Southern League Division 1 South & West
Northcourt Stadium, Abingdon
Ben, our Newcastle-supporting chum currently exiled in Oxfordshire, threw himself into the Southern League Scarf & Vest again back in March, having not been put off by his first go, and once again comes across a former Hawk. This time it was Chris Tardif who appeared briefly in the 1999/2000 season on loan from Portsmouth. Thus our terrace chant “One f’n Tardif, There’s Only One F In Tardif” has re-entered my mind’s ear. So, thanks to Ben for that, and another excellent read.
My second skinny-dip into the murky pool of the Southern League Division 1 South & West this season, and once again it’s a case of inopportune timing. Having decided to pay a visit to Didcot Town’s Loop Meadow stadium in early November for what turned out to be a 0-1 home defeat to Totton, I missed out on the thrilling derby match against Abingdon Utd a couple of weeks later, which ended 5-4 to Town. And now here I am at United to discover I’ve missed the return fixture by a week – a 2-2 draw, with the home side fighting back thanks to a dodgy penalty according to the Town website. Strangely, the United website makes no mention of there being any controversy…
Oh well, you take what you’re given – and in this case that’s the visit of Winchester City, bottom of the league and largely expected to be easy pickings for lower-mid-table United even without their leading scorer Anaclet Odhiambo. It doesn’t quite pan out that way.
United can hardly be accused of complacency, as City don’t even allow them the luxury of catching their breath from kick-off and have a header chalked off for offside within the first ten minutes. That said, the visitors may be sporting black and red stripes made famous by AC Milan (did the Italians borrow the design just as Juventus took inspiration from Notts County, I wonder?) but the two sides couldn’t be easily confused, and the game settles into more of a shouting contest than a football match.
City’s left-back is so youthful he’s swamped in his full-size shirt and looks in constant danger of tripping over his umbilical cord, but thankfully for him one of the centre-halves is on hand, telling him constantly where to be and what to do like a well-meaning but overbearing parent. I half expect him to come over at one point, rub the corner of the wee mite’s mouth with a handkerchief and ask him if he’s got his dinner money.
The two ‘keepers briefly take centre stage – City’s ex Oxford Utd custodian Chris Tardif smothering a trundling shot and his opposite number Sam Warrell lucky to get away with making trying to catch a routine corner look like trying to catch a Teflon-coated eel – but then the weather takes over. The game may have kicked off in bright spring sunshine, but now we get wind, then rain, and then a flurry of hailstones so large that the players could be forgiven for thinking its multi-ball. Us hardy few in the stands shuffle into the central area and huddle together to avoid the elements, the hail rattling on the corrugated metal roof so loudly that it drowns out even the players’ shouts.
When the storm subsides, the playing surface is left greasier than an estate agent dipped in chip fat, and it’s City who capitalise, a low shot from John Docker skidding underneath Warrell and into the back of the net. This is the alarm call United needed and they belatedly wake up, but their crossing is poor and City remain the more threatening side on the break.
I head into the clubhouse at half-time for a swift pint, parting with the princely sum of £3.45 and admiring all the memorabilia that adorns the walls – signed shirts, pictures, scarves and pendants relating to the England ’66 squad, Aston Villa, Arsenal, Pele, Beckham, Juninho, Jimmy Greaves, Pat Jennings and, er, local lad Matt Taylor. As the start of the second period draws near, a couple of older gents rearrange the chairs in the window so they can sit and watch the rest of the game in warmth and comfort, like knotted-hankied pensioners looking out to sea at Bournemouth.
Early United pressure subsides and, with the game reverting back to being the very epitome of short-on-goalmouth-incident, the home side make a double substitution. One of the players hauled off is no surprise, the lanky striker having shown as much grasp of the offside rule as Joey Barton has of professionalism.
Two players to catch the eye are no-nonsense United defender Richard Peirson, who has a solidity that isn’t fatness and who looks like a gentle giant of a farm labourer, and the City midfielder referred to as “Pedro” by his team-mates, a stocky and creative dynamo with flowing locks and a headband who counterbalances the tricksy Docker on the other flank and who’s unlucky to see his hooked left-foot shot drift wide.
Arguably United’s best chance of the afternoon falls to young sub Pablo Haysham, but he clips his close-range shot straight into Tardif's arms. (Later, in the bar, I’ll hear him telling his mates it was his first shot on target for the first team, and that he didn’t realise it was such a good opportunity.)
To my left, I notice a man in a deerstalker scribbling notes – presumably for the report which will appear on one of the clubs’ sites. Lacking any headgear at all, I feel shamefully underdressed. Meanwhile, behind me and to the right is a City supporter who seems to have a curious and immensely irritating form of Tourettes whereby he can’t utter a sentence without tacking the word “mush” onto the end of it. Even though I’m nominally rooting for United, it comes as something of a blessed relief when the visitors get the killer second – a fluent move involving Pedro finished off with a neat turn and shot by Jones Awuah – and he buggers off, satisfied the game’s won.
Peirson is pushed up front for the final few minutes but to no avail, and the rowdier elements among the home support console themselves by chanting “Going down, going down, going down” at the visitors. Not if they can notch up a few more comfortable victories like this they won’t be.**
No post-match Lucozade Sport for the players – it’s straight on the beers in the clubhouse. Peirson has a pint of Guinness waiting for him on the bar in time for the kick-off of the England v Slovakia friendly. Bar snacks arrive on cue too – given the price of the lager, I’ve been anticipating prawn sandwiches and antipasti, but no, it seems someone at the club has a soft spot for Kerry Katona because the onion bhajis, spring rolls and cream-cheese-filled jalapenos in breadcrumbs all have the unmistakeable air of Iceland about them.
A lively debate about the David Beckham “roadshow” erupts next to me, one bloke making the argument-winning claim that “he’s only in the squad because he’s got a haircut”; someone I could swear is Ron Mael of Sparks turns up to contemplate others’ conversations in silence; there’s a cheer for another chap who comes in with his dog, announcing triumphantly “She’s gone into hospital early so I’m free to do what I want”. I leave them settling in for the night and head out the door, reflecting on the fact that Abingdon Utd can be added to Cardiff, Didcot Town, Gillingham and Newcastle in the list of clubs I’ve managed to curse by my mere presence this season.
* Just to clarify, the attendees were all humans, not dalmations.
** Er, they were.
Abingdon Town website
Winchester City website