Friday, February 16, 2018

25 years of football - fun football mascot malarkey

I've been writing a series of posts about going to football matches over the past 25 years. Admittedly they are a bit self-indulgent. I wrote them for me, really. But this post is different. This post is for Cathy.

Cathy loves football mascots. When they show those scene-setting clips at the start of game highlights on Match of the Day, she always goes "Yay! Mascots!" if they get a half second of screen time.

I've seen a few football mascots and I try to take photos to show her later. Here are some of my favourites.

Got to start with Lenny the Lion. Lenny is the Shrewsbury mascot.

Dylan the Dolphin from Poole Town. I dig his strutting attitude. Impressive for a mammal with no legs...

Spark the Cat from Queen Spark Rangers. (Do you see what they did there?!?)

The mighty, famous Gunnersaurus Rex (Arsenal).

Rocky the Robin (Cheltenham Town) - one of the few mascots to bother talking to away fans.

But what do mascots do? They have lots of important duties on match days.

Making sure all the little kids are hopped up on sugar ready for the game by carrying around a copious bucket of sweets and occasionally hurling them at force into the crowd.

Geeing up the crowd, like Newport County's optimistic Spytty the Dog here.

Dancing on the halfway line to entertain everyone during the warm up, like Gilbert the Gull from Torquay United.

High-fiving the fans.

Posing for selfies.

Contemplating the inevitability of one's own eventual non-existence, like the Moping Giant from Yeovil.

Making sure the visiting team are welcomed, and possibly confused about whether you are actually the home side's goalkeeper.

Joining in a minute's applause. Or a minute's silence. Because nothing honours the greats of the game or our glorious war dead then someone in a giant grinning furry animal head, trying to look suitably sad.

Interesting side note. In that picture you can see Lenny the Lion's colleague, possibly partner, we aren't sure. 'She' is imaginatively called Mrs Lenny. (I am not making this up.)

The problem is that Mrs Lenny, while clearly identifying as female, hence the giant pink bow, first appeared with a full mane, not unlike Lenny himself. Given that Shrewsbury played at Gay Meadow at the time, it seemed like this was a very progressive stance towards coupledom for a fairly staid club.

Now though it appears Mrs Lenny has less of a mane, as seen in this photo, which makes me wonder if there is some kind of process being undergone here. I'm not sure whether it's as progressive to have a couple where one half is transgender as having an openly gay mascot partnership. But it's interesting, and a good model for the kids in terms of acceptance and tolerance.

And finally, mascots must always, always, always, keep their spirits up. Like Bartley Bluebird here, from Cardiff City, who is depicted waiting longingly for a goal that just wasn't going to come.

And then gave up.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

25 years of football - some Shrewsbury highs and lows

I've blogged recently about 25 years of watching football, with most of the games being Shrewsbury Town games. I've seen a few highs and plenty of lows in that time, or, as the joke goes, I've stuck with them through thin and thinner.

I've already mentioned a couple of Shrewsbury FA Cup triumphs in my blog post about memorable matches, and a couple of Shrewsbury programmes slipped into my blog post about random games, but here are a few more that mark special moments.

The second season of my record-keeping (1993-94) was a promotion year. Which is why I'm beginning this round up in the sunny glamour of Rochdale.

My friend Jim was the reason I went to Rochdale. He convinced me it would be a good idea for us to go on a supporter's coach for a regular Saturday away game. I'm not sure if we were a couple of miles from the ground, while we were mired in the traffic you get mired in when you visit Northern urban sprawls, that we heard that the game had been called off, or whether we had actually arrived at the ground. Anyway, after three hours on a bus, we basically got back on the bus for a three hour ride home. I don't remember much about Rochdale, except that it seemed like the biggest post-war council estate I had ever seen. The only other memory is when the bus pulled over next to a canal for a large contingent of men to cheerfully relieve themselves straight from the bank, oblivious to the cars trundling past behind them.

We had paid for the coach seats, so got to go to the rearranged fixture for free, on a Tuesday night.  Rochdale away in 1994, is a legendary game amongst a certain generation of Town fans, however. Because Rochdale away is the game we went top of the league for the first time that season. And I was there.

Thanks to my habit of the time of defacing programmes, you can see that Dave Walton scored the winner right at the end of the match. I remember having a restricted view from the terrace and not really seeing the goal. But everyone went nuts so I joined in.

This is the programme from the final game of the season. It's a promotion special, not that you'd know from the cover! We played Wigan Athletic, one of those perennial minnows that have never really done very much.

