FRIDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL

FA Trophy First qualifying round
St Ives Town v Kettering Town

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It’s a Friday night and instead of sitting on the sofa watching Grand Designs and tucking into a Szechuan chicken (with extra chillies), I’m at an FA Trophy first qualifying round game between St Ives and Kettering. Modern football, eh? Bloody Sky, forcing clubs into ridiculous kick-off times to suit their schedules, with no thought given to how their tinkering impacts on real fans.

Unfortunately for the sake of the narrative, this time it’s actually got nothing to do with Sky. And it’s not the fault of BT Sport either. Or ITV, or the BBC. We can’t even blame Cambridge TV. There’s not a television camera in sight. No satellite vans taking up all the spaces in the ProEdge Stadium car park, no fans being interviewed outside, no pundits huddled on the pitch pre-match.

In fact it’s not our evil TV overlords who are responsible for forcing me to miss my weekly Chinese takeaway, but the fickle hand of fate. Both St Ives and  Cambridge City, who share their ground, were drawn at home in the cup and, as clearly they couldn’t both play on a Saturday afternoon, it was decided that the St Ives game would take place the night before. I’m here because St Ives are the team I’m currently following through the FA Trophy.

2015-10-30 20.22.55Despite missing out on Chinese food (and if I’m honest, I could do with cutting back anyway), I was actually quite happy with this scheduling. Having seen St Ives play at home in the previous round a couple of weeks earlier, if I had to return to their ground, it would be nice to see it in a different light, so to speak. Generally speaking, I prefer evening games anyway and, despite the slight inconvenience, there’s something about Friday night football that I like. It’s the perfect curtain-raiser to the weekend – leaving Saturday and Sunday free to do other things.

And it seems I’m not alone. Even though the weather was miserable, the attendance at tonight’s game would be 325, compared to 205 for the game against Rugby Town in the previous round, played on a warm and sunny, Sunday afternoon. The bigger crowd – including around 120 noisy travelling fans – generated a better atmosphere and in the rain and under floodlights it felt like a proper cup-tie.

In non-league terms Kettering Town are a big fish. Formed in 1872, they have had a rollercoaster history, littered with bizarre episodes, unlikely claims to fame and a modicum of success on the pitch, including a couple of FA Trophy finals and some FA Cup giant-killing exploits. In the 70s they gained some notoriety by becoming the first British club to have a sponsor’s name on their strip – incurring the wrath of the FA in the process – and were the first (and as far as I know, only – club to spell out their initials on their floodlights. The last 20 years has been a turbulent time to say the least, what with almost going bust, losing their ground, being demoted two divisions and deducted points and their chairman being banned from football for breaking FA betting rules. Paul Gascoigne’s 39-day spell as manager was a train crash but the lowest point probably came in 2012 when they lost 7-0 to Bashley after only being able to field 10 men. At that point it looked like the club’s days were numbered but somehow they survived and these days, despite still being homeless, Kettering seem to be in better shape. They currently play in the Southern League Premier Division, having won promotion from Division 1 last season, and share a ground with Burton Park Wanderers.

Of course, football fans being football fans, sympathy for the less fortunate is in short supply, even at this more friendly level of the game. An opportunity for bantz is rarely passed up. So when the Kettering supporters struck up a chorus of that old terrace favourite “shit ground, no fans”, St Ives responded with “no ground, shit fans”. Cruel, but quite amusing, although I’m sure it’s not the first time they’ve heard it.

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In my never-ending (but I suspect, ultimately futile) quest to force my two sons to like football, I had dragged them along with me. The youngest was keen until I broke the news to him that it wasn’t the Champions League. They eventually agreed to come on the condition that they could bring their iPhones. Modern football, eh? We took our seats in the Lance Everdell Stand just as the game was kicking off and within seconds we almost witnessed a goal. After a sweeping move, the St Ives winger hit a low cross to the far post but the ball skidded on the damp surface and went out of play before striker Danny Watson could get a touch. A few minutes later Watson had another chance, when he got beyond the Kettering defence then fluffed his shot.

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After this bright start for the home team, Kettering came into the game more and it looked like they would take the lead when they were awarded a soft penalty for handball by Charlie De’ath. But much to the delight of the St Ives fans, who had been taunting their former striker Dubi Ogbonna since kick-off (“you’re only there for the money”), his weak shot was easily saved and the rebound sent high over the crossbar into the night sky. As the half progressed, both teams had chances to score but failed to take them. My 6-year-old’s half-time verdict: “I’m bored. And hungry.” If only ITV pundits showed such insight.

DSC_3045Actually, one of the problems with non-league football is that you often find yourself sitting or standing close to relatives of the players, which can be awkward. Apologies therefore to the parents of a couple of St Ives players who had to put up with 90 minutes of guffawing and mocking of their offspring’s efforts from the two horrible brats sitting in front of them.

After the end-to-end drama of the first 45 minutes, the second half turned out to be bit of a bore, even for me. Kettering finally scored via a somewhat fluky looping header and despite a grandstand finish St Ives couldn’t break through for an equaliser. As the home team bombarded the Kettering goal with a succession of high crosses, the eldest son looked up from his iPhone and summed up the game – and possibly non-league football as a whole – with a withering: “They’re very good at headers here. Shame they’re not so good at scoring goals.”

So next stop Kettering…

*consults map*

Where is Kettering anyway?

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