Monday, 8 December 2008

guestSteps: Didcot Town 0 AFC Totton 1

Southern League Division 1 South & West
Loop Meadow Stadium, Didcot
att. 239

Once again, the floor is opened for a guest to step. Our Black & White and Read All Over chum Ben comes down to our level once more, this time investigating the scene close to his Oxfordshire billet, as Didcot take on Totton in the Southern League Scarf & Vest. This brought him in close proximity to greatness; Hawk record appearance-maker and goalscorer 'Super' Jimmy Taylor nowadays turning out for Totton. Not that Ben noticed. Obviously Jim isn't drawing attention to himself by wailing at refs, or going down in the box should anyone so much as breathe on him, quite so much anymore. Skif

Another free Saturday, another opportunity to scratch the Guest Steps itch – and this time rather closer to my current home.

The Loop Meadow Stadium, christened with a name which dishonestly suggests fragrant flowers, gambolling lambs and fair maidens, actually turns out to be a fenced-off pitch in the midst of a housing estate in the town best described as the arsehole of Oxfordshire. (Plus the housing estate in question is called Ladygrove – surely a euphemism?)

The football team that call the stadium home, Didcot Town, aren’t known as the Railwaymen for nothing, the ground being adjacent to the train tracks (as was the old one, bulldozed in 1999) – which is a blessing if, like me, your train only arrives ten minutes before kick-off. It’s also in the shadow of Didcot’s very own dreaming spires, the cooling towers of the power station – hence shirt sponsors npower.

Didcot steamed to the summit of the BGB Southern League Division 1 South & West (phew!) table in midweek with a 6-2 demolition of Burnham in which craggy-faced centre-back Martin Brown plundered a first-half hat-trick, but today’s opponents AFC Totton are a different prospect. Newly promoted and blessed with what I’m reliably informed (by the guv’nor of this very site) is a very talented squad, Totton briefly topped the table themselves earlier in the season and have only slid down because they’ve played fewer games than their promotion rivals.

Still, it’s the home side who start the better, seemingly determined to carry on where they left off against Burnham, and within a few minutes of my arrival Totton’s ‘keeper has already been forced into three saves plucked from the drawer marked “Top”.

The early storm is weathered, and as the entertainment levels gradually subside on the pitch, my attention drifts to goings-on off it, and particularly to the vociferous and frequently comical support lent to the visitors by a handful of fans clustered in what passes for an away end – a oversized corrugated dugout – to my right. One dubious decision in Totton’s favour by the man running the line elicits a chant of “We love you lino, we do” – well, either that’s the cause or they’re B&Q staff out on a day trip to sing the praises of cheap and practical floor coverings. There then follows a lusty rendition of “Pink army, pink army!” in reference to their side’s interesting choice of shirt colour. The concept of a “pink army” is hardly intimidating, though – presumably if you were to come under attack from them, they’d try to tickle you to death with a feather duster…

The players at last give them something to cheer five minutes before the interval, striker Mark Osman lashing in a volley just beneath the bar when Didcot make the cardinal error of failing to clear a cross properly. It’s a half-time lead they scarcely deserve – Didcot have had more opportunities, a couple as a result of untimely slips by Totton defenders, and left-back Matt Bicknell in particular has got some joy going forwards even if his right-foot shots have left a lot to be desired.

I make my way past the grumbling old men – all in a variety of hats, some of which are flat, and supping from flasks of tea – to the food bar where the scant contents of my wallet condemn me to asking for a plain burger (£2) and a tea (60p) when what I really want is a cheeseburger (£2.50) and a coffee (80p). Thankfully the woman behind the counter is sympathetic to my plight and, with an exaggerated wink, hands me a cheeseburger for no extra charge. Nice to see that, since all that US election hoopla, Sarah Palin has clearly found her true vocation. Just a shame that what she handed me – a plasticy roll filled with a lukewarm slice of gristly meat and some nuclear orange processed cheese – barely answers to the description of food at all.

“Where’s your Thomas gone?”, the away fans sung in the first half, but for the second the steam train’s back, chuffing and tooting away up on the line. For the Didcot players, the steam is coming out of their ears, as a couple of fierce tackles result in the flash of yellow cards – including one for long-serving captain Jamie Heapy, whose scything assault on Totton’s left winger would have impressed even the Grim Reaper.

Saves are made at either end before Didcot manager Stuart Peace (yes, really) takes the curious decision to throw on a big man but then play him wide on the right, preferring to push the pacy Elliott Osborne-Ricketts through the middle. The one-time Chelsea schoolboy is arguably Didcot’s brightest spark as the home side increase the pressure, but Totton are nevertheless the more dangerous on the counterattack, one effort clawed away by Michael Watkins and another miraculously scrambled off the line as the impressive Osman stretches the Didcot back four.

As time ticks away, tempers fray and a Didcot player’s despairing lunge at the Totton ‘keeper precipitates a massive bout of handbags. The referee’s response is to blow his whistle repeatedly and hysterically, as though he thinks it’s 1988 and he’s at an acid house rave in an abandoned warehouse just outside the M25. “He’s sent six trains off!”, chuckles one wag near me. Yellow cards are then doled out like Daniel Levy hands out P45s, the ref urged to hurry up with a shout of “Come on Mr Bean”.

Despite a consequent period of stoppage time that is of such a length we might be watching Man Utd 1-0 at Old Trafford, no equaliser is forthcoming. I guess the home side just ran out of steam.

Ben Woolhead

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