After consulting the fixture list I decide to begin my season at Wicor Rec home to AFC Portchester. Enjoying the patches of sun I’m moved by the kindness of strangers, ponder the meaning of the word ‘premier’, listen to some whining and witness some last-gasp excitement. All in all a great day out.
Portchester’s most prominent landmark is its castle a well preserved Roman fort, turned Norman castle, turned royal palace, turned Napoleonic-era prisoner-of-war camp, turned not unpleasant picnic spot. Unsurprisingly the castle makes a prominent appearance on the crest of AFC Portchester a side whose roots are rather less ancient – the club tracing its lineage back to a club formed in 1971, Loyds Sports, who began in the lower reaches of the City of Portsmouth Sunday League
The Castle itself is not visible from Portchester’s ground, Wicor Rec, and there are little thoughts of turrets, battlements and Legionaries as I pull off the main road into a land of bungalows and caravans resting on block paved driveways – though I do notice how the paving seems mimic the herring bone patterns of the flint which forms the castle walls.This suburban landscape soon gives out to a country lane leading after a short distance to the car park I’d scouted out on Google earth the night before. Pleased with myself I squeeze into a tight parking spot and follow a handful of people down a path I assume will take me to the ground.
I’m greeted by a table where a man with his arm in a sling sits in a chair with two kids, a boy and a girl, sat on the table. As instructed I pay my £5 to the boy and pass. My first task is to go in search of a programme. Now, this is not an easy admission to make, but I’m a bit of a programme geek. In fact I used to be a rather enthusiastic collector which stemmed from when I went to matches at the Dell and there was a small shop, ‘collectors corner’ which nestled in an alcove of the Milton Road stand. Not only could you buy your matchday programme here, but much, much, more – It was a veritable Aladdin’s cave of programmes; Non-league, Premier League, Champions League, you name it. Sadly when the Saints moved to St Mary’s there was presumably no room for ‘collectors corner’, but too late I’d been bitten by the bug.
I’ve calmed down a bit these days, I only get the odd one, or maybe two, on ebay, but I’m meticulous about getting, and keeping, programmes for all the matches I attend – it’s a sort of memory thing. I searched the whole ground, but couldn’t find anywhere, or anyone selling a programme. I noticed a few of people with one so there must be somewhere – surely? I asked a couple sat outside the clubhouse, one of whom held a prized programme in her hands, and they pointed in the direction of the boy on the table. I headed over and spotting no programmes anywhere near the table knew the answer before I asked the question; “sorry mate they’re all gone.” I trudged back feeling disappointed. The last time this happened was Southampton vs Ipswich where the programme seller buggered off early. I tried to get one after the event on ebay, but gave up as bidding got silly heading for the £10 mark.
As I walked back past the couple the woman asked If I’d managed to get one; “Nah, they’re all gone” I tell her to which she held out her programme – “here have mine” she exclaimed. “Are you sure?” “Yes, take it.” I thanked her as it was a kind thing to do for a total stranger. Programme obtained I flicked through for some background for the game. Having been promoted as runners-up in the Wessex League Division one last season Portchester were making their debut in the Wessex Premier League. The Portchester manager, Glen Bridgman, took the opportunity paid homage to his ‘off-field’ colleagues whilst spelling out his target for this season. Avoiding specifics he states; “we will be looking to finish as far up the league table as possible.” Well, that’s ok I thought. The alternative, not trying to finish as high up as possible, doesn’t really bear thinking about.
I killed the remaining few minutes before kick-off by pondering the how ubiquitous the use of the term Premier is these days in football; The Premier League, the Blue Square Premier, Evostick Premier, Hampshire Premier. Often too the league below as is the case of the Wessex Premier is named ‘division one’. Stupid as Premier is taken from the French Premiere which means simply ‘first’ as in La Premiere rue a droite (the first road on the right). In France the premier division is followed by the deuxieme, meaning ‘second’, division, but here we have the premier, meaning first, followed by a division one. One following first. Go figure. By the time I’d finished this train of thought the teams had arrived on the pitch and stood in a line. Portchester looked every-inch the new boys on their first day in secondary school whilst their opponents Hamworthy United, members of the premier league since 2004/5, seemed like a bunch of hackneyed seen-it-all-before fifth-year bruisers. .
