Middlesbrough v Reading, Saturday 15th January 2022, 3pm

January 16, 2022

Well, how enjoyable was that? There’s nothing like a last gasp winner to put a smile on your face. Harry reckoned it must have been the best Boro comeback ever. “Could be,” I hedged, casting my mind back to Bucharest and Basle. Nobody wants to hear old blokes rattling on about things that happened before you were born though and so I passed on the opportunity to piss on his chips.

It was freezing in our East Stand seats. So cold that earlier in the day I’d just about killed off the rescue fish that have been living in a bucket in the kitchen. Their new home is going to be a big sink in the garden originally intended to be a planter. A two hour outdoor acclimatization spell in near freezing temperatures had caused them all to float on their backs and, whilst I’m no vet, that’s rarely a good sign in fish. After being brought back inside and having some warm water added they returned to normal. Maybe I’ll have to postpone their move for a bit longer.

If you were wondering what rescue fish are, they are minnows, sold as live food for other bigger fish to eat. I thought they might enjoy a life in a garden sink a bit more. I’m not so sure now.

Anyway, the game. We had a few chances first half but let them back into it after the break. Andy Carroll scored from a header for them and with time running out Mat Crooks headed an equalizer and then deep into injury time, a winner.

It wasn’t as good a performance as against Forest but I was pleased that Wilder had a Plan B. And then a Plan C.

Worksop Town v Pickering Town, Saturday 8th January 2022, 3pm

January 13, 2022

The lunchtime kick-off at Mansfield meant that there was an opportunity to take in a second game of the day at the more traditional time of 3pm. We could have gone to a game just five minutes drive away but decided instead to head north for half an hour to Woksop.

There was a lot of congestion around the Mansfield ground and if I’d given it a little more thought and parked maybe a hundred or so yards further away we might very well have missed most of it and made the kick-off at Worksop.

As it was, the game was fifteen minutes in by the time we had parked up and paid the nine quid admission.

There looked to be five different stands with a main seated and covered one running along a lot of one side of the pitch. A further four covered standing areas were dotted around the ground and gave plenty of choice to the 455 in attendance. I particularly liked the one behind a goal that looked as if a roof had been fastened to an existing wall and then some steps added at ground level.

Worksop were hosting Pickering in the Northern Premier East Division. The home side, who are pushing for a play-off place, were in yellow and black with the relegation threatened visitors in their blue kit. It was still nil-nil as I took up a place on the barrier near a corner flag.

Pickering opened the scoring midway through the first half. I saw the buildup but was unsighted for the finish as I was in the queue for a coffee. I did see the equaliser a few minutes later at the other end though when a six yard box scramble was concluded with a headed goal.

The goals kept coming with the little bloke who I’d seen score the winner for Pickering the previous week finishing well on the half hour to put his side back in front. Worksop were level before the break though with another headed effort.

In the second half Worksop gradually got on top and the lad who had scored their first two goals added his third, again from a header. We had some drama in the last fifteen minutes with a melee that kept re-breaking out. Eventually one from each side was sent off but it could easily have been more.

There were no more goals though and Worksop ran out time to take the points.

Mansfield Town v Middlesbrough, Saturday 8th January 2022, 12.15pm

January 12, 2022

I’ve been attending each round of this season’s FA Cup since the opening Extra Preliminary round back in August. As we’ve now reached the Third Round I had the option of continuing my streak to a ninth successive round by taking in a Boro game away at Mansfield.

The bad news, however, was that we had only been allocated 1700 tickets. At fifteen quid a pop they would be in high demand and I knew that I wouldn’t have sufficient priority points to get one. With that in mind I got in touch with Mansfield early on and nabbed a couple of hospitality tickets in the 1861 lounge for forty quid each. Result, as they say, and a bargain too.

Stadium parking wasn’t included in the price but I was ok with that as I didn’t want to be trapped at the ground after the game. We ended up in a car park about five minute’s walk away and Jen and I just followed the locals on a route that included a short cut through someone’s garden.

