Groundhopping Part 2: Northampton to Leytonstone

If there’s a more depressing journey than the above title, then I don’t want to know. All joking aside, however, it isn’t always about the destinations, but the journey. Though an old cliche, a memorable trip to Old Trafford interspersed between the less than inspiring trips to messrs Huddersfield and Northampton make those very same trips all the more worthwhile.

6. Northampton Town v Stevenage, Sixfields, April 2011.

This weekend had it all- a 16th birthday, a royal wedding and a trip to Sixfields, which would in an odd coincidence, become ground number six. The game itself left play off hopes dangling by a thread, thanks to two red cards and two Northampton goals. They sealed survival with their first win in 19 games, naturally beginning a trend of “doing a Stevenage” that I’d be taunted by forever.

7. Stevenage v Torquay United, Old Trafford, May 2011.

“Mousinho, bursting from midfield it’s Mousinho!”

A goal that sent Stevenage to League One. A fitting redemption for Mousinho, who’d agonisingly missed a penalty at Southend just a month before. His return from injury saw Stevenage reach the third tier for the first time ever. Emotional scenes ensued. Even arriving 20 minutes late couldn’t take the blemish off of a phenomenal day. Nobody can say when or if we’ll ever play at Old Trafford again, but if we do, it will never top this.

8. Huddersfield Town v Stevenage, John Smith’s Stadium, October 2011.

Another trip north, though this one not as life changing as the one that preceded it. A 2-1 defeat to a side on a lengthy unbeaten league run at the time, another Mousinho penalty miss and a ferocious atmosphere thanks to the Boro’s perceived ‘gamesmanship’ made it eventful at the very least. Add into the equation Lee Clark almost ripping Graham Westley’s hand off and the locals staying behind to boo the Stevenage players, and you could say that we’d well and truly arrived into the big leagues.

9. Brentford v Stevenage, Griffin Park, October 2010.

The kind of night that makes it all worthwhile. For the second time ever, I’d arrived late to a game (only 10 minutes this time). Much like the other game I’d arrived late to mentioned above, this one also finished 1-0 to Stevenage- Chris Beardsley netting the only goal. I haven’t arrived late to a game since, which I’m more than happy to blame any bad result on. Apart from most poor results in 2015 which I’m more than happy to blame Mark Hughes for.

10. Leyton Orient v Stevenage, Matchroom Stadium, November 2011.

The kind of afternoon that makes you question everything. This one finished goalless. The atmosphere was dead. There was a massive pole obstructing my view. One of many times I’d utter the immortal words “there’s no way I’m ever coming back here.” I’ve now been 4 times.

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Groundhopping: Part 1: Stevenage to Southend…

With the personal landmark of 100 football grounds fast approaching, what better way to celebrate than with an ad-hoc trip down memory lane. Stevenage’s trip to Carrow Road in the Carabao Cup should provide a fitting surround for this surreal landmark that I could never have predicted ten or so years ago, when I only really had a passing interest in football and travel.

The most incredible thing about reaching 100 is that I’ve barely scratched the surface. With a move to Scotland on the horizon, and a host of travel plans around Europe, there’s a lot of new terrain to explore, a lot of new beers to try, and a lot of dull goalless draws to try and maintain an interest in. That said, maybe one day I’ll get to live the dream of East Fife 4-5 Forfar…

Without further ado, here are the first five stadiums that turned a passing interest into so much more:

1. Broadhall Way, Stevenage

Tottenham Hotspur Reserves v Coventry City Reserves, mid 2000s

I’ll admit that my records for this one are sketchy, but Broadhall Way is where it all began, even if not with Stevenage. Shocking as it is that my first few games at Broadhall Way weren’t with Stevenage, attending Spurs Reserves games with my dad was as good an introduction to football as any. Little did I know that I’d see the likes of Charlie Lee, Ronnie Henry and Lee Barnard on a more regular basis many years down the line. I haven’t, however, seen Kayazuki Toda since.

2. Wembley Stadium, Wembley

Stevenage v York City, May 2009

Having missed the first Wembley final in 2007 for family reasons, a second chance to visit was a wonderful gesture from the gods. A late birthday trip with my uncle and best friend saw Boro run out 2-0 winners in what was a fairly tame affair, but an unforgettable experience. A first Stevenage game and a first trip to Wembley. Incidentally I haven’t seen a Wembley win since in 3 subsequent trips with Stevenage and England.

