Archive for February, 2022

Middlesbrough v West Bromwich Albion, Tuesday 22nd February 2022, 7.45pm

February 27, 2022

With the Boro losing away at Bristol City at the weekend this game felt like a ‘must-win’ if the momentum that we’ve built up since Chris Wilder’s appointment wasn’t going to stall. There were more empty seats than normal, but the combination of a mid-week fixture, poor weather and it being on the telly made that understandable.

The ref, as is so often the case in the Championship, was poor. Not just in that his decisions rarely went our way but more in his determination to keep play flowing by rarely blowing for a foul. The consequences were that the tackles got stronger, and more time was wasted by players surrounding him with a list of retrospective complaints every time the ball eventually went dead. He’d have found the players a lot easier to manage if he’d blown for a few early free-kicks and set the tone.

Boro never really got going in the first-half and West Brom were well worth their one goal lead at the break. I thought that we missed the suspended Matt Crooks, particularly the way that he links up with Isiah Jones.

The game turned around in the second half with the substitutions. Watmore raised the intensity level and Tav moving to left wing-back allowed us an extra forward on the pitch. The resulting two-one win was our seventh successive home victory and took us back on track for the play-offs.

Braintree Town v Hungerford Town, Saturday 19th February 2022, 3pm

February 26, 2022

Every couple of months or so I go to Chelmsford for the weekend for some academic chit-chat. This time my stuff was on Saturday only, but with it being an earlyish start and a few hours drive away it made sense to stay over somewhere the night before. I’d noticed that there was a Friday night game in Thetford and as that made for a good place to break the journey I made my plans to go along to that.

I’d remembered that Thetford had something to do with Dad’s Army and a quick online check revealed that it was the town where they did a fair bit of outdoor filming and where they stayed when on location. That meant that I felt compelled to stay in the hotel that they had used, despite it having a low review score. My plan was to sit in the bar and imagine Wilson and Walker sipping whisky at a table in the corner, Pike nearby nursing a half of shandy with Godfrey knocking back the snowballs.

The reality of the bar in the Bell Inn was that the music was too loud and it was full of youngsters on a big night out. I left them to it.

I dipped out on the Thetford game too as Storm Eunice caused it to be postponed, making my choice of Thetford a complete waste of time. With a full day at school the following day I didn’t expect to see a game at all over the weekend.

I finished being the dumbest person in the room by four o’clock though and with my Futbology app telling me that there was a match twenty minutes away at Braintree I thought I’d catch the last half-hour.

Whilst I could see the floodlights easily enough, the entrance to the Cressing Road stadium was harder to find and there were only twenty minutes remaining when I got inside. At that time there was nobody on the gate to take my money, but even if I’d arrived before three I wouldn’t have had to pay. Braintree had made the game free to attend, presumably to try and give a few potential new supporters the chance to see if they enjoyed the delights of the National League South.

I’ve no idea if it worked, mainly because I’m too lazy to check their attendance records but there was a decent crowd inside spread around the ground. The home fans were behind one goal and in covered stands down either side of the pitch. There were a few Hungerford fans stood on the open terrace behind the other goal. It didn’t look like there was any enforced segregation.

I did check the table though and Braintree are in a relegation battle with Hungerford ambling along in mid-table.

If I’d arrived five minutes earlier, I’d have seen Braintree open the scoring. In the action that I did see it was Hungerford on top as they pressed to draw level. Conditions, as you might expect on a weekend of storm alerts, were bleak with a sodden pitch, swirling winds and enough rain for me to move to a covered stand along the side.

Despite Hungerford sending their keeper up for an injury time corner they couldn’t force an equalizer and Braintree took the points.

England Women v Canada Women, Thursday 17th February 2022, 7.45pm

February 25, 2022

I probably wouldn’t have bothered watching a non-Boro game at the Riverside as it’s a stadium that has been well and truly ticked off my list of grounds. However, Harry had heard the game being promoted and asked if we could go. That’s a good enough reason and so I got us a couple of tickets online at the concessionary price of a fiver each.

Harry qualified for the cheap rate by being a kid and I took advantage of having a student card. I rarely use it, mainly because I don’t want people to think that I’ve been kept back at school for the last forty years but also because at places like Northern League clubs they need the couple of quid saved more than I do. I doubted I’d have to prove my student status on the basis that I probably look like an OAP anyway.

The walk to the ground was quieter than normal and so it looked as if ticket sales hadn’t gone well. We were almost outnumbered by the scarf sellers who, judging from their accents, had come from all parts of the country. It took me back to the days of Rav and Juninho when we probably kept half of China in work producing flags, scarves and giant out-of-focus posters. Harry got one of those half and half matchday scarves. I presume whatever gets unsold go straight to landfill.

