on the cards, but an exciting underdog uprising was being clouded by my bet. Boca went on to take a 4-3 lead, and for the first time all day my bet looked good, however they succumbed to a late equaliser. By this point I was drained, football writers worked themselves into a frenzy over such an unlikely score, whereas I was left mourning my intensively researched 23/10 shot – the game finished 5-4 to Independiente. It was a perfect example of the pure unpredictability of football…to me it felt like groundhog day.

The result acted as a sucker punch to everything I thought I knew about the game, it mirrored the Manchester United v Blackburn Rovers game that prompted me to write this achingly familiar-sounding post about the financially-draining excitement football has to offer. Perhaps I should have taken my empty idea of retiring from betting following the night of the 22nd of February seriously? But in all honesty, that was something that was never going to happen, because it’s too late for me. I’ve drank from the poisoned chalice, and there’s a sweet, often elusive nectar between all the bitterness that tastes too good to walk away from now. Suffice to say I’ve travelled through the looking glass, and the world of gambling turns football ever curiouser. My only goal now is to learn moderation, that appears to be the key of the happy gambler. So when is my next taste of the chalice going to occur I hear you ask? Well, probably at Anfield on Tuesday. And by ‘probably’ I mean definitely. A Liverpool vs Everton draw, please – and I’ll forget I ever wrote this piece. Ta…

Peter.

For further reading feel free to talk a look at this somewhat more coherent exploration into gambling courtesy of a betting counterpart.

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Dogged underdogs Zambia win African Cup of Nations for their fallen predecessors

Zambia’s story was exactly what football was crying out for following a weekend dominated by further fallout from the Premier League’s race rows. They were rank outsiders playing in a continental cup final only a few miles from the site of a plane crash which robbed the country of its brightest generation of footballers in 1993. Their opponents were the much fancied Ivory Coast. Prior to kick-off, one Zambian fan declared that his team “would be playing with 22 players on the pitch” claiming the team would be assisted by the spirits of the men who lost their lives 19 years ago – and it’s hard to deny that the subsequent ‘Chipolopolo’ effort was anything short of divine.

I didn’t check my Twitter to see what was trending in Zambia last night, but if I did, the word ‘destiny’ must have been pretty near the top of the list. The supporters believed it was this that had helped them beat a strong Senegal side and then second-favourites Ghana in somewhat fortuitous fashion in order to progress to an unlikely African Cup of Nations final. It was considered destiny because the final happened to be held at the Stade d’Angondje, in Libreville, Gabon – a port city around 500 meters in-land from the site of a plane crash which killed 18 Zambian players while they were travelling to a World Cup 1994 qualifier versus Senegal. The team were on the precipice of qualifying for their first ever World Cup at the time, and had been considered the brightest generation of footballers Zambia has ever had. It could be fair to say that Zambia has never really recovered from the tragic loss of talent since that April day.

While on the topic of bright generations of footballers, standing in the way of destiny was almost certainly the strongest side in the tournament, if not the whole continent in the Ivory Coast. For a little context on the variations in strength between two sides on paper: Zambia’s only European-based player, Emmanuel Mayuka, transferred to Young Boys Bern in Switzerland in 2010 for a fee of $1.7m; that’s almost the same fee that Cote d’Ivoire’s Yaya Toure earns in wages monthly at his club, Manchester City. The Ivory Coast could boast the likes of Didier Drogba, Gervinho, and Kolo Toure in their ranks and have flirted with success plenty of times in recent years. However, this year the Ivorian supporters were expectant, especially with the tournament’s most successful ever side, Egypt, failing to qualify due to last year’s Arab Spring. Zambia were a surprise package but relative minnows when compared player-for-player. Cote d’Ivoire were odds on favourites at 4/7, and hadn’t conceded a goal all tournament, most people understandably expected to see Drogba lift the cup at the end of the night – clearly Zambia had their own script in mind.