3. Stadium MK, Milton Keynes

MK Dons v Stevenage, November 2010

A first ever away game that couldn’t have really been any better. A late equaliser in an FA Cup replay from ‘defensive centre forward’ Darius Charles (wearing the number 4, obviously) and a penalty shoot out victory against higher opposition saw Boro make it through to the second round of the FA Cup, in a run that would eventually see them beat Newcastle. The less said about most of the other trips to Milton Keynes, the better…

4. Kingsmeadow, Wimbledon

AFC Wimbledon v Stevenage, December 2010

Having knocked out a team formerly known as Wimbledon, we were rewarded with a trip to…Wimbledon! Initially televised by ITV in the hope that it would be Wimbledon v MK, it was great for Stevenage to ruin the party in the aforementioned replay. Josh Walker’s sole contribution to Stevenage and a Yemi Odubade goal saw Stevenage through with a fairly routine win. It’s fair to say there have been more eventful trips to South London, but who doesn’t love a routine win? I should also say that I fell over celebrating the opener, and that’s clearly the sign of a good away day.

5. Roots Hall, Southend

Southend United v Stevenage, April 2011

It had been a while since the last away game, but a trip to the Essex coast became part of an exciting and unexpected promotion push. Though the game was lost 1-0, with a missed penalty, we still had hope of making the play offs. We also met a lovely Scouser who’d won a grand on the train and gave us £20 each, which paid for Northampton the following week. And they said it would be an expensive hobby…

Forest Grim Reapers

The double over Stevenage for Forest Green rendered the remainder of the season more of a dead rubber than it already was.

That said, on current form, 2008-09 era Derby County could have done the double over us this season. Even the current Sunderland side could give it a good go.

That’s not to take anything away from Forest Green Rovers, who by all accounts out thought Stevenage on two separate occasions. As we’ve seen with Stevenage before, thinking is half the battle.

Of course, this fixture happened to fall upon Pancake Day. However, in honour of our vegan hosts, I shall refrain from any pancake puns.

Match

Having spent two weeks in the wintry grip of Canada, watching my hometown club in the blistering Cotswold heat of -1 degrees Celsius should have been a breeze. A frozen pair of feet later, and you certainly couldn’t say otherwise. More of a stale breeze, but I digress.

The game started as well as anyone could have expected, with a Luke Wilkinson free kick. Of course when something as unusually joyful as this happens, things can only get worse.

Naturally they did.

Our best attacking threat Alex Revell received his marching orders in controversial circumstances. Needless to say, the entirety of the game had shifted in terms of momentum. Three sloppy conceded goals later, and another defeat looks imminent. Boo hoo.

Pub

In terms of away day pubs, this certainly wasn’t your bog standard Crawley or Colchester Wetherspoons. The Weighbridge Inn- just outside Nailsworth- describes itself as a 17th Century country pub. It certainly didn’t disappoint, with huge servings of pie and some nice local ales and ciders amidst a traditional backdrop.

Ground

To get to Forest Green, we quite literally had to find Another Way. Not just due to the road name that the ground finds itself on, but the scenic route could certainly be described as ‘another way’ of getting to a football game.

A strange marquee tent with a puddle and no heater was the chilly pre match destination of choice that greeted our arrival. The decision not to let us into the club bar seemed odd. Obviously the Stevenage reputation had preceded itself.

The beer was reasonable, but the open terrace did nothing to warm spirits or bodies. The cold was as bitter as the vegan hot chocolate allegedly had been. The positive of the day had almost certainly been the lack of rain.

I also tried something vegan. It may have only been curry sauce and chips, but it was still reasonable. Anyone complaining about the lack of meat options- allow me to introduce you to the concept of eating before or after a game. I see nothing wrong with taking a more sustainable approach.

By sustainable, I of course mean the whole eco-warrior/veganism thing. Not the reported annual losses of £2 million that render the ‘Sustainability in Sport’ sign on the stand facing us a little hollow.

But if a club wishes to go down a more sustainable route in terms of its environmental impact, it should be celebrated rather than chastised for sure.

Verdict

Though football ruined everything again, the trip and the experience at Forest Green isn’t all bad. The marquee tent may be quite nice in the sunshine, as opposed to a freezing Tuesday night. The vegan menu isn’t terrible by all accounts. The journey through winding forest roads makes it all worthwhile, with some of the most stunning views you’ll ever see en route to an away game in League Two.

But don’t let that take any anger away from the fact that a village club has completed a league double over Stevenage.

And then there were four, part two…

We’ve covered the unexpected half of the final four of the Euros in Portugal and Wales. Now it’s time to look at two of the teams many expected to get to this stage, Germany and France. The winner of this tie would almost certainly be favourite in the final, although neither side would take anything for granted should they advance to that stage.

The route to the final four has been relatively straightforward for Germany, barring the comedy of a penalty shootout against Italy. Thankfully for the Germans, Italy seemed intent on providing the most laughs. Zaza in particular was on fine form, with the worst penalty run-up since, well, ever. The decision to bring him on to take a penalty is unlikely to be Antonio Conte’s best decision. Chelsea fans will hope so anyway.

