Sunday, April 29, 2018

AFC Kilburn 5-3 Keyworth United

It's Saturday 9th September 2006, blue skies and sunshine saturate Keyworth United's Platt Lane mini soccer pitch. Storm clouds have gathered and vultures have circled for most of the summer, as two parents from my Under 9 side have clashed, and they just won't blow away. As manager of this wonderfully brave, gifted and beautiful team, I'm at my wits' end.

The previous season we had romped to the Young Elizabethan League Division One title, brushing aside the inner-city big guns of AFC Vernon and Dunkirk. I actually got accused by a Keyworth committee member, of 'playing to win.' (lol).

My little team are losing 5-3, anarchy breaks out on the sidelines in full view of my lads. Enough is enough. I resign after the game. Karen, my wife at the time, tries her best to talk me out of it. The stress of running the team has caused me many sleepless nights. My son, Joe, was devastated and heartbroken at my resignation. I stay away and don't even watch the team and my lad for a few months, as a parent very kindly steps in and restores the boys' shattered confidence.

Fast forward the clock four years. The manager, a close friend and confidante of mine, has formed an incredible and unbreakable bond with the boys; they'll run through a brick wall for him. He has a serious illness which he doesn't like to make a song and dance about, but I can see he is struggling. I help him out and rediscover my zest and love for coaching. We reach the Notts FA Shield final and lose out narrowly - we don't play to win and everyone gets a game. The boys give their all in every match and are proud to wear the shirt.

The final season sees me at breaking point. I'm running an under 16 side and Sticky junior's under 18 team. The under 18s are challenging and so are the opponents. Sticky junior is comedy gold, but runs on a short fuse, that when lit, can flare up at any given time. I know he loved it when I was his manager for that final season; he played for the badge and with his heart in every game.

A story I must share, happened out in the Vale of Belvoir, just off the A52. We'd beaten our opponents 4-3 at 'the home of football' in our first encounter - 'The Keyworth Georgie Best' was unplayable that day. He rang rings around the left-back, who had more dizzy spells than Dot Cotton off EastEnders. 'Junior' bagged a brace, his mate, Tom Siswick (could catch pigeons for a living), the best centre-forward I've ever clapped eyes on, scored in what John Motson once called 'mystery time.' There was bad blood at the final whistle. We were 3-2 down with two minutes to go. One of their players sarcastically asked me what the score was, but didn't take too kindly to me asking the same question five minutes later.

In the return fixture, we were 3-1 down with ten minutes to go. Thankfully it was roll-on-roll-off subs. Sticky junior had blown a gasket earlier in the game, so I hauled him off and put him in the cooler for ten minutes; a bit like Steve McQueen in the Great Escape. He had two goals chalked-off for offside by a cheating linesman (parent) - I never questioned this btw. A pumped-up Junior was unleashed with ten minutes remaining, hitting the onion bag twice in the last five minutes - his final goal was celebrated by sliding on his knees, on a rain-soaked surface, falling two yards short of 'our man' running the line, with Junior's index finger pinned to his mouth, in shush mode, directed to all and sundry. There was a bit of a commotion in the car park after - I drove out the place like Starsky and Hutch on two wheels, with the Keyworth flag flying out of the sunroof.

The reason I'm sharing this with you is that it's Wednesday evening and I'm standing at a windswept Platt Lane with the 'Big Man', watching Keyworth United v Matlock Town Reserves. I look at the Green Army team; only one lad from our village is playing. To my knowledge, not one lad from my 18s and 16s team play football anymore. Why is that?  Why haven't KUFC tapped into their youth production line of talent, which has, at its peak, had over 25 teams? The Cricket Club do.

Keyworth are swept aside and soundly beaten 4-0 by a bunch of 16 and 17-year-olds, who are, admittedly, training each day at an Academy. I don't see anybody playing for the badge - most won't be hanging around or even playing for 'Us' next season.

I'm still cross about the game two days later and pondering on whether to give them a second chance up at AFC Kilburn, near Belper, a ground I need to tick off. On Friday I have a disastrous day at work and honestly can't wait for close of play. There's a chink of light on the horizon, with a new real ale house opening on the top of Carlton Hill.

The Brickyard, run by the Lincoln Green Brewery, opens its doors to the general public at 6pm. It's packed to the rafters and chaotic behind the bar. I notice a few big cheeses from CAMRA propping up the bar and adding to the pressure - they've got long beards so presume they are real ale dignitaries. I down a beautiful pint of 'Boxer Blonde' from the Bowland Brewery up in Clitheroe, Lancashire. It takes an age to get served, with first night nerves and all that. I pop into 'Spoons on the way back to HQ; it's deathly quiet in there. compared to the usual busy, bustling trade.

I flick the Fulham v Sunderland game on Sky. I've convinced myself that the 'Black Cats' can win despite the Cottagers being unbeaten in the last 21 games. I tell Ms Moon I've placed a 50p bet at a juicy 14/1 odds (put a fiver on really). I'm moonwalking like MJ on the lounge floor when 'We' take the lead. An equaliser on half-time and a late winner see me hit the wooden hill at 10pm - I'm never betting again.

