Monday, July 27, 2009

Notts County 2 Nottingham Forest 1

Steven Gerrard was yesterday found not guilty of causing affray during a bar room brawl at the Lounge Inn in Southport. The jury found that Gerrard had acted in self-defence when landing a couple of swift upper cuts to the chin of company director and club DJ Marcus McGee. What, however, didn’t come out in court is the shocking musical taste that Stevie G admits to. No wonder Mr McGee wouldn’t let Gerrard take over the decks, when Stevie confesses his favourite singers are Phil Collins and Britney Spears. The judge should have hauled him back in court and put on the black cap.

Sticky junior (my eldest son) is a right practical joker. He’s always playing pranks on me like offering me fake chewing gum or leaving buckets of water on top of doors. He topped the lot last Tuesday morning though. He sent me a text at work to tell me Sven-Goran Eriksson was to be the new director of football at Notts County, a club where I am the talent identification officer for the centre of excellence. I sent a text back to him saying ‘ha ha, very funny.’

It’s Wednesday 22nd July. Sticky junior was on the money. Sven-Goran Eriksson has been appointed director of football at the oldest league club in the world. Mr Eriksson has brought in 71 year old Tord Grip as his general advisor. It is as we say at work a ‘drop my bacon sandwich’ moment. It must go down as one of the biggest coups of all time.

I don’t go down the Club that much. My remit is to find the best talent I can in the East Midlands. I spend most weekends in inner city Nottingham, Derby and Leicester trying to unearth the next Jermaine Pennant.

I love scouting for ‘The Pies.’ The previous director of football at Notts County, Howard Wilkinson, rubber-stamped the closure of the centre of excellence three years ago. It broke my heart. That year I watched over 120 games for County. I put the Club before my family. I have sulked and skulked about but have been given a second opportunity, which I intend to grab. I just hope that I can be a part of this exciting era.

It’s Saturday morning 5.30am and Sticky is up and running. Notts County U18s play Nottingham Forest later this morning – it’s an aperitif before the big one at Meadow Lane at 3pm.

‘The Skipper’ has got a tournament at Ellis Guilford School in Basford. He’s guesting for Clifton FC. It’s a busman’s holiday for The Groundhopper.Everybody wants to talk about Sven, but Sticky’s trying to get some good young uns for him. I haven’t got time for a chinwag. ‘The Skipper’ plays in an unfamiliar right hand side role. He scores a beauty.

I slip away at just before 11am and head towards my old hunting ground – the Nottingham Forest Academy.

Mr Eriksson and Mr Grip are viewing proceedings. I’ve got my kit on but decide to stand opposite the dugouts. I perch myself on top of the grass bank. To gain a birds’ eye view. I feel a total outsider amongst the preying eyes of Tricky Trees fans.

County’s youngsters have only been together for a short while. They give a good account of themselves against a more experienced Forest. ‘We’ lose 2-0 and ride our luck at times. But we are young and will learn from this. I look towards the Forest bench. They have more coaches than the National Express.

I don’t hang around. I worked here for a while but never really felt the love. I always pined for a return to ‘The Pies.’ My bosses Mick Leonard and Darren Davies have performed a miracle in the restoration of the centre of excellence. The Groundhopper will bust a gut for them and the Club.

I race home and grab a turkey and Emmental cheese sandwich. Mrs P is in a talkative mood; she’s been shopping with her mum in Loughborough.

'The Skipper’ has got through to the final in his tournament. Reports suggest that he’s settled in nicely. We leave for Meadow Lane without him.

Sticky junior is fiddling around with the CD player desperately trying to get a scratched Hip Hop CD to work. Thankfully it won’t boot up. Those robbing toe rags at County Hall are charging £4 to park the car. We sling the car in the Nottingham Forest Main Stand car park instead. No charge. Cheers you Tricky Trees.

Nottingham Forest U18s coach, the ex Scotland international Eoin Jess, is sauntering out the car park en-route to the match. His youngsters follow him as if he’s the Pied Piper.

