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Sholing v Team Solent. Southampton Senior Cup Final: St Mary’s Stadium Wednesday 3rd May 2017

4 May

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It’s long been my view that every cup has a unique history worth cherishing. The Southampton Senior Cup is no different and in fact can boast more history than most. The final between Sholing and Team Solent was the 99th in the tournaments history and the programme included a list of previous winners which included a litany of illustrious sides from the cities footballing past such as Bitterne Nomads, Harland and Wolff, Sholing Sports and Bitterne Guild.

Although the Southampton Senior cup attracts entrants from further afield appropriately the final pitted against each other the two best non-league sides from the city itself. Sholing had already had a taste of cup glory, just a few days before, having claimed the Wessex League Cup with a 2-1 win over Baffins Milton Rovers on Monday – a final they reached by knocking Solent out in the semi’s. As well as revenge for this Solent were also looking to defend the trophy they won in 2015 and 2016.

Solent are a side who are capable of playing some extremely good football and they provided a clear demonstration of this in the opening period of the game as they seized the initiative. Their pressure created several chances with Tyrell Mitford putting the ball agonisingly wide of the post, Jesse Waller-Lassen testing the Sholing ‘keeper with a fierce shot from range and Tobi Adekunle hitting the crossbar with another effort from distance.

Sholing were little more than spectators for much of the first twenty minutes, however as with the last time I saw these sides meet they remind me a little of Muhammad Ali against George Foreman. Sholing simply absorbed the Solent pressure and kept calmly working away confident that when the time came it would be they who would land the deciding blow.

Perhaps this sense of assurance stems from having Dan Mason up front. The powerful centre-forward, who plays well with his back to goal and ball to his feet, has scored 30 League goals this season – giving him the Wessex League Premier golden boot. As that tally would suggest Mason needs only the faintest glimmer of opportunity to find the back of the net and when he turns his marker to find a little space inside the box he duly finds the net for a goal which is very much against the run of play. Equilibrium was though restored soon after when Waller-Lassen powered through the Sholing defence and one-on-one with the Sholing ‘keeper unselfishly slid the ball across for Tyrell Mitford to slot into an empty net on 29 minutes.

The balance though was to last only a few minutes into the second half: Attempting to claim a floated-in corner Solent ‘keeper Bradley Banda dropped the ball. It was hooked away, but the referee spotted an infringement – a handball by Solent’s Jemal Wiseman, and pointed to the spot. Lee Wort stepped up for Sholing and though the eager-to-make-amends Banda got an elbow, or some body part, on it the power of Wort’s strike saw the ball deflect into the net for Sholing’s second.

A second equaliser did not appear to be beyond Solent, but the chances of one were dramatically cut when Solent’s Wiseman, picked up a second yellow for what appeared to be dissent. I got another sense of déjà vu, recalling the recent Solent v Moneyfields game in which a silly second yellow effectively cost Solent 3 points by allowing the title-chasing Money’s back into the game. Interestingly Solent’s manager James Taylor was not at the game as he was himself serving a suspension.

Waller-Lassen ensured Solent still had some attacking edge. The game was the Solent captain’s swansong, having signed for Salisbury, and he seemed determined to go down fighting, wriggling into the box and forcing a save from the Sholing ‘keeper at the near post. On the two occasions I’ve seen him Waller-Lassen’s quality has stood out. His vision is superb and he has a knack of playing oblique balls which no one else would think of as well as having an ability to put all sorts of curve and spin on the ball.

Whatever quality Waler-Lassen possessed it was however, not enough to save 10-man Solent. Sholing were comfortably dictating the pace and scored a third when Micky Hubbard’s long range effort found the back of the net. It had looked innocuous enough, but Banda – who was not having a good evening – somehow managed to let it through.

The goal finally destroyed what remained of Solent’s resolve. Struggling to get out of their half they increasingly resorted to playing balls back to their ‘keeper and became involved in a few niggly tussles.

The final whistle then was a relief all round. Though a few made speedily for the exit most of the 748 strong crowd stuck around for the presentations. Assisting was none other than ‘Roly Poly Goalie’ Wayne Shaw. Shaw has long been a well known figure on the football scene locally, but this season became something of a national celebrity thanks to his position on the bench during Sutton United’s FA Cup run. This undoubtedly says something about cup football in its own right, but whether it’s good, or bad is quite another matter.

