Sunday, 28 November 2010

Chester FC vs Durham

Back-to-back games at the Exacta give us a great chance to build some momentum when it comes to attracting support.  The place looked packed last week, and hopefully many of the same faces will return to back the Blues today.  Last week, two questions were on everybody's lips as kick off approached.  Firstly, would we break 3,000 and secondly, (as that rather irritating Alexandra Burke song rang out around the stadium) how exactly does one "trip trop", and why do they need to put down their cup to do it?  Whilst the answer to the second question turned out to be "forget it, I don't even want to know", the first question was still being debated well into the second half, before Cleggy announced the figure of 2,713.  Not quite there yet, so keep inviting your friends.

Nevertheless, 2,713 - which coincidentally is also the number of times that the average British youth misapplies the word "random" in any given week - is a fantastic figure.  It must be remembered that even in the Football League we struggled to command such attendances.  The mixture of an enjoyable side to watch and a general feel-good atmosphere around the club makes the Exacta a great place to spend your Saturday afternoons.

And whilst home games are undoubtedly fun once more, I also want to take the opportunity to encourage you to take in as many away games as possible.  Admittedly, you can't use the "it's all club funds" line to justify spending your money on these games, but it is worth it.  Ossett Albion a couple of weeks back were just the latest club to give us a warm welcome.  I've opined previously in this column that one of the consolation prizes to having been demoted to this level is all the new teams we get to meet and I truly mean it, as it's been refreshing to visit new grounds, meet like-minded people following their local team on a drizzly afternoon.  It's football shorn of most of the overtly-capitalist agenda of the professional leagues.  There don't seem to be any owners, board members or customers.  Just players and fans.  Maybe I'm romanticising it a little, but I'm feeling a definite sense of community about both this league and our club.

Onto today, and off the back of a 4-0 victory against Skelmersdale, our boys should be feeling confident.  Durham come here in good form, though, so there's no room for complacency.  There is, however, plenty of competition for places.  New signing Jimmy McCarthy set everyone's tongues wagging after his goal last week, which was cheekier than a Cockney version of the Cheeky Girls.  With Sarcevic, Wilde, Wilson and Howard all in top form in the starting line up, Alex Titchener on the fringes and Robert Hopley using his chance at Ossett to grab a goal and an assist, there's a number of players striving to get into that forward line.  It's an odd thing, competition for places.  You don't really get it in normal jobs.  I've never spent a few weeks on the sidelines in the office, waiting for my chance with the photocopier so I can prove myself.  When my colleague Tim was off work recently following a bad ankle sprain, I didn't see this as a chance to assert my credentials.  I'd hate to have to do his job.

Whilst undoubtedly good for the success of the team, it must be a real conflict for the guys involved.  At no point, you would hope, will Hopley be hoping that Wilde breaks a leg, but he will desperately be wanting to be ply his trade in the first team.  McCarthy won't celebrate if the team put in a dreadful performance, but he will be gagging to get on the pitch.  Team sports create this dilemma between wanting what's best for the team, and also wanting what's best for oneself.  It's a bit like wanting the girl you love to be happy, but only so long as she's with you.

I'll sign off at this point.  If next week you find that Rob has replaced my column with one written by someone fresher and wittier, then you can deduce that competition for places is prevalent in more areas than perhaps you would realise.

Chester FC vs Skelmersdale

Hello again.

Last time, I wrote a piece scoffing at Lancaster's manager's claims that we'd struggle away from home.  Thankfully, we followed this up with a 3-0 win away at Ossett, and I'm not forced to write a grovelling retraction this week.  In hindsight, I should have been more careful given my other role at this club of commentator for the "Blues Live" service.  We're all aware of the "commentator's curse", and I was playing with fire a little bit.  Still, the lads overcame it, and that's the sign of a truly great team.