We take a leisurely walk through Turners Quay, over the canal, ending up on Meadow Lane. The recently refurbished Trent Navigation is enjoying good times again. A sprinkling of Forest fans bask in the summer sunshine.

Mr Eriksson has brought a feel good factor to the city. It has been stimulating. Everyone is talking about it. The area is buzzing.

Sticky junior and Ben go into the ground whilst The Groundhopper has a float about, grabbing the opportunity to take a few snaps.

It’s £10 for adults and £5 for kids. Sticky junior blags a programme. I take a pew about 20 rows back in ‘B’ Block, level with the eighteen yard area. The Jimmy Sirrel Stand is a sea of red. Confident Forest fans are predicting a goal rout.

Oasis blasts out on the PA system. My phone keeps going off. White Van Man is trying to get in touch. I send him an abusive text.

Nottingham has a population of just under 300,000. It’s a city that has courted bad publicity over the last few years, with its gun crime, drug running, gang warfare and violence. Sticky Palms loves Nottingham though, with its friendly characters and their sharp wit. I wouldn’t swap it for anything.

Nottingham is famous for lace, Robin Hood, Brian Clough and Jimmy Sirrel. Famous people born in Nottingham include: the actress Samantha Morton, bare-knuckled fighter William ‘Bendigo’ Thompson, Nottingham Forest general advisor David Pleat, ice skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, snooker player Anthony Hamilton, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke and fashion designer Paul Smith. Not forgetting also the beautiful Mrs P.

It’s a big game for Magpies’ manager Ian McParland. He used to work across the river. I’d imagine he doesn’t do friendlies. He was brought up in the old school era of County legend Jimmy Sirrel. A win today will mean the world to him.

The last time I saw these two rivals play each other was in 1993 when a Richard Dryden header secured a point for ‘The Pies’ at the City Ground.

McParland and his Glaswegian counterpart Billy Davies were team-mates at Dunfermline many moons ago. The youth culture encouraged by Colin Calderwood is on hold. The Forest young guns have been farmed out on loan. The Groundhopper’s favourite, Brendan Moloney has made the short trip across the water. ‘King Billy’ has six new players in his starting line-up.

Mr Eriksson is introduced to the crowd. He stands between Mr and Mrs Magpie. The boos from the Forest supporters saddens me.

The game takes time to settle down. Forest enjoy plenty of possession but it takes until close on 30 minutes for their first opening of the game with Robert Earnshaw forcing a smart save from Russell Hoult. The Welsh international spurns two further chances before the break.

Former Red, and newly installed Pies’ captain John Thompson, is putting in a tigerish performance in the midfield. Whilst for Forest new boys McKenna and Majewski look comfortable on the ball.

I’m expecting a bit of Abba, Cardigans or Roxette at the break but the DJ continues with his laddish music. Supporters are encouraged to buy a season ticket in the next seven days. They will be entered into a prize draw, with the winner having their ticket delivered to their doorstep by Sven himself.

The introduction of Luke Rodgers for Sean Canham reignites the Magpies forward line. He leaves Joel Lynch trailing in his wake and is unfortunate to see his shot cannon off the post.

Moments later Luke Chambers catches his studs in the turf and topples over. A gleeful Rodgers seizes the opportunity carefully placing the ball in the bottom right hand corner of the net.

One becomes two on the hour. Good play between Moloney and a rejuvenated Westcarr results in a peach of a cross from the latter. The ball is expertly guided into the net by Lee Hughes. It’s only a friendly but Forest are stung. I drop WVM a text: ‘easy, easy easy’

Hughes is substituted. He receives a standing ovation and a hug from McParland. His goal was greeted like a FA Cup final winner.

A slimline, hungry-looking Lewis McGugan hits a twenty five yard rasping shot which a crestfallen Kevin Pilkington can only help into net. ‘Pick that one out’, texts a sulking WVM.

