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Exeter late show against Blackpool keeps play-off bid alive

March 6, 2017 in I Was There

Substitutes Reuben Reid and Ollie Watkins rescued a dramatic late point for Exeter City as they came from two goals down to maintain their promotion push at home to Blackpool.

The visitors were aiming to climb away from the bottom half of the table and had raced into a 2-0 first-half lead. But injury-time goals in each half from Watkins and Reid sealed a spirited City comeback.

The in-form Watkins had started on the bench due to illness, with Exeter manager Paul Tisdale opting to start with Robbie Simpson in his place.

However Tisdale’s plans for squad rotation were in disarray as early as the fifth minute, when Simpson suffered what was suspected to be a season-ending broken ankle.

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Ollie Watkins replaced the injured Robbie Simpson after just five minutes. (Pic. @OfficialECFC)

Stretching to get a touch on a low cross, Simpson could not connect and, after the ball had evaded everyone, it became obvious to all inside St James Park that the striker had suffered serious damage.

After a lengthy stoppage for him to receive treatment, play continued with Simpson’s replacement Watkins showing no signs of the bug that had initially kept him out.

If Exeter were rocked by the early disruption to their plans, it buoyed the visitors who proceeded to pen the Grecians inside their own half for much of the first 45 minutes.

The Tangerines were aggressive in regaining possession, personified perfectly by the front-foot defending of captain Andy Taylor.

Double trouble

Blackpool’s physical dominance paid dividends as goals from Colin Daniel and Brad Potts put them two up, although home keeper Christy Pym, returning to the side after injury, should have done more to prevent both.

The first came after Pym parried a shot into the path of Daniel for the midfielder to blast into the roof of the net from close range. Shortly before half-time, the former England U20s keeper came to claim a high ball inside the 18-yard box, but was blocked by the mass of bodies in front of him, allowing the ball to drop to the feet of Potts, who finished neatly to give Gary Bowyer’s team hope of a valuable away win.

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Blackpool’s first half dominance owed much to their physical commitment. (Pic. @OfficialECFC)

These were the kind of blunders that had been all but eradicated from Exeter’s performances since the start of their 12-game unbeaten run at the end of November, a turnaround which has propelled them into the play-off mix.

With the experienced Bobby Olejnik waiting in the wings as his replacement, Pym will be keen to avoid a repeat of such mistakes in the end of season run-in, but fortunately for him, Exeter recovered from this double early blow to spare his blushes.

Comeback kids

Their comeback began in first-half stoppage time, as Blackpool keeper Sam Slocombe could only parry on-loan defender Jack Stacey’s cross from the byline, and Watkins was on hand to slam in his 12th of the season.

This livened up both Exeter’s players and fans, and after once the second half began, the flow of the game changed in the hosts’ favour and it looked as though it would be a matter of when not if they would draw level.

Shortly before the hour mark, Tisdale introduced fan-favourite Reid in place of Liam McAlinden, and the former Plymouth player made a big impact in the final period of the match, impressing as an individual and raising the standard of the team as a whole.

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The point keeps the Grecians on track for a place in the play-offs. (Pic. @OfficialECFC)

Alarm bells should have been ringing in the Blackpool defence when, with 10 minutes remaining, Reid beat the deepest Blackpool defender to meet a perfectly weighted pass, but somehow Slocombe denied him a goal with a miraculous double save.

The visitors were now dug in deep inside their own half, with a counter-attack their only chance of landing a meaningful blow of their own.

But in the 92nd minute, Exeter’s pressure finally paid off as Watkins’ in-swinging cross from the left was headed in at the back post by Reid for his eighth goal of the season.

The point keeps the Grecians in sixth place, whilst Blackpool stay down in 15th.

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Feature image: Reuben Reid heads home in stoppage time to rescue a point for Exeter City. Courtesy of @OfficialECFC & @ppauk (Pinnacle Photo Agency).

 

Red card for ‘Play to the Whistle’

January 17, 2017 in I Was There

It’s understandable that ITV would want to recreate the success of Sky’s A League Of Their Own and the BBC’s long-running A Question Of Sport.

There is clearly a huge appetite for watching sports stars step outside their professional environment and into the world of entertainment.