I'm fretting for most of Saturday morning as the persistent rain batters the French windows. It's a toss-up between watching Kilburn or Holbrook St Michaels - the grounds are only a few miles apart. I'm cleaning the house for most of the morning and checking-in on Twitter for weather updates. I make the call to travel up to Kilburn at just before 2pm.

The first hour on Paul Gambacinni's Pick of the Pops' on Radio 2 is usually rank - we switch on to hear the morose 'Seasons in the Sun', by Terry Jacks - Number One pop pickers in 1975. I remark to Ms Moon that this was a favourite Trent End terrace chant back in the day. She asks me to recite it: "We had joy, we had fun, we had D***y on the run, but the fun didn't last, coz the b***tards ran too fast." - it's a Yes from Simon!

The year now is 1990. 'Gambers' plays the best DJ set since 'Rave On' at the Phoenix Nights Social Club, in Bolton, back in 2001. It includes: Jesus Jones, Adamski and is topped off by the Adventures of Stevie V and 'Dirty Cash' (Money Talks) -  unless you back Sunderland - Ms Moon politely turns down my request to stop the car so I can demonstrate some moves on Kilburn High Street (in Derbyshire, not north London).

I like the look of Kilburn; it seems a tidy place to live. We miss the turning into the ground, adjacent to the Chinese takeaway. The car park is jam-packed. Ms Moon sticks the car into a disabled spot - my leg's still hurting after falling off my bike and I've got a gammy right hand.

It's a bargain £3 a piece on the gate. It's a pleasant enough ground with terrific views. Standing water is everywhere apart from on the playing surface. We bump into Mark Antcliff, whose lad, Matty, is playing today - a lad I rate highly.

In a chaotic first half, Keyworth concede two sloppy, early goals. They peg one back with a daisy-cutter of a free kick from impressive left-back James Price. It's 3-2 at the break to Kilburn. To be fair to KUFC they've put a shift in compared to Wednesday evening - there's no hands on hips and throwing the towel in. It's nice to see a couple of young guns at the heart of their defence playing with heart and desire.

The goals continue to fly in after the break. I take a wander up to the away dugout to chat with Keyworth manager Paddy Sneath. He looks tired and drawn after a long season. Paddy is a lovely bloke and a respected coach on the circuit. But like me a few years ago, he's standing down and taking a break.

Attendance: 28 - Head Count

Man of the Match: Price - Keyworth left back

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Anstey Nomads 1-2 Dunkirk

I arrive home from Nuneaton relatively unscathed, minus fingernails, after 50 miles of a Grand Theft Auto death ride journey by the Big Man. After a couple of scoops at the Free Man on Carlton Hill and Old Volunteer, on Burton Road, I finally head home. Jesus wept, Britain's Got Talent is on the gogglebox. I fire up the computer and scan the full-time results in the East Midlands Counties League. The Boatmen of Dunkirk have won at the death, beating title rivals Teversal, thanks to an Adam Burton 93rd minute winner. I do a hands-on-hips little jig of celebration en route to the kitchen where I pour myself a stiff measure of Pickering's Original Gin.

It's a beautiful evening for cycling on Monday. The Big Man and I pedal down a sun-kissed Trent Embankment, past Holme Road (Nottingham Forest's old training ground) and down to the rowing course at Holme Pierrepont. 20km in the bank will help me reach my fighting weight for a six-day drinking binge in Lisbon in June during the World Cup.

I miss Lincoln City's vital promotion-chasing clash with rivals Wycombe Wanderers (managed by Imps' legend Gareth Ainsworth) at Sincil Bank due to working American hours - Sticky doesn't do 0-0s. Wednesday evening is spent in the old coal-mining village of Cotgrave, where Southwell City are the visitors at a sun-soaked Welfare ground.

I travel up to Ilkeston Towns New Manor Ground on Thursday, due to a venue switch, for Kimberley MW v Radford FC. The Pheasants are in a rich vein of form and dish out a 4-0 drubbing. All is quiet on the 'Kimbo' bench with rumours circulating that their potty-mouthed manager has spat out his dummy and left the club. Big Glenn Russell has a smile as wide as the A610. They'll be a good each-way bet for a Champions League spot next season.

It's Saturday morning and poor old Sticky is working his ass off in the front garden. I've dug deeper than the British Army in The Great Escape. Percy Thrower would be appalled to hear that I nearly put my spade through an electric cable, which would have resulted in a high voltage Sid Vicious mohawk hairstyle.

I'm getting all excited for the big game now, as I shower up and shave. Ms Moon has made a mini picnic as we venture out to north-west Leicestershire. We clock the Altrincham FC coach on the A453 in Clifton. A win today at Grantham will see them clinch the Northern Premier League title.

Bradgate Park is in Charnwood Forest and covers over 850 acres of land. We park up at Hunts Hill and have a pleasant stroll. A herd of deer emerge from the undergrowth and canter up the hill. We sit on a bench admiring the sweeping views of the countryside, whilst enjoying a spot of lunch.

Anstey is a four-mile drive away. It's £5 on the gate. It's a cracking little ground which has recently had a major make-over. We chill on the raised decking, chatting to some of the players' parents, basking in the spring sunshine.

