About Me

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Hammersmith, London, United Kingdom
I'm a director of Maidenhead United Football Club. For nine seasons one of my roles at the club was to produce the match programme. The original aim of this blog was to write football related articles for publication in the match programme. In particular I like to write about the representation of football in popular culture, specifically music, film/TV and literature. In August 2010 I also decided to write posts about all the matches I have attended. At the end of the 2010-11 season I stood down from all my duties at Maidenhead United due to an exciting development in my teaching career, but remain a director of the club and will continue to blog as time allows and inclination demands.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Two bald men fighting over a comb

A desperate game contested at York Road yesterday by two teams who needed to win and certainly couldn't lose. Thus there was no lack of competitive spirit and perhaps a little too much at times, like the pair of follically challenged combatants, as soon as either team got what they wanted. i.e. a decent attacking position, they had little idea about what to do with it. Neither keeper was required to make a significant save all afternoon. Maybe Maidenhead had the lion's share of possession, maybe Tonbridge looked more threatening in the final third, but the main talking point was the fracas that exploded in the dressing room area following the double dismissal of Ryan Watts and Danny Green with about twenty minutes remaining.
Already the tension had led to a confrontation between the dugout personnel over a foul just the other side of the line which saw Bobby Behzadi end up on the deck. Following the break down of an attack Green threw the ball at Watts who responded by throwing it back at Green as the winger turned his back, the ball hitting his head. The referee saw the last part of the exchange and immediately dismissed Watts. Cue outrage from his teammates which led to the referee to consult the linesman who had a perfect view of the incident and thus left no option but to send off Green too. In all honesty it all could have been settled by the two players shaking hands as the ball was thrown with little venom by either party, but unfortunately the pair continued their conversation when they reached the dressing room leading to the bizarre sight of everyone rushing off the pitch to get involved whilst the spectators could see nothing of it.
This proved to be the only real talking of a goalless deadlock which on the part of Maidenhead only Richard Pacquette had the chances to break, at either end of the game, but both shots sailed over the bar.
So now Maidenhead have a week off to recharge their batteries before the final assault to break back into the Conference South for next season with four games in the last eight days of the season.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Supersonic Concord leave Maidenhead for dust

Life watching Maidenhead United used to be very different in the 90s. Crowds at York Road were about half of what they are now, and a significant part of the Isthmian League season involved playing clubs from Essex.
Essex clubs were always of a type, hard working, ultra competitive and often as a consequence over achieving. Concord Rangers provided a reminder of these times on Thursday night, playing at a high tempo which appeared to be unsustainable but which they managed to maintain throughout, effectively spoiling any attempts by Maidenhead to get a toehold in the game, and operating as a tag team to continuously bark at the referee.
As with Saturday, Maidenhead threatened early on when Harry Pritchard cut in from the left and had a shot which was pushed round the post by Jamie Butler. Thereafter Rangers doubled up their marking of Pritchard to largely nullify his influence.
In the eighteenth minute man of the match Seedy Njie went over Brett Longden's leg on the byline to win a penalty which Danny Glozier converted. Maidenhead worked hard to retrieve the situation and if they had gone into the interval only one goal down I had hopes that they would overtake a tiring Rangers in the second half. Neither part of that equation came to pass though as firstly Mark Nisbet repeated Longden's foul. This took place outside the penalty area but former Magpie Sam Collins struck the kick fiercely and unfortunately a couple of deflections saw it land at the feet of an unmarked Steve King who finished from close range to double the lead.
Any hopes of a Maidenhead revival were quashed within five minutes of the restart when in the best move of the game, Njie went through on goal and beat Henly with a neat finish. With the game all but over, it became a frustrating affair to watch as Concord's continual spoiling tactics sucked Maidenhead into earning a string of yellow cards, Daniel Brown getting two and an early bath with 15 minutes left.
Five minutes earlier, Danny Green had forced Butler to push his shot from distance wide. From the resulting corner a Brown shot appeared to be heading goalward, Richard Pacquette helping it over the line, only for the linesman's flag to be raised for offside. Despite going down to ten men, Maidenhead continued to enjoy their best part of the game and eventually pulled a goal back when Leon Solomon headed in a Pritchard free kick.
With Concord harbouring play off ambitions the result was not unexpected and fortunately with Tonbridge only taking one out of six midweek points on offer, Saturday's game remains as much must not lose as must win.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Piece of cake for the Cherries

The week began with high hopes of seeing the Magpies carrying on their resurgent run of form down at currently the hardest working club in football, Havant & Waterlooville. A smooth trip down on the train left plenty of time for a couple of pints of Seafarer in The Old House at Home, although as some of that time was spent watching a heavy shower through the window I might have guessed that this was to be the extent of my night's entertainment. Regardless of this winter's wet weather the Westleigh Park pitch has a long earned reputation for waterlogging and so it turned out that the only barrier to entering the club car park half an hour before kick off was a flood of traffic trying to get out. I can only hope that the rescheduled match turns out to be a meaningless one for both clubs with the Magpies already safe and the Hawks set for the play offs.
Match postponed
24 hours later and I was heading a bit further down the coast to the western fringes of Hampshire for the Championship play off clash at Dean Court. Steady but often slow moving traffic took us to the ground by 6, driving through the car park to find a side street that provided easy access to the suburb of Boscombe and a quick getaway. 
