Westleigh Park, Havant
att. 300 (approx.)
Does the season begin with the first game? No, it begins when we are told what that game will be. There are many of us all over the world who shape our diaries around our football club’s commitments, blocking out all the Saturdays from August ‘til May by-and-large. For us, the publication of the fixtures, like the birth of Christ to a group of AWOL shepherds who’ve just remembered they’ve left quite a significant gate open, can’t come soon enough.
Most leagues will put their fixtures together by computer but Conference secretary Dennis Strudwick has long considered himself quite the übermensch, or at least superior to a machine, in the game plotting stakes and famously does it himself on his holidays; travelling light with only a set of cheeky Speedos and a new box of pencils for company. So if there are any anomalies when you receive your itinerary, you have to put it down him having temporarily lost his grip on his bundle of paper scraps whilst having his lower back pummelled by a Balinese masseuse, or something.
After they’re in hand though, and fully digested for big-day-out opportunities, comes the realisation that we still have six weeks before we can get really get into it. Friendlies are merely filler, and never ‘killer’. It is but time for us to re-familiarise ourselves with the players that will delight and exasperate us come actual competition.
For us, friendlies have usually been ramped up, starting with a balmy stroller at a Sussex County League side before getting to the bigger names. This year though we started big, making our traditional game against Portsmouth the opener. Over the years we’ve won some, they’ve won some. This year, they won 2-1, although we had a penalty saved. I’m told it was a pretty good run out for our Hawk side, given the opposition as well as the fact that our boys have spent the last couple of months doing nowt but picking their noses and eating the gooey swag found within.
A less traditional fixture has been against Southampton. Being that we are located on a vociferously pro-Pompey housing estate has probably put them off turning out too often. Last time they came to us was in 2003, when they had just played in an FA Cup Final. Their Premiership first team put in the opening half-hour shift those seven years ago, but the fact that this game was billed as being a ‘Southampton XI’ suggested we wouldn’t be seeing any star names this year. Mind you, that might also have been hinted at by the fact they’re a League One side these days.
‘XI’, wherever you see it in pre-season, is usually shorthand for the following:
This team? Well, we might chuck in some of the old doggers who we’d like to say ‘just retire already’ to, but want to break it to them gently cos they’re ‘stalwarts’ apparently. Mostly though it’ll be lads even the hardcore week-in-week-out nerds who actually read the programme haven’t heard of. Oh, and trialists we’ve usually already made up our minds up about, and believe to be shit.
You can see why they go for the Roman numerals can’t you, all that would be a bit less appealing for the potential walk-up crowd if written verbatim on the fixture board.
Probably the biggest giveaway was the knowledge that the Saints were simultaneously on a pre-season tour of Switzerland with a game against FC Thun scheduled for the same evening. Whilst it would be nice to think they sent the boys club out for a European beano whilst holding back their top fellas for the big game against us, the opposite was true, of course.
In these circumstances, the game as a spectacle becomes a matter of looking about their mob and having a quick terrace sweepstake on which of them won’t make it in the Football League and end up playing semi-pro for us at some point in the future. I'll take the scorer of their consolation, Jordace Holder-Spooner, if only for the fact his surname sounds like a glossy magazine checklist on post-coital options for the romantic gentleman.
Mind you, this is not to say we didn't have our own new faces to look at with a couple of trialists putting in a good show. Matt Ruby's performance was certainly encouraging, but perhaps most notable for inspiring a terrace discussion as to whether the Kaiser Chiefs' number or Kenny Rogers' Ruby (Don't Take Your Love To Town) would be most appropriate as a chant for him, should he impress our gaffer sufficiently.
All in all, a fairly typical pre-season game then; i.e. such a gentle country stroller that it packed its own flask and sandwiches. Results at this stage don't matter, of course, but this win will certainly do.
Wes Fogden appears to have picked up where he left off last season, if his jinking into the box and poked second minute goal are anything to go by. Also, it looks as though former Portsmouth and Reading man Sammy Igoe will be just the ticket in our midfield, and a few more goals of the standard of his to give us a two-nil lead in the 27th minute, would be most agreeable as his welcoming gift to us. Just so long as he doesn't waste all his goal tokens before the season proper anyway.
Reportage from that fixture, at Dartford, will appear here in a months time.