Playing Offside – Match #22: Carlisle United

In The Rain Running Down, There’s No Reason

Saturday 28th November 2015
Football League Two
Carlisle United vs. Crawley Town

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Brunton Park, situated a mile or so from the city centre, has been Carlisle’s home since 1909. Boasting an official capacity of just over 18,000, the ground is certainly one of the biggest in League Two – so, unlike many of their rivals with smaller grounds, you can see that’s there a potential for them to grow their crowds into numbers that wouldn’t look out of place in the Championship. True, the population of the town is relatively small, but as mentioned earlier – they’ve got a whole county to themselves as its only Football League representative. The stadium has suffered a couple of setbacks in its history – the grandstand burned down in 1953 and more recently, in 2005 the stadium was flooded and in 2012 the local council reduced the official capacity by around a thousand, on health and safety grounds. Walking around the ground beforehand, I can see that in parts, it’s obviously quite an old ground, but the two all-seated stands just fit naturally – I think it’s the perfect mix of ‘old and new’ and I quite like it. The interior of the stand is certainly roomy, although that may have something to do with the ground being a quarter full. The concourse has some nice football-themed stools to sit on (I’ve never even seen stools in a concourse before) as you watch Sky Sports News on a television that’s around 15 years old. At least you can be safe in knowing that the club ticks all the health and safety boxes – I notice a sticker on the front of the telly reveals it passed a PAT test in May.

One major reason for me coming here today (aside from the need to tick it off my list and to seemingly stare at electrical safety stickers on an old television, just to give you something extra to read) is that the club are charging just 10 quid to get in for today’s game. Such is the organisation of clubs these days, even in the fourth tier, I can print off my own ticket (you can’t even do that for some Premier League clubs) – although it does cost approximately a fiver in ink to print off, as it insisted on using ¾ of a page of A4 just to print the Carlisle United crest! Interesting as the city’s coat of arms is to look at, with its depiction of Carlisle Castle, surrounded by two Wyvens (a mythical creature combining a dragon’s head and wings, a reptilian body, two legs, and a tail) I’m not sure it warrants the size it takes up on my ticket. Prior to 1995, the club’s crest depicted just a fox, Olga the fox. In local folklore, Olga was a used as a reference to legendary Cumbrian huntsman, John Peel, who was the subject of the song ‘D’ye ken John Peel’ (Do you know John Peel?) The club embraced this connection and adopted a fox as part of their identity, Olga being a stuffed mascot that was brought out prior to the match. Today, the fox may have gone from the badge, but Olga lives on as the club’s human-sized stuffed mascot, who still carries out the other, smaller stuffed Olga.

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Playing Offside – Match #21: Everton

“If You Know Your History”

Sunday 1st November 2015
Premier League
Everton vs. Sunderland

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It’s a Grand Old Team to support…I’ve always been puzzled as to why Everton Football Club aren’t as revered by a more international audience in this age of globalised football; why they’ve not attracted the same amount as investors as the likes of Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal even Liverpool. An old club, steeped in history and tradition, with a vast local supporter base that really should be doing better than it should, but it doesn’t because of a lack of investment and is available for a relative steal. I’d be well in there if I was a billionaire. But I’m not, I’m a daft, penniless lad from Wigan.

Due to the sheer age of the ground and rumours of ‘dilapidation’, I wasn’t expecting it, but I think I can say that Goodison Park is one of my favourite grounds I’ve been to so far. Surrounded by narrow residential streets, it’s like walking back in time to an era in which football grounds were the centrepiece of the area.  There’s hardly any traffic because it’s impossible to get around to where I’m stood, as everyone else is chatting in the road, queuing outside the newsagents or sat on walls, eating their purchases from the chippy. People are stood at their front doors cheerily saying hello to those who they see walking past every other week – there’s even a church in one corner of the ground too! I feel like a 21st-Century Gary Sparrow, darting around wartime Liverpool, but without the mysterious ability to attract women, naggy or otherwise.