Zambia, nicknamed The Chipolopolo (‘The Copper Bullets’), started the brightest, forcing a smart save from Ivorian ‘keeper Boubacar Barry after a clever short corner no-doubt dreamt up by their unbelievably charismatic-looking manager Herve Renard, dressed as if he had only wandered into the Stade d’Angondje to ask for the directions to the not-so-near-by Grammy Awards, which were taking place across the Atlantic at the time.

While the Grammys had a star studded audience, and the Ivory Coast had a star studded first eleven, the star quality was undoubtedly being produced by the Zambians in the first half. Not only did they demonstrate an unbelievable pluckiness in battling to gain possession for a trademark counter, but they were audacious when in possession too; often showcasing fancy, exciting, and often unneeded flicks and tricks in attempts to progress quickly up the pitch with the ball. Early in the first half, 34-year-old Zambian defender, Joseph Musonda became injured as he awkwardly twisted his leg after a challenge. Clearly distraught at needing to be substituted in what would almost certainly be his last final, his eyes welled up as he hobbled towards the touchline – this was how much winning the cup for Zambia meant to him.

Half-time passed at 0-0 and once the second half was underway we began to see a fuller picture as to why this final didn’t appear to be the open-and-shut case the bookies priced it at. In many respects, we can draw parallels between the Ivory Coast and England’s own national team here. While the Zambians defended spiritedly and attacked expressively, the Ivorians seemed motivated by fear. Their team was much better than their opponents on paper, but they had such little ideas on the ball. Granted Zambia defended with everybody behind the ball but there was something else, Cote d’Ivoire appeared smothered by the weight of expectations. As the minutes ticked on, it became clear that we were watching a team scared-to-death of failure. The Ivorian creativity looked stifled into desperate punts to the wide-players and the gilt-edged chance they craved looked like it would never materialise – until it did.

Drogba fails to keep his cool (Picture from Eurosport)

With 20 minutes left to play, Yaya Toure attempted a desparate charge into the Zambian box and was subsequently bundled over – penalty to Ivory Coast. Captain Didier Drogba picked up the ball and placed it on the spot. He’d missed one before in this tournament, but surely knew that if he were to convert, there would be little to no chance of Zambia penetrating the squeaky-clean Ivorian defence with the little time left. He began his run-up, leant back, and placed his shot firmly a foot over the bar. His miss underlining the severe mental block Ivory Coast were suffering from. More fool me for placing a bet on Drogba and 1-0 prior to kick off, hmm?

Max Gradel came on for the Ivorians and made a slight impact, perhaps at 24 he was too young to feel the burden of pressure hampering some of his team-mates. But now the fans’ prophesies of Zambian destiny looked to have merit: they knew, we knew, the players knew.

By extra time the power of belief was firmly in Zambia’s court – in what proved to be the biggest chance from open-play of the match Christopher Katongo hit the post from close range, the African Cup of Nations had now become Zambia’s for the taking.

There’s a strange phenomenon in this tournament where, historically, penalty shootouts involving the Ivory Coast tend to progress deep into sudden-death (their last tournament success happened to be due to a 11-10 win on penalties versus Ghana), this was no exception. 18 penalties were taken in total, all to the backdrop of singing from the Zambian staff.

The majority of penalties taken last night were virtually perfect – including Drogba’s second attempt from the spot. At one point, Zambian goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene pulled off a good save from Souleymane Bamba only for a retake to be ordered due to Mweene moving off his line before the ball was kicked, extremely harsh considering most referees allow for some movement prior to the ball becoming active. As the shootout shifted into sudden-death, it became a case of whoever blinks first loses. The first to blink was Kolo Toure. By now the whole Zambian playing and coaching staff were on their knees singing, linked arms and all. Celebrations would be put on ice, however, as Rainford Kalaba couldn’t keep his cool and convert his chance at history.

