Sunday, 13 January 2019

Shrewsbury Town 0 v 3 Charlton Athletic

Saturday 12th January 2019
Football League One
The New Meadow, Shrewsbury
Admission: £20.00
Programme: £3.00
Attendance: 5,995 (518 away)

Today I ticked off my 88th ground of the 92, a ground that ideally I would have wanted to tick off when Charlton contested the play-off semi-finals there last season, but no longer being a Charlton season ticket holder meant that I did not come close to being able to purchase a ticket for that game. But there were no such issues obtaining a ticket for this match - the only slight issue of concern would be if the January weather were to be too severe to put the match at risk. But with relatively mild and dry conditions currently prevailing, that would not be an issue today.

The New Meadow is located a couple of miles south of Shrewsbury train station and town centre, but I caught the Charlton supporters coach from Bromley direct to the back of the away stand. Situated on the very outskirts of the town, green countryside surrounds the southern side of the ground, whilst a supermarket is located at the entrance into the stadium complex, and a retail park behind a train line on the western side. The stadium has a large car park to the front, with the ticket office and club shop on the ground floor next to the main entrance to the main stand. A fanzone was allocated an area outside of the stadium, offering a mobile bar, music and burger van, with a tent provided for fans to mingle inside and out. Whilst the club deserves credit for developing such a facility, on a cold winter's day like today, it did look a little sad, sparsely populated and various vans plonked into position. Inside, the stadium consists of four standalone stands, all very similar in size and design, although the main stand has some corporate boxes and a press area in the middle at the rear, and the stand behind one of the goals housing home fans has had some rail seating installed along the rear, to enable "safe standing", the first club in England to do so. Only installed at the start of this season, hopefully this will prove a big success and will see the reintroduction of "safe standing" throughout the Football League (and even Premier League). Away fans are allocated the stand behind the opposite goal. All of the stands are single tiered and offer excellent views, with no obstructing pillars. All in all, it's a comfortable, well appointed modern stadium that has been constructed to a sensible size in relation to the club's following. The 84 page programme was well designed and a very good read with an acceptable level of advertising.

Times have certainly changed since these two clubs met in the play-off semi finals in May, when Shrewsbury prevailed, after finishing 16 points above Charlton in the regular season, only to lose in the final at Wembley. Having lost their manager Paul Hurst and many of their better players from last season, and the replacement manager John Askey being sacked in November, Shrewsbury came into this game down in 16th place, following seven wins and nine draws from their opening 26 league games, and were just three points clear of the relegation zone, but they did come into this game unbeaten in their last ten home games. Despite Charlton's current woes behind the scenes, with an owner who has lost all interest in the club but a takeover has been over a year in waiting now and still seems no nearer fruition, with no CEO in place, and hardly any permanent player signings being made as the club remains in a state of limbo, manager Lee Bowyer is doing a quite remarkable job in getting his threadbare squad in the hunt for promotion. They came into this game in fourth place, following 14 wins and five draws from their opening 27 league games, three points inside the play-off positions and five points adrift of an automatic spot. The two clubs have already met in the reverse fixture back in August, which an injury time goal securing a 2-1 win for Charlton.

On a grey, chilly afternoon, this game was quite open in the early stages, with both teams carving out decent chances, and Shrewbury were denied by an excellent save by Charlton's keeper Dillon Phillips' legs from low shot from 8 yards on 21 minutes. But on 25 minutes, the visitors took the lead. A corner was sent in, flicked on and headed by a defender onto his own post, with the ball bouncing back across the goal line, Lyle Taylor was on hand to tap the ball home. The game steadied down after that, and only in first half stoppage time did Shrewsbury have another shot on goal, Ryan Haynes firing in a shot from just outside the area which forced a smart save at full stretch by the Charlton keeper.

Although Charlton had the upper hand overall during the first half, Shrewsbury had their chances too, but Charlton almost completely dominated proceedings after the break, and the only criticism would be that the end result perhaps should have been rather more emphatic. Just two minutes after the break, a poor back pass was seized upon by Karlan Grant, who raced towards goal one-on-one with the goalkeeper, but his eventual shot was parried, on on 51 minutes, he raced onto a throughball by Taylor, but his low shot went just wide of the post. But Charlton did double their lead on 55 minutes, Darren Pratley lashing home a lovely first time shot from the edge of the area past the keeper's dive. They had several very good chances to extend their lead further, with Grant having another one-on-one denied by the keeper, but on 80 minutes, Grant, who did have an excellent game despite missing two one-on-ones, raced from the half-way line and was eventually tripped inside the penalty area. Grant took the penalty himself, firing low into the bottom left corner. Shrewsbury did belatedly up their game in the remaining minutes, although it was Charlton who looked likely to score again. They didn't, but they can be pleased with securing the double over Shrewsbury with a thoroughly convincing and quite comfortable victory, as their push for a play-off berth accelerated. It was a poor performance from Shrewsbury today, and they will need to improve if they are to avoid falling into the relegation trap door.

