Sunday 29 September 2019

Done The 92

Saturday saw me complete a five-year journey to see every single Premier League/Football League ground – I visited the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, bringing to a close a run that started (97 games ago, actually) at Preston North End’s Deepdale.

Chronicled in my doing the 92 book series ‘Playing Offside’ (available on Amazon Kindle for a very reasonable price – the final part with the Tottenham game released in the next few months!), along the way I’ve tried to delve into the history and current standing of each club, their hopes and aspirations and what effect they have on their local communities. I’ve met many interesting people, heard some very interesting things and almost been assaulted by a mascot.

With Bury sadly being expelled from the EFL and Coventry playing their games at Birmingham City’s St Andrew’s, it’s been more of a ‘doing the 90’ this season – but my point all along was to visit all of the current grounds in the top four leagues, so I’ve achieved that at least!

As there are two relegation places that feed into the National League, teams and their grounds were always going to be passing each other during the last five years – but I think I’ve done okay on that account. Throughout the series, the grounds that have disappeared from the 92 (that I already went to) include four clubs who have gone down into the National League (Barnet, Chesterfield, Notts County and Yeovil Town), one club who have gone down to the National League and since returned (Leyton Orient), Coventry’s Ricoh Arena that they no longer use and Bury’s Gigg Lane, of course.

This journey should have ended at the end of last season but as the months grew on-and-on and ground-after-ground was ticked off, Tottenham still hadn’t completed their stadium – considering it was supposed to be opened in September 2018, the constant delays caused a sense of frustration amongst their supporters, let alone myself! In my own selfishness, I was sort-of hoping that they would delay the opening until the start of the 2019/20 season – that way, I could complete the 92 in 2018/19 by visiting their ‘temporary home’ at Wembley Stadium. But no, they opened the new ground in April and I was left to contemplate another month-or-two’s worth of Groundhopping at the start of this season!

In the end, I didn’t mind that the end of this 92 was slightly delayed – along with a visit to the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, I would need to go to National League play-off winners, Salford City (which is a local club to me anyway) – I had already seen National League champions, Leyton Orient, in 2015 meaning that I would only have to do two grounds to complete the 92. Except during the summer, Coventry ended up moving to Birmingham and Bury dropped out – but as a raging completist, I went to see Coventry play at St Andrew’s last month so I completed the ‘91’ for this season!

I won’t be going into my experiences of the new Tottenham Stadium here (you’ll have to get the book for that!) but needless to say it was a great experience. I’m not just talking about the aesthetics and the numerous amenities the stadium has, nor the way in which crowds are marshalled after the game to allow easy and timely access to public transport links, but just the way journeying to this new stadium would have felt the same as it would a hundred years ago when people made their way to the old White Hart Lane.

Okay, the stadium being built in the same place as the old one is probably a big help with that (!), but with the sheer size of the new stadium, you might have expected it to have a major impact on streets for miles around. But no, without the football shirts on display, anyone new to Tottenham High Road would assume that walking down it with these throngs of people would be your average Saturday. When you do arrive at the stadium, it seems to be part of rows of buildings you’ve been passing for the last half-an-hour, even despite it's look and sheer size – it’s part of the community, is what I’m trying to say. Like EVERY football club should be; which is a very rare thing to say about a football club’s new stadium, especially one of our top clubs!

You will be able to read more about this in Volume Five of Playing Offside, which will be in early 2020 – stay tuned to the blog's Twitter account (and this blog itself!) for updates.

Saturday 7 September 2019

Manchester City Women vs. Manchester United Women

Like many people it seems, I was enamoured by this summer’s Women’s World Cup. I watched every England game, gripped by the quick and exciting forward play of The Lionesses  – the strong-running of Lucy Bronze, the midfield-controlling of Jill Scott, the shithousery (and goals) of Ellen White. It was great to watch – so I need to go and see this ‘women playing football spectacle' for myself.

To be honest, I said the same thing four years ago when I stayed up late to watch England’s heartbreaking injury time defeat in the Semi-Final against Japan. But I’m going to do something about it this time – I’m actually going to put some effort in and watch a women’s game in person. Coincidentally, Manchester City are opening their Women’s Super League season against ‘new’ rivals Manchester United – with the match moved to the Etihad Stadium to take advantage of a big crowd. I snapped up a ticket straight away – they were only £7 a pop, after all. 

