Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wrexham take on Darlington at the Racecourse Ground tonight in the Blue Square Premier.

The game is live on Premier Sports, I’m sure you’ll all be watching come 7.45pm.

I would love to be watching live if I could get the channel and wasn’t actually at work when it’s on, so will need to make do with trying to find a download later on.

So what’s so special about this match? It’s just another non league game on a channel that not many of us actually subscribe to, right?


It’s been great to see non league action back on our screens. AFTN would always prefer it to be available on a free to air channel, but beggars can’t be choosers, and with ITV digital and Setanta Sports going tits up and taking football deals with them, then any kind of coverage that lower league and non league football can get in this modern age is very gratefully received here at AFTN Towers.

And Premier Sports do a really good job with it, treating it with respect and giving it decent airtime on their schedule. It's great that they stepped forward and picked up the coverage.

In the battle for our time and footballing mind, the game is primarily up against Man United v Crystal Palace in the quarter finals of the Carling Cup over on Sky Sports and the Europa League tie between Tottenham Hostpur and PAOK Salonika on Channel Five.

I know what game I would pick any day of the week, but that’s me. I’m in the minority I sadly know, although not amongst readers of this blog thankfully.

Premier Sports are adding a new feature to tonight’s broadcast though, and if it’s the success I think it will be, then we could be looking at a new direction for our football commentary.

Sky always like to be cutting edge, and if they see something working elsewhere, you can be sure that they’ll be on it quicker than you know.

For tonight’s game, Premier Sports are going to be going fully interactive, with the commentary teams inviting comments from viewers via Twitter about the game and coverage.

On paper, it’s nothing that we should look at as too groundbreaking in this technological age, but yet it is.

Now we have the chance to let commentators know that they’re spouting inane rubbish and that they should shut up! Or tell them to stop being so obsessed with certain players.

More so though, it will give fans to share their thoughts on the current action, ask questions about decisions, subs, anything you fancy. It should also make for more informative chat and batter during the game, especially during lulls when commentators are just trying to avoid dead air.

Presenters Steve Bower and Alan Snodin will try and read out as many comments as they can during the broadcast. You can get in touch with them at their newly created Twitter account.

Lower league and non league football fans already feel closer to their teams at matches, than their “big team” counterparts. Now they can feel closer to the action whilst watching at home too.

Watch the game, take part and make this experiment the success it deserves to be. You could be shaping the future!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Kilmarnock’s 1-0 win over Rugby Park on Sunday was great.

One of the bigot brothers had just got beat and it closed the gap at the top between Rangers, Celtic and Motherwell, to at least add some pretend excitement that we have a two/three horse title race on our hands in Scotland.

At least we don’t have one team walking away it, like it looked like just a few weeks ago.

It should all have been joyous news. Except it isn’t.

Kilmarnock’s win, or rather how the Killie fans and players reacted to it, just highlighted one of the many things wrong with Scottish football.

Watching the game on TV, and then listening to Sunday’s Radio Scotland podcast of the day’s news, the post game reaction was astounding.

Sure it’s always nice to beat one of the Old Firm, and yes, it was Kilmarnock’s first home win over Rangers for an incredible 17 years (and 33 games), but seeing and listening to the jubilation at the final whistle, you would have thought that it was a Cup tie or that Killie had just won the League with the result.

These results should not be unexpected. They should not be treated like a Cup giantkilling shock. Where is your aspiration? What exactly are your goals as a football club? To merely survive in the League and hope for some kind of Cup run every season?

Kilmarnock are Rangers’ peers. At the start of every season, they line up on equal footing with their Glasgow counterparts. Level on points, but clearly with much different aspirations.

Obviously I understand that the likes of Kilmarnock cannot compete financially with the Old Firm and, as such, they can’t compete competitively with them on the pitch over the course of a whole season. And that’s what’s sad about the Scottish game.

Ultimately, what is the actual point of these SPL also-rans’ existence?

One of our top flight teams in this country should not be so excited about beating a team that they have played for three and four times a season for years now.

If this is the pinnacle of your hopes and aspirations, then just give up now.

As an East Fife fan, and supporter of lower league football, I often get people telling me that they just don’t understand how I can watch a club like that. What enjoyment do I get not seeing the “big name” players and experiencing the “big match” atmosphere? What is the point of my team’s existence?

