Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Tevez - Let the "Bad Apple" Rot

Last night was a historic night in my football life. At approximately 9:45 p.m. I sat on my sofa and proclaimed; "I agree with Souness". After picking myself back up off the floor, dusting myself down and checking my drink hadn't been spiked I rewound Sky's coverage.

For the previous 2 or 3 minutes Souness had delivered a passionate diatribe about the "bad apple" that is Carlos Tevez. His apparent refusal to leave the bench to try and save Manchester City from Champions League defeat at the Allianz Arena confimed seconds earlier by an emotional Roberto Mancini. Amongst Souness' comments:

 "I'm in disbelief..........I find it incredible that someone with half an hour to go a player wouldn't want to go on an help his team mates out. How selfish can you get? How petulant can you be?"

"You would chase him as far from Manchester as you could tomorrow, he...he is one bad apple"

"He is a disgrace to football. The man in the street thinks there is a lot wrong with your modern footballer. He epitomises what the man in the street thinks about modern footballers." 

Meanwhile Dwight Yorke and Mark Hughes seeemed desperate to find an angle that would allow them to provide an alternative view and defend Tevez, their views visibly riling an already irked Souness. Sad to say that the fact Hughes shares an agent with Tevez (Kia Joorabchanian) might have somewhat softened his opinion.

Some of you may say that "you're a Blade, you are bound to have it in for Tevez!". To that I would say, that I don't have a problem with Tevez personally. My issues remain with the the Premier League's handling of the Tevez situation, the confused conclusion of the first enquiry which took West Ham fans' feelings into account and the West Ham administrators who the commission found had told direct lies about the disclosure of documentation relating to Tevez's registration. I certainly wouldn't want those people anywhere near my club, would you?

This morning Tevez has issued a statement saying that  "There was some confusion on the bench and I believe my position may have been misunderstood." This was a suggestion made by Mark Hughes on Sky last night and a ridiculous one at that. Tevez appeared to be given Mancini's mesage by a translator, a message that he has been given several times this season already. What is there to misunderstand? Unless Carlos' translator is going to be a scapegoat in all this.

Tevez's statement goes on to say; "They understand that when I am on the pitch I have always given my best for the club. In Munich on Tuesday I had warmed up and was ready to play. This is not the right time to get into specific details as to why this did not happen. But I wish to state that I never refused to play. Going forward I am ready to play when required and to fulfil my obligations."

If this satisfies Manchester City's administrators and fans, then more fool them. He didn't look that contrite last night when boarding the team coach after the match - cracking a smile for the first time that night. Later, Ollie Holt of the Mirror tweeted

"Tevez chatting to Zabaleta on (the) plane. Doesn't look exactly chastened by the events of this evening." 

Unsurprisingly, PFA chief Gordon Taylor attempted to defend Tevez on 5 Live this morning, even partially blaming Mancini saying that relations between the two had reached a dire position even prior to last night. Taylor displaying the traits increasingly shown by union leaders who earn more money than a majority of their members and appear to think they can defend the indefensible, without fear of reproach or criticism. But that is a rant for another day.  

Many have said that the next steps are that Tevez will probably be fined two week's wages, he could be sacked (maybe this is what he is angling for - allowing him to potentially move closer to family, or Internazionale) and almost certainly he will never play for City again. Yet I think there is something else that City can do.

Although much maligned for their financial largesse and their ability to outbid most teams for any player, some even said they have brought these problems on themselves by signing so many quality players that they cannot satisfy, City are in an enviable position to make a statement for the good of football.

They don't need the money that Tevez's transfer might generate. In fact, if they wanted to maximise their return they might have sold him in the Summer. So why not keep him and let him sit in the stand for the rest of his contract? No doubt Gordon Taylor and Tevez's advisers would claim a restraint of trade, yet Tevez demonstrated a level of personal restraint last night that surely nullifies such claims, however contrite he is now.

Last night, Carlos Tevez took the piss out of his manager, his club and the fans that pay the money that will help fund his not inconsiderate wages. He should be made to pay the ultimate price. Let the bad apple go rot!

