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Cardiff finally rid themselves of “nearly-men” tag

The inevitable was finally confirmed last night as Cardiff’s battling 0-0 draw against in-form Charlton secured promotion to the Premier League.

The Cardiff City Stadium has been a fortress this season

The Cardiff City Stadium has been a fortress this season

Malky Mackay’s team has led the Championship since November and despite a shaky run of results the Football League’s perennial bottlers never looked like messing up their promotion charge. After years of “so near yet so far” the Cardiff fans were finally allowed to celebrate their long-awaited promotion to the Premier League.

When Cardiff were last relegated from the top flight in May 1962 Harold MacMillan was the British Prime Minister, the Algerian War of Independence had just ended, the Cuban Missile Crisis was still a few months away and Elvis Presley was in the charts with Good Luck Charm. To say Cardiff’s promotion has been a long time coming is an understatement.

A deserved promotion?

Cardiff deserve their promotion, having been by far the most consistent team in the division.

The Bluebirds have not played the most entertaining football in the Championship this season and most fans would agree the current squad isn’t as talented as some of the ones which have fallen short in recent years. But the key difference this season has been Cardiff’s winning mentality and the determination of the players to succeed.

Since taking over at the club less than two years ago Malky Mackay has worked hard in the transfer market to bring in young, hungry and ambitious players, with most of his recruits coming from the Football League.

Cardiff’s main strength has been its defence which has been rock solid, especially at home. The centre-back partnership of Turner and Hudson has been reassuring with both players enjoying magnificent seasons. Connolly at right-back has been impressive, and Andrew Taylor has been the best left-back in the Championship this season. The defence has had to cope with injuries, especially in recent months, but young Ben Nugent, the experienced Kevin McNaughton and on-loan Leon Barnett have filled in admirably.

Goal-keeper David Marshall has also shown great improvement this season, possibly due to greater competition from former Peterborough goalie Joe Lewis. Marshall has always been a good shot-stopper but in the past the Scot has been unreliable when dealing with crosses. This season has seen the former Celtic man become a more rounded goal-keeper.

One of the most remarkable things about Cardiff’s season is the way they’ve dominated the league without depending on any one player. It has been a team effort from start to finish, with the goal-scoring responsibility shared between the entire squad. No Cardiff player has reached double figures yet this season and 16 different players have netted for the Bluebirds this term.

Some people have pointed to the £14m spent by Mackay in assembling his squad, but this does the manager a huge disservice. He’s firmly put his stamp on the club, getting rid of most of the worst traits of the Dave Jones era. He’s transformed the team from a dysfunctional collection of perennial bottlers into a well-drilled, determined group of winners.

It’s often said a great team is one which can win while playing poorly. This has been exemplified by Cardiff.

In a season where inconsistency has been rife in the second tier, Cardiff have shown the focus required to string results together. When times have been tough and the team’s been tired the side from the Welsh capital has somehow managed to turn draws into victories. Of their 25 league wins this season 17 have been by just one goal. This demonstrates the pluckiness and resilience of the team, and its ability to consistently grind out results.

Similar to Reading

What may be slightly unnerving for Cardiff supporters is the way their season mirrors that of Reading last season.

Reading too based their promotion push on narrow, hard-fought victories. Reading’s top scorer was super-sub Adam Le Fondre, who only managed 12 goals, with the top-scoring regular starter Noel Hunt scoring just eight times. Much like Cardiff the Royals had a solid defence, which frustrated Championship strike-forces and made amends for the lack of creativity in midfield and up front. Reading’s style of play, tough, workmanlike and resolute but unspectacular, was very similar to Cardiff’s style this season.

Reading now look set for an instant return to the Football League because their gutsy attitude couldn’t compensate for a lack of talent and potency.

But there are two key differences between Reading and Cardiff which could make the difference.

Firstly Cardiff look set to spend big in order to strengthen the squad this summer. Controversial owner and lover of all things red Vincent Tan has hinted at giving Mackay a £25m treasure chest to help him turn his team from functional to Premier League class. Reading’s unwillingness to add to their Championship-winning squad cost them as their team was shown to be inadequate against a higher calibre of players in the Premier League. Early indications are that Cardiff won’t make the same mistake.

Secondly Cardiff will be going up with more momentum than Reading. This is the first time in over half a century the Welsh capital will have a team in the top division of English football. Generations of supporters have never seen their club in the top flight, but all this frustration will now be transformed into enthusiasm and excitement. Having lived in Cardiff I can testify to the passion of Cardiff fans. They genuinely care about their club and desperately want it to do well.

