Football marathons, bargain buckets and dogs in scarves

At the time of writing I’ve just got back from Old Trafford after the Chelsea defeat, so I’ve been in a better mood.

United were beaten by the better side on the day and we’ll leave it at that without getting all 606 and moaning about incompetent referees.

I’m supposed to write these blogs about my life as a football writer, so I’ll wind back to happier times. Like a week ago. For the first time in my life, I attended three football matches in one day.

There are plenty of people who complain when football gets switched from the traditional time of 3pm on a Saturday afternoon.

Marine host FC United in a game that actually kicked off at 3pm

For personal reasons, I’ve seldom had a problem with games being moved because it allowed me to attend other matches, including watching various family members at non-league grounds.

A Sunday game meant I could watch my brother on a Saturday, or agree to be sent somewhere for work as it wouldn’t clash with a United game.

I’d like to use either of those excuses for what I did last week, but I have to admit that I’m just a sad anorak. That’s why I was at Leeds/Bradford airport at 10:30am on Saturday morning, sitting in a mate’s car waiting to pick up a Dutch groundspotter who had flown over to see the same three games.

Erik is from Rotterdam. He’s been to all 92 League and hundreds of other British grounds, but before you imagine an oddball with string for a belt and bits of Edam hanging from a scruffy moustache, Erik has an otherwise successful life and a gorgeous missus. He just likes watching football and football grounds and I’m right there with him.

So we went to Guiseley, a commuter suburb of Leeds famous for having the first ever Harry Ramsden’s. It was closed when we arrived.

"What we're missing is a midfield terrier..."

The local team are doing well in the Unibond Northern Premier League and a crowd of nearly 900 watched them beat FC United of Manchester to go top of the league.

FC’s results have not been good this season and the football frequently poor. They recently lost to Durham City, giving them their first points of the league campaign, but FC’s fans have been cheered by the news that they have found a site to build their own 5,000 capacity ground.

It will be in Newton Heath, where Manchester United started out, and close to Manchester’s City’s Eastlands.

Manchester City Council have assisted the club currently playing out on a limb at Bury, but fans need to double the £250,000 they’ve raised so far before work starts. The rest will be funded by grants and a community shares issue to raise money towards the expected £3.5 million total.

Getting their own place is the absolute priority for FC, who are currently paying Bury around £5,000 a game to stage matches, thus limiting their weekly players’ wage bill to £1800, the fifth lowest in the league.

In 2006, FC announced the bold aspiration of reaching average attendances of 5,000 in 2009. That didn’t happen, but a hardcore of 2,000 still gives them higher average crowds than several Football League clubs.

Back at Guiseley, there was a large police presence for a non-league game after some Leeds hooligans turned up at the equivalent fixture last season. There were no such problems this time, not that we hung around.

A trip over the Pennines via Burnley saw us arrive at Ramsbottom United’s picturesque home on the banks of the River Irwell.

Daffodils were in bloom behind the goal, while old trains ran along the valley towards Bury on the restored East Lancashire railway.

St David's Day was big in Ramsbottom

A crowd of 180 – not bad for a level nine game – saw league leaders Newcastle Town race into a 4-0 lead by half time as they collected their 100th point of the season.

The Ramsbottom officials were friendly, the football of decent quality in the weak Lancashire sun and pie and peas cost £1.10.

The Newcastle goalkeeper even struck up a conversation in which he explained – in his thick Stoke accent – that the key to his side’s success was nothing more than team spirit.

True, but I spotted at least two players who could play three levels higher. 

We missed the end of that match as we had to make Bolton against United. A drive on the West Lancashire moors past Gary Neville’s hamlet (he wants planning permission to build an eco-friendly underground lair which the local press have dubbed ‘The Teletubbies house’) towards the Reebok.

The 4-0 score line was not reflective of a game in which Bolton played very well in the first half. However, United’s class and sublime skill from Nani and Berbatov made it four.

It was good to see that Bolton have made sensible adjustments to their pricing - my £27 ticket was less than the same seat five years earlier.

I did my first job for UEFA a few days later, interviewing former Manchester United players. One didn’t turn up because he’d been on the beer and missed his flight. I won’t name and shame him. But Andrew Cole, Alex Stepney and David Sadler did. All were excellent.

Meeting Thomas Helmer two weeks ago came in handy as United drew his former club Bayern Munich. He was happy to do an interview and predicted that Bayern could beat United. He was right.

And then it was Easter, with a request from a paper to go and write a ‘colour’ piece about Rochdale v Bournemouth. But first, naturally, I took the train to Liverpool, where Crosby-based Marine were hosting FC United.

My better half did the tourist thing around Liverpool and loved it. My Scouse-averse father refuses to undertake such trips and has never been to Liverpool, except to play football.

Hooton (right) and his mates arrive to meet Mitten

Peter Hooton, the former frontman from The Farm, met me at the station and showed me around the posher part of Liverpool where Marine play at their three-sided ground.

I’ve got a lot of time for Peter and unlike many musicians who profess to support a club and never actually go to matches, Peter has watched Liverpool home and away all his life.

He also ran the seminal The End fanzine and he’s talking about republishing some back issues.

Then I had a beer with Simon Carden, FC’s injured midfielder with the nickname ‘Benson’ because of his inclination for a particular brand of cigarettes.

Simon’s pre-match meal is a KFC bargain bucket. Maybe he gets his fast food inspiration from Paul Scholes, who goes to McDonald’s most days – though not before matches.

In a game sponsored by the local Labour party, Marine got a last minute equaliser in front of over 1,000, including 450 from Manchester.

Come on you Reds...

I’d just settled down on the train back to Liverpool, when an elderly drunk with three teeth from Bootle sat down, swore frequently, shook my hand and unburdened himself of such pearls of wisdom as:

A) If you don’t tell the truth, you might as well tell a lie. B) There is more sand than Ants in Africa. C) ‘You didn’t pay for anything if you worked in the Docks.” He later explained that he’d been sacked from the Docks “because of the bevvies.”

And that’s the thing about travelling to watch football; there are always other stories. It really is more than just a game.

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