The night though belonged to Sholing. Shaw shook hands and warmly embraced each Sholing player as they collected their medals before the trophy was lifted for the 99th time.

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Southampton v Hull City. Premier League: Saturday 29th April 2017

2 May

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For my money there is no better place for getting a view of a football clubs season than from the barbers chair. The barbers own observations will have been triangulated by a huge number of other perspectives and from over the season and their arguments will well honed through countless conversations on the topic. I’d add that perhaps one of the best barbers in this regard is to be found just over the Itchen bridge in Woolston at Sean’s barbers.

The barbers view is particularly valuable as Saints fans struggle to decide whether this season can be considered as success, or a disappointment. Sean’s view was that the club needs to spend more to compete with the big clubs and that in the absence of this the current position is where the club should expect to be. Puel has, Sean also feels managed players well, particularly Maya Yoshida, who has gone from an error-prone bit-part player to an important team member and occasional captain. Crucially though Puel has provided opportunity to young talent to blossom.

Sean’s points are well considered and I’m in agreement. In the context of the last few seasons perhaps to be in 9th place is a disappointment, but in the wider context of the last decade and given the resources the club has then it’s actually quite good – and that’s not even considering the League Cup final.

One impact of sitting in 9th place with just a few games to go is that the Saints went into the game with Hull with relatively little to play for, neither competing for Europe, nor threatened by relegation. Hull on the other hand were fighting for survival, being just one place and two points above the final relegation spot.

It was therefore unsurprising that Hull seemed the keener side out of the blocks, striking the outside of the post from a free kick early on. They were also as one Saints fan later put it “first in the tackle” throughout, but over the course of the game opportunities for either side were few and far between – the best Saints chance falling to Gabbiadini who blazed wide after being put clean through on goal.

All in all it was a rather poor spectacle with little to excite the Saints fans who were the most subdued I’ve ever seen them at St. Mary’s. They were though finally half-roused when, after a spell of pressure, Maya Yoshida won a penalty in the 89th minute.

There is a scene at the end of the Hitchikers Guide to the galaxy where Marvin the android, on the verge of death, sees God’s final message. The message reads “We apologise for the inconvenience” at which the perennially downbeat Marvin appears to take some consolation “I think… I think I feel good about that.”

If scored the Saints fans would dissipate through the streets surrounding St. Marys with a skip in their stride, the 89 minutes of painfully-dull football they’d witnessed swiftly forgotten.

It was however, the Hull fans who embarked on their long journey home happy as Dusan Tadic saw his well-hit penalty – low into the right corner – spectacularly saved by the Hull ‘keeper Eldin Jakupovic.

This secured a valuable point for the visitors which may, before long, prove crucial. For the Saints fans it simply adds further murkiness to the debate on whether the season can be called a success. Perhaps it’s worth a trip to the barbers.

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Fleetlands v Clanfield – Hampshire Premier Football League Senior Division – 17th April 2017

21 Apr

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“It’s the last one, go and enjoy it” were the words of the Clanfield manager to his team, before mentioning that a win would see the side, currently placed 7th, move up two places to 5th. The manager also counselled his side to be smart in their play as they had arrived with a bare 11 which did not include any strikers – “it’s a bank holiday it can’t be helped” was his rather easy-going assessment.

Against the side currently occupying 2nd position, behind already crowned champions Bush Hill, it meant however, that Clanfield would have an uphill struggle – something they quite literally faced in the first-half as Fleetlands pitch sloped downwards toward the bottom left corner.

Fleetlands has to be one of the most interesting grounds I’ve visited so far, particularly at this level. As well as the standard changing rooms, clubhouse and perimeter rail there are two small stands. It is also on Ministry of Defence land – a helicopter base, so has a windsock near the corner of the pitch as well as several helicopter pads. The pitch side view is also pleasant, looking out over the water, moored yachts and ending with Portsdown Hill in the distance. It can’t be that far off Wessex League standard, though apparently no Hampshire league clubs have applied for promotion this season.

Despite their disadvantage Clanfield acquitted themselves well in the first half. There was a scare when Fleetlands hit the post and the follow-up fell to one of their strikers for the follow-up, but the shot was blocked well and cannoned off a Clanfield players rear-end. At the other end they managed some reasonable chances, the best coming when the Clanfield number 4, through on goal, put his shot just high and wide.