If my alternative was watching a team that every season think to themselves “wouldn’t it be great if we finished third this year” or “wouldn’t it be great if we managed to finish second bottom and avoid relegation”, I don’t think I could get much motivation for going to the games.

Clearly I’m not alone. No wonder crowds are so poor.

Did you see all those empty seats at Rugby Park? Was it the cost? Was it the early Sunday kick-off time? Was it the fact that the game was on TV?

For some fans, these will have been the reasons, but the over-riding reason for many will have been the fact that they didn’t see the point of turning up as they expected Kilmarnock to lose – again.

At least with East Fife and most other SFL clubs we have real hopes, battles and meaningful games every season.

Very few teams in the First and Second Division don’t have realistic hopes/fears of being involved in the promotion and relegation issues at the business end of the season.

The Third is a different matter, but add in a pyramid and relegation and we may have a whole different ball game on our hands.

We might not have the skill, the names or the crowds, but lower league Scottish football at least gives the game some real meaning and I’d rather have that any Saturday of the month.

If one of us beat Rangers, then that IS something to get so excited about.

Let’s give Kilmarnock their moment in the sun though. It’s not every season they beat two big teams in a month.

Rangers were one thing, but we should always remember their struggle in overcoming the odds to beat the ten men of the mighty three time League Cup winners East Fife a few weeks ago.

What a season for them, huh?

Living the dream.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The footballing world was sent into shock yesterday by the death of Welsh manager Gary Speed at the age of 42.

Speed had no connection with any of my teams, but I wanted to pay tribute to a man that was a model professional and a son, husband, father and friend that will be truly missed my many. He was that kind of man. Fans of all teams admired and respected him.

When I woke up on Sunday morning and saw the headline on the BBC website, I just couldn't believe it. Finding out the sad facts behind his death was equally tragic and shocking.

This was a young manager who seemingly had everything going for him, but no-one, not even his closest friends seemed to have any idea of what feelings he was hiding behind his genuinely bubbly public demeanour.

Robbie Savage said it best on last night's 606 Football Phone In on BBC Five Live:

"I just can't understand it. The world was at his feet. I just can't believe it."

As a player, Welshman Speed touched the hearts of many. He had 23 years in the game, turning out for five clubs, and known to millions around the world for his times at Leeds, Everton, Newcastle and Bolton in the Premiership. His 677 appearances brought 103 goals, and he is behind only Ryan Giggs and David James as the player with the most matches played in the top flight of English football.

Capped 85 times by his country, he went from player to captain to manager, and was just starting to see the fruits of his hard work in turning the fortunes of the national team around.

The recent 4-1 defeat of Norway showed that things were starting to fit nicely into place and that performance was already a marked difference from how Wales played against Scotland in the 3-1 Celtic Nations Cup defeat back in May.

It was still very much a work in progress for the Welsh, but moving back into the top 50 in the Fifa rankings made it clear that they were moving in the right direction.

Players were clamouring to play for the Welsh national side again. There was renewed hope and whoever takes over the hot-seat from him will have a great legacy, built by a great servant to his country.

Upon hearing about Speed's death, my thoughts turned to ice hockey. For those readers who don't follow that sport, this may seem strange, but 2011 has been a year that has seen the suicides of a couple of NHL players.

Depression seems to be the link in all of them. It was a disease that some were known to suffer from, but some kept it, and their personal turmoil, hidden out of sight.

We of course don't know yet if Speed was affected by such a thing. Nobody seems to have had any indication that he did. The same was true of my wife's uncle who committed suicide in 2007 and to this day, no one knows why.

Listening to Darren Fletcher and Robbie Savage on BBC Five Live's 606 Football Phone In was so emotional. It was a fitting tribute to Speedo, and must have been so difficult for his close friend Savage to get through the show.

There were laughs. There were tears. There were fond memories. But most of all, there was just so much love for the man. No-one seems to be able to speak highly enough about Gary Speed and that says it all. He was a true gentleman who always had time for everyone.

It just makes it all the more confusing as to why such a talented man took his own life so early.

The show isn't an easy listen, but we urge you all to listen to the Podcast, as there will be no more fitting tribute to the Welshman than the outpouring of emotion therein.

RIP Gary Speed. You will be missed more than you could ever know.

Friday, November 25, 2011

We haven't done one of these for what seems like an age and we've had this one up our sleeves for a while now.

