Saturday 29 February 2020

Queens Park vs. Annan Athletic

Hampden Park - Glasgow - Queens Park FCAside from the het-up atmosphere of a Boca-River derby at La Bombonera, a European night at Anfield or even an Old Firm match – one of the most unique atmospheres in world football to be involved in, has to be watching an amateur side playing at a 50,000-seater stadium (with an average of 650 other people watching with you). 

Today, it’s ‘Pints, Pies and a Stramash’, as my groundhopping takes me to Hampden Park to see if the oldest association football club in Scotland, Queens Park, can keep their League Two promotion push going as they host Annan Athletic.

10 hours after leaving Old Trafford, I’m on the train for the journey to Glasgow – the 2-and-a-half-hour ride was made all the better by Avanti’s free Wi-Fi. It’s been a somewhat gentle start for the new operator of the West Coast mainline, although that may have something to do with the weather holding out for the better in recent weeks. They’ve made a good start with the free internet – Virgin would charge you for the privilege, which considering the prices of trains tickets, was a bit of a cheek. Thankfully, I could look up information about my visit, read stuff on social media and learn the Spanish for ‘cat’ (gato) on my app without having to dip into my data allowance and the patchy mobile network.

On arrival, the first thing I do is go to a cashpoint to draw some Scottish banknotes out. I’m a bit of lapsed numismatist, so I’m always fascinated with the prospect of receiving unfamiliar money – but there’s a plan behind this instance. I always like to go ‘undercover’ at these games, not draw attention to myself – I can concentrate on getting more out of my experience that way. So the drawing out of twenty Bank of Scotland sterling was done to fulfil my numismatic thirst and so I wouldn’t seem like a daytripper. I just need to break the notes before I return home – even brand-new Bank of England notes are viewed with suspicion down there (contrary to popular belief, no retailer is obliged to accept any sterling note – even Bank of England ones).

If you’re wondering what a ‘stramash’ is, it’s defined in the Collins dictionary as an ‘uproar’, a ‘tumult’, a ‘brawl’. In a football context, it’s the go-to word for Scots to describe a ‘goalmouth scramble’. I really like it; the simplicity of using a single word to describe what is essentially, a completed mess, is always a winner with me – it sounds beautiful in a(ny) Scottish brogue too. According to the book, ‘Do You Speak Football’, the term was popularised by STV presenter, Arthur Montford and is also associated with famed BBC Rugby Union commentator, Bill McLaren (presumably to describe a ruck – itself derivate of a ‘ruckus’).

There wasn’t any sign of a stramash occurring as I got on a ScotRail train for the short trip to Hampden – there wasn’t just a plethora of spare seats, it was nice and comfortable too. It took around 10 minutes for me to reach Mount Florida, which is the closest of five stations that lie within a mile of the stadium. From there, it’s roughly another 10 minute walk to Hampden and despite the weather turning nasty, I enjoyed the stroll – there are some impressively-built red brick buildings in the area which do well to hide the fact that there’s a 50,000-seater stadium around the corner. When you walk to Wembley, you know it’s there, even from a mile away – you don’t actually see Hampden until you turn down the corner that leads into its path.

Outside of Hampden Park - Glasgow - Scottish National Team

Home to Queens Park and the Scottish National Team, this Hampden is actually the third one that Queens have played at since their formation. Named after a nearby terrace (that itself, was named after John Hampden, a Roundhead in the English Civil War, with connections to Scotland), the first Hampden Park was in use for 10 years, hosting the first Scottish Cup Final in 1874, as well as an international against England in 1878. The second Hampden Park, built in 1884, was located 150 yards away from the original – the stadium being constructed because a railway company had planned a new line through the site of the original. Queens would stay here until the late-1890s, coming into a disagreement with landlords to purchase nearby land for expansion. The 12-acre site that became the third Hampden Park was purchased from Henry Erskine Gordon in November 1899, the club eventually moving there four years later. After leaving, Third Lanark moved into the second Hampden, renamed it (New) Cathkin Park and played there until their liquidation in 1967. Today, the site is a public park – the terracing is actually still there, overgrown with nature. A new version of Third Lanark have plans to eventually move back (their original home, also called Cathkin Park, now a housing estate).

The design of the third Hampden was mostly done by James Miller who created twin grandstands along the south side of the ground, with a pavilion wedged between them. The famed-football ground designer, Archibald Leitch, also worked on the project – using the ground’s natural slopes to design the banks of terracing. During the construction, a disaster occurred at Ibrox in which 25 people died after part of the wooden terraces collapsed. As a result, the terraces at Hampden were firmly set within the earthwork and ‘innovative techniques’ were applied to control spectators. On its opening, on the 31st October 1903, the third Hampden Park was the biggest stadium in the world – only surpassed by the opening of the Maracana in Rio de Janerio in 1950. Hampden’s (and Europe’s) record attendance is 149,547 for a British Home Championship match against England in 1937 (the Scots came from behind to win 3-1).

