Sunday, 24 January 2010

County Antrim Shield Final 2009/10

Finally, the twice weather felled final of football’s County Antrim Shield went ahead on Wednesday.  The teams, Crusaders Vs Linfield. The sides competing to be crowned champions of the 121 year old annual competition. The wait might have been a long one for the game to go ahead. Not to give too much away but the game was well worth the wait… especially if you’re a Crues fan.

County Antrim Shield Final 20th January 2010 Originally scheduled for the 1st December, a date I was going to miss due to being thousands of miles away on my honeymoon, it was a late evening check of the news on a compute in the hotel that told us the pitch wasn’t playable. Happy days! The rearranged game was scheduled for another trip to the oval on January 5th. ‘Yay!’ I thought, I can make it to that one after all, happy days! Only, it wasn’t to be, for when it came to the 2nd attempt at the big day, some polar weather had already made its way south and gripped the country with its natural chill into some form of cryogenic suspension. Snow and ice outside the window meant the pitch was frozen and the only enjoyment the County Antrim Shield was likely to bring that week was if we borrowed it from Cliftonville (last years winners) and took it in turns to used the huge trophy as a sledge.

Thankfully it wasn’t long before a new date was set. Wednesday 20th January, 7.45pm at the Oval. It seemed like an age since the semi final, it turned out to be 3 months after the victory over Ballymena back on the 20th October, on that day an Aaron Black penalty was enough to book our place in the final. 
So this week, time granted the date to be upon us. Preparations all set to head to the Oval after work. I had to go alone to this one as Norn Girl was ill with a case of pneumonia of all things and wasn’t able to venture from the sofa/bed, let alone out into the cold. This was harsh luck but we weren’t going to let that ruin us following the game - the morning of the game I got prepared and brought to work all I needed including my phone, camera, scarf and shirt. I also had (and still have at the time of typing this) a bad cold myself and was trying to stay as warm as possible. The day was miserable and wet but as with all match days, even with a cold, it doesn’t get in the way of the anticipation.  Prior to the game it was a chance to look back at the history books, we’ve been in the final a fair few times but in last 17 years we’d lost all 6 finals we’d been in. The last of those defeats I was at when we lost 2-1 to Glentoran at Windsor back in the 2007/08 season and I still remember well.

So with that in mind, it was a mixed bag of feelings when with around 7 hours to go before kick off, precipitation had left the Oval swamped and the pitch unplayable for the 3rd time. Luckily, this time there was a plan B – a switch of the venue. With Seaview out of action for big games due to the new floodlights being installed, there was only one solution… another trip to Windsor Park - this time an enforced occasion, but another final against Linfield with the Blues having home advantage and to add to our disadvantage of 4 first team players suspended for the game. 
So after work I somehow made it to the ground early and found myself walking the length of the back of the North Stand, only the top 3/5ths of the North Stand were open and it was pretty dark and gloomy. It didn’t seem to be denting the mood though as other early bird supporters passed by me with smiles on their faces. It may have been their anticipation of the game or it could have been a giggle at my slow moving attempt to make it to my seat without needing to unravel my elaborately wrapped scarf to find a tissue.

As it was still early I had a lot of choice for seats and plonked myself down almost in line with the halfway line. The North Stand at Windosr Park isn’t the best place when its been raining (Windsor Park has needed a repair job for quite a while now) and I soon remembered why as I saw a drop of water, wind assisted, hit my hat and splatter from it in a mist to the side of me. I thought to myself “Nay matter”, and got stuck into the slightly tricky process of swallowing a cold relief capsule without a drink. Whilst trying to muster enough saliva on demand to complete this task the mild irony of the situation dawned on me. As the saying goes - Water, Water Everywhere But Not a Drop to Drink.

Norn girl called before kick off and we planned for her to call during the second half to take in some of the atmosphere and between coughs and chokes, to get the odd bit of up to the minute updates from yours truly.

The game was soon under way and the choir as they’re known were continuing to keep up the good atmosphere that they’d started before kickoff. Sadly I wasn’t in a position to join in and had to settle with clapping along through gloves to the classics such as “The IFA bought your Historyyy”, hehe.