The whole city will get behind the Bluebirds and create a feel-good-factor. When a whole city, especially one the size of Cardiff, unifies behind a team it creates a buzzing atmosphere, which the players and staff can feed off. This was seen when Cardiff’s bitter rivals Swansea were promoted, provoking a wave of positivity which was essential in keeping the club in the big league.

Reading fans had already experienced promotion once, and couldn’t recreate the excitement felt under Steve Coppell. Last year’s promotion lacked the buzz of their first one in 2006.

Can Cardiff stay up?

Of course they can, but they undoubtedly need plenty of fresh faces, especially in midfield and in attack. It’s essential they add players capable of making the difference in the Premier League.

Players such as Gunnarsson, Mutch, Cowie, Helguson and Gestede simply don’t have the required ability to compete in the top flight, while flair players such as Kim, Noone and Mason may find it tricky to adapt at first. Bellamy’s best days are behind him and Peter Wittingham is thought to be considering his future.

The acquisition of Fraizer Campbell in January was a positive move which showed Mackay’s ambition as well as recognition of where Cardiff need to strengthen.

The fans must also stay patient next season if they hit rough patches. Cardiff’s fans are renowned for their passion but they can also be incredibly impatient when things don’t go their way. They can’t afford to turn on the team if they go on an unfavourable run of results. Unity and support is imperative in what will probably be a tough season.

The club’s Malaysian owner Vincent Tan also has to give his controversial rebranding a rest. Last summer’s kit colour change caused outrage among supporters and a similar fiasco this summer could take the shine off the promotion and draw attention away from the players.

But Cardiff shouldn’t fear the big step up. There is a considerable difference in quality between this season’s opposition and next season’s opposition but the bottom of the Premier League is weaker now than it has been for years. With some wise investments and the passionate backing of the club’s fans Cardiff could definitely stay up next season and succeed in the long run.

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Thatcher’s footballing legacy

In an ironic twist of fate the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher comes on the same week as the 24th anniversary of Britain’s worst football disaster, the Hillsborough disaster.

The Daily Mail claimed on Tuesday that football owed a debt of gratitude to the woman who “saved English football.” Wigan chairman Dave Whelan has backed the Daily Mail’s call for a minute’s silence before next weekend’s games, including before his club’s FA Cup semi-final against Millwall.

However many football fans, including the Hillsborough families, have claimed a minute’s silence for the former Prime Minister would be insulting.

The Iron Lady had a combative approach to football. Credit: Robertthuffstutter

The Iron Lady had a combative approach to football. Credit: Robertthuffstutter

Legacy

The Iron Lady’s time in Downing Street coincided with one of the darkest periods in English football’s history.

Thatcher took over as Prime Minister in 1979 shortly after Nottingham Forest had lifted their second successive European Cup and she was forced out of her job in 1990 a few months after the publication of the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster. During her tenure English footballing success dried up on the field and chaos ensued off the field to the point where it endangered the sport’s future in England.

When Thatcher took over from James Callaghan in May 1979 English clubs were outperforming the rest of Europe and celebrating unprecedented success. But under the surface football was losing its battle against hooliganism.

As unemployment grew and the age of protest swept across Britain, young football supporters saw hooliganism as a way of venting frustrations and rebelling. Football violence had been growing throughout the 70s and by 1979 it had become highly problematic.

Another problem was the deteriorating state of the country’s stadiums. Most football grounds had become outdated and inadequate for the problems of the late 70s and early 80s. Stadiums were crumbling, health and safety was non-existent and supporter safety was routinely jeopardised.

In her early years in office Thatcher paid little attention to football, apart from when she considered a boycott of the 1982 World Cup due to the Falklands situation. She was not a football fan and had little time for the national sport, especially since the sport’s image at the time was appalling at home and abroad.

But 1985 saw a change in approach by Thatcher and her government.

Tragedy

On 11 May 1985 Bradford City were due to lift the Division Three trophy after their game against Lincoln City. Towards the end of the first half a discarded cigarette lit a pile of rubbish underneath the old wooden stand and the fire spread quickly.

There were no fire extinguishers in the stand as the authorities believed they were likely to be used as weapons by hooligans. Many of the emergency exits had been locked as part of a Football League directive to prevent ticketless fans from sneaking into stadiums after kick-off.