Anstey is a village north west of Leicester, with a population of 6000 people. It is known as the Gateway to Charnwood Forest. Whilst developing a site for the new Co-op store in 2002, remains were found, which according to archaeologists dated back to the 12th Century. Ned Ludd, from whom the industrial revolutionists The Luddites took their name from, was born in the village. In 1779 in a ‘fit of passion’ he smashed up two knitting frames. Snooker player Willie Thorne is from the area, and it is said that he learnt his trade at the Anstey Conservative Club.

I'm presuming 'Upo' hasn't rocked up yet; you tend to hear him before you see him. Radio Nottingham were asking for folk to call in who left the game early at The City Ground last weekend, missing two late Tricky Tree goals. I'd already seen him cough up on Twitter about a sharp exit. Upo on a radio phone-in rant would be comedy gold, with the bleep machine on overtime.

Dunkirk have a DNA and ethos that's instilled into their players at a young age. You are taught to appeal for everything, have a never-say-die attitude and play with aggression. Some folk just don't get it; Anstey being one of them.

I saw these two teams play out a humdinger down Lenton Lane a few weeks ago. The Anstey 'assistant manager' (some hipster with a beard) was bleating like a baby lamb at the referee about giving the Boatmen everything. "It's because they ask mate, so quit your moaning, I haven't paid £5 to hear you bellyaching all night." His eloquent reply had a few effs and jeffs and was delivered with venom.

I have forewarned Ms Moon that Dunkirk are world class at swearing, we've run through a few expletives so that she'll fully understand the lingo and matchday experience. It's tight at the top of the table with four clubs still in the running for the championship title.

You can feel the tension in the air as the players emerge from the tunnel. We're stood directly to the left of the away dugout, leaning on a red-painted rail. Dave Robinson and Craig Clark have done a cracking job at the helm for Dunkirk. They have a belief in youth and nurture it; unlike their predecessor. They have brought in the vastly experienced Jimmy Albans onto the coaching staff.

Jimmy has a voice like a foghorn and would piss an interview for a town crier in any parish of our county, but he does know his onions. He immediately susses out the pathetic time-wasting antics of the Nomads and is onto the referee in a flash. "You'll soon get tired of that," says someone from the Anstey bench. "I bet you I don't" he replies.

The first half is nip and tuck. Anstey take an age in everything they do. The referee, 'the timekeeper' as I like to call him, seems reluctant to hurry them along or even stop his watch. Albans complains about the speed of balls being retrieved and thrown back in. The ref's reply is "I'm not a ball boy.

I wanted a bet on young Ollie Clark getting a yellow card; he's had more bookings than Joey Barton. He clatters into an Anstey player on seven minutes and is duly booked and royally bollocked by his Dad. It seems to calm him down as his presence is felt on the game with his lung-bursting runs and precise, crisp passing. I saw him play his heart out at Holwell Sports a few weeks ago. An early booking will calm him down.

Young Timmy Berridge is up top, a lad I know well from Gotham FC and Clifton All-Whites. He will learn a lot from playing alongside Steve Chaplin. 'Chappo' is head and shoulders above anyone on the pitch (top ratter Ben Moore deserves a special mention too). He leads the Anstey defence a merry dance, with his deft touch, aerial dominance, hassling and hounding and intelligent play.

Jack Lane is Anstey's standout player. Ms Moon says he looks like 'Tinhead' off Brookside. He covers the ground like a gazelle and has a wicked shot and dead ball in his locker. Will Rawden, Dunkirk's left back, will need to be on his toes. Dunkirk come the closest to scoring in a frantic first half with a Berridge header bouncing off the bar, following a brilliant save by the Nomads' 'keeper.

Ms Moon isn't too chuffed with me as I've been chatting to a Leicester groundhopper in the first half. I knew he was a hopper as he'd got a Machine Mart carrier bag which was probably packed out with a flask, Tupperware box full of egg and cress sandwiches, a programme cover and an old tobacco tin to put his newly-purchased club badge in.

There's a commotion at the break. Ms Moon says I've an eight-inch grey hair protruding from out of my nose. My eyes begin to water when she asks whether she can pull it out. After twenty aborted attempts, I finally feel a tear fall down my face with the offending item trapped between my thumb and first finger.

Out of nowhere we hear a DJ on the PA system, and let me tell you folks the guy is on fire. He plays a superb set including: 'Cuba' by the Gibson Brothers. 'Green Onions' by Booker T & the M.G.'s and 'One Nation Under a Groove' (best start to a song ever) by Funkadelic.

I'm hoping Jimmy Albans has had a cold shower and calmed down as he's proper bollocked the referee uphill and down dale on his way to the dressing room at half-time. 'The bearded hipster' is poking his nose in The chilled-out referee will have been told in no uncertain terms to keep his beady eye on the farcical time-wasting antics from all at Anstey.

My man 'Chappo' is scythed down in the area with 20 minutes to go. Berridge steps up, only to see his penalty brilliantly beaten away by the Nomads' 'keeper. It's a pressure cooker atmosphere now, a situation the Boatmen will thrive on.

