Manchester City | Watching The Country’s Best

Seeing Manchester City’s women’s team has been high on my agenda this season. Originally, I had plans to see them during their home Champions League encounter against Atletico Madrid in September. But after walking around Yorkshire all night after Wrexham’s draw with Harrogate, the added trip to Manchester the following day was less enticing.

A similar set of circumstances nearly curtailed my journey to see the Cityzens this time too. Wrexham were playing in the FA Cup the night before and I went along to support my team following the news our manager was ditching us for Shrewsbury Town. It was an entertaining 0-0 draw under The Racecourse lights but it left me wanting more. Plus, after much turmoil, I fancied a little break from Wrexham to see a new ground, a fresh set of faces and, hopefully, some goals.

The top-of-the-table clash between Man City and Arsenal in the FA Women’s Super League felt like the perfect tonic. The two sides had scored 72 goals between them going into a game that would feature the WSL’s all-time leading goal scorer, Nikita Parris, as well as Vivianne Miedema – who would become the joint-highest ever scorer in a single WSL season if she found the net.

I looked forward to the goal-fest.



This was my second time blogging on a Manchester City team having previously witnessed the men’s side thrash Crystal Palace 5-0 in my first ever Premier League match last year. Heading out of the Etihad that day, I noticed a smaller stadium over the bridge that allows supporters to cross Alan Turing Way – the main road outside the ground. Later I learnt this was the Academy Stadium, where the Man City youth and women’s teams play their home matches. I immediately wanted to return and see a game there.

Heading back to the Academy Stadium on this occasion, I realised I never fully appreciated the district that both stadiums were at the heart of: SportCity.

Approaching The Etihad. 

Built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, SportCity covers a vast area of east Manchester and has a number of impressive facilities including the National Cycling Centre, the National Squash Centre and a 6,500-seat athletics arena. The site boasts the largest concentration of sporting facilities in Europe, with over four million visitors per year and has, no doubt, helped the development of several sportspeople from amateur to elite level.

Seeing the signs for all these fantastic sports venues nearby was exciting enough but seeing the Etihad and the impressive 7,000-seater Academy Stadium filling up really made me feel like the place was special.

Matching expectations

Arsenal headed to the Academy Stadium with a 100% record at the WSL summit. City, meanwhile, stood in second place – six points behind the leaders – but were also unbeaten. If you factored in both sides’ excellent defensive stats and the fact the top five goalscorers in the competition were from both clubs, you could easily argue the two best women’s teams in the country were playing against each other.

And, thankfully for me, it looked that way during the match. There was so much quality on display that each side looked equally good in almost every position. Up front, Parris and Miedema showed their prowess with some outstanding centre-forward play, while in the middle of the park, Arsenal’s Danielle van de Donk and City’s Jill Scott won possession back so many times for their respective teams.

However, where the game was ultimately won and lost was in defence. City’s back four were simply phenomenal. Demi Stokes, Gemma Bonner, Jen Beattie and Steph Houghton frustrated the Arsenal attack with fantastic blocks, clearances and tackles. Whenever the Gunners looked to be in on goal, they were unable to find the killer pass or shot due to the girls in blue closing them down. It really was a magnificent display from them.

Dead ball.

Although Arsenal were pretty well-organised themselves, they let City in too many times and it cost them their perfect record. Leah Williamson prevented Georgia Stanway from scoring early on but they couldn’t contain her for too much longer – Stanway eventually grabbing her eighth goal of the season when she hit Stokes’ cross through Arsenal’s in-coming defenders.

Parris should have doubled City’s lead soon after with just the keeper to beat but hit her shot wide. However, the game was sealed mid-way through the second half when Stanway found the bottom corner of the net following a mazy run off Keira Walsh’s exquisite long-range pass. The Arsenal defence could have possibly done better to block Stanway’s shot but it was a fine finish from the 19-year-old and her brace proved to be the difference.


Even though the entry fee was a ridiculously cheap £4.50, Manchester City provided superb hospitality with a number of free gifts and initiatives included in the price. There were teamsheets handed out on the way in, a photo of the squad available on the way out and all hot drinks during the game were on the house!

The day also marked the 30th anniversary of Manchester City’s women’s team coming into existence and a number of the original 1988 squad were in attendance – along with Neil Mather, the man who started it all.

I missed the pre-match speeches they gave as I was waiting for my friend outside the ground. But if you weigh up what City were offering – including a presentation for Houghton winning 100 caps for England and Beattie for making 100 City appearances, plus a chance to meet them afterwards – it’s really going to encourage people to get involved with women’s football.


Arsenal injuries

At half-time, I fancied my chances in the raffle after getting two rows of tickets for purchasing two programmes. However, as the numbers rolled on the scoreboard they only seemed to go up to 400. My tickets were 870-880.

As you can imagine, when they eventually stopped, I didn’t win the signed City shirt.

Grey skies above The Etihad.

Other than that, my only disappointment was learning about Arsenal’s injury list. Losing long-term absentees Kim Little and Danielle Carter earlier in the campaign hadn’t stopped their storm up the league but the recent loss of influential midfielder Jordan Nobbs might have been a factor in their defeat at City. Nobbs is now a doubt for England’s World Cup squad in France next summer – which is devastating for her and could possibly prove costly for Arsenal come the end of the season.


The game proved to be exactly what I’d hoped for: two teams with real quality playing attacking football. I did think there’d be more goals and the lead would swap hands at least once but it was an engrossing match nonetheless, capped off by a big shift in title race momentum.

Seeing BBC reporters Alex Scott and Reshmin Chowdhury walk past me was a fun highlight. It only emphasised further how big the game was. As did the 2,000+ crowd.

It’s very pleasing to see attendance figures for women’s football rising with each game I go to, and now they’re surpassing many crowds from teams in Wrexham’s league, I’m already looking forward to my next trip to the Academy Stadium.


Sam Ricketts, Wrexham and Loyalty in Football

Sam Ricketts has left his position as manager of Wrexham AFC to join Shrewsbury Town in League One, ending the strangest managerial switch I’ve ever known as a Dragons fan.