In total 56 fans died in the blaze. It highlighted the pressing need to update stadiums and make them safer for fans.

Later that month the Heysel disaster further exemplified the problems surrounding English football. Liverpool were preparing to face Juventus in the European Cup final in Brussels’s Heysel Stadium. Before the game there was rioting which culminated with Liverpool fans chasing Juventus fans across a terrace. A crush ensued and a supporting wall collapsed, with 39 Italian supporters declared dead.

English football’s reputation abroad was in tatters and there was condemnation across the continent. UEFA eventually banned all English clubs from participating in European competition, a move which Thatcher rightly agreed to.

After six years of inaction Thatcher’s government made efforts to combat the problem of hooliganism, but still did nothing to improve fan safety. Thatcher routinely described football hooligans as “animals” but her attitudes and actions seem to suggest she thought the same of all football supporters.

The proposed introduction of Football ID Cards was met with horror by lovers of the beautiful game, who saw them as an insult to decent, law-abiding fans. Attempts to ban away supporters from grounds also drew fierce opposition. Thatcher’s approach seemed to be to tar everybody with the same brush, and even considered erecting electric fences at the front of stands and terraces in order to keep fans off the pitch.

But Thatcher, or more specifically her government’s connection to football will forever be remembered because of Hillsborough.

Hilsborough

On April 15 1989, 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death on an overcrowded terrace during an FA Cup semi-final between their club an Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium. The oldest victim was 67-year-old Gerard Bernard Patrick Baron, the youngest was 10-year-old John Paul Gilhooley (cousin of Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard)  and 37 teenagers died at Hillsborough.

The Taylor Report which followed the tragedy found the Lappings Lane end of the stadium had been woefully inadequate for such a high volume of fans. The report recommended wide-ranging changes to stadiums in Britain, including the eradication of terracing from top football grounds.

 While Thatcher and her government had focused attentions on combatting “the English disease” they had ignored the problems highlighted by the Valley Parade fire in 1985. No attempt had been made to improve stadium safety and the consequences were tragically felt at Hillsborough.

The 2012 inquiry into Hillsborough also found Thatcher’s government had been instrumental in covering up the failures of the police at Hillsborough. While the report declared there was no evidence of Thatcher herself being involved in the cover-up, the Iron Lady had created the culture which made police cover-ups the norm during the 80s. The Prime Minister wholeheartedly backed the police despite constant corruption and outrageously heavy-handed tactics when dealing with strikers and protestors. This fuelled a culture of complacency among the police and meant the Hillsborough families had to wait 23 years for vindication and an official confirmation of the truth.

Football the enemy

Thatcher never pretended to like football and regularly showed distain towards the national sport. To her credit she took on hooligans head first in the aftermath of Heysel but she didn’t understand the sport or the people who followed football. She made the mistake of viewing all football fans as hooligans and couldn’t see beyond the violent minority.

Just like the trade unions and the Argentinians she viewed football hooligans as the enemy, and was therefore determined to win at all costs. She failed to conquer hooliganism during her time in number 10 and her attitude towards football harmed the sport. The massive strides taken by English football at all levels since 1990 is astonishing considering the sorry state the game was in when Thatcher left Downing Street.

The suggestion working class football fans should be asked to observe a minute’s silence for Margaret Thatcher this weekend is rich to say the least. She paid the game no respect at all and it’s very questionable whether football should pay any respect back.

The best away days (and weekends) in the Football League

Football tourism has exploded in recent years across the globe as more and more people decide to combine football with their holidays.

Last year 4% of visitors to the UK watched a football game while in the country, and Brits are regularly hopping on planes for footballing weekends on the continent. Barcelona, Amsterdam and Munich are all very popular due to the good beer, delicious cuisine, fabulous sights and of course, the entertaining football.

But many English football tourists don’t leave their homeland, choosing instead to take weekend breaks in England. There are plenty of fascinating and intriguing cities which are perfect for a relaxing weekend away, but which also offer a fantastic matchday.

If you want a bit more out of your matchday than just a long journey and 90 minutes of football, here are a few suggestions of great matchdays in the Football League. These places offer football with extras; sights, culture and nightlife.

So, where are the best matchdays in the Football League for away fans?

 

Carlisle United

Situated to the north of the Lake District and just ten miles from the Scottish border, Carlisle is probably the Football League’s most remote outpost.

Carlisle is a beautiful little city, surrounded by picturesque countryside. Brunton Park is on the outskirts of Carlisle, but there are a few good pubs around the ground. You can also walk fifteen minutes along Warwick Road into the city centre where there is an abundance of pubs and plenty to see.