We had an hour to while away in the lounge before the 12.15 kick-off and after my second breakfast of the day, this time a full English, we were entertained by the recollections of former Mansfield player Micky Laverick. His heyday was the mid-seventies and I got the impression that era was Mansfield’s peak to date.

As kick-off approached we made our way out to the Ian Greaves Stand and our centrally located seats in the upper tier. My records state that I’d been to the ground before, thirty-five years previously in the first Rioch promotion season. Even after looking around, I’ve no recollection whatsoever of the game or even the day.

We were sat two rows behind the media people. I’ve no idea who does the Boro commentary these days as I gave up trying to connect when I was in Russia. I didn’t see anyone behind a microphone that I recognized but I was able to keep an eye on the young lad from the Northern Echo typing his updates.

The Boro support had the stand to our left. They kept up a decent volume throughout the game and the “Mansfield’s a shithole” ditty raised a few laughs from the home fans around us. “It is, mind” said one, “but it’s our shithole”. I know the feeling.

I was a little worried to learn that this was the strongest team that Mansfield had been able to field for a while. As we only had three players starting that I’d consider to be in our first-choice XI there was potential for an upset. It all went well to begin with though and we were two up early on with chances to put the tie out of Mansfield’s reach within the first twenty minutes.

The home side were better in the second half and we struggled to stay on top. It seemed to take a while for Wilder to get his instructions understood and as we gradually replaced the fringe players with regular starters Mansfield got back into it.

There were joyous celebrations all around us as they pulled one back and then equalized. Had the game gone to extra-time then I’d have made them favourites to win. As so often happens these days though Isaiah Jones made the difference when his injury time cross was diverted into the net for a match-winning own goal.

Roll on Round Four.

Penistone Church v Emley, Sunday 2nd January 2022, 3pm

January 11, 2022

After the game in Pickering Jen and I carried on down to Penistone, a small town on the edge of the Peak District. We’d driven through it on the way to Buxton the previous month and it looked like somewhere that might be interesting to stay over in the right circumstances.

Those circumstances came around fairly quickly with Penistone Church having a rare Sunday game the following day in the ninth tier Northern Counties East Premier Division. We had a wander around town prior to the game but, perhaps due to the time of year, there wasn’t a lot going on.

We did notice that the Southport to Hornsea Trans Pennine Way passes through Penistone and as it looks an interesting long-distance walk, we might make it back sometime.

The game was clearly a special one for Penistone. They usually get around 200 through the gate but on this occasion, perhaps due to the combination of it being a rare Sunday game and a memorial match for someone associated with the club, it was hoped that the attendance would challenge the previous record of 512.

People were still paying their five quid admission to the 1000 capacity DSM Memorial Ground well into the first half and the eventual crowd total was later announced as 825. That’s pretty good for the ninth tier and boded well for the bucket collection to buy a young lad a new wheelchair.

We had got in early to find space in the 200-seater covered stand. It proved to be a wise decision as there were times when the rain was coming down heavily. Penistone were dressed up as Newcastle, with Emley in yellow. There were some tall lads in the Emley side, although one of the home centre halves could reasonably be described as a big unit. The season was panning out better for the home side and increasingly better form had seen them rise to eighth in the table. Local rivals Emley were down in seventeenth.

Penistone opened the scoring on twenty minutes from a breakaway but were soon pegged back by an Emley effort that had the home fans screaming for offside. The elderly lino kept shaking his head and insisting that the number three had been deep enough to put the scorer onside.

As half-time approached the Penistone striker who had scored their first added a second when he rifled home from the edge of box. In added time he got his hattrick with a left footed finish from the other side after running on to a through ball.

There was a lot less drama in the second half and it finished 3-1 to Penistone. I doubt that we will be back but I suspect that a few of the locals who swelled the crowd will make a return visit.