I’ve long been puzzled as to why it’s taken women’s football so long to establish itself because it’s not like they can’t play. I can only convey my feelings through personal experience; when I was about 8, I played in a team on Saturday mornings on a windswept Wigan school field where even dogs daren’t roam. One week, a girl turned up to play for us – and she was brilliant. Quick and skillful, she caused the opposition lads some real problems down the wing. Being a deep-lying midfielder (before such things were popular – okay I was lazy and didn’t want to run), I just kicked the ball out wide to her and she ran with it, creating several goals. Sadly, she never played for us again (I seem to remember her saying that she wasn’t *usually* allowed? At 8 years old???). 

Anyway, since that brief experience of playing football with a girl, I’ve not been a subscriber to the ‘girls can’t play football’ adage, as they clearly can. Since then, growing up (well, that's debatable – ageing up) and learning more about the game, I was always intrigued by the lack of girls who played football – my child's mind just assumed they didn't want to get dirty.

The reason why women’s football hasn’t established itself (until recent times, at least) was due no in small part to the FA ban on its members clubs from hosting women’s games on their pitches. Despite attracting huge crowds during the First World War, the game was deemed ‘unsuitable’ for females in 1921 by the governing body and a ban was swiftly put out. It took 50 years for it to be lifted and during that time, the men’s game had established itself as England’s leading professional sport. Women had a lot to catch up on.

One of the major criticisms aimed at the women’s game recently (that I’ve seen, anyway) is that it's being promoted ‘beyond its quality as a product’. Whether you think the ‘product’ is any good is a subjective opinion – expecting it to contain the same skill, speed and physicality as the men’s game is ridiculous, in my opinion. It's the same game, yet different. To many, though, women's football simply isn’t ‘as good’ as the men’s game, so isn’t worthy of their attention – but do most people just watch football for the high levels of skill on display? If that was the case, nobody would watch (men's) lower-league games – football does not need to be 'good' to be exciting; being excited is the feeling that we all want to experience when watching games, surely?

I think that the supposed 'over-promotion' of the women’s game can be put down to three points:
  • (The obvious one) women’s football needs to catch up after spending half-a-century in the wilderness, so the apparent over-promotion is designed to give an 'artificial boost' to the game.
  • The ongoing push for women to achieve equality in society has led to women’s football being marketable. Rightly or wrongly, companies see women's equality as an opportunity to gain brand credibility for a relatively small outlay.
  • In competition with the internet and on-demand services, television and media companies are struggling to attain rights to show the world’s most popular sports. The BBC, especially, do not have many major sports to televise beyond football World Cup’s, European Championships, Wimbledon Tennis and Olympics Games. Certainly not enough sport to bring back Grandstand, anyway.
With any popular subject in society these days, it’s the 'not taking the time to understand each other’s points-of-view' that’s the centre of the problem, I feel. I followed social media extremely closely during the World Cup and the number of cheap shots on both sides was something to behold. Comments on every post regarding the tournament were generally ‘don’t care’, ‘it’s shit’, ‘get in the kitchen’, etc.  Understandably (but mistakenly), those on the women's football side nibbled at the bait, sent abuse back and swiftly closed down the avenues for any meaningful conversation.

The BBC then didn’t help matters with clickbaity posts and articles with headlines such as ‘Five Ways Women’s Football Beats Men’s’ – whilst the article itself makes some good points and backs itself up with facts, do they really think click-driven headlines like that will help to educate and change the mind of the football fan who’s already suspecting that the women's game is getting some 'undue coverage'?. No – they’re going to think there’s ‘an agenda’ to over-promote women’s football and ‘do down men because it’s fashionable’. Regardless of whether there’s a trickle of truth in that, I’m with Timmy Thomas on this one – why can’t we live together? Why can’t we enjoy football mutually without resorting to these cheap shots? Why can't we have a reasonable discussion without abuse and blocking? This way, common ground can be sought and when you've got that common ground cleared, you can create a path to walk down together, hand-in-hand to watch the game we all love.

(By the way, fellow Alpha's; this is not me ‘white knighting’ – going out of the way to be all ‘progressive’ to impress women so they’ll like/take pity on me – as I said, I’m perfectly fine with just laying the ball off and letting a woman do all the work).

Speaking of living together, today’s ‘first professional women's Manchester derby’ is being held at the Etihad Stadium – one of a few WSL games to be held at men’s first team grounds on this opening weekend. Clubs are attempting to allow as many people as possible an opportunity to see women’s football for the first time in order to capitalise on the World Cup. Usually, City’s women play at The Academy Stadium – the 7,000-seater stadium across the road from the Etihad that was built for the club’s various youth sides. I’ll be honest here, although I fully understand (and support) the decision to host a big game such as this in a big stadium, I’m slightly disappointed that it’s not being held in The Academy Stadium so I can tick it off the groundhopping list!