Athletes often come across as sullen, dull and uncommunicative, so giving them a chance to lighten up in panel show formats can clearly make for good television.

“Contestants appeared disinterested, ignoring the live audience, on their phones between rounds… the interaction between presenter Holly Willoughby and the panellists felt awkward”

In this regard, Play To The Whistle’s acquisition of Chelsea and England midfield legend Frank Lampard as a resident team captain was certainly shrewd.

His pedigree ensures that plenty of football fans will be drawn in, and he has a celebrity pull that might get viewers who aren’t into sport interested, too.

But if ITV want to make the third series of Play to the Whistle a success, then Lampard will not only not be enough, but may actually prove to be a obstacle.

If my recent experience at Elstree studios is anything to go by, then perhaps ‘Saturday night snoozefest’ would be a little more apropos a category than ‘sports-based comedy panel show’.

Effort

Unless I missed something during my two brief toilet breaks, there didn’t appear to be much to laugh at during the show.

Contestants appeared disinterested, ignoring the live audience, on their phones between rounds and failing through large parts to provoke any real laughter. The interaction between presenter Holly Willoughby and the panellists felt a little awkward.

It was clear that golfer Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston and reality TV ‘star’ Scarlett Moffatt aren’t cut out for this line of work, and audience members around me seemed expectant of a little more effort from both guests and regular captains alike.

What’s more, the ratings tend to agree with them. The show debuted back in April 2015 with an audience of 2.79m, which within two weeks had dropped to 2.03m. The second series revealed the same trend, with 2.71m viewers tuning in for opener – a figure down by 700,00 by the end of the run.

It’s hard to avoid predicting a similar level of dwindling engagement for the third series unless better-calibre guests and a more structured format are adopted for the show.

Lifeless

Somebody needs to tell Bradley Walsh that few people care about his new album nor will want to buy it. Why it was thought he’d be a good Play To The Whistle team captain eludes me.

He’s clearly a versatile performer, but his antics were inappropriately brash, and one particular audience member objected to him referring to her as “love” during one of the earlier rounds.

“Romesh Ranganathan was a rare highlight who did manage to amuse during the show’s more conversational segments”

Nobody’s performance underwhelmed quite like Lampard’s, though. Acting as a perfect example of why footballers ought to let their feet do the talking, his lifeless showing may go some way towards explaining the trajectory of the show’s ratings.

He didn’t expand on questions put to him by the presenter and when the cameras weren’t on, spent most of his time texting and sipping a beer.

Even comedian Seann Walsh, the show’s mock pundit, failed to inject the proceedings with any real humour.

His skits after each round, designed to show him doing anything other than watching the show or monitoring the scores, felt a little like a boy trying to impress the girl he likes at school: forced and over the top.

Burden

I did, however, like how he introduced each contestant. Mocking Sky’s punditry and line-up presentation was a nice touch that gave the show a uniquely sporty feel.

That burden fell mainly onto the shoulders of his fellow funnyman Romesh Ranganathan, a rare highlight, who did manage to amuse during the show’s more conversational segments.

I was especially surprised at Rob Beckett’s lack of contribution. I’ve been impressed with his work in the past, but I don’t recall him saying anything funny this time around.

Combine all this with a string of technical faults, which eventually set the recording 40 minutes behind schedule, and the overall impression was one of sloppiness and disorganisation.

For me, this displayed a lack of thought and attention to detail; two things Play To The Whistle is in desperate need of.

Blow the full-time whistle, ITV.

Spurs are blunted yet again at Old Trafford

December 29, 2016 in I Was There

“Tottenham at home. We all know what Tottenham is about, they are nice and tidy but we’ll f*cking do them,’’ said Roy Keane, back in the days when he, Scholes, Beckham and Co. would ensure that Spurs wouldn’t even see the ball on their annual Old Trafford trip, let alone have it long enough to do anything with.

This season was different as Spurs saw too much of the ball, if anything, and still didn’t know what do to when they had it.

Tottenham helped themselves to over 60% possession, which may come to a surprise to some but in reality this is a regular thing for Pochettino’s side. The North Londoners have out-possessed all but two of their opponents so far this season but often lack ruthlessness in the final third.