Pickering Town v Tadcaster Albion, Saturday 1st January 2022, 3pm

January 10, 2022

I like to try and combine going to games with something else and Pickering seemed an ideal location to go for a pre-match walk. Rather than spend some time looking for a suitable route I took the easy option of just going to Dalby Forest Park as it had a load of paths marked on it and I figured that we could just wander along one of those.

That was exactly as it turned out, although as all but one of the paths were mountain biking trails, there was no need for any difficult choices. We didn’t see much at all in the way of wildlife but it made for a pleasant morning out in the fresh air.

Pickering is a town that I’m reasonably familiar with as when my kids were small I used to bring them to a fishing lake on the edge of town. It was marketed as ‘fun fishing’, the fun being that it was so overstocked that you would catch a fish with just about every cast. We would head down after school and return an hour or so later with a bag of trout that had been gutted and cleaned for us.

We stopped for lunch just outside of Pickering and then parked up with half an hour or so to spare. It wasn’t the warmest of days and Jen was keen for a seat in the covered stand where she could more easily cover her legs with a blanket. With rain forecast I wasn’t going to argue with that. Our early arrival worked well and after paying the eight quid admission we were soon settled into a small covered stand along the side of the pitch.

There were also covered stands behind both of the goals, but I think we got the better of the deal.

I was sat next to a bloke who was filling in a sheet on a clipboard. I took a sneaky peek whenever I could and concluded that he was the referee assessor. It was a time-consuming task with him appearing to have to score everything the ref was involved in. It meant that he spent most of the match looking downwards rather than being able to take in everything that was going on.

For what it is worth, I thought the ref had a good game. I’ve no real idea on how often he made the right call, but he was confident and decisive and that counts for a lot. Mind you I’ve worked with some right chancers over the years who were just like that so maybe there is a bit more to it.

The game was in the Northern Premier League East Division which is the league directly above the Northern League and the one that Stockton currently play in. Pickering, in blue, were taking on Tadcaster, in white. Both teams were near the bottom of the table and the home fans weren’t confident of avoiding relegation.

I’d been hoping to watch a couple of Boro youngsters who had been on loan at Pickering but they seemed to have vanished. One of them didn’t appear to have even played during his spell at the club.

The pitch was unusual in that there was a slope about two thirds of the way across from us. It ran the length of the field but wasn’t gradual. The pitch started off flat, dropped down a metre or so and then levelled off again. I imagine that when playing a pass you would have to gauge the way the slope would impact upon it in the way a golfer would when lining up a putt.

The first half was a bit niggly with a few yellows but no real chances and the teams went in level at the break.

The game came to life on the hour when an unexpected Pickering shot from distance flew in. It looked as if Pickering would see the game out until two minutes from time when the home keeper, who was making his debut on loan from Darlo, had his clearance charged down to allow a Tadcaster equalizer. It was a shame for the kid as he’d had a decent game. His blushes were spared in injury time though when one of his teammates cut inside from the right and finished well for the winner.

Three points for Pickering against their relegation rivals and a decent day out to start the New Year.

Darlington v Gateshead, Tuesday 28th December 2021, 3pm

December 29, 2021

I’d had my eye on a Darlo game for some time and added this visit by Gateshead to my spreadsheet a while ago. I bought tickets online in advance paying sixteen quid for me, nothing for Harry as an under eleven and a fiver to park in the official car park.

Driving in brought back memories of using the car park seventeen years ago when I worked in Darlington for a few months and it was hired by the company I worked for as a base for a shuttle service. I was briefly involved in the subsea industry, work that appeared to be so weather dependent for a profit that you might was well instead bet on it snowing on Christmas Day.

As Harry and I queued to have our tickets scanned he remembered that he had been at Blackwell Meadows before too, playing on the one of their rugby pitches for Billingham a couple of years ago. The ground works well, I think. There’s a covered standing area behind one goal which, if not quite enclosed enough to make it reminiscent of The Shed at Feethams, did the job in providing a home singing end.

We had seats in the main covered stand along one side, with an impressive building opposite that had a hospitality balcony. An open area behind the goal to our left was given over to the Gateshead fans.