It isn't just hosting the bigger games at men's stadiums that's new this season in the WSL; matches will be shown live on BT Sport and at least one a week on the BBC Sport website. This summer also saw the league sign its first overseas television deals – covering Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Highlights will also be made available on the new 'FA Player' – so they're at least getting all the building blocks in place to expand the reach of the league.

The Etihad (or ‘The City of Manchester Stadium’, as it used to be known) is located roughly a mile-and-a-half from the centre of Manchester, so is easy to get to by all forms of transport. On the way into Piccadilly train station, my own train from Wigan is delayed on route by about 40 minutes, so on arrival I’ve got half-an-hour to kick-off. ‘No problem’, thinks I, ‘I’ll get the tram’. On reaching the Metrolink station under Piccadilly, I’m met with a massive queue that snakes around the back of the station – nearly all of them going to the game, from what I can tell.

Despite it being 7 minutes until kick-off by the time I get to board the tram, I somehow manage to still get into the ground and into my seat just before the game starts – I’ve never sat in the Colin Bell Stand before, but if you are and you’re going via the tram, get off at Etihad Campus as it drops you right outside the stand. What immediately hits me about the crowd around the stadium (who are not making a move to actually get in for kick-off!) is that it’s mostly families – not just Mum’s with daughters, as you might automatically expect, but Dad’s with daughters, Dad’s with sons, Mum’s with sons, Mum’s and Dad’s with sons and daughters – the whole Brady Bunch.

The top tiers of the stadium are closed but the rest of the ground looks fairly packed – there’s a mix of City and United supporters dotted around, with the main bulk of United supporters behind one of the goals in the usual away end. As the match starts, it’s immediately noticeable how different the atmosphere is – there’s no thunderous roar on kick-off, it’s mostly children doing the shouting and singing. Yes singing – for some reason, I expected the game to have an atmosphere of the average men’s friendly; bits of shouting, attempts at starting songs, but nothing prolonged and tuneful. Thought I was in the audience for The Voice Kids, at one point.

Both sides start in a cagey fashion; having periods of possession, getting a feel of the ball without creating much. What I do notice is how tactically good the players are; they stick to their positions and individual roles without straying too far and leaving gaps. As I’m surveying my surroundings, I see that there are ads, placed around the stadium, denoting the club as being ‘One City’ – it’s all the same club, rather than two separate entities. With all kinds of families sat around the ground, you’d imagine that this is the sort of ‘crowd’ that women’s football needs to appeal to and attract – this 'One City' promotion clearly aimed to allow them support 'Manchester City', despite the cost of watching top-level men's football becoming increasingly unaffordable for the average family. I just hope that, if it does grow to anywhere near the level of popularity as the men’s game, women’s football continues along these lines and not go down the path of grabbing as much money as it can. The memories that football can give you, when you’re experiencing it with friends and family, is worth more than money – and everyone should have the opportunity experience it.

United were the better side in the first half – their best chance falling to Jane Ross; stood on the penalty spot, she receives the ball from the left, shoots first-time and somehow, Ellie Roebuck (in for the injured England No1 Karen Bardsley), sticks a hand out and deflects it wide. The 19-year-old is called into action again just before half-time; another ball in from the left sees it bobble around in the 6-yard area, United’s Jessica Sigworth is unable to get a decent connection which allows Roebuck to pounce upon it.

What has struck me about the atmosphere so far is that it’s friendly – no venom spat from the stands at the players, no abuse for the referee, no swearing whatsoever. I’m not sure how to feel – on one hand, hearing all of that at a football game makes me embarrassed (and often angry at the utter rubbish some people say), on the other, I can’t deny that it all adds to an intimidating atmosphere that may help to give your side an edge.

Half-time allows me an opportunity to leaf through the programme; a very interesting landscaped-A5 effort for £3. There’s an intriguing read about the first ‘competitive’ meeting of Manchester City Women and the previous incarnation of Manchester United Women in September 1990. With both sides being amateurs, they played on a field in the grounds of Manchester University in front of a crowd of around 150, City edging a thrilling game, 4-3 (is there any other way to describe a 4-3?!). Whilst the City side would go on to morph into the leading side they are today, Manchester United disbanded their women’s side in 2005 – only bringing the team back last season when they easily won The FA Women’s Championship. The re-establishment of this fixture has undoubtedly created much interest going forwards; it just needs time to grow as its own ‘rivalry’, and not as simply a mirror of the men’s fixture. (I just hope it’ll be a 'friendly rivalry' – I don’t want to see H&M-wearing teenage girls throwing shade at each other, like the Stone Island-wearing teenage boys do near men’s football grounds). 