Passing was again the theme and for all the 429 passes they attempted, over double that of United, it was one simple, piercing ball by Ander Herrera that breached the Spurs backline and unleashed Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

The way Danny Rose and Kyle Walker maraud forward as wide midfielders is indispensable to the way Spurs build their attacks.

But for all the undoubted positives this entails comes one fatal negative, as Spurs found out when Harry Kane gave the ball away in the middle of the park, leaving Rose helpless halfway up the pitch.

Inconsistency

Mkhitaryan was allowed a clear run through on goal and two touches later the ball was in the back of the net. One measured touch to take it into his stride, and another to lash home high into Hugo Lloris’ goal, and a reminder to Spurs that £26m can actually buy you a half-decent winger.

“Christian Eriksen’s bad spells seem to last longer now, whilst Spurs fans have waited three years to see the best of £26m man Erik Lamela, and are still waiting”

Spending wisely has been a problem at White Hart Lane for a number of years now. With the absurd amount of cash floating around in the Premier League, Spurs have used their budget about as sensibly as the Greek government did.

Even with the second best defence in the league and the rare luxury of having a 20-goal-a-year striker in Kane, Tottenham still look short compared to their competitors.

And that is down to the inconsistency, as the attacking midfielders who support Kane blow hot and cold far too often. None more than Heung Min Son, whose overall game was epitomised at Old Trafford.

He had two shots of note, one fierce left-footed drive from 25 yards that was well tipped over by De Gea, and the other cutting in from a promising wide left position, as well as having other options, blazed high and wide into the Stretford end, a stark contrast. He was then hauled off just shy of the hour mark.

Timid

If Son was in those box of chocolates Forrest Gump was referring to, he’d be the exclusively wrapped up one, with little to no chance of knowing what your going to get. But to single out the South Korean would be harsh.

Christian Eriksen’s bad spells seem to last longer now, whilst Spurs fans have waited three years to see the best of £26m man Erik Lamela, and are still waiting. Record summer signing Moussa Sissoko has failed to make the matchday squad at times this season, let alone warrant a place in the starting XI.

“The sun set over Manchester and as the light started to fade, so did Spurs’ chances of getting anything out of the game”

Tottenham’s flair players are too timid and patient, so it was no surprise to see them prancing around the edge of the United box, creating the impression that something promising was about to happen. It didn’t.

The one time Dele Alli managed to break through late on, like a man shot of confidence, he cut back, stalled, and the chance was inevitably squandered.

United manager Jose Mourinho was animated and agitated simultaneously, like a harried wedding photographer haplessly ordering for everyone to squeeze in the picture that bit more.

Pochettino appeared calmer on the touchline which could have only been his very best poker face, as he would have been far from impressed at what his team were producing in the final third.

Conviction

The Argentine spent a lot of time motionless scratching his chin, like we all used to do back in school to gain more time attempting to answer a teacher’s question.

He had the look of a man who knew he had three defenders and Georges-Kevin N’koudou to choose from to somehow change the game around.

“In many ways it was indicative of Spurs season; plenty of huff and puff but not enough to break the door down”

Plus Sissoko, who must have fancied it in training this week, as Pochettino brought him on to run at makeshift left-back Matteo Darmian who looked about as convincing as those Walls of Jericho.

Wladimir Klitschko was present in the crowd and the Italian looked like he’d just gone 12 rounds with him as he was beaten on a number of occasions, but Spurs lacked the conviction to land a knockout blow.

The sun set over Manchester and as the light started to fade, so did Spurs’ chances of getting anything out of the game.

Paul Pogba berated Marcos Rojo like a strict father for going to retrieve the ball for De Gea after winning a free kick deep inside his own half late on. Gone were the days where United would go for the kill but they knew they had done enough to blunt Spurs here.

In only three of their last 13 games have the North London side scored more than a single goal, so limiting them to scraps was not one of the world’s toughest of tasks.

In many ways it was indicative of Spurs season; plenty of huff and puff but not enough to break the door down. Rose claimed afterwards that they are ‘still in third gear compared to last season’.

Spurs have to start delivering over the Christmas period as they are already 10 points off the league leaders Chelsea.