There’s been talk for years about how Everton need a new stadium (and for them to be able to progress, they do) I just find it incredibly sad that this is possibly one of very few grounds left that can hold up a lens to the past and it’ll look exactly the same as it did then and sums up what football is truly about – the people. Is a new stadium in some concrete jungle next to a giant supermarket really fitting for a club that likes to dub themselves a ‘grand old team’ and ‘The People’s Club’? On non-matchdays, kids can walk past and probably even play around these streets, as they stare up at the old ground and imagine going there one day, possibly as a player, definitely as a supporter (maybe they already have and they’re reliving that great game they saw there recently?) – those dreams aren’t quite the same when a security guard is kicking you off the car park and threatens to call the police because your ball might knock off a shopper’s wing mirror. I hope when (or if) they do move grounds, that the new one can somehow capture the spirit of Goodison and not move too far away from where people actually live. Otherwise, I think they’ll be doing themselves a disservice and possibly lose what makes them a special club in the first place.

The full chapter (along with more reviews of clubs!) can be found in Playing Offside Volume Two, which can be purchased now from Amazon

Playing Offside – Match #20: Port Vale

“No Trick or Treat Here”

Saturday 31st October 2015
Football League One
Port Vale vs. Shrewsbury Town

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Where is Port Vale?” It’s a question that many people have asked over the years and the truth is – it doesn’t exist, at least not as an official place on an official map. It’s believed (by the club at least) that the football club took its name from a pub, The Port Vale House, which was used to host the initial meeting to form a club. Another story indicates that the club was originally an offshoot of another local football team, supposedly 3 years prior to the reported meeting in the pub. The ‘Port Vale’ name itself being a reference used by locals for the valley of the ports on the Trent and Mersey Canal. It’s only when they moved to Burslem in 1884 that the club was able to identify itself with an area of Stoke-on-Trent, other than a pub. They even renamed themselves ‘Burslem Port Vale’ to reflect the move, but this was dropped in 1907 when the club was forced to restructure after financial difficulties. Along with Arsenal, Vale are the only club in England’s top 4 divisions not to contain a reference to a geographical location in their current name. Some trivia for you there (although if you’re feeling pedantic, there is an Arsenal tube station, originally named Gillespie Road, that was renamed after the club – it’s arguable if it counts as a current geographical location, though!)

It’s Halloween, apparently, and I’m in my costume containing my best George At Asda jeans, tea towel-looking shirt and big coat, as I potter about in The Potteries as Vale are taking on (relatively) local rivals Shrewsbury Town. The walk from the station is a brisk one, but a thousand times more interesting than the one that I endured in Doncaster at the start of the month. From the sights of the old pottery works, over canals bridges, to encountering gentleman in Stone Island gear having an argument near a pub called ‘The Leopard’; the atmosphere is more akin to what you’ll find at an ‘old-fashioned’ football ground and the area around it, so I naturally find it admirable. Indeed, just looking around the area, you can see that much hasn’t changed around Burslem; time has changed the names of the shops, pubs and homes but not the structures themselves. Port Vale Football Club have plyed their trade at Vale Park since 1950, having first moved to Burslem in 1884. It’s testament to football clubs that many of them have seen the development of their towns and cities that they call home, grow around them, some even having their boundary lines redrawn, some forming new areas with other towns. Port Vale FC is a great example of this.

Burslem is one of the six towns that formed the county borough of Stoke-on-Trent in 1910, later to become the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Their rivals in this new city are of course, Stoke (who changed their name to ‘Stoke City’, reflecting the change in status); this rivalry may not have continued to develop however, if the Vale directors in 1926 had their way – their proposed merger with City being loudly rejected by supporters and those who were responsible for the suggestion, resigned their posts. That season, Vale finished 8th in the Second Division – whereas Stoke were relegated from the same league. The issue of a merger was to rear its unhelpful head again in 2003, as the Icelandic consortium that owned Stoke attempted to purchase Vale and suggested a potential merger or at the least, for Vale to play at Stoke’s ground. It seems that Vale are a very proud club, despite a lack of success on the field, supporters want to preserve their name, their ground, their identity of a football club that represents a town before it was incorporated into a new city.