Walking into Boscombe it was clear that this is one of the poorer parts of the town, with the main street consisting of a string of low rent takeaways (Burger Logic anyone?) before we arrived at the only pub, the obligatory Wetherspoons, which are increasingly resembling Senior Citizen dining clubs. Still Amstel was on tap as we reminisced over our last visit to see AFC Bournemouth play, almost exactly twenty years ago to watch the newly crowned Division Two champions Reading take on Tony Pulis' Cherries. Bournemouth won that game 2-1 although Reading did but the ball in the net twice when a Royals fan jumped over the barrier to finish a Michael Gilkes cross which was disallowed by the linesman presumably for offside. I wonder if the phantom scorer was returning to this game too?
Pad Thai for your right to fight
Heading to the ground we spotted that the Public Enemy frontman Chuck D had taken time to invest in the local economy before crossing the railway line to see the small but functional stadium. Since our last visit the pitch had been rotated 90 degrees and all the spectator accommodation completely rebuilt with stands named after club stalwart Steve Fletcher and record breaking goalscorer Ted MacDougall.The small capacity at least had the advantage of making the game a sell out and you could see how far the club had come in recent seasons by the way the end of each stand was decorated by a large picture of games featuring the likes of Chester, Bury and Tranmere.
With both teams winning the previous Saturday it was very much game on from the kick off with Reading taking the early initiative with an attack which saw a Jordan Obita volley force Lee Camp into a full stretch save with Kaspar Gorkss going close with a header from the resulting corner. This opening proved to give a false impression of what lay ahead though and within minutes Bournemouth set out the pattern which would go on to see them win convincingly.
Reading's midfield had a makeshift look to it due to injury and the lack of anyone to sit in front of the deep lying defence left a gap which would be exploited by their Bournemouth counterparts all evening. This area was dominated by man of the match Matt Ritchie as twice in the opening twenty minutes striker Lewis Grabban forced the Royals defence back to the six yard line before cutting the ball back to the edge of the penalty area for Ritchie to finish.
It was only Grabban's impotence when presented with a chance that kept Reading in the game for the time being, McCarthy saving a header from point blank range and then with Ritchie turning provider with a quick exchange of passes inside the centre circle, Grabban shot narrowly wide when clear on goal. It was this moment which summed up the paucity of the Reading defence, for once pushing up then comically trying to retrieve the situation when Ritchie split them with his pass, the chasing Alex Pearce looking as though he was wading through treacle in pursuit of Grabban.
In terms of a response all Reading offered were direct balls to the forward three of Royston Drenthe, Pavel Pogrebnyak and Adam Le Fondre who were playing too far apart to plough anything but an individual furrow. With tiggerish Bournemouth hassling their opponents whenever they lost the ball, and showing no embarrassment at spoiling the play, it was no surprise when they sealed the win on the stroke of half time. This time Ritchie fed Simon Francis down the right flank. Francis beat full back Wayne Bridge then crossed perfectly for Yann Kermogant to head home.
This unleashed for the final time the pantomine at the Ted McDougall end as the fans behind the goal leapt to their feet and issued a salvo of wanker signs with a brave few making a throat cutting gesture. This odd display had been going on for much of the first half with stewards appearing to issue yellow cards to the miscreants. It was certainly a different world from a generation ago as there was nothing to stop either set of supporters wandering across the corner to engage in deeper discussion of the game bar the usual few puny stewards.
After the break Bournemouth settled for the win, with Reading salvaging a little pride when a Hal Robson-Kanu goal from nowhere sparked a late rally. There was no need for the extensive stoppage time as the die had been cast in the first 45 minutes and the final whistle was a welcome one. As we strolled back to the car there was the odd sight of a small group of likely lads being kettled by the police in the darkness of the unlit park whilst back over the bridge a similar group waited unescorted in the shadows either for their comrades or adversaries.
All in all a fair night out at the match which exposed Reading's tactical and technical shortcomings which will surely see any play off appearance as a misadventure. Bournemouth though have momentum on their side and could be a good outside bet to steal the play offs. It would certainly be amusing to see the reaction of the Premier League giants to a season of trips to Dean Court.
Ted MacDougall Stand

Main Stand

Steve Fletcher stand

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Elm Park Years Part 9: So Long Its Been Good To Know You

After the party comes the hangover. Following two years of pretty much non stop league success, the play off final defeat at Wembley brought the Reading juggernaut to a shuddering stop. Pretty soon the two stand out players in the team, Shaka Hislop and Simon Osborn were off to the Premier League anyway courtesy of record breaking seven figure deals with Newcastle and QPR respectively, whilst Scott Taylor had joined Mark McGhee at Leicester. Expectations remained high when they were replaced by Bobby Mihaylov and Michael Meaker, with Trevor Morley also added to the squad. Unfortunately Quinn and Gooding lacked McGhee's magic touch in the transfer market, the two English signings lacking the quality of their predecessors. Bulgarian Mihaylov brought with him the pedigree of a 1994 World Cup semi-finalist but never settled at Elm Park. He mythically signed for the Royals after watching the play off final believing it to be played at Reading's home ground, if this was the case the realisation of what he had done must have been as shocking as his infamous wig, and the goalkeeper position became a real problem for Reading for years to come.
Off the pitch the club was faced with the reality of a ground ill suited to a tilt at promotion to the Premier League and essentially spent the next three seasons marking time until the new stadium was opened. Quinn and Gooding just about kept the club up, helped by support which unlike the previous spell in Division Two, did not waver when results took a downturn. The town was ready at last to back the football club, as shown by the way crowds increased when Reading started life in their new ground in a lower division, therefore this period was another step, (if a small one) to a sold out all seater stadium in the Premier League.
