Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Braintree - End of the Line

For once I was not the first out of the house - Liz was up bright and early to attend the Festival Of Romance in sunny Kings Langley - perhaps that is where I should have gone.

At the start of the season, our game at Braintree promised to be quite straightforward to get to - just wander into town and get a train from Liverpool Street. But no, engineering works on the entire line meant a trip to Newbury Park tube to pick up a replacement bus service.

As I had some time on my hands I went via Stratford and popped into Westfield Stratford City, the humungous shopping centre that has been erected alongside the Olympic site. The largest in Europe I'm told. And they have a Lakeland. First impression? F Huge.

The bus from Newbury Park took us along the A12 to Ingatstone, a small Essex commuter town, arriving in time for me to miss a connecting train by two minutes!

The next train was not for almost another hour but the station is a quaint little place with a drinks stall and waiting room full of train magazines. With a nice cup of tea it was quite a restful place to watch the world go by for a while.

Not many people joined the train to Braintree which runs down a small single-track line through pretty Essex countryside - and Braintree was end of the line.

The only decent pub open on arrival was a nearby Wetherspoons - in this case a converted cinema called the Picture Palace (a lot of thought went into that). There was a bit of a queue at the bar - mainly for people ordering food or coffee which had the bloke in front of me fuming.

It was the end of their International Beer Festival and they still had a few decent beers on - I had Woodfordes Ketts Rebellion, Tring Pudding Porter and Gywnt y Ddraig Black Dragon (for the second time in a few weeks).

I had expected John, Rich and Andy from Darlo to be here but it looks like they were still on the bus to Ingatestone.

The next port of call was the William IV - about a mile walk to the edge of the town but after emailing the pub, it promised to be Greene King-free so was worth the effort.

As I got there, John Wilson was dropped off and Martin arrived in his car. We tried to find the best way in without running the gauntlet of the large dog in the garden but that proved to be the only way in. Once inside the garden though the dog turned out to be a big softie.

As promised, a decent selection of beers on offer - Wibblers Hop Harvest, Mighty Oak Seventh Heaven, Marston Moor Matchlock Mild and Bishop Nick Ridley's Rite.

(right) Whispering Ray tries to put a happy face on things

The latter is from the Ridley family who once ran the Ridley brewery which used to brew some excellent beers but disappeared off the scene a few years ago. Good to see them back.

John and I got a taxi to the Cressing Road ground - a compact little stadium amongst a housing estate (reminding me of Dagenham & Redbridge). No segregation today which was nice to see.

I headed to the turnstile to sign in - unfotunately despite having contacted the club about a press pass (and getting an acknowledgement) I was not on their list. If I wanted to go in I had to pay £15. I paid.

It seems that all the Darlo press mob - Ray, Craig and Les - had the same problem despite all contacting the Essex club beforehand. It did seem very odd, not to say underhand, and certainly against the accepted norms.

John and I found somewhere to stand, close to the main stand, and got chatting to an exile Darlo fan. Mike is originally from Catterick but was living not far from John in Beckenham, south London.

Another new face in the starting eleven for Darlington today - Nialle Rodney on loan from Bradford - a striker who would hopefully add to the five goals Braintree conceded in their last game.

It was the home side that started off most confidently and Darlo found it hard to keep moves going - they were constantly chasing the ball and there was minimal service to new-boy Rodney.

He did have one good chance in the first half when the Braintree keeper palmed the ball towards him. At first he looked as if he blazed the ball over but after looking at my shots it looks like a defender handled the ball.

I was manging to have a good shout at proceedings - not something I normally do when 'on duty' especially if I'm close to the officials but after paying to come in, I wanted to get value for money.

(left) Spike Kee's header creeps into the goal

It looked like being nil-nil as half-time approached but the home team took the lead as Stevens stabbed the ball home from a yard out after a free-kick bypassed the Quakers' defence.

Rodney was replaced by Liam Hatch for the second half - to his relief I suspect - but Darlington's task was made worse after just a few minutes after Davis headed home to double the lead. Poor defending.