The city centre has attractions such as Carlisle Castle, the Cathedral and the Citadel, but just walking around the quaint streets of this medieval city is a pleasant experience. Carlisle’s Tudor revival architecture is very impressive, and you’ll find many small shops and cafés if pubs aren’t your scene.

And if you want a bit more peace and quiet, Cumbria has some of the most beautiful scenery in England. Head off for a hike or even a scenic drive around its spectacular hills and lakes.

Carlisle fans are notoriously friendly, and are usually very talkative. Carlisle’s the perfect away day for the start or the end of the football season, when the sun’s shining.

 

York City

York’s return to the Football League was greeted joyfully by League 2 fans who knew what a great matchday it can be. Bootham Crescent, York City’s home ground, is less than a 15 minute walk from York’s main sights and the bustling city centre.

York is one of England’s oldest cities, and also one of the most beautiful. It has several historic sights worth visiting such as York Minster, York Castle and the city walls. With nearly 2,000 years of history, it’s not surprising York has a plethora of museums, the best of which is probably the Jorvik Viking Centre.

The city may seem too cultured for football supporters, but don’t worry, there are plenty of places to drink. There are a few pubs near the ground, all of which accept away fans, and the nightlife in the city centre is highly recommended.

York City fans are generally very pleasant, therefore visiting supporters never feel threatened, and can converse easily with the locals.

 

Cardiff City

Cardiff has been transformed in recent years into a modern European capital city, with plenty to see and do, other than watch the football.

The Cardiff City Stadium is located in the Canton area of Cardiff, which admittedly isn’t a great advert for the Welsh capital. Other than the newly erected shopping centre near the stadium, there’s very little for away fans to do, as none of the nearby pubs allow travelling supporters. This is due to Cardiff fans’ reputation for violence and antagonism, and though the club has taken great strides in recent years to eliminate hooliganism from the club, Cardiff fans remain generally less welcoming than most Football League fans.

The best way to see Cardiff on an away day is to arrive in the city centre and travel to the game by train after a bit of sightseeing.

Milennium stadium tours are very entertaining, while Cardiff on a rugby day is an experience.

Milennium stadium tours are very entertaining, while Cardiff on a rugby day is an experience.

Cardiff city centre is packed with good pubs, great shopping and some brilliant sights. The Millennium Stadium tour is a great use of a spare hour, and Cardiff Castle is an extremely impressive structure.

Since Welsh devolution in 1999, a fortune has been spent making Cardiff attractive to tourists. Cardiff Bay used to be an industrial wasteland, however the new Senedd (Welsh for parliament), the Millennium Centre and the array of new bars and restaurants, have made it a glamorous honey pot.

If you’re lucky enough to have an away game in Cardiff on the same day as rugby international, a night out with the boozy egg-chasers is recommended.

 

Plymouth Argyle

The Football League’s most Southerly and Westerly club, Plymouth Argyle, offers a brilliant away weekend, which caters to football fans of all tastes.

Plymouth is a naval city, and as such has a wide variety of drinking establishments. The Barbican is the perfect place to spend a hot afternoon, with plenty of pubs offering great food and drink, while North Hills is ideal for student nights out.

Near the stadium, the Britannia is the most popular place for away fans to congregate.

Home Park is a strange ground, with three modern stands and a single, classic stand running along the touchline. The Green Army are very proud of their club, and fans enjoy discussing football with visitors.

If you want to chill out (or nurse a hangover) on a Sunday, the Hoe is a fine place to sit and relax. But if the weather permits, why not head to a local beach? The coastline around Plymouth is dotted with quiet, picturesque, sandy beaches where you can lay down for a bit or sample the surf.

And if you don’t fancy watching Plymouth play, you could always jump on the ferry and head off to watch lower league football in Spain. There are ferries travelling from Plymouth to Santander, where Racing are struggling in the Segunda after last year’s relegation from La Liga.

 

Notts County and Nottingham Forest

Only 300 yards separate the Football League’s two closest grounds, and the city of Nottingham provides a great football weekend.

Though Meadow Lane and the City Ground are around a 25 minute walk from the city centre, there’s plenty to excite fans in the area around the two stadia. There are pubs and food outlets around the grounds, and the Nottingham clubs are the only ones in Britain with a nearby Hooters, where fans can enjoy good food and drink, surrounded by skimpily-dressed waitresses.