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Confessions of a Football Reporter - Interview with Alan Biggs

It is a Thursday lunchtime in a decent real ale pub in the centre of Sheffield. Stood at the bar, watching my pint settle, a voice calls out behind me; "Hello Ian". It is a familiar voice, one that brings back memories for me of local radio and Saturday afternoon sports programmes. To others reading this, the voice might be familiar from reports on 5Live and Final Score. Some of you may have even read his reports and analysis in the national press. Well, up until the days when Yorkshire football gave him something to write about.

The man in question is Alan Biggs and we are meeting to talk about the life of a freelance sports journalist and his new book - Confessions of a Football Reporter………another Biggs at Large.

We had first met a month or so earlier, a mutual friend introduced us at a party and we agreed to meet up for a chat for A United View. Both Simon (our mutual friend) and I told Alan that night that he needed to "get on twitter!” He did, by the way - @AlanBiggs1 if you wish to follow.

We proceed to chew the fat for the best part of an hour, mostly about the parlous state of Sheffield football and Alan's varied career; which now finds him in a less secure working environment than a few years ago. Thanks to the rise of technology, the ongoing failure of South Yorkshire football clubs and, to a greater extent, the rise of the Premier League.

Like many of us who write and talk about the game, both professionally or for pleasure, Alan made his way on journalism after the dawning realisation that he was never going to make it as a player;

"First you realise that you aren't going to be good enough to play for England. Then you realise that you aren't going to be good enough for Chesterfield. Then you decide that if you can't play football for money, you might as well write about it!"

Alan's family had moved to Chesterfield from Kent when he was young and the first step in his new career was to take the well respected journalism course at Richmond College in Sheffield. On completing the course he spent "one year of misery in Dickensian conditions" as a trainee news reporter (read "tea boy") at the Derbyshire Times, back in Chesterfield. Alan quickly realised that reporting "Deaths in the District" wasn't going to fast track his reporting career.

Around the early to mid 70's local cable TV stations were cropping up around the country. One such station; "Sheffield Cable Vision" was to provide an interesting sideline and a new outlet for Alan's aspirations.

"The station was broadcasting to 30,000 homes across Sheffield and I approached them about providing some sports coverage. I was given a sports preview show every Friday evening, moonlighting whilst still at the Derbyshire Times. Unfortunately the station closed 6 months later, but nothing to do with my arrival!"

The small screen exposure was still useful and it led to an opportunity to work in a third form of media, just 18 months into his career. Stuart Linnell, then Sports Editor at local commercial radio station Radio Hallam, saw Alan's show and invited him to become a news reporter at the station. Alan eventually succeeded Stuart as Sports Editor in 1980.

I tell Alan that I remember his sports shows; "My Dad always used to say 'That Bloody Biggsy's an Owl’". A claim Alan quickly refutes.

"I always said I didn't support either Sheffield club. I had an affinity to both, you had to, both working in the city and closely with both clubs, but I support Chesterfield. That never stopped the accusations of bias from both sides of the Sheffield football divide though!."

It is not only accusations of bias towards either club that is a problem. It can also come from warring factions within a club. In recent years Alan has been a regular columnist in the local weekly Sheffield Telegraph and Alan had a major role reporting the latter part of Dave Allen's reign as chairman at Sheffield Wednesday. His stance, perceived to supporting the incumbent chairman, led to much abuse from the 'Allen Out' brigade.

"I look back now and think I was right. You only have to see some of what happened at Wednesday since to see how what Dave Allen was doing was right for the club."

For what it is worth Alan recently launched his book at the B2Net Stadium, with former players and ex-referee Keith Hackett in attendance. It was, he says, the natural club to host the evening and for their help he is very grateful.

Back to the early 1980's and under his stewardship Hallam Sport was a massive success, broadcasting a mixture of music and sports reports it was a combination which initially didn't sit that well with Alan, yet it out-rated Radio Sheffield's more old fashioned output - where it became the norm to stick on a brass band song at 4:40 to try and bring good luck for a local side needing a goal! It also gave Alan the opportunity to host a Sunday morning show on the station, the "Partridge-esque" titled - Bacon & Biggs - another ratings hit. Yet it all came to an abrupt end in 1984.