The stadium was vastly redeveloped during the 1980s and 1990s – a combination of crumbling facilities, a riot at the 1980 Scottish Cup Final (more about that later) and the Taylor Report, eventually seeing Hampden redesigned to be a 52,000 all-seater stadium. As an amateur club, Queens couldn’t afford the works, so redevelopment costs were sought from several sources, including public donations, the UK government (this being pre-devolution) and the National Lottery. Eventually, the ground was completed in time for the 1999 Scottish Cup Final – a few months after that, the ground saw Paul Scholes score two goals for England in a Euro 2000 play-off win (sorry, needed to get a dig in somewhere!)

By the time I reach the stadium, it’s just gone 1 pm – which gives me the best part of two hours to root around the Scottish Football Museum. After visiting the (English) National Football Museum yesterday and seeing a shirt worn in the very first international match (against Scotland), having a look around the Scottish equivalent (which was established at the stadium in 2001) would provide a nice balance.

Located in the bowels of Hampden Park (you have to walk through the front doors and go down the staircase on the right, which I learned after spending five minutes waiting in a queue to ask the chap at the front desk – why didn’t they just signpost it?), museum entry costs £8 for adults and £3 concessionary. As you enter the double-doors that lead into the exhibitions, one attraction immediately catches your eyes – the Scottish Cup.

The Scottish Cup - Oldest Trophy in Football - Hampden Park

Although this is the second oldest association football competition (after the FA Cup), this cup is the oldest existing trophy in the sport – first presented to Queens Park in 1874. Later, as I was circling back around, I overheard a tour guide tell his group that the original trophy is still awarded to the winners today but they later get a knock on the dressing room door to hand it back, receiving a replica in return. Apparently, the cup is too valuable to loan out, its worth being £2 million – which struck me as being a bit cheap (as ridiculous as that may sound), considering its historical importance.

The start of the museum (as you’d expect) begins with the first instances of the game in Scotland (showcased, as it was at the time, as Foot-Ball – just to make it clear that’s how you play it. Feet, not hands!), the first international, held on the 30th November 1872 at the West of Scotland Cricket Ground in Hamilton (a 0-0), featured prominently. A couple of highlights for me was the reconstruction of the old changing rooms here at Hampden Park, which included a ‘wintergreen aroma’ just to add a touch a realism – like riding a bike or your first kiss, you never forget the smell of wintergreen. Another favourite is the elaborate display of Archie Gemmill’s fantastic goal in the 1978 World Cup against the Netherlands – three-quarter sized figures (roughly), watching as the ball hits the net after Gemmill’s jinking, solo run.

Archie Gemmill 1978 World Cup Display

An interesting factoid that I didn’t know before (but do now, thanks to this display) was that the Dutch keeper, Jan Jongbloed, wore number 8 – which any follower of the game will tell you is bizarre, even in today’s era of high-numbered shirts. I learn later that this was simply because the Netherlands chose to assign numbers in alphabetical order. This wasn’t unusual, as in the same World Cup, Argentina’s Ossie Ardiles wore number 2 playing in central midfield, whilst attacking midfielder, Norberto Alonso wore number 1.

Throughout the museum, there is no escaping the historic importance of Queens Park in the Scottish game. They were THE top team in the country for many years, winning the Scottish Cup 10 times – although none since they beat Celtic 2-1 in a replay at Ibrox, in 1893 (despite this, they are still the third-most successful side in the competition, behind Celtic and Rangers, obviously). The club was formed in 1867 by a group of Gentleman who had kickabouts in the area of Glasgow that gave the club its name. Strictly an amateur club (their motto is Ludere Causa Ludendi – ‘To Play For The Sake of Playing), they initially entered the FA Cup, going on to reach consecutive finals – both against Blackburn Rovers from 1884.

Although they lost both games, they did themselves great credit – the 1884 match (2-1 to Rovers) is notable for an incident in which they had a goal disallowed. Apparently, the referee, Major Francis Marindin, said that they [Queens] had ‘scored once more’, but as they did not attempt to claim it, he had ‘not bothered to award it’. It’s worth remembering that there was no such thing as goal nets during this era – and to think, we’re moaning about V.A.R today!

The club has remained amateur for all of this time – whilst their fellow Glasgow clubs have outgrown them, Queens have remained in the Scottish lower leagues, providing a stable club for up-and-coming local players or for those who may have fallen through the divisions and are looking to rebuild their careers. All this is soon to change, however, as faced with the prospect of losing their tenant (the Scottish FA), Queens have sold the stadium to them. As a result, the only way that they can realistically see themselves surviving in Scottish senior football is for them to adopt semi-professional status – which they did, last November.

From what I can understand, the move to semi-pro status is to ensure that the club can attract players going forwards – at the moment, the privilege of playing at the national stadium is helping to get decent players in for the price of expenses-only. From next season though, they’ll be playing at ‘Lesser Hampden’, their training ground, situated next door. Proceeds from the sale of Hampden Park will go into remodelling the facility to meet SPFL-standard – on passing it earlier, it really needs some work. There’s a tiny stand on one side of the ground, with the rest being open – it’s about a Step 5-standard (as we say in English non-league circles).