On the away bench, Cooper and Dryden looked completely lost - Terry Cooper was also on the bench but did not appear to offer any advice to his son. I don't think there was any to give.

And after an hour it was 3-0 to Braintree after Soderberg parried a shot but the ball fell to a Braintree foot and was easily slotted home.

John McReady as was another debutant, James Gray, were brought on and things started to look a bit better for a while as they brought a bit of vigour to the Darlo attack.

It paid off after 80 mins as Spike Lee headed off after the ball bobbed around the Braintree box - something for the travelling fans to cheer at long last but it was too little, too late.

As the final whistle went and the Darlo fans left, most were of the opinion that Cooper's time was up and it was very hard to come up with an argument against this.

Mike drove us back into town and we popped into the Waggon and Horses for a drink. Despite being a Greene King pub they had a wide range of beers and we tried the Cambridge Bitter whilst waiting for Bev to join us.

Mike was then kind enough to give us a lift back to London, dropping us at Stratford so we could try a beer at the latest craft bar, Tap East, in Westfield.

This is run by the same mob who run the Rake at London Bridge and it has a nice mixture of UK cask beers and foreign keg beer. I had a pint of Magic Rock Rapture - a lovely beer from one of the top breweries in the UK today.

It won't be long before the Tap East starts brewing themselves with John's old mate Eddie doing the honours. I suspect we'll be back again in the not-too-distant future...

(above) "What time is it", asks Cooper. "Time to go" replies Dryden.

Spanish Gold and Darlo Delight

For the home game with Kidderminster I was already in the north - visiting my Mum in Northallerton - and so I was able to get through to Darlo nice and early and have a damn fine breakfast followed by a quick peruse around time and a visit to Taylors.

Of course this also meant I was first into the Quakerhouse which had one of the best selections for quite a few weeks -Osset Silver Link, Jarrow Westoe IPA, William Bros 7 Giraffes, Wylam Hablon Nouveau, Mithril Scrum Down, Tirril Pilsner, Oakham Mompessons Gold, Acorn Old Moor Porter and Ilkley Smoked Witch.

The 7 Giraffes was the pick of the bunch but the Oakham wasn't far behind.

Despite this excellence, we wandered up to Number Twenty-2 and it had to be said they had a pretty cracking range on too -Everards Pitch Black Stout, Exe Valley Viceroy IPA, Black Sheep Emmerdale, Hawkshead Windemere Pale, FFF Alton's Pride and Daleside Old Legover.

No question here as to the best beer - the Windemere Pale blew all the others away and it has also come in for a lot of praise amongst the beer bloggerati.  A brewery with a bright future.

But all good things must come to an end and so we made our way to the Arena where the prospect of a tight contest awaited us.  Kiddy had excellent away record but after Darlo's 4-3 win at Stockport a few days earlier, it was time to put a spoiler on the visitors' record.

It was not going to be easy as Spike Lee had suffered an injury in training so Jonathan Sanchez-Munoz retained his place as Cooper kept the same side from Stockport.

James Walshaw takes a tumble

Lee's continued absence also meant a home debut for Exodus Geohagon - Big Ex as he is destined to be known as at 6ft 5in he is a rather hefty bugger.

Big Ex also has a mean throw on him and this is something Darlo looked to use whenever possible. A nice thing to have but I hope we don't use it all the time.

Out on the right wing Adam Rundle impressed and produced some good crosses which put the Kiddy keeper under quite a bit of pressure before hitting a corker of a long-distance shot which was pushed wide.

For their part Kiddy didn't create many chances but thankfully spurned a good one before the half-time whistle.  And the after the restart Ole Soderberg was beaten but the bar saved him.

The Quakers should have had a penalty early in the second half after James Walshaw was taken out though it has to be said that Walshaw doesn't help matters as he can be a bit theatrical.

Darlo continued to attack but the Kiddy defence were defending well with some real last gasp blocks and it looked like the game would be goalless.

