22 April 2014

Wood Stain

Monday 21st April 2014
The Skrill South

Boreham Wood 0-2 Staines Town
Meadow Park
Attendance: 155

BOREHAM WOOD have the chance to claim some silverware on Wednesday evening when they take on Bishop's Stortford in the Hertfordshire Senior Cup Final.

It's probably fair to say that manager Ian Allinson and his players had an eye on that fixture when they approached this afternoon's match against Staines Town, the last Skrill South game of the season at Meadow Park.

At a time of year when many football matches around the country have promotion, play-off and relegation matters at stake, a game between teams sitting 14th and 8th in The Skrill South really didn't tick any of those boxes.  But on this warm Easter Monday afternoon I had stayed local and taken the last chance to visit Meadow Park before the summer break, and a final opportunity to hear the unmistakable sound of The Piranhas, as the teams appeared on the pitch shortly before kick-off to applause from the typically sparse crowd.

With Wood looking ahead to Wednesday evening, joint top scorer Graeme Montgomery was on the bench, as was goalkeeper James Russell, which meant a rare appearance between the posts for Goalkeeping Coach James Courtnage.

Staines Town, in their yellow and blue strip, colours well-known to this author, took the lead after a quarter of an hour when Dan Brown rose unchallenged at the far post to powerfully head home Jerson Dos Santos' cross from the left.

The visitors would twice go close to extending their lead before half time with two more headers from corners, as Wood struggled to win anything in the air.

At the other end the home team's best chance of the opening period came after 34 minutes when Ricky Shakes' close-range effort was brilliantly turned away by Staines 'keeper Kyle Merson, resplendent in an all-pink kit.

The game had begun in bright sunshine, but two heavy showers in the first half sent some of the few fans who had stood behind the goals scurrying for shelter in the red and white seats of the main stand, as the rain rattled on the roof.

The half time whistle brought another, this time unexpected, rendition of The Piranhas over the tannoy, quickly aborted and replaced by the sound of Daft Punk.

Ian Allinson sent on Graeme Montgomery at the start of the second half in place of Mario Noto, but Wood's performance remained generally below par.

Ten minutes after Montgomery had placed a 20-yard effort just past Merson's right-hand post, the visitors clinched the three points in the 74th minute.  Bajram Pashaj, also on as a substitute, found space to curl the ball past the right hand of Courtnage from the edge of the box.

Meanwhile a lady from Boreham Wood's new refreshment provider The Lunch Box came round to the main stand with a tray of snacks and canned drinks for sale, part of an at-seat service which is not a common site in English football, in my experience.

The home team's challenge was effectively ended by the second goal.  With no promotion or relegation issues at stake here, it was not surprising that this match was the last to get a mention in the Football Conference's Skrill South Round-Up which was published later in the evening.

Sitting 14th in the table, and with the final league game being a trip to champions Eastleigh next Saturday, this could turn out to be Wood's worse season since joining the Conference South in 2010 if looked at purely in terms of league position.  But after the team spent the first half of the campaign in or close to the relegation zone, a steady improvement in results since January has lifted them to mid-table safety.  Add to that another appearance in the FA Cup 1st round and the possibility of winning the Herts Senior Cup, the overall impressive of 2013/14 becomes more positive.

Despite Boreham Wood's small fanbase, ambitious chairman Danny Hunter is still targeting another play-off challenge next season.  In today's programme notes, he even hints at a longer term plan to take the club to full-time professional status, which seems highly optimistic given Wood's minimal local support.

Pre-season at Meadow Park will once again include an attractive programme of warm-up matches, with visits from an Arsenal XI (on the day the new West Stand is officially opened), Luton Town, Brentford and near neighbours Watford.

But the current season is not over yet; Wood still have that chance of cup glory at the County Ground, Letchworth on Wednesday night.