City start the second half more urgently – ensuring they’re quicker to the ball and moving it at a faster pace. It becomes apparent that they’re technically the better side – and they’re immediately rewarded for their approach. Two minutes of the second half have been played as City probe around their opponents penalty area, United clearing away a loose ball – but it’s cut out on the left by Caroline Weir who proceeds to take another touch to bring herself inside, before firing the ball from almost 30 yards – and into the corner of the net. It was a strike worthy of any seen at this stadium in recent times and it’s quite rightly met with exuberant, youthful cheers from the H&M Ultras.

The attendance is announced as being over 31,000 – a record crowd for a regular women's league fixture, producing the biggest cheer of the day (bar the goal, of course!). In the week (as well as in the programme), the club said that they were expecting 20-25,000 to turn up (perhaps this explains the queues for the tram earlier?!), so it’s great to see those expectations exceeded.

As the game grows older and City frustrated at United’s well-organised defence, the threat of them being hit by a sucker punch, whilst searching for that clinching goal, is always hanging over them – and it nearly happened. United midfielder, Jackie Groenen does well to nip a long ball away from City’s centre-back, Gemma Bonner, and as the Dutch international reaches the penalty area, bearing down on Roebuck, she loses control of the ball – it falls to City right-back Aoife Mannion to clear, which she does – right onto Groenen’s foot! Fortunately for Mannion, Groenen couldn’t control the ball, it hit her foot and rolled back off the post and into Roebuck’s grateful mitts.

It was United’s best chance of the second-half – and their last. City did enough in the end, but United
did themselves credit, considering this was the first match at this level for many of their players. With some big players to come back for City – including new signing Ellen White, I’d expect them to start converting their quick, attacking play into goals before long. The crowd are appreciative, many staying to applaud them off.

I enjoyed the occasion, even if the game wasn’t high on chances – I’ve seen much worse in the last year alone. I’ll definitely be back at a women’s game soon, if only to tick off some more grounds! In the end, from my vantage point (and poor eyesight, to be fair) it just seemed like light-blue shirts were playing red shirts. And that's all that matters – men, women, boys, girls, it's still football we're watching, it’s still the game we all love so let's work together to make it better for us all.

Manchester City Women 1

Manchester United Women 0

Attendance: 31,213

Tuesday 3 September 2019

Southport vs. Altrincham

Seven days after Bury FC were expelled from The Football League, the criticism of the governing body has been growing – their refusal to listen to a new proposal to allow the club to rejoin as a League Two side next season (subject to a takeover going through), isn’t making them seem like they’re acting in the best interests of the clubs they profess to protect. It feels like a momentous stance they’re taking in the event of anything like this happening again.

This got me thinking about other watershed moments in the history of The Football League – and (somewhat conveniently)  I’m off groundhopping to Southport FC tonight, who in 1978 became the last club to drop out of The Football League after failing to gain re-election.  And guess who would replace them? My team, Wigan Athletic (I just don’t throw these blogs together, you know).

Currently playing in the National League North, Southport are rebuilding after a couple of seasons of struggle that has seen them relegated from the top tier of non-league football, down towards the bottom end of this division. Their Football League existence began in 1921, as a founder member of the Third Division North – coming to an end when their third consecutive 23rd –placed finish saw them (eventually) voted out in favour of Wigan.

I should probably feel a bit sheepish at this, but as one of the biggest and most successful non-league clubs at the time; having over twenty applications to join the league turned down, it was nothing short of a scandal that Wigan didn’t already have a Football League place by ‘78 – it was just a shame a near neighbour had to pay the price. 

The election system effectively created a ‘closed shop’ with members, who would generally vote with each other to ensure that they all remained Football League clubs. Southport would end up finishing 7 points ahead of bottom side Rochdale, but it was them who ended up being replaced (also, Wigan had actually finished second to Boston United in the Northern Premier League, but they were unable to apply because of their ground didn’t come up to scratch). 

It just shines a light on how difficult it was to bring a team up from non-league during this era – although Southport were the last Football League team to lose an election, it wouldn’t be until 1986 that the system was scrapped and replaced by one automatic promotion sport (dependent on ground grading, of course). 