From the news emerging on Friday night that Ricketts was close to agreeing a deal at Montgomery Waters Meadow, to the decision on Saturday morning that he wouldn’t take charge of Wrexham’s FA Cup match against Newport later that evening, it’s been a surreal story to watch unfold.

Ricketts only took charge at the Racecourse in May after the Wrexham board plucked the former Welsh international out of the Wolves academy, where he was their under-18’s coach. He went on to build upon the record-breaking defence assembled by predecessor Dean Keates – adding more creativity and control in midfield – and led Wrexham to the top of the National League table and into the second round of the FA Cup by early November.

During the same period, over the border, Shrewsbury Town were regressing from play-off finalists to relegation candidates under the guidance of John Askey. I was at Askey’s final game in charge of the Shrews – a 1-1 draw in the first round of the FA Cup at home against Salford. Following the result, large sections of the Salop faithful made it very clear that they’d seen enough from their manager and demanded he left the club. I had no idea that it would start a chain of events leading them to poach our gaffer.

Even when news first emerged that Ricketts was among the favourites to take over at Shrewsbury, I didn’t believe it would happen. It didn’t make sense for anyone. Shrewsbury had just sacked the last National League-winning manager – a task that took Askey five years to achieve at Macclesfield – while Ricketts was only four months and 20-odd games into his entire first-team career. I truly believed that one, if not both, of the parties would conclude that he’s not yet ready for the step up. How very wrong I was.

Ricketts’ departure is now the second time a Wrexham manager has left for a League One club this calendar year, following Keates’ move to his boyhood team Walsall in March. Although I felt heartbroken when he went, I understood Keates’ reasons for going. Walsall are probably the only team he loves more than Wrexham and I know it was a difficult decision for him to make. He even sent a message to the supporters saying he’d pay his club membership for life.

With Ricketts, I’m not heartbroken at all. I never really warmed to the guy other than when we beat Gateshead to top the table and he gave a double-handed celebration to the crowd. That was the only sign of passion I saw him give. Yes, he was vocal on the touchline but it felt more professional than anything emotive. His interviews were much the same. He never seemed to be as gutted about losing as I was. It frustrated me but I trusted his abilities and the progress we were making.

Now that frustration is my lasting memory of Ricketts and, in the bigger picture, reflects my feelings towards football as a whole. Loyalty is seemingly dead in the modern game and it’s not just from the managers either. I know that if Ricketts had been struggling at the bottom end of the table six months on from his appointment, in all likelihood, he would have been relieved of his duties by the club. Askey suffered that very fate having taken over at Shrewsbury in the summer and then getting sacked months later.

Sam Ricketts during his short spell at the Racecourse

Nowadays, it’s very rare to find managers with long stints at one club. A craving for instant success has been built across the footballing spectrum that’s killing the fun. Take, for instance, the so-called ‘top six’ in the Premier League. Each team wants to finish in the Champions League spots, yet there are only four places available. That means when two, inevitably, don’t make it, their season is deemed a disaster and their manager is often replaced. It’s such an unsustainable approach and there are similar scenarios happening in divisions further down.

Based on this, it’s no wonder Keates and Ricketts took the opportunity to work higher up when they had the chance. With a lot of managers sacked after a poor run of results, the threat of being forgotten about is only five or six defeats away. But how do we stop this managerial merry-go-round?

One suggestion I’ve seen from a fellow frustrated Wrexham fan, is introducing a rule where you can’t leave a position until a certain percentage of time is up on your contract – and making sure that applies to those who wish to remove a person from their job as well. So, for example, if someone signs a three-year contract, they can be guaranteed the role for 12 months. After that, it’s fair game.

It seems a shame to have to force loyalty like that but there would be more thought process in moves for everyone involved. Clubs would have to really do their research in deciding who they’d want to bring in rather than hiring stop-gaps. Meanwhile, on the flip side, a manager or player wouldn’t feel the need to jump ship so quickly if they’re guaranteed a certain amount of time at a club they’ve also thoroughly mulled over.

I’m not a legal expert so I’m not even sure if it’s possible to set this up. There would probably have to be clauses for bad behaviour or how many appearances a player makes for the first team but, in principle, I could see it working. But then again, maybe it’s more fulfilling to see a situation such as Sean Dyche’s at Burnley, where both the manager and club stick together despite the lows of relegation and the highs of reaching Europe. Either way, for a Wrexham board that’s given two managers the chance to build a successful career from scratch, it’s surely time to see their faith rewarded.

Groundhopper: A new beginning for Portugal

“That gesture, along with the passion on display from the fans around us as they sung the national anthem and backed their team, only endeared me more to the country and its people.”

With the cold air creeping back through Britain’s streets over the course of October, my girlfriend and I started to become increasingly impatient. It had been almost 12 months since Saffron and I last travelled abroad: a trek to Germany that involved being refused entry to Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park for having dodgy tickets from Viagogo.

That incident-filled getaway concluded a year where we’d travelled to five countries apiece. Burnout and then financial difficulties stopped us from exploring again in 2018. But as money steadily improved, things fell into place with cheap flights to Porto available and Portugal’s final Nations League match against Poland in nearby Guimaraes priced at €10 per ticket.

It would be my second time in Porto but my first time in Guimaraes. This is what we saw in the city credited as being the ‘birthplace’ of Portugal.

A warm welcome

The Portuguese were ultra-chill during my last visit to their country and I was so pleased to sample that vibe again in Porto, while discovering it also extended to further cities like Guimaraes. When we arrived at the game, for example, we found our seats were wet. Without even mentioning this as a problem, a man next to us pulled some tissue out of his bag for us to wipe them down.

That gesture, along with the passion on display from the fans around us as they sung the national anthem and backed their team, only endeared me more to the country and its people.