20 April 2014

A Step Closer to The Great Escape

Saturday 19th April 2014
Ryman League Premier Division

Wingate & Finchley 1-1 Enfield Town
The Harry Abrahams Stadium
Attendance: 345

IT could have been the day when Enfield Town completed The Great Escape, securing another season of Ryman Premier League Football with two games to spare.  But at the end of a disappointing game at The Harry Abrahams Stadium, the Towners remained just short of their target.

It's been a tremendous effort by manager George Borg and his team to get this far.  Looking on course for a first relegation in its 13-season history at the turn of the year, Enfield Town went into today's match having collected 30 points from 18 games since the beginning of February.

A substantial number of the club's fans headed across north London on this sunny afternoon, hoping to see survival ensured.  One of the many supporters wearing an Enfield Town scarf admitted this was his "first ever" away match.  The visiting support dominated the crowd of 345, boosting the gate receipts of hosts Wingate & Finchley, a club with an average home league gate of 149.  Steve Newing, Towners' manager until he and the club parted company last November, was here too.

The home team are in the thick of the Ryman Premier relegation battle themselves.  A run of two points from eight games had seen them slide into the last relegation place, five points and two places below the Towners, with just three matches remaining.

Wingate & Finchley, like today's visitors, are another club with an Art Deco main stand, The Harry Abrahams Stand.  Somewhat unusually, the stand and the steps of terracing at the front are separated by a gangway which runs well below pitch level.  The two adjacent palm trees are not a common site in London either, in my experience.

For visitors' benefit, the home club also includes a detailed two-page account of its history in the match programme (also available here).

The Enfield Town Ultras, plus drum and a plentiful supply of confetti, were in good voice as ever this afternoon.  In the first half, Towners fans took over the partially-covered Jack Fisk Stand along the side opposite the main stand.  I soon joined them after squeezing past spectators on the narrowest of walkways which runs behind the goal at the Summers Lane end.  Do Enfield fans really still "hate Barnet", all these years after the two north London clubs' fortunes went in opposite directions?

The Towners, playing in their distinctive yellow and red change strip, may have just shaded an opening 45 minutes of few goalscoring chances, but they were shaken by a serious injury to goalkeeper Noel Imber five minutes before half time.

After colliding with the onrushing home striker near the edge of the penalty area, Imber underwent lengthy treatment on the pitch, before being stretchered off as a home official called for an ambulance which could be seen pulling into the ground minutes later.   Current reports from the club indicate Imber suffered a dislocated shoulder.

Manager Borg chose not to heed the Ultras' advice of "Georgie, get the gloves on", instead sending on centre-back Lee White as an emergency goalkeeper for the the third time this season.

For the second half, the majority of the away support gathered on the steps of The Harvey Ackerman Stand behind the goal, hoping to see their team step up a gear.

Twelve minutes after the break Enfield Town were ahead.  Corey Whiteley(?) floated in a free-kick from near the left touchline; Bradley Quinton nodded the ball down into the path of Liam Hope near the penalty spot.  Hope's shot was blocked, but Mitch Hahn was alert enough to stab home the loose ball.  Joyous scenes followed, as the goalscorer ran towards the touchline for a bear hug with Borg, soon to be joined by his team mates.  The Towners looked to be on their way to safety,

But the lead was to last only one minute.  A downward header following a free-kick on the right fell to Josh Kennett, who hit the ball first time into the bottom left corner past a static White.

The home team were reduced to ten men midway through the second half, when skipper and centre-back Marc Weatherstone received a second yellow card after tripping the speedy Corey Whiteley on the Enfield Town left.

But the Towners could not make the one-man advantage pay, in what continued to be a game of few chances.

It could have been worse for Enfield Town.  Only a stunning point-blank save from stand-in keeper White in 88th minute, blocking a fierce goal-bound shot, prevented the home side from snatching a potentially season-defining late winner.

There was a slight sense of anti-climax at the end of the game, and Towners striker Liam Hope later tweeted about a "very poor" performance and having "let the fans down".  But those travelling fans gave the team another warm ovation after the final whistle as the players came over to show their appreciation for the support.

