Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Boston United 1 Cammell Laird 0

Unibond Premier Division, Saturday 25th April 2009

Saturday – 2.05pm: It is 55 minutes before Boston United’s most important match of the season, their most important match for a generation. They are playing for their future in the Unibond Premier Division and, quite possibly, the very future of the club. I, meanwhile, am in the Housam flat part of an efficient team, which includes a not-so-innocent anymore 12-year old – eyes on stalks – ripping up unwanted porno magazines for the cause. This is the world’s first manufacture of titertape, not tickertape, titertape. It’s the future and Trudy, you could have been so much more than an Escort centrefold.

The day had started with the mandatory Wetherspoons visit. Standard stuff. Their sirloin left much to the imagination: medium does not equal cremated. Worse still, I’ve never encountered a tomato completely devoid of juice before. I have now. It must have congealed nicely while sitting on the kitchen windowsill all week, periodically rushed out on people’s plates and then returned, unwanted. A few pints of Laaaager exterminated the aftertaste and our clan proceeded to the game.

Everyone who still touches Boston United with an extendable barge pole turned out with their aunt, father and daughter, which really does beg the question as to their whereabouts all season. The 1500+ crowd included about 14 from the Merseyside dock badlands, hardly enough to fit on a jet ski, let alone the kind of mighty liners which made the shipbuilding firm famous. The rammed Town End was rocking for the final push, a single point would be sufficient to ensure survival and avoid those dead-end jaunts to Grantham, Spalding and Quorn (where the fuck is Quorn? Some kind of vegetarian’s utopia?) next season.

Six minutes in and, finally, in the season’s 42nd league fixture, Boston gained the benefit of a referee’s deliberations, winning a penalty for which no one, not even the Cockney controller (flask restored!), appealed for. Never mind, Jon Froggatt slotted it home and the party could begin in earnest. Oh yes, and there was titertape everywhere; the floor was liberally coated with nipples, c**t and adverts for premium-rate grannies promising to get you wet. Would have been nice to be the old bloke sweeping up just once.

Problem was, Boston had scored too early. The atmosphere went from jumping to buoyant to audible to muted to nervous until the titertape looked rather out of place. But, just once, the Pilgrims held out. They bloody did it and safety was secured at the last. Of course, the Football Association (a.k.a. the antichrist) tried their darndest to fuck us over again: under direct orders no doubt from Soho Square, five minutes of stoppage time were added on, five more minutes to hold out. They’ll still probably find something to demote us again: corner flags the wrong colour, Batemans in the Sports Bar too warm, too many yellow seats, Mickey Nuttell’s elbows too sharp, Adam Milson too good.

‘Millie’ scooped all the player of the year awards. The poor lad, crippled and struggling with his NHS-issue crutches, was forced to hobble up on five separate occasions to collect trophies of various dimensions. Strolling around on the York Street pitch in the April sunshine, titertape blowing in the wind, the team finally safe. Excellent.

Nantwich Town 5 Boston United 0

Tuesday 21st April 2009, Unibond Northern Premier League

I’m tempted to leave it right here. Tempted to just stop typing and leave just the title. After all, it tells you everything you need to know. But, maybe in the months and years to come, writing this might offer what psychiatrists would call closure. For this experience was the footballing equivalent of shackling yourself to some sort of pole and allowing yourself to be whipped bloody and senseless by a brick concealed in a sock.

Wars have been won on less meticulous organisation that this. Ok, I exaggerate, but the midweek journey presented a logistical nightmare not confronted since Munich ’08. Andy, starved of sleep, was returning from Ireland. JB, also starved of sleep but only because he went on a Monday night bender, returned from Lincoln. Jambo and I were required to get out of bed. Bloody nightmare. Anyway, thanks to ruthless ‘£1 for a piss’ Ryanair and some ‘aggressive’ driving from the county town, we were all located within the same area code by 1pm.

The 120-odd mile journey to Nantwich, near Wales (yes, that’s Wales) takes 3 hours. Consequently, because we don’t exactly trust ourselves, we allowed six hours, you know, just to be on the safe side. We were supping our first pints in the Cheshire town by 6pm following a characteristically boring journey which involved gaffer-taping the car’s cigarette lighter to the infuriatingly non-stick dashboard, consuming a crate of Tuborg (Carlsberg’s barely-legal little brother) and revisiting the same shit-splattered motorway embankment (see Hednesford) for impromptu nostalgic keepie-uppie. Just to be on the safe side.