We were handed some sunglasses that advertised the competition sponsor Arnold Clark. Harry put them on despite it already being dark. Maybe we should have kept them handy for watching Boro games from the East Stand. When the sun is just over the top of the West Stand you have to watch with your hand across your forehead.

Our seats were in the lower section of the South Stand. There were a lot more women and kids at the game than you’d usually see at the Riverside, probably due to the pricing policy. Some of the kids were sporting their newly acquired half-term haircuts with shaved sections timed to grow out sufficiently before the return to school. Seeing toddler heads with shaved sides and a permed top never fails to make me smile.

The evening went well with both sides playing a decent passing game. A crowd of over eight thousand got behind England, albeit in a higher-pitched tone than you’d get at most games. England were the better side in the first half and went in a goal up, but Canada edged it after the break and got a deserved equalizer to secure the draw.

Middlesbrough v Derby, Saturday 12th February 2022, 3pm

February 24, 2022

The Boro games are coming fast and furious at the moment. That’s what happens when you combine a Championship season with a good cup run, although I suppose it’s nothing compared to the second UEFA season where we had to fit in League Cup games up to the quarter final, FA Cup to the semi and the UEFA Cup all the way to the final. Happy days.

I’d spent the morning of the game on a Boro-related activity in that I’d been to a racing stable just past the top of Sutton Bank. Now that I’m back in the country full-time I’ve joined a horse racing syndicate made up of Boro fans and my granddaughter, Isla, and I went along to have a look at our horse.

We chatted with the jockey riding him out and then went up to the gallops to see him run past. I can’t tell a slow horse from a fast one in those conditions but the other syndicate members who all know a lot more than me seemed content with his progress. Hopefully there will be some enjoyable days out racing.

After swapping one grandchild for another, Harry and I set off for the Riverside for a game with a bit of an edge to it. For some reason a fair few Derby fans blame Steve Gibson for their financial misfortunes rather than their own overspending and then penalties for cheating by breaching the FFP rules. There had been an announcement the previous day that a settlement for our claim had been reached but there was still some tension as we walked to the ground.

We made it through the underpass just before the arrival of a heavily-policed group of Derby fans walking from the station. Plenty of pictures of our chairman had been stuck to walls and lamp posts along the route to goad them and there were a few Boro fans wearing Gibbo masks.

Outside the stadium we passed the fanzone area. I could hear some music but didn’t know whether it was live or a DJ. I later discovered that Finn Forster had been playing. He’s a fella that I’ve seen a couple of times before and if I’d known I’d have got there early enough to take in his set. I’ve tickets for his Stockton gig next month and so I’ll have to settle for seeing him then.

There was a heightened atmosphere inside the ground too with more sections down the sides joining in with the singing led by the North and South stands, particularly when the songs glorified Gibbo. I recognize everything that he has done for the club, but I’ve not felt the same about him since he came out as a Conservative supporter. Despite my disappointment over his political allegiances, I joined in. When he’s under attack from the opposition I take the view that despite being a Tory, he’s our Tory.

And the game? Another great performance. We passed Derby to death until space opened up for Jones on the right and his accurate balls into the box led to our first three goals. A late fourth from Watmore put us well out of sight and back into the play-off spots.

Newton Aycliffe v Billingham Town, Tuesday 8th February 2022, 7.45pm

February 16, 2022

Newton Aycliffe is another of those places that’s not too far from me, but I’ve never been to. I suppose you’d need a reason to go there and I’d never had one. That is, not until I’d wanted to tick off their Northern League ground.

I parked up near to the Moore Lane Sports Club and was directed towards the pitch through a gate in a wooden fence. It was seven quid to get in and the only team sheet available was fixed to a wall. There were no programmes either, due to “the media officer having gone to Hartlepool”.

I enjoy flicking through a programme, but I can appreciate that with sales likely to be in low double figures it’s a thankless task to produce them. Hopefully the career progression of the former media officer will encourage someone looking for a start in football media work to get involved at Newton Aycliffe and resurrect their matchday magazine.

I bought raffle tickets giving the chance to win a bottle of something or other and took a seat in the covered stand along one side of the pitch. Newton Aycliffe turned out in blue with Billingham Town in a white kit. The hosts are challenging for promotion from Division One of the Northern League with Town down at the bottom of the table.

The pitch was fairly cut up by modern standards with both goalmouths made up of mud rather than grass. Newton Aycliffe looked good early on and took the lead in the opening minutes with a shot that may have been deflected more than once.

The talking point of the first half was a Billingham town striker being sin-binned for telling the ref to “Fuck Off’. Whilst swearing is ever-present in football, there’s a line and he crossed it. I like the sin-bin approach being trialled in the Norther League but I’d like it more if players were simply sent off instead for abusing officials.

Newton Aycliffe added a second goal twenty minutes from time when a precise ball across the face of the goal was tapped in to clinch a win that keeps them in contention for promotion.