Audacious hyperbole out of the way, let's move on.  I'm going to take this chance to welcome Chris Sanna to the club.  Sanna attended the same high school, in the same academic year as I and whilst he'll have no cause to remember me, Chris was a minor celebrity around that place, so I have a vivid recollection of unleashing a fierce 20 yarder (ok, so maybe we haven't quite finished with the hyperbole just yet) past him in a Tuesday afternoon double games lesson.  I await my call, if not from Neil, then at least from Mossley or Ossett, both of whom failed to beat our new shot stopper in his first two games.  Long may his unbeaten record continue.

I'm led to believe that we paid a fee to bring Mr Sanna to the club. It's superb that we're already in a position to do that.  These days, all club funds come from us, the fans, so we can take particular pride in the signings that we make. This does, however, also make it far too easy to justify the purchase of merchandise.  "It's all club funds!" I exclaimed after the Mossley game, whilst further emptying my bank account to order the 125th anniversary shirt.

So, onto today and Skelmersdale.  I knew someone from Skelmersdale once, and she professed to support both Manchester United and Wigan Athletic.  This suggests two things.  Firstly, that women really shouldn't be allowed anywhere near football (calm down ladies, it's post-modern irony, the joke's on me) and secondly, that today's opponents have a struggle similar to ours when it comes attracting fans, given the number of major clubs in the vicinity.  So welcome fans of Skem, and kudos for supporting your local team.

I'm sure you've already been told, or read it somewhere this programme, about Skem's exploits last weekend.  Going in at half time against Cammell Laird with the score at 0-0, they proceeded to bag an unrealistic 8 goals in a second half which must have been initially exhilarating and subsequently exhausting for the Skem faithful.  As the eighth goal hit the net, I imagine the Skelmersdale fans reacted with the same fatigued, obligatory joy that you'd expect from a couple who've spent the day witnessing the first baby steps of three of their quadruplets and were just getting ready for bed when the fourth hops up onto his feet and swaggers cockily across the
living room - Ok, it's an achievement but by this stage, what's new? Save it for another day.

Nonetheless, it's evidence that Skelmersdale are here to play today, and this will be a huge test.  A couple of solid results have our home record looking healthier, but having dropped a few points at the Exacta already, we have to rise to challenges like today.

I'm really looking forward to it, as form suggests it will be an open, attacking game.  We haven't had many games in the end-to-end mould this season, but I think we might just get one today.


Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Chester FC vs Mossley

I was, as I'm sure you were, delighted with our last performance at home.  We've had a few disappointments at the Exacta of late, which Neil Young has been first to acknowledge, so it was great to see a performance like the one the lads put in against Lancaster.  Plenty of effort, a comfortable win, and probably more goals on another day.

However, following the game the Lancaster manager Tony Hesketh, who apparently was at the match despite evidence to the contrary, labelled us as "not that good a side", commented that we don't have a great deal of flair and mused that Chester will "probably struggle on their travels".  It's (very) easy to dismiss this as brazenly inaccurate rambling and I was tempted to do that, but then my article would be a whole lot shorter, so let's see if we can somehow justify Mr Hesketh's claims.

A clean sheet doesn't count if the goalkeeper doesn't have to do anything

Richard Whiteside was a spectator for so much of the Lancaster clash that I'm actually a little miffed that he wasn't  forced to pay a tenner like the rest of us.  Indeed, rumours abound that Richie brought out his iPod in the second half "just for something to do" and that his biggest test of the afternoon was operating the 'shuffle' function whilst wearing gloves.

Not a great deal of flair

One would have to agree with Mr Hesketh that Chester's three goals that day were sorely lacking in flair.  When Iain Howard chested the ball down and crashed a half volley across the keeper into the bottom corner to open the scoring, barely anyone around me celebrated, with one spectator commenting that his follow-through required "a far more extravagant flourish" if we want to be taken seriously in this league.

Then, when Michael Wilde played a perfectly weighted first-time flick to Howard who skilfully lifted the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper, I put my head in my hands.  Sure, it was 2-0,  but are we happy to be watching such ugly football?  And as for that third goal... a flowing counter attack culminating in another precise first-time assist from Wildey and an assured first-time finish from Kyle Wilson... well, I almost walked out in protest.