And the table. confirming we were champions. This was a time when programmes included average attendances for all the teams in the league, and even ordered them in the table. You can see how Shrewsbury had the 5th highest gates in the league, while the day's visitors, Wigan were second from bottom. That must be why they've never really done anything.

In all seriousness though, whatever you think of Dave Whelan, this is where he started from. Lots of people throw money at football, but to take a club from this level and into the Premier League requires a certain bit of nous.

In another aside, four teams in the table, including promoted Chester, have since gone bust and had to reform way down the pyramid.

Of course, Shrewsbury built on that success to establish the club as a formidable force in football. Why only less than 10 years later, they were relegated out of the league altogether.

'The Scunthorpe connection' was a nice bit of book-ending. Shrewsbury and Scunthorpe were both elected to the football league in 1950 and played each other on the opening day of the Division 3 (North) season that year. It was kind of fitting that they played each other on Shrewsbury's last day in the league as well. We didn't have time to miss each other, though, as the clubs were drawn against each other in the first round of the FA Cup the following season.

Rochdale make another appearance in this blog post. Town bounced back into the league at the first time of asking, and had a new star in the making to boot. I saw Joe Hart play twice for Town - away at Cheltenham, and against Rochdale on 6 August 2005 - the opening day of the season

Team line up. He was our Number One.

And there he is in the team poster as well!

There is a nine month gap in my football-going during that season, from a Wales game in early September to a summer England friendly the following June. In the November I was signed off work with depression and spent the next few months getting my head back. I didn't see Joe play for Shrewsbury again and when the next season rolled round he had transferred to Manchester City. (I have seen him play in Shrewsbury since, in goal for West Ham United in the FA Cup third round this season.)

Shortly after Joe left Gay Meadow, Shrewsbury also left, for a new stadium. I found these in my box of programmes.

You don't have to be a silly sod to support Shrewsbury Town, but you could have bought one.

The final season at Gay Meadow ended with a trip to the new Wembley stadium in the play offs. I actually watched the last game at Gay Meadow in a pub round the corner from my house.

Shrewsbury earned some firsts that day. First goal scored in a football league play off final at the new Wembley. First player sent off at the new Wembley. First team beaten in a play off final at the new Wembley.

Two years later we were back.

Yes, that is Grant Holt on the cover. One of the best strikers I have ever seen in Shrewsbury colours.

Unlike the previous play off final, when we were chasing the game for most of it, this time it was nil-nil until the very last minute. Then Gillingham scored. Town kicked off and the referee blew for full time.

I said at the time it was like a punch to the gut. I can still feel the visceral emptiness as if someone had reached in and torn all my emotions out through my bowels. I'd never felt like that before at a football match.

I remember looking at my mum and dad, shrugging, turning away and trudging up the steps to leave. Just numb.

On a lighter note. Some fun league cup games that we lost but it didn't feel like we lost.

Arsenal was where I bought my first half-and-half scarf.  I MAKE NO APOLOGIES FOR THIS.

Town took the lead through James Collins. At this point, the Town fans started singing 'You're Getting Sacked in the Morning' at Arsene Wenger. Spoiler: he wasn't.

The Emirates is by far and away the best football stadium I've been to. And, hilariously, the crowd there is the biggest crowd Shrewsbury have ever played in front of, and I think it's possibly still the lowest attendance ever at the Emirates.

A few years later, Jose Mourinho came to the New Meadow with Chelsea. I've yet to see a proper Shrewsbury giant-killing in the league cup. This was close.

Chelsea led early on, but then Shrewsbury got into gear and grabbed an equaliser. The momentum was with the Town, so Mourinho brought on his real players like Willian. A few minutes later a Shrewsbury defender slipped under pressure and spooned the ball off his knee past his own keeper.

Fun fact, Mo Salah, this year's goalscoring dynamo, was playing for Chelsea. He was shocking. At one point he had a shot at goal from the edge of the eighteen yard box that went out for a throw in nearer to the halfway line than the corner flag. He got subbed and very soon after this game was sold.

Fun Fact 2, in a media interview afterwards Eden Hazard forgot who he had been playing and called the team 'Strawberry'. It was quite funny, really.

So, that's a round up of some of the highs and some of the lows. I didn't mention the conference play off final that Shrewsbury won on penalties to get back into the league. Because I didn't go. It was on a Sunday and I was scheduled to preach in the church that Cathy and I went to at the time. I also haven't mentioned the Auto Windscreens Shield final against Rotherham in 1996, because I didn't buy a programme so had nothing to scan. And they lost anyway. My Dad still rants on about how the manager, Fred Davies, picked the wrong team that day.