Renato reborn

The very first game I watched in 2018 was the FA Cup third round clash between Wolves and Swansea. Many big-name players were rested for both sides that day but one player who did start for the Swans was Renato Sanches. I recall being very excited at seeing the man on-loan from Bayern Munich, especially after he played such a major role in Portugal’s Euro 2016 success.

However, the game was a rather drab goalless draw and was most notable for Sanches’ terrible performance leading up to his 34th minute substitution because of injury. I’m still unsure if the midfielder was carrying a knock going into the game which led to his poor showing but he looked out of his depth at Molineux, giving the ball away several times and being easily out-muscled in the middle of the park.

Sanches didn’t play another game for Swansea and returned to Bayern in the summer. But since then, the man has turned things around dramatically. He’s played 12 games for the German champions so far, scoring in the Champions League at his former club Benfica, and playing five times for Portugal after being omitted from their World Cup squad.

And in Guimaraes, he continued his rebirth. The 21-year-old looked like a different man against Poland – a team who he scored past in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals. His passes were so much more accurate, his touch was sharper and he looked stronger – both physically and mentally. It was from his corner that Andre Silva opened the scoring for Portugal and he helped control the game alongside Danilo in the heart of midfield.

Unfortunately, though, Danilo was later sent off in strange circumstances. William Carvalho let Poland in on goal after a poor headed pass and Arkadiusz Milik only had the goalkeeper to beat. In my eyes, Milik made the most of Danilo’s touch on his shoulder as the Porto man chased him down. Milik sprawled spectacularly to the floor – notably falling forward despite being, apparently, pulled back – a penalty was given and Danilo saw red.

Milik stepped up and found the bottom right-hand corner but had to retake his spot-kick due to encroachment. Despite the sound of piercing whistles from the crowd, the Napoli forward hit his second effort in the same corner even more accurately than his first and Portugal were in danger of losing a game they’d been in control of.

Looking towards the Poland fans from inside the stadium.

However, with the match being effectively a dead rubber (Portugal had already won their Nations League group and Poland had already been relegated) the only thing at stake was Poland’s place in the best pot for European Championship qualifying. A draw was enough for them to oust Germany as a top seed and thus the game ended with little more goal action from either side.

No superstars

During the days leading up to the game, I’d eagerly awaited news of the Portuguese and Polish squads. Portugal captain and talisman Cristiano Ronaldo remained unselected since his last appearance at the World Cup but Manchester City’s in-form midfielder Bernardo Silva was included. Poland, meanwhile, called up their all-time top goal scorer Robert Lewandowski and their record cap holder Jakub Blaszczykowski

Whilst out in Portugal, however, news emerged before the game that Silva was injured – which was sad but nowhere near as crushing as the team news we heard at the stadium. I was devastated to see Lewandowski wasn’t in the matchday squad – the first Poland game he’d missed since 2013! I felt so unlucky and the feeling was only compounded by Blaszczykowski being an unused sub.

There were some exciting players on show though. Even at 35-years-of-age, Pepe showed his multi-title winning credentials, while his defensive partner Joao Cancelo produced a fantastic headed clearance off the line from a deflected effort. Milik also looked very sharp and so intelligent up front. And, in a bizarre discovery, I found out I’d seen Andre Silva and Grzegorz Krychowiak three times apiece since the start of 2017. Silva, in particular, is becoming a cult hero.

Disenchanting surroundings

Getting into Guimaraes quite early gave us a chance to see the city and also collect our tickets without queueing. I was quite looking forward to seeing the ground as it hosted two matches at Euro 2004 and a number of Portugal games in the past. But when we arrived, Saff accurately noted that its exterior resembled a car park more than an international stadium. It was very grey, very soulless and just looked a bit unkept.

It was honestly the worst-looking ground I’ve seen from the outside, which is so confusing because the interior was very impressive. It holds 30,000 seats, which is the eighth-biggest in Portugal, and is similarly designed to Porto’s stadium where you walk in and the pitch is on a lower level to the gates.

Soulless exterior.

Outside the ground was a statue of Afonso Henriques, who was the first king of Portugal. Vitoria SC – who play their home games at the stadium – feature Henriques on their badge and the nearby Guimaraes castle has lots of information on how he formed the Portuguese nation back in the 12th century. Many also believe he was born in the city and was baptised in the church located on the castle grounds.

But unfortunately, beyond these sights, there was very little to do in Guimaraes. We spent most of the day killing time in the Portuguese rain and trying to find savoury food before all the restaurants opened. Neither task was that enjoyable. Or particularly rewarding.


I remember leaving Guimaraes feeling underwhelmed but reflecting on the experience now, it was really good value for money and definitely worth the journey. Learning about the history of Portugal and seeing some great players of the past and future of both national teams, is hard to be disgruntled by. A near sell-out crowd of 29,000 was a bonus and it was nice to experience the Portuguese cheering on their Euro 2016 heroes; especially Eder, who scored their winning goal in the final.

Despite the red card, the whole contest had a friendly vibe to it and felt like a celebration of Portugal’s achievements in the European Championships and winning their Nations League group – typified by the home fans doing a Mexican Wave with 20 minutes on the clock.

Credit to the Poland fans who packed the away end, they refused to take part in such nonsense and showed great support through constant chanting and even a ‘Poznan’. On the train back they seemed in good spirits too. I think they were pleased to be in a good pot for Euro qualifying. So everyone was a winner in the end.

Portugal 1-1 Poland
Estadio D. Afonso Henriques

Best Of The Rest

Another one of our north Portugal day trips was to Braga, the third-biggest city in the country after Lisbon and Porto. A bit like Guimaraes, Braga didn’t have much else to see other than the Bom Jesus do Monte. But having said that, it’s quite a stunning thing to have as your major landmark.

The panoramic views at the hilltop church rival those at Porto’s iconic Ponte Luiz I. In one direction is a sprawling cityscape and around you stands a miraculous piece of architecture that’s difficult to register as a real life construction. Looking at my own photos really don’t do any justice to the scale, intricacy or wonder of actually being there.

The Bom Jesus do Monte.