"I had been on holiday. I walked into my office, looked at my desk of papers and thought - I've got to make a sports show from that! I couldn't face it. I put a piece of paper in the typewriter and typed my resignation. Colleagues looked on in shock. It was spontaneous, I didn't tell the wife until I got home and I had nothing to move to."

Thankfully he wasn't out of work for long, Bacon n Biggs continued, he was offered a sports reporting job for the other side (BBC Radio Sheffield) and started writing for Today newspaper the following year. In 1989, a Sport on 2 producer - Peter Slater (still reporting on 5 Live now) offered him a role covering matches in the North of England. Despite the ignominy of being introduced as Alan Gibbs for his first national radio report, he went on to cover anything between 50 and 75 games a season between 1989 and 2005, by which time sports coverage had switched to 5 Live.

As a football fan, the thought of being paid to watch that many games excites me and he got to see many exciting games and unusual incidents, not least reporting from Hillsborough as Paolo Di Canio shoved Paul Alcock and the referee fell to the ground in about five instalments. "Excerpts from my report were used in sport trailers for weeks afterwards. It really was an amazing situation and the trailer was nice exposure".

Unfortunately, in 2005, the BBC undertook a cost cutting exercise on 5 Live and Alan was one of many reporters to see a healthy line of work disappear. Thankfully for him, the BBC was developing coverage on their Final Score programme and that became a replacement and he continues to report for them to this day.

Interviewing Sven for Final Score

Final Score has continued to put Alan on the spot on some unusual and controversial incidents. One such incident saw him reporting on the balloon-gate goal at the Stadium of Light;

"Everyone in the press box thought it took a deflection. To the naked eye it looked like a standard ricochet and that is how we were all reporting it. It was only when Chappers in the studio came back to me later, with the studio team having seen a replay, that I was able to tell all in the pres box about the balloon. Rapid re-writes all round and I then had to introduce each further update with a new balloon related pun. There are only so many!"

Another time Alan dropped on to a big story, whilst reporting for Final Score, was when Phil Brown decided to give his half-time team talk on the KC Stadium pitch, a situation which nearly caught Alan out.

"Usually, when the studio comes over, I need to have a 30 second summary ready to report. As the half time whistle blew I stuck my headphones on and glanced down at my scribbled notes. It’s a fast moving programme and they usually come across quite promptly on the whistle, so I was ready and launched into my report on cue.

As I was finishing, the producer was talking in my headphones; "Look at the pitch, the players are out there, what's happening Alan?" 

The viewers at home could see the pictures and Phil Brown talking to his players. I looked up and all I could see, in the far corner of the pitch, were the Hull players sat around on the pitch and the coaching staff stood around them.  So I described what I could see, yet didn't really know what was going on. Thankfully, Ray Stubbs in the studio came to my rescue, having the benefit of the pictures he was able to lead the conversation" 

Alan covered Northern football, and the Yorkshire and Humberside beat in particular, for many papers over the years. Starting out at Today and taking in the Daily Express, The People, News of the World and Daily Mail amongst others. In fact he is currently pulling together a tribute to Sir Alex Ferguson for a future edition of the Mail.

In that time many papers have closed their Northern editions and the focus of reporting football has changed.  If you throw in only passing success for Yorkshire football, it is a much harsher environment for a freelance football journalist to work in.

"The problem now is that, with a few honourable exceptions, the national papers don't give a damn about the football league. As budgets have been slashed the focus of reporting has switched to the Top 4 or 5 clubs.

There is a perception amongst editors that, this is what the public want. They are aiming at a new breed of football follower, non-football going people, who claim an interest and adopt one of the big teams. The type of "fan" who know very little about the game apart from what they read or hear and their eyes glaze over when you talk about any team from outside the Premier League"

Like the Arsenal fan in The Fast Show I suggest? "Absolutely!"

If anything, the switch between different media types hasn't helped Alan. Writer, Presenter, Reporter, he reflects that it may have been better to have a niche in one of those areas, rather than spreading his skills successfully, but more widely over all forms. It certainly caused him problems when trying to pull the narrative together for his book.