It’s all set-up for a grandstand finish. But this new look Notts County are mentally tougher than the old one and finish the stronger of the two teams.

Attendance: 12,040
Man of the Match: John Thompson.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Lincoln City 2 Arsenal X1 3

We’re driving up to the M62 on our way back from North Ferriby. We’re both still drooling over that woman special constable we saw at the ground. I’ve got the cricket on Five Live; England are caning Aussie. We pull into a garage for fuel. We rub our eyes in disbelief. There’s another woman police officer, buying a sandwich; she is drop-dead gorgeous. Memo to one’s self: send off for two application forms to join the Humberside Constabulary.

It’s Sunday and I’m nursing a hangover. We had The Nuclear Scientist and his wife around for a BBQ last night. I’ve had to hire a skip to dispose of the empties.

Notts are playing Somerset in the Pro 40 at Trent Bridge. It’s potentially Aussie overseas star David Hussey’s last game at ‘The Bridge.’ The weather forecast is poor. Sticky junior doesn’t fancy it but I manage to twist ‘The Skipper’s’ arm.

Hussey strides to the wicket with Notts once again in a spot of bother. He hits a single off his first ball and proceeds to play the next nine deliveries back. He bludgeons Somerset’s mediocre attack for a further 99 runs off 40 balls. It’s a ‘drop my bacon sandwich’ moment. The meagre crowd rises as one to applaud him off. He ends his innings on 120 not out. Legend!

The boys were away for most of last week on a school trip. Mrs P texts me at work to see if I fancy taking her out for the day. ‘How about a trip to Lincoln she enquires?’ A perfect chance for a reckie before the Arsenal game thought a mischievous Groundhopper.

First port of call was my old house on Eastbrook Road. I lived here for the first five years of my life (1964-1969). I take a photo much to the displeasure of the next door neighbours.

We park the car on Robey Street and take a hike into town, up the High Street. It’s tired, scruffy and full of take-away food establishments. There are signs though, of an Eastern European influence. There is a smattering of Polish and Baltic food outlets.

The city centre itself is delightful. There’s been development around Brayford Pool since I last came. The University of Lincoln has breathed new life in to the city. They are sponsoring Lincoln City’s away shirt this season.

We walk up towards the cathedral and stop for a drink at bar called Varsity. Mrs P has a cappuccino; Sticky Palms has half a Stella. I feel good. The Stone Roses’ ‘I Am The Resurrection’ plays on the jukebox, Sky Sports is on the big screen and I’m near the love of my life – Lincoln City Football Club (ouch!)

We’ve had the Arsenal game pencilled in for a while. ‘The Guvnor’ (a senior manager at work) is a Gooner. He’d spotted that Lincoln were to play Arsenal in a celebration of their 125th anniversary. Arsene Wenger said all along it would a mixture of reserves and youth team players that he would send. The first team are due in Austria tomorrow, for a pre-season tour.

I’m expecting an increase of readership from the south of the country, so will put in a bit of Cockney rhyming slang to make them feel at home.

‘The Guvnor’ arrives at our manor twenty minutes late. Groundhopper is pacing up and down his drive waiting. Sticky junior once again misses the team bus. I’m secretly relieved. There’s nothing worse than your own son taking the piss out of you in front of your boss. ‘The Skipper’ travels with The Nuclear Scientist and Snooksy.

It’s eighteen months since I’ve been to Sincil Bank. Something died inside me about Lincoln when I lost my father nine years ago. My trips are sad and lonely. It’s a reason why I turned to groundhopping and scouting; to ease the pain. The Imps are the first result I look for. My heart always skips a beat before finding out their score. It can make or break my Saturday night. I’ve no-one to share this passion with anymore.

We drive through Cotgrave, down the A46 and skirt round Newark. The dual carriageway between Newark and Lincoln is fast and open.

‘The Guvnor’ is giving Sticky the lowdown on ‘The Arsenal.’ He’s a placid Cockney, not ‘apple pasty’ like Dennis Wise or George our next door neighbour.