For a frontier town, Nantwich looked surprisingly attractive in the early summer sunshine and was a nice place to be on a midweek matchday, not than any of the locals gave a toss that Nantwich were playing. The Weaver Stadium, named after a nearby river, sorry stream, sorry trickle of off-colour piss, was attractive, though fell into the smaller than garden shed category of ground classification. The crowd was 514, including about 40 from Boston, three or four sheep and four FC United supporters who had inexplicably come along in the hope that a United win would boost their team’s play-off chances. First rule of following Boston is that you travel in hope, not expectation.

In a modern sequel of Groundhog Day, Boston were losing 2-0 at half-time. Nantwich, one of those annoyingly good-but-only-because-we’re-shite teams, had also seen a goal chalked off for showing off, or was it offside. The locals revelled in our misery, particularly one blonde, who later turned out to be a Nantwich WAG and whose gesticulations were replicated by the gaggle of small children who surrounded him. ‘Are they all yours?’ and ‘Do you know their father?’ were some of the more broadcastable chants. It had to be asked really, one of them looked straight out of the Jackson Five.

You can guarantee that Steve Welsh told the players not to concede early doors in the second half. At 8.46pm the Pilgrims re-emerged. At 8.48pm they were 3-0 down. Hmmm. It could only get worse, really, and it promptly did. One Nantwich supporter, who gets my vote for Adolf Hitler lookalike of the year 2009, was particularly antagonising to the Boston supporter’s club pre-pubescent division beneath us on the terrace. Mysteriously, the equally totalitarian stewards told our kids to behave. Strange town. We gained our revenge at the final whistle by unleashing the spectacular tickertape display we had been reserving for when we scored. Clean that mess up, b*****ds.

Post-match, we waited around in the car park for a glimpse of our heroes; tell them to keep chins up ahead of the crucial game on Saturday. Funny really, many of these lads are younger than us, and possess half the ability! We must have looked too menacing lurking around the Corsa in the moonlight, they didn’t dare emerge from the dressing room!

We consoled ourselves with another car park kick-around at the same service station, adjacent to the world’s most innavigable roundabout, which continues to mock our feeble attempts to find the right bloody exit. Observed only by a seedy-looking gentleman in a white van, most likely some sort of paedophile with a mature taste, and a most inebriated Brummy ladette who told of her night watching Basement Jaxx while annoyingly booming our ball across the concrete in her stilettos, we played football late into the night. It was the perfect remedy.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

A Week at The Times

A few months ago, I won a Cornflakes packet competition for a week’s work experience on The Times sports desk and, if you believed that, you’re truly an idiot. Some serious CV-submitting and e-mail monitoring was required and, even then, being the week after Easter, Jesus had lost me a day with his revival heroics. Four days, then, at the finest newspaper in the world, but they were four of the best days I’ll ever have.

For such a budget institution, the Travelodge Tower Hill offered tremendous entertainment. Propped up the hotel bar on the first night (what else does one do when they’re alone in a strange city?) I was privy to some rather disturbing events which the receptionist assured me were ‘normal’ in London. Two guests had evidently ‘ordered’ some of Whitechapel’s finest ladies of the night, but had then retreated to the sanctuary of their rooms to avoid embarrassment and ensure privacy. The whores, whose IQ could be measured by the digits on one hand, proceeded to obliterate this confidentiality by storming around the reception shouting in their vile Cockney drawl. Mercifully, by the time my fourth Carlsberg had been sunk they had been extracted from the family hotel by the Met. Despite the alcohol, they strangely didn’t grow any more attractive...

Fresh from a productive first day watching Sky Sports News and the wire services – oh, and writing articles for the Timesonline website – I met with messers (mess being an appropriate term) Harrow, Clarke and Bowen-la Grange at the famous Brick Lane curry mile. Having been seduced by the very first establishment we stumbled upon, the four of us surveyed the extensive menu having secured a good, negotiated meal deal. The choice was wonderful, containing all the traditional curry favourites plus some imaginative creations exclusive to the establishment. Superb choice of Indian cuisine. “I think I’ll just have an omelette,” piped up Arran. I was tempted to introduce my naan bread violently to his oesophagus.

Friday was the best day of the week, getting out the office to accompany the frankly brilliant Nick Szczepanik, the veteran football correspondent, to a Chelsea press conference. Stamford Bridge, that’s easy: district line through to Fulham Broadway. Oh, how wrong I was! Apparently they like to have training on a Friday for some reason, which meant District line to Earl’s Court, being told all tube trains were subsequently cancelled, getting a taxi to West Brompton, one of those Overground underground trains to Clapham Junction, a bewildering rendez-vous with Nick at the monstrous Clapham Junction, then British Rail to Cobham. It wasn’t so much a journey but, after three-and-a-half hours in the pouring rain, a rite of passage. Welcome to London. How the hell do the tourists cope?