Teamsheet for Queens Park vs. Annan Athletic - 29-02-2020
Today’s match has been promoted as ‘Football for a fiver’, so I part with my Scottish money with a feeling of glee. I procure a teamsheet and have a look around the large concourse – where’s the beer? As it turns out, there isn’t any – Twitter tells me they don’t serve beer at Scottish league games when I asked (good job I didn’t ask anyone at the ground, I would have looked like more of an idiot than I already am!) I learn the ban is due to the aforementioned Cup Final (40 years ago, in May), in which Celtic and Rangers supporters clashed on the pitch. An Act of Parliament was passed that prohibited the sale of alcohol in all Scottish sports ground – this was only partially lifted in 2007 when the sale of ale was allowed at international rugby union matches at Murrayfield.

Obviously, being English, this concept was alien to me – whilst my peers and I are busy moaning that there’s no real ale on tap (and we’re not allowed to have the drink in our seats), there are whole generations of Scots (some of whom would be older than me!) who don’t know what it’s like to have a beer inside the ground (let alone meticulously plan to beat the queue at half-time). I’m not going to comment on the incident in 1980 (as I’ve no idea what I’m talking about), but it always seems to be the actions of a few that spoil it for the rest. The alternative is for supporters to get tanked up before games instead – and that’s not going to help to calm things down!

Panorama of Hampden Park

So beer-less, I take my seat in the vast openness of Hampden. Queens are nicknamed ‘The Spiders’ for two reasons; the first (and most obvious), is because of their black-and-white-striped shirts, with the other reason down to their philosophy of playing a passing game that ‘weaves a web around their opponents’. Early on, it’s evident why – the home side confidently hold on to the ball, Annan chasing shadows. It takes nearly 20 minutes for the first clear-cut chance to occur, however – but the home side make no mistake. A rare long ball forward is missed by a defender and Ross MacLean latches onto to it, through on goal and thumping it into the corner.

Queens continue to play some tidy stuff – most of it coming down the left. Interestingly though (and perhaps, a wiser move, seeing as it's pissing down now), it’s another long ball that gets them into their latest great position – again, a defender misreads the flight of the ball, an attacker gets hold of it, runs towards goal, rounds the keeper, and is brought down – penalty. Salim Koulder-Aissa sends the offending goalie the wrong way from the spot and Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ is played as goal music (this after T-Rex’s ‘Children of the Revolution’ greeted the first goal, as well as shepherding the players on the pitch). Annan have an opportunity to halve the deficit late on in the half when a quick interchange of passes sees a forward through on goal – he shoots, but Willie Muir, the Queens custodian, does well to turn the ball wide.
Queens Park playing at Hampden Park

I stay in my seat during the half-time break (partly to admire the ground around me, but mostly because there was no beer on) – one thing that does strike me, is how it doesn’t seem like there are 50,000 empty seats here. It’s a ridiculous statement on the face of it because there are over 50,000 empty seats here, but it doesn’t sound as echo-y as I thought it would do. The crowd (made up of people young and old) have been in good voice and I’m wondering now whether the construction of the stadium allows for the noise to reverberate downwards, rather than across the swathes of empty seats? 

A massive help, is the stadium being single-tiered – everyone is able to respond and join in with song at the same time, rather than being in their own tier and waiting. Another point I'd like to make, is the makeup of the crowd itself – whilst Queens (no, not that kind of Queens and make-up!) can offer families and those who don’t want to get involved with the Old Firm an alternative club to watch in comfortable surroundings, will Lesser Hampden offer similar trappings for them to stay for the long-term? The club will need all the support it can get to keep up in the semi-pro game, after all.

Action from Scottish League Two - Queens Park vs. Annan Athletic

Annan start the second half with far more urgency (as you might expect, being 2-0-down and all); they have a great chance when an attacker gets past the last defender but his resulting lob is just-about caught under his own crossbar by Muir. Desperate for goals, Annan call upon a striker from the bench – and I’m surprised when it turns out that the Christian Nade who comes on, is the same Christian Nade who played in the English Premier League for Sheffield United some 13 years ago. The Frenchman has been in Scottish football for some time and was in the news last year after it emerged he has been suffering from depression, culminating in an attempt to take his own life in 2014. It’s somewhat heartening to see he’s still playing football and (hopefully) doing well.

The Spiders manage to get a hold of the balance of the game after a sloppy start to the second half – a great run from one player sees him skip past two defenders, drawing ‘wows’ from the crowd. Brilliantly, the third defender barrels into him to halt his progress – I must admit, that I LOL-ed at that (the lad was okay, by the way, so I didn't feel guilty for laughing out loud!)

