This may well turn out to be the fastest blog post you will ever read. It is certainly the fastest post I have ever typed. I’ll come back to that later.
Well, after the events of Saturday and a trip to Wembley Stadium for some obscure little match of no significance to me, I spent Sunday recuperating. I have to confess that I was not in any state for ground hopping on Sunday.
Michelle & Josh had gone home on Sunday night, which meant they were able to go to see Spennymoor at Shildon in the Bank Holiday Monday fixture and then back to Spennymoor for the FA Vase victory parade. Sadly for me, I couldn’t go as I had to pack for my holiday, and I was in no fit state to drive 600 miles.
I chose instead to take in the Evo Stik Southern Premier League Premier Division play off final at Hemel Hempstead between Hemel and Gosport Borough. At stake was a place in the Conference South for next season.
I knew there would be a reasonable crowd there. I hadn’t been to Hemel’s ground before before so followed my sat nav’s directions, but it was not necessary as the sheer numbers of people going towards the ground showed me where it was. I parked on the street relatively near the ground as the car parks were full. There was even a relatively large police presence outside the ground for a game some 6 levels below the Premiership.
Unusually for a non league game, there were turnstiles for ticket holders and separate ones for those paying cash. It was £10 to get in, which seemed reasonable for a game of such importance, Remember some clubs 2 divisions below this level were charging that much this season weren’t they Darlington? ( they charged £10 for a seat and £8 to stand – Hemel charged £10 to sit or stand)
Inside the ground and the first thing that struck me was there were no programmes at the turnstiles and the ground seemed pretty full. Behind the bottom goal were the Hemel massive. Given the fact Hemel usually get gates under 400, it was a fair bet that many of them had not been to many games, but like most successful sides they get a lot of glory hunters. I did find programmes on sale at the 2nd set of turnstiles, there were loads there, but seemingly they didn’t share with the other turnstiles!
The seats were already full and the ground was buzzing. I thought the Spennymoor v Darlington game in February was a good atmosphere for a non league game, but this was even better. The Gosport fans had taken over the goal behind the top end of the ground. There were perhaps 2-300 of them in total.
It was great to hear the friendly tanoy announcer asking kids not to sit with their legs over the wall around the pitch today. It harked back to days gone by. The bar in the ground was doing a roaring trade with people enjoying their pints in plastic glasses on the terraces. A real carnival atmosphere and a buzz of anticipation ran around the place. The glorious sunshine helped.
I had gone to the game wearing my Spennymoor Town shirt (had to bask in the glory) and had several Hemel fans come over and chat to me about the Vase Final and offer their congratulations. This is one of the great things about non league football- the camaraderie between fans of different games.
Stood on the terraces behind the top goal, I got talking to an Oxford fan Paul who had been to the Vase Final on Saturday in the Spennymoor end and had been cheering us on. He is a prolific ground hopper as well as an Oxford United season ticket holder who attends most Oxford home and away games. Indeed on the day after the Vase final he was at the Conference play off at Wembley so Monday was his 3rd game in as many days. I spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with him. He was a very knowledgeable football fan and as a neutral he was able to call the game fairly. Its nice to meet football fans who are not so wrapped up in their own club and can hold a conversation about other teams, unlike some of those 1883 fans of some clubs who think the world revolves around their club.
So the game started with Gosport playing down the hill, and after only a few minutes they were 1 up when Hemel forgot to mark the Gosport players. A very sloppy goal to give away and it seemed to throw Hemel. By half time it was pretty much one way traffic, with Gosport getting a 2nd from a free kick over the wall a la David Beckham. Minutes later, Gosport nearly had a third goal when they hit the post. This tie was dead and buried.
Hemel did have a few chances, but these were well dealt with by the athletic and powerfully built Gosport goalkeeper. He had the physique of a boxer and came off his line frequently and to good effect. So half time came and the score was 2-0, what could Hemel do to get back into the game?
Paul and I expected Hemel to come out for the second half and throw everything including the kitchen sink at Gosport. We were very much mistaken. Hemel seemed to have no belief in themselves and the game looked like petering out into a 2-0 to Gosport, or perhaps even more. Even the Hemel fans seemed resigned to this as they made little noise. The travelling Gosport fans were confidently singing “The Gosport are going up”.
