Wednesday, 31 October 2012

30. Fleet Spurs FC

Fleet Spurs FC play at Southwood in Farnborough.
Teaching your pet an Olympic discipline, part one: Cat Dressage.

Step one: Find your cat (probably asleep in a cardboard box somewhere).

Step two: Loosely tie a ribbon around each paw. Stroke your cat and whisper sweet nothings in its ear whilst doing this. It will not suspect a thing!

Step three: When the cat stands up, gently tug on a ribbon to lift up a paw. Repeat this step for each paw.

Step four: Play some rousing marching music on the stereo. Lift each paw in time to the music. Admire your prancing kitty. Repeat this step for at least five minutes a day for a fortnight.

Eventually your cat will want to prance by itself. Teach it to prance sideways by waving a piece of cod to its left...then to its right. Reward your cat with neck tickles and Sheba. Hope that Cat Dressage will replace Horse Dressage at the next Olympics. Dream of bringing back a gold medal from Rio. You and your cat invited to the garden parties of the rich and famous...

A big golden crisp at the Olympic Park.
Fleet Spurs FC (1) 2 v 3 (0) Stockbridge FC
Saturday 27th October 2012.
Sydenham's Wessex League Division One.
Entrance: £5 (included free sticker!)
Programme: Free with entry
Attendance: Officially only 2, but 18 counted
Club shop: No
Colours: Dark blue / Red / Dark blue v All red
National Grid reference: SU8355

Seats in front of the pavilion at Fleet Spurs. The cover above here made me happy when it rained.
Daydreaming about this alternative Pet Olympics just now reminded me about how marvellous the real thing was this past summer. I was lucky in the ticket lottery (actually, not that lucky - I realised the probable futility of applying for the popular events and planned accordingly...): volleyball at Earl's Court and hockey on the main Olympic site in East London - both sports that I'd played in the past before my body turned to mush.

Watching the female athletes of the Russian Federation, Dominican Republic, Brazil and the USA at Earl's Court, I finally realised how volleyball is meant to be played - you don't just stand around waiting for the ball to rebound off your elbow in the general direction of the opposition. No, there's more to it than that! Russia's Twin Towers (two 7ft blondes prowling by the net); the Dominican Republic's relatively tiny (6ft 2") dynamite Bethania De La Cruz De Pena; shaggy-haired samba star Sheilla (pronounced Shay-ee-la) of Brazil; and the USA's magnificent Destinee Hooker and Logan Tom showed me how to serve, block and hit with power and finesse.

So...I returned to the volleyball court after their lessons...and the ball hit me on the face, elbow, knee...same as usual. As useless as ever.

A massive defensive clearance from this Stockbridge player.
The second day out at the Olympics was on Great Britain's Super Saturday - the day that we won three gold medals in the athletics stadium. I was there for women's hockey - a tight game between New Zealand and the USA. But the main memory of that day will be the enormous crowds - not even on FA Cup final day at Wembley have I seen this many people in one place. The mass of bodies milling about like a flock of starlings at dusk from one part of the park to another, all going somewhere, mostly in the opposite direction to my group. It was just like walking between stages at Glastonbury, but surrounded by people that have had a wash recently.

I think Lassie's trying to tell us something...
From one extreme to another, and it was back to the Wessex League for me last Saturday. By studying the league website's attendance tables, I knew that Fleet Spurs have the lowest crowds in the league, averaging 8.75 so far this season, with a high of 12 and a low of 5.

As I set off from home, sun shining in the cloudless sky, I wondered why their crowds are so low (although it's all relative - the average for the whole league is only around 40-50). Is it because they were forced to move to the outskirts of Farnborough in 1998 when they were denied planning permission for floodlights at their old ground in Fleet? Perhaps they should have changed their name to Farnborough Spurs when they changed location? That may have brought in a few curious locals.

Or is it because everyone in this area supports a big club? They would rather watch Manchester United or Arsenal on the TV than come out and watch the less skilful players just across the road? Highly likely (and you can't imagine an Arsenal follower watching a team called Spurs anyway). Although, to be fair, this is the case in every town in the country.