A cagey couple of minutes was followed by disaster. A hole opened up as our defense were chasing Jamie Mulgrew who was heading towards our box. With a timely flick of the foot though, the ball was rolling back into the middle and it left Billy Joe Burns all alone from inside the box with time to pick a spot and hit a quick and coolly taken shot into the back of the net. 0-1 Linfield. It wasn’t a great start for us,  but we knew there was a long way to go. Thankfully the Crues players didn’t get downhearted and rose to the occasion. In the remainder of the first half there were chances for either side though the best openings were for the side in red and black but it just wasn’t going in! That changed about 5 minutes before half time. David McMaster, a rising star of the side who had signed from Abbey Villa, put the perfect cross into the box for the only Crues player in there and from a few yards out at the far post, Mark Dickson, Irish Cup hero last May, wasn’t going to miss. The ball flew into the net and we all leapt from our seats, 1-1. I cheered and coughed and cheered and coughed… it was worth it.  There was a bit more action before the first half was up, a challenge on Michael Collins who was doing a great job of controlling the midfield looked a bit heavy and the ball fell to some players who decided in the heat of the moment to try to push each other in a ‘handbags at ten paces’ moment that then spilled into a ‘calm down, its only a commercial’ moment. If the ref had of wanted to, he could have probably reduced both sides to 10 men. Thankfully for the game as a spectacle, common sense reigned. Unlike the situation on boxing day in the North Belfast Derby at Seaview, where the ref let things get out of control, the ref calmed the players down and machine-gunned yellow cards at the 4 main perpetrators.

Access out of the stand was a bit tight at half time, I made my way across and tried to step down over a seat but my leg got caught and I ended up off balance and knocking into someone, thankfully no damage done and after a few sorry’s I made my way down for a refreshment break and found a cautious atmosphere amongst the other Crues fans. It wasn't long before I was back in the stand again and the 2nd half began. The songs were still being belted out behind me and how I longed to be able to join in. It was fine to hear and the game was absorbing and fairly even. Plenty of chances and close calls. I think I managed a ‘C’mon Crues’ before another cough and nose blow.

Norn girl by this stage was on the phone and I was trying to balance the odd update with keeping warm, not as easy as it sounds when you’re wearing gloves, a hat and scarf. Hopefully it wasn’t completely unsuccessful. The crowd fell silent for a few seconds as Michael Carvill hit our bar and then again around 2/3’s of the way through the game our goalkeeper Chris Keenan had to limp off injured with a thigh strain. On came his capable understudy Aaron Hogg. A good keeper but without much first team action in recent times and I have to admit it added to the nerves, he was solid though and although hardly called into action, he did everything asked of him.

With 5 minutes to go and still at 1-1 it looked to be heading to two 10 minute halves of Extra Time, out of the blue though came a moment of controversy. Linfield were on the edge of the box and a player goes down. The ref played on for a moment and it seems the incident has passed but then the referee’s assistant ,on the far side from where we were sitting, raises and waves his flag. To be honest at this stage I had very little idea how far into the game we were. A score board in the Irish League really wouldn’t go amiss. All we knew was we weren’t going to like the decision. The ref stopped play, consulted with the official and pointed to the spot. After seeing the incident on replays after the event it was touch and go as to whether he was inside the box or if indeed the incident was a deliberate trip as was alleged. However from the stands we were in disbelief. Flashbacks of the last time we played Linfield in a final at Windsor Park came to mind, back then, in the CIS cup final - we were leading 2-1 with 5 minutes left and by full time we had lost. So up stepped Jim Ervin, the ball was hit at goal and Hogg had no chance, d’oh! 1-2.

It was now or never, with Ross Arthurs on the field we now had more strikers than defenders out there and Stephen Baxter made the team pretty much go 2 at the back. We pinned them into their half. The question was; “is there still time”? There wasn’t for Norn Girls mobile which died. I called back.
Thankfully Colin Coates had the answer!

He rose to connect to a long throw from Gareth McKeown and the ball pinged from his head, past an outstretched glove,  Norn Girl was probably defend, I did my cheering and coughing routine but it was all music to our ears. This was it, a lifeline and a chance. Extra time was now more than likely but there was still time for another twist of fate. It was Linfield’s Michael Carvill again involved in a dramatic moment as he challenged for the ball with McMaster who had been tormenting the Linfield defense all night with his pace. Seemingly out of frustration, with McMaster tangled under his feet he stamped on our player and promptly received the red card it warranted.