The full chapter (along with more reviews of clubs!) can be found in Playing Offside Volume Two, which can be purchased now from Amazon

Playing Offside – Match #19: Doncaster Rovers

“Highway Robbery”

Saturday 3rd October 2015
Football League One
Doncaster Rovers vs. Barnsley

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I arrive in Doncaster in good time and I must say that the ground, despite looking straightforward to get to on the map, is a bit of nightmare to walk to. All that seems to surround the area is the grey and black colours that only roads, barriers and roundabouts provide. It hasn’t been designed for the pedestrian; there is nothing of note in between the ground and the town centre; all that exists is the bleakness of the roads, with each driver thinking they own it. One of these drivers even had the impudence to advise me ‘not to have my earphones in’ because I happened to be crossing a road that he was driving on – of course, a medium-volumed mp3 file affects my ability to look in both directions and renders decision-making, to cross when there’s no immediate traffic forthcoming, utterly useless. How do deaf persons get on crossing a road? I suspect they do it just fine.

I do understand that it’s a lot easier to build a new stadium in the middle of nowhere – but experiencing this walk today, something hasn’t sat right with me. Playing the game itself has already been taken away from our urban spaces– those moments where a child would learn some spontaneous skill, something you can’t teach, as they play on all manner of surfaces, using anything as a ball and being chased by all kinds of dogs, has been replaced by £5-an-hour 3G pitches and regimented coaching – is supporting a football club going the same way now? Stadiums now housed in shopping or industrial complexes, away from the local community, denying them any real connection with their football club? All that connection will be based on is an in-and-out, money transaction alone. Has football lost its soul, when it’s being taken further and further away from the people, or am I just being a miserable bastard? Hopefully it’s the latter, but I’m just throwing questions out there for you to ponder. It might be the easy thing to do, but is it the right thing to do, to have a stadium that is only realistically reachable for the masses via a private vehicle, riding on an ocean of asphalt?

It’s a shame really, because when I finally traverse this concrete jungle, the Keepmoat actually looks like a decent stadium. All stands the same size, connected in the corners, but still housing interesting features on the outside that distances itself from being a dreaded ‘flatpack modern stadium’ that so many people complain about. I’m not disappointed by the police too, who confirm this is an intense local derby, as despite a gentle, relaxed atmosphere around the ground, our riot gear-wearing guardians of the law are staring down at us from their horses, shitting wherever they please (the horses that is, not the police). I’m sorry about this, I must sound like a miserable bugger, I’m really not – I’ve just had a bad day so far and eaten too many Vimto bon-bons in one go. As I enter the stadium, I instantly cheer up when I see that I’m sat right behind the tunnel and dugouts – so I’m hoping for a few managerial shenanigans later! As I take my seat, the voice of the announcer appears over the PA and this would be the start of some further moaning from me, so apologies in advance. He’s on the pitch reading out the Doncaster team, but he’s reading out every player’s name complete with whichever company or individual is sponsoring them. Okay, that’s fair enough pre-match I suppose, but no, he will go on to do it every single time an opportunity arises! Some clubs just have their player sponsors printed in a match programme or on their website (which, correct me if I’m mistaken, is a far better advertising strategy than just reading the company out to people who don’t take any notice). I just really hope the club are making plenty of money off this and are spending it in the right areas, because of the fact that Doncaster feel the need to do this really is an example of the gulf in finances between the divisions.

The full chapter (along with more reviews of clubs!) can be found in Playing Offside Volume Two, which can be purchased now from Amazon

Playing Offside – Match #18: Leyton Orient

“A Boot Goes To London”

Saturday 19th September 2015
Football League Two
Leyton Orient vs. Wycombe Wanderers

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Brisbane Road (or to give it its sponsored name ‘The Matchroom Stadium’) is situated just off Leyton’s High Road, an easy walk from the Tube and adjacent to some lovely-looking public gardens, where many people are sat, all of them eating butties it seemed. The stadium is unique, in the fact that it has a block of flats literally built into each corner of the ground (hence the vague Monopoly reference earlier). If the club aren’t insisting on it, I think they should add the price of a season ticket into the rent, as the pitch is visible for the many people up on their balconies, as they swan around in their dressing gowns (then again, paying London housing prices is probably punishment enough). As mentioned earlier, the ground has been transformed on three sides, so is very modern-looking but along with the older stand (not to mention the flats) the stadium certainly bucks the modern-stadiums-aren’t-unique mantra that most people like to trot out. After entering the South Stand via the turnstile, which is the normal route into a football ground if you’ve never been to one before, I made a visit to the toilets which saw me walk back into the open and through an unmarked door. There was a similar door opposite, which turned out to be a supporters club bar. It did leave me wondering what else lay behind the other doors – it was like I was on CITV’s classic gameshow Knightmare, without the monsters and women wanting a ‘payment’ from me to be able to progress on my journey.