An awayday experience in Milan

November 12, 2016 in I Was There

Six years ago, Inter Milan were winning Serie A, the Champions League and Italian Cup while Southampton languished in League One after nearly going bust and being in administration.

So what a thrill it was for Saints fans (including myself) to travel to the San Siro and see them outplay the European giants in the Europa League. If only we hadn’t lost…

Qualifying for Europe adds something special to a season, and a rare chance to watch your team take on the one of the game’s biggest names is something not to be missed.

So when my friends invited on a four-night trip to Milan it was definitely something I had to do – albeit as cheaply as possible.

The first thing needed was a cheap flight, and Ryanair flies to Milan Bergamo, about an hour outside the city. Then came tracking down the most budget accommodation that central Milan had to offer – Queen’s Hostel.

 Packed

Arriving at Stansted to travel out the day before the game, it was surprising to see so many Southampton shirts at the airport – but then I guess everyone had the same idea of looking for bargain flights.

Duomo di Milano – worth a visit

The sense of excitement among the fans was already evident, and made the usual boring slog through security and passport control less of a chore.

The flight itself was packed with Saints supporters, some of who spent the whole journey singing songs whilst the beers kept coming.

This wasn’t your average away trip to Stoke or West Brom – we were heading to Milan to cheer our team on in one of Europe’s most famous stadiums.

The following day, the visiting supporters tended to group around either the San Siro or the clubs and bars of Navigli in the build-up to the game.

The city centre, where there are some spectacular sights such as the Duomo di Milano, is definitely worth a gander but it’s a bit of a tourist trap and better suited to those with budgets slightly bigger than mine.

Of course, as English football fans looking for home comforts, many of the Saints supporters located an English-style pub screening Sky Sports.

Unfortunately, trouble there a few days before meant it was closed to them in the run-up to that evening’s game.

It didn’t dampen spirits too much, however, as 7,500 away fans – around 13 percent of Southampton’s population – generated a real buzz in Milan’s bars and restaurants.

Deflated

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But I ordered a large… pizzas in Milan

Arriving at the San Siro, it felt like a home game at St Mary’s in some respects as everywhere you looked there was Saints fans.

Inter, who have been overshadowed by Juventus in recent years, were in poor form going into the match and struggling to get decent crowds.

The English contingent made up over a quarter of the evening’s overall attendance, and created plenty of noise in the two-thirds empty stadium as Saints dominated the game.

However, the Premier League outfit were left to rue several missed chances as Antonio Candreva popped up with a 67th-minute strike against the run of play.

The hosts hung on for the win, despite the late dismissal of Marcelo Brozovic, and Southampton and their travelling army of fans were left distinctly deflated by the defeat.

But the disappointment was eased by the fact that we had outplayed our illustrious opponents on their own ground, and the night was still young.

Unfortunately, many of the bars we tried were pretty unaffordable while others had closed early to avoid any rowdiness, so the day ended in anti-climax.

Explore

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Sleeping in Milan airport

For the remainder of our stay, we explored the city, soaked up some local culture and, of course, sampled the food which was of the highest quality.

You can actually eat pretty cheaply in Milan if you look hard enough, and for just €9 you can get a pizza so large it won’t even fit on your plate.

This is one of my favourite parts of an away trip – the opportunity to check out a new city, to experience adventures and do things that you might not have ever done without football taking you there in the first place.

The trip ended on an uncomfortable note, sleeping in the airport as we waited for out flight home at an ungodly hour. I guess it just shows what you’ll put up with to go and support your team.

If you can afford it – and it can be done on a tight budget – I really recommend trip like ours.

Experiencing the delights and sights of a new city with your mates while indulging your love of football is something you won’t forget.

 

 

 

 

 

Iacono flies high to win Red Bull Street Style final

November 9, 2016 in I Was There

For many people, football’s international break is a chance to catch up on missed shows such as The Walking Dead or Eastenders. For others like myself it was a chance to delve into a new sport. 

After coming across Sky Sports’ promotion of the Red Bull Street Style world final on their website, I was filled with curiosity.

With the winter months in full flow, most people would be against the idea of going out on a chilly, blustery evening, but I was willing to broaden my horizons and watch a new sport.