Today, many people are calling for three automatic promotion spots from the National League (up from two at the moment) – I honestly believe it would be a good thing because it would make relegation from the Football League less of a disastrous proposition for clubs; it would make them cut their cloths accordingly and be ran with sensible budgets. Being mostly a professional league these days (if it isn’t already), with clubs such as Stockport County, Notts County and Chesterfield in there this season, the National League is pretty much a ‘League Three’ anyway. With three promotion spots, perhaps there could be an opportunity for The Sandgrounders to return, sooner rather than later?

The town of Southport was founded in 1792, when William Sutton, an innkeeper from the nearby village of Churchtown built a bathing house at what is now the southern end of Lord Street – arguably the busiest shopping and leisure area in Southport today (there’s plenty of pubs on there, believe me!) The area was known as ‘South Hawes’, which was sparsely populated and dominated by sand dunes. The area’s access to the Leeds-Liverpool canal saw ‘Southport’ grow from that humble bathhouse into a town that subsumed the villages around it, even creating a tourist industry in the Victorian era. Its main attractions include its world-class golf courses (which have hosted The British Open), its funfair and its pier (which at 3,633ft, is the second-longest in the British Isles after Southend – which is the longest pleasure pier in the world at a whopping 7,080ft!) I also once found a tenner on Southport’s beach and took some sand home in a bag and got it in my eyes. Great days.

If you’re coming here on the train via the Manchester-Southport line, the nearest stop to the ground is Meols Cop – the walk from here is straight down Norwood Road and once you reach The Thatch and Thistle pub, cross the road down Haig Avenue and follow the winding street to the ground. I (naturally) stop off for a pint in The Thatch (I don’t know if it’s nicknamed that by locals, but I’m going with it regardless); a pint of Robinson's ‘Unicorn Golden Ale’ is my poison of choice (and it’s a good choice). I did feel a bit weird on approach to the pub (more weird than usual, anyway) – I thought it was closed at first, such was the lack of activity around the place. No, as I approach the entry I can hear the clatter of plates and the chatter of voices.

With a nice, quiet country-style pub five minutes away, the approach to the ground is made complete thanks to the presence of a chippy and convenience store. In my opinion, every football ground should have a pub (to have a drink and a laugh in), a chippy (for healthy sustenance) and a shop (to get some pop and crisps to sneak under your clothing and into the ground so you don't have to pay their exorbitant prices). I didn't indulge in either chippy nor shop – this is ‘Pies, Pints and Goalmouth Scrambles’ not 'Pints, Chippys and Sneaking Four Packets of Monster Munch Under Your Jumper'.

Haig Avenue (known as ‘The Pure Stadium’ for sponsorship reasons) is surrounded by the residential area – and they aren’t short of a few bob around here too (this hit home when I saw a young lady treat her gran with wine and a meal in The Thatch earlier. Where I live, you’ll be lucky to have a gran who’s still alive). Southport is well-known for its affluence; you’re likely to find that successful people from across Merseyside move to the Borough of Sefton that Southport is now a part of. According to online estate agents, Zoopla, the average house price around here is £189,873 – making it the most expensive in Merseyside. 

All this makes you wonder why the club can’t get the finances in place to have a good go at promotion to The Football League – then I see several people wearing Everton jackets as I walk down to the ground. Being the affluent area that has seen people move here from across Merseyside, it must be difficult for the club to grow a dedicated supporter base large enough to garner the funds to challenge at the top of non-league. To underline their link with Liverpool’s oldest professional football club, Everton Ladies currently play their Women’s Super League games at Haig Avenue (until they move to their new ground at Walton Hall Park at the end of this month, anyway).

It’s a decent ground though; I’m sat in The Main Stand, which as the only seated area, dominates the terracing that snakes around the rest of the ground. I'm not 100% up on ground grading but I'm pretty sure this is EFL quality. What is also EFL quality, is this National League North side offering online tickets – I’m a big fan of these; you simply pay online and print off your tickets to be scanned at the turnstile. No having to take the time out of your day to travel to the ticket office, no hanging on the telephone and no having to hunt around for a good seat – you can book a seat for yourself (although not in Southport’s unreserved stand). Sadly, my printer was out of ink, so instead of paying the discounted online price of £13.50, I paid £15 on the gate.