It was a period though that I would watch from a distance, the very inoffensive nature of the club that had drawn me to it in the late 80s being the factor that made it easy to breakaway. I had followed the Royals like a favoured indie band in their development in the back rooms of pubs, Reading had broken past that difficult second album stage and were now firmly established with a solid fanbase, but I was only interested in old B sides.
Nevertheless Elm Park still made for a good and convenient trip to the match and I enjoyed popping back now and again until its gates were locked shut for the final time. Away trips were equally as worthwhile, if increasingly expensive and looking back this period presents a fascinating snapshot of a sport in transition as the Premier League closed its death grip on the national game.
Post Wembley optimisim was maintained with with my fourth and final visit to the Victoria Ground Stoke on the opening day of the 1995/96 season which ended in a 1-1 draw. In November a first ever trip to Selhurst Park was made unforgettable by an obvious adaptation of the recently revived hit by Smokie "who the fuck is (pal)ice", which was sung with evermore gusto from the Arthur Waite stand as Nogan and Lovell recovered their form of the previous season to score a goal apiece in a 2-0 win. At the end of the month a goalless draw at Bramall Lane was only notable for wandering into a pub full of Blades fans next to the ground who as always confounded popular perceptions of football fans by ignoring us as we downed a pre match pint.
With Reading just about fighting off relegation the highlights at Elm Park were confined to Cup competitions, particularly the League Cup. An third round tie against Bury was abandoned after 28 minutes with Reading 2-0 down, following a torrential downpour, a single groundsman failing to beat the odds when he emerged with a fork after the players had been taken off. Naturally Reading won the replayed game to set up a derby against Southampton.
A packed Elm Park roared Reading onto a 2-1 win which was comfortable enough for the South Bank to trial a new song inspired by the Outhere Brothers when new signing Steve "Boom Boom Boom let me hear Swales" Swales came on as a late substitute. This win also revealed the pre eminence of football in the media when the following morning's Radio Five Live breakfast show featured an interview with Gooding. This win set up a quarter final trip to Elland Road in January, Reading not perturbed by the ongoing goalkeeping crisis which led to Eric Nixon playing his one and only game against Leeds. After going behind early on Jimmy Quinn rolled back the years to equalise with a terrific strike from distance only for Lucas Radebe to seal the win by half time for Wembley bound Leeds. Travelling back to our billet in Manchester we had the odd experience of a middle aged gentleman in suit with briefcase trembling as we staggered onto the last train over the Pennines, only to sigh with relief when it became clear we were fellow Reading fans.
The FA Cup inevitably brought the Match of the Day cameras to Elm Park for the visit of Manchester United in the fourth round, a tie which rather exposed the Reading ticket office's limitations when they issued a paper voucher to be exchanged for tickets. Much acrimony ensued when someone realised they could be photocopied convincingly but any Reds taking advantage were given sort shrift standing on the far right side of the South Bank when they celebrated United's opening goal. That season's double winners went onto win 3-0 in a breathtaking display of pace and movement with Eric Cantona in his pomp. Comfortably the best team I ever saw at Elm Park.
The following summer more of the promotion squad left, Welsh international Ady Williams joined McGhee at Wolves whilst Dylan Kerr moved on, sadly unable to recapture the form and fitness that made him the championship winning team's player of the year. Steps were taken to shore up the defence. Northern Irish international Tommy Wright for a time stopped the revolving door that was th number one shirt with countryman Barry Hunter taking Williams' captain's armband and central defensive berth, supported on the flanks by Martyn Booty and Paul Bodin. Further up the pitch Darren Caskey proved to be another midfield addition who did not live up to his price tag, but initial signs from fellow signing Martin Williams were good.
Williams scored the stand out goal in a 2-0 win over Oxford United, in a game broadcast live by ITV. The goal went onto feature on the opening titles for Football League Extra for some time, the programme at last providing a chance to see all the goals outside the Premier League, if you could remember to set the video for its small hours screening. Presumably the Oxford game was chosen because it was a local derby. Reading had lost a first ever cup tie to new local League neighbours Wycombe Wanderers in the previous midweek but had no problem beating the Us, a group of whose fans laughably tried to liven up the derby by viciously shaking the fence at the nearest corner of the away end to the South Bank. One of their number then found out the problem of having strikingly ginger hair, as I saw him picked out and arrested in a local side street as we traipsed back into town after the game.
With no Cup distraction Reading maintained their 1996 final placing of 18th with a little more breathing space between the relegation zone. Indeed the Royals slipped into the relegation places just once after my first visit to Huddersfield's new McAlpine stadium on a boozy day in September which ended up in the Golcar branch of the British Legion.
Boxing Day allowed me to introduce my sister's Kiwi fiancee Mark to the delights of Elm Park. He was treated to a rip roaring 2-2 draw although his New World innocence was denuded by his shock at the stick doled out to Albion striker and husband of Karen Brady Paul Peschisolido, Mark's verdict on the game being "I couldn't believe what they were saying about his wife"!
The season was summed up by an abortive trip to Loftus Road, the game postponed due to an almighty thunder storm which hit West London during the short tube ride to Shepherd's Bush from Paddington. Having arrived at the ground before the news was confirmed we ended up wandering around the White City estate looking for the Central Line station, like Reading we found our way to safety eventually but it wasn't much of an experience.
