26 July 2015

London 2015 - The Story Continues

Friday 24th July 2015
Sainsbury's Anniversary Games
The Stadium, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
THREE years after the spectacle of London 2012, and with just one year to go until the next Olympic Games, there's still something about visiting the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park which compels people to dig out their London 2012 and TeamGB merchandise.  Branded jackets, rucksacks and at least one umbrella all made a re-appearance at Stratford this evening.

Athletics fans were reconvening in east London for the opening night of the Anniversary Games - also the 11th leg of the 2015 IAAF Diamond League competition.

It was the first chance for many to experience the refurbished (former) Olympic Stadium, now a 54 000-seater arena, its distinctive floodlights rotated and integrated into the new cantilever roof.

A 'Severe Weather Warning' from the Met Office for the London area didn't bode well for the thousands of spectators planning to be in Stratford this evening.  In mid-afternoon, British Athletics had sent out an e-mail to ticket-holders, reassuring them that the new roof covers all spectator seating.  Fortunately, the heavy rain had eased as afternoon turned into evening, though it would return.

When buying a ticket some weeks ago, Stag of Herts had no idea which athletes would feature on this Friday night.  Two years ago, on a warm summer evening, Usain Bolt had been by far the star attraction, mercilessly milked by the organisers, perhaps worried that the Friday line-up was otherwise lacking big names.

What a bonus then that, in addition to another appearance from Bolt, this year's opening night would also see my running icon Mo Farah appearing on the track.  Other big names were here too - the likes of Jessica-Ennis Hill, Christine Ohuruogu, Eilidh Child, Dina Asher-Smith and James Dasaolu all adding spice to the occasion.

Despite having to share the stage with other popular figures, Bolt was still given plenty of attention.  Before the start of tonight's action, he was one of five athletes paraded around the track in a convoy of modern and vintage MGs.

Later, the Jamaican, wearing an unfamiliar blue vest, would capture the attention of the crowd again when winning his 100m heat and the final, this despite running against two home athletes - new British champion Chijindu Ujah and our reigning European champion James Dasaolu.

Although the men's discus was the first event on the program, it was the women's 400m which soon caught the crowd's attention, thanks in no small way to the always bubbly former Olympic champion Christine Ohuruogu.

Two years ago the great British success of the Friday evening was victory in the women's 4X100m relay.  This time around, the GB quartet of Dina Asher-Smith, Jodie Williams, Bianca Williams and Desiree Henry, hampered by a less than smooth first changeover, had to settle for second place behind the US team.

Thirty minutes in, coinciding with the men's 110m hurdles, the now torrential rain forced the temporary suspension of the discus competition and, soon after, the complete abandonment of the men's poll vault due to safety concerns.  

An unexpected lull in the proceedings followed.  It was at least a chance for spectators to take a bathroom break or brave the long queues at the food and drink outlets.

How effective is that new roof when the weather turns ugly?  Currently, it comfortably covers all spectator seating and the outside lane of the running track.  But if the lower tier seats are to be moved forward over the track when West Ham United play home matches here from next year, there could be some very wet matchday experiences for fans sitting in the front rows.

The crowd's spirits were soon lifted by the first appearance of Mo Farah on the big screen, as he warmed up behind the scenes for his later appearance in the 3000m.

Meanwhile in the men's high jump competition, Britain's Olympic bronze medalist Robbie Grabarz was getting fans involved by encouraging rhythmic clapping as he began his run up.  The flamboyant Italian Gianmarco Tamberi would go on to do much more of the same as the contest progressed.

Soon though, spectators' attention would divert to Bolt and the 100m races.  Aside from Bolt's inevitable success, there was a disqualification for Britain's Richard Kilty for a false start, his displeasure clear for all to see as it was played out on the big screen.

Fans warmed, of course, for the appearance of Jessica Ennis-Hill.  Returning from injury and maternity leave, she had to settle for fifth place in the 100m hurdles, but was seemingly pleased with a season's best time and buoyant as ever in the post-race interview.  It was an interview briefly interrupted as Robbie Grabarz made his final attempt to clear 2.28m and stay in the high jump competition - a typical clash between track and field events during these athletics meetings.

As 9pm approached, the stadium lights were burning brightly.  The crowd seemed much more enlivened by this stage, some doubtless fuelled by the bottles of beer which were being carried in increasing numbers from the concourse to the seats.

There was British success to celebrate too, as Zharnel Hughes triumphed in the men's 200m event.  That was quickly followed by victory for Laura Weightman in the 1500m, just holding off a challenge from Gabriele Grunewald of the USA in the home straight.

Meanwhile the women's triple jump event seemed to have gone unnoticed to the stadium compere and most of the crowd, except for those who happened to be sitting right in front of that contest on the eastern side of the stadium.

At 9:43pm it was finally time for Mo Farah, the men's 3000m race being the last event on the evening's schedule.  The ovation he received from the stands immediately banished any doubts about how the double Olympic champion might be welcomed on his first appearance on home soil since the recent allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar.