But that's the reality of following a team like Shrewsbury. The triumphs are hard fought. The disasters are one bloot off a defender's knee away. The line between glory and muddled obscurity is a mighty fine one.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

25 years of football - the random games, some of which will never be repeated

After reviewing my 25 years of going to football matches I went through my boxes of old programmes to scan a few for a post about memorable matches. And I found a lot of other games that I remembered, and some that I didn't. Here's a selection of programmes from some very random games, featuring a number of clubs that I will never get to see again.

Some Shrewsbury ones to kick us off

Shrewsbury v Scarborough, Div 3, 15 September 1992

Scarborough went bust a while back. A new club has formed, Scarborough Athletic, but they are a long way off returning to the league. This programme was from the era of Shrewsbury's "scrambled egg" shirt designs, which is now being sold in the club shop as a retro item. At the time we mocked it as horrible. Even in the 90s, which was a decade of horrible shirts. Wait 25 years and it's cool again. I blame hipsterism for this.

I'm mainly including this to show how I used to deface football programmes with my own notations.

I gave Mark Barham my man of the match award. I vaguely remember him having blonde floppy 90s hair and being a winger. I could well be wrong.

Shrewsbury v Carlisle - 3 April 1993

I'm only including this because the cover star is flame-haired full-back Tommy Lynch!

I adored Tommy Lynch.

Shrewsbury v Hereford - Div 3, 2 April 1994 - birthday football!

Got to love going to a game on your birthday. Not as memorable as the Newcastle game I went to 11 years later (see here for more). Also, typical Shrewsbury photo choice with more of a gurning Hereford player than the Shrewsbury player who is being out-jumped for the ball. I think that's Gary Patterson, who I thought was crap but lots of other Shrewsbury fans loved.

Oswestry Town v Shrewsbury, pre-season friendly, 8 August 2004

Another disappeared club. This fixture will never happen again as Oswestry Town were absorbed by the TNS monster, who moved in and became The New Saints.

Telford United v Macclesfield Town, GM Vauxhall Conference, 26 February 1994
This is why I always think of the league below the football league as the GM Vauxhall Conference, even though it's been rebranded multiple times. The power of imprinting! Telford were founder members of the national league below the football league.

The programme cover shows the main stand of the Buck's Head. Rebuilding the ground in the 2004-05 season bankrupted the club owner and the club. They relaunched further down the leagues as AFC Telford United. Their new ground is quite nice, but they have never sustained the heights they were at in the 80s and 90s.

Next up, a Wales B international - do they still do these? This was in 1994.

We went mainly because Carl Griffiths, ex-Shrewsbury striker, was selected for the Wales squad, and it was played at Wrexham's Racecourse ground which was less than an hour away. There are some random players in this line up. I still defaced programmes back then, so we can see that Carl came on as a sub.

In 1994 I moved to Cardiff. I went to a few City games, but it didn't stick. So I drifted to other games. Here's another team that has disappeared - Inter Cable-tel. Technically their opponents, Barry Town, are a phoenix club now as well. This was the era when Barry bossed the League of Wales, although this was a league cup game.

The League of Wales is now the smaller Welsh Premier League. So both these clubs and the league they were competing in have either disappeared or been considerably revamped. The ground it was at, Leckwith Athletic Stadium, was bulldozed when Cardiff City relocated over the road from Ninian Park and built their big new CCFC Stadium. There is nothing about this game that could be repeated.

The next season, Inter Cable-tel had reverted to their original name of Inter Cardiff.  That's a cleverly cropped photo of them, saying Inter without the suffix,  with the Welsh Cup on the cover of this programme from a UEFA Cup qualifier in 1999. A note inside the programme reminded me that the half time entertainment was provided by the Tongwynlais Temperance Brass Band.

Thinking about it, that's a cup competition that's gone as well, replaced by the Europa League. Everything changes.

Here's another game unlikely to be repeated: League of Wales v League of Ireland, 4 March 1997.

My main point of interest on the night was the appearance of ex-Shrewsbury winger Mark Rutherford in the League of Ireland team. But this LoW squad list is a who's who of late 90s Welsh domestic footballing talent. Several players in the squad played for Inter, so this was like a home match for them, as it was played at Leckwith.