Sending offs ruin football matches. We know that's technically true.

As long as it's not one of our guys though then it's fine with me, ruin away!

Some red cards are obvious, some are debatable and some are a real bone of contention that leaves you wondering just what the officials saw that you, and hundreds of others around you, didn't.

Then you have the ones that just beggar belief altogether, and those are the ones we're going to put in the spotlight today.

Bizarre sending offs are fantastic to see and provide much light relief for years to come. As always, so long as it's not affecting your own team.

I'll kick off with one which did affect one of my teams back in April.

Vancouver Whitecaps striker Eric Hassli, had been booked minutes earlier, when the Caps were awarded a penalty.

The Frenchman stepped forward to take and score the kick, when this happened...

Standing behind the goal watching it unfold, I immediately said "fuck, he's off". And yup, he was!

To make matters worse, the Caps were already down to ten men, but they managed to hold on to their 1-0 lead until injury time when opponents New England Revolution fired in an equaliser.

Hassli had also just returned to the line up after being sent off in his previous match!

So even the old double jersey switcheroonie doesn't save you from one of the most ridiculous laws of the game.

Never see why simply taking your jersey off to celebrate is still a bookable offence when no-one seems to want it to be.

Want to see another bizarre sending off for taking your jersey off?

Try this one from a Ukranian Premier League match between Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Karpaty Lviv:

Again, technically the letter of the law, but come on, where's the commonsense?

The unfortunate player picking up his second booking was Dnipro's Ghanaian defender Samuel Inkoom.

Neymar's bizarre mask sending off is well known, so we won't feature that here. Plus it couldn't have happened to a nicer wanker.

Even when you try to do good, you can still earn the wrath of the referee and see red, as Dorchester Town player-manager Ashley Vickers found out in a Conference South match last season at Havant and Waterlooville:

Borat has a lot to answer for.

Our final clip comes from down under.

I've seen a lot of red cards waved around over the years, but I've never seen one issued for having your penis pierced. Until now!

Some of you may have seen this back in the summer, but it's always worth another chortle.

The incident took place in a lower league reserve game in Melbourne, Australia. Aaron Eccleston of Old Hill Wanderers had a Prince Albert which the cock of a referee took an objection too and sent him off:

The question everybody wants to know when they see this, is how did the ref know he had such a piercing?

Well it came to light after Eccleston had to receive treatment when he took a ball to his balls.

Yes, the ref is within the rules to get jewellery removed, but makes you wonder how many other players (of both sexes) have private piercings that no-one ever gets to know about.

Old Hill still won 3-0. I'm sure wanted to know that for closure!

Do you have some favourite strange sending offs of your own? Share them below...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

We’ve said this before in AFTN, but being an exile certainly does make your footballing heart grow fonder. Especially when you add in growing older and getting all misty eyed reminiscent about the footballing days of your youth (not all of which are probably as fondly and accurately remembered as they perhaps played out).

It’s been over four years now since I left Scotland for pastures new across the Atlantic, and it really is true what they say. You don’t realise what you’ve got till it’s gone.

There’s not many things I miss from living in the UK, but going to the football every week is one of them. Especially when going to the football meant going to some really quaint and some really ramshackle grounds on your travels.

And if East Fife got an away draw against non league opposition in the Scottish Cup? Result!

It’s been a huge culture shock for me to go from three figure attendances in the lower reaches of Scottish football to 20,000+ crowds at state of the art, purpose built stadiums full of plastic seats and far too many plastic supporters and, shudder, soccer mums and their annoying kids.

I miss my lower league and non league football. Grassroots football will also be my first love.

Getting your football fix isn’t hard to do in North America. We’ve covered before about the plethora of games and Leagues from around the world that you can watch. It really is overload. Nothing beats going to a live game though and nothing ever will.

Moving away has given me some regrets.

Why did I throw out certain football memorabilia instead of shipping them over? Why did I sell all my childhood subbuteo stuff? And, in particular, why didn’t I do more groundhopping when I had the chance?

I’ve had a long love affair with non league football in the UK, and especially the English pyramid system.

I love the hope every team can have that somehow, one day they could be in the Football League, even when you’re rebuilding a team you’ve watched die in front of your eyes.

I love the atmosphere and banter at games, when sometimes you’re in a crowd of just double digits, and in some leagues for midweek matches, single ones. I love the affinity and bond you have with your team. I love the surroundings, the localness of it all and the wonderful history that so many of these Clubs have.