The difference between the sides are clear from the start. Hamworthy; powerful and good in the air. Portchester; quick and good on the ground. These characteristics are apparent in the opening exchanges the Hamworthy number 11 sends over a cross which cheekily questions the Portchester defence like Louis Theroux in full-flow. Portchester respond instantly using their pace and some incisive passing to create a great chance on the break only to be blazed wide.
Perhaps inspired by their squeaky-voiced, gesticulating manager, who from my vantage point on the opposite side of the ground resembles an animated hamster, Portchester take the lead around the 20 minute mark; a poor back-pass places the Hamworthy goalkeeper in trouble and his attempt at a clearance is charged down leaving the loose ball to be tucked away by a Portchester shirt charging up from midfield like a Roman cavalryman. 1-0.
Jolted by the upstarts audacity at pinching a goal Hamworthy look to respond instantly. A header glances off the bar, but the flag is up anyway. In any case the wait isn’t long; minutes later another Hamworthy free kick is fired high into the Portchester box. After some head-tennis which sees the ball headed on to the far post then back to the near post the finish is applied at close-range.1-1.
Soon after an argument breaks out next to me as the referee stops play to allow a Portchester player who has gone down to receive treatment. The man next to me, for whom the referee has been able to do no right all game, is unhappy about the stoppage leading him into an argument with someone who appears to be a Portchester committee man. the committee man tells him “you wouldn’t have a problem if it was one of your players” to which his whining response is ” they should only stop play for a head injury.” the comittee man says that it is the referee who probably has the most knowledge about these matters and let him get on with it. I think about joining in for a moment partly because the man’s whining, in a moderate Dorset accent, has been getting my goat, but also because I can’t believe the lack of compassion. This is the yin to my programme lady’s yang. I want to say “so, if a player’s got a compound fracture and his leg’s at a right angle, but it’s not a head injury? Huh, huh..no I wont stop prodding you in the chest bub.”
On the subject of heads Hamworthy take the lead towards the end of the half with – quelle surprise – a header which cruelly evades the Portchester keepers ineffectively outstretched arm. A number of testing crosses follow, but fortunately for Portchester none end up in a goal. Portchester themselves send a spectacular 40 yard free kick crashing against the bar in reply before spurning another chance created by their pace. The old heads stroll off to the changing rooms one up. 1-2 at half-time.
Portchester start the second half well. Two good chances are created by through balls out-foxing the pair of giants entrusted with the guardianship of Hamworthy’s back-line; On the second occasion only a quick reaction from Hamworthy’s goalkeeper prevents a certain Portchester goal. Hamworthy seem at this point to be struggling to deal adequately with the pace of Portchester down the left wing. As the game progresses and legs tire this could well prove crucial, but Hamworthy are still a threat, particularly in the air from dead-balls and it takes a couple of good saves by the Portchester goalkeeper to prevent the game slipping further beyond their grasp.
Twenty five minutes into the second half, one flash down the left wing, a loose ball in the area, the keeper not getting enough of a hand on the shot ,and Portchester celebrate another equaliser 2-2. Hamworthy, who had seemed to be playing for time, begin to re-apply pressure. A blocked goal bound effort and some woeful finishing however conspire against them.
With the game drawing to a close, but still finely balanced the Portchester number 7 breaks down the left once again. Knowing this could be the deciding move of the game the excitement in the ground rises for the first time at once dispelling the chilled-out al-fresco air which had clung around the tables arranged outside the clubhouse. Reaching the by-line a spectator yells at the player to pass and whether he hears, or whether it was a coincidence he puts in a low cross which teasingly evades the Hamworthy keeper leaving an easy tap-in to make it 3-2.
The new boys had announced their Wessex Premier arrival. A win against a side who had finished a respectable 7th the previous season was as good a start as could be hoped for; excuse enough for plenty of changing room back-slapping and a celebratory pint or two in the rather nice club house. Someone however forgot to tell Hamworthy who pop up to poop the party somehow sneaking a goal on 89 minutes.The game finishes 3-3 at the final whistle. Maybe the back-slapping won’t be quite as intense, but for Portchester it is still a good result and means they’re well on the way to meeting their managers target.