In the absence of any substitutes the Clanfield manager was left to run the line. From this position he did his best to encourage his players “well done, that’s quality” he said to one after a particularly good tackle in which the Clanfield player wrapped his leg around an opponent to take the ball and curtail a marauding run down the line.

In terms of management style the Clanfield manager couldn’t have any more different to his opposite number the Fleetlands boss who surveyed the game with arms either folded, or in pockets and a look of perpetual disgust on his face as he offered various points of criticism to his players.

Coming off the field at half-time one of the Fleetlands players called out to the manager. Getting his attention he launched a long cross-field pass in the managers direction. This had presumably been intended to show-off, but the player had over hit it and sailed high and wide of the intended target. The manager’s eyes narrowed. “Why did you call me then, so I can go and get it?” he snarled (though with a few more swear words). Someone would be doing extra push-ups and laps of the pitch at the next training session.

On a personal note the end of the first half marked 135 minutes of football I had seen that day without a single goal. I suspected though that this would change in the second half as Clanfield’s bare 11 would surely struggle as the game wore on.

As it was I didn’t have much longer to wait for my first goal of the day. A few minutes into the second half Fleetlands got on the score sheet when one of their players headed in a cross to make it 1-0. This was followed soon after by another great chance when a Fleetlands player danced through the Clanfield defence only to be denied by a magnificent full-stretch save by the Clanfield ‘keeper who pushed it onto the post.

The ‘keeper  was in particular having a particularly impressive afternoon, being  near unbeatable in the air, and this intervention allowed Clanfield to have at least a stake in the game for a little while longer. Their moment came when well-beaten by an opponent the Fleetlands right-back produced a late slide tackle to concede a free-kick on the edge of the box. The kick itself did not trouble the goal-keeper, but the ball came loose in the area and a Clanfield player was perfectly positioned to tuck it away. Unfortunately for Clanfield however, they poked it over.

This was effectively Clanfields last chance to get something from the game. Tired legs began to severely blunt their attacking edge and their forwards were unable even to hold the ball up, placing the Clanfield defence under sustained pressure as every single ball forward was mopped up by the Fleetlands defence and returned with ease. In the end the killer low was applied by one of Fleetlands’s substitutes, their number 12 Connor Johnson, who was a short tricky player of the type given to gleefully dribbling in and out a number of opponents as if he were a gust of wind slipping through the yacht masts out on the water. Several members of the Clanfield defence were almost helpless as producing such a dribble he tucked Fleetlands second goal away safely beyond the ‘keeper. From this point there really was no coming back for Clanfield. 2-0 to Fleetlands.  

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Bosham v Sidlesham Southern Combination Football League Division Two – Monday 17th April

18 Apr

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“Championes, championes, ole, ole, ole” sang the players as they gleefully bounced up and down in front of their clubhouse, several drenched in sparkling prosecco. The sun, absent for the majority of the game had  appeared with immaculate timing so it was therefore quite literally Bosham FC’s moment in the sun as they were presented with the trophy for winning the Southern Combination Division Two title.

They’d managed this with two games to go after taking all three points in their previous game with a 2-0 win over Roffey whilst second place Jarvis Brook were held to a goalless draw, by Sidlesham, the same opponents Bosham had just faced in their 11 o’clock kick-off holiday Monday game.

Rather sportingly Sidlesham had formed a guard of honour to applaud Bosham onto the pitch, but there the niceties ended. Bosham’s final position may have been decided, but Sidlesham were still engaged in a tight battle for third place in the league, having just a one point lead on fourth placed Lancing United.

Bosham, playing in their final home game of the season, similarly showed no sign of taking it easy. Their live-wire number 10 Marco Giambelardini signalled his intent early on with a speculative curling effort which the Sidlesham ‘keeper did well to hold, before later stinging the keepers palms with a rasping shot and finally, in the best chance of the first half, hitting the post, causing it to give off a rattle which was probably even heard by the sort of Boshamites who prefer to spend their bank holiday sailing out in the harbour than at football.

Going into the game Giambelardini was Bosham’s top scorer with 33 goals in all competitions, including five hat-tricks. This speaks for itself about his quality up front, but what equally impressed was his ability to be all over the pitch, not just up front, but also back in defence where he made several crucial tackles.