Video highlights of this match can be viewed by clicking here

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Crystal Palace 1 v 0 Grimsby Town

Saturday 5th January 2019
FA Cup 3rd Round
Selhurst Park, Croydon
Admission : £15.00
Programme: £2.50
Attendance: 19,967

After my lunchtime game at the London Stadium. I had planned to take in a game in the Essex Senior League, most likely at Mile End Stadium to watch Sporting Bengal United against West Essex. However, considering the likelihood of it taking a long time to board a tube out of Stratford after the game, I decided to take in another FA Cup match at a Premiership ground. And for me, not just any old ground, but a ground that, as a supporter of Charlton Athletic who started supporting the club whilst groundsharing at Selhurst Park, conjures some strong emotions within me - mostly, it has to be said, negative.

Selhurst Park is about a 15 minute walk from Selhurst, Thornton Heath or Norwood Junction train stations, and is quite unusual these days in that it is nestles in amongst suburban streets and tucked behind a small Sainsburys store, with the stadium's one tall grandstand standing proud high above the surroundings. A number of enhancements have taken place around the exterior since my last visit in 2013, making it look more modern and less tatty. A fanzone area has been installed in the car park behind the main stand, offering a place to mingle with drinks, a big screen, some club stores and various other activities. For this evening's match, I decided to sit in the Holmesdale Road stand behind the goal. In my early days attending Charlton's home games at Selhurst Park in the late eighties, I would usually watch the game from that end, which in those days was a large uncovered terrace. These days, it's by far the most impressive stand within the stadium, a large two tiered all-seater stand with excellent leg room, good elevation between rows and even as my seat was on the very back row at the top of the stand, the view was excellent and not too distant. Behind the other goal, there is just one tier of seating below hospitality boxes and a big screen attached to the roof. The main stand is situated along one length and is the most old fashioned stand, dating from the 1920's, and has old fashioned short floodlight pylons attached to the roof. A few pillars along the front would obstruct the view. The stand on the opposite side was allocated to away fans, and about two thirds of it was occupied by 5,800 fans coming down from North-East Lincolnshire. Views are not too bad from the front half of the stand, apart from some supporting pillars, but apparently views are very poor towards the rear of the stand - indeed I recall this to be the case when I was there in 2013, since when views have apparently become even worse from that area. A slightly shortened version of the usual programme was produced today, for a pound less than usual, and was more than good enough to preview the game and offering plenty of interesting articles to read.

Crystal Palace are keeping their noses above water in the Premier League so far this season, and were six points clear of the relegation zone, having won six and drawn four of their 21 league games so far. They would be massive favourites to win today, at home against a club three divisions below, in League Two. They were in 13th place, following ten wins and four draws from their 26 league games. To reach this round, Grimsby beat fellow League Two outfit, MK Dons 3-1 at home and then Chesterfield, of the National League, 0-2 away.

On a cool but dry evening, this match had a dramatic beginning, when Andrew Fox made a rash lunge at Andros Townsend. The referee played advantage, eventually showing a yellow card, but that was soon upgraded to a straight red card after consultation with VAR, to make what was already going to be a tough assignment for Grimsby a whole lot tougher, having 88 minutes left to play with ten men. Three minutes later, the home side had a shot cleared off the line, and whilst they did plenty of attacking throughout the first half, Grimsby were holding their own, defending well and aided with some good fortune at times, and they went into half-time on level terms.

