Tuesday, 3 April 2007

02/04/2007 - Fisher Athletic 3 Braintree Town 0

This should have been an ideal trip. A six-mile journey from the office in Fulham to Dulwich, a double tick as both Conference South Fisher and Ryman South Dulwich Hamlet share this Champion Hill ground and a reacquaintance with The Fish, a team which I had a bit of a thing for in the 1980s when I visited the Surrey Docks stadium a couple of times.

But it didn't quite go to plan.

I set off from Fulham at about 6pm, and was safely in the car park of the Sainsbury's superstore which sits adjacent to the Dulwich Hamlet ground at around 6.45... 45 minutes to do six miles, that's London rush hour traffic for you.

Still that left me with an hour before kick off to take in the ambience of a night on Champion Hill. The ground is well developed with a first class grandstand on one side and a functional stand on the far side, while outside there are sweeping views from one of London's high spots (vertically-speaking).

When I arrived Braintree were out on the pitch warming up while Iron supremo George Borg stalked around the proceedings keeping an eye on his side.

I took some photos and then ventured up to the bar to sample a quick Guinness before the match kicked off and that's when it occured to me that I had more than a touch of emotional attachment to this game. I'd brought the 'lucky' Braintree hat, and found myself gravitating to the Braintree fans standing behind the Fisher goal, and frankly was quite anxious for a Braintree win.

And with the emotional involvement comes the irrationality of fandom. The ebb and flow of the game becomes a rollercoaster of optimism and anxiety. The outcome of refereeing decisions lose the indifference of impartiality. Every challenge is felt, every misplaced pass vexes and the tauntings of the opposition fans become a personal attack on your psyche.

Added to that, when you let one in just before half time you get the right hump.

Unfortunately this is exactly what happened in a first half which was played at a frantic pace, and was arguably the best quality match I have seen this year.

Braintree were working hard but lacked that killer edge in the last third. Any half chances that were available to Hawes, Brayley and Ofori were fluffed, muffed or offside.

Fisher, particularly their back four, were working even harder and their passing was crisper.

In the 42nd minute, it was another one of those times when you could see an inevitable goal unfolding in front of you, only in this game Braintree were on the wrong end, as Fisher's Gavin Tomlin drilled home from close range after a bit of penalty box pin-ball.

Borg was understandably annoyed to be going in 1-0 down and he sent the Iron out early for the second half. Unfortunately he forgot to tell them to start playing early in the second half and after 26 seconds of the restart Tomlin found himself through on the right hand side with just Nick Morgan to beat, which he did with applomb.

I was rueing my emotional attachment at this point but in the spirit of every club I have ever followed, I started to pass from denial to acceptance. You just can't win them all. The lucky hat will need to be charged with some more mojo.

The Iron were looking bemused, like a team unfamiliar with being outplayed, but every Fisher pass was well placed, every challenge was crisp and the loose balls were all bouncing to the black and white shirts.

But the visitors had a couple of chances to get back in the game the best arguably when Ofori's short range shot was blocked by the Fisher goalkeeper, and two penalty appeals, one which was very handball-ish and the other a push on James Baker as he lined up to shoot.

But still the Fish dominated and on 74 minutes a home corner was beautifully volleyed home by Anthony Sinclair.

So that left 16-long minutes as Braintree toiled in vain knowing that there was no way back against the dominant homesters, while the Iron faithful, me included, just stood there and endured.

Still like I said, a double tick, and just over an hour to get home from Dulwich to Braintree and I recognised and had a quick chat with Jon Weaver, the author of Grounds of Rural/Metropolitan Essex, but overall a night flattened by the result.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

31/03/2007 - Downton 2 Hamworthy United 2

A weekend down on the south coast saw the Groundblogger (and father) make the 35 minute journey from Poole to Downton to watch the Robins take on Hamworthy United in a Wessex Premier mid-table clash.

The journey to the village of Downton was very straight forward and we arrived at the ground which abuts a sports centre at around 2.15pm.

Downton is a pretty ground entered by a turnstile at the top corner of the home straight with a bar and changing rooms complex on one side ahead of a low grandstand.

With 45 minutes before the kick off we slipped into the bar for a quick refreshment and a peruse of the programme which took all of 45 seconds.

The bar itself closed at about 2.45pm and did not reopen until 4.30pm so the match was punctuated by trips to the snack bar for hot drinks at half time to drive out a brisk wind which drove across the pitch and led to some swirling high balls.

The Robins, resplendent in their red shirts, have had a difficult season trading in the lower reaches of the table although not in any danger of relegation.

The Hammers are only six points better off and notable only for the fact that their ground is just around the corner from Groundblogger's dad's house.

This proximity led to the local knowledge that the visitors were putting out a slightly weakened team from normal, although if players were looking to take their chance in the first team you would not have known it. Give them the benefit of the doubt though and say that the conditions were making it hard to play.

Downton's supremo in the dug out was justifiably miffed then 24 minutes in when an indecisive defensive header left the home custodian stranded allowing Keith Middleton to nip in and tuck it home for the opener.

"We do it every week, we've had all the play and we've give away a stupid goal", was the cry from the dugout after the neat finish which was the high point of a low half.

Middleton's contribution was virtually his last though as he limped off shortly after after a strong challenge in the middle of the park.

Concerns that the match was not going to be worth a pleasant 35-minute drive in the country though were unfounded following a second half which had the competitive edge as the Robins attempted to stage a fightback, and a unique spot of ball retrieval involvoing a ladder and a concerned-looking groundsman.

This followed a peach of a free kick from outside the box by Hammers' Michael Hubbard on 59 minutes which had seemed to put the match beyond the homesters.

But the game was spun on its head by a moment of madness from the Hammers' goalkeeper Nick Hutchings.

A good through ball from Downton saw one of the strikers through on goal although off to the left hand side of the penalty box and while he concentrated on slipping it past the onrushing Hutchings, the Hammers' keeper concentrated on a bodycheck which would have been more effective on an ice hockey rink.

The shot went wide but Hutchings found his mark and left the referee with no hesitation in pointing at the penalty spot.

Hutchings was sent off and Downton's Kev Thick coolly slotted home. 1-2 and game, as they say, on.

Being down to 10 men, Hammers reorganised and set out on a defensive footing. And although Downton huffed and puffed they could not blow the visitors down.

It took two moments of real class to orchaestrate the equaliser in the 86th minute, firstly a splendid cross right into the danger zone of the visitors' penalty box and then a clipped shot over the outcoming keeper by Thick for his and his team's second.

Downton then scented blood and went looking for the winner and they did have the ball in the net in injury time but unfortunately the ball was attached to the keeper's hand when it and he were bundled in.

After the final whistle there was a brief scare when Radio Five Live announced that Barnsley had scored a late goal at Oakdale but the Rams held a two-goal lead and held on for the three points while undoubtedly the Hammers committee would have returned to Poole slightly miffed that they had not managed to.