10 vs 11, extra time began and the numbers told, Linfield still had their counter attacks but especially in the first 10 minutes it seemed only a matter of when. Jordan Owens had that answer tucked up his long sleeve. In the last few minutes of the 1st period of extra time the ball flew up in the air from the head of a Linfield defender. In the right place at the right time, it fell to Owens, and he pelted the ball at goal. His shot was too powerful for the sliding defender to do anything else but divert it slightly as it crossed the line. 3-2! By now I was on my feet calling Norn Girl, going into a football state of elation… and coughing.

That wasn’t the last action though, we could have scored again. There was also the usual late pressure but unlike the pressure applied at the end of normal time by the Crues, Linfield’s last gasp attempts came to nothing, the best fell to Munster whose chance flew over the bar from a few of yards out. A miss that saved having to play out a penalty shoot out, shoot outs that always seem to have a habit of going against us.

2 minutes of injury time passed by… the whistle blew… the stand erupted… party time!

Still trying to keep warm I managed to remove my scarf and whirled it around my head. I think I might have even sung a few songs between phlegm blockages. Sorry if anyone caught anything by the way!

It was a brilliant result. Another trophy to add to the Irish Cup last May and more proof of what a never say die Crues team we have at the moment - its still early days this season and with two competitions still to play for it’ll be an entertaining ride no matter how it pans out. Brilliant stuff.  If any of the players or staff ever read this - congratulations on a job well done, you made us all so proud to be Hatchetmen yet again!

Crusaders FC with the CAS

Monday, 4 January 2010

So much more than just 1-0.

Ordinarily, a result of a 3rd round cup tie wouldn’t be something to scream out loud about for most fans of most football clubs. However yesterday something special happened and I’m afraid (I sincerely apologise to anyone who has no interest in sports) that I have to blog about it today because I am so far over the moon that I’m still making my way back down to earth from somewhere in deep space.

So this weekend was the FA cup 3rd round and as you all know I’m a lifelong Leeds supporter and yesterday Leeds United were away to almost historical rivals, Manchester United at Old Trafford.

To put this is context, it was just last season that in this very same competition, on the same TV station, my beloved Leeds were outdone by Histon. A non-league side who tenaciously battled to a 1-0 win in conditions that only lent themselves to a fluid passing game in terms of playing football in a bath. As if the fall from grace, from the Premier League and almost out of existence wasn’t bad enough, it was a case of being kicked when you're down. At the time, I was gutted.

That result again Histon and a poor string of results may have ended up being a blessing in disguise though. For it led to a change in leadership that in retrospect has been for the better, in stepped Simon Grayson. Under his management, confidence has been restored - as our current league position highlights and I’m finally looking forward to the future, well as much as a Leeds fan ever can!

Playing in the earlier rounds of the FA cup and in competitions such as the Johnston Paint trophy has now become somewhat familiar. Sadly it’s just the reality of our league position and for a large club like Leeds a persistent reminder (if ever we needed reminding) of how bad the financial mismanagement at the club was. My Granddad for one would have had a chuckle seeing Leeds playing Accrington Stanley within 3 weeks of Manchester United, but that’s just how the cookie has crumbled!

So it was the night before the game and I was already on a separate rush of endorphins from the Crusaders Vs Portadown game on Saturday in which the Crues ran out 3-2 winners. That game had a fair bit of excitement to it. The first half wasn’t great but it was made up for in the 2nd half. 2 great goals (one for each side) that would be worthy to grace any league, followed by 2 deflected goals. Those were then followed within 15 minutes of the very first goal, by a headed back pass that was headed a little too far back by the Portadown defender and was nudged over the line. The Crues held out and although the opposition have a few games in hand, Crusaders F.C. are top of the league by 4 points… happy days! The down side was that it put the thrill of seeing my team win at the forefront of my conscious. I found it hard to sleep that night and I ended up waking up several times. One of those times I woke with the vivid dream that I had just finished watching the cup tie. In my dream Leeds had magnificently managed to hold a full strength Man United team to a 1-1 draw and force a replay. It was kind of disappointing as I quickly realized it was a work of unwritten brain fiction. Dreams are wonderful things, as I understand it, they help us cope with the world we live in and help keep us sane, and it was defiantly helping because time slipped away and I found myself waking up quite late. It was approximately 11am with not long to go before the match was to begin at 1pm.