Other that the Italy game, however, Germany haven’t conceded once. It’s an extraordinary testament to Joachim Loew’s defence, which just seems to get more and more ruthless with each passing tournament. Jerome Boateng has been phenomenal, as has Mats Hummels. None of it is surprising though.

After a steady, if underwhelming start against Ukraine and Poland, the fact that the Northern Ireland game only finished 1-0 to the Germans will always be a mystery. The Slovakia game in the last sixteen saw the Germans truly come alive, and also taught England a thing or two about breaking down a stubborn defence in style.Some might say that Italy had provided the only true test for the Germans so far, which could well be a fair point. France will be an even bigger test, particularly with the French on home soil, but if there’s one thing German teams do, it’s turn up in the semi-finals.

But what about France? If any team is going to topple the Germans, then surely it is France, especially with home advantage. Will there be a better opportunity than Euro 2016?

As expected, they’ve been quite the force, with everything seeming to culminate nicely in their 5-2 defeat of plucky Iceland. Much like Germany’s annihilation of Slovakia, that result somehow heightened England’s embarrassment. I’ll try and move on though, I promise…

The likes of Dimitri Payet, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann have been sensational for France, providing ten goals between the three of them. The only problems lie in defence, with the French leaking some preventable goals against poorer opposition. Playing positively is their best bet, particularly if they’re to break down the most stubborn defence in Europe. With the best attack in Europe though, it can certainly be done.

Despite some last gasp moments of relief in the group stages against Romania and Albania and a blank against Switzerland, France have lived up to expectations. The win against Ireland could have and probably should have been greater, but the Iceland game saw the side reach their full potential. If Germany are yet to reach their full potential, then the game on Thursday should be a thriller.

Predictions

Portugal 3-1 Wales

France 2-0 Germany

And then there were four, part one

After another grueling summer of pain for England fans, the four teams that made the semis will be of no comfort. Portugal (wink-gate, 2004), Wales (laughter-gate, 2016), Germany (Lampard-gate, 2010) and France (no explanation required) don’t so much rub salt into England’s wounds as open them up and pour acid into them.

Though let’s ignore that image for the time being, and examine why these four teams are here and England aren’t.

The first team to get through to the semis (Portugal) had inexplicably not won a game in ninety minutes throughout the tournament. That said, they hadn’t lost a game either. There’s also no purpose in blaming the new ‘best third place’ rule, given that Portugal could have gone through in second without winning a game but for Iceland’s late winner against Austria; a winner that consigned England to a different embarrassment to the standard Portuguese shootout defeat.

It would be easy to dismiss Portugal as merely ‘lucky’ (fun too), but that isn’t the point. Cristiano Ronaldo’s free-kicks may have irritated us more than the EU Referendum this summer, but the likes of Nani, Quaresma and Gomes have shown that Portugal surprisingly are more than the one-man team many predicted they would be. In fact, that one-man has been pretty poor by his high standards. There would be obvious outrage if Portugal won the whole thing without actually winning anything. That said, Portugal haven’t really crumbled, where England have. At least they got something from Iceland.

When it comes to quashing murmurs of being a ‘one-man-team’, Wales have done so with far more gusto than Portugal. On the other hand, Bale has lived up to expectations without being heavily relied on. He has undoubtedly, and predictably been huge, but the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Hal Robson-Kanu and Ashley Williams have stepped up and shown that English football does actually work, and, if anything, they have robbed the FA of excuses for England’s dire performances at major tournaments.

Although Wales in a semi-final may seem a painful demonstration of what could have been with a competent manager, a team spirit, and a tactical plan, in many ways for England it is what can be. Imagine if the FA decided in their infinite wisdom to hire a manager similar to Chris Coleman- a man not afraid to fail. Hodgson’s fear of failure was ultimately his failure. Someone young and ambitious like Eddie Howe would be a perfect fit.

Many will say we shouldn’t look to emulate Wales, and that they just ‘got lucky’ at Euro 2016. The facts speak for themselves though, they’re here, England aren’t. We can be bitter about it, or we can learn. Fifty years of hurt might just about be manageable, but sixty or seventy? England need to learn, and fast.

On Repeat: A Defence of FA Cup Replays

My story begins in one of Britain’s newest towns, with two of the Football League’s more recent clubs. Stadium MK, Milton Keynes. It was a wintry Tuesday night in November 2010, with MK Dons and Stevenage set to replay after a stalemate at Broadhall Way. Incidentally, it was also my first away day.

 

The game wasn’t particularly memorable, with Stevenage looking as if they were set to go down to a valiant 1-0 defeat. That was until the 95th minute saw Darius Charles send the Stevenage fans into raptures, and the teams into extra time. Extra time gave no winners, but the penalty shootout saw Stevenage go through memorably into Round Two with a 7-6 win.

