Almost Preposterous

League Two Play-Off Final (Wembley)

Burton Albion 0 Fleetwood Town 1

Not the delirious atmosphere I would have expected in the local public house four miles from Fleetwood, five from Blackpool. The Golden Eagle has changed hands recently – been entrusted to a black-T-shirted crew somehow representative of Fleetwood playing away.

And away Wembley indeed is. It is also a fleeting memory from 1985 (the FA Vase Final versus Halesowen) – some twenty nine years ago when Fleetwood were donning their shirts to an altogether different beat in the lowly North West Counties League Division One.

This was the same line up that pillaged York bar Alan Goodall returning for his stand-in, Steven Schumacher. You look at the individuals on paper and know they are capable. Of torment. Of sweeping passes. Of penetrative runs. Of telepathic thought when Conor McLaughlin, Antoni Sarcevic and 24-year-old David Ball are out on the tiles.

Chances rained down early in this match in the manner of a freak storm – attached themselves to Ball’s feet and head. The remnants of a woeful left-foot, dragged shot from Iain Hume rolled in front of Ball who had his back to goal but spun decisively to prompt a clawing save from Burton’s Dean Lyness. Half a minute later, he headed a Josh Morris cross on target only for it too to be bundled out by Lyness.

The omens were good, however. The Cod Army seemed full of ambition and aspiration. The ‘Brewers’ were always going to be a more pliant opposition compared to ‘The Shrimpers’ of Southend.

Burton’s Adam McKurk and Billy Kee clearly had pedigree but there was something in the Fleetwood water cooler on this fine Bank Holiday Monday that stimulated a renewed charge, a fresh impetus of ideas from the red-shirted messiahs.

No one embodies such momentum more than Ball. No one offers more hope for the future than the man who runs sideways, loving the shoulders of the enemy. The 29th minute – Ball again: a left-footed shot after a short pass from McLaughlin (wide). The 31st minute: a Ball header, wide right. The 33rd minute: a Ball shot blocked from the left edge of the box.

Ball. Ball. Ball. Half-chances, but you forgave him. Because he was there. Because he had an Ian Rush-like radar. Because he ghosted into positions that other players couldn’t comprehend.

Then came the 75th minute. Step forward An-ton-i Sar-ce-vic; the 14,007 crowd not entirely perceptive to the copious threat or mighty pillars that are this man’s legs. A swing of the right boot. An accurately aimed missile. Looking like a cross for swarming heads to the right of the area. But, no – Lyness commits close to his 6-yard box, finds himself grappling with a rogue Fleetwood player. A late touch on the ball, but in, in!!! Bottom right.

How do you begin to explain the magnitude of such a goal? How do you begin to wonder what the next fifteen, nay nineteen minutes will hold?

Fleetwood hung on. The earth back home didn’t need the hydraulic fracturing of dark forces in order to move. 27,000 residents scattered between London and the north precipitated such a ripple.

The third tier of English football. Christ – that sounds good. Almost preposterous.

 

 

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Napoleon at Aspern-Essling

League Two Play-Off Semi-Final 2nd leg:

Fleetwood Town 0 York City 0  (agg: 1-0)

You either believe in your centre halves or indulge in the folly of Napoleon at Aspern-Essling.

Nathan Pond and Mark Roberts wear the Fleetwood shirt with consummate pride – of that there is no doubt. But it is increasingly evident that both need the protection of not just a water-carrying midfielder, but a man with a shield and quick heels.

This poses an instant problem: one’s midfield metamorphoses into an odd-shaped attacking unit heavily reliant on the full-backs.

The able Matty Blair, for much of the first half, was neither a right winger nor a central midfielder. York were thus thrust into threatening positions by dint of Fleetwood’s over reliance on Steven Schumacher in front of the back line.

A five-man defensive battalion you may think shores up any respectable team. I would suggest that it invites wave after wave of panic and consternation. Unless. Unless your full-backs are utilised.

In the first half Conor McLaughlin and Charlie Taylor were both strangely mute. Perhaps ordered to keep it tight? Perhaps solemn sacrifices in a long-term game of psychological mastery?

It was hard to watch: the talent and guile of Fleetwood’s finest wrapped up in peculiar military vests. Do you wear down the opposition with such unsporting fervour? Do you wish to surprise them with your Jekyll and Hyde bombardiers?

It resembled a dangerous form of pinball at times. And without Antoni Sarcevic’s usual supreme passing, there was little on which to feed the energetic duo of David Ball and Iain Hume bar pathetic, slender morsels.

Cue the second half. Still hard to bear at times, but more controlled; the full-backs occasionally rampaging forward in the manner of wing-backs – both capable knights in iron suits, their feet when crossing the ball like medieval flails. And how York knew that their huff and puff was now close to worthless when faced with such menace.

Matty Blair, the terrier, a perfect foil for the Serbian craftsmanship of Sarcevic, created a gilt-edged cross from the left which begged to be pummeled. No one there. Then came the turn of the barrel-chested wonder himself: Sarcevic woofing a left-footer at goal – saved impressively by York’s very own Pope.