We initially had trouble finding two unreserved seats together and it took a while for me to convince an old bloke to move along one seat so that Harry and I could sit together. Relations got worse when I bashed the fella’s arm with my seat when rising to let someone else pass. Despite my profuse apologies he seemed determined to be pissed off about everything, to the extent that if I’d acted on my urge to give him a swift poke in the eye I doubt that his mood could have been any further darkened.

I kept my eye on former Boro Academy player Junior Mondal in the first half. He was playing on our side of the pitch for Darlo and made a decent job of it. I remember seeing him in a more forward role for Whitby three years or so ago and it’s good that he has continued to make a living out of the game.

Gateshead had the best chances in the first half but it was goalless at the break. Harry and I joined the queue for the food cabin which was long enough to mean that we watched the opening ten minutes of the second half from that line and then just stayed on the rail afterwards.

Gateshead brought on Luke Williams at half-time. Boro fans will remember him as the wunderkid in the dark days of Strachan. He’s been unlucky with injuries over the years but seems to be making a consistent contribution from the bench for Gateshead most games. Twelve years on he looked as good as ever on the ball in a slightly deeper role than I’d anticipated.

The game came to life in the last quarter with three goals in as many minutes. Gateshead took the lead, Darlo equalised and then Gateshead regained the advantage creating quickly contrasting emotions for those who cared. A third goal for Gateshead before the end clinched the points and kept their National League North promotion challenge on course.

Middlesbrough v Nottingham Forest, Sunday 26th December 2021, 3pm

December 27, 2021

With my grandson Harry having enjoyed our visit to the Riverside last month, despite us throwing away the points against Preston, I decided that we’d have to go more often. Initially I thought that once every few weeks would do, but then realized that at forty-seven pounds a time for the two of us it would be far cheaper to buy season tickets.

With eleven games left this campaign we would only need to go to six of them to make it cheaper than paying match by match and so I sorted us with cards for the family section in the East Stand.

As we made our way around the ground there were long queues at each ticket office and turnstile. Some of them will have had more than a hundred people lining up. We were lucky in that there were very few people waiting at the East Stand and after showing my Covid pass we were inside.

A quick drink each and we were up to our seats, ten rows back and looking out at the penalty spot at the North Stand end. We got a decent view of a fantastic first-half Boro performance in which we could have gone in five-up after dominating play and possession. There was just the one goal to show for it, a comedy own goal from a Forest defender who hit a blind back pass beyond his own keeper.

The concourse was packed at half-time and we queued for the full duration for a coffee and coke. Next time I’ll try a different set of steps and see if I can join a line a little sooner.

It was disappointing to see so few of our fans wearing masks inside. I wonder how many of them feel that when the rules aren’t observed by the those who set them then there’s no reason why anyone else should bother.

Forest re-grouped for the second-half and initially looked to be making a game of it, but Boro picked up the pace and added a second through Sporar. Despite Forest hitting a post late on the result never looked in doubt and it’s probably the best performance I’ve seen from us for a few years.

Wilder has made a big impact already and at the risk of getting carried away I think top six is nailed on.

Buxton v FC United of Manchester, Saturday 18th December 2021, 3pm

December 24, 2021

I’ve no recollection of ever having been to Buxton before but having noticed that Richard Hawley was playing there we decided to pop down for the weekend. It’s a decent place for a mooch about and on the edge of the Peak District so ideal for doing some walking. The weather was poor though and so Jen and I did no more than wander around town.

Buxton seems to provide a lot of the mineral water that you see on supermarket shelves and if you live there you can drink it fresh from the ground. I had a couple of handfuls from a tap in town and it was warmer than I’d expected, although not as warm as the near scalding stuff that I sampled in Spain a few years ago.

The Hawley gig was at the Opera House. It’s an interesting building and about one hundred and twenty years old. We had seats in the front row of the fourth-tier gallery which I was happy with as it kept us out of the way of most of the rest of the audience.