To me, this is proper football.

Pre-season trips to watch East Fife at clubs like Peterlee, Seaham Red Star and Spennymoor piqued my interest in the English non league scene, but I guess my love affair really started when Wimbledon were forced out of the Football League and AFC Wimbledon rose from their ashes.

As a long time member of the Dons Trust, their tale is an inspiration to all fans of lower league and non league football. We don’t need to say much more.

We’ll never forget though the support the Dons gave to our Down With Brown campaign.

The Wombles aside, there’s a number of non league sides that AFTN has been avidly following the fortunes of (for a wide variety of reasons) over the last few years: Cray Wanderers, Kingstonian, Metropolitan Police, Bath City, Newport County, FC United of Manchester, Durham FC and Guernsey FC to name a few.

The last couple of years, AFTN has made an annual pilgrimage back to the UK, not to see friends and family, but to catch some proper football matches.

We always take in a Fife game of course, but we’ve also been trying to get some non league groundhopping done too. Sadly this hasn’t happened this year, but we hope to be back over in April and May to get some end of season and playoff action in.

Maybe I’m some kind of football snob, but I just can’t understand why every football fan doesn’t love, appreciate and attend non league games when they can. In reverse, supporters of the Old Firm and the top English sides will wonder why I want to stand freezing my ass off in rundown surroundings, watching (arguably) inferior football, in front of a handful of people.

They don’t get it and I don’t get them. Neither party is likely to change anytime soon.

It’s been sad to see the spate of non league sides go to the wall in recent seasons. It’s just going to be an increasing trend I fear.

There’s the strange situation where non league football has been killed by the media, but now, more than ever, it needs the media to help it survive.

Sky changed the whole game of football in the UK, but it made far too many people only care about the Premiership and watching games from the comfort of their armchair, whilst they take in a never ending stream of slick graphics, replays and fancy technology.

Non league football needs the exposure that TV and radio can give it though to attract more people through the gates to support local football.

Those fans who have got out to see what non league football is all about have liked what they’ve seen and many have become hooked.

The game needs more fans to do this and it’s been fantastic to see the success of “Non League Day” the last couple of seasons.

It’s also been great to see non league football back on our screens through ESPN. Just a shame that it couldn’t have been picked up by one of the free to air channels, especially a terrestrial one.

Every bit of support counts though.

For me, being so far away from the action, one of the most important tools in recent season to keep me in touch with what’s happening in English non league football has been the BBC’s excellent Non League Football Show podcast.

The whole team have done a great job in bringing non league teams and their issues to the airwaves and to a wider audience.

The publicity they’ve brought to a number of issues have undoubtedly helped many clubs, and although often there has been nothing that can be done to help some plights, they also celebrates the highs of the minnows in FA Cup and League action.

”For the fans, by the fans.” is their tagline, and with host Caroline Barker being a life-long Chelmsford City supporter, it’s not a false claim.

The podcast is a must listen for me, and many others, every week, and I’m saddened to hear that the show is facing the axe from the BBC next year due to huge budget cuts in local radio.

It’s a dreadful situation, especially when you consider some of the absolute tripe that pains our ears every week. You would think that the BBC would actually want to keep and promote one of their few football shows that is not derivative.

Without the “Non League Show” we would not have been kept so well informed about the troubles that have affected a multitude of non league sides, such as Chester, Crawley, Wrexham and a host more.

Dave Anderson, Willie Wordsworth and Dave Watters always give insightful analysis of the pressing matters in the grassroots game and instead of getting rid of a show like this, we should be actively producing more.

As football fans, no matter who we support or what League our teams play in, we cannot allow this show to be axed.

When it was announced last month that the show was facing the axe, a Facebook page was immediately set up to show support, and currently has 1785 members.

The show is produced by BBC London, please take a minute to email them at: and let them know how important the ”Non League Football Show” is to grassroots football.

You can also alert the BBC Trust and make your feelings known, not just about the Non League Football Show but also the cuts that will be taking place in BBC radio in general, at:

Spread the word about saving the show on Twitter as well, using the hashtag #savethenonleagueshow.

In these days of monotonous unoriginality in football shows, The Non League Football Show is a breath of fresh air.

As the battle for real football lives on, let's hope the show isn't drawing its final breaths.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

AFTN are traditionalists. Any regular readers will know that.