The match peters out, which was probably a relief for everyone – the rain is torrential now, so it should be interesting jog back to Mount Florida! It was a fully deserved win for Queens, who generally bossed the match – they’re now 3rd in League Two, with a play-off spot far more likely than an automatic promotion place. I’ve really enjoyed my visit to Hampden, though I would love to hear what this place is like when it is full – it was a decent atmosphere with 700 here, so who knows what 50k would sound like.

I scurry past Lesser Hampden on my way back to the station, making a mental note to keep up-to-date with how the club get on when they move there. For the sake of history if anything, I hope Queens can prosper and perhaps even get up the leagues in years to come. Back at the station, the local trains are that efficient, one leaves a minute early than it was scheduled for! Well, either that or the display was wrong – regardless, I’m back at Glasgow Central with a spring in my step.

A pint of Tenants at Glasgow Central stationTime is pressing, however (I’ve only got an hour until the last train home leaves – at 6.40 pm!!!), so my beer poncing is limited to a craft beer place named ‘Bier Halle’, a short walk from Central Station. Not living in a big city, I’m always surprised to see bouncers on the door of a pub in the afternoon – and this place is no different. A nod from them lets me in and I descend into the dark, underground bar. As expected from the name, it’s very much German-themed, with long tables and tight surroundings; it’s standing room-only. I plump for a pint of Blue Moon which a man comments ‘is that the wee stuff with the fruit in?’. It is, mate – and it’s great. Even Man City fans sing about how good this white Belgian beer (with a slice of orange) is. Obviously.

After supping up, I head back to the station and buy my packed lunch from M&S (butties and cans), leaving 20-or so minutes to while away – so I sneak in a pint of Tenants in celebration of a decent day. When in Glasgow and all that – I’m pretty sure I’ll be back. 

Queens Park 2
(MacLean, 19. Koulder-Aissa, 27 (pen)) 

Annan Athletic 0

Attendance: 734

Friday 28 February 2020

Manchester United U18 vs. Wigan Athletic U18

The latest part in Wigan Athletic U18’s record-breaking FA Youth Cup run sees them pitch up at a stadium with a very apt nickname for any aspiring professional footballer to play in – The Theatre of Dreams. Yes, my groundhopping takes me to Old Trafford on a Friday night as Manchester United, the most successful club in this competition (with 10 wins) await the young Latics. 

With the home side throwing the doors open for this quarter-final for free, anyone local with a passing interest in seeing the stars of tomorrow, playing in one of world football’s top arenas, would have been silly not to go. I took it a step further by booking the day off work to visit the National Football Museum and have a few beers – so even the silliest of Billy’s couldn’t turn this opportunity down.

United’s fingerprints are all over this trophy – half of their 10 wins came in consecutive years, right from the start of the competition in 1952-53. The players that contributed to that run of wins were to make up the bulk of the ‘Busby Babes’ – the young players that came through the United youth team that went on to have a major impact on European football; Bobby Charlton, Wilf McGuiness, Duncan Edwards and Billy Whelan amongst them.

Although United would win the competition again in 1963-64, it would be nearly 30 years until they next won it – that group known as ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ (The Class of ‘92™) with the likes of Ryan Giggs, Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and David Beckham going on to play for the first-team, achieving domestic and international glory with the club.

Despite the history, reputation and massive investment placed in their youth set-up, it’s actually been 9 years since United last won this competition (Chelsea being utterly dominant in recent years). Winning over two legs against Sheffield United (future United captain – and Wigan Athletic loanee – Harry Maguire lining up for the Yorkshire side), United’s Class of ‘11 contained the promise of Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Michael Keane and Ravel Morrison – current players that have experienced varying degrees of success at the top level of the game.

And this is the point with this competition; whilst it offers a great breeding ground for the star players of tomorrow, many others won’t reach the heights that they’re purported to, so we should be taking the results with a pinch of salt. The fact that United haven’t won this cup for the best part of a decade isn’t a sign of a failing youth system as even at this level, the development can be somewhat difficult to predict. All-conquering teams like the Busby Babes or the Fergie Fledglings whose players do go on to have an impact on senior football are rare – and it’s interesting to note that the recent United youth team graduates (Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay, Brandon Williams, Tahith Chong, etc) have been in sides that have got nowhere near Youth Cup Finals.

The only way for these players to truly test themselves will be them going on to make appearances in the first-team. Players are generally given opportunities through chance, however; there may be an injury crisis (see Rashford) or the manager might have a stroke of inspiration, wanting to change the way the side plays, needing a specific type of player for a role (see McTominay). Some players will have to move away from the club to play regularly and develop in a different environment before returning (see Pogba).

My hope with Wigan’s great crop of youngsters playing here tonight, is that they’re eventually given an opportunity in the first-team in a year-or-two (when we’ve finally stabilised in The Championship!) – otherwise, what’s the point in having a youth system? Clubs should be creating pathways to the first team, not putting them in when needs must. We could have a group of future great first-teamers on our hands here, (Paul) Cookie’s Monsters, or something.