The Opera House could do with more functional bars, although if I ever went back I might just save some lengthy queuing and a bit of cash by taking a few drinks of my own in.

Richard Hawley was ok. I’m not a massive fan but liked his Coles Corner album. I don’t think I’ve listened to anything else since though. We hung around for an hour of the set and then cleared off. He’d played his hit and so I was happy enough with that.

Next day, Buxton were at home to FC United of Manchester in the seventh tier Northern Premier League Premier Division. It’s the division that Scarborough and Whitby both play in and one up from Stockton’s current position in the pyramid.

Before heading for the game, I watched the Boro’s early kick-off in the Queen’s Head. We look as if we are improving match by match under Chris Wilder and I think a play-off place could well be within reach.

It was a tenner in at the Tarmac Silverlands Stadium. I’m sure I read somewhere that it’s the highest stadium in England. Or maybe the Opera House was the highest Edwardian music hall. Or perhaps I’ve just made it up. Who knows?

The fans were generally segregated which is rare at this level. I know FC United pride themselves on doing a lot of singing but it seems astonishing that they would be up for a scrap. We went in the Buxton half of the ground on the basis that I’m happy to sit in as quiet an area as possible.

We ended up in the main stand which gave a reasonable view between the stanchions. People were spacing themselves out although not many were wearing masks. There was drizzle in the air and so I was glad of the roof.

There were more Buxton fans in a covered stand to our right with the FC United fans occupying a covered standing section opposite and the open area behind the goal to our left.

The most notable aspect of the game was the fog. It cleared at times in the first half but there were periods of play where the only thing I could see reasonably well on the opposite touchline was the lino’s luminous flag. The FC United goalie was in a grey kit that rendered him virtually invisible.

The game was niggly from the start and it all kicked off when someone appeared to be deliberately stood on. A dozen or so players got stuck into each other with the remainder being far enough away not to be able to see the fracas through the fog.

Buxton were the better side in that first half and took the lead through a well-planted header. They went into the game top of the table with FC United just about in the top half.

In the second half the visibility got worse. When the ball went over to the corner flag to my left, I couldn’t see any action at all. The visitors coped just fine with the fog though and scored twice to take a well-deserved win. As Mr. Hawley so nearly said, ‘Tonight The Streets Were Theirs’.

Stoke City v Middlesbrough, Saturday 11th December 2021, 3pm

December 15, 2021

The Bet365 stadium, or the Britannia Stadium as it was formerly known, is another of those grounds that I’ve never been to but feel as if I should have done. Still, it’s never too late until they’ve been demolished and so I got myself a ticket in the Boro section behind one of the goals. The tickets didn’t quite sell out but with almost seventeen hundred there it was still a sizeable away contingent.

Jen and I decided to stay over on the Saturday night and booked in at the Sutherland Arms which is about half an hour’s walk from the stadium. The staff were extremely friendly and helpful with food and beer suggestions and as it was raining quite heavily kindly arranged me a taxi to the ground.

They also suggested that we tried oatcakes from a shop over the road. I’ve a feeling that oatcakes are the Stoke equivalent of a parmo and that everyone visiting town will be asked if they’ve had one. As breakfast choices were limited and the oatcake shop opened at seven on a Sunday morning we had one before we left the next day. It was ok, just a pancake style wrap really, but when filled with egg, bacon and sausage it hit the spot.

The taxi dropped me close to the ground and after initially heading for the wrong turnstiles and then a quick body search outside the correct ones I was soon inside. The concourse area was far too small for the amount of fans that we had brought and it was a squeeze to move around. I eventually jostled my way to the bar for a final pre-match drink. It didn’t seem wise to try and carry a pint so I opted for a bottle of cider but still had to put my thumb over the opening as young lads around me bounced up and down.

The air quality in the enclosed space was already suffering from the usual farts and body odour but got worse when someone lit a flare. Maybe I’m just too old for that sort of thing but who would think that it’s fun to light one of these indoors in an over-packed space? Oh, and what’s the idea behind the song calling a former Geordie number nine a ‘sex offender’? Don’t we have enough historical local experience of false allegations in this field to be better than that?