What also causes him a problem these days is the increasing politics and skulduggery around football, particularly around takeovers and financial deals. He speaks with the knowledge of someone who has had his fingers burned.

"Reporting on a club takeover is treacherous and in some ways your training leaves you ill-equipped to deal with it. Not only are there complicated financial aspects to understand, but you also meet many people who claim they are interested in buying a football club. Some of these "buyers" look you in the eye and brazenly tell you porkies, they just have a different moral code. There are times I have accepted what they have told me in good faith and reported it. When the promises are broken, I was the one getting it in the neck from the fans.

I am a lot more sceptical when dealing with these issues now." 

Although he still writes for the Daily Mail and The Football League paper and reports for the BBC, there is nowhere near the same volume of work available through traditional sources as there used to be. Alan has had to be alive to potential new opportunities. Unsurprisingly, social media and internet broadcasting are starting to supply them. In some ways that is full circle for a reporter who was alert to the opportunities early cable television provided.

I glance at my watch. It's time for me to head back to work. As we depart I ask Alan where he will be reporting from on Saturday?

"Oakwell. Barnsley v Watford. I am not expecting any balloons, centre circle team talks or assaults on referees."

He was right. It finished one all and not even a yellow card was brandished. It was one of the more standard days in a football reporter's career. A career that, more frequently these days, involves you picking your way through a minefield of emotions, politics and personalities.

Thanks to Alan for his time. He was never going to give the best stories away in this interview, so all the more reason to give his book (with a foreword from Trevor Francis) a read. If you would like to buy Alan’s book it is available here or here and in all good bookshops.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Charting the 2011/12 season in Football - Number 2

Over the last couple of weeks a lot has happened in football, with international matches, European matches, an irate chairman, irate managers and the continued disappearance of a former England striker.

Our second instalments feature a former England hero's lack of interest in the game he (rarely) plays, a couple of snipes at Steve Evans, a manager quickly assuming the characteristics of one of his peers, a mystery within FIFA, a fat journo and the contrasting likeability of Luis Suarez and Asamoah Gyan.

If there is someone or something in football that you thinks deserves the Charting the Season treatment, why not comment below and let me know.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Another Yorkshire Boycott

Tuesday night sees a Yorkshire Derby at Bramall Lane. One of the biggest matches of the season, as last season's play off finalists (and pre-season favourites for promotion) Huddersfield Town take on the Blades. With the Blades top of the league and the Terriers in 5th it wouldn't be out of the ordinary to expect a crowd of around 25,000. The Town support numbered near 5,000 across the city at Hillsborough last year, but it is unlikely to be repeated in S2.

Empty seats in the Bramall Lane Stand - more of the same when Huddersfield visit

An internet forum campaign for away fans to boycott the match, because of ticket prices charged by the Blades, has gathered momentum. Originating on Huddersfield's fan website Down at the Mac, it has now been picked up by fans of other clubs and also the Football Supporters' Federation.

The match is one of four this season for which the Blades are charging Category A prices. That means an away seat in either the Bramall Lane Lower or Upper tier will cost Town fans £28.50, which they rightly claim is an extremely high price for a League One match. As I mentioned on A United View a couple of weeks ago, I attended an entertaining Premier League game between Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City at the Reebok Stadium for fifty pence less. I also attended a Europa League game between Anderlecht and Bursaspor in the best seats for €24.

To be fair, the price is high and the Blades have already lost revenue this season as a result of pricing policies, but not necessarily from away support. A True Blades are at the Lane promotion launched last spring was used to push season ticket sales at the expense of match-day customers. Season ticket holders, quite rightly, felt anger at the number of one off match promotions the Blades had offered last season, in a desperate attempt to fill the ground and back the team to safety. A friend of mine came close to renewing and one didn't on the basis that, “the club want your money earlier and earlier, yet with a couple of matches missed through work commitments might as well have turned up and paid on the day.” They weren't the only ones to feel that way.

True Blades are at the Lane aimed to remove the frustrations of season ticket holders by defining the season ticket prices (give or take the same as last season) and providing a guaranteed saving against heavily inflated match-day prices for football in a division below.