We walked back to the centre of Braga down the same path that worshippers would have climbed in order to show their faith and headed for the city centre. Our goal was to see the Estadio Municipal de Braga before sunset. I’d read on the train up that it had a cliffside as one of its stands and it was possible to view the stadium from on top.

As rain fell, we got closer and headed down a long road in a residential area full of apartments. At the end, we could spot Braga’s training pitches from a lookout point but the main ground was obstructed by trees. We then noticed a muddy path at the bottom of a side street that went over a steep hill. We took a gamble on checking it out and were rewarded by another phenomenal 360 view on the edge of the stadium’s cliffside stand.

Estádio Municipal de Braga

I’d never seen a ground quite like that before. We could easily get a stone and throw it on to the pitch, it was such a crazy vantage point. Particularly as, behind us, we could see all the sanctuaries and churches on top of the hills. When I spotted a crack of lightning strike over the horizon, it made the whole thing that more thrilling. But I also began to get wary of electrocution from an oncoming storm, so we quickly departed. What an amazing stadium to find though… and exhilarating to see even without a game being played.

Groundhopper: Missing out on glory in North Yorkshire

“It wasn’t going to be the easiest of matchdays. With the game being played in midweek, I had to book some time off work. Meanwhile, getting back home on the cheap meant I’d have to get the first train back from York at 3:50am…”

A few people may have noticed the National League is pretty lopsided this season – and that’s not a reference to Salford City’s budget either. It’s the noticeable north-south divide when looking at the footballing map that grabs my attention. Fourteen of the 24 clubs that make up the league are located south of Milton Keynes – with five of these based in London and three sat on the English Channel coastline. Elsewhere, the likes of Gateshead, Hartlepool and Barrow pose difficult ventures in the opposite direction.

Being a Wrexham fan based in Shropshire, it’s made following the Reds trickier. Last season, we had Tranmere, Chester and Macclesfield nearby. But with two going up and one going down, the groundhopping opportunities have dried up. North Yorkshire’s Harrogate Town are our fifth-closest rivals this term and it’s for that reason that I earmarked them as an essential away day.

It wasn’t going to be the easiest of matchdays. With the game being played in midweek, I had to book some time off work. Meanwhile, getting back home on the cheap meant I’d have to get the first train back from York at 3:50am. But, thankfully, I wasn’t going to be alone. My girlfriend, Saffron, couldn’t resist seeing the mighty Reds take on fellow early season high-flyers Harrogate either, and also looked forward to exploring the historical city of York with me until the wee hours of the morning.


Away crowd

Last season, Wrexham fans were packing out away ends across the country. This year, however, they’re making them swell. We’ve already taken over 1,000 to Solihull Moors and averaged 300 at the teams in the south of England, which often makes up a third of the overall attendance.

At Harrogate’s CNG Stadium, there were 700 of us behind the goal – a figure I’m sure would have been more if the game had landed on a weekend. But it’s still a very impressive turnout, especially for a midweek encounter and on the back of a 3-0 defeat in our previous game at Sutton United.

Wrexham supporters were in a jovial mood too. They backed the team throughout and exchanged some great chants between the cluster of vocal Harrogate fans in the main stand. There was even a few verbals shared amongst themselves and the Harrogate players. All in good fun, of course, and it made the occasion a lot more enjoyable.

A good point

The home side came into the fixture on the back of a 3-0 defeat themselves – at home to table-toppers Leyton Orient. That was their first defeat of the season so far and it was easy to see why they’d done so well.

Their pressing caused Wrexham all kinds of problems in the opening exchanges. We couldn’t string any passes together. The team in yellow and black were like wasps, buzzing around us whenever we were in possession and forcing us to make mistakes.

Matters weren’t helped by the referee either. Some of the decisions he gave were questionable but it was the ones he didn’t give that were unbelievable. Dominic Knowles, in particular, took out Shaun Pearson every time he jumped to head the ball. I wasn’t surprised to later learn Knowles had 39 fouls to his name already this season – 20 more than any other Harrogate player! Clearly the referee saw him in a different light to his fellow officials.

Things did eventually settle down, both in terms of action and dodgy decisions. Then Wrexham actually turned the screw in the second half and should have won the game. Harrogate had goalkeeper James Belshaw to thank for saving a number of clear-cut chances. But it was still a good point against a promotion rival.


Fondop miss(es)

Mike Fondop-Talom was an absolute revelation at the beginning of this season. Five goals in six games put him amongst the division’s top goalscorers and helped us achieve our best ever start to a National League campaign. But after netting a beautiful chip against Bromley last month, ‘Big Mike’ has found the goals harder to rack up and the bench more of a familiar surrounding.

He did return to the starting line-up in North Yorkshire and looked the most threatening player on the pitch. However, there were a number of opportunities that he could have done better with, including a miss from Paul Rutherford’s cross that was begging to be put away. Being right behind the goal, I was just waiting to see the net bulge. It was agonising to see the ball go wide instead.

That wasn’t the only chance he spurned either. Wrexham’s number nine was twice put through on goal but his shots found the gloves of the on-rushing Belshaw. The Harrogate stopper received the man-of-the-match award at the end of the game having saved a further effort from Luke Summerfield’s free-kick, but I feel like Fondop missed the chance for us to take a massive three points home.


I travelled to the CNG Stadium expecting to see a physical team that used their artificial surface to slow the game down, soak up pressure and hit deadly counters. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Harrogate are a very good attacking side that pass remarkably well on an unpredictable 4G terrain. The first half an hour really put us on the ropes and if we didn’t have such defensive cover in our team – like the holding midfielders Akil Wright and Brad Walker – then I think we could have been a couple of goals down by half-time.

We didn’t know how to handle their high-pressing tactics. But, thankfully, they dropped off their intensity and we could impose the same tactics on them in the second half. And it almost worked; a lot of mistakes were made in the final third that we should have taken full advantage of.