Despite Giambelarsini’s best efforts however, Bosham went in at half time having failed to break the deadlock. Between them Bosham and Sidlesham had found the net 181 times in the league this season, but they also boasted the best defensive records with Bosham conceding just 21 times and Sidlesham 28 times.

Nothing which happened over the next 45 minutes acted to change any of those numbers. Giambelarsini continued to pose a threat, but seemed in general to be slightly quieter than in the first half. As the half progressed though it increasingly looked as if Sidlesham would play the role of party-poopers by grabbing a winner and they were presented with such an opportunity late on when the Bosham ‘keeper – who came on at half-time as a replacement for the first-choice goalkeeper who appeared to be struggling with a lower-leg injury – dropped a cross under pressure. With the referee allowing play to continue a Sidlesham player got to the loose ball, but only to put it over.

As it was the game finished 0-0. It may have been only the second occasion Bosham had failed to score this season (the previous occasion being a goalless draw with Roffey at the end of March) but that did not appear to dent the mood as the old men in league-official blazers began setting up a table in the corner of the pitch and the Bosham club linesman ditched his flag and appeared with some bottles of bubbly which he jiggled enthusiastically for a good ten minutes to ensure they went off with maximum pop and fizz.

A couple of the Sidlesham players stayed around to watch the celebrations, though most had by that point disappeared into the changing rooms. A slight irony is that due to ground grading requirements Bosham are unable to gain promotion, meaning that although they received the silverware and had their moment in the sun it could be Sidlesham who get to take a step up to the next level.

(on a slightly different note I’ve just seen another review of my book – Cup Football an Exploration – you can see this here)

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Team Solent v Moneyfields – Wessex League Premier Division 13th April 2017

14 Apr

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Last Saturdays win over Whitchurch may have secured promotion to the Southern League for Moneyfields, but the Wessex League title itself is still very much up for grabs, with Money’s being pushed hard by Portland United.

With no promotion play-offs Team Solent, in 7th place, have little to play for in the league (they do though have a Southampton Senior Cup game against Sholing), but pride was still at stake and as the match report for their previous game, against Newport IOW, in the programme mentions Team Solent have never finished lower than seventh in any league in their history.

Certainly Solent wold prove a much tougher side than the rather sorry Whitchurch and as the Moneyfields A-team-like bus pitched up at Test Park the players would no doubt have been expecting a tough contest.

Money’s were clearly up for the challenge and threw everything they had at a game in which every inch of ground and every ball was fiercely contested. The intensity of the game saw both sides were making numerous appeals to the referee and first-half bookings were received by Solent’s number 9 Giovanni Landu and Money’s number 5 Dan Woodward, both of which would later have a significant impact on the course of the game. It was Solent though who came out on top of the first half having opened the scoring when Landu found himself in receipt of a deflected low cross which he side-footed beyond the reach of the ‘keeper and into the corner.

Moneys, apparently keen to get going, returned to the field a good few minutes ahead of Solent “Do we want it, or what?” one of their players asked his team mates rhetorically. The response came from two long range attempts, one from Brett Poate which goes just over and another from substitute Marley Ridge. Failure to equalise though saw the Money’s frustration building. Unhappy with the time it is taking to retrieve balls that have gone out of play the Money’s players begin barracking the ref to “get the game going.” This they did particularly forcefully on one occasion when the ball went out for a Team Solent throw. Perhaps though they should have been careful what they wished for as the throw began a move which saw the ball flicked on towards the edge of the Money’s area. The move was then finished in style by Tyrell Mitford who running on to the ball lifted it neatly over the stranded Money’s keeper and into the back of the net.

Money’s did fashion chances of their own and Lee Webber in the Solent goal did well to claim one teasingly low cross which came in after a Solent player, attempting to see the ball out for a goal kick, was muscled off the ball. As the half drew on however, it seemed ever more likely that Money’s would go home empty handed, potentially delivering a huge blow to their title ambitions.

A third Solent goal at that stage was likely to have finished the game off so Money’s had a lot to be grateful for when their ‘keeper Steve Mowthorpe kept a flicker of hope alive by coming out well at to deny a through-on-goal Mitford at the near post.

As it happened the game was to take a twist when Solent’s Landu fouled a Money’s defender in their own area leading to a second yellow card for the striker. A one-man advantage would have suited Money’s nicely, but just seconds later, Woodward received his second yellow following a rash foul on a Solent player who was leading a counter, leaving it as 10 on 10.