By the time I returned to Elm Park in September the promotion squad had all but disintegrated. Michael Gilkes, the last remaining player from the first match I had seen at Elm Park a decade ago had followed Williams to Wolves. Only Keith McPherson, Stuart Lovell and Phil Parkinson remained as in the summer Quinn and Gooding had been relieved of their managerial duties.
With the move to the new stadium confirmed for a year hence, it was an ideal time for a new manager to come in and rebuild. Personally I thought Terry Bullivant was a sound choice. He had had a good grounding at Barnet and brought in some useful additions to the squad in the form of Ray Houghton, Linvoy Primus and Carl Asaba, but the general response was negative with much being made of his alternative career as a taxi driver. The abject failure of his successor Tommy Burns who had a much bigger profile perhaps would have been avoided by Bullivant with his intimate knowledge of the English lower divisions. Maybe I had a jaundiced view due to the few games I saw in this final season at Elm Park as by now I had moved up to London. In particular I enjoyed first and fruitful visits to Fratton Park and the Brittania stadium but the highlight was one last terrace shaking match at Elm Park.
The visit of Nottingham Forest was picked for a live game at the end of October. Forest still retained the high achieving ambition of the Clough era and would end the season as champions. With a team full of established Premier League players, Dave Bassett's team were 1-0 up at the break and even Steve Stone's inept miss at the Tilehurst End meant little to a side boasting a forward line of Pierre Van Hooijdonk and Kevin Campbell.
Forest doubled their lead with Van Hooijdonk's second goal just after half time  but the game turned on a penalty incident soon after when Dave Beasant brought down Martin Williams. The referee showed the red card to Beasant and the ground came alive as Lurch initially refused to leave the pitch.Williams converted the penalty and although Forest restored their two goal advantage through Campbell, Reading, roared on by a twelve and a half thousand crowd tore into the ten men with relish. For once James Lambert gave a glimpse of his previously much touted potential to dance through the Forest defence to score a superb individual goal before Primus completed the comeback.
With spirit such as this it wasn't surprising to see Reading progress to the fifth round of both domestic cup competitions and a win on the last day of January at home to Birmingham saw the Royals sit in relative comfort in fifteenth position. However the next eleven league games saw just one win (notably against Manchester City who would join Reading in relegation) and ten defeats which ultimately led to the demise of Bullivant. He was replaced immediately replaced by Burns who then engaged in a frenzy of transfer activity ahead of the deadline to bring in a string on nonentities and an ageing Robert Fleck.
Having secured my ticket to the final game of the season against Norwich, the last ever at Elm Park, I watched Reading's relegation confirmed, ironically on TV at Nottingham Forest on the last weekend of April. At least this meant my last trip to Elm Park could be enjoyed without any stress about the consequences of the result. The result was neatly the same as my first visit, a Craig Bellamy goal giving the Canaries a 1-0 win but the mood was one of indefatigable celebration of a ground which held so many good memories. I didn't bother going onto the pitch at the end instead I waited as those who did gleefully flung chunks of turf onto the South Bank, collecting a choice clod and wrapping it up in the Evening Post. This made an innovative table decoration in the Rising Sun as we sat down and raised a toast to the old ground. I've no idea who lives at my family home of 47 Courtlands nowadays, but they should feel blessed as the garden is infused with a piece of turf soaked in the blood, sweat and tears of the Elm Park Years 1896-1998.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Magpies Strike It Lucky

Much is made of luck in football, good or bad, the rub of the green, our day/their day. Its what makes football such a great spectacle, the sheer unpredictability a joy to confound those who believe everything should conform to probability. Personally I believe its not luck that's important, its taking advantage of it when it presents itself that matters, usually in the form of a mistake from somebody else. In essence luck is an unexpected opportunity either that you create for someone else by your mistake, or visa versa, and is then exploited mercilessly, hence Geoffrey Boycott's oft repeated axiom "its not good luck its good skill".
Certainly all five goals at York Road yesterday were arguably down to luck in a greater or lesser form on a wonderfully bizarre afternoon in Maidenhead. This began when I walked out of Maidenhead station to the strange sight of a group of Sutton United fans getting into a taxi. I hope the driver took them round the town a few times to make them feel it was worth it. A pre match pint was then enlivened by a passing group of Hare Krishna devotees which stiffened my resolve to be happy whatever happened.
Despite two wins in a week I expected nothing from a game which if Sutton won, they could go top of the league. The Us have somewhat gone under the radar thanks to the ostentatious spending of Eastleigh, but when you consider that even with five first choice players out they could field the likes of Jason Brown (Welsh international), Simon Downer, Dean Sinclair and Jamie Taylor who would all be at home in a higher division, and throw in the fact that their training schedule leads some to view them as a full time club, they are just a much spending their way to promotion as the Spitfires.
Sutton's superiority was clear to see in the first half although Maidenhead's continued attempts to drive forward up the York Road slope showed they had a puncher's chance of getting something from the game if they could stay in touching distance of the Us. With a temporarily three sided ground squeezing the crowd together to improve the atmosphere, a cracking match ensued which called to mind some legendary wins of yore.
The pattern of the game revealed itself within the first ten minutes. With not much more than sixty seconds on the clock Adrian Clifton positioned himself well in the opposition penalty area only for his cushioned header to go straight to Brown in the Sutton goal. Brown's opposite number Jonathan Henly was soon called into action making a flying save from a Charlie Clough header. This provided only temporary respite for the Magpies as Sutton's next attack was launched by a huge kick forward from Brown which surprised the Maidenhead defence with its directness. Taylor though was alive to the possibilities presented by the long ball and skillfully collected the ball on the edge of the area before turning to strike the ball home.