I hauled myself out of bed and made it downstairs to find Norn Girl playing the Sims3 on the laptop. I’m intrigued by the game but rather than ask too much into how the Bones characters she had recreated in Sims style were doing, my mind was focused on football's version of the war of the roses. There was only one thing for it… wash up and get some lunch to take my mind off it. So I did.

I’d only just finished my pasta as the build up annoyingly went to the customary ITV advert break trying to sell me things I can neither afford nor want nor need but it did give me a bit of time to finish a text to my Man United supporting friend… I’m slow texting at the best of times let alone nervous as anything waiting for the game to start. And start it did. Lined up for the home side were an array of multi-million pound signings headed by Rooney and Berbatov. For Leeds, a team put together for a fraction of just those two players transfer fee’s alone. I have to admit I was starting to fear the worst reading the team sheet of the opposition, but then reading our own it dawned on me again that big names aren’t everything and we have a strong team ethic and a solid squad of professionals. Besides that, what had we to lose? As my text to my friend said… “Ah cack no Robert Snodgrass! Ermm… Ah sure it’s the FA cup :-D C’mon Leeds!”

Don’t get me wrong, I know Leeds can play well but like the 1st half against Yeovil back in November we don’t always play to the potential that has been on show for a lot of this season so far. So I was still a little nervy. The game on the TV continued. I wish I could have been there but living hundreds of miles away and with a limited budget sometimes I have to be an armchair fan... not that its ever as good as the real thing, people don't realise what they're missing til you get a season ticket at a club you love!

Thankfully for Simon Grayson and everyone connected to Leeds they did perform to their potential and not only that they showed no fear. It wasn’t long before the ball was being played about - but unlike the usual Premier League encounters where Man United sit comfortably holding possession, carefully probing at a bunch of ‘cat in the headlights’ startled opposition. The white shirts were not only breaking up play, they were the ones attacking. Getting a foot on the ball and passing it about well, just not giving the Premiership players a moment to settle. A long range shot was pretty much all Man U managed to muster before the time came. A moment I’ll remember for a long time as it proved the decisive goal. Even knowing there was an age of the game still left to play, it was a moment to savour and I was dancing around the room, high fiving, bouncing off the walls and generally going hyper and giddy as if I was 10 again!

It wasn’t that long into the game, about 20 minutes gone, and a great long ball from Howson saw Beckford sprinting after the optimistic cause. His first touch took him a little wide but it was still within his grasp and as Kuszczak came to try and block and as Wes Brown slid in, it was Beckford whose foot glanced the ball coolly but purposefully at goal. With no one else in sight, the ball seemed to take an age as it spun towards its final destination. I’m not sure if it is just me transferring my feelings to the ball but it seemingly rolled gleefully over the line... 0-1! Did I imagine it or did it just happen!? The replays showed it really, very much did!

After the euphoria, it was a feeling of “at least we got one no matter what happens!”, they’ve done us proud! At half time I don’t think you’d have found any level headed Leeds fan telling you they think we’d end up keeping a clean sheet and in the end come closest to scoring come the end of the 2nd half. I expected Man U to come out, pick up their pace and make their price tags show. What came instead was another great Leeds show, some great saves from our goalkeeping hero of the day Casper Ankergren and when Snodgrass came on, an excellent free kick that was just inches from making it 0-2 and that score line wouldn’t have been out of place in relation to the way the game had gone. 0-1 to be honest flattered Man U and as 5 minutes came up on the board for injury time. It was a nervy Fergie time. Man U are infamous for their last minute injury time goals. I was still getting over the fact it was still 0-1 and was now clinging to the hope we could hang on to the lead. My subconscious though saw the ball in back of our net every time the ball was played into our box, we never seem to have any luck and when we were so close to exceeding our dreams the only coping mechanism, like bad dreams, was to play out a worst case scenario in my mind.