When a £10.8 million rated Premier League forward steps up to take a penalty nine players down the pecking order, you know that he didn’t want the pressure of a nation on his shoulders. Gervinho was the man who reluctantly began his run up – and placed his shot wide. It was now Stoppila Sunzu’s turn to give Zambia recognition for their mammoth efforts in keeping all tournament favourites at bay over the past three weeks. And he did just that.

The Zambian singing turned into ecstatic cheering as they realised the full scale of what they had achieved. Not only had the Chipolopolo pulled off an unlikely African Cup of Nations win, but they had gained redemption for those who lost their lives only a few miles away almost 20 years ago. “It was written in the sky” beamed coach Herve Renard after compassionately carrying Joseph Musonda, the stricken defender from the first half, into the team celebrations. “It was a sign of destiny…I think God has helped us and given us strength” he explained.

As the team posed for their photo with the African Cup of Nations trophy, draped over the ‘winners’ board was a sign that read “In memory of ’93. You are playing at home”. In a weekend dominated by hand-shake refusals and spiralling racial issues in the Premier League, isn’t it lovely to have Zambia remind us what football’s really about?

Zambia honour their fallen predecessors (Picture: AP Images)

Peter.

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Staring into the abyss: Darlington Football Club

Take a look at your bookshelf. Now get a bin-liner ready, because you’ll be hard-pushed to find a story more captivating, charming and potentially tragic than the continuing tale of Darlington Football Club.

The Quakers are a team who have transcended the word ‘crisis’ in recent weeks, haemorrhaging money to a 25,000 seater stadium over 10 times too big for their average gate of around 2,000 – the prime cause of their £1.8 million debt, with a skeleton squad of players, and with no full-time manager. Darlington were also deducted 10 points in the Conference National league for inevitably going into administration a month ago. The club actually died on the operating table of unbalanced books on Wednesday 18th January, for about 20 minutes – that was until two unlikely heroes emerged…from a Peugot 308.

That particular day had an air of inevitability to it; fans had gathered at the stadium with wreaths ready to mourn the passing of their 128-year-old club. Sometime, around ‘noon, the club’s administrator revealed to caretaker manager, Craig Liddle, that the club ‘ceased to exist’, and that he would need to tell his depleted squad that they had been made redundant as a result. News began to trickle out via players’ Twitter accounts that the club had died. But as the news of Darlo’s passing began to spread, in a moment of extreme drama, The Darlington Arena could have easily been mistaken for a Hollywood set, or a Broadway stage, as the noises of the distraught fans were punctured by the sound of redemption – and in Darlington’s case, redemption sounded like a distant Peugot blasting ‘Mott The Hoople’ on its sound system.

The car sped into the grounds of the stadium, stopping by reception. There, two men scrambled out, one with a bag, shouting “we’ve got the money!” Darlington had their 13th hour reprieve. The two men, Doug Embleton and Shaun Campbell, were the heroes. Their foundation, the ‘Darlington Football Club Rescue Group’ (DFCRG) had raised £50,000 – enough to save the club for around two weeks. Fate clearly decided to end this particular chapter in Darlington’s history on a cliffhanger.

I was so impressed by the way the fans’ love for Darlington had helped the club return from the brink that I decided to pay a visit that weekend for their match versus high-flying Fleetwood Town, a game many had thought would not take place. The match seemed an impossible task for The Quakers, with Fleetwood 2nd in the league and unbeaten in 11 away games. However, unlike in every other football match I’d ever attended, this didn’t matter to the supporters. The home fans were simply happy to see the team they love ‘alive and kicking’. I bought a programme, the instantly recognisable disparity it had with every other programme I’d bought was the squad lists on the back page. Fleetwood boasted a healthy 28 registered players prior to kick-off, Darlington had 11, meaning that they would’ve had to play without any substitutes were it not for a few last minute loans and stand-in manager, Craig Liddle, offering to come out of retirement at age 40, if need be.