The second half continued in a very similar pattern, with Crystal Palace dominating for long periods, doing almost all of the attacking, but were denied by the woodwork, deflections and shots just wide of the mark. Grimsby never really looked like scoring themselves, as they focused on keeping their hosts at bay, but through a combination of luck and judgement, it was looking like Grimsby might just hold out for a replay, Crystal Palace scored the winning goal just four minutes from time, when Jeffrey Schlupp dinked in a free kick from just outside the outer corner of the penalty area, and Jordan Ayew headed home. Grimsby did manage to mount a couple of attacks in the closing minutes, with a shot from the edge of the penalty area going just over the bar in added on time, but Crystal Palace held on for a narrow win, which they certainly deserved, having dominated the match, with 34 shots (albeit only 7 on target) and 76% possession. But Grimsby fully merited the standing ovation they received, not only from the travelling fans, but also then the home fans, after a display full of courage, and it was impossible not to feel for them, having come so close to forcing a replay despite the three division gap in status between the clubs, and playing almost all of the match with ten men.

Video highlights of this match can be viewed by clicking here.

West Ham United 2 v 0 Birmingham City

Saturday 5th January 2019
FA Cup 3rd Round
London Stadium, Stratford
Admission : £10.00
Programme: £3.50
Attendance: 54,840

Although I had already visited what was the Olympic Stadium during the 2012 Paralympics, I have been wanting to visit again since the stadium was modified to become the host stadium of West Ham United. Tickets have been tough to come by, particularly for weekend fixtures and at a sensible price, but this fixture fitted the bill perfectly, with very reasonable ticket prices, a lunchtime kick-off opening up the possibility of combining with another match afterwards, and the opposition meant a realistic chance of a minor FA Cup giant killing.

The London Stadium is about a 15 minute walk from Stratford train station, following a fenced path away from the shopping centre, past the London Aquatics Centre and into the southern part of the Queen Elizabeth Country Park - formerly the Olympic Park. The stadium is certainly picturesque from the outside, with the Orbit Tower just in front, and with a bar and cafe at its foot. To access the area immediately outside the stadium, one has to pass through gazebos where extensive frisking, scanning and bag checking takes place after quite a long queue, then various refreshment outlets and the "Stadium Store" are located around the stadium. The London Marathon Community Track stadium, which Eastern Senior League outfit Hackney Wick hoped to move into this season until the venue was eventually deemed unsuitable, is behind and beneath the Stadium Store. To enter the main stadium, spectators scan their ticket at one of the turnstiles, before entering the concourse where a large array of unsurprisingly expensive refreshments can be purchased. The stadium interior has been redecorated in West Ham colours and slogans, and although the top tier of seating is virtually unchanged from London 2012, there have been major changes to the lower tier. From the sides, green carpet has been laid between the seating and the pitch, whilst behind both ends, temporary blocks of seating have been installed over the running track, with a walkway leading below and in front of the upper tier to the lower tier. I chose to sit in the front row of the upper tier behind one of the goals, and the view was reasonable enough, apart from being a little distant. It is an impressive stadium, boasting excellent facilities, but it just does not feel suitable as a football ground, with its circular design and spectators being too far from the pitch to encourage an intimate atmosphere. Quite unusually, a standard programme, not a condensed one, was produced for this FA Cup fixture and it offered plenty of interesting articles to read.

After seeming to struggle to adapt to their new surroundings, after controversially moving from Upton Park to the London Stadium in 2016, things are looking more positive this season under new manager Manuel Pelligrini, and they were in a comfortable tenth place in the Premier League, following eight wins and four draws from their 21 league games. After battling relegation in the last two seasons. Birmingham City are having a much better season, and were in eighth place in the Championship, four points adrift of the play-offs having won nine and drawn twelve of their 26 league games. Manager Garry Monk clearly wanted to give his club the best chance of progression, making just one change from Birmingham's last league game, although West Ham also fielded a strong line-ups too.

On a grey afternoon, West Ham certainly started this game on the front foot, forcing a corner within the first two months, and from the resultant corner, they took the lead. Angelo Ogbonna headed towards goal, the ball was parried by the keeper, only for Marko Arnautovic to head it into the net. That did prove something of a false dawn though, as although West Ham dominated possession, they did not look particularly threatening, and indeed Birmingham settled after the early set back, even managing to create a couple of decent chances. But there were no further goals in the first half, with everything left to play for after the break. There was an odd moment on 20 minutes, when Arnautovic was substituted as a precaution, a decision that he obviously did not agree with as the slowly trudged off the pitch shaking his head, to be replaced by Andy Carroll, who within barely a couple of minutes, fell to the floor and stayed there, with the medical team with stretchers at the ready. He soon recovered though.