A couple of scares later though injury time was all but up and we had the ball in their half rather than the other way around. The team had taken it to them and given as good as they got. The final whistle went and so did I... I went into some sort of euphoric victory dance like when the Crues won the Irish Cup last May. All the dark times and bad news, all the knocks and all the cheap digs from Man U fans over the years for a while just evaporated. A huge weight lifted from the shoulders of Leeds fans worldwide no doubt, at least a weight lifted from mine. It might have taken 29 years, only 25 I’ve been alive for, but it could hardly have been sweeter. A team to be proud of, a real David against Goliath affair and with the fairytale result to boot. I’m ever so proud of the whole team and to achieve something, even more impressively as a League One side, that the best Leeds sides of the past few decades haven’t managed to do. I can’t describe how proud I am of them all, that was our cup final, one for the history books. For the record, my man of the Match was Leeds defender Patrick Kisnorbo, a true stalwart of a defender! It means so much to the club and the fans and even my sister was screeming down the phone!

Progressing in the cup is a bonus, and it’s Spurs up next. The boost, if it was needed for this already legendary giant killing side, will hopefully be the drive to push on and clear that hurdle of promotion from League One back to the Championship. Until then and until it's time to get back to the coal face when we’re playing Wycombe Wanderers at the weekend, it’ll be a continued, long awaited and much appreciated visit to Cloud 9 for all concerned with Leeds United!

May there be many days like it to come! Old Trafford - "The Theatre of Dreams"... hehe, it was yesterday!

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Last year, the BBC and some famous types.

Happy new year everyone! Blogging is back... two trips to BBC related events turned into three just before Christmas 2009. Our first trip was as part of the Audience to BBC N.I Spotlight special show on the 13th October. The 2nd trip was to a recording of a BBC Radio Ulster and likely Radio 4 show; Colin Murphy's Great Unanswered Questions. The 3rd trip out was to Radio 1’s ‘A Night with the Chris Moyles Show’.

So back to the beginning, and I guess to this, the ticket section of the BBC website. For this is where anyone wanting to join in the fun who hasn’t got slightly enthusiastic friends or loved ones to do the application bit. Well that or listen in to radio shows for ticket giveaways.
First up was a wedding build up trip to be a slightly bemused member of the Spotlight Special TV show that was shown on Tuesday 13 Oct 2009 at 22:35 on BBC One N.I.

On stage were a collection of 4 political figures from the Northern Irish political scene and not one representative with a none polarised view point. Perfect time for a few hard hitting questions you would think! Alas, the audience (which included my silly self) were first brought into a room before the filming took place and were given refreshments. Then we were given information on those to be grilled and we were asked to provide questions. Obviously the producer had an idea of a question they wanted to be asked because they came back in to ask if anyone had considered asking such a question and this meant only one thing. A thing I should probably have known... these shows prep those coming on and they’d been given a range of topics and no question was going to be asked that strayed from that. So although you could come up with any question relevant to current affairs you weren’t going to be asking it unless it fitted in with the themes pre decided.

Disappointing to me but understandable... after all most of these people (the politians on stage that is) are just spokes people, they have the final say on things but I’m hazarding a guess they aren’t exactly experts on a lot of what they talk about, without preporation they'd probably be rabbits in the headlights. The real experts are those in the civil service and those whom the civil service liaise with... the people whom, when it boils down to it, answer the questions... rather than those who are given a large salary and from where I’m sitting pretty much just stand up and read the answers. From the resultant questions and answers, this show seemed to be primarily a case of giving another showcase to the extreme view points of the N.I political spectrum - to give them a chance to vent about the issues they’d been prepared for rather than questions the public would like to ask of them. For me, an opportunity wasted by the BBC. Where was the Green Party representative or Alliance was not just what I was thinking but also a question posed by another member of the audience before the show started and it received almost an unanimous round of applause from the rest of the audience. Maybe an idea for the BBC for future shows!

I’m not even going to go into the waffle and array of only slightly meaningful discussion (to me anyway) by the members of the panel. There really wasn’t all that much interaction with the audience, just each Politian debating with another for the most part. Conor Murphy, Margaret Ritchie, Nelson McCausland and David McNarry were the politians in question. All they managed to do was re-enforce my doubt in the usefulness of a political system dominated by polarised viewpoints . Though I was intrigued how Margret Richie was trying to unsuccessfully twist a question asked to her to fit the answers and information laid out in her notes. Kudos to Mark Carruthers though, I gained a new found respect for TV presenters, especially those chairing debates! All the time he had to juggle the questions and answers whilst controlling with hand movements the next speaker and also listening to the production crew and producer in his ear piece! Not an easy task I imagine.