I chugged my cider as quickly as I could and headed up to my seat. Boro had made a couple of changes with Lumley returning in goal and Fry at centre-back. I’m not sure that I really rate any of the keepers that we have so I don’t suppose it matters much which one plays. It was good to see Fry back in the side though and I thought he had a decent game, directing operations from the back and looking to drive forward whenever there was a gap.

The Britannia Stadium appeared to be not much more than half-full to me so I was surprised to read that there were more than twenty-one thousand there. Perhaps a few season ticket holders had gone Christmas shopping. Three sides of the ground were in a horseshoe but the main stand not only stood alone but stood well back from the pitch. When combined with a very gradual incline it meant that fans in that part of the ground were a long way from the action. With all the money that the Bet365 owners have they might want to consider building a new stand next to the touchline.

Neither side created much of note. Duncan Whatmore had a reasonable chance for us and one of the Stoke players put a header wide towards the end but otherwise it was a game where not much went on. I think a goalless draw was about right.

On leaving my seat at full-time I found myself trapped in the concourse with the exit gates locked and more fans coming down the steps behind me. It’s bad enough being packed in like sardines during covid anyway but there really is no excuse for potential crushes at football. Eventually the gates burst open under the pressure, clattering a steward on the other side.

The issue arose from the local police decision to stop away fans leaving the stadium for half an hour after the game. I hopped on a shuttle bus that was headed for the station on the basis that I might as well sit down whilst waiting and it would be easier to get an onward taxi from there. Other fans weren’t so comfortable as they were kettled and then pepper sprayed. It’s as if we were in the eighties all over again.

Rochdale v Plymouth Argyle, Sunday 5th December 2021, 12.15pm

December 14, 2021

Have been to all the previous seven rounds of this season’s FA Cup I was keen to keep the run going and get to a second round game. Initially I’d looked at the Buxton-Morecambe fixture but getting hold of tickets was an arse on with the hosts understandably keen to maximise revenue by prioritizing fans who could be tempted to attend a prior league game.

Rochdale had tickets on sale fairly early on for their Sunday lunchtime tie with Plymouth and whilst we could have got in for a tenner I took advantage of the lower than normal reduced price of forty quid for hospitality in the 1907 lounge.

Jen and I got a table for two prior to the game, some pastries and a full English. We also had padded seats close to the half-way line in the stand with the sun behind us. It was generally ok but the breakfast was served with beans sat on top of everything else. Who likes baked bean juice on their bacon? Plus, I’d put on real shoes instead of trainers only to find that just about everyone else ignored that directive. Despite all that it was still worth doing.

I’m not sure if I’ve been to Rochdale before, back when the ground was known as Spotlands. I think I might have been in the first Rioch promotion season, but with no recollection or proof I’ve had to consider this as being my first visit to the re-named Crown Oil Arena. Even if I had been before, it looks as if all four stands might have been replaced in the last thirty-five years and so it would have been a ‘Trigger’s broom’ dilemma anyway.

I had no real preference as to which team I wanted to win. Rochdale had ex-Boro full-back Robbie Stockdale managing them, but to counter that I’ve a Plymouth supporting mate. I had a look out for Rich in the four-hundred or so travelling fans opposite but couldn’t see him. Maybe he was the bloke in the hot-dog suit.

There was a minute’s applause in the sixth minute in memory of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. I joined in, but I can’t see what these gestures achieve. Twenty years on from the death of Victoria Climbie, children’s voices still aren’t being heard and it seems as if we are a country that considers clapping to be sufficient.

Anyway, back to the game. From what I could work out third-tier Plymouth had put out a reasonably strong side and so I backed their striker Ryan Hardie to score at any time. He barely got a kick though and when he was subbed a few minutes from the end that bet went down.

At that time the scores were level at one each, but Plymouth nicked a winner just before the end to clinch a third round tie that really could have gone to either side.