The grounds themselves have been modernised over the years, and fans of both sides are generally friendly.

The Oldest Inn in England, in Nottingham

The Oldest Inn in England, in Nottingham

Nottingham’s city centre isn’t the prettiest, but it has an instantly recognisable statue of Robin Hood, paying tribute to the area’s most famous figure. There’s also now a statue to the city’s most celebrated adopted inhabitant, the late great Brian Clough, who led Forest to two European Cups.

The Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, established in 1189, is believed to be the “Oldest Inn in England,” and though this fact is disputed by some, what can’t be debated is that it’s a great historical sight, which also serves a good pint.

And if you want something a little rowdier than a medieval pub, Nottingham’s renowned nightlife should do the trick. With hundreds of bars and clubs, Nottingham has developed a reputation as one of the best nights out in the UK, so if your team has lost, there are plenty of places where you can forget about it.

 

Shrewsbury Town

Many fans would argue the away trip to Shrewsbury has lost a bit of its shine since the club relocated from the quaint, Gay Meadow, near the town centre to the modern Greenhous Meadow stadium on the outskirts of Shrewsbury.

But Shrewsbury still has plenty to offer visiting supporters. The town centre has impressively retained its charm, and the Tudor and Georgian architecture give the place real character.

The castle towers over the rest of the town, and looks mightily impressive. There’s also the church of St Chad, which is the second largest domed church in the UK. Shrewsbury has a reputation for good shopping, with many people attracted to the town at Christmas time when the streets feel particularly atmospheric.

There are a few pubs around the new stadium, although fans also have the option of drinking in the town centre before catching a bus to the ground.  Shrewsbury town centre has plenty of great pubs and restaurants, and is capable of being a good night out.

 

Blackpool

The Football League has many seaside resorts which are worth visiting like Bournemouth, Brighton and Southend. But Blackpool is Britain’s number one seaside resort for a reason.

Bloomfield Road itself is a short walk from the promenade and the beach, and the seaside is practically unavoidable for away fans, whether they’re there for a weekend, a day or simply a few hours.

Only a 20 minute walk from the ground is the famous Pleasure Beach, with its fantastic selection of rides and amusements. It’s a brilliant attraction for kids and big kids alike.

There’s also Blackpool Tower and the pier, which are both must-sees, and for younger supporters a donkey ride along the beach is essential.

The ground itself has been modernised, but the away stand still looks rickety and hastily built compared to the rest of Bloomfield Road. Home fans tend to be very welcoming and pleasant.

There are plenty of pubs around the ground which cater to all tastes, and there’s no need to travel far to look for somewhere to eat or drink. If you’re there for the weekend, Blackpool is full of pubs, bars and clubs, which guarantee an eventful night out.

Although Blackpool is normally associated with the summer, it can be enjoyed in any conditions when there’s football on. Blackpool may seem tacky to some, but most see it for what it is: an old-school resort town, which promises a good time.

FA Cup 1st round special

League 1 and 2 is off this weekend due to the 1st round of the FA Cup and we’re all waiting patiently for some giant-killings!

Every year a host of league clubs make uncomfortable journeys to cramped, rusty old non-league grounds, hoping they can overcome the bumpy pitches and excitable fans in order to book their spot in the next round.

But it just wouldn’t be the FA Cup without the odd upset. Therefore I’ve trawled the fixture list, looking through the league vs non-league fixtures for some quirky stories and possible upsets.

 And please feel comment on any of these previews and whether or not you agree with my upset ratings.

Cambridge City vs MK Dons                         Upset Rating: 4/10

The Friday night game will be televised on ESPN, proving the media smell a possible upset in this game. The Dons are desperate to get promoted this season and the Cup’s unlikely to be a priority for manager Karl Robinson. Unusually for the aesthetically pleasing MK Dons, they’ve struggled for goals this season. However, Cambridge City (not to be confused with former league outfit United) are also struggling at the moment. Languishing 16th in the Southern League, they’ll need all the help they can get in this one. Home advantage might just be enough to get them the replay, but I think the Dons will have too much for City on this occasion.     

Hereford vs Shrewsbury                               Upset Rating: 5/10

Despite the two local rivals exiting League 2 in differing directions last season, the derby’s back. Neither club’s set the world alight in their new leagues and the Cup will be a chance to get a confidence boost. Expect a highly-charged, competitive derby, but I see Shrewsbury’s superior skill winning it for them. Expect drama!                       