It was also great fun to see another TV studio, in this case the BBC’s Blackstaff House, all those lights and cameras, like Granada Studios in Manchester it’s like a whole other world heading off the street and into one.

A much more entertaining experience came when we went to see Colin Murphy. This was the recording of a radio show due to be aired next year - Colin Murphy's Great Unanswered Questions.

When the warm up is the main star of the show and the first thing said is that there will be no mention of, and I’m paraphrasing this into ‘religious divides of the Christian faith that cause a lot of problems in this neck of the woods’. My thought... this is the kind of show I can really get on board with. Dr David Booth was the resident expert and the subject matter was also right up my street, comedy with a bit of science spotted with mad facts and funny anecdotes. I don’t want to spoil the show for anyone who might catch this on the radio next year but suffice to say it was very, very funny and will be well worth a listen... I will be anyway. Here is the BBCGUQ twitter page.

Last up was Radio 1’s Chris Moyles and team visiting Belfast on the 17th December. Norn girl and I had been to the karaoke event a couple of years back in the beach club bar place the Odyssey and were determined to get to this too. Norn girl in the end was in town at the right time and spotted Aled Jones’ hiding spot. Hence 4 tickets winged their way her way and in the end 3 of us, Norn Girl, myself and my sister-in-law made our way to meet at Subway for a pre event snack. After some news of Norn Girls brush with fame and a foot long sub it was a quick bus ride up to the Queens Student union and a very long queue waiting to head into Mandela Hall.

On entering, it was to the front to set up camp and then to the bar for a drink. It wasn’t long before Aled was out to warm up the crowd with some music and a Santa hat, this went on a wee while and the crowd were warming up, well those who needed some warming at any rate which to be fair wasn’t many... thats one of the best things about Belfast... more so than any other city I’ve had the pleasure to be in, people know how to let their hair down and have fun should the occasion arise and that includes T-Totallers.

The singing begun with Santa Aled our choir master and from then on it was all more of the same - music, mass karaoke and great fun. Chris Moyles took to the stage after a grand build up and bit by bit the team were on stage caroloke’ing (as it say’s on the radio one website). Dave whacked his head off a huge speaker during a rendition of ‘My Lamb Bhuna’ whilst trying to get back on stage, Carrie was joining some of the crowd who like ourselves were just high on life in enjoying the night rather than alcohol – we would have had more but it was too much hassle making your way from the front of the stage to the bar. Rachel was being swung around in a small stage production of dirty dancing. Dom was rocking on down with the guitar and Chris was fun and star of the show and not too bad on the drums too! The majority of the crowd who got up to sing were very, very bad but all very, very game for the laugh and it was one dude who made it on stage who brought the biggest pantomime moment to the crowd... set up or not its hard to tell but it began with Chris fake hi-fiving a likeable the karaoke singer from the crowd and cruelly making him look a little silly, after a crowd pleasing performance though it was a good bye fake hi-five that Chris missed and honours were even.

Another highlight was Patrick Kielty’s memorable performance of a spoof of Robbie Williams ‘Angles’, however I don’t think he’d quite honed the jokes he tried before hand... it was revealed he’d had a bit to drink so it wasn’t so unexplainable, thankfully he could still entertain with a song none broadcastable for the radio!
It was all in the spirit of the night though and the band and all the Chris Moyles team and the crowd were all great. Hopefully it won’t be long before the team are back again.

So good or bad, this getting out there and seeing the largely positive side of the media being made seems like a good idea. Hopefully more similar nights out will follow... a lot of people might criticise the BBC, but with the value going to see these shows can bring (as long as it doesn’t include the current breed of argumentative local politicians) it might not always be perfect, especially the focus of programming in N.I to my tastes, but they do seem to do a good job. To me, that licence fee, the one that makes a wee dent in the bank balance each year, is worth it.

More comedy shows and the Radio 1 team over again please BBC :)


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