Fortunately for the visitors this arrangement suited them better. Solent’s shape suffered from having only one striker up front, allowing Money’s experienced defender Brett Poate to drive forwards unopposed. Moneys managed to pull a goal back with a good finish from a corner, the ball sent arrowing into the net by an impressive Marley Ridge, before Poate himself slammed in a late equaliser. His delight and the cheering of the visiting fans, who numbered more than a few, demonstrated just how crucial a goal it may turn out to be in Money’s season. Money’s then had a chance for a winner, as Poate lined up a free kick at the edge of the D. Had it gone in the scenes would have been truly remarkable, but it was not to be a Beckham v Greece moment for Poate who sent it wide. 2-2- draw.

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Southampton U-23s v Liverpool U23s – Premier League 2. April 10th 2017

11 Apr

Reserve football has undergone quite a few changes in recent years, never quite settling on a format which proves sustainable. The Premier League 2 is the current iteration launched for the 2016/17 season, replacing the previous under 21 Premier league and aims to provide to provide “a greater focus on technicality, physicality and intensity to bring players as close to first-team experience as possible.” .

The league is split into two tiers of 12 teams each with promotion and relegation and the 24 competing clubs (15 from the Premier League and 9 from the Championship) are those who have applied for ‘Catregory One’ status in the Elite player Performance Plan. This two-tier format is fairly similar to the previous two seasons of the U-21 Premier League, with the biggest change being the raising of the age limit has to under-23 – though the age limit does not apply to goalkeepers and up to three ‘over-age’ players can be used in the match.

Among the other rules are that each club plays at least three matches at their main stadium. This is another rule which – or at least similar to one – which, I believe, dates from the introduction of the Premier League U21 league back in 2012 and was brought in to counteract the trend for clubs to play all reserve/development games behind closed doors, but whilst a few games do get a public airing it’s a far cry from when reserve games attracted a dedicated following week-in week-out.

It is though still a great chance for fans, or anyone with an interest, to have a little glimpse of the future. As the players went through their warm up routines, there was no shortage of skill on show. Where I was sat in the ground I had a good view of the Liverpool players and one player who catches my eye in the warm up was Liverpool’s Yan Dhanda who put on a virtuoso display of keepy-uppy, drilled 30 yard passes and clinical finishing. It seems I’m not the only one to have clocked Dhanda as at the start of the season he made the Telegraph’s list of ’10 young players for Liverpool fans to get excited about this season.’

Both sides played in a similar style with the patient build-up play, short passes and fluid movement to both attack and defend in numbers. A clear emphasis put on retaining possession and even the goalkeepers played short passes unless directly under pressure. It was Saints however, who dominated from the start with Josh Sims signalling intent with a wickedly curling in the opening moments which went just wide of the post. Saints goal came on 29 minutes when a header from a cross was saved by the Liverpool ‘keeper, only to fall invitingly for Alfie Jones to tuck away beyond a tangled mass of bodies. Also standing out for Saints in the first half was team captain Harrison Reed who did much to boss the middle of the park.

Air’s Kelly Watch the Stars played over the PA system as the teams came out for the second half. The amount of clouds in the darkening Southampton sky though meant that no stars were visible should Kelly, or anyone else wish to take a look. On the pitch however, Liverpool did provide a bright display in their luminous yellow kit which seemed to glow under the floodlights. In general it was a much more evenly matched half, but again it was the hosts who found the net after Saints number 7 Olufela Olomola scored with a shot from the edge of the area. Seconds later the Saints almost added another, hitting the woodwork with a header, before seeing the follow-up shot blocked on the line by a defender.

It would later turn out to be a key moment in the game as Liverpool pull a goal back on 76 minutes when a beautifully incisive short pass from Kevin Stewart completely wrong-foots the Saints defence and leaves Liverpool captain Harry Wilson through on goal.

The beauty in a finely balanced game of football as it reaches its conclusion is the potential it contains for a last minute plot twist. Saints fought to preserve their lead, but as the stadium clock registers 90 minutes Liverpool scorer Harry Wilson was racing for the ball in the Saints area. Up against him was Saints Sam McQueen. Wilson gets a touch on the ball first, to prod it past the defender. McQueen though has left just enough trailing leg out for the Liverpool captain to trip on and take the penalty.