You could describe us as grumpy old men, living in the past and not embracing change. Harking back to bygone days that may or may not have existed in quite the glowing light that our memories paint. We prefer to go with traditionalist!

One of those traditions that we have been known to harp on about is that football is meant to be played on grass and we don’t want any of those newfangled artificial pitches.

Ultimately, we still feel that way but our stance has most certainly melted, to the stage where we’re not sure whether there’s more of the snowman or more of a puddle.

I’m of the age that whenever anybody mentions “plastic pitch” to me, my immediate thoughts plunder my memory bank and throws out the horrendous pitches that existed at Stirling Albion’s Annfield Stadium in Scotland and the likes of QPR’s Loftus Road and Luton’s Kennilworth Lane in England.

I never experienced watching a live game at either of those venues south of the border, so that’s probably more media brainwashing with regards to those. I did though have the misfortunes of watching East Fife play at Stirling’s bouncy castle in the late 1980’s.

It was a horrible surface. A sickly green colour that produced uneven bounces and scraped shins and other extremities.

Opposition players hated playing on it, opposing fans hated watching games on it. It gave Stirling a bit of an advantage, playing on the darned thing every other week, but with the kind of bounces you were getting, it was still a bit of a lottery for both sides playing football on it.

Those days are past now, and in the past they must remain. For it’s a whole different ball game with the new, state of the art artificial surfaces that are out there.

So much so, that there’s currently a national debate raging on as to whether this is the only realistic way forward for lower league and non league sides the length and breadth of the UK, with cash strapped sides like Accrington Stanley convincingly arguing that it is.

Football clubs that currently have artificial pitches not only swear by them, many also put them down to keeping their very existence going.

There’s estimates that a Club with an artificial pitch can generate upwards of £100,000 in extra revenue each season. With so many clubs in serious financial peril right now, this is a potential godsend for them and not something that can be turned away.

It could be the difference between continuing to operate and going to the wall.

The installation of an artificial surface lets the pitch be used every day of the year if clubs wanted. It can be used on matchdays, it allows for better training facilities and it can give some sides a bit of a home field advantage.

It guarantees a perfect playing surface for every match, but even more importantly, it guarantees that the match is actually going to take place and bring in much needed revenue. No last minute postponement surprises and the financial worries that brings.

Add in use in all weather conditions, for hours at a time and the fact that it can be rented out to whoever, and it really does make financial sense for clubs to go down this route.

So why aren’t more doing it?

Well, there’s the large six figure cost involved to get the pitch in the first place (you’re looking at around £4-500,000 upwards).

Then there’s the rules that don’t allow it in some competitions (Football League, FA Cup, FA vase to name but three), even though the world’s governing body FIFA sanction their use.

There is still a stigma in the UK about such pitches. Many of us are a little bit stuck too much in our ways and need to embrace the future a little bit better.

These pitches are even commonplace in the likes of Spain. Another footballing hotbed, with passionate fans, but one which also has a better climate than what we’re stuck with in the UK! They go down alright over there.

You just have to look at the last two winters in the UK. Horrendous snow and frost decimated fixtures across the country for weeks upon weeks. Undersoil heating can only do so much and most can’t afford such a luxury anyway. This may make the surface playable, but it can’t do anything about the ruts and divots created by the weather.

East Fife have stated in the past that they were concerned about the sudden stop in vital cashflow, and the financial costs at this time of the year are horrendous for small clubs already struggling to survive.

Every fixture lost, can be another nail in the coffin for some.

East Fife have already talked about installing a state of the art artificial pitch in their proposed new mythical stadium.

When the initial announcement was made, there was a scream of “Noooooooooooooo” echoing around AFTN Towers. Now though, we’ve changed our mind.

Taking all the positive financial aspects out of the equation, what really turned my views round on this subject was experiencing a plastic pitch first hand watching Vancouver Whitecaps in Major League Soccer.

The Whitecaps moved into their new home, at the $563 million renovated BC Place, in October this year.

Since I began watching the Caps in 2007, they always played on a grass pitch at Swangard Stadium. The move to the “big leagues”, meant that this stadium was not an option and a temporary move was made to Empire Field before the permanent move to BC Place.

Empire Field sported an artificial turf and it was awful. The Caps players hated playing on it and actually went away and trained on grass in local parks most of the time. The pitch was also blamed for a number of niggling injuries that the squad endured this season past.