It should have been 4-0

Had Antoni Sarcevic had the wherewithal to be more blatantly dragged down in the area than he was, Chester would  have earned a penalty.  In Antoni's defence, for the penalty to have been more nailed-on he would have needed to hand each of the Lancaster defenders a golf club before proceeding to accept the beating of his life right in the middle of the six yard box - but if you want to be a professional footballer, you've got to be prepared to go that extra mile.

(There is, of course, no guarantee that we would have converted the penalty.  I imagine that most of our players have forgotten what one looks like by this stage.)

Each player only put in 100% effort

Some people involved in football believe that there is such a thing as "110% effort", so perhaps Mr Hesketh felt that our lads' incredible commitment to winning every ball didn't quite achieve the realms of mathematical implausibility.

Chester will struggle on their travels
I've dipped our away record of P7 W6 D1 L0 F21 A6 into my biggest vat of sarcasm and still I can't find a justification for the idea that we'll struggle on the road.  Perhaps Mr Hesketh was merely suggesting that some of the grounds at which we are to play are a little bit tricky to find - which in the case of Bamber Bridge, at least, is a fairly accurate suggestion.  I definitely struggled on my travels that day.

It's important to note here that this column is written with a staunchly pro-Chester stance rather than an anti-Lancaster one.  I genuinely believe that the performance against Lancaster was excellent and was surprised that we were not given more credit by the Lancaster boss.  And whilst I accept that we're not yet the finished article, I do think that we're moving in the right direction.  So if it yields the same result as a fortnight ago, I hope Neil's team talk today goes along the lines of "Alright lads, don't play that well, cut out the flair and play in a fashion that implies you'll be useless away from home".

Top of the league, and having a laugh,

Jon Hughes.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Chester FC vs Lancaster City

One of the silver linings to the cloud of having dropped several divisions is that we get to meet teams we either haven't met before, or haven't met in meaningful competition for many years. Today we welcome Lancaster, and whilst I accept that for many of us this is only significant in that they are the team from whom we signed Roger Sharrock, and the city through which we drove to Morecambe on several occasions, the game is of particular interest to me as Lancaster is my adoptive home.

Regrettably, in four years, I have only managed to see Lancaster City FC play once. The one thing about them which I particularly love is the contradiction between their ground name and nickname. The imposing and frankly frightening "Giant Axe" stadium plays home to the rather less intimidating "Dolly Blues".  It's a paradox akin to discovering that Freddie Krueger collects Beanie Babies.

If the football on display in that game I witnessed last season is anything to by which to go, however, then we should certainly be expecting the intimidating side of things.  I watched as Lancaster, and in particular winger Paul Jarvis, laid waste to Trafford in a 2-1 victory which massively flattered the away side.  Hopefully, Lancaster play with the same attacking spirit (and lack of fortune in front of goal) today.  I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little tired of teams turning up here at the Exacta and putting ten men behind the ball.  I'd like to see a free-flowing match, if only because I feel it would suit us a whole lot more.  So bring it on, Lancaster - let's have a proper game.

Anyway - given that it's always nice for away fans to have a feature on their club, and given that I can't offer any insight into their team that hasn't been covered elsewhere in the programme, in an
attempt to paint a picture of the city that we'll be visiting in the New Year, allow me to list some of the things about Lancaster that I adore;

1. The Stonewell Tavern
Not merely for being the first pub in years to pay me to play music there, and not merely for being the only pub where I've ever known the landlord to leave punters waiting at the bar whilst he plays a ten-minute spot at the open mic night, but because its blend of eccentricity, Italian lager, local ales and live music make it possibly my all-time favourite place to drink.  I recommend it to all travelling Chester fans.  Other public houses worthy of your custom include (though not exclusively) The White Cross, The Merchants, The Gregson Centre (which also boasts an excellent cricket team), The John O'Gaunt and The Friary.  So yeah, make a day of it.