The noise level in the stadium rose as Farah ran clear of the field with a lap to go, eventually winning comfortably in a time of 7 minutes, 34.66 seconds - a stadium record, although Dave Moorcroft's 33-year-old British record proved elusive.

A lengthy lap of honour followed, as official photographers and eager fans gathered near the tunnel to catch a close-up.  Farah, quite an inspiration to this author and keen runner over the past five years, seems to be a public favourite again, certainly in this stadium where he triumphed on those two consecutive Saturday nights during London 2012.

The stadium had looked only about two-thirds full on this cool and wet evening, with plenty of unoccupied seats on the upper tier.  A few may have been put off by the awful weather forecast; on social media there were also stories of people facing long queues at the stadium box office to exchange vouchers for tickets, with some eventually giving up and going home.

The pros and cons of the stadium's £272m refurbishment are still the subject of debate.  But whatever your point of view, this arena is not turning into a post-Olympics white elephant: UK Athletics are making it their home for the next 50 years; the stadium becomes a Premier League football ground next year when West Ham United move in on a 99-year lease; five Rugby World Cup matches will take place here this autumn; various cultural events will continue to be staged here too, not forgetting the next-but-one World Athletics Championships in 2017.

Today, the weather had tried hard to put a dampener on things.  But three years after much of the country was captivated by the events of London 2012, the stadium which was the focal point of the Games had shown that it can still pull in the punters and deliver an evening of entertaining athletics.

20 July 2015

Bees Sting

Sunday 19th July 2015
Pre-season friendly
Boreham Wood 0-3 Brentford
Meadow Park
Attendance: unconfirmed
BRENTFORD showed their Sky Bet Championship quality on this sunny Sunday afternoon at Meadow Park.

The Bees, backed by substantial support in the main stand, led 3-0 by half-time, although Wood had worked hard to create several scoring chances of their own.

The plethora of substitutions at half-time - eight for Brentford and five for Wood - saw much of the momentum go out of the game after the restart, with no further goals added.

Wood manager Ian Allinson had strengthened his squad considerably in the days leading up to this match.

Five players - goalkeeper Preston Edwards, defender Scott Doe, midfielders Billy Clifford and Luke Howell, plus striker Charlie MacDonald - had signed contracts at Meadow Park since Wednesday.  All except MacDonald featured today.

My match report from Meadow Park, for the online version of the Borehamwood & Elstree Times, is available here.

15 July 2015

Warming Up

Tuesday 14th July 2015
Pre-season friendly
Boreham Wood 1-1 Luton Town
Meadow Park
Attendance: unknown, but more Luton than Wood fans
BOREHAM WOOD will be pleased with their efforts against League Two Luton Town on this drizzly evening at Meadow Park.

In a game played at a higher tempo than last Saturday's against St Albans City, Junior Morias gave Ian Allinson's team the lead just after half-time.

Luton, who made nine changes at the break, scored a deserved equaliser 12 minutes from time, scored by trialist Craig Mackail-Smith.

My match report, this time published on the Borehamwood & Elstree Times website, is here.

11 July 2015

Back In The Saddle

Saturday 11th July 2015
Pre-season friendly
Boreham Wood 0-0 St Albans City
Meadow Park 
Attendance: sparse
IT'S nine weeks to the day since Boreham Wood overcame Whitehawk in that play-off final to secure an unprecedented promotion to the top tier of Non-League football.

Sixty-three days later, on a warm summer's afternoon, few of the fans who were part of that memorable day returned to Meadow Park for this pre-season encounter between two Hertfordshire neighbours.

Wood sported their new-style kit - still essentially white shirts and black shorts, but with a black shoulder patch added to the shirt and a white stripe around the left leg of of the shorts.

Most of Ian Allinson's promotion-winning squad remains unchanged.  Full-back Ben Herd, who slotted in so well when joining the club last February, has departed for Hemel Hempstead Town, after conceding he would be unable to commit to the extra travel needed in the National League.

His place has been taken by Danny Woodards.  The 31-year-old has plenty of Football League experience on his CV from his time at Crewe Alexandra, MK Dons and Bristol Rovers. 

Also missing is last season's top scorer Lee Angol, who collected the Young Player of the Year accolade in the National Game Awards.  The 20-year-old striker returned to his parent club, Luton Town, after helping Wood to promotion, and is still weighing up his options for the new season. 

Wood were generally well on top in today's game, but were unable to convert any of their numerous chances.

St Albans City, whose sometimes physical approach would have earned a few yellow cards had this been a competitive fixture, did have the ball in the net just after the hour-mark, but Michael Malcolm was ruled marginally offside.

In an unusual development, Saints' Hungarian keeper Tamas Horvath was unable to continue after suffering an ankle injury midway through the first half.  With the visitors having no substitute keeper on the bench, Wood's management team helpfully offered the services of the keeper sitting on their own bench, Ben McNamara.  It was an initiative which gave both teams the opportunity to take a look at a trialist goalkeeper who is currently not under contract.