'Robbo' repeats "it'll come lads, be patient." His words ring true, minutes later. Berridge shows balls of steel, as he skips past two defenders on a diagonal run, before unleashing a shot into the bottom corner of the onion bag. The Dunkirk bench leap into the air in celebration. I raise a clenched fist and peck Ms Moon on the cheek.

The tables are turned on Anstey as Dunkirk run the clock down. Balls appear on all four sides of the pitch. Suddenly they have a bigger stock of footballs than JJB Sports. Berridge rolls the ball into an empty net to put the game to bed. The scenes are magical and heart-warming.

A late Anstey goal doesn't put a dampener on the day. We walk past four old guys. One pipes up, "Dunkirk just about deserved that." I put my hand on his shoulder and say "fully deserved mate, fully deserved."

Attendance: 137

Man of the Match: Steve Chaplin

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Nuneaton Town 0-2 Salford City

We head back down 'Wembley Way' towards the tube station. I've watched football for over 45 years and yet today is up there with any of the thousands and thousands of games I've watched. A few years ago my club (Lincoln City) were dead, buried and staring the Conference North in the face. The turnaround has been nothing short of miraculous. The unknown players the Cowleys have recruited have performed to a man, on the world's biggest stage, in front of 30,000 of our fans. The city won't sleep tonight.

It's time to celebrate with the 'professional drinkers' at the Free Man on Carlton Hill - most are half cut and incapable of a conversation. I have a pint of Shipyard before heading home and tucking into some Pickering's -  a gin distilled in Edinburgh for over 150 years and only opened on special occasions (on a Sunday).

It's Tuesday evening; yesterday (Monday) was a blur, I need my football fix. As the incessant rain bounces off the French windows, more and more games fall by the wayside. Radford FC's Selhurst Street surface has the best drainage on the circuit. There's a thumbs up from their Twitter account to confirm the game is ON. Hardy volunteers have forked the pitch for most of the day.

It's the usual routine of sticking the car in Asda on Radford Road and hoping their scouts and trolley-pushers don't spot I've gone over the two-hour parking restriction. I'm in somewhat of a quandary this evening as Gedling Miners' Welfare are the visitors; a club I have a soft spot for. I stand in between the two dugouts. Big Glenn is remarkably calm. There are no tantrums, swear words or removal of baseball cap in a fit of pique, as the Pheasants sweep aside the Miners by 3-0.

Thursday evening is spent in the old mining village of Selston, just off Junction 27 on the M1. 'The Taxman' is riding shotgun. He moans and groans about Nottingham Forest's inability to find the back of the Onion Bag - they haven't scored in the last six games. Rumour is, that only the visiting Barnsley fans are allowed to buy golden goal tickets for Saturday's fixture.

It's a wonderful game of football at the Parish Hall. Teversal see off Selston 3-2. Dave Cockerill scores a goal of rare beauty for this level - his performance alone is worth the admission fee. He's carrying some timber these days, but his touch, decision-making and goal-scoring prowess are first-class.

Plans for a Friday tea-time drinky poo with Ms Moon are scuppered when her mum takes an unfortunate tumble (I've never known a good one), resulting in her being whisked off to an overstretched accident and emergency department at Nottingham's Queen's Medical Centre. I peg it down to the Willowbrook in Gedling and have a couple of real ales with Arthur Daley, Terry McCann and Dave off Minder.

I'm up at eight bells on Saturday morning, I've a date with the Big Man (the artist previously known as White Van Man) at Colwick Country Park, next to Nottingham Racecourse. We're both proper into our cycling at the minute (no drug tests required). The other evening we had a lovely ride down to Beeston Weir from ROKO gym in Wilford, where we saw all the beautiful tributes in the memory of 12-year-old Owen Jenkins who tragically drowned at this spot whilst heroically saving another life in July 2017.

Blimey Charlie, ninety minutes of pedalling on paths caked in mud and puddles has done for me. I'm a broken man as I shower up, dress and prepare a chilli, whilst listening to the brilliant Mark Chapman broadcasting live from Aintree. I've only won the Grand National twice, ever. Fifty pence each way (old joke) on Mr Frisk in 1990 and Bobby Joe in 1999 saw me sharing Cuban cigars with Robert Maxwell on his yacht in the Canary Islands.

I arrive at the Rancliffe Arms in the village of Bunny at 1:20pm. It's a gastropub that was run back in the day by Brian Clough's chief scout, Alan Hill - and what a lovely chap he is too. I hear the sound of burning rubber and a late press on the brake pedal, as the Big Man does a 90-degree turn on entering the car park.

We're joined by Tim Wilkes, a former Notts County striker and Non-League legend - the Big Man always teases him that it was Big Sam Allardyce who released him from Meadow Lane. Tim did the business and banged the goals in for a number of high profile clubs on the circuit including: Kettering, Hinckley and Grantham.

Christ on a bike, I've forgotten how frightening the Big Man is behind the wheel, as he weaves in and out of traffic, ironically close to Prestwold Hall Racing Circuit. We're on two wheels as we come off the M1 and join the M69. I've run out of fingernails as we exit the motorway.