Wheatley Hill W.M.C v Ryhope Colliery Welfare U23, Saturday 5th February 2022, 1.30pm

February 10, 2022

Harry and I got back from the Boro’s game at Old Trafford earlyish on the Saturday morning and after dropping him off I should really have got on with some outstanding jobs. I had a quick look on the Wearside League website though and saw that there was a game with a 1.30pm kick-off just a twenty-minute drive up the road. The jobs could wait.

The fixture that I’d spotted was in the First Round of the Clem Smith Bowl. I’d never heard of the competition or of Clem Smith. It featured two sides from the twelfth-tier Second Division of the Wearside League, Wheatley Hill Working Men’s Club and Ryhope Colliery Welfare Under Twenty-Threes. Wheatley Hill play at the Old Fire Station, a ground that took some finding.

I’ve never been to Wheatley Hill before and to be honest its unlikely that I’ll have a reason to return unless it’s part of some witness protection programme. I reckon you could hide someone there indefinitely as long as they could resist the urge to nip back to civilization every now and then.

My sat nav initially took me down a farm track which in hindsight wasn’t too far from where I wanted to be, but with fences between my car and the pitch it might as well have been miles away. Wheatley Hill isn’t a big place though and I eventually stumbled across the game. There wasn’t an old fire station anywhere within sight, so maybe The Field Near To The Allotments Ground might have been a better name.

The game was a few minutes old by the time I’d parked up and made my way in via a gate at one corner of the field. Wheatley Hill were in yellow and black with Ryhope in red and white. I hadn’t missed any goals. A quick count up of the crowd suggested that I was the seventh spectator.

As so often happens at this level the linos were drawn from the ranks of the subs or coaching staff. Neither of the press-ganged fellas on this occasion were keen to be involved and one kept the flag in his coat pocket whilst the other left the flag on the floor and picked it up only when absolutely necessary.

Wheatley Hill took the lead a few minutes after I arrived with a poorly struck shot that bounced in off a post whilst the keeper, who had chosen not to dive, watched on in horror. The standard was as bad as I’ve seen for a while, but the uneven pitch and terrible weather didn’t help at all. I wouldn’t have fancied turning out in the wind and rain. Actually I didn’t fancy watching either, it was just too cold and wet. I called it a day long before half-time and checked on the result later. It had finished as a two-all draw with the home side taking the tie on pens.

Manchester United v Middlesbrough, Friday 4th February 2022, 8pm

February 9, 2022

When we were drawn against Man Utd in the Fourth Round of the Cup I initially thought that a televised Friday night slot and close to ten thousand tickets being available to Boro fans would make it easy for me to continue my run that stretches back to the Extra Preliminary Round back in August of having attended a game in each round of this season’s competition.

The fixture, however, caught the imagination on Teesside and it sold out long before sales reached recent season card holders like Harry and myself. Fortunately, my friend Paul saved the day with a couple of corporate hospitality tickets that he had going spare at work. Cheers, mate!

I picked Harry up when he finished school for the day and set off for a trip that on a good run would take no more than a couple of hours. With the match traffic and the usual M62 Friday tea-time congestion it ended up taking around three and a half hours. Parking spaces were non-existent and I had to leave the car in a spot where I probably shouldn’t have within our hotel car park. I’ll wait and see if the postman brings a penalty notice.

We followed the crowds to Old Trafford and reached the Sir Bobby Charlton Suite with ten minutes to spare. We had to pass through an airport-style scanner on the way in, although I’d have thought doing it on the way out to stop us nicking any silver cutlery might have been a better use of it.

The lounge was just about the right level of poshness with buffet food available and a couple of bars. It was busy, but far less of a crush than you’d get in a concourse. Our last-minute arrival meant that that we didn’t have much time for anything other than a pre-match slash, but we were in our seats as the teams came out.

We were surrounded by Man Utd fans, but they were very friendly in that way that you can be when you expect your team to win. They saw it as our ‘big day out’ and smiled indulgently at every chance they squandered, confident that there would be others. As you might have seen on the telly they ran out of chances eventually and we nicked it on pens. Big day out indeed.

I was interested in their attitude to Phil Jones. He’s been out injured for a long time and his appearance from the bench was treated with mirth. They praised everything he did with a smirk, as if he was there as a competition winner or something and clearly thought Man Utd were too good for a player like him. He didn’t look any worse a centre-half than Harry McGuire to me and I wouldn’t swap either of them for Dael Fry.

It seems commonplace these days for me to praise Chris Wilder in these posts and this one is no different. I’ve lost count of the times when a big Boro cup turnout has seen key players ‘rested’. Stevie Mac infuriated me at times in the UEFA Cup runs with his selections, although to be fair to him he generally got the results that he needed to overall. This was a full-strength selection from Wilder with the intention of giving it a real go against a Man Utd line-up that the fans around me reckoned was as strong as it could be from the players that they had available. It’s great when decisions like that pay off.