Moving on to Scotland - have you ever seen an Inverness Cup game? I have.

I've already said how my football match tally is influenced by my Dad's love for going to football matches. (Something I've caught.) We were on a family holiday to the Moray coast and Dad found this game was on. Forres Mechanics are known as the Can-Cans and play in the Highland League. Clachnacuddin are from Inverness.

A few years later and I was in Glasgow for a work conference. Celtic were playing at home so I sloped off one night to watch them.

It had been a boyhood ambition to go and see Celtic play because one of my best friends, Ed, was Scottish and supported them. The game was pretty dire and finished 0-0. But I had a great time anyway.

Another unlikely to be repeated opportunity - seeing a Great Britain international team. I went to the 2012 Olympics match played at the Millennium Stadium against Uruguay and Team GB won. I can't remember if Craig Bellamy played, but he looked alright on the programme cover, despite that honest-to-goodness disaster of a kit. The game was a double header with Mexico v Switzerland beforehand. Football should do more double-headers.

I also went to the third place play-off game in the Olympics because the brochure said it would include the bronze medal ceremony, which I thought would be a unique add-on to a football match. But then they announced just before kick off that the medal ceremony would be the following day after the final and the third place winners would receive their medals alongside the gold and silver medalists. I felt cheated by that and, frankly, the Olympics can do one for me now.

I've been to several football matches at the Millennium Stadium. In 2005, while Wembley was being rebuilt, they played a lot of cup finals there. Including the LDV Vans final between Wrexham and Southend United.

My Dad came with me, reliving his youth as a Wrexham fan, and also a couple of guys from work who supported Wrexham. When the game went into extra time I remarked to one of them, Pete, that I always felt extra time gave you more for your money. He wasn't happy about that - he wanted the stress to be over! He was happy at the end of extra time though because Wrexham had won.

And finally, to another cup final in Cardiff that went to extra time. It was my first women's football game, which also featured two goalkeepers taking the decisive penalties in the shoot out. I've blogged about it in more depth here.

Looking through my programmes was a mixed bag of memories. Some good, some bitter-sweet. It's a real reminder of how much the game has changed, and yet, it's still at it's heart the same game.

I'm going to do a post with some Shrewsbury-specific highlights next. And then a fun one to finish this short series.

Monday, February 12, 2018

25 years of football - my top 5 most memorable matches

I recently blogged about my own football-going records, covering 25 seasons of going to games. It's kind of hard to pick out the best games, or the most memorable. There are some I will never forget. Here are programmes (and some photos) for five matches I went to that I think are the ones I will remember forever.

Newcastle v Aston Villa - 2 April 2005

It was a game on my birthday - always a bit special, that. My sister-in-law, Abby, had bought us really good tickets quite close to the pitch. So close we could see Alan Shearer doing his shouty, pointy, bossy stuff, and Graeme Souness glowering in the dug-out. Kieron Dyer was Newcastle's highest paid player. The woman behind us didn't rate him. "He's too fancy for me," she said. "Too fancy!"

Too fancy! has become a bit of an in-joke for me and Cathy.

This game itself has become legendary. Newcastle had three men sent off. Two of them - the "too fancy" Kieron Dyer and wannabe thug Lee Bowyer were sent off for fighting each other. The third, Steven Taylor handled the ball on the line, and then collapsed holding his chest in a laughable attempt to fool the referee. Aston Villa won 3-0. They were already leading when Dyer and Bowyer started trading punches.

They were properly swinging as well. None of this brush a guy's cheek and he falls to the ground clutching his face nonsense. They'd have done ice hockey proud.

In the programme, there's a bit about how the game brought Bowyer "into conflict" with his former boss David O'Leary.

That may have been true, but it brought him into more conflict with Kieron Dyer.

I remember leaving the ground, trying hard not to stand out as a non-Geordie in a seething sea of very, very angry Geordies. There was a palpable sense of repressed fury in the crowd. It just needed a spark to erupt into a riot. If that had happened, St James' Park would have been ripped apart and we'd be talking about the day two Newcastle players were lynched by their own fans.

Wales v Italy - 16 October 2002
The Millennium Stadium was packed. Noisy Italian fans. Even noisier Welsh fans.

Wales scored first. Italy equalised from a soft free kick. But then Craig Bellamy scored what proved to be the winning goal. I remember the headrush from leaping up when the goal went in.

This was part of the campaign for Euro 2004 that saw Wales miss out in a qualifying play-off to a Russian team later exposed as harbouring drug cheats. Given everything that's come out about Russia since, that shouldn't be a surprise.