FC Dallas’ Daniel Hernandez can testify to just how crappy the pitch was, catching his studs in it and twisting his leg for a season ending knee injury.

So the warning lights must now be flashing with you and you’re questioning my sanity in saying that I’m warming to artificial pitches after these tales.

There are still some bad surfaces out there, where the problems of old still persist. Get one of the brand spanking new surfaces though, like what has been installed at BC Place, at a cost of around $1.2 million, and the difference is night and day.

The Whitecaps are playing on a new Polytan surface, said to be the closest thing to real grass and earning the highest possible rating from Fifa. It really is hard to tell. The bounces are natural, there’s been no injuries caused by the pitch so far, and the players have been very positive about playing on it.

The Whitecaps also secured two wins on the thing, which was rare enough in 2011!

I’ve slowly been won round.

Clubs need to get income generation from outside of their daily football operations to survive and artificial pitches will do that.

I’ll still always prefer grass, but let’s be honest here, how many clubs can afford to have lush, bowling green pitches these days?

If installing a plastic pitch is going to be the difference between my club, or any club, thriving or dying, then there can only be one decision made.

Let’s hope people like the FA come to same conclusion.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Yesterday's sixteen Scottish Cup ties proved not to be happy hunting grounds for seven of the nine non league sides remaining in the tournament.

As we discussed on Tuesday, year upon year, the FA Cup still has an alluring quality around it, something seriously missing with its Scottish counterpart.

We've pondered in AFTN before as to why the Scottish Cup just never gives off such mystique.

Yesterday's ties basically showed you why.

Whereas the gap between non league and league opponents in England seems to narrow every season, in Scotland, the difference in quality between Scottish League clubs and most non league teams is massive.

Somewhat strangely, but also somewhat expectantly, the smallest gap is between the league sides and the top Junior outfits, demonstrated once again by the only two non league teams remaining coming from the Junior ranks.

All four of the Junior teams admitted to the Cup this season had made it to the Third Round.

Bo'ness United fell 3-0 at home to Division Two leaders Cowdenbeath, whilst Irvine Meadow were on the end of a 6-0 hammering from Division One high flyers Livingston.

Ayrshire Cup specialists, Auchinleck Talbot, were the only non league winners of the round, seeing off fellow non leaguers Vale of Leithen 3-1 at Beechwood Park.

The last of the four Junior teams, Culter from the SJFA North Superleague, were in the Third Round by default, having been reinstated by the SFA when Spartans were thrown out for fielding an ineligible player in their 2-0 Second Round victory.

They certainly made the most of their second chance, holding Division One strugglers Partick Thistle to a 1-1 draw in Peterculter.

The Junior teams apart, the non league sides have struggled once again this season in the competition.

In the Second Round, only Deveronvale ousted a League side, beating Berwick Rangers 4-0 at home. Two other sides, Fraserburgh and Buckie Thistle, took their Third Division opponents to a reply, but both fell short.

From East Fife's point of view, that was great news. Yesterday's Third Round Cup opponents, East Stirling, had dispatched Buckie 4-2 in their replay, and probably gave the Fife a much easier tie than the Highland Leaguers would have provided.

East Fife's 5-0 victory yesterday was five going on around 15. The Shire were one of the worst teams we've had at Bayview in a long time. Great for us, as we now find ourselves in Tuesday's draw and looking forward to hopefully another major Cup run.

The Fife's big win was great, but nothing compared to Airdrie United's embarrassing 11-0 demolition of East of Scotland side Gala Fairydean.

This was more than a league side steamrollering over their non league opponents. This was showing just how lacking in depth the Scottish non league set-up is.

Gala were one of the stronger non leaguers in this year's Cup. They had already banged in some goals themselves, thrashing fellow borders side Hawick Royal Albert 8-1 in the first round and Highland League outfit Golspie Sutherland 5-2 in round two.

I thought we'd seen the last of such hammerings being dished out by League teams at this round of the competition. They were commonplace when I was a lad.

Fluke result? Or another sign that if Scottish football is to develop and grow, we need to have a strong non league system producing quality young players to come through the ranks through a properly organised pyramid system?

East Fife have never lost to non league opposition in the Scottish Cup in their entire history. Many have tried, all have failed.

Let's just hope that we avoid Auchinleck Talbot in the fourth round to keep that record intact.