Tickets cost £10 – peanuts in an age when prices to see elite sportspeople in action tend to be excessive and immoderate.

A tenner to witness some breathtaking displays of showboating in a world final was without doubt value for money.

The event took place at the Roundhouse in Camden, north London, and I was filled with excitement and eagerness to see a different style of football.

History 

The Red Bull Street Style is freestyle football’s premier tournament, where the world’s top tricksters go head-to-head against one another in a bid to impress the judges with their extravagant abilities.

The competition burst onto the scene in Brazil in 2008 and has also taken place in South Africa, Italy and Japan.

The 2014 event, back in Brazil, saw the most fluent freestylers from 44 nations battling it out for the biggest prize within their sport.

Britain’s Andrew Henderson, who has performed at Old Trafford and put Barcelona’s Neymar to the test in a freestyle battle, captured his first title with some dazzling showboating.

The rules are pretty straightforward. Three minutes, two players, one ball and one victor.

Atmosphere 

As I warmed up with burger and chips, excitement rippled through the Roundhouse crowd as it was announced that former Manchester United and England defender turned TV pundit Gary Neville was on the judging panel.

Gary Neville watching some skills on show

He was joined by Sean Garnier, the winner of the very first Red Bull Street Style in 2008.

Since then, the French star has been influencing and tracking the pulse of the sport and his name needed no introduction to the fans of freestyling.

The cheers were deafening for both Garnier and Sky Sports pundit Neville and the volume only kept increasing.

The atmosphere around the place was louder than most match days at the Emirates Stadium, with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ whenever someone did something amazing with the ball, plus moans and groans when competitors failed to get out of their comfort zone.

It was a superb showcase of jaw-dropping tricks and seemingly impossible transitions that left everyone astounded.

Talent on show 

With the biggest names in freestyle looking to stamp their authority on proceedings, the level of competition was so high that no-one was safe from elimination.

Portugal’s Ricardinho, one of the favourites to win, went out in the quarter-finals.

Another casualty was Ireland’s Daniel Dennehy, who oozed class and ability but was defeated by Carlos Alberto Iacono, the man from Argentina who was hoping it would be third time lucky in 2016.

After coming up just short in the last two tournaments, the man nicknamed ‘Charly’ was determined to claim the crown in London.

Donchet double

Ahead of the men’s final, the world’s best female freestylers got their chance to show off their talents.

The final between Melody Donchet of France and Poland’s Aguska Mnich was a truly gripping encounter.

In the semi-finals, Donchet had seemingly given her all to defeat long-time rival and double world champion Kitti Szasz of Hungary.

But there was more to come from her. In a fearless performance, the French star defeated Mnich with seamless transitions from standing to sit-down tricks and back up again.

Donchet’s ability to persevere when most fans felt she had nothing left in her bag of tricks was simply remarkable.

She secured her second consecutive title and, in the process, elevated her reputation to a new high.

Iacono on top 

In the men’s final, Iacono managed to get the monkey off his back by defeating Japan’s Kosuke Takahashi.

The Argentinian’s ability to ignore the noise from the crowd was one of the main reasons to why he delivered on the big stage.

Iacono celebrates his final win

At times it seemed like Iacono did have wings as he delivered the technical moves for which he is best known.

He sealed victory with one of the hardest handstand tricks ever seen, as he juggled the ball flawlessly on his calf.

Russian’s Anatoliy Yanchev earned third with a respectable performance, however Iacono’s feat earned him a rousing reception from the arena and his piece of history showed that you should never give up under any circumstances

As he admitted afterwards: “After losing several times, I was discouraged. But my heart told me you have to try again.”

And boy, did he deliver.

For more information about the competition, visit the Red Bull website.

Swapping Champions League for non-league

October 24, 2016 in I Was There

Champions League choices… Bayer Leverkusen v Spurs or Leicester v FC Copenhagen on TV in the
comfort of my living room.

In the end, I went for neither and opted instead to catch Woking’s FA Cup replay against Torquay in the flesh.

Admittedly, the fact that Woking’s Kingfield Stadium is just 15 minutes from where I live helped to swing the decision, but ultimately it was one I didn’t regret.