In my eyes, my season ticket still offers great value, it works out at around £13 per game and relegation was never going to stop me attending. However with increases for new season ticket holders, flat renewal prices and higher match day prices alongside relegation and an unpopular managerial appointment, it has inevitably led to season ticket sales falling and walk-up supporters being deterred by the prices. Interestingly enough, the brains trust behind the ticketing for this season and the man who put his name to the letters telling them that only True Blades are at the Lane (the rest of you..... aren’t), Steve Lewis, recently left his role of Head of Commercial after just eight months.

So if I have an issue with the pricing at Bramall Lane, why have I an issue with the Huddersfield protest? Because it pointing the finger at United, they are ignoring their own club’s pricing policy and the relative prices elsewhere. They are the equivalent of the Three Wise Monkeys where The Terriers are concerned, Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil.

It is interesting that, throughout the campaign, Huddersfield don't appear to be making any public statement on the matter. Maybe this is because they appear to offer the same categorisation of games and not dissimilar pricing themselves. At the Galpharm Stadium, the Category A prices range from £23 to £28. The Family Stand is opposite the away stand and charges £23 in the lower tier and £25 for the upper tier. Not a significant price differential to what United are charging.

Part of the issue appears to be that Huddersfield fans saw that Bury fans paid £14 for the same seats a couple of weeks ago, but that was one of 4 Category C games United have a season. Funnily enough, Huddersfield have Category C games, they charge a minimum of £19 for them and you can bet your bottom dollar when the Blades visit we will not be a Category C match, nor a Category B one.

The big issue is pricing in general across the game and establishing a tipping point, beyond which it is determined that a price is too high for that division or for the facilities and quality of experience on offer. For instance, although Huddersfield fans complain about paying a couple of pounds more than the equivalent seats in the opposite end, it is worth noting that the Bramall Lane Stand is opposite our Kop, which doesn't have indoor concourses, covered food outlets and under cover toilet facilities. It also has bloody great pillars in the way of our view. Added to which the upper tier of the away end has one of the best views in the ground.

Can comparisons of equivalent home ends be a valid comparison? I think United were basing the price on what home fans are charged in the corner adjacent to the away end and also what they are charged for the upper tier of the Bramall Lane stand when it is not given over to away support. In principle that basis is not unreasonable, although the base price may be to start with.

How does the price, view facilities at Bramall Lane compare with what Terriers' fans got for £20 at Rochdale, £25 at Hartlepool, £23 at Oldham and what they will get for upcoming games at Brentford (£21 seats, £20 to stand!) and MK Dons (£25)? It is also worth noting that at most of these grounds, the under 16 price is broadly similar to the £14 charged by United as well.

One other factor to throw into the mix is the cost of travel to these grounds. Will those fans be happy spending much more money going to watch the Terriers at Hartlepool, Brentford and MK? To my mind, away support is about more than a match ticket alone. I used to base my trip on what I can afford, if the coach, ticket food etc was out of my budget I wouldn't go. I can't help feeling that the complainants here were not regular away match goers and were just looking for an excuse not to go. The excuse, in this case a seat costing a whole £3.50 more than one at the Galpharm, was convenient enough to make them do it.

I am not denying there is a problem and that fans across the leagues need to find a voice to rise up and defend themselves from exploitation. If they feel a protest involving not supporting their team is the way to do it so be it. But throwing brickbats at United seems a rather futile way of dealing with a bigger and more widespread problem. Will United change their pricing policy for away fans? Probably not. Will other clubs sit up and take notice? Probably not.

A couple of weeks ago the Huddersfield supporters seem to think otherwise. Neil Waine, a regular poster on the Down at The Mac forum was happy to complain to the Huddersfield Examiner;

“I know friends that will still go because they don’t want to miss it. They’re playing on fans’ loyalties. I think there’ll be a lot of empty seats at Bramall Lane. I think this will backfire at the Blades because they will lose revenue.”

Assessing the situation now suggests that the campaign can only be seen as a partial success. Over a thousand fans are expected at Bramall Lane, far more than the organisers of the boycott would have hoped for. Maybe the pull of the game was enough to withstand the price increases, maybe these fans realised that there are better ways to fight this than a flawed and mis-informed campaign based on one match.