The Ayrshire men are going to be the team many want to avoid.

At least one side is keeping the non league magic alive in this season's Scottish Cup.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A remarkable event occurred last Saturday.

No, a Cowden fan didn’t have a shower, that would just be ludicrous. Almost as ridiculous was the fact that Fort William FC actually won a game.

Not only did The Fort get their first three point haul of the season, they also did it away from home, beating the unfortunate Rothes 2-1 at Mackessack Park. That’s a stat that the Speysiders don’t want to have on their record books this season.

The win took Fort William’s points tally to the season up to four, after eleven games. Only 28 points behind league leaders Forres Mechanics now!

As terrible as they are, they weren’t even bottom of the Highland League before this win!

It’s been a long few years if you’re a Fort William fan.

I’ve always kept my eye on them since they joined the Highland League for the 1985/86 season. I still have a lot of their programmes from their debut season. I even got to see East Fife play a pre-season friendly up at Claggan Park in 2000, and they made us very welcome.

They’ve never done great, and have never finished in the top half of the table. Their best season came in their second season, when they finished 11th.

In the last fifteen seasons, they’ve finished bottom on a staggering eleven occasions and, on occasion, by some margin.

The 2008-09 season, in particular, was an all-time low for the Club. Their 28 game record read Won 0, Drawn 1, Lost 27, for a grand total of one point, the lowest points total ever recorded in the Highland League and I would think in any other mid-level league as well.

We’ve featured Fort William in AFTN before, when an American project to take ownership and have fans around the world fund and run the Club was proposed, billing the Club as "America's Team".

Sadly, like most of Fort William’s seasons, it’s come to nothing and the project seems as dead as The Fort’s Highland League Championship hopes.

I don’t really know what it is about the Club that has made them so bad. Maybe their distance from the core of the other Highland League sides, and the closer proximity of top Junior teams, makes it harder to attract the quality players.

For most recent seasons, the Club have had no real peers in the League.

That changed in 2009, when new kids on the block, Strathspey Thistle, joined the Highland League.

Since then, the last three seasons have seen the two sides battle it out for the morale boosting second bottom spot, with both keen to avoid the “Worst Football Club In The Country” tag.

Strathspey had that dubious distinction in their Highland League debut season of 2009/10, when they finished seven points adrift at the bottom.

Last season, Thistle took the avoiding the tag honours, finishing 17th with a total of ten points, one ahead of the hapless Fort William. Both sides recorded just two wins the whole season, with Strathspey finishing with a goal difference of a whopping minus 94 and Fort William with one of a staggering minus 112.

This season has just been a disaster for both teams so far, culminating in their meeting on November 5th at Claggan Park.

Going in to that game both sides had no wins, no draws and no points from their combined total of 21 Highland League matches played.

Something had to give. Someone had to have at least a point by the end of the afternoon.

It was perhaps fitting then that the game ended as a 2-2 draw, with both sides getting their first points of the season and the game garnering much interest the length and breadth of the UK.

The only thing better for both Clubs would be getting their first actual wins of the season and Fort William did just that at Rothes last Saturday.

Danny Mackintosh gave The Fort a 1-0 lead in the 40th minute with, literally, a toe poke. The visitors then doubled their lead with a minute of the half remaining through a fantastic 25 yard free kick into the postage stamp corner from Sean Ellis.

When Rothes pulled a goal back through Stuart Massie with seven minutes remaining, it was real backs to the wall stuff for Fort William, as they hardly had a possession stat to their name in those closing moments.

They held on though and secured a famous victory, to leave Strathspey Thistle as the only winless team in the country, going down 3-1 at home to Fraserburgh the same afternoon.

Fort William manager Danny Conlon was pleased with the progress his team are making:

”We were a wee bit nervous as we are not used to being in the lead.

Defensively we have only lost eight goals in our last five games, Mike has been working really hard on the training ground on the shape and positional sense of the back four and midfield four and we can see the rewards of that.

Before the last two games I felt that if we got 4 points I would be happy so I am delighted with that. It is a long road, I think we are going in the right direction but it all takes time for it to fit into place.

We are working hard, every game I ask for a bit of progress and look for the boys to push on from previous games. Other than in the first half v Strathspey we have done that.”

The current table in the battle not to be the worst of the worst, now sees Fort William with four points and a goal difference of minus 31, to sit in 17th place. Strathspey just have that one solitary point and a goal difference of minus 33.

