Tuesday, March 27, 2018

We do like to go and see the C side - non-league international football report

I am cruising towards a twenty year high in terms of the number of games I've been to this season. Last week I went with one of my erstwhile footballing compadres, Steve, to see Wales 'C' versus England 'C'. This is an international played between players at the semi-professional level or, if you like, a 'non-league' international. England C have been playing for a while, but this was apparently the first time the Welsh FA has fielded a C team.

The teams line up for the anthems

I have seen Wales and Wales B, so was pretty pleased to add Wales C to my list of teams I've seen play. Cathy asked if there was a Wales Z composed of the country's absolutely worst players. "If you've never played football before, you're in," she said, laughing.

The game was played at Jenner Park in Barry, which given the weather, wasn't going to live up to its Barrybados nickname. More like Brrry, I thought, as I layered up with long johns, long sleeve under shirt, thermal socks and a snood. There was a massive pile of snow by the side of the pitch as we came in through the turnstile.  I was still a bit cold by the end of the night, even with all that clobber on.

The Wales team was drawn exclusively from the Welsh Premier League, given that the game was apparently celebrating the 25th anniversary of the WPL's predecessor, the League of Wales. I saw a League of Wales representative game back in the late 90s, so in a sense only the branding had changed. The England team was mainly from the National League. No Wrexham players were present on either side, which was a bit odd considering they are doing pretty well in the National League. They are probably considered an English club by the FAW, but there must be some Welsh born players in their team and playing elsewhere in the semi-pro system in England.

My dad had asked me to get him a programme. There were no programmes. There was a QR code instead. I would have to download it. Given there were over 800 people there, the decision not to print some programmes seemed a bit odd. I couldn't get the QR code to work as I'd not scanned a QR code in the two and a bit years since changing my phone, so I just went to the website, old-school style, and downloaded it from there. (A couple of days later I found a menu option in the scanning section that enabled me to swap to a QR scanner.)

The teams came out and lined up for the anthems with a surprisingly large number of press photographers taking lots of photos. Laudably there was no booing. There was a comedy moment when the announcer stumbled over name of the England number 11, Fejiri Okenabirhie, and then muttered "I can't pronounce that name" which came through loud and clear over the tannoy.

It was a decent game of football. Both sides tried to play pass and move football. I've had a few conversations recently about how the quality of football at lower levels is so much better these days and this was a showcase for how quality has trickled down the pyramid.

Almost inevitably, Okenabirhie scored the first goal, benefiting from an unselfish pass from the number 9 who had pressured the defence into a mistake and then drew the keeper out. The announcer mangled his name again. The vocal locals who sing all the way through Barry matches were present in force and sang "We can't say your name, we can't say your naaaa-aaaame, Number eleven, we can't say your name." I thought that was amusing.

It was 0-1 to England at half time. Should have been 0-2 but somehow the striker hit the bar and the guy following up headed over from 4 yards out. Wales had had an early chance but didn't look particularly threatening.

Wales were better in the second half but were soon down 2-0 after the spawniest penalty I've seen in a long time. It looked like a clear dive and it looked like it was outside the box. For the first time ever the crowd sang for VAR. But despite the protests and the boos from the stand, the penalty was well dispatched by Okenabirhie. This time the announcer tried to put the stress on different syllables, but that didn't work either and he paused mid-surname, which was cheered by the crowd.

Wales rallied in response to the refereeing injustice, getting a goal back. But then England scored their third goal, which was an absolute cracker from the edge of the area. It also sealed a hat trick for Okenabirhie. The tannoy man bailed and just announced it was "a hat trick for... FEJIRI!" as if he was a Brazilian player with one name. The crowd cheered and the announcer stuck with the one name moniker when Fejiri was subbed later on.

Wales stuck at it and seemed the stronger side as the game went into the last twenty minutes. They pulled it back to 3-2 with a few minutes to go and had two really good chances to equalise before the end, but they just couldn't get the ball in the net.

I'd give Fejiri man of the match. In a game where the overall organisation and quality was surprisingly good, he stood out as a very talented player. He plays for Dagenham & Redbridge, but could probably do some damage at a higher level. He's certainly as good as several players I've seen at League One and League Two level.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable game and I hope the FAW continue with the C International experiment. I thought it was an excellent advert for both the WPL and the English non-league system. However, next time we really need to have proper printed programmes. There are only so many innovations we can live with in football.

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