All the greats will eventually find themselves in a museum of some sorts (on display, I mean, not lumbering around, trying not to knock stuff over, like I was doing). So before the match, I paid a visit The National Football Museum, situated adjacent to Victoria station. Originally housed next to Preston North End’s Deepdale stadium, the museum was relatively popular (attracting some 100,000 people a year), but funding became an issue and the concerned trustees looked to Manchester City Council to provide a package that would safeguard its future. After outbidding an improved offer from Preston, Manchester got the museum in 2012 and five years after opening in the former Urbis building, attracted half a million visitors a year.

I’ve been to the museum a couple of times (not so much in recent years, mind) and I learn that it now charges an entry fee – previously it was free for everybody. Entry has been set at £10 for adults, a fiver for kids (and £26 for a family of four), with a ticket allowing you entry for as many times as you want throughout the year. So if you live in the North West, it’s well worth it if you intend to make repeat visits (by the way, as their local council provides funding, Manchester residents get in free). As a museum enthusiast, I always feel that it’s a shame that people are charged to view what is ostensibly our heritage – but it’s needs must at a time when budgets for educational facilities simply aren’t there. Paying for or losing them, perhaps forever? There isn’t a choice, really.

The facility is massive – chronicling the history of English football and its effect on the world sees displays spread out over a number of floors. The permanent displays are based around the origins of the game, with shirts, caps, trophies, medals and badges shining out from their cases, relating their stories. My personal favourite artefact is the England shirt worn by Arnold Kirke Smith in the match against Scotland on the 30th November 1872 – the first-ever international football match. I would say such an artefact is priceless, but on further reading, I learn that the shirt was purchased at auction in 1998 for £21,000 – it must be worth more than double now, surely?

The rest of the museum’s displays takes a look at all aspects of football culture – from the clothes players used to wear pre-match, through to supporter culture (pints and pies are mentioned!). The third floor is dedicated to seasonal exhibitions – when I was last here, photographs by the renowned football snapper, Roy Stuart Clarke were on display under the title ‘The Homes of Football’, with many of our clubs’ grounds (many now long gone), featured. The display that’s featured on my visit today is ‘Strip! How Football Got Shirty’, celebrating the ‘design, fashion and technology of football shirts’, with the world’s largest curated exhibition of shirts on view.

There’s even a ‘Hall of Shame’ for the shirts, which in recent days, has lived up to its name. A rare Celtic shirt from 1991-92 was brazenly stolen from a display – the perpetrator was even caught on camera doing it. The great thing about this collection is that it has been sourced from ordinary supporters – this Celtic shirt belongs to a fan, not a club or museum (which doesn’t make a theft from these places any less wrong, mind – but stealing from a fan, rather than a faceless entity, is more personal). The museum has contacted the police in the hope it can recover it. (UPDATE, 4/3/2020: The shirt has been reunited with its owner after it was posted back to the museum, anonymously!) 

So, all-in-all, I would heartily recommend you pay a visit to the museum if you have the remotest interest in football history (if you’ve read this far, it’s clear you have!). Aside from what I’ve mentioned, there are interactive games throughout the museum to get involved with, as well as regular events and talks from football professionals and experts about anything vaguely to do with the game we love. Speaking of which…

After coming into contact with pouring rain on my exit from the museum, I make my way (quickly) to The Pilcrow Pub, nearby on Hanover Street. This craft beer bar is held in what I described on Twitter as ‘a posh shed’. The part of the site it sits on was once home to (what I suspect, from the past imaging on Google Street View), a social security centre. The building was levelled and a paved open space (with benches) was created, the pub being added later. Speaking about the pub – it’s a cracker. It feels snug, yet there’s plenty of room for you to move around, sit down and shake yourself off like a wet dog. I treat myself to a pint of porter that cost the best part of a fiver and whose name I’ve long forgotten (just like all the girls gone by).

Later, I make my way towards Piccadilly station for the tram, stopping off at a few more hostelries on the way – Port Street Beer House was a nice place (now this was a snug pub, until I learned that there were  was an additional floor upstairs!) After a quick pint in The Waldorf, near the station, I just about make the last tram in time for kick-off at Old Trafford – I get to the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand with 10 minutes to spare but I’m met by a closed turnstile, massive queues and a half-and-half scarf-selling fella.

Now, I wasn’t expecting either of these things; it’s a youth game, so what’s going on? Surely the coin this man would make won’t be enough to cover his time and the expense of selling his wares? I can understand if the senior sides were playing in the same league (so he can sell them on another occasion), but that’s obviously not the case. As for the turnstile, I learn from those queuing that apparently, more people have turned up than what was expected, so they had to close off one section and open up another. In the end, I was glad I turned up when I did – although I missed the first 5-or so minutes, I was sat with the vast majority of the Wigan support, which was healthy in number and in voice.