Then rather out of the blue with about 10 minutes left Hemel scored from a header when just like Gosport’s opener, the defence failed to mark the attacking player. Hemel 1 Gosport 2, this might liven things up for the last 10 minutes.Gosport seemingly ignored the wake up call and continued to sleep walk their way to the final whistle. Then a moment of magic with a run and shot from outside the area by a Hemel player levelled the scoring. It was as good a shot as any I’ve seen this season, apart from Rasher’s at Wembley for Spennymoor (and no goal this season beats that in my mind ).
2-2 and could Gosport recover from the shock of conceding 2 late goals and having promotion denied so late on in the game? Extra time ensued and this was a lively affair with both sides having chances, Gosport seemingly managing to recover from the blow of those 2 late goals.
The Hemel fans were in great voice now, and the Gosport fans singing “The Gosport are going up” sounded almost as though they were pleading. The confidence had gone from the fans.
No goals in extra time and so it was to penalties. 9 of the 10 penalties were scored, with the Gosport keeper saving one of them. This was rather fitting as he had been outstanding during the game. Despite Gosport probably just (and I mean just) being the better side, their keeper had made far more saves than the Hemel keeper over the 120 minutes.
The joy on the faces of the Gosport players, fans and officials was a delight to see. We were even treated to the sight of the female physio for Gosport running round the pitch in her bra in celebration, and showing off her extensive collection of tattoos.
Penalties are an awful way to miss out on promotion, but I do not know any other way to decide the drawn game. A great advert for football. Both sets of fans made a great atmosphere today and deserve a word of praise.
One other feature of the day that I must mention was another throwback. The Gosport number 6 had a beard. Whatever happened to footballers having facial hair.
I left and got home to several emails from Michelle and my father who had been to the Spennymoor victory parade that saw in the region of 10,000 people turn out to welcome the team back with the Vase. When you consider the town only has a population of 18,000, it was a magnificent and incredible turn out.
I just want to add a personal thanks to the Spennymoor fans, volunteers, players and directors who all took the time to chart to my partner Michelle on Monday and made her and her 2 boys feels so welcome at a game and the parade when she went without me. You have got a fan in Michelle and both her boys and she will be spreading the word to others about Spennymoor.
My experiences today and those of Michelle convince me more than ever that Non league football is the future. I am almost (I said almost) at the stage where I do not care in Newcastle are relegated.
I must just end this post by saying RIP to Steve Carney, the former Blyth and Newcastle player who died aged 55 from cancer. Steve was a member of that Blyth side that got to the FA Cup 5th round replay in 1978 and then played for Newcastle United for several years. He will be remembered by me as a player who never gave less than 100% and who never shirked a tackle. There is a great write up about him on the blog about Blyth. I do not have internet access as I type this so will try to remember to add the link in due course. (http://blythspirit.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/green-white-cult-heroes-steve-carney/ )
Now, you will recall my opening paragraph about this 1600 word blog and claiming it was the fastest I have ever written. Well the reason for that is I am typing it at 534 mph at a height of 39,000 ft as I fly across the Atlantic to Newark in preparation for the Police Unity Tour ride starting on Thursday. So Monday was almost certainly my last football match this season.
The preparation for going to the USA consisted of me packing my bike into the box, remembering to deflate the tyres, take the handlebars off etc. Then I carefully packed the bike into the box, wrapped it up, put my shoes helmet and pedals in the box. I carefully put the lid on the box and fastened all 5 ties. Job done. Next I packed my clothing and realised I could not find my GPS device for the bike. I had it before I took the bike to pieces. I searched the house, unpacked my bags, checked ever drawer in the house. Then I unpacked the bike bog took everything out and still couldn’t find it. As I cursed my luck and repacked everything I winged onto Michelle my text message about losing the GPS. Then I unpacked my bike again, checked in my cycling shoes and found the GPS was there.
Grrrrr- so that means I have packed my bike 3 times before getting to load it into the car. Who said “Stupid is as stupid does”? Forest Spen?
Anyway, eventually I got myself packed and headed off to Heathrow Airport. I wonder what I have left behind. Obviously not the laptop, but I am sure I will have left something behind. Knowing me it will be my pants and socks or 1 pedal from my bike.
If I have forgotten anything, I am going to blame Michelle for not doing my packing for me. I mean, I am a man after all and am therefore not capable of doing anything domesticated successfully. Look what happened when I tried to use the steam cleaner.
I have had several texts today from people wishing me well and thanks everyone for that. It is always nice to have a few words of encouragement.