Monday, May 14, 2007

Game 45: Salisbury City 1.0 Braintree Town (NCS Playoff Final) 13.05.07

Woke up at Stuart's and watched the rerun of the previous day's game before tucking into a delicious fryup. Just what we needed to keep us going for the day! Headed back to the local pub around 2 to see it full of Whites shirts and a few familiar faces.

After a couple of drinks we wandered down to the ground as the landlord had stopped serving. After a ten-fifteen minute wait the ground was opened up and we made our way into the main stand to find our seats.

Setanta were televising the game and our location close to the dugout meant we ended up on camera several times during the game according to our sources back in the Old Ale House who were watching it on the big screen.

As you would expect from two teams who finished a point apart in the league, the game was a pretty close affair. The first half ended 0.0 and neither team were able to create a clearcut chance. In the second half, Braintree looked better value for the win and created a number of chances from corners but their best chance came from a Salisbury mistake. Aaron Cook passed the ball back to Clarke who was expecting him to clear it for a throw. The ball was too strong and raced towards the goal - from our angle it looked like it might go in but luckily it went wide for a corner.

Salisbury came back into the game after that and the introduction of Robbie Matthews for Sales made a big difference. Prince took a couple of free kicks that just needed a final touch and Tubbs had a couple of half chances. Braintree then came even closer to taking the lead when a shot hit the post and was cleared by the Whites. This brought the Salisbury fans to life as they sensed that their team needed them to get behind them - the stands and terraces were suddenly full of song.

Tommy Widdrington came on to try and settle things down at the back by playing a defensive midfielder role in place of Matt Holmes who had tried his best all afternoon but hadn't managed to stop Braintree taking charge in the midfield.

Three minutes later and Salisbury took off on the counter attack, the ball was cleared to Robbie Matthews and he took the ball down the left wing before passing to Luke Prince. Prince put a low cross in to the box and Tubbs popped in front of the defender to wrong foot the keeper and smash the ball into the net.

If the celebrations against Forest had been mental, this doubled it. I threw my arms in the air to celebrate so hard that it felt like my right arm had left the socket! I was in pain for the next 10 minutes but was too busy singing on the Whites to let it worry me too much.

Braintree's manager George Borg made a treble substitution and it almost worked as Ryan Clarke made a dramatic diving save to deny a header. Into injury time and it kicked off in front of us as Luke Prince was grappled to the ground by one of Braintree's coaches. Everyone got involved and a couple of the Braintree players went after Widdrington at one point but the referee got everything under control. Prince went off as a precaution and everyone waited for the ref to blow up - as he did, the party started with a pitch invasion.

The Whites were going up to the Conference! What a way to end the season.

Game 44: Stevenage Borough 3.2 Kidderminster Harriers (FA Trophy Final) 12.05.07

An early start from Salisbury for Pete, Andy and I as we headed off to Stevenage at 6am to meet up with our host for the weekend, Stuart. After a 2 1/2 hour drive (and a quick gamezone in the service station) we arrived at Stuart's, then headed to the train station to join the masses heading to the first Cup Final at the new Wembley stadium. At Kings Cross, one of the passengers on the train thought it must be the FA Cup Final with all the noise. We headed over to a pub near Euston station to meet up with the rest of our group over a couple of drinks.

Arriving at Wembley on the tube, it seemed that nothing had changed. Loudmouth drunks on the tube getting lairy, massive queues to get out of the ticket office and police blocking the way everywhere. But looking outside the ticket office, the old walk up Wembley Way had a new destination - the twin towers replaced by a huge arch.

We decided to head straight up to the ground to take in the atmosphere (and find the gents). There were no queues when we arrived and it took about 5 minutes to get into the ground. Like most of the people around me, it took my breath away. Our seats were 12 rows from the front opposite the goal line and without the old dog track in the way, pretty close to the action.

By 2.15, the ground had filled nicely and the official attendance was given as 53,262. The rain had held off for our walk to the ground but we were treated to the spectacle of the sprinklers coming on as the rain started to pour down.

Having seen Stevenage earlier in the competition, I was keen to see how they would cope against a team in their own division, featuring an ex Wiltshire striker - James Constable, formerly of Chippenham Town and Walsall.