Wales were a team much greater than the sum of it's parts. Here's the squad for the game. There weren't many stars in it.

By contrast, this is Italy's squad. Less than four years after this game, Italy won the World Cup. Again.

Shrewsbury v Everton - 4 January 2003
Two games from the same season make my top five. This was an FA Cup match from the era when tickets for football matches looked like this:

Not a bar code to be seen.

The programme features a delightfully dated early twenty-first century photoshop montage pitting boy wonder Wayne Rooney (whatever happened to him?) against Shrewsbury's feisty talismanic striker Luke Rodgers.

An interesting factoid: the Everton team were managed by former Shrewsbury central defender David Moyes (whatever happened to him?), while Shrewsbury were managed by legendary former Everton central defender Kevin Ratcliffe.

I was on the Riverside, which was the side of old Gay Meadow that backed on to the river. It was a long roofed terrace and it was rammed for this game. I don't remember much of the football. There was a crowd surge when Shrewsbury scored the opening goal - a Nigel Jemson free kick that Richard Wright completely screwed up. Niclas Alexandersson scored an equaliser for Everton. He was a squad member getting a rare run out. (I'd ask whatever happened to him, but that would just be sad.)

The surge I really remember was the one when Nigel Jemson scored with a header in the second half. If you've never stood on a packed terrace you may never have known that sense that suddenly you aren't yourself any more. You are travelling as a mass, forwards, cresting on a wave of fellow fans. It doesn't matter of course because you are yelling and hugging your mates, and just loving the moment.

Unless your name's Mike and you're an Everton fan in the home end with us, and this is probably one of the most painful football experiences you will have. (Probably not, really. He is an Everton fan after all.) Yeah, it really sucks to be Mike that day. But for the rest of us, woohoo!

Again, a squad comparison. This was the Shrewsbury team that would get relegated out of the football league at the end of the season, eight points adrift of the second bottom team.

Kevin Ratcliffe has not worked in management since the end of that season. He tips up now and again on BBC Wales as a pundit. David Moyes brought his West Ham team to Shrewsbury's new stadium in January this year for an FA Cup game. It finished 0-0.

The Riverside got demolished a couple of years later. They built yuppie flats on it.

I'm still friends with Mike. He'll likely read this. DO YOU REMEMBER THIS GAME, MIKE?

Cardiff v Shrewsbury - 10 January 2016

Another FA Cup game. I've got to include this because I'd seen Shrewsbury play Cardiff three times in Cardiff and never win. The first was a Cardiff City promotion party that was curtailed slightly early by the referee because of crowd encroachment on the pitch. The second was a midweek game that I remember mainly for a Shrewsbury fan being hit in the eye by a coin thrown from the Cardiff fans. The third was a hammering that I watched from the away terrace behind the goal nearest to my house. All three were in the third or basement division.

This was the fourth time I'd seen Shrewsbury play Cardiff in Cardiff, but the first at their swanky new stadium. They were a fancy dan Championship side now, having just spent a season in the Premier League no less. It was also live on S4C on a Sunday night which might explain why almost nobody turned up. Seriously, it was empty. This was the home end:

And Shrewsbury won! 1-0 with a smash and grab bundle-it-over-the-line goal right in front of us in the away end. Oh how we celebrated! Me and Steve and Connor and John! Good times!

My friend Nigel, caught a still of us all intently watching the game from the S4C coverage.

This! This is how you watch a televised match. None of this waving at the camera really excited like.

Paulton Rovers v Poole Town - 25 October 2014
I've included this one because a game doesn't have to be a team full of stars for a match to be memorable.

My friend Steve is a Poole Town fan and he has taken me to a few places to watch them play. Glamorous places like Merthyr, Weston-Super-Mare, and even Poole itself. But few places feel as out of the way as Paulton Rovers. I'm still not entirely sure where Paulton is and I've looked it up on Google Maps. It's somewhere nearish to Bristol. Or Bath. I think.

It's in the country.

You can get very close to the goals.

So, why is this memorable? Well, it was one of those games, you know. Paulton were soon leading 2-0. Then Poole pulled it back to 2-2. Then Paulton scored again twice, either side of half time. Poole got another goal back, then won the softest, most dubious penalty ever to make it 4-4. Then with barely minutes to go, unbelievably went ahead and ended up winning 5-4. A very exciting game, and proof that entertainment can be had wherever you end up watching football.