The Emirates Stadium is in Holloway, in the London Borough of Islington. It has a population of 12,000. It is the home of HMP Holloway, a women’s prison. The last woman executed in the United Kingdom, Ruth Ellis and keen racegoer Christabel Pankhurst, both had short spells there.

Notable residents that have lived in the area include: Boris Johnson, the irritating Lily Allen, Sex Pistol, John Lydon, Catatonia fan Marc Bannerman and Sticky’s favourite Bob Hoskins.

It’s an hour or so before kick-off and we’re holed up in The Pride of Lincoln. The place is buzzing. The wait for food is thirty minutes. We settle for a swift drink. ‘The Guvnor’ has an ‘Alistair Darling’ (a pint of Carling) and Sticky Palms a Coke.

We’re soon parked up, close to where my Nana lived. I’m back up the High Street for the second time in a week. ‘The Guvnor’s’ 6’ 5” frame is as hungry as a horse. He wants some ‘jockey’s whips’ (chips). The King Neptune Fish Bar obliges.

We amble up the road past Scorer Street. Bit of trivia for you here: former Gunners’ striker Lee Chapman was born in this street. A striker born on Scorer Street.

We soon slip our way into the Echo Stand. Tickets are £15 for adults and £5 for kids. It’s worth every penny. The programme is £2.50 and is superbly produced by editor John Vickers.

We join ‘The Nuclear Scientist, ‘The Skipper’ and Snooksy in the stand. The pre-match entertainment is cringe worthy. Some guy (who is he?) is trying to whip the crowd up into frenzy. But he can’t hold note and wouldn’t get a booking at the nearby Golden Cross. They’d have been far better hiring Chas and Dave on the old ‘Joanna.' That would have fired up the away support.

Lincoln are unrecognisable from the last time I saw them. N’Guessan has left for Leicester, Beevers to Colchester and the wonderfully gifted Lee Frecklington to Peterborough. I tipped Forest the wink on this boy. He will come back and haunt them for The Posh this season.

Imps’ manager Peter Jackson is putting his faith in youth. Not too many washed up journeyman have landed at Sincil Bank this summer. Their investment in the Centre of Excellence is hoping to pay dividends.

The playing surface is pristine but its narrow nature may not suit the visitors. The gulf in class is as wide as the Dartford Tunnel. Arsenal 8 jacket Jay Emmanuel-Thomas is a colossus in centre of the park. He shrugs off the labouring Butcher and Clarke with ease. His prize possession is his left peg. It doesn’t fire a stray bullet all evening. He was made captain of the u18s at the age of 16.

If Lincoln play any deeper they’ll end up sitting in the Stacey West Stand behind the goal.

Thankfully the Gunners have left their shooting boots in north London. Dutchman, Nacer Barazite, Jay Simpson and Sanchez Watt miss gilt-edged chances. They finally take the lead shortly before the break. Frenchman Sunu makes a strong, bursting run down the middle and finishes with a nonchalant chip over Lincoln ‘keeper Burch. I manage to catch the goal at pitch-side level en-route to taking a bladder-bursting ‘Skipper’ to the toilet.

The entertainment ups a notch at half-time with three young girls showing more movement than the Lincoln midfield to the dulsate tones of the Black Eyed Peas.

Liam Brady’s boys continue where they left off, although Imps’ new recruit, the former Blackburn Rovers winger Jamie Clarke is posing a few problems down the Lincoln right. He frequently shows the Arsenal full back a clean of heels, but his crossing and decision-making are poor.

Both the impressive Danny Hone and Richard Butcher have chances to restore parity.

Emmanuel-Thomas makes it 2-0 in the 71st minute, squeezing the ball home from a tight angle.

Lincoln continue to battle away. Aaron Brown reduces arrears with a free-kick that takes everyone by surprise. The mostly anonymous Chris Fagan, a recent signing from the Glenn Hoddle Soccer Academy, hits a peach of a shot to make it 2-2. The Imps go for the winner with all guns blazing.