Having said all that, a point against a very good team isn’t bad. We’re still in the mix at the right end of the league, while we’re starting to learn and gel more on the field. I also rate Harrogate as a club. Besides the plastic pitch, their facilities are some of the best I’ve seen in non-league and their fans are a good bunch. I’d happily visit again in the future.

Best Of The Rest

Before going to Harrogate, Saffron and I met up with some friends in York. It was a chance to explore the city and go inside some of the places we wouldn’t have access to at night. Our reckoning was that we’d leave enough things to explore whilst waiting for our early train after the match.

However, things didn’t go as great as we’d hoped. York does have many beautiful landmarks and is full of history. But it’s also very expensive. York Minster, for example, costs £11 to look around and a further £6 to climb to the top. Elsewhere, the castle is £6 entry, its adjacent museum is £10 and York Museum is £7.50. Add that on to the prices we paid just to get to York and it all seemed very steep.

It meant that when Saffron and I returned to the city after the game, we had nothing left to explore. We’d walked the city walls, marvelled at the cathedral and castle, and enjoyed the museum gardens during the day. The five or so hours we spent waiting for our train were, therefore, pretty boring.

Seeing the River Ouse and the street which inspired Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley in moonlight were cool experiences. But York wasn’t big enough to go back and explore, and it left us feeling like the city had been well and truly ticked off any future itineraries.

Forest Green Rovers: Tasting the vegan football experience

“A vegan menu, at an eco-friendly club that attracts worldwide fans thanks to its moral values, was a unique matchday premise that I’d been keen to sample.”

Forest Green Rovers have been on my groundhop shopping list for a while. They’re renowned for being the only vegan football club in the world – no meat or dairy is available on matchdays, their pitch is organic and the stadium is powered entirely by solar energy.

A vegan menu, at an eco-friendly club that attracts worldwide fans thanks to its moral values, was a unique matchday premise that I’d been keen to sample. So when my friend and old work colleague, Toby, re-located to Stroud, I couldn’t pass down his invite to see his new local team in action.


Salopians on tour

The last time I joined Toby on a football trip was when his Shrewsbury Town team took on Blackburn Rovers last January. It wasn’t the best of days up in Lancashire, with many Salop fans over-fuelled on alcohol and overzealous in nature. However, this experience was a lot more enjoyable.

I met up with Toby, and fellow Shrewsbury Town fans Brett and Matt, outside Stroud train station. We then headed straight down the road to soak up the pre-match atmosphere in Rovers’ home town/parish of Nailsworth.

Unsurprisingly for a place with a 7,000 populus, there wasn’t much anticipation in the air when we arrived. However, we did come across a number of interesting sights. After crossing the Nailsworth stream, we discovered a couple of golden postboxes dedicated to Olympic champion Peter Reed. The rower had grown up in the town before going on to compete in the men’s four at the 2012 Games in London. Having won gold, the postboxes were sprayed that colour by the Royal Mail to honour his achievements.

Further discoveries were made at our first pub, The Victoria Inn. The bar was decorated with two and five pence pieces and we found a number of games hidden in a table drawer where we were sitting. We played Pointless and moved onto our next pub.

At The Britannia, we were greeted by a chihuahua sat on a stool at the bar. A couple of Rovers fans were there too but the atmosphere still wasn’t building. So we concluded our pre-match tour and headed up the massive sloped road that led to the suburban area called Forest Green. Toby quipped: ‘It’s literally all downhill from here.’ And as the rain began to fall on our climb to The New Lawn, we didn’t know how right he’d be.


It not only rained, it poured

When we arrived, we made the decision to stand with the away supporters. Our hunch was that they’d provide a better atmosphere – and it seemed to pay off. The Crawley fans were very vocal in the gazebo outside the ground and continued their support during the early stages of the game.

Their side had the best of the chances despite the home team dominating possession. The in-form Ollie Palmer – with five goals to his name in League Two already – looked the most threatening for the Red Devils. He latched on to Panutche Camara’s through-ball and forced Rovers goalkeeper Robert Sanchez into a save, with the rebound put wide by the on-rushing George Francomb.


Palmer then had a header easily collected by Sanchez before the goalkeeper was in action again to deny Filipe Morais from distance. But after that early spell of pressure, things levelled out and the game became quite lifeless.

When half-time came, Wrexham’s score came in too and I began getting further disgruntled. My team were 2-0 behind and down to 10 men for the rest of the game. Soon after the restart, Shrewsbury went a goal down as well, and the Salop boys began feeling as subdued as I was.

Being amongst the away fans soon lost its novelty as the rain got heavier and Crawley took an onslaught of pressure. The only time it ceased was when the Town fans began a 59th minute applause for one of their supporters, Gill Courtney, who recently passed away from cancer. They actually almost scored when the clapping reached its climax, in what would have been an extraordinary end to a warming tribute.

Crawley couldn’t keep that spark going though, and Rovers resumed dominance straight afterwards. At that point, we kind of forgot about our allegiance to the Red Devils and enjoyed the flowing football their Green counterparts were displaying. Some of the link-up play was a joy to behold. Reece Brown looked so composed in the middle of the park and Reuben Reid impressed me with his ability to hold the ball and bring others into play.

The away side were stuck in their own half and didn’t heed the warning of a spilled shot that was deemed not fully over the goal-line. Brown played Reid a delicious ball soon after, which he controlled well, and hit a deflected strike into the top corner for the game’s only goal.

I think we might have celebrated a bit. A 0-0 draw in those conditions would have been tough to take. But it must have been even worse to be a Crawley fan. Their substitute Joe McNerney received a second yellow card in injury-time to compound a miserable afternoon for them.

The food

I’d done some research about the food on offer at Forest Green before attending the match and I was really looking forward to trying a vegan Mexican fajita at half-time. However, when I got to the booth, there was no fajita and the alternative options weren’t particularly appetising.

Chips were the menu’s staple food. The option to have them with gravy or Quorn nuggets was about the only form of variety available. Quite a comedown from my dreamy fajita.