Despite being carved up into many boroughs (and containing 2 cities) many people still see Greater London as one big city, rather than the name of the area that it lends its name to (I’m rather afraid this will happen with ‘Greater Manchester’ in the future – but that’s another moan for another time). With this, the traditional borders of support for local teams will get blurred as new or young residents won’t necessarily attach themselves to their ‘local’ side. Leyton is no different – they have West Ham on their doorstep and from next season, the Hammers will be peeking through the letterbox asking the inhabitants to come to their brand-new, all-mod-cons house instead. The Olympic Stadium is barely 2 miles away from the Matchroom Stadium and there’s a worry that West Ham (who are currently based 4 miles away from the Olympic Stadium) may snap up local supporters, offering them relatively cheap Premier League football in a state-of-the-art stadium and taking away a potential supporter base from Leyton that would see them struggle financially in the future. There’s also the questionable means by which West Ham have secured the stadium – which is considered an absolute steal for them, with the taxpayer, who is footing a portion of the bill, being mainly the ones stolen from. From West Ham’s point-of-view you can’t blame them – they have a local stadium on their doorstep going for peanuts, it makes sound business sense. However (and without much knowledge of this, by the way, so forgive me if anything I say is wrong) I hope they will do the right thing and work with Leyton Orient to try not to tread on their turf when it comes to promoting games. Football would be nothing without the clubs – it doesn’t matter if one plays in a 50,000-seater stadium, or a 5,000-seater one. It would be wholly ironic if the Olympic Stadium, a stadium built for a movement that is supposed to represent being honourable through sport, would hurt its most-local professional football club.

The full chapter (along with more reviews of clubs!) can be found in Playing Offside Volume Two, which can be purchased now from Amazon

Playing Offside – Match #17: Burnley

“Game On”

Saturday 15th August 2015
Football League Championship
Burnley vs. Birmingham City

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Once in Burnley, all body parts in working order, I make my way towards the ground and noticed a Social Club on the road leading there, which are always good places for you to get a cheap drink when you’ve left yours at home. After sauntering in like I owned the place, a man rounded upon me and looked me straight in the eye. Shit, I hope I’m not in trouble here. Expecting a tirade and twenty questions from the man, ‘Are yoooou a memberrrrr, mate?’ he asks, in a textbook East Lancashire accent. No, I’m not, said I, fearing ejection. I looked down at my shoes, Clarks shoes, by the way. ‘20p then, mate’. 20p??? I fumbled for change before he decided to put the price up. Once my levy was paid, I entered and got the pint I was craving. Looking around, it was a nice club – they even have a Neil Diamond tribute act on next month, so I might return (especially if it’s twenty pence to get in). After supping up, I made my way inside Turf Moor and immediately treated myself to a Hollands peppered steak pie and even though I dropped a bit of crust down the seat in front when I went to sit in the stand, it was extremely indulgent and I noticed that I was feeling in a much better mood than I was an hour or so earlier. Game on.