In truth, the 90 minutes may not have been a great spectacle for the bumper crowd.  But nevertheless, Enfield Town had at least done enough to move another step closer to achieving their own version of The Great Escape.  One more point from the remaining two games will certainly be enough.

(More photos from this afternoon's visit to The Harry Abrahams Stadium, a welcoming non-league venue just yards from the A406/A1000 interchange in north London).

13 April 2014

Saints slump

Saturday 12th April 2014
Calor League Premier Division 
St Albans City 0-1 Poole Town
Clarence Park
Attendance: 581
THIS was not an afternoon to remember at Clarence Park, as St Albans City fell to a 1-0 defeat against fellow play-off hopefuls Poole Town.

Expectations were high before kick-off.  The Saints had returned to form recently with four wins and two draws in their last six league games; goalkeeper Paul Bastock and top scorer John Frendo were both back in the side following suspension, and not one, but two, turnstiles were open at the York Road end of the ground when I arrived just after 2:30pm.

In the match programme, club chairman Nick Archer reported that the average attendance for a Calor League game here this season is up more than 33% on 2012/13, from 376 to 501.  It's an impressive increase, and just reward for a promotion-chasing team which had scored more than 100 goals in all competitions by January.

Today's visitors from the Dorset coast, Poole Town, still have hopes of reaching the play-offs themselves.  But in an otherwise commendable first season at Step 3, the Dolphins had faltered recently, losing four of their previous five games to drop to 7th in the table, as they make up a severe backlog of fixtures postponed during the wet winter.

Poole Town have certainly been a club on the rise over the past five seasons: three consecutive Wessex League titles from 2009 to 2011; beaten play-off finalists in their first season in the Southern League Division One South and West in 2012, followed by promotion to the Southern Premier League as champions at the end of the 2012/13 season.
The warm morning sun had disappeared as fans gathered on the terraces, leaving an overcast and slightly chilly afternoon at Clarence Park.

As at all English football in the top eight tiers this weekend, kick-off here was put back seven minutes to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, and the whole ground impeccably observed a minute's silence before the start of play.

Poole Town, "The Pride of Dorset", according to the flag which their loyal supporters pinned to the fence at the back of the terrace, were backed by an enthusiastic group of around 30 fans (my quick headcount of those who stood behind the goal).  During the afternoon they would frequently repeat an unusual song, "St Albans - what train is that?", every time an inter-city service whooshed past the back of Clarence Park's main stand on the East Midlands line.

Saints started the game brightly, but it was the visitors who came closest to scoring in the first half.  With 20 minutes played, John Davies smashed the ball against Bastock's right hand post from close range after Ekow Elliott's effort had been blocked.

Seven minutes later a swift break out of defence by the Saints ended with Lee Chappell hitting the side netting when cutting in from the left after receiving a pass from Frendo.

Fans swapped ends during the break, with St Albans set to play down the slope towards the Hatfield Road end in the second half.  But the change did not see the Saints rediscover the attacking fluency which had brought them so many goals earlier in the season.

The only goal of today's game arrived in the 57th minute.  Poole's number 9 Ekow Elliott drove the ball from the edge of the penalty area low into the bottom corner past Bastock's right hand after the ball landed at his feet following a headed clearance.

The home fans were muted as the clock ticked down.  Saints' substitutes David Keenleyside and Chris Henry caused the visitors some problems down the flanks, but the home team's day was summed up when Frendo just failed to get on the end of a floated cross in the first minute of stoppage time, as Dolphins' orange-clad keeper Nick Hutchings snatched the ball off the big striker's forehead and cleared the danger.

Some booing accompanied the final whistle, illustrating the disappointment and frustration of the Clarence Park crowd.

This was another Saturday where I had been undecided until a late stage where to spend the afternoon.  Eventually, it was the prospect of seeing two play-off candidates in action that had lured me across the M25 to St Albans.  As the old saying goes, "You pays your money and takes your choice".  In the the end though, this felt like an afternoon best forgotten.