The Salop boys and I all stood under the turnstile entrance for shelter and ate our basic meals as our raffle numbers weren’t called out. Meanwhile, a number of Crawley fans were arguing with stewards about their inflatable pigs and fish being confiscated. Apparently it was because one swine had entered the field of play – which wasn’t strictly true, as it barely reached the touchline.

With that bit of fun taken away and the rain setting in, full-time felt a long way off.


My girlfriend, Saffron, is a vegan and she was very envious about my visit to Forest Green. But, to be honest, I don’t think she would have enjoyed herself too much. It certainly wasn’t a great matchday experience for myself in the away end. The food wasn’t what I was expecting and the covered terracing didn’t do that great a job. The atmosphere felt really flat all day as well.

It’s annoying because I really applaud the initiatives and changes that Forest Green are trying to implement in football, business and the planet. But I don’t think many Crawley fans – or the chaps I was with – will take any of it on board. And I can’t really blame them, the vegan football experience didn’t have anything particularly fresh or exciting to offer us ‘away’ fans.


I’m sure I’ll be going back to Forest Green with Saff in the future, so at least I can use my day as a learning curve. The home section might well have the better options for food, while the lady coming around with samosas during the first half might be the best bet if we’re in the visiting section. Getting to Nailsworth will be a problem though, as it’s quite a distance from Stroud train station.

I felt very fortunate to be in the company I was with. Toby and his girlfriend, Kate, drove me to and from the ground and also let me stay at their place while I waited for my train back. Whilst at the game itself, I had a lot of fun with the Salop boys and we all had Reuben Reid to thank for his strike. He really did save our bacon.

Salford City: Fighting the Inevitable Champions

Salford City – backed by billionaire owner Peter Lim and former Manchester United ‘Class of 92’ – tend to split opinions.

It’s only two months into existence but the 2018-19 National League title race already feels finished. Many sides have occupied top spot so far – Wrexham, Harrogate and Leyton Orient enjoying particularly bright starts. But another team – who took just a single point from their opening three games – have hit the summit going into October, and could well be out of reach soon enough.

The team in question is the much-discussed Salford City – backed by billionaire owner Peter Lim and former Manchester United players Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and brothers, Gary and Phil Neville.

After that shaky start, they’ve seen their investment win six consecutive games to prise first place away from Orient following the O’s first defeat of the season. Salford might only be a point clear at this stage but last season’s National League North champions have quickly found their feet in a higher division, and don’t look like dropping points this month with fixtures against struggling sides at the bottom.

There are many issues and controversies to discuss regarding Salford’s rise, such as their bumper playing budget. Star signing Adam Rooney is the league’s top scorer so far with nine goals and the former Scottish Premier League golden boot winner looks set to triple that figure by the end of the campaign. No one can compete with their level of spending power and influence. Even if a team can go toe-to-toe with Salford at the top, they’ll most likely boost their squad in the January transfer window and pull away.

Things wouldn’t be so bad if this were a one-off scenario but Crawley Town, Forest Green Rovers and Fleetwood Town have all thrown money at the division and reached the Football League for the first time in their respective histories. Salford are merely a more eye-catching version of these teams.

Fingers can be pointed at the non-league structure for allowing them to flourish. The archaic one automatic promotion place is forcing ambitious owners to go big and aim for the title. However, the National League are at the mercy of their superiors, the EFL, whose 72 member clubs have to agree a majority vote to allow another team to drop out of their system every year.

Gary Neville and Paul Scholes watch Salford City in action.

Where the National League can step up is through financial fair play. No rules are currently in place to stop teams spending above their means and it’s encouraging investors to buy smaller clubs and take them higher, regardless of sustainability. Next season we could see Billericay Town enter the National League, for example, with their millionaire owner Glenn Tamplin leading the club’s sudden surge up the English football pyramid.

There are occasional anomalies to the money factor. Macclesfield Town regained their Football League spot last season despite a significantly lower budget than the rest of the division and another exceptional story will need to be written if Salford are to be stopped from winning back-to-back titles come the summer. But as big as that story would be, it’s still about money – or how a team’s managed to succeed without it.

In a sport that already receives huge criticism for its inflated finances (wages, tickets, etc.), where can supporters escape the mundane, money-influenced football results? If non-league football, with its array of part-time clubs and players, can’t offer an adequate alternative to the mega-rich reputation of the beautiful game, what have we got left to be excited about?

Women’s Championship: Scoring by the dozen

“Hopefully the WSL re-structuring will be the catalyst for domestic women’s football to reach the same heights and interest as international fixtures – where attendance records are continuously being broken.”

Women’s football is entering a new era in England. The league system has changed to three divisions: The FA Women’s Super League, The FA Women’s Championship and The FA Women’s National League – which is split into northern and southern sections. The FAWSL is a fully professional league, while the FAWC is made up of mostly semi-professional teams. Those that can’t meet the criteria of either league make up the FAWNL… and that caused quite a stir over the summer.

Many well-established clubs in women’s football have been forced to drop divisions due to their inability to meet new licence criteria in the leagues they were participating in. Sunderland Ladies and Doncaster Rovers Belles were the biggest names to suffer relegation as they couldn’t afford to stay in the FAWSL and FAWC respectively.

Sunderland had a track record for bringing through several players who went on to star for the England national team. However, they couldn’t meet the required pro or semi-pro standard after their parent men’s club cut ties with them. Meanwhile, Doncaster had actually won the Women’s Championship – previously known as Women’s Super League 2 – last season. They will now play in the National League (alongside Sunderland) with all of their players moving to other clubs.

On the flip side, one of the winners from the revamp is Manchester United. They’ve been given a second-tier licence and will field a women’s team for the first time in 13 years. Coached by former England defender Casey Stoney, they’ve amassed a host of international players and top, young prospects. I travelled to Aston Villa Ladies to see how they’d get on in their debut league game.



Heading to Boldmere, a residential area on the fringes of Sutton Coldfield, none of my wildest thoughts could come close to what I was about to witness. And why would they? Who in their right mind goes to a ground thinking 12 goals will be scored? And by a single team, as well?