The lead gave Sutton the impetus to set up camp in the Maidenhead half and the benefit of their extra training was clear to see as they moved the ball around with strategic purpose. The Magpies hung in there though and as the half drew on with no further score, began to find renewed belief in their ability to equalise. Reece Tison-Lascaris proved himself to be a real thorn in the Sutton defence, almost hitting the target with a lob from the left which beat the keeper but did not quite have enough dip, landing on the roof of the net. 
In the last minute of the half Harry Pritchard made even more ground down the left flank cutting into the penalty area before unselfishly squaring the ball to his namesake Harry Grant to score. So far then a repeat of the game at Gander Green Lane in December with Maidenhead hanging on against the odds.
Little changed after the break, until Sutton inevitably restored their lead midway through the second half. It was Taylor again who scored, a stinging strike confounding an unsighted Henly, the ball also seeming to take a deflection en route to goal.
Going behind provided the spark Maidenhead needed, and within four minutes they were back on level terms. From a set piece, the Magpies broke the offside tap, Mark Nisbet ignoring the protests of the Sutton defence and then rubbing salt in their wound by helping the ball on with arm before squaring it to Danny Green who finished with his customary efficiency. The Sutton rattleometer was racing upwards now, Brown trying to get the game stopped due to what looked like a dropped eyelash. Sensing their opportunity Maidenhead continued to attack, Tison-Lasacaris picking the ball up in his own half then out running the defenders only for his shot to hit the side netting. The youngster was soon replaced by Richard Pacquette and as the game entered the twilight zone of five minutes remaining there was little chance the scoreline would remain unchanged.
With two minutes left Pacquette found himself well positioned on the edge of the penalty area and played in his fellow substitute Jonathan Constant. His shot was deflected wide by a defender for a corner which was quickly taken and was delivered to Green who put his head down and went for a goal hitting the ball home at the near post from an unfeasibly tight angle.
Staring defeat in the face Sutton threw everything at Maidenhead in stoppage time but for once the boot was on the other foot and the Magpies could sit back and watch the frustration of conceding a late winner on the face of their opponents for a change.
Nine points in a week now gives the Magpies a fighting chance of beating the drop. I have a feeling though that one club is going to go down with rather more points than is usual. The position should be a lot clearer next Sunday after a week of crucial games.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Magpies cross the High Tension Line

I can't remember the last time the dying minutes of a match were so tense. This was not a cup tie, a decisive league match or even a thrilling game but the way in which Maidenhead have capitulated in the last five minutes of the their last five home matches meant everyone was fearing the worst with the only a one goal lead to hold on to.
Whether this match is pivotal in the context of Maidenhead's season remains to be seen but it certainly felt good to be pontificating at the final whistle about further wins having at last seen hard evidence of three points won.
As it turned out the game was won in the opening quarter of an hour, when unlike Tuesday night Harry Grant hit the target when put clear to score the only goal of the game. The half time lead reflected United's superiority as Adrian Clifton was the only other player to come close to scoring, his shot being blocked by Chris Winterton in the tenth minute.
This resulted in Whitehawk Steve King giving his team a half time tongue lashing which mostly consisted of one word. It served its purpose though as the Hawks had their best spell after the break and should have scored within four minutes of the restart. Striker Jake Robinson appeared to calmly take his time before shooting from the edge of the penalty area, but although it beat debutant keeper Jonathan Henly it bounced back into play off the crossbar.
As the half drew on it was Maidenhead who looked most dangerous going forward with Clifton again being denied by the keeper. However as the Magpies entered the twilight zone of five minutes to go the tension was tangible, the three points in sight but the evidence of five previous games at York Road in March suggesting an opposition goal was inevitable. A lack of inspiration meant Whitehawk were unable to trouble Henly and instead it was Winterton who was called into action in the last minute to push a Harry Pritchard shot round the post.
The final whistle was greeted by sighs of relief on and off the pitch. Personally speaking it was the first time I had seen Maidenhead win at York Road since August 20th, whilst Advertiser reporter Dan Darlington had never seen the Magpies win since he started covering their games.
The three points provides a chink of light in the relegation trapdoor. If it can be followed up on Tuesday at Dorchester then the battle is well and truly on.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

The last cut is the deepest

I expected little from Tuesday's visit from Eastbourne Borough. Already one of my favourite clubs, this season they are the best passing team I have seen and I fully expected them to take the Magpies to the cleaners following United's 6-1 thrashing at Bromley in the previous match, with the added incentive for the play off chasing visitors coming in the way they had been mugged by Maidenhead in our last meeting back in November in the FA Trophy.
Yet within minutes of the kick off Maidenhead served notice that unlike the two games in Sussex in the autumn they would have plenty of opportunities to score, a neat pass from the centre circle finding Harry Grant in the clear only for the young forward to skew his shot wide.
This golden missed opportunity to take the initiative was punished in the seventeenth minute when James Stinson picked up the loose ball in the penalty area to score. Elvijs Putnins, returning to the team after a two game layoff, then made a good save from Frankie Raymond to keep the Rocks within touching distance. 