But would you ‘Adam and Eve it’ it’s ‘The Arsenal’ who snatch a winner at the death. Luke Ayling’s far post header somehow squirming through the otherwise excellent Lincoln keeper’s hands. The goal is greeted like a FA Cup final winner by the 779 away contingent sat in the Co-op Stand.

Attendance: 4508

Man of the Match: Rob Burch, Lincoln ‘keeper.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

North Ferriby United 0 Hull City 6

I’ve had a brilliant summer so far but something nags away in the back of my mind; an injustice witnessed on British television that just won’t go away. It was a nailed on certainty. Their performance was polished and complete. They left the remaining competitors standing. Question marks remain, once again, over ITV’s telephone voting system. Yes, you’ve guessed it, how the hell did kebab-eating, north London comedy duo Stavros Flatley not win Britain’s Got Talent? Good luck at Butlins in Minehead this weekend lads.

OK, so groundhopping has left a hole in my life since late April, how have I filled it? Well, I’ve scouted for ‘The Pies’ at over a dozen tournaments, I’ve been to all Twenty/20 games at Trent Bridge, including the World Cup semi-final and I’ve slurped a whole bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin on the patio during the recent heat wave.

White Van Man phoned me last Saturday night, live and exclusive from Albufeira in Portugal. The Tricky Trees were performing and the big man had bulldozed his way through two days of drinking Smirnoff Ice. He’s already 1-0 up on grounds, and don’t I know it.

It’s Saturday morning 5.30am. The Groundhopper is restless and rises early. I amble down the garden to let Finley our rabbit out his cage. Even he is miffed that I’ve woke him up.

I’m outside White Van Man’s house. He was going to treat me to a ride in the white van but his alternator has packed up.

We’re in the Rolls Royce (Mondeo) and heading towards the Monkey Tree in West Bridgford for a full English. I can hardly move after I’ve demolished a huge plate. The barman is from Hull and is intrigued as to why we should do a 180 mile round trip just to watch a friendly. WVM can’t take his eyes off the gorgeous waitress. There’s just time for a visit to the Co-op for a couple of bottles of water to quench our thirst and cool WVM down.

We’re on the M18 heading north east. WVM has a messy night in Nottingham organised. His ringtone - ‘I Want To Give You Devotion’ by Nomad, is constantly playing. Bruiser phones up to enquire on whether Heart FM is on the car radio. My answer is unrepeatable. We’ve Vernon Kay spinning a few toons on Radio 1. All is good.

WVM is retelling tales of his weekend in Albufeira and his gay night out at Wembley watching Take That. He’s terribly overexcited about a 4.30pm massage he has booked tomorrow. I’ve missed his company during the summer.

We arrive in North Ferriby an hour before kick-off. The only way to buy tickets is to visit the local post office. I rang up yesterday and pre-ordered mine. WVM snucks in, whilst I hang about outside playing around with my new Sony Dictaphone.

A couple of young boys ride past on bikes with Manchester United replica shirts on. A guy has his head under the wheel of his car checking his tyre pressure.

The village is mobbed with Hull City fans. We pay £8 for our tickets. I shell out £2 on a decent programme and a further £1 on the raffle. I’m determined to break my duck on winning a raffle in the fourth year of trying.

They’ve had two days of relentless rain up here but the pitch is lush, green and looks to have been recently returfed. Hull City reserves play at Church Road perhaps the Tigers help with the maintenance of the pitch.

North Ferriby lies on the north bank of the Humber Estuary and is 8 miles west of Hull. It has a population of 4000. Famous ex-residents include: ant-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce and Tigers’ manager Phil Brown.

The parish council website reports that there’s been ant-social behaviour at the skate park. If you can make it there’s a meeting at the village hall on Monday 20th July at 7.30pm to discuss this impending matter. Tea and biscuits will be provided. I’ve sent my apologies as I’m at the Lincoln v Arsenal game.