 

This is just one of many examples stemming from the joy of replays, particularly as I was unable to make the original tie. I’m sure others will tell their replay stories; the heartbreak, the elation, the entertainment. But the point is that the FA Cup is a beautiful footballing tradition that is essentially perfect for the lower league fan. With Stevenage having only just gained promotion prior to the MK Dons game, it seemed a rare opportunity to visit a new stadium in a higher division. In hindsight we’d played MK Dons countless times after, but the point remains that the reward for smaller clubs with cup replays is massive, particularly when the big guns come knocking.

 

Take Exeter and Burton for example- two clubs that have held Manchester United and forced replays in the last dozen years. Another personal example is Tottenham, who were held at Broadhall Way four years ago on this very day. Having been somewhat irked at drawing Tottenham at home rather than away originally, the chance to go to White Hart Lane for the first time with Stevenage was quite special. The replays give us chances to see new places that otherwise we as lower league fans may never visit again. Who knows when Burton or Exeter will be back at Old Trafford, or Stevenage back at Tottenham?

 

Although Jürgen Klopp may not be an advocate of the replay, Arsene Wenger came out in support of the tradition, saying that the FA Cup “…is the most traditional competition in England. Let’s respect it and keep it as it is,” and it’s hard to disagree. Although I’m not usually one to harp on about respecting tradition, the FA Cup replay is a sacred one for any football fan, even higher up in the football pyramid in many cases. The money spent in the higher reaches also surely means that putting together a squad for a larger backlog of fixtures shouldn’t constitute an issue.

 

The overall point here is that the FA Cup is undoubtedly flawed in many respects, but not with regard to the use of replays. Playing the semi-finals at Wembley is a particular issue, but that’s another debate to be had another time. The FA Cup will always be special on a personal level, primarily due to my first away game being an FA Cup replay. Ever since that night, I’ve travelled away frequently when the opportunity had arisen. Who’s to say that future generations won’t experience similar introductions to a healthy obsession with the game? Countless others have or will have similar stories to mine

 

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Ready Teddy? No…

Fear not- the title is not a dig at Teddy.

It is more a dig at the atrocious, cringeworthy journalism surrounding the appointment of Teddy. Since when has the phrase ‘ready, Teddy, go’ ever been acceptable?

Nonetheless, we have a famous manager now, and with that comes added media attention. For once, the spotlight is on Stevenage. For how long, we can’t really be sure, but we can be sure that nobody has a clue how Teddy Sheringham and Stevenage will fit together.

At the moment, there is mostly fear and panic. The squad is too thin, the youth players are being promoted too early and there aren’t enough signings according a considerable chunk of the fanbase. Coupled with numerous injury problems and a poor pre-season, it’s unsurprising that many fans feel that way, especially after the departure of Graham Westley- arguably the club’s most successful manager (we’ll save that debate for another time).

Summer hasn’t exactly been signings galore, but what Sheringham has added looks useful at the very least. Mark Hughes and Fraser Franks will hopefully prove good replacements for the departed Bira Dembele. Stephen Schumacher adds promotion winning steel to a midfield that already includes perennial promotion winners Charlie Lee and Chris Whelpdale. Brett Williams also looks a promising signing, having scored 39 goals in two seasons at Aldershot. If there’s one man that can improve the strike force, then you’d hope it’s Mr Sheringham.

The likes of George Casey, Dipo Akinyemi and Dale Gorman are also expected to make the considerable step up to professional football, which is understandable, yet risky. You can certainly see why the approach is favoured, given the budgetary restraints in comparison to other League Two clubs, as well as the recent emergence of scholar Ben Kennedy. Who’s to say that any of the three can’t follow in his footsteps?

The real interesting battle on Saturday centres around the difference in squad size and change from last season. Notts County have made eighteen signings (and counting), whereas Stevenage have only made four (not including youth players turning professional). It will be interesting to see which side gels and adapts quickest as the game wears on.

With the doom and gloom surrounding the club at the moment following a poor pre-season, a lot of Boro fans would take a point, especially from a side like Notts- a side expected to challenge for a straight return to League One at the very least. With such drastic change occurring throughout the summer, it could well be a blessing that the fixture computer gave out Notts County at home first. A difficult encounter for sure, but perhaps the best time to play it.

When the Magpies come to town, you’d hope that Teddy has a plan. Technically speaking the squad size is bigger than last season at this stage, but it’s the lack of senior players that concerns most in the terraces and seats. Teddy is, however, keeping his cards close to his chest. For all we know, there could be five new faces in by Saturday, ultimately allowing for the most unpredictable match in the Football League.

For that reason, I’ll stick my money on an entertaining 2-2 draw.

So will Teddy be ready? Who knows…?