Hampshire Senior Cup Final – AFC Totton FC v Eastleigh FC
Wednesday, 16th May 2012, 7.30pm
St Marys Stadium (Southampton FC)
Distance 68 miles, Attendance 2303
Being a traditionalist/grumpy* I firmly believe the season ends with cup finals. OK we can make exceptions for playoffs (they have that it’s a knockout quality)… but when The FA Cup Final kicks off league football is, as Michael Corleone once said, dead to me.
After The FA Cup Final all I want is to pop round the country, catching a few local finals, to fill the deathly silence of the close season. And so it was that I found myself driving down the M3 for the second time this season. My previous visit was a Tuesday night cup replay on the coldest day of the year, when enduring extra time was a sufferance at best. This I hoped would be warmer in every sense. Opening the door in the Saints car park, it plainly obvious nothing had changed in this part of the world. Any notion of summer being near could be safely filed away under “bullshit”; between Blair’s WMD dossier, and Panorama’s spaghetti harvesting.
Grabbing a fleece, and forgetting momentarily about the match, I wondered what I was I doing here. Two non-leagues teams, local rivals, a division or thirteen places apart, with attendances of about 500 each rattling about in a 32,000 seater stadium… Would the interest have been as big without the uniqueness of this match? Would the use of technology improve the game? Would I have bothered going? (In all honesty, No, No, and most definitely Yes)
There was a certain end of year feeling about the game, which even enveloped the stewards. Those I spoke to seemed just as amused by it all as I was. “I have no idea. It’s all the same inside.” chuckled one when I asked why the supporters had different entrances. The first person I’d asked this of was a Hampshire FA official selling programmes. He was also none-the-wiser. So there I stood on the corner of the stadium (which isn’t easy with these modern concrete bowl places, but you get my drift). Would I join the Conference South Eastleigh queue to my left, or the Southern Premier Totton fans to the right? This was ridiculous. We’d all sit unsegregated together inside, but had to enter through separate gates… What if you weren’t a supporter of either team? What about the Saints supporters there, the neutrals, the groundhoppers, or even the techie folk come to gawp at the little hawk with their little eyes? Opting not to ask after OUR gates, I plumped for the underdogs, AFC Totton. They might have been the current holders of The Cup, but they played in a lower league, were manager-less, and wore yellow.
Inside we mixed freely in the cavernous space below the stand, but there were only two refreshment bars open and very few staff. I made a mental note not to want a drink at halftime and walked (passing the by-law notifications explaining things we enjoy safely in non league venues might turn us to dust as we step over the threshold) into the stadium. When I asked to photograph the goals close up, I was told I’d needed the right accreditation and then had my eyesight directed by the steward towards small cameras on the lip of the roof. “I’ve been away but there are lots of new cameras, fourteen on each goal. They can even check the trajectory of the ball.” We chatted a while through smirks and raised eyebrows then, having struggled to keep my undoubted excitement in check, I went for a Chicken Balti pie.
As I burnt the roof of my mouth on the scolding nourishment the teams warmed up in front of the Itchen Stand (the only stand we were allowed to occupy, partly). Mascots greeted young fans as the crowd built up, songs filled the air, and The Cup was placed on a table precisely in front of the tunnel, only to be promptly fawned over by photographers whose attention had now tired of the cameras in the sky.