Three Fleetwood substitutions were strewn across the final half hour of play: ‘Big’ Jon Parkin for Hume (63); Alan Goodall for Schumacher (74); Ryan Cresswell for Sarcevic (82). It was the latter that made me sit up after the disappointment of ‘going defensive’.

Three centre halves is never a great idea. History recalls Rio Ferdinand’s disastrous debut for Leeds United at Filbert Street alongside the experienced Jonathon Woodgate and Lucas Radebe. But with eight minutes of normal time remaining the don, Graham Alexander can be forgiven.

And what a full-blooded, all-action 6’4” warrior Cresswell appears to be. Strong. Sharp. Not lacking clout. A ready-made League One player if ever there was one.

The hatches remained battened down. The fans poured onto the pitch. But let us not forget the real hero before we troop off to Wembley: the Welshman from St Asaph – Chris Maxwell; his goalkeeping, at times, like plucking a harp in mid-air.

Finally, spare a thought for two of the York starting XI that were released following this match: 27-year-old striker, Calvin Andrew and 23-year-old midfielder, Adam Reed (not the best birthday present). Football can be a cruel game when you’re not winning.

The Bandit Hits Town

bandit

Bandits, hustlers and ringers all descend from the same family line. Generally speaking they have had parts in old Westerns (mixing it up with Clint Eastwood), have hung around pool rooms waiting for the notes to stack up or have stood on the first tee at golf clubs with concealed smiles (their better scorecards destroyed before the hearth).

Raymond Isherwood, table tennis’s 94% man from Division Four and bit-part 27% man from Division Two must have perfected the position of his holster for he regularly slays summer league opposition courtesy of his blazing ‘8’ handicap.

Controversial and unwieldy such a buffer appears to be – at least to the players that stand ten or eleven feet in front of him; the number impaling their senses given its preposterousness.

Isherwood himself is only semi-contrite: “Yeah – it’s wrong, but I’m not moaning.”

A somewhat stocky player, not obviously skilful or threatening, Isherwood serves the ball as if making bread. His hands belie the archetypal clumsiness of the ‘big man’, turning the ball into a spinning piece of dough, floured up and ready to bake.

The results so far – assisted by his mesmeric serve – have been methodical if slightly tainted by the furore which surrounds this particular competition each year: 11-7, 9-11, 10-12, 11-9, 11-5 versus Paul Brandwood; 8-11, 11-7, 11-9, 11-2 versus Bob Bent;  6-11, 11-6, 11-2, 11-6 versus Krishna Chauhan; 10-12, 11-9, 9-11, 11-6, 10-12 versus Wilson Parker; 11-4, 12-10, 11-7 versus John Biggins; 11-7, 12-10, 11-2  versus David Holden.

Apart from the Parker reverse (at one stage prompting the titanic cry of “He’s five-nil up!” just a point into the set), the Isherwood cruise ship has ploughed through big name after big name. And it is this leisurely ice-breaking which has led to calls for a further revamp of the handicap system.

How can this man be ranked alongside Division Four’s 29% player, Scott Brown the critics demand when he is three times more successful? How can he be three shelves lower than the Ladybridge duo of Brian Greenhalgh (handicap 5) and John Cole (5) when he recently sent them stumbling to relegation courtesy of three and four set victories in the winter league?

Born in July 1991 and a carpet fitter by trade, Isherwood – one could say – has been given the opportunity of smothering his opponents with underlay before the play has even begun. Invited into the ‘last man standing’ wonderland of unburdensome competition, he has taken full advantage of this bountiful scheme like an otter discovering a fish bar.

Apolitical, yet with the teeth of Tony Blair, Isherwood when not playing ‘the bandit’ is actually an astute player. Coached diligently by Billy Russell and a regular attendee of Hilton’s (unofficial) “Pro night” each Thursday, his game in the medium term is expected to be that of a Division One player.

“Lower working class” beginnings have not halted the man from Gilnow. They have merely instilled greater tenacity and fight. And such is the commitment of Isherwood – another product of the Bolton Lads’ and Girls’ Club – that his notorious pre-match meal of burger and coke has been replaced with steamed chicken and water (and a splash of Thai boxing).

Asked if he has any heroes, he replies “No” but then thinks again: “My dad due to his determination.”

 

The Last of the Great Caretakers

caretaker

All sportsmen – be they amateur or professional – are essentially flat-pack players. They only come to life when loaded up with cam dowels, wood dowels and the beast of screws, cam locks. Without the assistance of this prudent army in the form of ball boys, caretakers, tea ladies, dietitians and the like sportsmen are merely floating apparitions.

My first experience of such a person – posited in the background, ready to tidy up, fix things or prepare the groundwork – was in 1974. He worked at the primary school I attended (Harwood Meadows) and went under the majestic and somewhat burlesque name of Mr Mann.

I cannot completely picture his face in my head given the forty years that have since elapsed, but his granite features tinged with an immeasurable kindness remain in a distant corner of my brain.