Chelsea’s training facility was state-of-the-art, as you would expect given Abramovich’s (ever-dwindling) billions but, while Lampard, Terry and company glide to the glass-façaded entrance in their Bentleys and Porsches, the poor journos must trek, almost cross-country, down some god-forsaken, mud-encrusted, dark track while academy players boot footballs at them from adjacent pitches. You would have thought, for all our efforts, Guus Hiddink and Michael Essien, who was never going to be the most eloquent footballer, might have given just one worthwhile muttering. To be within touching distance of the Chelsea manager and player was a nice experience, however, despite their pointless comments.

Friday night, my final evening, was spent in the decadent surroundings of Putney: decadent as in £4 pint of Peroni decadent. Having been well-prepped by Huw and Will on the problems with taking night bus services, I had conveniently concluded to steer well clear but, with this not being my finest day with transport, another tube failure necessitated their use. Well, the next hour was exceedingly interesting to say the least. Inebriated Londoners of all nationalities shoehorned themselves onto the double-decker, conversing in a multitude of languages at various volumes as we weaved our way around the sights of Central London. Fuck the tour bus, take the night bus!

The week had been superb, exceeding all expectations. Given your usual preconceptions of work experience the watershed moment came on the first afternoon, when I was made a cup of tea (!) and things just got better and better. To have your name published on the Times website was also a tremendous honour, as well as great CV fodder. In the unlikely event you ever read this blog: Ben, Frank, Neil, Tim and Rob, who make Times Online Sport happen, take a bow. Enjoy your beers!

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Hednesford Town 0 Boston United 1

Unibond Premier Division, Saturday 11th April 2009

It takes a certain kind of person to follow Boston United on away trips. Seriously who, of sound mind, would sacrifice their Saturday and hard-borrowed money to hurtle uncontrollably across the country in a claustrophobic Honda Logo with a dodgy front right wheel for four hours to yet another shithole destination you’ve never heard of for the purposes of supporting a side who can neither defend nor attack? Well, me actually and, on this occasion, the aforementioned unappealing stereotype mercifully wasn’t conformed to. If Fabio Capello had been with us, shoehorned in an Italian tailored suit-spoiling back seat space amongst the discarded McDonalds wrappers, he would have categorised Saturday as one of those ‘good moments,’ such were the life-affirming qualities. For Boston, it was their perfect moment.

Soccer AM had barely started when myself, Andy, JB, Greg, drum, half-pimped flag (the blue felt-tip pen lasted for 'Pride' and 'Passion' but couldn't muster enough life for 'Belief' so it remained blank), ASDA confectionery, iPod collection and scarf crammed into the said conveyance for the 108 mile trek to Hednesford, which was roughly in the general Birmingham area and then north-a-bit. Possessing the spatial awareness of a pepped-up hawk, I was given the navigational duties, which went thus: “Head for East Midlands Airport and we’ll work it out from there.” Still, it was more accurate than the last away jaunt, to North Ferriby, which involved aiming for the Humber Bridge and then turning left, because ‘you can’t miss it, it’s a bloody 200 foot tall suspension bridge!’ I’ve made a mental note not to get employed programming satnavs.

With the digestion of the mandatory service station Burger King eased by an impromptu kick-around on what was effectively a motorway embankment, we trundled along into to scenic Hednesford, reaching the ground in good time. Andy pursued an ‘aggressive’ driving technique throughout, choosing to adopt the racing line at full pelt on practically every corner from the most narrow, mud-splattered Lincolnshire byway to the M42. The near-misses accumulated, but disaster struck only upon entering the Shropshire town when our window-mounted BUFC car flag, attached by an overworked suction pad, flew off into a busy dual-carriageway after our driver unwisely decided to salute some randomers creosoting his garden fence. I was order to retrieve the AWOL vehicle accessory, which wasn’t exactly the safest thing I’ve ever done.

The Cross Keys stadium was surprisingly handsome, a stark contrast to the majority of piles in the Unibond league. However, you know Boston’s obesity epidemic has got out of hand when quantities of the 70-strong travelling support refused to climb the half-a-dozen steps to the bar. A certain trio of intrepid Pilgrim musketeers had decided to brave British Rail for their travel arrangements and such was the hassle and inevitable expense, they had obviously concluded that the only answer was to get thoroughly bladdered. Consequently, their repertoire of spur-of-the-moment chants was marvellously entertaining, if mildly cringe-worthy.