Kingfield is an impressive venue by non-league standards, with one large stand and a capacity of around 6,000 – mostly standing, though.

In true football fashion, I kicked off my first-ever trip to a non-league match by heading straight to the bar for a pint of lager, followed by pie and chips.

Determined

During my fast-food workout, I watched the players warming up and immediately noted that the quality of their drills and footwork wasn’t too bad.

Having done some research, I knew a few of the Woking names likely to catch the eye, including Jake Caprice, a fleet-of-foot full-back.

“With Woking languishing near the foot of the National League, this was a much-needed victory”

Another was Charlie Carter, an industrious and playmaking central midfielder who has made his way through the academy ranks. Plus, Dennon Lewis, a young winger spending a season-long loan at Woking from Premier League outfit Watford.

Having drawn 1-1 in Devon three days earlier, Woking were determined to make an impact from the off and reach the FA Cup first round proper for just the second time in five years.

Let’s not forget, Woking have had their moments in the competition, including a giant-killing victory at West Bromwich Albion in the 1990/91 season.

Poor penalty

Non-league teams like Woking and Torquay are desperate for good cup runs, because of the potential revenue it can produce. It was evident that this was a motivating aspect in this game.

With not even 10 minutes gone, Woking had a chance to open the scoring from the penalty spot after Carter made a nuisance of himself and was brought down by opposing keeper Brendan Moore.

However, a poor penalty from Delano Sam-Yorke and a fine save from Moore kept the ball out of the net.

Torquay capitalised on this and after gaining a corner, scored from the resulting set piece. Giancarlo Gallifuoco flicked the ball onto a post and Sam Chaney was on hand score just before half-time.

Whatever Woking boss Garry Hill said at half-time seemed to work as the hosts were fast out of the blocks again, and this time it proved fruitful.

End to end

Garry Hill and the team applauding the fans at the final whistle.

Woking applaud their fans

Caprice, confirming that he has talent, was causing trouble on the wing and whipped the ball into the box. Gozie Ugwu was on hand to slide the ball past Moore and the Cards were finally level.

Five minutes later and the game was turned on its head as Woking completing their second-half comeback.

A Fabio Saraiva corner from the left was met by the head of Ugwu who looped the ball back past Moore and into the corner of the net for his second goal.

For the rest of the half, it was end to end stuff with chances for both teams – exciting to watch from a neutral’s perspective.

The game nearly took another turn in the 88th minute, with Torquay piling on the pressure and Woking looking weary.

A goal-line scramble ensued in the Woking area, with some amazing stops from home keeper Brandon Hall, aided by Caprice, who took one for the team and blocked a certain goal with his face.

With Woking languishing near the foot of the National League, this was a much-needed victory and an opportunity to progress further in the Cup.

Woking now host Macclesfield on November 5th, and with their opposition just outside the National League play-off positions, fireworks could ensue.

 

Photos courtesy of David Holmes.

Mourinho made to suffer on Chelsea return

October 24, 2016 in I Was There

On his first match back at Stamford Bridge as manager of another English team, former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho was given a stark reminder of how easily things can change in football.

Stood in the opposition dugout and now at the helm of Manchester United, Mourinho watched on as his team’s dreadful start to the game inspired chants of “you’re not special anymore” from – admittedly, only a minority of – home supporters.

A year ago, those same fans were well and truly singing a different tune, in unison. “Stand up for the Special One,” was once the cry around Stamford Bridge as the Blues struggled to defend their Premier League title. Not anymore.

A broken man

As he witnessed the 4-0 dismantling of his United side from the technical area, Mourinho cut a frustrated and disappointed figure.

“Mourinho’s body language in Sunday’s game was a reminder of a chapter that most in west London want forgotten”

It was a sight that Chelsea supporters were already familiar with, engraved into the memories of those who cannot simply ignore the disastrous season of 2015/16.

We all know the story, and Mourinho’s body language in Sunday’s game was a reminder of a chapter that most in west London want forgotten.

Moving on

Ten months after the 53-year-old’s sacking, however, it seems Chelsea have finally started to turn a corner.

Slowly but surely, former Italy coach Antonio Conte, now occupying Mourinho’s old seat in the dugout, is repairing the damage left behind by his predecessor.

New Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has started to make friends at the Bridge ©Nazionale Calcio

Players who were shattered in confidence under Mourinho, like Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic, are now all performing at their very best again thanks to the Italian.

With a renewed sense of freedom and adventure, the days of players feeling shackled and restricted under Mourinho are a thing of the past.

Chelsea midfielders and forwards alike are truly blossoming in Conte’s 3-4-3 system, and the former Juventus manager is reaping the rewards of having ditched the 4-1-4-1 formation deployed earlier this season, a formation similar to that of Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1, in favour of his trusted three-man defensive set-up.

The future

After a bleak, dark and depressing 2015/16 season, the future looks somewhat brighter for Chelsea.

It is too early to predict whether Conte will be a success or not at Stamford Bridge. But what can be seen clearly under the 47-year-old is the establishment of an on-field identity and a long-term vision for the club.

Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham are often picked up for the high-intensity football and constant pressing game they play on instruction from their respective managers, and Conte too wants his Chelsea team to be recognised for such.

For Mourinho, it was about winning at all costs. However, that does not seem to be the case for Conte.

For the three-time Serie A winning manager, Chelsea must win, and win in style.

Chalobah could play a key role in Chelsea’s future ©Wikimedia Commons:

As well as what appears to be a difference in footballing philosophy between the two, Conte has made it clear that unlike Mourinho, he intends to utilise the young talent that Chelsea have produced or are producing.

John Terry – who made his debut in 1998 – was the last success story to come from Chelsea’s academy, but that could soon be about to change under Conte, a manager renowned for giving those who deserve to play a chance regardless of their age.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Ola Aina and Nathaniel Chalobah are all a part Conte’s plans with the latter finding himself gaining more first-team minutes as each matchday passes.

As for Mourinho and Manchester United, something has to give sooner or later if they wish for a change in fortune. But that is not Chelsea’s concern.

After all, Mourinho himself said it better than anyone else could have after Frank Lamapard’s move to Manchester City in 2014. “When he decided to go to a direct competitor then love stories are over.”

Featured image: ©Aleksandr Osipov

Football’s beautiful nitty, gritty side

October 13, 2016 in I Was There

Ten miles from the 30,000 padded seats of Brighton and Hove Albion’s AMEX Stadium, sits Leylands Park, the home to Ryman Premier side Burgess Hill Town.

Last weekend I swapped AMEX for a small terrace and the smells of hot burgers and crisp lager to watch the Hillians, as they’re nicknamed.

I even managed to get a cup of Bovril and large chips for £2.50 – now that wouldn’t get you very far at the AMEX…

Yes, the facilities aren’t quite up to Championship standard, but what Leylands Park has in spades is a sense of community, of friends and families who work hard for and take pride in their local club.

“You get to see the other side of football, the nitty gritty. A lot of people at our club put a lot of unpaid, hard work in,” Hillians manager Ian Chapman told me.

“We as a team, try to be successful for them, we want to give back, because they deserve it. All the work they put in, that’s their reward if we do well for them”.

High tempo

The turnstiles at Leylands Park

And rewarded the fans and staff truly were this weekend, with an exciting 3-2 victory over Jimmy Bullard’s Leatherhead.

My first experience of Ryman Premier football brought five goals, cheap refreshments, sunshine and a game of high tempo football. Oh, and surprisingly no bookings!

The standard may not be exactly that of Brighton down the road, but there are similar traits on show: pace, passion and determination to name a few.

Believe it or not, there is a world outside of elite football, a world in which many stars of today have risen.

The likes of Chris Smalling, Charlie Austin and Jamie Vardy are all now excelling at the highest level after starting out in the non-league game.

Big names in non-league

“Look at Greg Leur who we sold to Hull, there’s some good names and good footballers in non-league these days. We’ve got that with an ex-Brighton player on loan with us; Dean Cox,” said former Seagulls defender Chapman.

jimmy bullard

Jimmy Bullard gets his point across

There are plenty of current big names in non-league football too, including the likes of Jimmy Bullard at Leatherhead and Gary andf Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt at Salford City.