Judging by the rowdiness of some of the Wiganers, it seems they had the same pre-match idea as me (though I doubt they were paying a fiver for a pint of porter just so they could hide in a posh shed to avoid the rain). Later, I learn that there were around 2,500 Wiganers here, making up a crowd of over 3,500 – that can’t be right? It felt that there were at least 5,000 in here, as the United supporters (the majority of whom were sat in the opposite side of the stand) were also in good voice. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but there’s a part of me that’s disappointed that more people didn’t turn out – especially with it being free entry. With the high prices to see their side at OT these days, occasions such as this is a great opportunity for people, who wouldn’t normally be able to afford to go, to experience a night here.

It’s a pretty competitive start; with Latics star man, Joe Gelhardt, nursing an injury (so isn’t in the squad for tonight), and winger, Mackenzie O’Neil (who has also impressed me during this run), not being in the squad, I was fearing the worst – but the lads gave as good as they got. United have the first chance when striker, Adoyeji Sotona, headed just over, followed by Wigan’s Kyle Joseph having a header cleared off the line, from a corner by Luke Robinson. 

United slowly take charge of the game; their intricate passing too quick, as the Wigan players show patience and only press when they need to. Sam Tickle in the Latics goal is called into action as he makes a save low down from a shot, but he has no chance with the next shot – Shola Shoretire driving the ball into the corner from just inside the penalty area. In celebration, the United players slide over to where us (the majority of Wigan supporters) are sat, playfully mocking us. They receive boos in return – all pantomime stuff, as this is the biggest crowd they’ve (probably) played in front of.

Just as it seems United were building up to a second goal, Latics finally get their foot on the ball and start to dictate the play – Jensen Weir in midfield being the constant conduit. They have the ball in the net, but the flag was up for offside. Then a slipped pass through to Joseph is slightly too heavy as the United keeper comes out to smother, colliding with the striker. The pressure was now relentless; Wigan win a corner that isn’t cleared, the ball finding its way to Tom Costello on the left; his cross is flicked on by a defender marking Joseph and lands at the feet of Sean McGurk at the back post – and he hammers it off the crossbar and in. The noise that greeted the ball hitting the net was akin to a first-team game and I had to laugh when the Latics players went over to the United supporters to taunt them. Ah, the armour that being young provides, I remember that. 

It stays a finely poised 1-1 at half-time; although United looked good early on, Latics were actually bossing the game leading up to the equaliser – so there’s hope amongst those of us not going for a snack at half-time that the lads can pull off a result here. I wile the time away by checking out a few things on the internet – namely United’s squad. It turns out the ‘Tahith Chong-lookalike’ (big hair) in midfield for them is Hannibal Mejbri; a £5m (rising to £10m) signing from Monaco. This just shows the gulf between the youth set-ups here – whilst we’re trying to establish a good reputation of developing players so we can attract lads overlooked by United, City, Liverpool and Everton, United can just drop £5m on a lad barely out of school. And as I said, we bossed them about for a good period in that first half. 

Oh, how I wish that continued! United come out with renewed vigour in the second half, retaking the lead after a simple ball over-the-top wasn’t dealt with and Adoyeji Sotona got in front of James Carragher to bear down on goal, finishing with aplomb in the top corner. As I’ve mentioned the son of Jamie, I should mention that the nephew of his Sky Sports sparing mate, Gary Neville, is on the bench for United – Harvey (son of Phil) wouldn’t get on, however. Still, it provides an intriguing titbit, I suppose – and makes those of us who remember their dads being young players, feel very old!

Speaking of dads, Mr Tickle must be pleased, as his son, Sam, is keeping his side in the game – before the second goal for United, he has to save a freak own goal from occurring after Carragher smashes a clearance against his centre-back partner, Louis Isherwood. The keeper then has to stick out a leg when a deflected shot sends him diving the wrong way.  United then hit the post in their search for a third; Sotona has most of the goal to aim for, but can’t quite get enough on the ball as he slides a cross onto the upright.

For their part, Latics worked hard but couldn’t create any clear-cut opportunities – I suspect it would have been a different story if Gelhardt and O’Neil were involved. As it was, United held on despite some late pressure; going through to their first semi-final since 2012. For us, our record-breaking run in this competition is over and despite the slight disappointment, there’s a sense of pride that the club is able to field a youth team that can genuinely compete against the very best in the business – this is a club that spends more on U18 players than we can on first-team players, after all!

The lads and staff all come over to clap us, as we clap them – what an experience for them, regardless of what happens in their career from here. I’ve enjoyed watching these youth games, so I’ll endeavour to take more in when I can – it’s great to support your club in a less-pressurised situation (or threatening atmosphere), as a first-team game. 

I eventually made my way back to Victoria (rather than Piccadilly) and had a quick scoop in the on-site Beer House before retiring home for some rest. I’m off out early in the morning…

Manchester United U18 2
(Shoretide, 24. Sotona, 50) 

Wigan Athletic U18 1
(McGurk, 39) 

Attendance: 3681

Wednesday 5 February 2020

Wigan Athletic U18 vs. Birmingham City U18

I wasn’t planning on covering Wigan Athletic’s progress through the FA Youth Cup – this is a groundhopping blog after all – but following the announcement that the U18’s Fifth Round tie at home to Birmingham City would take place at the Lancashire FA’s ground in Leyland, this was the perfect opportunity to combine the youth team’s strive through the competition with a visit to a football ground I haven’t been to before.