As usual, there is a good selection of pre-season matches to be enjoyed at Meadow Park this summer.  Luton Town will be here next Tuesday evening, before Sky Bet Championship Brentford visit next Sunday.

The annual encounter with an Arsenal XI takes place on Friday 24th July, and four days later Daryl McMahon's Ebbsfleet United provide the opposition.

Still to be confirmed is the annual visit of neighbours Watford, a fixture which tends to take place later and at shorter notice nowadays.  Best keep checking back for news on whether that game really is happening this year.

This afternoon, Stag of Herts just couldn't resist taking notebook and pen and creating a match report.  It's published here.

11 May 2015

National Acclaim

Saturday 9th May 2015
Vanarama Conference South, Play-off final
Boreham Wood 2-1 Whitehawk (after extra time; score at 90 mins 1-1)
Meadow Park 
Attendance: 2201
BOREHAM WOOD are going up.

Ian Allinson's team will take its place in next season's re-branded National League after winning this Conference South Promotion Final in extra time.

It was a special occasion at Meadow Park.  Two thousand two hundred came through the turnstiles, having been frisked on their way in.  There was hardly an empty seat in the main stand.  The Broughinge Road terrace  - the home end for the segregated fans - was packed too.

The two rows of seats reserved for the media were full, with no room left even for Boreham Wood FC's own press officer.  For once, the local newspaper had a reporter on duty to deliver live updates via Twitter and an on-the-whistle match report.  BBC Radio Sussex were here too, broadcasting full match commentary from a Whitehawk perspective.

Today's match programme was not the usual Boreham Wood publication, but a neutral 36-page cup final-style edition, devoting equal coverage to both teams.

Boreham Wood and Whitehawk came into this 'winner takes all' contest as the Conference South’s two form teams.  Wood had lost just one of their last 10 games, while Whitehawk had been defeated only twice in their last 15.

By kick-off time, the sun was just managing to break through the cloud cover.  Both teams started nervously, with Wood adopting a more direct approach than during much of the season. 

The highlight of a mostly unmemorable first half was Lee Angol's 25-yard free kick four minutes before the break.  Wood's top scorer whipped the ball around the Hawks' defensive wall, but just past the left upright, with keeper Craig Ross beaten.

Angol would have his moment midway through the second half as the contest livened up.  It was Wood's leading scorer who won a free-kick right on the edge of the Whitehawk 18-yard box in a central position.  This time, the Luton Town loanee picked his spot perfectly, finding a gap and driving the ball low into the bottom corner.

Wood were nine minutes away from promotion and looking comfortable when a penalty for Whitehawk changed the balance of the tie, as Sam Cox was penalised for a push on John-Paul Kissock.  Sam Deering kept his cool, beating Wood number 1 James Russell to the keeper's left.

The visitors might have snatched victory in the first of five minutes stoppage time.  After a well-worked free-kick from the Hawks, Osei Sankofa found the ball at his feet five yards from goal, but blasted over.

Russell was furious with his defence.  A whole season's work can hinge on moments like that.

As the final went into extra-time, Whitehawk appeared to have the momentum.  But within a minute of the restart, Wood were back in front.  Junior Morias, with his back to goal after collecting Angol's knock-down on the edge of the penalty area, swivelled and fired into the bottom corner to Ross' left.

Wood would not be thwarted again.  In the closing moments, Ross twice raced forward for set-pieces, and had to sprint back towards his goal after the second one as Wood launched the ball forward.

The final whistle brought the inevitable pitch invasion, although fans dispersed soon enough to allow the trophy and medal presentation to take place in the centre circle.

Sportingly, Whitehawk's suited and booted manager Steve King and his players stood on the touchline to applaud as the Boreham Wood squad members stepped forward one-by-one to receive their medals.  Today's runners-up only turned and headed down the tunnel when the winning captain Callum Reynolds lifted the trophy and the champagne corks popped.

Perhaps this was also King's way of motivating his players to go one better next season, making them witness what they had just fallen short of this time.  Narrowly missing out on promotion was no disgrace for Whitehawk, a club which left the Sussex County League just five years ago, and which has achieved three promotions plus two play-off appearances in six seasons.

For Boreham Wood, victory is reward for a season in which they led the Conference South for a long period and then went into the play-offs as the highest ranked team, after Bromley had eventually taken the title with a two-point cushion.

Crowds have risen at Meadow Park this season, but 'bread and butter' home games often attract a crowd of only around 250, in a town where many football fans are more inclined to follow Arsenal or Tottenham.

Still, around 2000 were here to back Wood for this promotion-decider.  And next season, Ian Allinson's team will compete in national, rather than regional, football for the first time in the club's 67-year history.

With Wood having been at or near the top of the Conference South since August, some local Premier League fans have noticed that they have a team in their town doing good things too.

The likes of Wrexham, Tranmere Rovers, Torquay United and either Bristol Rovers or Grimsby Town will be next season's rivals - the sort of opponents Wood have occasionally met in FA Cup ties in the past 20 years.  Now they will meet with league points at stake.

Boreham Wood will be stepping up to a new level.

Saturday's match report is here.