31 August 2015

A Point Gained

Saturday 29th August 2015
Vanarama National League
Boreham Wood 1-1 Woking
Meadow Park
Attendance: 601 (away support 258)
A FABULOUS 84th-minute solo effort from substitute Junior Morias earned Boreham Wood a 1-1 draw against in-form Woking at Meadow Park.

Wood had struggled to contain the Cards at times during the first half, but were rewarded for a spirited second-half performance.

At this early stage of the season, Ian Allinson's team is showing that it can compete well with the National League's front-runners.

My report for Real Footy Talk is here.

26 August 2015

Mansfield's Double-Header

'Saturday 22nd August 2015
Sky Bet League 2
Mansfield Town 1-1 Oxford United
One Call Stadium
Attendance: 3112 (away support 547)
STAG OF HERTS enjoyed a double-header of sport in Mansfield at the weekend.

Saturday brought an overdue return to Field Mill (aka One Call Stadium) where Mansfield Town hosted Oxford United.

The following day, the town hosted a running event for the first time since 2011, with around 600 runners taking part in the inaugural Reach Mansfield 10k on a hot and sunny Sunday morning.

My review of the football, published on Real Footy Talk, is here.

In a deviation from the usual theme of this blog, I'll also share my thoughts on the 10k...

"You're joking!", was my immediate reaction when I looked at my watch with 200 metres to go.  I suddenly realised that I was about to complete a 10k race in under 42 minutes for the first time.

But after I had crossed the finish line in a chip time which would later be confirmed as 41:46, I knew that just didn't feel right.  I had had to work hard in the punishingly hot sun and stiff crosswind.  The whole race had felt like quite a struggle.  Had we really run a full 10 kilometres?

Perhaps reflecting my recent personal battles to think positively, I had spent much of the run mulling over all the things I had done wrong this morning.

Foolishly, I had forgotten to bring a pre-race banana, so had eaten my protein bar before, rather than after, running on this occasion.

Had I drunk enough water?  Well, I probably had, but the conditions were bound to leave me feeling dehydrated anyway.

For once, I had opted to run a race not in my usual plain white shirt, but in the royal blue shirt from the Olympic Park 'Back to the Stadium' run of 2013, then felt the sun burning through the darker colour for much of the morning.

I would have been happy to have completed the two laps of the town in around 45 minutes under the circumstances.  But sub-42?!

Still, my GPS says I covered 9.62 kilometres, and I'm sure it didn't kick in until after the start.  I hadn't even bothered to set it.

Nor had I glanced at my watch too often, the absence of kilometre markers along the route preventing me from obsessing too much over my rate of progress.  I did note a time of 20:52 when I reached the top of Midworth Street first time.

Whatever doubts I, and several other runners, may have about the distance, the records show that I completed the Mansfield 10k in a time of 41 minutes 46 seconds.  No-one can take that away from me.

So it was a proud morning for my home town, which was hosting a running event for the first time since 2011.  Personally, I'm glad to have been part of it, and hope it's been a big success.

If anyone's asking, I have a few thoughts on how it could be improved:

* Number/chip collection: the worryingly long queue in Titchfield Park suggested we were heading for a much delayed start.  Credit to those working hard in the pavilion for keeping the delay to only 20 minutes.  If it's too much of an overhead to post numbers out in advance, (and I can understand if it is for this new event), could numbers be made available for collection in town a few days ahead of race day?  This might help enough locally-based runners to ease the pressure on the day.

* The eight portaloos in the park could be better advertised/signposted.  I only discovered them in the nick of time after a late announcement over the tannoy.

* As above, did we really run a full 10k course?

* The finishing zone seemed a bit disorganised.  It would have been too easy for runners to miss out on some of their post-race goodies.  Perhaps there could be more of a funnel after the finish line, where we sequentially collect a medal, bottle, goodie bag and fruit.

Now I'm looking forward to next year already.

19 August 2015

A Single Goal

Tuesday 18th August 2015
Vanarama National League
Boreham Wood 0-1 Forest Green Rovers
Meadow Park
Attendance: 464 (away support 95)
BOREHAM WOOD were beaten by a single goal against early National League pace-setters Forest Green Rovers at Meadow Park.

It was unfortunate for Wood, who more than matched their opponents for much of the game.

There's no shame in Ian Allinson's team having lost three consecutive games by the odd goal, with two of those games having been against teams who are expected to lead the promotion chase this season.

But points on the board are what will ultimately decide how successful Wood's first season in national football will be.

My match report for Real Footy Talk is here.

11 August 2015

Three Points To Wood

Saturday 8th August 2015
Vanarama National League
Boreham Wood 3-1 FC Halifax Town
Meadow Park
Attendance: 701
"FOUR minutes?  Where did they come from?"

The leader of the local council, clearly getting jittery while sitting proudly in the executive seats by the halfway line, perhaps didn't appreciate that four second-half substitutions would account for two minutes being added to the second half, quite apart from anything else the fourth official might see fit to add.

There certainly were nerves among the larger-than-usual home support at Meadow Park, as Boreham Wood were holding on to a narrow 2-1 lead on their debut in non-league football's top flight.

Moments later though, Harry Crawford put the result beyond doubt, his shot on the turn having just enough power to roll over the line after being partially blocked by the keeper. 

It was an historic day at Meadow Park.  Boreham Wood were making their first ever appearance outside regional football since the club was formed 67 years ago.

Segregation was in force, with visiting supporters entering the ground at the Brook Road end only, and a 'home supporters only' policy in force in the club bar.

Those arrangements will remain in place for at least the first seven home games of the season, while the club adjusts to life at a new level and the anticipated larger crowds.

Today's opening day fixture sprang to life in the 37th minute.  First, Wood keeper James Russell produced a brilliant save, getting down to block a close-range effort on his line.

It was from Russell's clearance downfield that Wood then took the lead.  Capitalising on hesitancy by Halifax at the back, Ricky Shakes produced a perfectly-judged lob over the advancing keeper.  The ball seemed to take an age to drop just under the crossbar, giving Wood their first ever goal at this level.

But the complexion of the game changed, temporarily at least, when Halifax drew level from the penalty spot with the very last kick of the first half.

Jamie Lucas, signed only on Friday afternoon in a loan deal from Bristol Rovers, capped a fine debut by restoring Wood's lead just past the hour mark.  Crawford's stoppage time strike rounded off a memorable summer afternoon at Meadow Park.

Boreham Wood, often watched by only around 200 home fans, have been tipped by many to struggle after last season's promotion to the re-branded National League.  But manager Ian Allinson has added plenty of quality to his squad during the summer.  Fans of League Two Dagenham & Redbridge were particularly disappointed to see Wood's new recruits Scott Doe and Lee Howell leave east London; Danny Woodards and Conor Clifford look to have slotted in seamlessly too.

Getting points on the board early could prove invaluable to Wood this season, while the club is still a relatively unknown quantity at this level.

There will certainly be tough challenges ahead, but, with the new signings settling in well, Wood's debut season in national football need not necessarily be a struggle.

My match report for Real Footy Talk is here.

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.