Six years ago he took 'The Taxman' on a death ride to Hednesford Town down the A38 in rush hour traffic - the poor bloke hasn't stepped in his car since, and is still receiving counselling to this day. If you're a bank robber, cashpoint demolisher or armed raider and need a getaway driver, book now to avoid further disappointment.

I notice a piece of paper tucked in behind his sun visor. I ask for a look. It's confirmation of a tour of 'Emmerdale Farm' - I actually shed a tear in sympathy. He starts chortling and admits he's not missed an episode in 15 years.

It's an astonishing £14 to stand on the terraces at Liberty Way - a club charging that at this level must have delusions of grandeur - it's a further £2 to transfer into the 'stand' ... lol.  A raffle ticket seller is immediately in my face and not particularly polite. I wave her away - I always buy a raffle ticket.

For £14 you'd expect to chance upon a team-sheet so we can at least see who's playing. I ask a steward where I can find one, "you'll be lucky son" is his reply. Most clubs at this level have the courtesy to type one out and give them out for free and not charge £14 on the gate - I would happily pay 50 pence for one. I came here a few years back (2013) on a bitterly cold day and was very impressed with the DJ. He or she are proper on it today. I'm nearly tripping out as 'Chime' by Orbital blasts out the PA system.

Nuneaton is a town with a population just shy of 80,000 in the county of Warwickshire. Due largely to munitions factories, the town suffered from heavy bombing by the German Luftwaffe in the Second World War. On the 17th May 1941 100 people were killed, 380 houses destroyed and over 10,000 properties damaged.

Nuneaton’s born and bred footballers include: Trevor Peake, John Curtis, Peter Whittingham, Nigel Winterburn and Matty Fryatt. Other cult celebrity are: Larry Grayson, Mary Whitehouse, rugby player Dean Richards, Paul Bradley (that dimwit Nigel off EastEnders), referee Stuart Attwell, film director Ken Loach and Victorian novelist George Eliot.

It's nip and tuck at the top of the National League North as Salford and Harrogate scrap it out in the title chase, with the former three points in front. Nuneaton are on a good run with former Nottingham Forest manager Gary Charles at the helm.

Salford are on top in the early stages. Their talisman, the fleet-footed Nick Haughton, signed from Fleetwood Town, puts them one to the good with a beautifully executed free-kick. Carl Piergianni inflicts further damage with a close-range header from another set piece.

George Green is in centre mid for Nuneaton and has previously played for Salford. As a youth player he was signed by Everton for £300,000 from Bradford City. He left Goodison Park four years later, struggling to cope with too much too young. He has openly admitted to suffering from depression. Green clatters into 'crowd favourite' Scott Burton (a player I rate and admire) and is correctly yellow-carded. The chants from some of the away support are sick, vile and aimed at Green. It's pathetic.

I can hear the Big Man's tummy rumbling at the break. I ask him if he wants a pie. The queue at the 'Pie Stall' is enormous. Rumours are circulating that there's been a 'cock-up on the catering front' and they've run out of pies (it would never happen in Wigan). I shoot over to another catering outlet on the far side of the ground and relay the devastating news to the 'Big Man.' He takes it in his stride, "Hot Dog with Tommy Ketch, please son.'

Nuneaton try to break down a resilient Salford but can't blow the house down and lack the killer instinct, with the visitor's Liam Hogan outstanding in the heart of their defence. The Nuneaton centre half's have been smoking Robert Maxwell's Havana's whilst marking Salford's 9 jacket. I've put more effort in hunting down a steak pie.

Attendance: 936

Man of the Match: 'The Big Man and Liam Hogan (a proper defender).

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Lincoln City 1-0 Shrewsbury Town

It's Saturday 20th January 1973. An eight-year-old Sticky Palms is sat on a wooden bench, behind the goal in the South Park Stand at Lincoln City's Sincil Bank stadium, scoffing his way through a bag of Woolworths pick 'n mix that his Nana has bought him.  My Dad, Frank Palmer, a journalist on the Daily Mirror, has sloped off to the Press Box to catch up with his old friend and former colleague Maurice Burton, a sports correspondent for the Lincolnshire Echo.

There's quite a commotion in the crowd. I lift my head from out of my bag of sweeties to see what's going off. 23-year-old Irishman, Brendan Bradley, a £6,000 signing from Finn Harps, is wheeling away in celebration after firing a goal into Crewe Alexandra's net. I'm transfixed and captivated for the rest of the game and fall in love with the club at first sight. Little did I know that I would watch them play at over 40 different grounds.

I shared with Dad and my brother the glory years of Graham Taylor and his record-breaking Division Four team. The renaissance during the Colin Murphy era, in his two successful spells and the exciting times with John Beck and Keith Alexander at the helm in the nineties and noughties. There was the heartbreak of the 'Bradford Fire Disaster' in 1985, in which 56 supporters perished when the Valley Parade main stand caught ablaze - two were Imps fans, who the Club named a stand after. The disappointment of a 1-1 draw at Fulham's Craven Cottage, denying us promotion to what is now the Championship in 1982 and the devastation (twice) of relegation to the fifth tier (Conference).