And then with ten minutes remaining Darlo got a throw which allowed Big Ex to hoist a ball deep into the Kiddy box - this was cleared but only as far as Jamie Chandler - he popped the ball back in where Big Ex flicked it to Sanchez-Munoz who finished neatly from close-range for his first goal for the club.

Kidderminster rallied and had a couple of good chances - one after Sanchez-Munoz was turned inside out by the Kiddy forward line but for once Sodeberg looked in control and came out to gather the ball.

The lead could have been doubled at the end as Darlo attacked on the counter - Bowman outran the Kiddy defence but hit the post with only the keeper to beat.

Overall a very decent performance, especially after Tuesday's win, and it goes someway to ridding the memory of that woeful performance just one week ago at Bath.

Sanchez-Munoz scores his debut goal to win the game for the Quakers

Monday, 10 October 2011

Darlo's form down the plughole!

Another one of those annoying days where the District line wasn't running on my end of the line so it was a no 5 down to Canning Town instead where I could join the Jubilee line and along to Paddington.

For breakfast we were re-visiting Raffles on Craven Road - in the past it has been just about OK and if there were other decent ones in the area then we'd go elsewhere.

However I had the Chef's Special - basically the normal breakfast, no chips but with orange juice and marmalade (though I didn't actually get the latter) - and it was very good. Even the standard catering-type sausage had some taste.

The journey to Bath passed by quickly - John read his paper and I rested my eyes for a while - and we were greeted at the station by Trev who was billetted just down the road in nearby Keynsham with his better half.

We hadn't wandered far into town before Brian called to see where we were. He soon caught up and the four of us wandered up along the river and then popped into a free art exhibition for a small dollop of culture.

The West Gate was our first pub for the day and it had a rather disappointing selection of beers, certainly compared to last season - GK IPA, Wadworth 6X, Morland Old Speckled Hen and Ringwoods Exmoor Gold - we all opted for pints of the Exmoor Gold. We'd not been there long when Steve joined us.

There were some decent ciders though - Gwynt y Draig Black Dragon and Mr Whiteheads Equinox - the Black Dragon was a quaffable 4.5% so not too dangerous as a second lunchtime pint.

From here we took a pair of taxis to the Royal Oak - only to get there and find the pub closed. I knocked on the door and the manager came out to say his staff hadn't turned up and he wouldn't be opening for an hour at least! Not keen on the thought of having to serve a few people on his own obviously.

(left) Liam Hatch tries to decapitate the opposition

This was a bit of a blow but Steve remembered there was another decent pub nearby - the White Horse - and so it proved but it was up a very steep hill, way above the ground. Both Brian and I were puffing like good 'uns by the time we got to the top.

A decent selection of beers - Otter Bitter and Head, Yeovil Ales Star Gazer and Devilfish That Gold Devil. We got stuck into our beers and then set about warning others that the Royal Oak was shut.

I got chatting to Jase the landlord - a nice young lad who has turned the pub around from serving one middling ale to having a good regualr selection, occasional beer festivals and a nice tasty menu (doing the cooking himself) which lead to it becoming Bath Pub of the Year 2011.

John B joined us after a while - he'd decided to walk from the station - and then a rare appearance from Frank (joejacques in Darlo Uncovered MB-speak) who is exiled in peaceful Milfordhaven which makes Bath a local-ish fixture for him.

Some may remember Frank as he dressed up as a Quaker for the FA Trophy final - or even many moons ago when he turned up at an away game at Huddersfield after shaving half his beard off! It was good to see him again.

I left the gang a little early so I could collect my press pass - it seemed quite busy today in the home end and it turned out they were doing a special offer for students.

No major changes in the squad - a nice day for football, dry and quite warm and a nice friendly ambience at this cosy little ground. Time to get our season back on track.

A slow start to the game - not a lot happening at all - the only excitement was for me when the senior steward came striding towards me. Apparently I wasn't wearing a bib and the ref was complaining.