Pondering these imponderables as I drove past Winchester, it clouded over. The chances of taking stunning photos of  the match with gorgeous shimmering Autumnal colours in the background receded.

My mind then wandered to what Row Z wrote about his visit to Hamble Club Reserves recently. In the comments section, we agreed that we felt a bit odd sometimes at clubs with very low attendances - it can sometimes be a bit like walking in to a locals' pub in the middle of nowhere. You feel as though everyone is staring at you, the stranger, even if that's usually just groundless paranoia. When a match is being watched mostly by friends, family and a couple of feckless ressies, you do occasionally feel as though you stand out a bit as a freakish oddball. I wondered if today was going to be one of those days.

The view from inside the pavilion. Condiments table in the foreground.
As it happens, the answer was "no". Despite me being one of only two paying customers at the turnstile, I was made to feel very welcome. Indeed, the fellow at the pay booth even offered me a lift to the station after the match as he recognised me immediately as a groundhopper - "football fans don't need us, but we certainly need them", he told me. As we stood chatting for ten minutes and nobody else turned up (it was fifteen minutes before kick-off), I wondered why so few local people come to this friendly club on a Saturday afternoon.

The official attendance was two, but as always, there were a few more people dotted around the ground - I counted 18 in all - club officials, non-playing players, undoubtedly one or two others who had sneaked in through the clubhouse without paying. Those of us that were there were treated to a decent match between two evenly-matched sides.

Spurs took the lead after five minutes when their number 8, Chris Musgrove, wiggled his way past Stocky's midfield and let fly from the edge of the box, and like a spectacularly accurate Rocket Ronnie O'Sullivan snooker shot, the ball found its way to the bottom left hand corner of the Stockbridge net in double-quick time (if it had been a Google search, it would probably have been calculated at 0.711 seconds). If there had been a stanchion, it would have hit it. But instead of a stanchion, Fleet Spurs have those curious new goals-on-wheels - I always expect them to wheedle round when a hard shot hits them, jerking like a Subbuteo goal when you knock it sideways with your thumb whilst manoeuvring the goalie-on-a-stick too quickly. This one stayed in place though. Square wheels, obviously.

Stockbridge score the winner in Fleet Spurs' goal-on-wheels. Yes, it was raining at this point.
Spurs remained 1-0 up until seven minutes in to the second half when Stocky equalised with a header. Two minutes later, the referee awarded a free-kick to Fleet a millimetre outside the penalty box's painted line on Spurs' left. The ball was chipped in and Musgrove skimmed it in off of his fringe.

Showers fell intermittently. Then, on 75 minutes, Stockbridge equalised for the second time. A hopeful shot from 25 yards deflected off a defender and bounced over the line with Fleet's keeper laying in the mud on the other side of the goal after anticipating the shot's trajectory as it left the attacker's boot. As an ex-keeper myself for my school team, I know how he was feeling (deflated, miserable, crestfallen, forlorn, woebegone - any or all of these, or any other keyword from a Morrissey song).

This meant that with 15 minutes to go, either side could win it. The teams were evens stevens on the day, despite the homesters being much higher up the league table. Chances came, chances went - past the post or into the keeper's arms until, with five minutes left, Stocky pumped a high ball in from the left. It bobbled around like a ballbearing on a bagatelle board before falling at the feet of Mike Barker, who swivelled and shot left-footed from ten yards. The result can be seen in the photo above...more forlornness from Fleet Spurs, but elation, jubilation, exhaltation from the Stockbridge nation.

A big late October sky above Fleet Spurs. The Nokia Building in the background.
I've spotted two official match reports - one on the Wessex League website, which may well also appear on the Fleet Spurs site when it is updated - the other on Stockbridge's excellent website (one of the best sites in the league, if not the best).

More pet Olympic disciplines? How about Rabbit Triple Jump...Bunny can already hop - the skip and the jump should follow with patience. I'm sure you can think of others.

The next match report should be in two weeks, barring weather calamities or other unfortunate events.