Lancashire FA - County Ground - LeylandThe County Ground in Leyland used to be home to Leyland Motors FC – the works team of the automotive brand that played in the Lancashire Combination from 1933 until 1980. The club then joined the Cheshire County League for two seasons before becoming founder members of the North West Counties League. They were solid members of the league up until the early-90’s (changing their name to ‘Leyland DAF-SGL’ in 1990, for some reason) before being demoted in 1992 to take up residence in the West Lancashire League.

Despite another name change in 1993 (to the much-more sensible ‘Leyland Motors Athletic’) they never really progressed, left the league in 2001 and quietly folded. All that remains of the Leyland brand is the British Commercial Vehicle Museum that sits next door to the County Ground – being an evening game, I sadly could not have a mooch around the former Leyland Motors factory. Maybe another time.

The Lancashire FA moved their headquarters from Blackburn to the County Ground in 1998, since establishing an impressive base from which to host youth football, develop coaches and train referees. Each of their County Cup Finals are played here and often, the youth and development sides of some of their members play matches here – Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers regularly have their U23’s at this ground, for example. Our own U23’s recently played a Premier League Cup match here recently too – a magnificent 3-0 win against Liverpool (which I watched live on LFC TV).

The reason for that (and tonight’s) switch has been due to the DW Stadium ‘hosting several matches in a short space of time’ – the condition of the pitch being kept in mind. Although I’m delighted to be doing a bit of groundhopping, part of me is frustrated for the youth team that they cannot play at the stadium tonight – the Rugby League season has started (Rugby League is supposed to be a SUMMER sport, by the way), with Wigan Warriors playing at home last Friday and Latics playing at home this weekend, there really isn’t any other option but to protect the pitch. My frustration also has nothing to do with me living a 15-minute walk away from the stadium too!

Finishing work at 17.30, I hop onto the 17:47 train to Leyland for the 13-minute journey and I’m in the pub by 18.05 (ironically, I probably would have left it to the last minute if the game was being held at the DW!) My choice of the Leyland Lion, the town’s generic Wetherspoons, wasn't just so I could get some inexpensive tea and a pint – it’s situated just around the corner from the County Ground. The name of the pub is taken from the Leyland-made bus that ferried people around in the 1920’s – as all ‘Spoonses do, the locality is celebrated throughout the pub, with the history of certain aspects of Leyland and its industry, maintained in frames upon the wall.

So I’m already in my element with so much history within easy reach – and it gets better when I spy the menu. I notice a pint of Greene King’s best, ‘Ruddles’ going for £1.49, but I’m drawn to pushing the boat out and plump for a pint of ‘Echoes of Symmetry’ by Salopian Brewery for £2.15. This dark, rich, malty 5% ale will be just the ticket (antidote?) to wash down my upcoming fish and chips with – the name of the brewery reminding me of Shrewsbury and them being beaten by what was effectively the Liverpool U23 side in the FA Cup last night (ten of that Liverpool side played in the 3-0 defeat to Wigan U23’s, by the way!)

Main Stand - County Ground - Lancashire FA

The County Ground is certainly an impressive facility; paying £3 on entry, my first sight is of the 500-seat stand on the opposite side of the ground, with the rest (save for an area directly behind one of the goals where there’s a shelter) being open standing. The turnstile side of the ground is taken up by the LFA’s offices, education centre, commercial suites, as well as the changing rooms. There’s also an open bar a few feet from the turnstile and naturally, a café hut – I’ll be visiting there later.

An all-weather pitch sits behind the goal without the shelter, which aside from providing an additional facility for the community to use, is also a good source of income for the LFA, you’d imagine.  Although the ground is used on a fairly regular basis for the LFA’s representative sides and County Cup matches, I feel like the town of Leyland would benefit from having their own team playing here – this facility is certainly step 3 standard.

Tonight’s match sees Latics come up against Birmingham City; both sides already play each other in the Professional Development League (North), with Latics leading the division by some distance and Birmingham being 9th in the 11-team division. Wigan Athletic have never reached the quarter-finals of the FA Youth Cup before – and expectations have never been so high. I take my seat in the corner of the stand and I quickly learn that I’m sat amongst the parents of the players – with a good portion of Wigan’s team being Scouse, you can imagine…the beautiful sounds they make whilst encouraging their sons. 

Scouse power works, however – Wigan take the lead after just 5 minutes when the Birmingham goalkeeper doesn’t deal with a corner and Scotland U19 forward, Kyle Joseph, heads in. First-teamer, 17-year-old Joe Gelhardt, is the most notable name on the teamsheet and here, after 13 minutes of play, he embarks on a jinking run that ends with him being unceremoniously hacked down – penalty. Gelhardt dusts himself down to take the kick and score – sending the ball into the corner. What struck me, before him taking the kick, was the sheer silence from the crowd – usually, you’ll have sections of the ground booing and screaming obscenities. On this occasion, the situation was reminiscent of a golfer attempting a putt – a respectful quiet aired, and he placed the ball in.