The second half was a rather scrappy affair, which probably suited the visitors as, whilst they were not particularly threatening, they only needed to score a goal to force a replay. But as the end drew near, it was a case of third time lucky for Andy Carroll to finally score West Ham's second to seal their progress to the Fourth Round. On 83 minutes, his shot from 10 yards having dispossessed team mate Robert Snodgrass, glances the outside of the woodwork, then on 89 minutes, he knocked the ball past the keeper but too hard for an easy tap in and could only find the side netting, but in the 92nd minute he did score his first goal in just over a calendar year, with a powerful far post header from a Michael Antonio cross from the right.  Without looking remotely impressive, West Ham deserved the victory, and although Birmingham battled hard, they were very limited in attack to recover from their very early setback.

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Marlow 3 v 0 Northwood

Saturday 29th December 2018
Isthmian League South Central Division
Alfred Davis Memorial Ground, Marlow
Admission : £8.00
Programme: Online only
Attendance: 158

Having made do with fairly local revisits either side of Christmas, today I decided to venture further, to visit my penultimate ground in the Isthmian League South Central Division, and one that I'd wanted to visit for some time but has always proved elusive.

The Alfred Davis Memorial Ground is about a ten minute walk from Marlow train station, and what a joy it is to visit, a proper old-school non league ground which is a little rough around the edges, and is all the better for it. Spectators enter through a turnstile block in one corner of the ground, and then pass along by changing rooms to the right, before reaching the pitch. Straddling the half way line is the standout feature of the ground, the tall main stand which dates from the 1930's and is very pleasing on the eye, painted in white with Marlow F.C. spelt out in blue along the front roof. With the clubhouse located on the ground floor of the stand, the seating area is reached by climbing a flight of stairs and with no obstructing pillars, this stand offers really excellent elevated views of the action. Either side of the main stand there are a number of small wooden buildings, which were either not in use or served as a store room, with hot food available from a burger van. A few rows of uncovered terrace stretched most of the length, behind the far goal and along the other length, with stands to covers the middle portions. There is just flat standing along quite a narrow path behind the goal closest to the entrance. Old fashioned floodlight pylons complete the feel that one has stepped into a refreshing timewarp of a traditional non-league stadium, that is becoming all too rare these days.

Marlow took the decision to no longer print programmes at the start of this season, instead it is available via the club website, or via a QR code which can be scanned at the ground to download it onto one's phone or tablet. Although I am very much in the category of those who really bemoan the phasing out of the printed matchday programme, always wishing to keep a souvenir of my club visits, as well as having something to read on the journey home, I have to admit there are merits to the online equivalent. It is probably a more relevant and interesting read on the way to the match, the pdf can be stored and looked back at in the future, and there is no worry about the programme being sold out or not produced. And it certainly helps when an excellent programme is still produced, as Marlow do, consisting of 43 pages and plenty of interesting articles to read, as well as more than enough stats and facts.

Despite losing their last two games, Marlow are having a very decent season, coming into this game in fifth place, following nine wins and six draws from their opening 18 league games, but are just two points adrift of top spot. Northwood were in tenth place, following seven wins and five draws from their 17 league games, and so were only seven points adrift of Marlow with a game in hand.

On a mild but very overcast afternoon, the game started off quite evenly, with good football along the floor not helped by a bobbly surface, although the home side started to exert their authority from about the 15 minute mark, when a low drilled shot  from the edge of the area went just wide. But they did take the lead in 19 minutes with a terrific goal scored by Junaid Bell, fired into the top left corner from 25 yards. On 25 minutes, Marlow almost scored another spectacular goal, when Samuel lobbed the ball from just inside the Northwood half, and with the keeper scurrying back, the ball hit the top of the bar and was helped over by the keeper. It felt like only a matter of time before Marlow would double their lead, which they duly did on 38 minutes. Following a corner, the ball was headed against the crossbar by Adam Richards, but the rebound was kind for him to head home. And Marlow comfortably saw the half out to retain a good lead at the break.

After Marlow started the second half on the front foot, Northwood gradually got back into the game, creating some decent chances around the 70 minute mark, but they couldn't find a way through to halve the deficit and make the game interesting. And any doubt about the result was put to bed on 79 minutes whem Marlow scored their third with a very soft goal. After a defensive mix-up, the goalkeeper was dispossessed wide of his goal, and Marcus Mealing won the race to tap the ball home from close range. The final scoreline was a fair reflection of the match, which Marlow dominated and the result took them up to second place in the table.