2. I once saw someone walking a fox in the city centre.
Fairly self-explanatory.

3. The commitment to combating climate change.

Lancaster's one-way system is cleverly crafted to make driving the most stressful and irritating experience possible, thus forcing many to make the rational decision either to walk to work, or to just sleep at the office to avoid even having to see the roads.

4. No-one's ever burgled my house.
You tend to take these things for granted, but I do appreciate it.

5. The fact that no-one ever seems to leave for very long
There seems to be a magnetism about the place which makes it impossible to leave once you've lived there.  This is also a policy implemented by the Hotel California.

To conclude - welcome, Lancaster.  I love the city, but I hope your football team is soundly beaten today.

Come on Chester!

Jon Hughes

Chester FC vs Leigh Genesis

It strikes me that as fans of this new incarnation of Chester Football Club, we have already been treated to many of the mandatory facets of fandom.

Firstly, the obligatory "who's who" period, in which each player is referred to by their most prominent feature, or lookalike, until their names are burnt into our minds as those of work colleagues are.  This period was extended this year, the absence of names on shirts making the process as difficult as trying to identify which Scouting For Girls track is which before the chorus kicks in.  Indeed, where I was stood, Andy Burgess was still "the tall blonde one" for much of the Warrington clash.

Even putting aside the necessary administrative tasks that we undertake as fans (these also include ranking the pies at each new ground attended and looking down upon any player not wearing the standard black boots), the results and performances have given us plenty of chance to enjoy and endure the full range of emotions that a football fan experiences.  We've already had resounding wins, frustrating draws, hard-fought narrow victories and a home defeat in a table-topping clash.  Pre-season even granted us a fantastic fightback, from three down against FC United of Manchester.

As such, we've been left with plenty to discuss.  The 6-0 against Trafford had us getting ready to crown Michael Wilde as Chester's new goal-scoring legend whilst talking excitedly about Bradley Barnes, and his box-to-box heroics.

At Warrington, and Wakefield, talk was of the difficulties inherent in playing on bumpier, longer pitches.  Defeat to Chorley made us realise how tough this league can be but the 5-0 against Bamber Bridge, with a couple of players missing, showcased our strength in depth, which could yet be the key to our season.

And for those of you who missed Witton... well, please forgive us for the relentless recounting of that night.  It really was that good.

And what is brilliant about the above, other than the mere fact that it displays, in a microcosm, the various ups and downs of following your football team, is that it's also the first time in my lifetime that discussions surrounding my football club have been focused firmly, almost exclusively, on the football.

We must not take this for granted.  An increasing number of fans across the country are watching their teams face insolvency or corporate greed, and as a group of supporters who have experienced such horrors on multiple occasions over the past two decades, we can empathise.  We must also do our utmost to make sure we don't repeat the mistakes that lead to such situations, if only because, as alluded to above, there's enough talking to be done about the football without needing to slide down that route again.

Indeed, the post-match analysis can be fascinating, and is perhaps one of the things that transforms a football club into a community.  Everyone leaves having taken something different from the game; "our forwards were immense today", "their defence was poor", "I thought we were much better in the second half", "did you notice the colour co-ordination of the trees behind the goal?".  Admittedly, some of these comments merit less discussion than others, the last one almost causing me to change my friends, but the point is that if 2,500 people turn up to a football match, there will be 2,500, often conflicting, opinions to break down in the pub, on the web or in work whilst the boss isn't listening - and frankly, this is enough for me to be getting on with.

Juggling scores of different opinions on a game, the tactics, the referee, the tree co-ordination - it's a complicated process.  You start to question
your own assessment of the game.  Maybe it wasn't a penalty after all. Maybe we were far luckier than I'd thought, through my blue-tinted specs. With all these different takes on a match, you can see why football managers have a stressful and often thankless task.

As I'm sure we all are, I'm relishing having a football club where football is the main focus.  It feels as though it's been too long.  And of course the other issues should be discussed too, in order to ensure history doesn't repeat itself, but for the time being let's enjoy our self-appointed role as the most knowledgeable and argumentative pundits in the game.  It is a privilege.

Come on you Blues!