Monday, 15 October 2012

29. Fawley AFC

A friendly welcome sign for visitors to Fawley AFC.
This is the story of the Fawley flame. It's not a true story, and all the characters within it are fictional. Don't believe a word you read.

A gang of teenage boys are gathered around a pub table on the Waterside (the collective name for the villages squished between Southampton Water and the New Forest). A typical mixed group of the cocky and the dysfunctional. Anthony has been sitting there all evening, scraping dead skin off of a wart on his left index finger whilst listening to Ryan boast about his latest female conquest. Anthony's face is cratered with old acne; his pullover emits a slight odour of vinegar, as his mum hangs out the washing to dry in the kitchen whilst cooking chutneys for holiday money. He leaves his wart-slicing Swiss army pen-knife on the table as he wanders off to the gents, fed up with his alpha male companions.

When he returns, Ryan has opened up all the various knife blades, saws and scissors, and his mates are throwing the pen-knife towards each other, playing a dangerous game of catch with what they have named the spinning death star. Anthony asks for it back, but they tease him by standing up and throwing it over his head in the world's stupidest game of piggy-in-the-middle.

The landlord sees what is happening. The boys have been getting rowdier as the evening progressed and a timid pair of strangers on a date have walked out, nervously glancing towards the noisy table on their way to the door. The landlord likes the boys - they are regular Saturday night visitors, spending a great deal of money at the bar on beer and nuts, and on the triv machine in the corner without ever winning more than a couple of quid in return. He sees himself as a young man in them and doesn't want them to leave and never come back. Even so, they need to be calmed down...

Bench seats in the new stand at Fawley.
Fawley AFC (1) 1 v 2 (0) Bemerton Heath Harlequins FC
FA Vase 1st Round Proper
Saturday 13th October 2012
Entrance: £5
Programme: £1
Attendance: 50-ish
Club shop: No
Colours: Dark blue / Dark blue / Light blue v Black and white halves / Black / Black
National Grid reference: SU4304

Silhouetto allegretto. A sunny day on the Waterside.
...the landlord approaches the table and asks the boys to stop throwing the death star. They acquiesce immediately and settle back down to carry on drinking. The landlord scrapes a wooden chair along the tiled floor and sits down between Anthony and Ryan. He makes a little small talk - asks them what they do for a living and suchlike, before letting them know that he's just had a text from his mate who works in the safety booth at the oil refinery. Apparently, the Fawley flame has just gone out. This is a very bad thing.

You can see the Fawley Oil Refinery for miles. It's visible to walkers and horse riders in the nearby New Forest National Park; you can see it from the Isle of Wight; take a lift to the top of the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth, a good twenty miles away, and the chimneys and flare stacks poke up rudely above the non-specific greyness of the surrounding land. And there's always a flame burning at the top of one of the flare stacks, gobbling up excess poisonous gases.

The landlord's mate had texted him to say that the flame had gone out and that it was panic-stations in the refinery. He suspected a vacuum had somehow been created within the stack which may have caused a backdraft. The flame was making its way slowly down the stack. If it reached the bottom, there was an open tank full of crude oil nearby, and if the flame met the oil, then there was no way to avert disaster. The refinery would go ka-boom! and take half of Hampshire with it.

The boys listened quietly. Seven pints never felt so sober. Ryan made his excuses and left. The others followed him. In ten minutes, they were far enough away to feel safe.

But they were back the next week, older and wiser and a little less cocky.

One of two home-made shelters at Fawley AFC.
Now, this is a true story: Fawley AFC were once part of the Esso Sports and Social Club, one of many works social clubs in the area. Big companies used to believe that a healthy worker is a good worker. Until some manager making a name for himself decides that, with profits down to merely £2bn in the last quarter, savings need to be made. The social side of the enterprise makes no money, contributes little, and the fifty-year-old buildings need repairing or replacing. Time to cut them adrift. Nice fat bonus to go with the company car and first-class air travel for Mr Go-Places. Decaying infrastructure for the workers to maintain.