As half time beckoned United began to threaten to equalise and enjoyed their best period of the game either side of the interval. Richard Pacquette levelled the score with a deft finish on the stroke of half time, and although the striker immediately pulled up with a hamstring injury, his replacement Jonathan Constant was at the heart of Maidenhead'a attacking play when the second half began.
The focus was now on the Eastbourne penalty area with keeper Craig Ross in the spotlight, blocking an Adrian Clifton shot from close range to stop the Magpies completing their comeback. Ross was then involved in the game's pivotal incident, dropping the ball close to his goalline. Constant was first to it but could not apply sufficient power to propel the ball into the empty net enabling a defender to clear off the line.
Relieved by this let off, Eastbourne made Maidenhead pay by retaking the lead with a text book free kick from the right wing, captain Ian Simpemba giving it the eye brows to score just after the hour mark.
Maidenhead's renewed task to equalise was then given fresh impetus by the introduction of Brett Longden, the youngster regularly scheming down the wing. With the force now back with Maidenhead Constant made the scoreline 2-2 with a good finish with only six minutes left on the clock. Longden spearheaded the next attack and unleashed a shot which forced Ross to push the ball wide at full stretch. 
By this stage the force was very much with United and they pushed hard for a winner only to be hit yet again by a sucker punch. Deep into stoppage time Eastbourne broke away down the left, the ball falling to Stacy Long to shoot from just inside the penalty area. His effort seemed to be destined for the side netting, only to hit a bobble on the pitch and skid under the dive of Putnins.
Cue the inevitable crazy touch line celebrations led by Eastbourne manager Tommy Widdrington as once more Maidenhead fell at the final hurdle. This was the hardest of these five defeats to take, primarily due to the fact that for once United were finishing very much the stronger team and if anyone looked likely to grab the points it was the Magpies. However the end result revealed Maidenhead to be the eternal hapless gambler, refusing to settle for a draw, but instead chasing that elusive win by resolutely doubling their efforts to score only to be faced by the inevitable result. With the dandy highwayman of non league football Steve King coming to York Road this afternoon a more subtle approach is required to begin to take advantage of the the 27 points remaining.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Elm Park Years Part 8: In sight of the Promised Land

As I watched the Royals parade their Division Two Championship trophy around Elm Park in the rain at the end of season friendly against Genoa, I had a real feeling of job done. I'd spent three seasons watching Reading all over the country slowly building up to their title challenge, whilst I worked towards my degree. Now both projects had been accomplished it begged the question, what next? I fudged the question of a career by enrolling on a Masters degree course at Reading University, which provided the opportunity of study alongside gainful employment at Southern Electric. By remaining a student I was entitled to buy a season ticket for just £90 with my relocation back to Berkshire, yet I sort of knew this would be my last season watching Reading full time. Little did I know what an unforgettable season this would be, and how valuable that season ticket would become by the Spring.
I suppose I didn't really consider how well Reading would do in the higher division. I was confident it would not be a season fighting relegation. Perhaps one of mid table consolidation with a cup run. Certainly not a full blown second successive promotion campaign. Mark McGhee had again trawled the bargain basement in the summer transfer market by signing Dariusz Wdowczyk, Simon Osborn, Andy Bernal and Paul Holsgrove. All four were well worth the transfer fee and although Holsgrove was very much a make do and mend type player the other three would prove their worth from the off with Wdowczyk and Osborn being the two best players I saw in Reading colours.
The fixture list sent Reading to Molineux on the opening day and we travelled up to the Black country in bright summer sunshine, eager to find out how the Royals would fare against a team tipped for the title. Before a sell out crowd, the PA whipped up the Wolves fans into a post match frenzy by playing Hi Ho Silver Lining, Woolly Bully and finally the Liquidator which saw men in Old Gold contort their faces in anger as they screamed "fuck off West Brom, the Wolves". For the first time in my life I saw the proof of the phrase "the crowd are worth a goal head start" as the home fans seemed to suck the ball into the net to give Wolves an early lead. However once the pre match bombast had died down, Reading dominated in an enthralling performance which saw everything apart from a goal. Leaving the ground it was clear that the beautiful football that had won Reading the title a few months earlier could easily transfer to a higher level, which when infused with the class of Wdowcyzk and Osborn, would turn aspirations for the season sky high.
The season started slowly in terms of results though until a double sending off for the visitors at Elm Park saw Reading get up and running with a 4-0 win over Stoke at the end of August.
A coupon busting 3-1 win at Oldham (I had backed Reading to win 2-1 at very good odds but had little time to celebrate before news of a third goal came through) lifted the Royals up to the heady heights of second, and they were to remain in the top six for pretty much the rest of the season. Each point was to be hard earned though and the autumn campaign seemed to provide as many setbacks as it did wins. 
Despite the attraction of many new grounds to visit I had decided to restrict my away trips to the south east, and therefore had a very different experience of watching Reading compared to previous three year exile in Lancashire. At home crowds remained buoyant, being upwards of seven thousand for every game, providing a first taste of the soccer revolution, inspired by Italia 90, Fever Pitch and the Premier League, as many new fans started to watch live football. Reading provided the perfect prescription of good football to watch which was cheap and easily accessible, set against a background of a growing local population eager to support a successful team. Therefore expectations were now a little higher, a fact best reflected by the new fanzine Heaven Eleven which had none of the wit and gallows humour of its predecessors Elm Park Disease and Taking The Biscuit, instead adopting the baser humour and demanding tone reflected by the new football media such as Fantasy Football League and 6-0-6. Likewise the away following was much bigger, quick to take offence to Jan Age Fjortoft's goal celebration at Swindon which was a just response to the barracking he received. 