In 1882, Burnley Rovers, a Rugby Football club playing at Calder Vale, decided to switch codes to the growing sport of Association Football. A year later, Burnley Cricket Club invited Burnley Football Club to play on an adjacent field to their home on Turf Moor, which is an arrangement that still exists to this day – the cricket ground sits behind that football field which has since expanded into a 21,000-seater stadium. After originally playing in local and county cup competitions, in 1888 Burnley became one of twelve founder members of The Football League and have remained as members ever since, playing in all four divisions. Originally going by such nicknames as ‘The Moorites’, ‘The Turfites’ and ‘The Royalites’, today the club is known as ‘The Clarets’, due to the prominent usage of the colour (along with blue) in their home shirts. However, they didn’t adopt claret until 1910, playing in various colours from blue-and-white, amber-and-black – and even pink-and-white! From 1900-1909 the club stuck with playing in green and apart from a spell playing in white pre-Second World War, claret-and-blue have remained their home colours ever since and hence, sealing their nickname. Going back to their ‘Royalites’ nickname, this came from a visit to Turf Moor from second-in-line-to-the British throne, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence in 1886. Later the club were presented with a new kit – white shirts with a blue sash to commentate the visit. Support for Burnley with the royals has remained it seems, as Prince Charles apparently told guests at Windsor Castle in 2012 that he supports Burnley!

The club’s last major honour was the First Division championship in 1960, 39 years since their maiden English title. However, it’s their solitary FA Cup win in 1914 that most caught my eye, more specifically the free-scoring exploits of centre-forward Bert Freeman. Freeman joined Burnley in 1911 after previously scoring 83 goals in 130 appearances for Everton and Woolwich Arsenal. He would go on to score 103 goals in 166 appearances for the club, along with that winner in the cup final against Liverpool. 10 years after joining the club, he would go on to join Wigan Borough, the precursor to Wigan Athletic, in the Third Division North and still kept up his 1 goal in 2 games ratio, even at the age of 36, eventually going down as a ‘club legend’ at the short-lived club. He finished with 219 goals in 357 league appearances during a career that was also interrupted by the First World War. Even by today’s standards that record is quite something – it would have been even better if the war hadn’t have stopped him in his prime. His obituary printed in the Liverpool Echo in August 1955, perhaps best describes what kind of player he was: Before the first war, Bert Freeman was one if the finest centre-forwards in the country with his twinkling feet and rather curious gait he was a terror to opposing defenders and was frequently leading marksman for his club – which basically translates as, a pacey forward that likes to run past opponents with ball and has an eye for goal – has football really changed that much? As a conclusion to this story – the 1914 FA Cup was presented to Burnley by King George V, Albert’s younger brother – the first time a reigning monarch had attended an FA Cup Final, completing the circle that his brother started by attending that first football match in 1886. Ironically, it was a final that Albert should have attended as King – he died at the age of 28 in 1892 due to pneumonia brought on by a flu outbreak.

The full chapter (along with more reviews of clubs!) can be found in Playing Offside Volume Two, which can be purchased now from Amazon

Volume Two – Out Now!

After a slight (!) delay, I’m finally delighted to bring you Volume Two of PLAYING OFFSIDE. The second part of a doing the 92 book adventure, written by an average match-going supporter. ‘Average’ being the operative word.

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Part Two of Playing Offside: a ‘doing the 92’ groundhopping adventure, that sees a regular football supporter travel the length and breadth of England on public transport, despite having no sense of direction whatsoever. Containing many tales about the different clubs, players, towns and people that the author interacts with; Playing Offside is a must-read for any football supporter.

In this edition, I see games at the likes of Everton, Sheffield Wednesday, Doncaster Rovers, Birmingham City, Gillingham, West Bromwich Albion and many more!

You can purchase Volume Two for just £1.99 from Amazon’s Kindle site by following this link.

You don’t necessarily need a Kindle device to read ebooks from Amazon – you can read them on your Smartphone or your desktop computer. On your Smartphone, simply search for the ‘Amazon Kindle’ app, download and install. You will then be able to purchase and read any Kindle book from Amazon’s store. For desktop computers (PC/laptop) you can download an Amazon Kindle reader here, which works in the same way as the Smartphone app mentioned above.

If you do purchase the book, thank-you very much and I hope you enjoy reading. If you do enjoy reading, please take the time to leave a review on the book’s Amazon page, as it’s only through this that the book will be noticed by a larger crowd of people browsing Amazon’s vast football book section!

If you’re new to this series and want to see what I got up to last season, you can download Volume One for just 99p

Playing Offside Volume Two – doing the 92 book out now!

If you need further information on this, the entire doing the 92 book series or anything else, don’t hesitate to drop me a tweet @playingoffisideb or alternatively send an e-mail to danielgee@ymail.com