Aldershot vs Hendon                     Upset Rating: 5/10

Aldershot have had a dreadful start to the season and Hendon will be boosted by the fact the Shots have only won once at home this season. However a light has recently appeared at the end of the Aldershot tunnel with a win and a draw ending their run of seven straight losses. Hendon aren’t doing too well either, 20th in the Isthmian League. They need to travel with confidence and determination. A few tasty tackles early on could unnerve Dean Holdsworth’s low-scoring side and make things interesting. Don’t rule out a replay in this one.                        

Carlisle vs Ebbsfleet                        Upset Rating: 5/10

Carlisle have struggled for consistency this season and manager Gregg Abbott’s emphasised the on and off-field importance of the Cup. Carlisle have hit poor form recently, but Ebbsfleet have only won three games all season. They’re capable of scoring against the Cumbrians, but the seriousness with which Abbott views this contest suggests Carlisle will want to get the job done.                           

Chelmsford vs Colchester            Upset Rating: 6/10

A meeting between two of the competition’s form teams, and this could also be classed as a derby with just 23 miles separating the two clubs. Chelmsford are 2nd in the Blue Square South and they have FA Cup pedigree; they’re aiming to reach the second round for the third season in a row. The confident Claret Army will be out in force and will be buzzing with confidence. On the other hand Colchester have suffered just one loss in seven games and are charging up the League  1 table. Despite Colchester’s hot form, this is the kind of opponent that causes problems for league clubs.             

Cheltenham vs Yate                        Upset Rating: 3/10

Yate are the lowest ranked side left in the competition, but don’t be fooled by the fact they’re bottom of the Evostik Southern League Division One South and West. In the last round they incredibly beat Blue Square Premier leaders Newport County in a replay. They’re plucky, they’re brave and they’re ready to take advantage of any Cheltenham complacency. Cheltenham should have too much for the beautifully nicknamed Bluebells. But everything we know about the Cup says that this is one to watch.                                                             

Coventry vs Arlesey                        Upset Rating: 4/10

When the first round draw was being made many non-league clubs would have hoped for an away tie at Coventry and it was Arlesey that got it. The Southern League side will travel to the impressive Ricoh Arena in high spirits and whatever the result, it’s likely to be an unforgettable day out for everybody connected with the club. But don’t rule out a replay in this tie. Coventry have only won once at home this season and though Mark Robins looks to be slowly turning things around at the Ricoh, there are still signs of fragility.                             

Doncaster vs Bradford Park Avenue        Upset Rating: 4/10

It’s a Yorkshire derby at the Keepmoat on Saturday as Rovers welcome Bradford PA. Bradford Park Avenue were once a league club until financial problems led to their expulsion from the league and eventual liquidation. They reformed but unlike clubs like AFC Wimbledon, FC United, and even Chester FC their climb back up the leagues has been slow and arduous. Nevertheless they hope to gain promotion to the Blue Square Premier this season. They’ll face a Doncaster team in great form, and it’ll take a monumental effort to beat them.                 

Forest Green vs Port Vale                            Upset Rating: 7/10

Forest Green Rovers aren’t your typical football club. They’re striving to become the world’s first organic football club. The stadium food’s completely vegetarian, the lawnmower’s solar-powered and the Chairman’s an eco-activist. However the formula seems to be working pretty well as Forest Green currently occupy a play-off spot in the Blue Square Premier. They’re playing well this season and targeting promotion to League 2. Port Vale on the other hand are looking to leave League 2 and return to League 1 under Mickey Adams. Vale look like a good bet for promotion, but away against tough opposition, this could be very interesting.                           

Fleetwood vs Bromley                   Upset Rating: 3/10

This is the first ever meeting between these two sides. Fleetwood have taken to life in League 2 like a cod to water (see what I did there). Last season they reached the third round where they were knocked out by local rivals Blackpool. They enjoy the Cup, but will know from personal experience that it’s unwise to underestimate lower league opponents. Bromley are adapting steadily to life in the Blue Square Premier and currently sit 16th in the table. Fleetwood’s confidence and superior skill, combined with home advantage should see them through.                   

Kidderminster vs Oldham             Upset Rating: 4/10

If you want proof of how tough the transition from league to non-league can be, take a look at Kidderminster Harriers. Since their relegation from League 2 in 2005 the Worcestershire club have struggled financially and now find themselves depressingly 21st in the Blue Square Premier. Oldham’s results have been inconsistent this season and just like last term goals are in short supply. This could be a tight one, and who knows, if Kidderminster approach the game in the right frame of mind they might get a valuable replay.                            