Two short away trips provided the highlight of a stodgy autumn. At Watford Reading were soon two goals down, leading McGhee to quickly change tactics which inspired a stunning fightback led by Scott Taylor, Osborn and Stuart Lovell scoring to earn a point. At Charlton Reading won the game in style, the opening goal being a stunning volley by Osborn as the Royals returned to the top three.
As autumn turned into winter though it was clear that there was something missing. Up front Jimmy Quinn's age was starting to catch up with him whilst his strike partner Lovell was still learning his trade, and the lack of goals was beginning to tell on results. There was no doubt Reading would compete well enough to stay the course as a 1-1 draw against eventual champions Middlesbrough in early December showed but something was required to turn them from play off contenders into promotion winners.
The catalyst came in two forms, both conventional but with stunning results. McGhee was now being talked about in the national papers as a one of the best young managers around, with sports editors helped by his connection to the now eminent Alex Ferguson. To me it seemed obvious that McGhee would soon be tempted away from Reading whose ambitions were inevitably limited by their Elm Park ground which prevented the necessary expansion of the supporter base and commercial activity to even match the resources of the average club in the division. His manner of leaving though proved rancourous and ultimately saw me take my own leave of Elm Park as my opinion of his departure seemed to be wildly at odds of everyone else at the club. To me once Reading allowed McGhee to talk to Leicester they had given him the green light to leave and I didn't understand why anyone would begrudge him a move to a Premier League club. However chairman John Madejski successfully spun a story that after a night of negotiations McGhee had had a change of heart and agreed to stay at Elm Park only to turn again to move to Filbert Street. This implication of old fashioned deceit, of breaking his word, led to McGhee becoming public enemy number one forever more, whilst Madejski was seen as a wronged man who had bargained hard in the interests of the club and therefore was rewarded by the supporters standing fully behind him.
Its hard to remember that these were the days before 24 hour rolling news coverage. There were just snippets of news amounting to just a few lines in the national press. Therefore its still unclear what happened. There is a rumour that McGhee was determined to leave due to Madejski's continuing fiscal austerity which reportedly extended to refusing to pay for the team to have fish and chips on the coach back from away games. At the time I saw a Chairman embarrassed at his mistake to allow his best asset to talk to another club and therefore trying to obscure this by presenting McGhee as a traitor for leaving. With the benefit of hindsight Reading have had the last laugh by becoming a genuine force in the second rank of English football whilst McGhee never came close to realising his potential. Whatever the truth of the matter I felt distinctly uncomfortable standing on the South Bank listening to the abuse directed at a man who had produced a miracle to get the team not only to emerge as serious contenders for the Premier League but also do it in such style. It was also galling that most of those vituperative voices were nowhere to be seen until success was virtually a fait accompli. Still at least there was the consolation that it fired the team to their best victory of the season so far.
The first game after McGhee left was to be broadcast live on ITV on Sunday afternoon. Wolves were the visitors to Elm Park and despite Reading's position in the table were still the favourites to win and complete the double over the Royals who were being run by a committee of senior players. With appositely named Dutchman John de Wolf a striking presence in the Wanderers midfield, it had all the makings of a cup tie rather than a league match and with a febrile atmosphere surrounding Elm Park an early injury to Steve Froggatt upped the ante even further. In a bona fide classic, Wolves took the lead, but it was Reading who went into half time ahead thanks to Osborn and Quinn. Unfortunately Quinn scored at the other end to allow Wolves back into the game after the break but that only spurred the Royals to greater efforts as they sealed the win with two goals from Michael Gilkes whilst Shaka Hislop made sure the visitors would not create a last act. The match introduced Reading to a national audience and for Hislop started the transfer speculation that would lead to a well deserved career in the top flight. More significantly to Reading the decision of the two men who would eventually be given the job of managing the team, Quinn and Mick Gooding, to tinker with McGhee's ball playing philosophy, along with the Christmas signing of striker Lee Nogan, provided the impetus to ensure the second half of the season would end as the greatest in the club's long history to that point.
Madejski wisely made the innovative decision to make Quinn and Gooding joint managers. This kept the incredibly valuable team spirit in tact and allowed Reading's forward momentum to continue. Quinn and Gooding remainded faithful to McGhee's footballing values but encouraged the team to get the ball forward quicker to ratchet up the pressure on the opposition. After a patchy opening month for the new managerial pair, they never looked back, as new signing Nogan fitted perfectly into the team which really started to turn in the results as winter turned into spring. For me two evening home games stood out in the memory. They were low key in nature against Southend and Oldham but the way in which the team stuck to their task to overcome determined mid table opposition (particularly the Latics who led for much of the game), signalled to me that this was a team that could go all way. Still at Elm Park the outstanding 4-1 demolition of Watford was countered with a dire 3-0 defeat to Barnsley, and following a collapse against Port Vale at Elm Park which saw a 3-0 half time lead courtesy of a Nogan hat trick squandered, the Royals lay outside the play off positions in sixth place with only four games to go.
The Vale game was the first of the Easter weekend with the short trip to Kenilworth Road to come on Easter Monday. This was to be only my second away trip since the turn of the year, having also been to the defeat at Millwall, an evening most notable for a train full of Reading fans returning to London Bridge, singing the theme tune to the Magic Roundabout to a local blonde haired youth who was keen to articulate the local  fans reputation. The game at Luton was a tense affair with an Ady Williams goal seeing all three points return to Berkshire.