My father passed away in 2000. He missed the two trips in the play-offs to the Millennium Stadium, in Cardiff, where we came up short (it was a miracle Keith got us there on his budget). My own family became a priority in the nineties and noughties. Sticky junior attended his first game in 1999, a 3-2 defeat to Leyton Orient - he joined in with the crowd shouting 'Foster out' (George Foster was a decent man and Phil Stant's assistant). The next time he returned to Sincil was for an FA Cup tie in 2007, sporting Nottingham Forest colours in the away end - 'rules' are that you support the team from the town where you were born (we live in Nottingham).

Non-League football became my scene and obsession. Lincoln, true to form, duly obliged with a second stint in the Conference, following the disastrous appointment of the inexperienced, arrogant and aloof Chris Sutton. I would go just twice a season, but it wasn't the same without Dad.

There was a turning point for the club in June 2016. I pray it was a vision and not the cheaper option. What we do know is that two brothers from Essex rode into town with a strong Non-League CV on the back of success at Concord Rangers and Braintree Town, with university degrees and a firm belief in sports science - City were about to buck the trend of appointing run-of-the-mill managers.

Ms Moon kindly bought me a last-minute ticket for the third round FA Cup tie at Ipswich Town - I needed to tick off Portman Road in my quest to complete the 92 League grounds. I went with no expectation. What I saw that day defied belief and blew me away. The Imps played them off the park, but couldn't kill them off. There was a heart, soul and spirit not witnessed since Big Keith's land of the giants. It was a lonely, sad, but proud drive back home, despite the 2-2 draw. The Tractor Boys lost the replay in dramatic fashion; a game shared with a live TV audience.

Last year's FA Cup journey has been well-documented; I shan't force feed you again. We were privileged and honoured to witness victories against Brighton and Burnley - despite sitting in the 'wrong end' on both occasions, due to our desperation to 'be there.'

An early first-round exit at AFC Wimbledon meant there was to be no repeat performance. There was a chink of light appearing in the controversial EFL Trophy, a competition some supporters chose to boycott. Despite a tough regional draw and tricky ties to follow at Rochdale's Spotland and Peterborough at Sincil Bank, 'The Lincoln' found themselves 90 minutes away from their first appearance at Wembley since their formation in 1884.

Where was I when 'one of our own' (Lee Frecklington) dispatched the winning penalty to send us to 'the home of football?' Pacing up and down my balcony in the Hotel Bahia Princess in Costa Adeje, Tenerife, waiting for confirmation from the Imps' official Twitter account.

It's Saturday morning and I'm piloting down the M1 south. We're dipping our toes into the Vanarama South for the first time this season. Mud's 1973 hit 'Crazy' is on Paul Gambacinni's 'Pick of the Pops' as we roll into a car parking space on Vauxhall Road, outside Hemel Hempstead's ground.

It's £12 a pop on the turnstile. I like the ground, it has a homely feel about it. We stand across the far side, facing a cool breeze. Hemel blow away the visitors, Chippenham Town, from Wiltshire. Their front two, David Moyo and Karl Oliyide are too hot to handle as they race into a 3-0 lead. It's a lovely club, where we meet genuine, friendly supporters who wish us well for our day out tomorrow in north London. We spend a wonderful evening in the historic market town of St Albans. I tick off a few old Victorian back-street boozers, before enjoying a few scoops with Ms Moon in the city centre close to the cathedral.

It's Sunday morning and we're sat in a hipster street cafe just around the corner from the hotel. The nerves are kicking in; it's just five hours before kick-off. I eat as much breakfast as I can, but it's a struggle to force it down. I notice a tweet from Nicky Cowley's wife, which says ten years ago she bought, as a present for her then boyfriend, Nicky, a stadium tour of Wembley.

'Cooperman' has tipped us the wink that Kingsbury, in north London, is a top place to park for Wembley. We tip up there just after midday and find a parking space just off the busy high street. We would've nipped into JJ Moons 'Spoons, but a sign says 'Shrewsbury supporters only' - I'm a stickler for the rules.

It's a five-minute train ride to Wembley Park. The place is buzzing with football supporters already. 'The Lincoln' outnumber the Salopians by two and a half to one. I'm taken aback at the redevelopment on 'Wembley Way.' My last visit was in September 1997. It was two days' after the tragic death of Princess Diana. The atmosphere was sombre and surreal. Earlier in the day we had dropped into Lord's to watch Notts CCC in a County Championship match versus Middlesex. It was one of the few times I've been sozzled at a football game.

I won't have a drop of beer before this one; that's for sure. It's teeming down with rain as we loiter inside the Novotel Hotel foyer waiting for my brother, niece and her grandad. They've travelled down from York at the crack of dawn and have been to the Science Museum, before getting caught up in 'The Arsenal' traffic on the tube.

I'm getting tetchy and irritable and want to be sat in the ground 'enjoying' the pre-match entertainment. I distribute the tickets out and peg it up 'Wembley Way' with Ms Moon. An escalator transports us up into the gods. We're sat bang on the halfway line with a bird's eye view of the stadium.

Ms Moon, gawd bless her, tries to exchange some small talk. It falls on deaf ears, like it did at Turf Moor last season and on Colne High Street, in Lancashire last May, when waiting for the final score to come in from the Macclesfield game that clinched us promotion back to the Football League. I'm a bag of nerves.