Whilst the teams had their hands squeezed by Mark Dennis, stewards tried in vain to find spaces for the late comers (including two wheelchair users who pitifully had nowhere to go). I, in the absence of a team sheet and not helped by a timid tannoy, wondered who the hell was out there. Kick off came and went and still fans, like the Grand Old Duke of York, marched up and down steps looking for seats. It was painful to watch and even more painful to see the action past them (I’m still struggling to understand why the rest of the stand wasn’t made available). “Don’t matter where you go. One big happy family” stated a man, just as the Eastleigh’s Jamie Brown headed wide. The players were clearly enjoying the fine playing surface, and The Spitfires were determinedly trying to make their superior status count early on. Then a second header came in, looping towards the Totton goal, the crowd held their breath as it neared the line, only for the ball to plummet from the sky straight into Grant Porter’s arms (some distance from the magic line we’d all come to see), the crowd sighed en masse. Clearly this was how it was going to be, sod the goals just give us some borderline decisions. Next to disappoint us was Chris Flood, sliding in at the far post, after Mitchell Nelson had scuffed his shot across the six yard box. Both Porter and hawk-eye were redundant as the ball whacked the back of the net. “That’s the problem when you have a teenager at fullback” claimed the man next to me. The Eastleigh fans erupted behind us. Soon after Porter punched clear a freekick and the follow up header sailed over. Up the other end The Stags forward headed the ball down and the shot was saved, just after offside was given. As the game wore on, the play and the chances evened out, but sadly no one managed to put the ball where everyone wanted… on the goal line. For Totton, Michael Charles tamely shot at the Gareth Barfoot, Nathaniel Sherborne put a one-on-one wide, and Jonathan Davies got in a couple of fine crosses but no team mate got on the end of them. For Eastleigh Chris Flood’s cross floated just over the bar, and Nelson had a shot deflected wide, though a goal kick was awarded. Totton I was told were four players short through ineligibility, injury, injury, and holiday (so three reasonable excuses). When I enquired how the chap in the next seat knew so much he pointed to his son, The Stags number 8, Jonathan Davies (luckily, as one of the better players on the park, it was easy to be very complimentary about him).
The poor queuing underneath led to late arrivals, most of whom would have missed the fight that kicked off the second half. As usual a tame challenge started it, followed by petulant reactions. First two were trading punches and soon half the players had joined in. In truth both Eastleigh’s Michael Green and Totton’s Ryan Hill should’ve been sent off but the referee, of this media intensive game, kept the peace with two yellows. back to the football and first to disappoint the hawk-eye fans this half, was Carl Petterfer, who couldn’t capitalise with a freekick from just outside the Totton box. From then on The Stags took the game to The Spitfires, with young Jonathan not being able to get his shots on target despite two attempts, Mr Davies gave me a fascinating run through his son’s career. Daryl McMahon then hit a long range shot on the volley bringing a great save from Grant Porter. The goal mouth action was hotting up and it seemed like the part-timers of Totton would level. instead McMahon hit a low ball across the AFC Totton goalmouth which Nelson met at the back post. Totton defenders tried in vain to keep the ball out, but thankfully the linesman was quick to award the goal. Not a single complaint came in from The Stags or their fans. He had to be right. Above us tumbleweed blew past Hawk eye… The final twenty-five minutes were filled with two teams endeavouring to save, or finish off, the game. The second goal though seemed to end the contest and the action flattened out. Davies and Hill both came close, and Jamie Brown almost hit a third for Eastleigh, but that was it. As the board was raised reading four minutes of injury time, Saints supporters began to leave, Totton’s applauded their fallen heroes, and Eastleigh’s singing of not being moved got louder and louder.
Game over it was time for the presentations. Bizarrely the ball boys went first, then the golden boot winner (whose name I could’nt pick out from the tannoy), the officials, losers, and finally The Spitfires who, true to modern football rules, had to have their celebrations tailored to the needs of the media.
As for hawk-eye… well who cares. We all came to Southampton to be the first to see it, and were rewarded with a fairly good cup final, enjoyed by the supporters, and decided by human skill and only human skill. The only human error was the failure to have match tickets, and fans leaving before The Cup was presented, and I fail to see what hawk-eye could do about either.
Driving back I considered the pros and cons of this new technology that pundits and big name players are clamouring for… and wasn’t surprised by the findings.
1 – Do we really need it? The game has survived for over a hundred year without a need for it, so why now?
2 – If the St Marys experiment is the standard fit that’s twenty eight cameras… The cost of this technology has got to be totally prohibitive to all clubs fitting it; even the 92 would stuggle. At the very best only the top two divisions will do so. But who will pay? Will teams have to foot the bill? Will the league? Will the FA?
3 – At St Marys, the stadium build lends itself to fitting these cameras but at some grounds… this is going to cause serious issues.
4 – What of the little teams who get promoted but can’t afford to install it? Will this become part of the dreadful ground grading rules that already prohibits teams from progressing up the pyramid?
5 – What about when the big clubs (used to playing with hawk-eye) get drawn away to Conference teams in The Cup… and a goal line decision doesn’t go their way… knocking them out… what then? Messrs Prima and Donna demanding teams “get with the times”. Where will we draw the line?
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