Lincoln vs Walsall                              Upset Rating: 3/10

Much like Kidderminster, Lincoln haven’t adapted to life outside the Football League. They’re currently 19th in the Blue Square Premier and battling against relegation. The Cup could provide some much-needed relief for the Imps but their record in the FA Cup hasn’t been good of late. Walsall are having their best season in years, playing entertaining, passing football on a limited budget. Lincoln will do very well to get a replay from this game.                      

Met Police vs Crawley                    Upset Rating: 2/10

It’ll be a very unusual feeling for the Met Police to have the neutrals on their side for a change. This is the first time the Met have reached the first round since 1993 and they’ve never gone beyond this stage of the competition.  They’re one of the lowest ranked teams left in the Cup and they’ll be facing a team that has its sights set on the Championship. Crawley know what it takes to succeed in the Cup as underdogs. Two years ago they narrowly lost at Old Trafford against Man Utd as a non-league team. Crawley’s rise has been phenomenal and they ooze professionalism and organisation. I can’t see the Met Police causing Crawley too many problems.                              

Southend vs Stockport                  Upset Rating: 7/10

Times have been tough for Stockport. They’ve had numerous brushes with bankruptcy and are lucky to remain in existence. But for the first time in years the club could be on the up. They’ve ended their ground-share agreement with Sale Sharks, meaning the rugby team no longer play at Edgeley Park and on the field they’re starting to play some good football. Their unflattering 11th place standing in the Blue Square Premier masks the good football they’ve been playing recently. Southend have been inconsistent this season and if they’re not careful they’ll be spending this season trapped in mid-table. Stockport could spring a surprise here.                           

Swindon vs Macclesfield               Upset Rating: 4/10

Last season this was a League 2 fixture. But this weekend’s fixture will see 7th place in League 1 taking on 7th place in the Blue Square Premier. Macclesfield have reacted admirably to relegation and haven’t been overwhelmed by the culture shock. Swindon under Paolo Di Canio have excelled in Cup competitions and last year they eliminated Wigan Athletic. Di Canio takes this competition very seriously. Although they may still be slightly tired physically and emotionally from their last gasp defeat to Premier League Villa on Tuesday, Swindon will in my opinion beat Macclesfield.         

Torquay vs Harrogate                     Upset Rating: 1/10

Harrogate’s preparations for this game can’t be ideal. After all they only qualified for the 1st Round on Wednesday night after winning a replay against Hyde in Extra Time. This means player-manager Simon Weaver will have just two whole days to prepare for his team’s game against Torquay. Add to that the fact that Harrogate now have one of the longest journeys in this round, plus the inevitable fatigue following the extra-time victory against Hyde and the Blue Square North side clearly have a mountain to climb. Torquay, currently 7th in league 2 and unbeaten at home, probably can’t believe their luck. I can’t see any hope for the Yorkshiremen. This should be Torquay’s most comfortable victory of the season.                                    

Braintree vs Tranmere                   Upset Rating: 4/10

Shamefully this is the only game being shown on terrestrial TV this weekend. Sunday’s clash sees League 1 table-toppers Tranmere travel to Blue Square Premier strugglers Braintree. Nobody on Earth expected Tranmere to be where they are in the league, but the team deserve to be where they are. However the last few games have been more difficult for Ronnie Moore’s men and Braintree, in front of the ITV cameras, will look to take advantage. They’ll raise their game for the cameras and this game will be difficult for Tranmere. It’s certainly worth keeping an eye on events at Cressing Road.                                     

Burton vs Altrincham                      Upset Rating: 3/10

Burton will have to keep an eye out for Damian Reeves against Altrincham. The striker’s in red hot form at the moment and already has 16 league goals to his name this season. On the other hand Burton have been formidable at home this season with only one loss so far. They’re a tough nut to crack and Altrincham will have to come up with something pretty special to beat Burton on Sunday. The quality gap should see Burton win this one comfortably but with a player like Reeves on the loose don’t rule out a shock.                      