We’ve had a decent week at Wigan Athletic; the first team have won two consecutive games (a last-minute winner last Tuesday against Sheffield Wednesday before an unprecedented 1-0 win at high-flying Leeds at the weekend), giving the club renewed hope of avoiding the drop. We even, somehow, kept hold of star left-back, Antonee Robinson, despite him being on the verge of signing for AC Milan – the transfer collapsing due to them needing more time to complete the medical. This fast, aggressive, attacking play from the U18’s is making the week even better. England U19 international, Jensen Weir, has a free-kick that hits the bar, whilst the Birmingham goalkeeper got his bearings right to make a great save from a header from a corner.

Throughout the first-half, it seemed like only a matter of time until a third goal was on the way – and it did arrive, in some style, right at the end. Gelhardt picks the ball up, side-to-goal, 25-yards out. He turns inside before hitting a shot that looked high, but it dipped just at the right moment to nest in the top corner, distributing that spot 'where the owl sleeps' (as they say in Brazil). Latics have got one (giant) boot in the quarter-final – and it could have been so much more too.

Warning sign - Lancashire FA - Leyland

Being around the parents of the players has allowed me to experience a football 'whos-who' – first-team manager Paul Cook was sat behind me in the first half, as were some of his coaching staff and other club officials, and as I made my way back to the stand for the start of the second half with my brew, I followed Jamie Carragher round the ground – his son, James, is playing at centre-back for Latics (he didn't strike me as particularly ‘big’, did Jamie – that must be because I myself am an absolute beast, obviously). Later, I'd learn that a number of first-team players were here too – including the aforementioned Robinson. By all accounts, he has a great attitude he had also sat in the away end at Leeds on Saturday, hours after the move to Italy collapsed. He could have so easily sulked, but instead endeavours to support the club. This is the type of person every side needs; I'm glad he's still here but I hope he gets his move in the summer too, because he deserves it – and we get plenty of money for him!

I mentioned this briefly in the blog from the Wigan U18 game against Spurs – one of the benefits of the club making a major investment in the youth set-up is that we’ll be able to attract more talented youngsters. The bigger clubs will always have a draw for simply being who they are, but if you (as a club) can have facilities that are almost on-a-par with them, you’ll be able to offer them a more realistic gateway into professional football – and once they’re playing in the first team, they’re in the shop window. Whilst Robinson came through Everton's youth system, the principle is similar – he never played a game for Everton in the Premier League, came to us (on-loan initially) before singing permanently and 6 months later, AC Milan want to double our money to take him off our hands. It's a model that clubs like ours will have to adopt if we want to survive and build in The Championship, as the TV money gap is growing ever-wider at the top of the game.

Lancashire FA - Headquarters - HQ - County Ground - Leyland

Birmingham start the second half much better; Sam Tickle (his dad must be Mr Tickle!) in the Latics goal has to field a few long-range shots – comfortably, but you can’t win the lottery if you don’t have a ticket. Their coach (former Watford and West Brom left-back, Paul Robinson) has clearly had a go at them (within FA safeguarding guidelines, obviously), as they seem to have upped the tempo, putting more pressure on the Wigan backline. They struggle to get beyond it, however and Latics seem quite content (evidently, what with them being 3-0-up!) with catching them on the break. On one such occasion, Gelhardt finds space 20 yards out, shoots, the ball comes back off the post but Sean McGurk is well-placed to volley the ball home. It was a fine cap on a brilliant performance from Wigan’s U18’s – they move into the last eight where (we later learn) they’ll be away to Manchester United. I’m definitely going to that one – with the way they’re playing, these lads shouldn't be fearing any team at the moment.

Down the road from the County Ground is the welcome sight of a micro bar – so it would be rude of me not to indulge in it whilst I while away the time until my train home. The Market Ale House (because it’s located next to the town’s marketplace, funnily enough) brilliantly lies next door to a Galloways pie shop – Wigan’s very own corner of Leyland! Sadly, it’s way past the shop’s closing time but I fill up my senses with a pint of Mobberely Brewhouse's ‘Boom Juice’, a fruity beer with a ‘hint of orange’ for £3.20 – nice stuff. Check out this great blog on the Market Ale House from a more experienced Beer Ponce than me – I’m still in the 'youth team' when it comes to poncing around these establishments!

The Market Ale House - Leyland

All-in-all, a great night – I’m definitely going to return to Leyland for a match; as we get to the ‘business end’ of the season, I’ll be looking out for some of the County Cup finals and hopefully be able to visit on a weekend so I can spend more time exploring the town, and going for tea at Galloways. 

Wigan Athletic U18 4 
(Joseph, 5. Gelhardt, 13 (pen), 45. McGurk, 75) 

Birmingham City U18 0

Attendance: 366