Middlesbrough v Coventry City, Saturday 29th January 2022, 3pm

February 5, 2022

This game against Coventry was the third of the eleven that Harry and I get to see with our half-season tickets. The previous two matches had seen us take an in-form Forest team apart and then nick a win at the death against Reading.

Ever the optimist, Harry was confident that Coventry wouldn’t pose a problem, but mindful of the performance against Reading and the defeat away at Blackburn since then I wasn’t quite so sure.

It was a cold day again, with the wind making it even chillier. I was well wrapped up but the grandson was kitted out in a hoodie and one of his Dad’s old Boro shirts. I gave him my gloves when he started to shiver.

The game played out more in line with my expectations than Harry’s with Coventry looking the better side for much of the first half. Wilder made a couple of changes early in the second half and they paid off almost straight away with Balogun crossing for Sporar to tuck away the only goal of the game.

I was impressed again with the way that Wilder made a difference. He only seems to make substitutions to address a specific issue and so far they have paid off more often than not. Even better was him explaining his reasoning for the changes in post-game interviews in an intelligent and informative manner. It’s a long way from the guarded folksy platitudes of Warnock and light years away from the pig-ignorant nonsense that was dished up in the Strachan era. It’s a good time to be following the Boro.

Sunderland West End v Easington Colliery, Friday 28th January 2022, 7.45pm

February 2, 2022

I’d looked at heading to a game at Ford Quarry earlier in the season but spotted that you needed a covid pass to get in. At the time I was in limbo due to having had a couple of Sputnik jabs whilst in Russia that were preventing me from being further vaccinated in the UK. As the Russian vaccines aren’t recognized in the UK I was struggling to provide any sort of evidence that would get me into events such as a tenth tier football game taking place outdoors with fewer people in attendance than you’d find wandering around Aldi.

Eventually I took matters into my own hands and, by not mentioning my previous jabs, managed to get a couple of Moderna shots at walk-in centres. I’m now eligible for covid passes and once I get a booster I’ll probably, with five vaccinations, have been jabbed more often than most Gennardy Golovkin opponents.

After all of that it turned out that I didn’t need a covid pass after all for the Ford Quarry. I just needed to provide them with my contact details. Once I’d done that I was through the first set of turnstiles and after handing over a fiver admission charge I was soon through the second set and pitch side.

Ford Quarry is just off St. Luke’s Road in Sunderland and so the drive to the game had all been very familiar. My Dad grew up on that road, just a little further along from the Ford Quarry turn-off, and it’s a journey from Norton that I must have done at least two or three hundred times, mainly more than thirty years ago.

Quite a lot of the area just off the A19 has changed since then and it looks as if the old Echo offices have gone. When returning back to Teesside on a Saturday night after visiting my grandparents I was always keen to look out for the neon character up on their wall that signified the Sunderland result by the position of his arm and facial expression.

The photo is of my great-grandad at the house in St. Luke’s Road with what looks like a clay pipe. You don’t see many people smoking those these days.

The fixture between Sunderland West End and Easington Colliery was in the second division of the Northern League. Both teams are fairly new at that level and I suppose I still think of them as being Wearside league clubs. The Northern League, for one reason or another, has opened up and engaged with the pyramid to a much greater extent in recent years and as clubs make the moves upwards to the Northern Premier and the National leagues, it creates space for the likes of these two.

There’s a reasonable chance that both side might progress again this season with visitors Easington going into the game in third place in the table with West End just a point behind in fourth.

The conditions weren’t ideal for football with a strong wind blowing from one end of the pitch to the other. Any empty Quavers packet blew past me at a pace that would have triggered a speed camera and any passes hit in that direction didn’t need a lot of weight on them.

It was cold as well as windy with most of the two hundred or so crowd well wrapped up. A fair few kept warm by raging at the match officials. The lino on our side copped a bit due to his close proximity whilst the ref got similar treatment mainly because that’s what always happens but also because he let a lot go. Mind you, if he had blown for more fouls I’m sure he’d have got stick for that too.

Easington had the best of the opening half-hour, culminating in a ‘goal’ being disallowed for a marginal offside. The lino abuse hadn’t fully died down before West End broke away and opened the scoring. I thought the away keeper made it easier for the striker by leaving a big gap to one side but it was still a tidy finish.

At half-time I went into the clubhouse for a cup of tea and a warm. I missed winning two bottles of vodka in the draw by a single number. It was won by the fella sat next to the bloke who did the draw. That made handing over the prizes a simple task.

I watched the second half from behind the goal at the clubhouse end as I thought that there might be better shelter from the gale. There was a lot of pressure from Easington and a few missed chances before Sunderland ran out the clock with some convenient injuries to hold on for the win.

The three points were sufficient for them to swap places with Easington and move into third place in the table.