There are some lovely touches by both clubs. The Shrews and Imps stadium announcers read out the teams over the PA system. Lincoln's special guest is 16-year-old Jack Nottingham, who has inoperable bone cancer. Young Jack walks out with the match ball as I struggle to fight back the tears. Danny Cowley has stepped aside and allowed legendary manager Colin Murphy (I named my budgie after him) to lead the team out - what a wonderful gesture this is. I well up again as triple amputee, 13-year-old Harvey Phillips is today's mascot.

The game kicks off and I feel an inner calm. Shrewsbury look comfortable on the ball, but have the Imps snapping at their heels. The Cowleys, in their working gear, are prowling the technical area and are their usual animated selves. Shrews' manager Paul Hurst, a man who Danny Cowley openly admits to ringing for advice during his Non-League days, is suited, booted and stood still.

The Imps survive an early scare when Bryn Morris sees a speculative shot thump off the crossbar. Shrews' 'keeper Dean Henderson looks to be 'cleaning windows' as he comes out to collect a ball, before falling dramatically to the floor, where he remains motionless. A stretcher is called for. TV replays show it to be a poor challenge by Matt Rhead, who is fortuitously shown a yellow card.

Minutes later, with Henderson clearly ruffled and still dazed, a Waterfall shot is fumbled into the path of Elliott Whitehouse, who blasts a shot into the roof of the net. I'm out of my seat in a flash, clenching my first, the relief pouring out. Lincoln enjoy a good spell of pressure, although they are thankful to on-loan 'keeper Ryan Allsop who makes a stunning save from a point-blank header by Omar Beccles. The first half is over in a flash. I head downstairs for the toilet, but quickly do an about turn when seeing the beer-fuelled queues.

The second half lasts an eternity as Lincoln look to run down the clock at every opportunity (we're brilliant at that). Rhead is hooked just after the hour after spooning a great chance over the bar. Another juggernaut, the ever-willing Palmer, replaces him. He runs his socks off and holds the ball up in corners, buying the Imps some valuable time and rest.

Legs are tiring, the energy-sapping, rain-soaked Wembley turf is taking its toll on both sets of players. Lincoln are magnificent in the final quarter. Whitehouse is having the game of his life. The referee blows the final whistle. I turn to my brother and hug him tightly, not wanting to let go, ever. I look to the skies and thank my Dad for letting me mither him into taking me to Sincil Bank for the first time in 1973.

Attendance: 41,261

Men of the Match:  Jack Nottingham and Harvey Phillips our special guest and mascot and the Shrewsbury mascot (I'm sorry, I couldn't find his name)

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Newport County A.F.C. 1-1 Coventry City

I'm still sulking as we traipse back down into Lancaster city centre, after the long, hard slog up to the Ashton Memorial. Yesterday, 'The Lincoln' dropped two points (Danny will be cross and frustrated) up at the Globe Arena in Morecambe. We created very little and were fortunate, in the end, to see two shots kiss and smack off our own crossbar.

I start to stress about the weather forecast in Newport, in Wales, for the coming week. The plan was to tick off ground 85/92 - blog legend Trumpy Bolton will be on the team bus, it's 86/92 for him. To make matters worse, the Club declare it an all-ticket match, so I have to commit to two tickets in the Bisley Stand, irrespective of whether the game goes ahead or not.

Tuesday evening is spent down Lenton Lane, in Nottingham, at Dunkirk's ground. Their young guns may be familiar to Coventry City fans, as they knocked the Sky Blues out of the FA Youth Cup in a highly-charged affair back in 2016.

Tonight, I see them claw back three points from League leaders Anstey Nomads, whose management team are the biggest set of whingers that I've set eyes on this season. I remark to their manager that I haven't paid £5 to listen to him moan and groan all night (20 minutes in). I'm told to 'f**k off to the other side of the ground if you don't like it.' What a charming individual. Local hero Ned Ludd (from the Luddites) would be proud of you.

Wednesday night is spent on a sun-soaked (breezy) Albert Dock in Liverpool, as I have a business meeting in the morning. I'm proper fagged out when I return home just before tea-time. Ms Moon and I enjoy a few scoops in the Head of Steam on High Pavement, in Nottingham.

It's Friday morning and I'm driving over Lady Bay Bridge. The banks of the River Trent are bulging, swollen and about to burst. Brazil and McCoist are in fine fettle on the TalkSport breakfast show. Trumpy Bolton is swinging his shopping bag filled with booty (cider), as he opens the car door. Newport and Coventry fans let me explain a few things. This man has supped more alcoholic beverages than Richard Burton and Oliver Reed put together.

Another astonishing fact to consider is that he is trying (over the last 40 years) to tick off a pub in every village, town and city in England, Wales and Scotland. He has a dog-eared old Collins road atlas that has all the places neatly highlighted out. Credit card bills from the pubs are neatly indexed in box files. He's going to leave all this to me in his will, if he pops it first.

He navigates me through the Cotswolds and into Wales, before we roll into the quaint village of Usk, in Gwent, 10 miles shy of Newport. It's a former Britain in Bloom winner, that today is spoilt with countless roadworks.