Both sides can take a bit of hope from looking at Brora Rangers, who are sitting third bottom with ten points, having played more games than both sides below them and having the worst goal difference in the Highland League, at minus 36.

AFTN is full of admiration for both of these sides struggles. It can’t be easy for everyone at the club to turn out and play, manage or support these sides week in, week out.

These are true football people. No glory hunters in sight.

You should remember this the next time you moan about your own club’s plight. Better still, if you find yourself in or near Fort William or Grantown-On-Spey, get along to Claggan Park or Seafield Park and lend your support to these perennial strugglers.

This is real football.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Last weekend was one of my favourite times of the football season.

The first round of the FA Cup is just a magical time, and although this year didn’t produce a plethora of cup shocks by the minnows, it did produce some cracking games, goals and highlights.

763 teams will take part in the Cup this season, by the time the big guns come in to the mix in January.

After months of qualifying games, the first round proper saw 32 non league teams taking part, including eight all non league ties. 17 non league teams now proudly take their place in the second round draw, including the lowest ranked team in round one, Redbridge, but how many will be there once all the replays are decided?

The Ryman League Division One North side, now face a replay against fellow non-leaguers Oxford City for that place in round two and a visit to high-flying, and big spending, Crawley Town.

Another side to watch for in the replays is Stourbridge. You would think that scoring three goals away to ten man Plymouth would have been enough to see them advance, but they conceded a heartbreaking late equaliser, albeit from a cracking goal.

One of the most pleasing aspects of this year’s FA Cup is the number of teams in the draw that have fought back from not just the brink of extinction, but the actual death of the original club itself.

Sadly, in this modern age, the number of clubs having to be wound up and start all over again is growing each year. Seeing the likes of AFC Telford United, FC Halifax Town and, of course, AFC Wimbledon, is inspiration to all football fans who agonisingly see their club die in front of their eyes.

One of the results/highlights I was particularly looking forward to seeing on Saturday was that of Bradford Park Avenue. It’s a name I know from my childhood programme collecting days. Great to see them back. Not so great seeing them get two men sent off and thumped by an amazing 8-1 scoreline by fellow Tier 7 minnows AFC Totton, from the Southern League Premier Division.

My full interest in the FA Cup seldom lasts past round four these days. Even rounds one and two have a slightly less shock appeal than previously.

The gap between the top Conference sides and League Two opposition seems to narrow more each year. League One teams, on the whole, do provide a much sterner test for their non league counterparts. The gulf between the bottom two divisions of English League football does seem to be a step too far for many.

Fleetwood Town beating Wycombe Wanderers, and deservedly, is still a shock, but one which we, and many others, expected.

Even when you see some heavy defeats like the 4-0 ones suffered by Alfreton Town and FC Halifax Town, the scorelines on paper don’t convey the full story of what played out on the pitch.

It was great to see so many of the games broadcast live, or in full on delay, across the world. I did wonder what the American public must have thought when they tuned in Fox Soccer to watch Alfreton Town on Saturday morning.

I loved it. Perfect setting, perfect atmosphere, perfect weather. Just a shame the result wasn't different.

There were some real grounds of character on display and a fair few I want to see on a groundhopping trip at some point in the future.

You can stick Maidenhead United’s York Road ground on that list. It was amazing to think that you were watching TV pictures from a ground that first hosted a FA Cup tie 140 years ago after the club moved there in 1871.

Halifax Town may have risen from the ashes of the original club, but they still play at the Shay and it’s a cracking ground worthy of hosting League football once again.

There’s just something special about seeing any old ground that still has terracing these days.

I always regret not doing more groundhopping when I lived in the UK, especially since some of the grounds that I’d have loved to have seen, like Chesterfield’s Saltergate (another ground that was first used in 1871), are sadly no more.

The usual thing I guess. You don’t realise all the great things on your doorstep till you move away.

Non league football is such a thing with me as well. I always loved it. Watched East Fife on numerous pre-season jaunts to some weird and wonderful places, but never explored all the possibilities fully, due mainly to following the Fife around the country every Saturday.

One thing that’s definitely on my bucket list though is taking some time to watch the qualifying rounds of the FA Cup one year. Right from the very start in August.

Anyone who has read the excellent Real FA Cup website can't want anything else.

One year...
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