This was the first time I’d seen a game with a double-figure goal tally. The closest I’d come was nine when Gateshead beat Wrexham 7-2 at the Racecourse Ground back in 2011. That was a battering. This was a mauling.

The most ironic thing is, it actually started very brightly for Villa. The first 10 minutes featured a lot of home possession and some great tackles to win the ball back from United. However, for all their positive play, Villa couldn’t get it right in the final third and United soon found their rhythm.


Lauren James, at just 16 years of age, showed so much ability in midfield, running at the Villa backline and causing problems with her exquisite passes out wide. She opened the scoring with a deflected shot and then doubled United’s lead after striking the ball superbly from outside the box.

Aston Villa already looked doomed before a flurry of goals killed off the match unequivocally. Jess Sigsworth – top goal scorer in the WSL2 last season and one of the Doncaster players who left during the summer – bagged a hat-trick in 10 minutes, while Katie Zelem also scored from the penalty spot. The half-time whistle blew and the away side led 6-0. Mental.

If Villa thought the worst was behind them, then they were severely mistaken. United actually matched their first half scoreline with 70 minutes on the clock. Sigsworth grabbed another two and the phenomenal Kirsty Hanson was rewarded for her amazing performance on the wing with a brace herself. Substitutes Mollie Green and Ella Toone showed how United’s bench is equally as dangerous with a goal apiece, before several more chances were spurned late on.

I genuinely lost count of the score at the end, as did those around me – one person thought they’d won 14-0! Honestly, it could so easily have been that much worse. Sian Rogers in the Villa goal was actually in good form and stopped a number of efforts throughout the game. She was mostly let down by a defence who couldn’t handle United’s excellent movement. As soon as they were in behind, their finishing was of the highest quality. Unfortunate for the keeper, who looked visibly upset at her side’s capitulation.

The Villa ultras

I’ve seen fans turn on a team within an instant of a goal being scored against them. So I must say, it was so refreshing to see – but mostly hear – Villa supporters rallying their side throughout the whole game.

The pocket of claret and blue in the corner of the ground were armed with a flag, a drum and an array of uplifting songs that never ceased after any goal. Each player had their own unique tune but the most frequent number they put out was the most warming. It went: “we don’t care what the score, we’ll love you evermore.”

One fan even sang this at club captain Kerri Welsh long after the final whistle had gone. A great effort from them fans; absolute true ultras.


United arrogance

The positivity of the Villa fans contrasted greatly to the poor attitude from some Man United followers. Their away pocket gave the “you’re getting sacked in the morning” to Villa’s Gemma Davies, a head coach who is 26-years-old and in her first league outing at the helm of any major team. Then they sang about which fans amongst themselves hated Villa more, asked the home side what the score was, mocked the use of their drum and asked why they weren’t singing during any 30-second breaks between chanting.

I’m all up for having a pop at opposing fans during a game but it didn’t feel like healthy banter. It felt more toxic than that. Almost arrogant. There was very little chanting in support of their own team and things didn’t help when I spotted a kid pointing at his United badge in front of Villa’s drumming fans, while someone in the opposite stand also stuck his middle finger up at them. All at 12-0 up and with no provocation. Why?

It wasn’t all bad though. There were a couple of Mancunians who I stood with at the start of the game that really got behind their team. They rallied around Sigsworth in particular, who they possibly knew. I enjoyed their elated reactions to her goals and also learnt a number of northern colloquialisms about football. It were a good knock from their side, that’s for sure.


This was my second women’s football league match, with the setting contrasting somewhat to my first experience down the road at Birmingham’s 30,000-capacity St. Andrew’s. I’d previously argued that women’s games should be at bigger stadiums like that all the time but I can understand the draw of tighter grounds like Midland Premier Division side Boldmere St. Michaels’.

The 3G pitch was off-putting (some of the bounces were ridiculous and actually helped United) but the Trevor Brown Memorial Ground – which is named after their former chairman – has a very decent set-up. And, from my experience, it’s a lot more accessible than Solihull Moors’ Damson Park, where Birmingham City Women play their home games. However, I still believe these elite-level female athletes deserve a stage equivalent to that standard.

Hopefully the league re-structuring will prove to be the catalyst for domestic women’s football to reach the same heights and interest as international fixtures – where attendance records are continuously being broken. I know a lot of people were angry with how certain clubs were shunned in the re-modelling process and I can understand how one would think it’s money taking over football again. But it feels like the right step to me. It must give a huge incentive to young girls knowing they can be paid to play football full-time.

The more clubs that are encouraged to become professional is surely a positive thing for aspiring females. Which is why Man United re-forming their women’s team is such a good move in my eyes. I don’t know why their full-time squad are in the predominantly semi-pro second tier though. Perhaps they feel like they should earn their WSL spot, which is fair enough. But it seems like they belong in the WSL already. The team that they’ve assembled would surely hold their own and maybe even challenge for the Champions League spots.

As for Aston Villa Ladies, I honestly don’t believe they’re a bad team. They looked good in spells but perhaps lacked a bit of experience with their squad averaging 21 years of age. There’s no way they’re going to be experiencing days like this every weekend. United were just a level above.

Groundhopper: Falling For Edinburgh

“My knowledge of Hearts – or Heart of Midlothian, to give them their full title – was pretty sparse before heading to Edinburgh. Walking to their stadium, though, I began learning more about the team…”

By Lewis Davies

I don’t think I’ll ever forget my 27th birthday. Not only did I spend the day looking around the immaculate gardens of Herefordshire’s Hampton Court Castle, but the days either side of it were a whirlwind of activity.

London, Dover, Wrexham and Castleton (in the Peak District) were all visited before my trip to Hampton Court, which was then followed up by a spur of the moment decision to see Edinburgh. My friend, Brad, was up there providing extra Fringe Festival cover for the restaurant he works for and he invited me to crash with him.