To me he was ‘The Sacred Retriever’ – a suitably attired grafter, in caretaker coat, whose awareness and personality differed from the teachers around us. He would retrieve footballs from the one-story roof, stride up his wooden ladder with the efficient air of a 1500m runner.

When the ball again landed on the raised playground at the side of the school building, the cries of the children would intensify given their focus for nothing other than this soft, round missile of fun. Mr Mann – a Second World War P.o.W. – thus represented a continuing of the status quo, a bridge from glumness to elatedness.

Known as ‘Bill’ to the kitchen staff (and his wife), but always ‘Mr Mann’ to the teachers in a kind of Upstairs, Downstairs mimicry – the TV series running from 1971 to 1975 – William Mann had his own room within the school; an eight feet by six feet store room rather than office with neither radio nor chair.

Inside this Gentleman Jim ‘manor’ of sorts stood the requisite hardware and paraphernalia needed for the job: “A sluice sink, a built-in bench along one wall with shelves above it, cleaning materials, the odd few tools for those little ‘tightening up’ jobs, cleaning cloths, toilet rolls and paper towels. The floor space was taken up with buckets, mops and the rotary polisher/cleaner for the hall floor – a very important tool in his armoury!”

It is the rotary polisher that leads us to the heart of this story. Mr Mann’s “pride was the beautiful parquet flooring in the school hall,” ex-teacher Brian Smith – a man who commanded my attention and whom I was once fearful of – tells me. “[It] was not just swept but regularly ‘spray-polished’. The result was a floor that was a delight to see.”

So delightful that conflict and an early form of protectionism were inevitable. Reacting to the plimsoll scuff marks that resulted from Smith’s Friday 5-A-Side football sessions – only hours after the weekly polish – Mann protested. “He wasn’t at all pleased and told me so!”

A compromise was duly reached and ‘barefoot football’ was born. It is one of my abiding memories; a rare, giant of a game up there with table tennis and surely England’s (and India’s) equivalent to South American futsal and beach soccer.

The Mann/Smith Pact of 1975, through its hardening of players, is emblematic of what can happen when two very different people meet.

 

Sandford the Sandman

sandman

There can be fewer noisier players on the table tennis circuit than Hilton’s latest recruit, Josh Sandford.

Set alongside the league’s current controversy overlords, Paul ‘Mad Dog’ McCormick, Mark ‘Clubber Lang’ Martin and the heaving tension which resides between Premier rivals Ramsbottom ‘A’ and Flixton, Sandford would appear to revel in his new-found acting role.

The purveyor of sarcastic witticisms and verbal musings, Sandford will undoubtedly be misunderstood in many quarters. His occasional bombastic ravings will be met by a peeping through the dividing curtain and admonishment from his fellow amateurs.

Escaping or evading the Bolton Table Tennis League’s iron clad rules is beyond most and Sandford, it is predicted, will come a cropper at some point in the near future if without restraint.

A cursory glance at the Code of Conduct suggests the potential shackling of even the land’s least volatile personages (Postman Pat and The Beano’s Walter Brown, be warned!):

“All players must show respect for their opponents, umpires and spectators by conducting themselves in a sporting manner. Gratuitous swearing, intimidation or misuse of equipment must not take place at any time on the premises of any match under the control of the League.”

Born in September 1993 and introduced to the game under the stewardship of unorthodox Frenchman and bearded wonder, Roger Bertrand, it was for Sandford – as with many unfocussed teenagers – a revelatory moment, a trip to the table tennis orphanage or rather the Bolton Lads’ & Girls’ Club.

“I started going to the Lads’ Club when I was about 14 to stop me being on the streets causing trouble. I didn’t start playing TT ‘til I was 15 and I loved it from day one.”

After the ‘orphanage’ or feeder club via the steady duo of ex-Ladies no.1, Andrea Holt and Division One flamethrower, Graham Clayborough, Sandford donned his frame with the red and black training gear of Farnworth TTC.

Taught the technical aspects of the game by the 5-times National Champion, his game developed well. In the 2011/12 season, he played across two divisions and ended with the respectable win percentages of 50 (Division 2) and 84 (Division 3).

For an 18-year-old, it wasn’t explosive or likely to augur a rush of scouts, but it was noticeably decent in what was only his second full season.

The real flash pan stuff came the season before in what was a temporary cloaking into musketeers of the apprentices and the master – Craig Duncan, Sandford and Bertrand scooping the 2011 Warburton Cup under the guise of Hilton F.

Benjamin Disraeli once said: “Youth is a blunder; manhood a struggle; old age a regret.” Sandford, in 2014, may just be on the cusp of something truly good in order to escape such a fate.

Humour still drives him (understandably so). He has the obligatory youthful passport of a large tattoo and often speaks above 65 decibels, yet his planned 2014/15 Division One team including Wilson Parker and Craig Duncan promises to be a Hadron Collider of sorts.

Either that or a derailed train. With ‘The Sandman’, you never quite know.