Just to watch these ex-pros and current coaches from close up on the sidelines can give any fan an invaluable insight into football.

Especially when it comes to seeing and hearing the touchline antics and choice words from the likes of Bullard himself.

Better yet, you can even share a pint or two with these players and managers afterwards.

“By being in non-league football, you’ll get more affiliation with the players for example in bar afterwards and around the club,” Chapman explained.

Give it a go

Every fan should take advantage when their professional clubs stop for the international break; go out and see the ‘nitty, gritty’ beautiful side of football at non-league level, where every penny counts.

“It’s everything you want from football, and those people have come back”

In certain areas of Brighton’s stadium you can pay up to £42 for a seated ticket. Add that to the bill of £12 to park your car at the ground and already you’ve gone way over £50 before eyeing up the pricey pie (£4.20) and pint (£4.30).

Its £10 for adults and £6 for concessions at Burgess Hill, with the ability to stand and watch the football (something you’re not supposed to do at the AMEX). Oh, and there’s free parking at the ground, too.

Chapman would “love” to see more people at Leylands Park.

“If local league clubs like Brighton and Crawley are playing away and people are at a loose end, I’d love to see more people come down to have a look and see what they think

We’ve had that this season, proper games of football, end to end, excitement, goals, tackles and bookings. It’s everything you want from football and those people have come back”.

Community matters

Clubs at Burgess Hill’s level do genuinely care about their fans, their community – it’s visible.

“We’re a community club, we get 300-400 at home and I’d like to think they get entertainment and value for money,” Chapman added.

Realistically, a club of Burgess Hill’s size do have a ceiling of how far up the football pyramid they can hope to go, but as long as they are “always looking to improve” as Chapman puts it, and give back to the community, they’re achieving their goals.

Burgess Hill warm up at Leylands Park

“The chairman would love to get to the Conference South,” admitted the Burgess Hill gaffer. “However he knows at the moment, the club isn’t geared up to do that. Financially, we’ve got to establish ourselves.”

But the opportunities to continue to improve are there for the club.

Burgess Hill has a good catchment area of around 40,000 people. Chapman believes the club has the base to have “decent crowds of 600-700 each week” providing the side are doing well.

The attendance does appear to be ever growing for the Mid-Sussex side, who are on a current 10-game unbeaten run.

Last weekend saw one of the highest crowds of the season; 482, with another high turnout expected for this weekend’s home clash against National League Dover in the FA Cup.

Chapman admitted honestly: ‘The opportunity is there to get to the Conference South, but it probably would be the maximum for the club.

“When I first joined, they were second from bottom in the league below (Ryman South). I’ve had four seasons, and this is my fifth.

“In that time we finished 8th in my first season, 6th the next, missing out narrowly on the play-offs and in my third season, we won the league, gaining promotion to the Ryman Premier.

“In this league last season we finished bottom four, but managed to stay up. This season the aim is to finish in the top half. It’s always about improving and getting better”.

Youth recruitment is essential

For a club in the Ryman Premier, it’s about making use of your resources, in this case; the community.

The Hillians’ youth recruitment is a huge part of that, as I saw at the weekend. At least four players in the starting XI were brought through the youth set-up.

“Not only could you spot the next Jamie Vardy, you’ll get your money’s worth of football, which is of a much higher standard and tempo than you might expect”

“We have to work hard on our youth set-up and recruitment at this level. We’ve had two youth team lads in the squad so far this season; one started in FA Cup last round, 17 year old goalkeeper, he was fantastic,” said Chapman.

Curtis Gayler, another youth product and just 16 years old, has appeared twice already this season for Burgess Hill.

“It’s important we keep bringing through the youth players. We always need to keep finding homegrown talent – it’s important to us as a community club.”

Chapman added the most rewarding aspect of his job as a manager is “seeing youth flourish”.

Personally, I’m sold. Not only is non-league much more affordable, it’s also a reminder of where football began, at the heart of our communities, with every penny counting and clubs wanting to give back.

Not only could you spot the next Jamie Vardy, you’ll get your money’s worth of football, which is of a much higher standard than you might expect.

The next international break comes on the weekend of 12th November, and I’d strongly urge you to go and sample the beautiful delights of the non-league game.

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