It proved very hard to turn down. A lot of my friends had recently visited Scotland for the first time and I’d yet to venture north of the border. Then when I found out Hearts v Celtic still had tickets available, the deal was sealed. I grabbed the cheapest seat available at Tynecastle and booked a 5.30am train up to Scotland’s capital the day before the game; plenty of time to see what Edinburgh had to offer.


Loving Hearts

My knowledge of Hearts – or Heart of Midlothian, to give them their full title – was pretty sparse before heading to Edinburgh. I knew the basics: they played in purple, Hibernian were their city rivals and they were nicknamed The Jambos.

Walking to their stadium, though, I began learning more about the team – and admiring them a lot as well. The first flash of that purple kit started things off. It was more maroon than purple. And I loved it! My favourite colour, on a t-shirt that featured charity logo Save The Children rather than a betting or beer company. Very refreshing.

Being at Tynecastle only increased my admiration. The whole place had a really good vibe – from the super-cheery programme seller, to the fans relaxing at Foundation Plaza outside the main stand. The stadium really impressed me too. I really liked the open concourse that allows you to look into the ground from behind the floodlights. And the seats were all maroon! What a beautiful sight.

The home goalkeeper, Zdenek Zlamal. Phtoto: Lewis Davies

The Hearts fans around me were a funny bunch as well. Because we were right behind the goal, every player could hear what was being shouted at them. I enjoyed the exchanges between the fans and home goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal in particular. Although, I still don’t know why they called him Bobby. He seemed to like it anyway, giving supporters a “wee” wink.

The Upset

Since the inception of the Scottish Premiership five years ago, only Celtic have been crowned champions. That must make them an almighty scalp – especially when they roll into town and leave with nothing. And for that reason, I couldn’t be more happier to see the biggest upset possible in my first experience of Scottish football.

Credit to Celtic’s fans, they absolutely packed out the away end and were backing their team right until the end. Hearts’ supporters, however, were even more ferocious. Emotions were running high with opposition carrying such high stock, and it probably contributed to the number of tackles flying in. It stopped any great football being played in truth, but that played into the hands of the home team.

Celtic had no real rhythm. Scott Sinclair looked their biggest threat but he was thwarted many times by a well-drilled home side. Whenever Celtic did get through their battling opponents, some key tackles and saves kept them out. Micheal Smith provided the most important of these – a last-ditch clearance off the line from the centre-back kept the score goalless going into the break.

Soon after the restart, the atmosphere went up a notch with the game’s only goal. Northern Ireland international Kyle Lafferty – scorer of many big goals in his career – produced a sublime volley from the outside of his left foot. From my position behind the goal, I honestly thought his shot was going wide. But he put that much spin on the ball that it rocketed past Gordon and into the bottom corner. Such fantastic technique and a goal worthy to be the difference between the two sides.

Huge praise must also go to Uche Ikpeazu. The forward – who Hearts fans constantly referred to as “big man” – provided the ball for Lafferty’s volley, while his strength and power also kept Celtic’s defence busy right until the final whistle. He was on the floor at full-time having just chased down Gordon with all the energy left in his body. He optimised Hearts’ efforts.


Berra injury

In the incident where Smith cleared Leigh Griffiths’ goal-bound effort off the line, Hearts captain Christophe Berra got his studs caught in the turf and ended up receiving treatment for some time. The centre-half had been immense at the back, and I began to worry about Hearts’ second-half prospects without him.

However, as he tried getting to his feet, just a second-half without him would have been a blessing. The former Scotland international couldn’t stand up and still looked in visible pain as he sank back down to the ground. He was then stretchered off to anxious applause from the crowd.

It’s since emerged that he’ll be out of action for six months with a torn hamstring – a big blow for a man in his mid-30’s. I just hope it’s not the end of his playing career.


Being located in a vast and vibrant city like Edinburgh, it’s no surprise Hearts have such a huge backing, along with a few famous supporters as well. One of which actually passed away very recently.

Scott Hutchison was the lead vocalist and songwriter for Scottish indie band Frightened Rabbit, and took his own life last May after suffering from depression. I didn’t know Hutchison had died until the announcer mentioned it before kick-off. I figured I misheard him but when they played Hutchison’s rendition of the Hearts Song, things began to sink in.

I’m not massively into Frightened Rabbit beyond one song called The Woodpile, but that tune means a lot to me. I played it many times during my own period of depression five years ago. It takes me back to a time when I wanted to end my life. So obviously hearing the news about Hutchison shocked and saddened me.

His brother and Frightened Rabbit drummer, Grant, has since opened up and called for more action to be done to prevent people taking their own life. He was also at the Hearts-Celtic game and I’m so glad Hearts won for him. I just hope he knows how much their band – and Scott’s songwriting – has influenced people’s lives for the better. Mine included.

Best Of The Rest

Edinburgh became one of my favourite cities over the two days I was there. Just getting out of Waverley train station, you’re treated to an amazing stretch of Old Town architecture that peaks with the castle at the end. And what a castle! It dominates the skyline from the top of dark, jagged cliffs.

Adjacent to the castle is a stadium of sorts. It’s for the military tattoo, while there’s also plenty of other grounds to scope out in the Scottish capital. From the concourse of Tynecastle Park, you can see Murrayfield – the home of Scotland’s rugby team. I decided to have a quick look around after the game and was very impressed with its scale.

Elsewhere, Hibernian’s Easter Road is visible from the top of Calton Hill, a place that’s been created from volcanic rock. When I headed up there, I had the very fortunate pleasure of seeing a rainbow, which provided many photogenic scenes on top of the already-stunning surroundings.

Auld Reekie. Photo: Lewis Davies

It would be interesting to visit Edinburgh when the Fringe Festival isn’t on. The streets were rammed full of performers, flyers and tourists – which I liked, but a less hectic time might have given me a different perspective of the city.

Even so, Brad and I enjoyed the free comedy being housed at various venues and the amazing backdrop, added with to the culture bursting through the streets, made Edinburgh a place we both wanted to return to.

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