Normally a club will issue a bib before we come on but we didn't get any on our visit here last season - thankfully I carry a spare hi-vis bib so not a problem for me. Amusing though that the ref might confuse me with a footballer - quite heartening I suppose!

Chances were limited for both teams in the first half - we had the odd skirmish but their keeper only had to deal with a couple of crosses although he was probably thankful that Arnison's long-range shot went narrowly wide.

Unfortunately for Arnison that was about it - he was injured shortly afterwards and was stretchered off to be replaced by Chris Atkinson.

(right) Mark Copper wonders where it all went wrong

Ole Sodeberg didn't really have to touch the ball in the first half - he carefully watched a couple of shots go the right side of the woodwork - but the makeshift defence managed to keep things at bay.

Overall though Bath City looked the livelier outfit as Darlo failed to hit any sort of rhythm - it was a painful sight and the management team looked extremely frustrated at their lack of progress.

At half-time I joined the others for a quick natter before joining the queue for some chips, only getting served seconds before the game resumed ("queue full of students, you're just a queue full of students").

Adam Rundle and the Bath City subs warmed up around me and you could see their eyes light up as they saw (and smelt) my potato lovelies. And very good they were too.

Early in the second half substitutes John Campbell and Ryan Bowman were sent on for Walshaw and Purcell - Bowman worked hard and made some progress but Campbell looked lost (though to be fair the service to him was minimal).

With about twenty minutes to go the deadlock was broken as the Quakers failed to clear a corner and the ball was tapped into an open goal. Bath joy, Darlo despair.

And then a few minutes later, Bath forward Phillips was given far too much time and space and slotted the ball past Sodeburg. Darlo despair doubled.

The away side looked stunned and completely lost as they tried to get back into the game - Campbell had an effort cleared off the line and Hatch headed over but that was as good as it got. Not very good in fact.

Mark Cooper disappeared into the dugout as he seems to do at times like these whilst Dryden tried to chivy the players. I suspect that like the rest of us, Cooper is at a loss for the continued poor performances.

Darlo fans vented their fury on the players after the final whistle - Brough came in for some stick which was a tad unfair as he wasn't the worst of the bunch - and at least he came over to the fans unlike some others who just went straight to the dressing room.

Thankfully we had a taxi booked to pick us up and so it wasn't long before we were at the station. Trev and Steve left to get their trains whilst Brian, the two Johns and myself headed off to the Raven.

The place was quite busy when we got there - we had a pint of Vale VPA but it wasn't brilliant - not a bad pint but not something we were enjoying and most of us failed to finish them before we headed off to the Volunteer and Rifleman (or the Volly for short).

A pub we'd never tried and I wished we hadn't - a bit of a rugger-buggers pub. As I walked in, a guy in a Wales RFC shirt said "shouldn't you be in New Zealand, ha ha?". A reference, dear reader, to my alleged likeness to France rugby player Sebastien Chabal.

I can't remember the beer we had but it was rather uninspiring too. In fact I think the best drinks were the That Gold Devil and the Black Dragon cider.

A strange day overall in which the highlight was probably the breakfast and it isn't often I say that...

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

You Knows It...

The recent set of results for Darlo - 4 defeats and 2 draws - had seen the messageboards approach meltdown with the knee-jerk suggestions of the great Darlo-supporting public (whatever that is) and debating whether we would be better off with or without Mark Cooper.

My view is that whilst Cooper is not perfect, the team have certainly not lived up to the pre-season hype following the FA Trophy win and have certainly under-performed far too often.

There was a key change in personnel with several players departing - some such as Tommy Wright and Chris Senior were expected and probably did not have a major impact whilst others - Paul Terry and Gary Smith as well as Arman Verma - have probably affected the squad more significantly on and off the pitch.

Today we add into this mix the reappearance of that perennial jinx, Howard, so that you would fear the worst for Darlo in their home game against Newport.

On the journey north, Martin outlined the utter despondency of the midweek defeat at home to Southport. A horror story - I'm glad I wasn't there.