Whilst I was taking my seat (after getting a cup of tea for £1.50, which was a bit of rip-off, to be honest – the one I got for a quid at Atherton Colls was twice the size), I notice Southport’s mascot walking around. I think it’s a lion, but it seems to have gone through some extreme weight loss in a short space of time – there are folds of fur, flapping about all over the place. I give it a wave, anyway. It doesn't wave back.

Southport were the better team in the opening half-hour; manager Liam Watson (in what I think is his 58th spell as manager) barking at his yellow-shirted side to press their opponents up the pitch. It was no surprise to see them go ahead – a long throw into the penalty area was nodded on to the back post and headed in. "Goal for Southport, scored by number 9, Raul Correia…Raul is sponsored by Pinetree Garden Maintenance" says the PA lady to 'woos' from people around me. One bloke (more about him later) shouts “well done Pinetree Garden Maintenance” to the guffaws of everyone. They've had their advertising money's worth tonight – I’ve even mentioned them on here.

The Southport ‘Ultras’ are grouped in the Jack Carr Stand to my right and are in great voice; their chanting and banging echoing throughout the ground. You’d usually expect the away supporters to be the more boisterous, but with this being a Tuesday night, you can forgive them for not being so. With a lull in play around the 40 minute mark, I nip to the food van again to see if they have any pies left. They do – a cheese one. Whilst I was being served, Southport only went and got their second goal! Fortunately, the club were swift on publishing their match report, even including video highlights, so I/they can describe it:

The ball’s on the right, just outside the Alty penalty area, it’s lifted towards the edge of ‘the D’ where, first time on the volley, Kieran Glynn smashes it into the top corner. The cheers told me that it was a great goal, the video evidence just confirmed it. I’m honestly gutted I missed it (for more reasons than the aesthetic quality of the goal, as you’re about to find out). 2-0 up, it’s all looking great for Port.

What isn't looking great, is the pie. Although I'm fond of cheese and a girlfriend once told me 'I'm cheesy' (whatever that means) I just don't think it’s suitable to be the main ingredient in a pie. Cheese is an additional flavouring, it's on the undercard, the support warm-up act – it isn’t the main event. To top it off, the pie is as tough as old boots; once I've penetrated the top of the pastry, the rest of it crumbles away like a mummified corpse. I’m very disappointed, Willow Catering (who also sponsor the open terrace to my left that houses the away support) – for 3 quid, you should be doing better. Maybe have a word with Galloway's Pies – the world-leading purveyor of Wigan-made pies and gingerbread men with creepy eyes (I wonder if I’ll get some free stuff if mention them enough on this blog? Let’s hope Galloways follow their backlinks like a trail of breadcrumbs).

Just after the half-time whistle sounds, the PA announcer tells us that an Altrincham supporter has left his coat and wallet in Wetherspoons, leading to hilarity around the ground. Even she couldn't contain her laughter as she finished her annoucement with the perfect call-to-action:  ' you better get it'. I would imagine the Wetherspoons she’s talking about is the one on Lord Street itself, which is a good 40-minute walk away – so I hope someone can give him a lift, as it’s just started to piss it down.

One aspect that connects football crowds at all levels, is the presence of a 'Banter Man' – you know the types; those who take it upon themselves to make loud, humorous comments on the game we’re all watching. They're perhaps more prevalent at non-league games due to the smaller crowds. Southport’s Banter Man was the chap who commented upon the goalscorer’s sponsor earlier, and his latest shout was to advise an injured Alty player to 'keep rolling [that way] and you’ll get to the hospital'.

Banter Man isn't best pleased when an Alty player 'goes down like a skittle'. Sadly for him, the ref doesn't agree, gives the free-kick which is whipped in and headed back across goal and into the net. A group of young girls sat in front of me on the first row (well, younger than me – they look about 25ish) cheer heartily, as their kids run about. Alty WAGS?

The rain has been sheeting down for most of the second half, making me feel glad that I’m sat in here and not on the open terraces. Fortunately for the Ultras, their stand has a roof as they continue to try and sing a third goal into the back of the Alty net. In the end, they didn’t need to; although they tried to rally towards the end, Alty didn’t get behind their hosts’ defence as they did enough to hold them at bay.

Thankfully, the break in the rain holds up as I make the 10-minute walk back to the station. I hope Southport can have a decent season, maybe even sneak into those play-offs for a chance to regain their fifth tier status. As I'm sat in the shelter on the platform of Meols Cop station, the rain starts to come down again, I feel quite hungry, but the only ‘cheesy pie’ I want contact with again is, erm, myself.

Southport 2

Altrincham 1

Attendance: 904