Thus, in 2002, Esso (Fawley), became Fawley AFC, run by independent volunteers as part of a larger sports and social club in Holbury (the actual village of Fawley is a couple of miles away to the south-east). Founded in 1923 as AGWI United (not sure what those initials stood for!), changing their name to Esso (Fawley) in 1949, the club have never been very successful. Trophies won include the Southampton Senior Cup (1935), Hampshire League Division Three West (1953), the Southampton Wednesday League (1961 and 1968), the Southampton Senior League (1980 and 1988), and finally Hampshire League Division Three (1995). Actually, written down like that, I've seen worse imaginary trophy cabinets!

A splendid rusty roller at Fawley.
The trophy at stake on Saturday was the FA Vase, the Football Association's knockout competition for clubs below step 4 (Southern League around here) of the national league system. Wessex League clubs have had reasonable success in this competition - Wimborne Town and Winchester City have both held the trophy aloft; AFC Totton have been beaten finalists; Poole Town were semi-finalists just two seasons ago; and last season, Bournemouth Poppies went all the way to the quarters. Of today's combatants, Bemerton Heath Harlequins reached the fifth round in 1999, whereas this is only Fawley's second-ever entry. Last season, they won two matches before losing to South Park (no, not that South Park). This season, they beat Hamworthy United in the previous round. Up until now, all their ties have been away from home, so Saturday's match created a tiny (really really tiny) piece of football history, as it was their first-ever home match in the Vase.

A fact about Fawley? How about Britain's longest pier? There's no slot machines, funfair or dirty dancehall on this pier - it's strictly for tankers delivering oil.

And another fact? There's a theatre at the sports complex. They'll be doing Calendar Girls - the story of the WI creating a stir with a naked calendar, I believe - between 18th and 20th October if you're down that way. Now, did the WI in Fawley's original name, AGWI, stand for Women's Institute? That would be novel.

FA Cup heroes Blackfield & Langley are Fawley's nearest footballing neighbours - just 1500 metres to the south - Mo Farah could run there in four minutes. As B&L were also in FA Vase action on Saturday, it was a pity they couldn't stagger kick-off times on what was Non-League Day - I'm sure plenty of people would have gone to watch both games as the two grounds are so close (for the record, B&L won their tie 5-1 against Westbury United).

A ticking off and a yellow card from the ref.
To reach Fawley's pitch, you have to walk through the main entrance of the Waterside Sports and Social Club and be waved through to the glass door opposite by the man at the desk. Through the second door, down a ramp and past the boxing club on your right. The shadows on the walls were as crisp as a freshly-snapped Ryvita on this glorious early Autumn day. The football pitch is in the far corner of the complex, beyond the bowling green, rugby pitches and cricket scoreboard. As entry is so strictly controlled, and with all potential entrance points covered in barbed wire, the area has no sign of vandalism of any kind - no graffitti here (such a big problem at Blackfield & Langley). Equipment can be left safely lying around - no chance of anyone walking through the clubhouse with a rusty roller in tow.

There's a friendly welcome at the pay hut. As you walk in, there's Pinky & Perky's Bistro to your right (tea £1). Beyond the bistro are changing rooms in rusty green containers, sited on an old tarmac tennis court. The high fences surrounding the disused tennis court are still in place, which prevents spectators from watching the match unobstructed from behind and to the right of one goal. You can walk past the changing rooms though to the right-hand side of the pitch, where two small home-made shelters are bisected by brick dugouts. Beyond the second shelter is a large shed with a green door (Shakin' Stevens would approve).

On the opposite side is a new stand with wooden bench seats. The far end is out of bounds, so effectively, the ground is two-and-a-half-sided! Plenty of room for their average crowds of around fifty though. I liked it.

Pinky and Perky's Bistro, AKA the refreshments hut at Fawley AFC.
Fawley took the lead in their first-ever home Vase tie in the 20th minute - a low rasper from the edge of the box after Bemerton failed to clear the danger zone. Other than the goal, the first half was fairly even and uneventful. The second half, on the other hand...