The first half belonged to Kidderminster - Constable capitalised on some poor defending to poke home the first goal after 32 minutes and slid across the turf to celebrate in front of us - this didn't go down well with the Stevenage fans who decided not to join in with the Kidderminster fans Mexican waves. Constable added a second goal 5 minutes later with a low shot from outside the box and it looked as if it would be game over for Stevenage.

I turned to Pete and said that it was nicely set up for a comeback and that I reckoned Stevenage would win 3.2 - no idea why as the bookies would have gladly taken my money on that one after the first half.

Mark Stimson's half time team talk seemed to galvanise his players and they started the second half with their heads up, unlike the Kidderminster players who looked nervous in trying to protect their lead. Mitchell Cole scored 6 minutes into the half when the ball was knocked down into his path and he hit it across the keeper and found the back of the net. Steve Guppy was looking tired and was replaced by Craig Dobson.

Dobson looked lively and scored a cracking second - a long pass from the back let him run onto the ball between two defenders and stretch his leg out to guide it past the keeper. Now it was all Stevenage and the Mexican waves were all coming from their fans. With a couple of minutes to go it looked like the game was heading for extra time when the ball was crossed from the right to Steve Morison. His first shot was saved by the keeper but he made no mistake from the rebound and the Stevenage end went crazy.

Kidderminster had one glorious chance in the last minute of injury time but they put it wide and my prediction came true - a 3.2 win for Stevenage. An entertaining final and one that was well worth paying £25 for - the most expensive ticket of the season to date.

After watching the teams collecting their medals and the Stevenage players bounce around the pitch we strolled back to the station and made our way back to Stevenage via the pub, a bus diversion and a curry house. Got to the local about 10 o clock in time to catch up with a Derby fan and find out that they had beaten Southampton in the day's early playoff game. Time for bed and another 'cup final' the following day.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Game 43: Salisbury City 3.1 Bishops Stortford (aet) (NCS Playoff Semi-Final second leg) 05.05.07

This was the second leg of the playoff final, following a 1.1 draw on Wednesday night when Robbie Matthews scored an equaliser with his first touch of the ball after coming off the bench. Amy and I had listened to the game at home and it sounded as if both teams could have won it.

Left early for the game to get a good spot on the terrace and picked up a couple of waifs and strays on the way. Pete had suggested a meetup at the Old Castle but ended up in bed until early afternoon with a hangover so needed a lift up while Andy was waiting in the Old Castle for Pete to arrive, so picked him up on the way.

The new ground improvements were not open at the home end but the 250-300 Stortford fans were allowed access to part of the away terrace and seating in the main stand. I have to admit to being a bit nervous throughout the game but a great head down from Robbie Matthews to set up Matt Tubbs to run through on goal and slot the ball in after 18 minutes settled me down a few minutes. However when Stortford pulled back an equaliser with a great shot on 34 minutes the nerves were jangling again as they were playing some good football.

Half time 1.1 - and only thanks to the heroics of Ryan Clarke did it stay that way in the second half. Danny Clay underhit a backpass which a Stortford player picked up on but Clarke was out quickly to get the ball. An even better chance came up a few minutes later when a goalmouth scramble saw the ball fall to a Stortford player just in front of us - he hit the ball down into the ground and over the bar when the goal was gaping.

Approaching extra time and both teams were really going for it - Matt Tubbs was close on a couple of occasions. He was substituted at full time for Marvin Brown who played a vital role in extra time. After 100 minutes he held the ball up and flicked it into Robbie Matthews, who ran forward and blasted the ball into the net in front of the home fans who went mental. In the last few minutes Salisbury caught Stortford on the counterattack. Brown held the ball up again and played it though to Mike Fowler who placed a shot past the keeper for 3.1 - at last the nerves went and the party could start!

We headed back to the car and listened to the Havant v Braintree game on Radio Solent - like our game this had gone to extra time but neither team had been able to score so it had gone to penalties. I opened up the car doors and we stood in the sunshine listening to see who we would face in the final - I was hoping for Braintree as I thought we would have a better chance against them, so I was delighted when they won the tie on penalties.