Bolton has soon snuck into the Three Salmons Hotel, shouting up a pint of Butty Bach and gassing to the Spanish barman who tells us he's also a 'gigolo.' We wander across the far side of the village, where a Good Friday church parade is taking place. Bolton is unmoved and dives into the King's Head a 16th Century inn with a large, open log fire. We sit adjacent to the Lionel Sweet Room - a legendary fly fisherman (no, me neither).

The heavens begin to open and rain hammers onto my windscreen as we pull into one of those dreadful Flaming Grill pubs just a few miles away from the ground. As it's Good Friday, Trumpy insists on having fish (scampi). I feel the water oozing out from every bite I take.

I've grave concerns about the weather, it's absolutely tipping it down as we park in the Kingsway Shopping Centre. We stroll through town before Trump eyes another pub up called the Pen and Wig. We both sink a wonderful pint of Bass, which is second only to the Plough at Wysall, before asking a policeman for directions to the ground.

Newport is a cathedral and university city in south-east Wales, that lies on the River Usk. It has a population of 145,000. Up until 1850 it was Wales' largest coal-exporting port. In 2010 the Ryder Cup was hosted at nearby Celtic Manor. Funnily enough, it rained a lot that weekend too. It was so washed out, that they finished the game on a Monday.

Notable folk from the city include: the cast from Dirty Sanchez (prank TV series), Rap group Goldie Lookin' Chain, Animal Magic presenter Johnny Morris, the brilliant actor Michael Sheen, (played Brian Clough in 'The Damned United'),  author Leslie Thomas, former Conservative Home Secretary Kenneth Baker, footballers James Collins, Chris Gunter and Tony Pulis and shed loads of rugby players who I've never heard of (I don't do rugby).

The football club were founded in 1912, and were reformed again in 1989, following well-documented financial woes. They are nicknamed The Exiles. Well-known managers include: Bobby Ferguson (Bobby Robson's No.2 at UEFA Cup winning Ipswich Town), Justin Edinburgh, Terry Butcher and John Sheridan (serial swearer). Notable former players include: John Aldridge, Tommy Tynan, Dean Holdsworth, Tony Pulis and Ismail Yakubu.

On March 23rd, 1983, for what would be the first and last time, I left a game at half-time. Two goals apiece for Tommy Tynan (couldn't hit a cow's arse with a ukulele for 'The Lincoln') and John Aldridge put Newport County 4-0 up at Sincil Bank. I was traumatised and teased for weeks after by my Nottingham Forest supporting work colleagues.

We're both soaked to the skin as we join fans crossing the footbridge before Trumpy navigates into the Family Zone at Rodney Parade. A beer-fuelled Bolton necks another pint and sings along to a Neil Young song that a guitarist is blasting out on stage.

We take our seats in Block E, Row E of the Bisley Stand at 2:50pm as Sheffield's Pulp play on the ground PA system. A minute's silence is held following the passing of Bobby Ferguson, a former Newport player, where he scored the only two Football League goals in his career. As previously mentioned he was Ipswich Town's coach during the Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen era.

The Sky Blues have brought a huge following (1500). The majority of supporters stand on the open, uncovered terrace in the wind and rain - I salute you all. Coventry play a beautiful game that revolves around 36-year-old Dubliner Michael Doyle. He has balance, poise and finds pockets of space. He rarely wastes a ball for the whole afternoon.

Newport are more direct but play with heart, no more so than cult hero right back David Pipe, whose former clubs include Coventry City and Notts County. The Exiles take the lead following a beautiful, flowing passage of football, with Mickey Demetriou turning in a left-wing cross.

It's announced at the break over the tannoy that Coventry pensioner Andy Martin has today completed visiting 92 Football League grounds, probably all with Coventry because of their yo-yo existence. There's a generous round of applause to acknowledge this feat.

Bolton is dispatched down to the concourse to snaffle up a couple of meat pies and sink another pint. I check the half-times. 'The Lincoln' are 1-0 down to Exeter City. I'm not unduly concerned, as we always turn up the heat in the second half. So do Newport, as they go for the jugular. An incredible save by Burge and a last-ditch clearance off the line by a defender keeps Coventry in the game, as the Sky Blues appear to run out of steam.

Trumpy starts chatting to the bloke next him, it sounds like he's talking in Welsh, bearing in mind he's had a skinful. He tells the chap that Newport will regret missing those chances just as Max Biamou pops up at the far post to blast home an equaliser and earn Coventry a vital point. I check my phone, the Red Imps have grabbed a late win with another goal from super-sub Ollie Palmer.

You've got to admire Trumpy. a 300 mile round trip with me today, followed by a dawn start tomorrow for Brighton versus his beloved Leicester City.

Attendance: 4,667

Man of the Match: Trumpy Bolton.

Bolton Beer Watch: Litre of cider, pint in Three Salmons, pint in Kings Head, pint in Flaming Grill, pint in Pen and Wig,  pint in Family Zone, pint at half-time

Sticky's Drinks: half a real ale, blackcurrant and soda x3  and pint of Bass.