We are already seeing the prices of tickets reach exorbitant levels in the Premier League and that price inflation is now affecting other divisions, but aside from price reductions at QPR (where fan power had to be allied with a change of ownership for it to happen) is there anything fans can do apart from stay away? If they do stay away does it really matter to the clubs?

It would be great for the football league to get involved and agree a price limit for away fans in each division, but while ever it is an unregulated free market clubs can charge what they want and bare the consequences either way. In fact, you could argue that football clubs are being placed in a position now where the extra costs of policing and stewarding a decent sized away support might actually deter them from offering attractive ticket prices.

This is an issue affecting supporters of a majority of clubs and it needs a unified approach from organisations such as the FSF to confront the authorities and say enough is enough. I am not sure that arbitrarily picking on one club, especially when they are not acting in a significantly different way from both the norm and the club of the complainants, is the way to go about it.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Handsworth FC - Little acorns.....

Last Saturday was the second annual Non League Day. A brilliant event I referred to here. An opportunity for football fans to support grassroots football in their area, you will find links to the Non League Day website here. It was a great success withy many clubs offering deals to fans with Premier League or Football League season tickets, other events occurring around matchday and an increase in attendance for a huge number of clubs. Increases in attendances and vital increases in income at a level where every penny and every pound counts.

The decline in fortune for my team, meant that we were playing at home in one of 12 League One fixtures on Non League Day and I am glad I went. After an awful last 24 months watching the Blades, a 4-0 victory is a rare event and one to be enjoyed. So, knowing I was missing out on Non League Day, I decided to show my support earlier that week and on the Wednesday night I went to watch a club relatively new to the Non League pyramid. A club that can be classed a true community club, from the suburb of Sheffield I grew up in, Handsworth FC.

Handsworth is a sizeable suburb, around 5 miles outside of Sheffield city centre, and is best described as an average part of town. By no means as well regarded as certain areas to the South West of Sheffield, but not a place to avoid like certain other areas at the other end of the social spectrum. Once with a main road of thriving shops, now with an Asda Wal-Mart Hyperstore changing the business dynamic.

It has some green space, a large park (although that has gradually been taken over by a municipal golf course) and a recreation ground (the Rec') which has a number of football pitches. Many a time have I played on there as the crowd admired Rands' skilful avoidance of a dog turd, whilst perfectly timing a sliding tackle.
Back in 1986, two local men were concerned about the lack of opportunities for local children to take part in organised sport in the area and so Bob Hill and Mick Wragg set up an under 10's boys football team "Handsworth Boys" and entered the Sheffield & District Junior Sunday League. Two years later there were teams for under 10's, under 11's and under 12's and since then the club has grown, now providing mini-soccer for under 7's and representation at all boys age groups up to under 18's, with girls' teams in 4 age groups.

12 of the Handsworth intake have gone on to join academies and Schools of Excellence at professional clubs. Will any follow in the footsteps of Handsworth lad and a former school friend of mine Paul Hurst? With no Handsworth FC established at the time he started his junior career, he crossed the city and played for Middlewood Rovers (then a top local junior side) and Sheffield Schoolboys, before spending his entire playing career as a one club man at Rotherham United. He is now Joint Manager of Grimsby Town with Rob Scott, where the going is proving a little tough after early managerial success at Boston United.

Alongside the healthy development of the teams, the club's evolution included setting up a senior side in the local County Senior League, before taking the step up into the Northern Counties East League Division One last season. Vital to the move into the non league pyramid was a decision in 1998 to take over the former Brown Bailey's sports pitches in association with Sheffield City Council. Bordered by High Hazels Park, Tinsley Golf Course and the Sheffield Parkway, there were  several pitches all part of the former steel firm's social club and staff facilities .One of the pitches had the remnants of a small covered terrace of a few steps. A reminder of when local works sides could attract healthy crowds in local amateur leagues.    
What they have done with the site is tremendous; several 11-a-side pitches, a 5-a-side Astroturf pitch and a large clubhouse with changing facilities cover the site, named after the road and hill it sits atop. Oliver's Mount is where I find myself with just over 100 others on a mild Wednesday night for a match between Handsworth FC and North Lincolnshire side Bottesford Town in the Northern Counties East League Division 1 - step 10 of the football pyramid.