At Doncaster a plane spotter joined our table - he was an exiled Geordie so it wasn't long before we got talking about football before talking about planes and how the US had ripped off our best designs - we were quite cheery when we arrived at Bank Top.

Howard went off to Taylors whilst I headed straight for the Quaker where I found some peple sitting at "our" table. I then noticed that half the handpumps were off. Just what was going on?

It turns out that some repairs were being made to the handpumps which meant a reduced choice: Tirril Moroccan Sunset, Jarrow McConnel's Irish Stout, Mithril Ale's Odd Shaped Balls, Lymestone Stonecutter and Banks & Taylor's Edwin Taylors Extra Stout.

(left) Gary Smith and Sam Russell have a mutual moan

Unusually I only tried a couple of halves - the Moroccan Sunset and the Stonecutter before I decided to stick to the latter as it was a tasty session beer.

I'd been joined by Trevor, Brian and John W - no Tony as he was saving himself for a 6km run the next day - and after a while our table was vacated, we moved in and the match-day status quo was restored. These things are important.

And then onto Number Twenty-2 - Mordue Radgie Gadgie, Jarrow McConnells Irish Stout and Saltaire South Island Pale on tap in addition to the home beers.

Tony finally joined us at the pub for a couple of halves before he drove us down to the Arena. A low crowd was being mooted and it certainly wasn't very busy when we got there.

I had a quick peruse of the club shop but nothing really jumped out at me so I headed to reception and signed in.

As I went for my pre-match wee up on level 1, I bumped into DAFTS Steve Rees - he's not been well recently but he is out of hospital now and getting to games by use of a wheelchair although he is starting to get around on crutches. Good to see him back - no reason why he shouldn't suffer like everyone else!

The main item of team news was the dropping of keeper Sam Russell - replaced by Newcastle's number 5 keeper, Ole Sodeberg. A tad harsh on Russell as he hadn't done a lot wrong so far and he's certainly saved us in some games. e.g. Grimsby.

The first half was a tightly contested affair - Darlington had probably the majority of possession and did seem to be making a concious effort.

Newport however applied some pressure so that there were some hasty clearances by the home defence - clearly they hadn't had much time to work with the new keeper and weren't prepared to leave things to him unless absolutely necessary.

(right) Michael Brough shoots

For their part, the home crowd was being supportive and were only too willing to applaud hard work and good play although there was still the odd moan and groan when passes went astray.

But there was a big smile on the faces of the home fans after thirty minutes when MB-W scored from the penalty spot.

Tadhg Purcell was deemed to have been bundled over - and from what I saw through my lens it could have been one of a couple of defenders who were responsible - the ref was adamant and who am I to argue?

And then after fifteen minutes of the second half, Purcell was once again involved - this time to poke home the ball after Hatch had headed down a cross. It was cleared by the Newport defence but only after it had crossed the line and there were a few heart-stopping seconds before we were sure we'd scored.

At half-time I noticed Gary Smith in block 11 - apparently he has been to a few games this season - and he came down to the pitch to have a few words with an obviously unhappy Sam Russell.

In the second half, Darlo created a few more chances - MB-W going close with a long range shot which almost made it 3-0.

Debutant Sodeberg didn't have a lot more to do except collect a couple of crosses - unfortunately he fumbled the ball on each occasion. Peter Beardsley was in the stand, presumably making notes - I suspect like me, he wasn't greatly impressed.

All in all it wasn't a brilliant performance but we did what we had to and got all three points. Jamie Chandler worked his socks off and was rightly awarded declared man of the match. I thought the defence played well and protected their new keeper. Up front Purcell looked busier - hopefully his first goal will spur him on.

On the way back to the station we stopped off to get some fish and chips - very nice they were too - before catching the train back to King's Cross.

We had planned to celebrate the win with a few beers in the Euston Tap but Martin was developing a healthy sniffle all the way back and he decided to just go home instead.

(above) Mark Bridge-Wilkinson scores from the penalty spot to give the Qaukers the lead