Wilson himself took the spot-kick. Saints ‘keeper Mouez Hassen got down well to save, but Wilson followed up well and the ball fell kindly for him to tuck away the equaliser. Final score 2-2.

Moneyfields v Whitchurch United – Wessex League Premier Division – 8th April 2017

10 Apr

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With the springtime sun shining brightly there was a relaxed feeling in Copnor on Saturday. The smell of freshly mowed grass lingered in an air filled with the sound of children playing in back-gardens whilst no one strolling along seemed in any particular hurry.

Stepping through the turnstile into Moneyfields ground the atmosphere was no different. With some forty minutes before kick off the Moneyfields players, out training on the pitch, appeared in good spirits, smiling and joking, as they were being put through their paces by their coaches – including, I spotted, Mick Catlin who enjoyed much recent success at Gosport. I think you can tell a lot about a team from its warm up routine. Simply pinging shots at goal like a Sunday League side always seems to me to suggest a sloppy indiscipline, whereas proper drills – like the ones Money’s were doing – speak more of an organised and disciplined side.

A win would go a long way to securing the Wessex League title for Moneyfields and would assure them of promotion to the Southern League, but if there were any nerves there were no real outward signs of them. Perhaps this was partly because opponents Whitchurch United sat 19 places below Money’s in 20th place – with eight wins out of 39 – though sitting just four points above the relegation spot Whitchurch were among the sides who still had something to play for [edit – in actual fact 3 are going down this season so Whitchurch are indeed sat in the relegation zone].

As it turns out Moneyfields confidence was well placed and a victory for the home side never looked in doubt. Money’s opened the scoring around five minutes into the game when a ball over the top from midfield was slotted past the Whitchurch goalkeeper and the lead was further extended when the Money’s number 8, James Guthrie, did well to put a low ball into the box, which was finished off by a colleague.

After their second goal Money’s really came to life hitting the woodwork twice, before netting their third. Having been put through the attacker seemed to put away at an almost leisurely pace which must have annoyed the Whitchurch bench who exchanged words with their ‘keeper. “They could have had five by now” the ‘keeper was heard to say in reply. In fairness he was correct as he had at that point, made two reasonable saves – including one very good stop with an outstretched foot. The person next to me though pointed out that if you included the two occasions the woodwork was rattled Money’s could well have been looking at seven. I predicted a rout, another nearby spectator – a Money’s regular – wasn’t so sure “sometimes the other side manage to come back” she told me….

Early in the second half I was beginning to think they may have been right. The Money’s attack appeared to have lost much of its first-half potency and as a result the Money’s players themselves were beginning show signs of frustration. Whitchurch began to enjoy their best spell of the game, testing the Money’s defence who were called on to charge down several attempts on goal.

Money’s though won a free kick right on the edge of the box as the result of a trip. I did have to wonder whether the Money’s player may have been looking for that outcome, but if they were then it was a good call; the free-kick was sent in with a nice curl and met with an onrushing Money’s head to make it 4-0.

Whitchurch were showing clear signs of dissatisfaction with their collectuive performance “If we held the line he would have been off, but we dropped” was the verdict of their number 4 who like the rest of the Whitchurch team would probably have rather been elsewhere. This was confirmed soon after when the number 4 received an injury. Being treated by the physio on the sidelines he remarked “I could have been at a piss up, but instead I’m here playing centre back.”

The physio did enough to get him back onto the pitch, but the pain didn’t end there. Two more goals came; the first when money’s number 7, Lewis Fennemore, played a lovely dink out to the right of the Whitchurch area. Despite taking a deflection the ensuing cross still found a Money’s player to make it 5-0. A sixth was then added when through on goal Marley Ridge produced a neat shuffle to deceive the ‘keeper and finished in an empty net.

One notable feature of Moneyfields Avenue is its location right next to the main railway line to Portsmouth Harbour. This means that Money’s tend to lose a few balls. As a Money’s header sailed over the net erected to catch any over-ambitious shots, lands smack-bang on the tracks a Whitchurch player asked “what happens if we run out of balls” before jokingly adding “maybe it’s forfeited 0-0.” Whitchurch have no such luck, another ball is found and it finishes 6-0 to Moneyfields.

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