Upcoming at Oliver's Mount
Turnstile & Club Shop

Having parked in the car park, opposite the junior pitches and clubhouse, I walked down the hill to where a portakabin forms turnstile and club shop. Having paid my £3 entry and bought a programme and badge, I walked out of the other door of the cabin at the near right corner of the pitch. I was stood behind the goal at the Railway End. In case I didn't know that, a flag is hanging down from the pitchside fence telling me that they are the Railway End on Tour and a large area of netting masks the trees behind the goal, preventing the 19:55 from Sheffield having to deflect a stray shot.
To my right the hum of cars passing on the Sheffield Parkway ferrying people to and from Junction 33 of the M1 to Sheffield. To my left hard standing with, a bit further towards the half way line, that old covered terrace, now seated but empty tonight. No need to shelter, given the weather. Opposite was the golf course at what has been termed the Tree End. Memories of my youth came flooding back; slamming a 3 iron up, what is now the pitch, as I sneaked across "Brown Baileys"  for a few holes of golf. The overgrown pitch and disuses "stand" fascinated me as I heaved my clubs up the banking surrounding it.
View from the corner flag at the Railway End

With the clubhouse and changing facilities away from pitchside, the teams and officials have a little walk to the pitch, emerging between 5-a-side pitch and trees, down some steps to enter the playing surface. The teams lined up (no Baris NCEL anthem here), exchanged handshakes and an entertaining evening ensued. Mark Storey, a supporter and Railway Ender provided what I think is a very fair summary here for the Handsworth website.

It is to both sides credit that they both tried to play passing football, building from the back. Something I have seen little of in the last couple of seasons of league football at Bramall Lane. Handsworth fielded a young side, peppered with experienced players. A testament to their burgeoning under 19's side which has won the North Midlands League three times in a row. The belief that if you bring good players through and retain them, they are the team and the future of the club.

Visitors Bottesford Town (from just outside Scunthorpe), on looks alone, appeared older and more experienced. Yet they, like Handsworth, are also an FA Charter Standard Community Club, with a long term view taken on player and club development. The visitors will be kicking themselves that they didn't take any of the several good chances they created. Several times second half they saw balls flashing across the face of goal, past keeper and post. They also suffered frustration as two goals were chalked off thanks to offside decisions from young lineswoman Brittany Smith.

Lineswoman - Brittany Smith

Credit to her for decisively making two tight decisions and for how she dismissed the derisive cries from the more vocal contingent in a decent away support. My friend Dick calling over to them when they called her "a stupid tart". It is good to see female officials getting opportunities at the grassroots level. Having watched the Birtley Town v Ryton friendly game officiated very well by Linzi Robinson pre-season at Northern Leagues United, they and their young male counterparts deserve great credit for taking the least easy option and taking on officiating for a pittance. Without them we wouldn't have a game to watch. The Ball is Round interviewed Linzi about her refereeing career here.

You can see the small seated stand, set back into the trees

So at the end of 90 minutes we had seen a Handsworth victory by three goals to nil, some decent football, some contentious decisions, a bit of argy bargy and had the great difficulty of distinguishing players as a team in amber and black stripes played a team in amber and blue stripes. Hull City v Shrewsbury Town if you like. The one thing we hadn't managed was a beer. Making the fair leg from pitchside to clubhouse, I entered the bar area to see towels over the pumps. We made do with a coffee, whilst Bottesford committee members tucked into pork pies and sandwiches and Handsworth regulars clamoured for great looking trays of pie, peas and gravy.

It wasn't until I read this on the club website a few days later that I realised why beer was not served. If you read it you will no doubt agree that it is a sad state of affairs when a local newsdesk, desperate for controversy, mischief make a story out of nothing and create  bad publicity for a club like Handsworth. The clubhouse bar is an important source of income for a club in the non-league pyramid. Everything the club has done over the last 25 years has been for the good of the community, why would they undo it all now by upsetting the community they are an integral part of? Hopefully this can be resolved soon.