...again, action-free for the first ten minutes...until Bemerton's number six was shown a red card for an elbow on a Fawley player as they both chased a loose ball. Not unusual, except the hot-headed Harlequin then threw the ball at the ref as he reached in to his back pocket. The ball bounced off the ref's forehead and out of play near the dugouts. The crowd of 50 or so gave a collective gasp - enough sucking motion to change the direction of the sooty smoke belching out of one of the tall chimneys behind the theatre. The talk was all about how long the ban would be. "A minimum of five matches" seemed to be the consensus.

For the final 35 minutes, the match could have been played out on the stage of the aforementioned theatre, with the referee playing the part of the baddie in the eyes of the home crowd, as well as the miffed away supporters. Fawley tried to hang on to their lead, but ten-man Harlequins were having none of it, as they bought a parking permit for Fawley's penalty area for the remainder of the game. The inevitable equaliser came via a penalty - Bemerton's spot-kick maestro was as cool as a bucket full of liquid nitrogen as he waited for the goalie to move to his right. Penalty duly slotted to his left.

As full-time approached, talk turned to whether there would be extra-time and penalties if it remained 1-1. Nobody seemed to know. However, a second penalty for the team from Wiltshire put paid to this collective conversation. The ball appeared to strike the chest of a Fawley defender as it flew towards goal, but the ref signalled handball. By the trotters of Pigling Bland! The man in black was not popular!

Penalty number two was walloped with aplomb to the keeper's right. There was no coming back for poor old Fawley after that. The team from Salisbury went in to the hat for Monday's second round draw - they will travel to St Austell in Cornwall on November 17th. They could visit the Eden Project whilst they're there. Make a day of it.

After the match, it's across the fields to the shower block.
A fine afternoon out beside the oil refinery chimneys. Another club added to my ever-lengthening list of ones to revisit over the coming long as the Fawley flame behaves itself.

I would have liked to go to another Vase match in the second round, but sadly, all three of my remaining unvisited clubs were knocked out on Saturday. I'll be concentrating on the league for the rest of the season then, same as Fawley.

Monday, 8 October 2012

The Totton & Eling Team Tab

There's a Totton & Eling team tab hidden somewhere in this old scrapbook page! See if you can spot it!
At the end of every summer in the 1970s, Shoot! used to give away league ladders for the new season. Over a period of three weeks, you would receive the ladders themselves in the first week (league tables for England and Scotland with slots for each position within each division), then the team tabs for each English and Scottish league club. The idea was that you would update each division with the team tabs as and when matches were played.

So, you would dutifully start the season doing just that, but after a few weeks it became a little, well, boring. So, you would take them all out of the ladders, put them in a pewter tanker, shake them up, and draw out ties for the British Cup (which was surely just around the corner in reality - you were just doing the draw before Bert Millichip could get his hands on his 128 numbered balls and do the first-ever real draw). "And Coventry City will play Hibernian, in surely the tie of the round..."

The team tabs were slathered in useful information from the mid-70s onwards. The club's name would be in its colours on the visible part, but underneath, on the invisible iceberg-like bit, would be the name of their ground, year of formation, nickname, and most intriguingly, their record gate (e.g., Pompey's was 51,385 v Derby County - I've been in 40,000+ crowds at Fratton Park, but that ain't going to happen ever again!). I would learn all of these things off by heart and would wish that one day I could be in a record attendance.

Well, I may have done this at last, after 40 years of trying. The 230 at Totton & Eling's Millers Park for their FA Cup tie with Weymouth might well have been a ground record (probably not a club record - they must have bettered that at Southern Gardens in the 1940s or 1950s. I don't know for sure, and I don't expect anybody else does!). Anyway, to celebrate, I made a Totton & Eling team tab with the following vital information:

Totton & Eling (red lettering on a black background - club colours)
Millers Park
Formed: 1925
Record gate: 230 (in invisible brackets afterwards: "I was there!")
The Millers

I added it temporarily to an old scrapbook, just to see what it would look like (see illustration above). It looks good there, in amongst all the Sun soccerstamps!

Terry Paine, circa 1971.
From the same scrapbook, here's a picture of Saints legend, Terry Paine. Bradley Wiggins, eat your heart out! That's proper sideburns!