‘Cos we’re ‘ard, United’s support decided they would cosy up with the home support and infiltrated the shared terrace with the stealth and subtlety of a juggernaut slamming through a wind chime manufacturer. The resident Brum Scum, not used to seeing a crowd, weren’t happy and groaned amongst themselves in their grim Midlands drool, particularly when JB revved up the drum to spoil the Saturday afternoon village peace. Comprehensively out-shouted and with their donkey strikeforce being woefully shite, three Brum Scum resorted to hurling ill-conceived insults: ‘where’s all yer immigrant factory werkers, eh?’ drooled Brum Scum #1. ‘Yeah, yer dirty northern bastards!’ yelled Brum Scum #2, whose three GCSEs evidently didn’t include geography. Brum Scum #3, a follicley-challenged fellow with bad water retention, just glowed rouge. Thankfully, they all pissed off at the interval, probably on an aspirin hunt such was the away noise.

On the pitch, nothing had really happened and nor would anything happen until two minutes from time. Suddenly, Ricky Miller, whose New Year’s resolution was to single-handedly guarantee Boston’s survival, gathered the ball and advanced into a chasm of space within the penalty area. Just to increase the suspense, he stumbled over the ball, allowing two defenders to block before twisting and slamming the ball home. Magic. The bedlam that ensued can’t be described: I recall being at the very top of the stand and then, two seconds later, being within a hoarding high jump of the pitch and the mêlée of jubilant players. Just as I was lining up my step-over, thus completing an ambition to break the sacred line between stand and pitch, an angry-looking steward appeared and spoilt the fun.

The party started immediately as the Boston mass bounced up and down in unison, bellowing out anthems about survival at the top of their voices: ‘Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-nana-na, Boston’s staying up, Boston’s staying up!’ The three points pushed the promised land of survival into very clear focus with only four matches left to play.

Once we had figured out that cars actually run more smoothly with the boot closed, we departed Hednesford in scarf-swinging, chant-booming party mode – an unhealthy amount of Vengaboys and S Club being unashamedly played in the four hour return journey. For no obvious reason, we returned to the dogshit-covered patch of motorway grass for another game of keepie-uppie; our eventual record was 135 touches before common sense prevailed, patience expired and the ball was blazed into the adjacent forest, which goes to prove that you can play football in leather brogues.

The day had all the components of the perfect away day: fantastic company, randomness by the bucketful, hilarity, amber and black camaraderie, and, that precious commodity of three points. Ace.

Vengaboys – Boom Boom Boom Boom
S Club 7 – Reach
BBC Orchestra – The Great Escape theme

Thursday, 9 April 2009

A Grand Day Out at The Guardian

Boston railway station at 6am isn't pretty. The platform was strewn with unused condoms and empty bottles of Lambreeeni (assume Chav voice), which spoke only of another inductee into the STD club. Skateboarding scroats roamed around with mock menace, although for some reason they remained polite enough to exit the public areas when cadging cigarettes.

Not that the 6.14 was a great deal better. Through my own six o'clock eyes, the conductor bore an uncanny resemblance to Jozef Fritzel. You heard it here first: he's not behind Austrian prison bars, he works on British Rail. Fritzel spent the entire journey telling anyone within earshot of his Draconian theories on ticket inspection.

I love the smell of Grantham in the morning. Actually, i don't, it's fucking vile. The place that gave the world Margaret Thatcher is where country bumpkin meets slick city commuter, where tweed and Barbour meet Burton suit. Both were in evidence in the crush for the 7.17 (delayed, naturally). Thankfully, once the Mothercounty had been traversed, a normal day ensued.

The Guardian's new place, within a coal-shovelers range of King's Cross and in a picturesque canal-side location, is pretty swish. The inside is spacious and airy, the production areas sit vibrant, at the cutting edge. The Insight into Journalism day was immensely beneficial despite being loaded with propaganda for the liberal rag. I just succeeded in pretending I actually bought the Guardian: truth be told, as a Times reader, and an obsessive one at that, I've never once bought it. Oh well.

Apparently, they use a format called the Berliner. My warped mind just couldn't dispel the image of the stereotypical fat-but-not-in-a-threatening-way German commuter hopelessly trying to juggle his breakfast Wurst, dessert pretzel and multi-section newspaper on the U-Bahn. "Ach, nein! Mein Sportsection ist verloren!"