View from the steps that lead to the to the Clubhouse

I used a night out at Handsworth to catch up with a mate. We chewed the fat, watched the match and even if we had managed a couple of beers there we would still have had decent change from a tenner. Non League Day is great, it is a much needed profile raiser, reminding those of us who have known nothing but league football that there is an alternative. But as I proved last week, Non League Day can be any day you like. There are plenty of clubs with the ethos and feel of Handsworth that deserve some local support, just go do it. I am pretty sure you will enjoy it.
Back to Handsworth, 25 years ago there was one under 10 team. Now, there are nearly 200 children playing under the Handsworth Junior Sporting Club banner. In their debut season in the Northern Counties East League Division 1, Handsworth FC finished joint 3rd and had the second highest average attendance. As I write they are top of the league, albeit still early days in the new season. Nearly 300 people saw their opening day derby against Hallam FC.
From little acorns, big oak trees grow and I will be popping back to offer support and watch this sapling develop. From what I saw that night, I am sure it will have a healthy and successful future.
A view from the Railway End

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Prolific strike rate and two debuts

There hasn't been much appearing on A United View over the last week or so. I know that you will all be gutted about this and thinking, "but where can I read some more of your wonderful football prose?" The answer can be found in a number of places.

First up I provided When Saturday Comes magazine with a few thoughts on Danny Wilson's start at Sheffield United, for their WSC Daily website feature. You can read it here:

If you follow me on twitter (@unitedite) you may have read that I recently had the opportunity to watch RSC Anderlecht take on Bursaspor in the Europa League Play Offs, whilst on a business trip to Brussels. The story of my Belgian football watching experience is detailed in my debut on Danny Last's European Football Weekends site. You can read it here:  

Playing in goal for Bursaspor that night was Scott Carson. the former England keeper left West Brom for Turkey in the Summer, and watching his performance gave me an opportunity to debut on Les Rosbifs - a site which tracks the performance of English players overseas. You can read my view on Carson here:

Finally, I answered a few questions for the Scunthorpe Telegraph's Spy in the Camp feature, ahead of the Blades' visit on Saturday. I last did it two seasons ago and it is not quite as depressing this season, although we are both a division lower.. There is no web link but if you are in the area, the paper is published every Thursday.

Upcoming on A United View, a pre Non League Day trip to Oliver's Mount to watch Handsworth FC and maybe something on the Huddersfield Town fans boycotting their trip to Bramall Lane over ticket prices.  I'll have to see if time allows.

Thanks for your continued support and readership. 

Friday, 2 September 2011

Non League Day

Tomorrow is the second annual Non League Day, a chance for fans of league football to return to the grassroots and support football in their local community.

The press release sums up nicely the ethos of the day;

"A celebration of the semi-professional and amateur game, and a chance for fans of bigger clubs to experience football at a level they may be otherwise unfamiliar with. Moreover, it is a chance to shine a light on the hundreds of clubs in this country who are almost exclusively volunteer run, and do so much good for the local community, be it through coaching, fundraising or providing opportunities for local people."

Specifically chosen with the international break in mind, it is a perfect opportunity for fans of Premier League and Championship clubs to see an alternative; with football, pie and a pint often found for under a tenner. If you are watching a match below Blue Square Premier, you can also drink that pint whilst you watch the match. Perfect!

Stuart Fuller from The Ball is Round has published a handy guide of what to expect here.

Unfortunately, the decline of my club means that we have a home fixture against Bury at Bramall Lane tomorrow and so I will be supporting my life-long love. In order to make up for that, I attended Handsworth F.C (based in the suburb of Sheffield where I grew up) on Wednesday night for their Northern Counties East League clash with Bottesford Town. I'lll do a write up on my enjoyable evening out on A United View next week and explain why I think Non League Day is great for raising awareness and a brilliant idea, but what is to stop a football fan making it a Non-League Day any day they want to.

For now, head to the Non League Day website for a full list of fixtures. Or, if you are South Yorkshire based, Footysphere and the Doncaster Rovers site Viva Rovers have done a great job of letting you know what football is available on your doorstep.

Go on, you may surprise yourself with how much you enjoy it!