Just four days later, Bolton travelled to Elm Park. Familiar opposition whilst Reading had languished in Division Three, the Trotters were now the country's pre eminent club, looking good for promotion having reached the League Cup Final. The crowds flocked to the ground with the gates ultimately being locked with many, including most of my friends, left outside whilst my season ticket gained me safe passage through the queues to the gate without a line. In a game of stunning quality for this level of football, Reading edged home 2-1 with Hislop again to the fore. Lovell had opened the scoring before David Lee equalised soon after half time. With only minutes remaining an audacious pass from Osborn put Nogan through to win the game with a performance that was the best I ever saw at Elm Park.
Silverware was to follow at the start of May with a Berks & Bucks Cup Final win at Wycombe over Slough. It was a case of smiles all round as the Rebels discovered they had been promoted by default due to Enfield's financial mismanagement. The game ended in a lame pitch invasion in view of the magnitude of what was happening in the league, but the way in which the Royals had taken the County Cup seriously was a big boon to football in the area as I had found out earlier in the competition when they had won at York Road, the squad freely chatting to all in the Maidenhead United social club after the club, with Stuart Lovell telling me how much better the post match hospitality was compared to York Road.
The final game of the league season saw the ITV cameras return to Elm Park. Once again Reading thoroughly entertained the viewers with Osborn scoring with another volley against the Addicks, Williams winning the game with two minutes left after Charlton had equalised. Watching the game again on video, it ended with a wonderful line from commentator Brian Moore, screaming "here come the madcaps" as the pitch invasion started early. The result had left Reading in a final position of second. Sod's law meant that this was the first time the runners up had not been promoted automatically due to the reduction of clubs in the Premier League, but there was no feeling of injustice. Reading had not been in the top three since October and the final placing was viewed only as a historical footnote for the record books, the mood was very much one of nonchalance such was the confidence that the play offs would be won.
The draw paired Reading with Tranmere Rovers, the media darlings of the period thanks to their old pros Pat Nevin and John Aldridge. With John King having served notice of the potential of his team in an FA Cup tie at Elm Park in 1989, Rovers had gone on to win promotion twice and this was to be their third attempt to get to the Premier League via the play offs. Rovers might have had experience but the naive optimism possessed by the Royals was intoxicating and as I headed up the M6 for the first time that season, the lack of any real expectation made the ensuing 3-1 deconstruction of the home team all the more enjoyable. Nogan and Lovell were at their very best that day, leaving the second leg as a mere detail which was negotiated with satisfyingly dull ease reflected by the casual way we all wandered onto the Elm Park turf at the final whistle.
Life watching Reading continued to be like a Hollywood movie. The tickets for Wembley were secured  with the opposition being the best of the play off teams, Bolton. Following the short train ride up to  London we joined the throng outside the Globe pub opposite Baker Street station, not even attempting to get served at the bar, we popped into a local off licence and enjoyed the fun as everyone cheered a Royals fan attempting to pin his colours to some scaffolding up on high. Soon it was time to board the train up to the Twin Towers, trading banter across the carriage, then chiding the Bolton fans for their faith in John McGinlay whilst walking up Wembley Way. We took our seats high up behind the goal and smiled with disbelief as Reading took the lead through Nogan, then doubled it through Williams. It was almost too easy but utterly in line with two whole seasons of everything following the glorious script of success. Then we rose to our feet and bounced around once more as the referee pointed to the penalty spot.
It seems odd now looking at the bare facts of the game but it really did feel like Reading had blown it when Lovell's penalty was saved by Keith Branagan. It was the moment at which the enormity of what the team was trying to achieve had sunk in, and the fine margins by which it would be decided were revealed. The save revitalised the Bolton team and the Reading team suddenly looked tired. All the adrenaline of the last few weeks seemed to finally take their toll and despite the two goal cushion it felt like a case of when not if Bolton would get back into the game. Perhaps it was a reflection of the tight win in the league a few weeks previously, Bolton were after all an outstanding team under Bruce Rioch. Perhaps it was the age old fear that grips when the ultimate prize is in touching distance. Perhaps it was just one game too many.
Re reading the match report of the game it is scarcely believable the score was still 2-0 with fifteen minutes to go, and four left when the equaliser finally came, but in my mind Reading's cause was lost with the missed penalty, a memory perhaps shaped by the media narrative which inevitably followed. With Bolton going from strength to strength in extra time, the mood became more desperate as I had to suffer a soundtrack supplied by an American accent somewhere behind me, on a loop of "let's go Reading". After Fabian De Freitas had confirmed the victory with a fourth goal, Reading finally scored their third through Quinn, a goal that felt cruel in offering hope, but welcome in preserving the close nature of the game.
The final whistle at last released us from play off purgatory to allow us to luxuriate in the truly British response to glorious failure. Never mind we thought, we couldn't have been really serious in thinking the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United would be visiting Elm Park on a regular basis. Time to enjoy the memory of hope and speculation safe in the knowledge that we would not have to deal with the possible reality of a season of embarrassment in the top flight. 
A few days later we left work to travel over to Reading to watch the open top bus parade, the town turning out in the pouring rain to thank the team for offering a glimpse of a glorious future. Gathering in front of the Town Hall the microphone was passed around the squad to deliver a message to the fans, the definitive words being uttered by the classy Pole, Wdowczyk: "I love you. I love you all",