Understandably, the game drew a lot more attention given the events of the week prior. The crowds were clearly higher than anticipated, as kick-off was delayed by 15 minutes due to congestion from the 5,638 record spectators. As I walked into the stand I was greeted by a brass band pitch-side playing, fittingly, ‘The Great Escape’ – Darlington clearly hadn’t lost their sense of humour in the uncertain climate.

The match itself was a drab affair. Darlington fielded an expectedly inexperienced team and Fleetwood opted to play a slightly weaker starting 11, probably anticipating an easy victory. Both sides’ formations were identical in their use of the lone striker and their often opting to build attacks from wide positions. Fleetwood took the lead late in the first half through Danny Rose capitalising on an error from the home side’s make-shift defence. A Fleetwood lead wasn’t a surprise, however, Darlington’s battling in looking for an equaliser, was. Late attacks began to build as the game began to be spent mostly in the visitor’s half. The dream end to the difficult week wasn’t to be, though – hard working Darlington lost 1-0 that day. The young squad was rich in ‘pluck’, but unfortunately short on the technical craft needed to unlock their opponents’ defence.

I left the Darlington Arena with a taste of knowing what it was like to see a club ‘scraping the barrel’. The club shop was virtually a shell, the commonplace plasma TVs playing Sky Sports in the stadium had been replaced by box sets showing BBC News 24. Darlington’s escape was a daring one, but will it have a happy ending? There has been talk of investment and new owners, specifically a takeover bid from businessman Paul Wildes, which would be partly reliant on more fan-based funding, but still nothing has been finalised. There is a very real, imminent danger of the club once again dying – and this time there may not be two fans in a Peugot assuming the role of Batman and Robin. As a football fan, the last piece of news I want to hear is that of a 128 year old club being consigned to the history books. Will there be another heroic reprieve? We will find out at the commencement of the next chapter in the club’s fight from the abyss of liquidation coming in the final days of the month. I’m sure no one would want it to be a final chapter.

A rainbow over The Darlington Arena prior to kick-off versus Fleetwood Town. A pot of gold would definitely come in handy for Darlo right about now...

…And if you would like to add your support to the heroics being performed by the ‘Darlington Football Club Rescue Group’ feel free to donate here at www.savedarlo.co.uk. And feel free to follow @SaveDarlo on Twitter to keep up to date on the remarkable story of a club on the brink.

Peter.

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Proof lightening really can strike twice in the Milan derby…

I’m a catenacciophobe. The word, translated as door-bolt, has become the dogma of the Italian game. The approach, which heavily relied on the use of a sweeper, was designed to effectively ‘lock’ the opponent’s attackers out of the match. And it’s Italy’s catenaccio-based heritage that can make watching Serie A matches a bit of a chore. That is, unless unless one of those matches is AC Milan versus Inter Milan.

The Milan derby is one like no other, probably the biggest geographic rivalry in world football. So approximated are the two teams that they share the same, council owned, stadium – the San Siro. Derbies are always fiery affairs, literally in some cases, with fans often incorporating the use of flares into the duty of supporting their team. But there’s another curiosity that prompted me to write this post. Not only is the Milan derby one of the most fiercely contested in football, but it appears to be one of the most photogenic too.

I mean, who could forget this photo (below, left) of the incredible lengths the Milanese fans go to in order to show their support while attempting to intimidate the opponents? Or this iconic shot (below, right) of when the Inter support happened to take their use of flares too far in a Champions League quarter final derby?



 

 

But it’s the picture below that’s most curious. The shot to the left was one taken from last week’s derby, showing Diego Milito capitalising on Milan defender Inzagio Abate’s error to score in Inter’s closely fought 1-0 win. As for the image to the right, which shows Diego Milito capitalising on an Inzagio Abate error to score…it was taken two years earlier. Tell the difference? No, me neither.

Oh, ok, the socks are a bit of a give away…

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