Gloucester vs Leyton Orient       Upset Rating: 6/10

The Orient bus driver will undoubtedly be questioning his directions this weekend because Orient’s away game against Blue Square North side Gloucester is being played in Cheltenham’s Whaddon Road. Gloucester haven’t played at their home ground, Meadow Park, since it was submerged in 8 feet of water in 2007. The flooded stadium’s insurance skyrocketed and City had to look elsewhere and they now groundshare with Cheltenham. This is the first time in the club’s 129 year history that they’ve made it to the 1st round of the FA Cup and everybody connected with the club is ecstatic. Orient will be nervous before travelling to Cheltenham. They currently hover just above the League 1 relegation zone and probably won’t view the cup as a great priority. This one could possibly end in an upset.               

Dorchester vs Plymouth               Upset Rating: 4/10

Cornwall isn’t known for its football. It’s the only English county that’s never been represented in the Football League and the only footballer of note to come from the Celtic outpost in recent times is former England goalie, Nigel Martyn. But Dorchester of the Blue Square South are hoping to put Cornwall on the football map with a derby win over League 2 Devonians, Plymouth. One man in particular will be looking forward to the game. Sam Malsom was let go by Plymouth as a teenager but instead of dropping into non-league, he pursued his dreams abroad and played in the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Sweden before returning to the West Country. Aged just 24 he’s already played for clubs in four different countries. He’ll be looking to show Plymouth what they missed out on. It would really be befitting of the cup’s romance if cute Dorchester can pull off a win in this one.

Yorkshire derby marred by fan’s attack on keeper

A Yorkshire derby between Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United was never likely to be a tame affair, but unfortunately a Leeds fan ventured way beyond the realms of acceptability and stole all the headlines for himself.

Michael Tonge had just scored a stunning equaliser in front of the 5,000 travelling contingent to send United fans wild. The appearance of Leeds fans invading the pitch to celebrate isn’t as uncommon as it may seem, although it’s never ideal to have supporters on the field of play. Out of the blue one young fan blindsided Wednesday keeper Chris Kirkland and landed a two-fisted punch in his face.

The thug ran into the crowd with a wide grin on his face, proudly looking over his shoulder at Kirkland lying on the turf, holding his face. The smug fan might not be so happy when he finds out that the entire attack and escape was filmed by Sky Sports, who zoomed in for a good look at his face, and will probably pass the footage on to the police.

Friday night’s clash at Hillsborough was the first time the two white rose giants had met in five years and from the off it was obvious that no love had been lost since their last encounter.

The first half was full of talking points.

Wednesday were very unlucky when a seemingly blatant handball in the Leeds box by Argentine striker Luciano Becchio went unpunished by the officials. Soon after the cameo by the Hand of God, Michael Brown, a player who likes to let his opponents know when they’ve been tackled, left his foot in on Owls striker Chris O’Grady, before falling to the ground and feigning injury to avoid suspicion.

Wednesday defender Miguel Llera was fortunate to stay on the field when he thrust his hands in Brown’s face in order to get rid of the combative midfielder.

Jay Bothroyd’s 44th minute headed goal was almost overshadowed by the more unsavory incidents in the bad-tempered first half, which remarkably did not produce a single yellow card.

Sheffield Wednesday were the better team in the first half, and they continued to outmanoeuvre their lacklustre opponents in the second half. Bothroyd, Antonio and Barkley all looked lively and creative throughout the messy affair.

The evening’s main talking point came in the 77th minute, but unfortunately it wasn’t Tonge’s superb 25-yard strike. Once the former Sheffield United midfielder smashed the ball into the Wednesday net he sprinted off to celebrate. During these celebrations several Leeds United fans ran onto the pitch.

One fan, later described by Leeds manager Neil Warnock as a “moron” ran up to the distracted Kirkland and floored the former Liverpool keeper before making his escape.

Kirkland was treated by the club physio, but looked decidedly shaken by the punch.

The game ended 1-1, but after the final whistle, Wednesday manager Dave Jones criticised Warnock and his players for applauding their supporters after the game. Warnock defended his actions, claiming that “the majority of the supporters had acted impeccably.”

The match has once again highlighted Leeds United’s problematic hooligan minority. During the 70s and 80s Leeds fans had a reputation as some of England’s most violent. Though the club has worked hard to discourage football violence, there remain a few dinosaurs that have no interest in the football and simply wish to create trouble.

Thankfully there’ll now be one less thug to worry about.

Entering the pitch carries an automatic three year ban from football, but Kirkland’s attacker can expect a lifetime ban. He may even face a prison sentence after the inevitable court case is finished.

Maybe a stint behind bars can send a message to others like him that regular football fans have no time for this kind of nonsense.

Football has thankfully moved on. It’s just a shame that some fans are still stuck in the dark ages.