Kingston upon Hull is in the East Riding of Yorkshire and has a population of 250,000. The German Luftwaffe inflicted widespread damage to the city during the Second World War. Despite the fishing industry being on the wane, its port moves over 13 million tonnes of cargo a year.

Hull is the home of the award-winning The Deep aquarium. It also has strong musical roots. Bands and artists with connections to the city include: The Housemartins, Everything But The Girl and Roland Gift from the Fine Young Cannibals.

Famous folk born in Hull include: actress Maureen Lipman, aviator Amy Johnson, League of Gentleman actor Reece Shearsmith, the much travelled Nicky Barmby and old pan face Dean Windass. Old Deano couldn’t keep out the papers last season. He topped the lot with a 3.30am fracas with fellow striker Marlon King at Scarborough’s Opera House Casino, during a team-bonding exercise last November.

North Ferriby United were formed in 1934. They reached the final of the FA Carlsberg. Vase in 1991. A 3-0 defeat to Whitby Town didn’t spoil their day. Church Road is a modern ground but lacks the character of near neighbours Goole AFC’s Victoria Pleasure Grounds. Although there is a cracking view of the Humber Bridge.

The queue at the ‘Tuck Shop’ is phenomenal. WVM and I have a raging thirst and are keen to test the tea out but there’s Bob Hope of that.

Hull City manager Phil Brown and his lieutenants Brian Horton and ex Mansfield Town manager Steve Parkin are standing in the middle of the pitch chatting. Their season entered into freefall following a sensational start. Premiership status was retained by the skin of their teeth on the final day of the season. They hardly covered themselves in glory in the infamous ‘Fabregas Spitting Affair.’

The Sky TV cameras are here and so is a Bentley that squeezes past WVM and I. The owner heads towards the stand. A North Ferriby player launches a ball towards the Bentley, only a one-handed save from The Groundhopper prevents serious damage to his vehicle.

I may have found the best DJ of the season already. He churns out ‘Friday I’m In Love’ by The Cure, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ by Joy Division and ‘Waterfront’ by Simple Minds. All thoughts of him winning a Sony award vanish when he plays a Lily Allen track.

White Van Man is in a full, high state of ‘gripper’ alert. He’s frothing at the mouth at the procession of northern beauties parading past him. He fails to spot the best one though. Sadly she’s a police officer.

The game finally kicks off. We’re greeted with a short, sharp shower. Phil Brown has agreed to play two different sides. They look strong in the opening exchanges. Turner, Mendy, Boateng, Cousin and Fagan all start.

North Ferriby play some neat football but have no end product. They’re a small, young athletic bunch. The Tigers of Hull tower over them.

Craig Fagan has already hit the woodwork when Hull finally take the lead in the 35th minute with triallist Jerome Thomas cutting in from the left to fire the ball home. For all their possession and showboating they only carry a 1-0 lead into the break.

We wait with anticipation for the raffle draw but once again are left disappointed. My tickets are the wrong colour and I’m nowhere near.

A younger, more eager Hull City turn up in the second half. They up the tempo. Local boy Nicky Barmby leads by example as does Republic of Ireland international Kevin Kilbane.

Nineteen year old Dubliner Jamie Devitt doubles their lead early in the second half following some spillage by the North Ferriby ‘keeper. They begin to run riot. Youngster Nicky Featherstone slides the ball home following a through ball by Barmby. Caleb Folan makes it 4-0 from a corner.

We’re ready for the off now. Nothing is going to top seeing that WPC parading up and down the terrace. Further goals from Barmby and Folan complete the rout.

North Ferriby play football the correct way. Miniscule forward Gary Bradshaw has caught our eye.

A cracking day out. New ground number one for the season, 39 to go. Eh Mrs P?

Attendance: about 2000
Man of the Match: WPC Humberside Constabulary. (And it’s not often that Groundhopper has a good word to say about Plod)