Lunchtime was a networking session over cucumber sandwiches, spring rolls and weird-looking vol-au-vents. I was sidetracked by a fabulous lady who writes the obituraries (they have a big database of people who look close to kicking the bucket, you know). These York alumni can smell you a mile off and I was required to fill her in on all on-campus developments in the general 1994-2009 time frame. Which really didn't take long as she stayed in Langwith which, to the best of my knowledge, remains a grim concrete jungle.

In the afternoon, the hotch-potch of undergrads, postgrads and last-chance career changers were shepherded into a computer workshop apparently used mainly by primary schools. It was slightly emasculating to discover the quality of front page design by the year four classes, especially as we, average age 25, were set the same assignment. My agreeable partner Fraser and I scooped the top prize (which I await with great excitement to be dispatched through the post, bet it' a Guardian biro). Thank God Nouse have taught me how to lay-up a fit page, comes in so handy.

I managed to arrive back in Boston without killing a single train, thank God. If I have a vice, it's murdering trains. I just can't help myself, they simply break down whenever I'm within 100 yards. The first was returning from the England test at Trent Bridge last year, when the brakes decided to fail, a situation exacerbated by my stomach performing double somersaults with pike after a dodgy Worthingtons in the morning session. After much delay (and stopping) we were re-routed via the entirety of the North on a train which looked like it had been borrowed from Communist-era Russia.

There was then the mainline service deciding to break down sufficiently short of Doncaster on the hottest day of last summer (it reached fully 20 degrees). British Rail appeased those on board by handing out bottles of warm sparkling water and turning down the air conditioning. Then, returning from Wembley for the England match last week, the train died agonisingly short of Grantham. It was a short delay, just enough to ensure I missed my connection, but a short delay. Allegedly, a Hull Train had caught fire. Excitement swept the carriage. I know it's morbid, but after being so bloody inconvenienced, I was wanting a bloody rail inferno. Something that would appear on Look North. I was bitterly disappointed, there sat the train in question in Grantham station, perfectly still without the slightest trace of smoke. Damn it.

It leaves you fretting until Boston station was back in view and, yes, it looked just as pleasant in the evening gloom as it had 14 hours earlier.
M.I.A. - Paper Planes
Pet Shop Boys - You were always on my mind
Stone Roses - This is the One

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Boston United 1 Leigh Genesis 1

Unibond Northern Premier League, April 4th 2009

The Good Ship Pilgrim was back in port last Saturday and, given an injury list the length of my gangly arms, was in desperate need of repair. Micky Nuttell, having shaken off his arthritis, was out having his elbows sharpened and he wasn't the only one beyond repair.

Leigh Genesis are a baffling team. Despite their biblical pretensions, their progression to the book of Revelation (a.k.a. inglorious relegation) has been rather swift, although at least their wandering in the desert has finally finished after finally moving in to their new stadium, beautifully oversized for their purposes by a factor of about 100. One of the flags hung in the York Street stand read 'Astra Army on Tour' and their invisible travelling support could probably have crammed into the aforementioned Vauxhall conveyance.

Such is life following Boston United, however, that Genesis were permitted to return to Manchester (or the Holy Land) with a point which really did no one any favours. Wes Parker, trying to run off the symptoms of a hernia, nodded the Pilgrims into a first-half lead but, with an all too familiar stroke of misfortune, Genesis were awarded a late, late penalty, duly converted.

However, with the sense of crushing inevitability that could only happen in Boston, the most riveting entertainment was found off the pitch. Below my perch in the Town End stood, as per usual, a gentleman whose God-avowed intent to blast every unfortunate referee dispatched to South Lincolnshire with an accented stream of invective.

The geezer really excelled himself on Saturday. Teetering on the brink of cardiac arrest, he verbally assaulted the official with such x-rated gems as "Why don't u just fack off weferee..." and "howsabout that then wef!" and with as much regularity as a Pilgrims away day reverse.

Twice, at pivotal moments of refereeing incompetence, he made an excursion, verbally-challenged son in tow, to the cusp of the pitch only to be denied by a polite notice which read 'Emergency Gate.' If only all hooligans were so considerate...

The penalty incident brought the final straw and the bloke nearly exploded. He was so damn enraged with the ref, the opponents, the temperature of his coffee and life in general that he even left his flask behind. Shame. "The game should never have been played..." was his final salvo. Hmmm.

And so, we'll set sail for Hednesford (which could be difficult given it's extreme inland location) next Saturday, as usual more in hope than expectation.