Thursday, 4 August 2011

The year's '94 and my trunk is raw.

Jay-Z: not appropriate for a Saturday night in Falkirk.

Before we go any further, I feel as though I owe you some sort of apology. I want to take the opportunity to tell you I'm sorry. In the very first entry of Who the hell is Akabusi?, I finished the closing paragraph by promising you that I would be there when it comes to the showdown. I promised that if you stuck with me throughout the season, I would be there for you. I made a promise. And I have failed on my pledge. I've failed you. And I'm sorry. Despite my best intentions, I failed to even draft a decent report of Saturday's game against Cowdenbeath. I was at the game, I paid my £14 entrance fee, I sat in the stand with my notebook and spent the game making a series of observations, but I utterly failed to commit anything to paper. There are mitigating circumstances, you understand. There's always mitigating circumstances. Let me explain.

Upon returning home from Central Park, I had a quick meal and a shower and dressed myself for the evening ahead - I was going out in Falkirk. I invited my friend round to the house. He poached a "hauf boattie" of vodka while I drank a foolish amount of cheap American lager (around two or three bottles) before we piled into a taxi that took us into the town centre. Without question, Falkirk is one of the most dismal conurbations in Central Scotland and appears even grimmer on a Saturday night. Full of brutes and louts dressed in Lyle and Scott polo shirts and Timberland boots, it's a thoroughly dire affair. After sinking a few pints of domestic ale, however, the whole scene becomes more blurry, more essential, more vital and, at times, bloody good fun. We were in one of the town's more salubrious watering holes and started chatting with these girls. They were lesbians, it transpired. It was either the truth or an ingenious rouse to discourage us from talking to them. One of them was tall, pirced and boasted a vulgar sleeve of tattoos down one arm. My friend told her she looked like the Undertaker. He also tried to dance with another one, but she rejected his advances and tried to return to her seat. Are you not dancing with me because you're gay?, he demanded. She didn't reply and shuffled away from him nervously.

A girl was playing some acoustic covers and midway through her set asked the audience if anyone fancied trying their hand at some songs of their own. I raised my hand and approached her. And what are you going to play?, she asked. 99 Problems by Jay-Z. She shot me a look of suspicion and incredulity, like I was some vulgar hooligan intent on taking the microphone and making a complete show of myself. No, I assured her. I know all the words and I've played this before! In front of real people too! The girl shrugged and stepped to one side. I slung the guitar over my shoulder and took the stage. Like a veteran of pantomime, I tried to get the audience onside by asking them for their help to sing the chorus. Does everyone know 99 Problems? 99 Problems? No? Well. Here goes... I've got the rap patrol on the gat patrol, foes who wanna make sure my casket's closed... My friend joined in with me, offering backing vocals and taking split-lead on that tricky second verse. You crazy for this one, Rick! S'ha boi! I finished on a triumphant, crashing chord and surveyed the crowd: complete indifference. One or two people clapped nervously. Pockets of the audience booed at me. If you've ever seen the episode of Father Ted where they play My Lovely Horse in the preliminary rounds for the Eurovision Song Contest, then you'll know just how badly the song went down. Falkirk's not ready for rap music just yet. In ten years time, I'll probablly be worshipped as some sort of visionary.

There was nothing else for it other than getting roaringly drunk. I spent the evening leering and looking at the women dotted around the bar. Not that I ever had any intention of talking to them, you understand. Just stare at them longingly. By this point, my friend had agreed to meet with a girl he'd been texting all evening and, by all accounts, was "in there" with her. Instead of following him onto City night club to watch him make lewd manoeuvres while I spent the rest of the night dancing next to pockets of women in the hope that one of them approached me, I decided to walk back home. Remarkably, I magaed to engage with acclaimed football writer Jonathan Wilson over Twitter about the state of football in Africa (I remained, for the best part, lucid and intelligent with my responses) as I walked through Bainsford and Stenhousemuir. Coming home, I devoured a family-size bag of Walker's Sensations then fell asleep. I woke up on the Sunday morning with a hangover the size of Ireland and could barely lift the lid of my laptop computer, nevermind draft a report from Saturday's game. With the blinds drawn, I spent the day in my bed eating rolls and square sausage and playing Football Manager. An utter waste of a day.

I fully intended to complete the match report after my work on Monday evening but talked to my girlfriend on Skype for an hour or so instead. I hadn't spoken with her in a while and she was curt and short with my questions, but I just put this down to the fact that there's a three hour time difference and she was probably tired or something. She's still having a pretty good time in Mauritius though, I think. I wasn't exactly sure why the conversation was terminated but a low drone of masculine voices suddenly rumbled from the speakers. He can't speak a word of English, but he knows where to stick it, came my girlfriend's voice, before a sharp click and quiet hiss, then silence. I don't know what she was talking about. Maybe about how to use a thermometer. I don't know. Plenty has happened since the Cowdenbeath match but let's try and focus on condensing the last few days into an easy-to-swallow, digestible essay.

Cowdenbeath's Central Park: £14 entrance fee. That's right, £14.

Well... Stenhousemuir progressed to the second round of the Scottish Communities League Cup after defeating a resolute Cowdenbeath side at Central Park on Saturday afternoon. Despite the game ending 2-2, the Warriors prevailed after a penalty shootout, winning 4-3. Stewart Kean's header gave Stenhousemuir an early lead before Mark Ramsay's brace put the home side into the lead before half-time. Eric Paton equalised midway through the second half and despite the Blue Brazil having the better chances, they were unable to breach  the Stenhousemuir defence. With penalty kicks deciding the outcome of the game, Cowdenbeath's Greg Stewart's sent a poor effort wide of the post and the Warriors advanced to the next round.

In the opening exchanges, Irons' exotic 4-2-3-1 formation worked well and showed glimpses of its potential. Kean, Stevie Murray and Andy Rodgers pushed high up the pitch, pressing their opponents well and their refusal to allow Cowden time on the ball indirectly led to the opening goal. Fullback Dean Brett was forced into conceding a throw-in deep in his own half, then allowed Murray to beat him and send a looping cross to the back post. Beajoui should have done far better in dealing with the ball, but Kean showed good movement to sneak behind him and stooped to header home. As the half wore on, however, Stenhousemuir dropped their pressing game and sat deeper, inviting Cowden to attack them. On the half hour mark, Lewis Coult made a decent run down the left flank and slipped a pass into Ramsay. The forward easily shrugged off Martyn Corrigan and fired home the equaliser.

After their good opening spell, Stenhousemuir began to aim hopeful punts towards the Cowdenbeath goal. Corrigan in particular seemed content to shell raking passes deep into the left channel for Dickson or Rodgers to run onto. This was fine in theory as Brett looked vulnerable, but given that the majority of his passes were overhit, the chances to press and attack the fullback were wasted. As Stenhousemuir slacked off, Cowden grew in confidence and exerted themselves further on the game. Once again, Coult broke down the left and squared the ball to Ramsay. Unmarked, the forward controlled the ball then steered a shot beyond Ally Brown. It was an appalling goal to lose. From the highlights on the Stenhousemuir website, it appears as though McHale switched off and allowed Ramsay to waltz beyond him and into the penalty area. Given that he's included in the side to provide cover in front of the defence, far better should be expected of the midfielder. The first half ended shortly afterwards.

With almost an hour of the game played, Eric Paton's strike restored parity. Rodgers collected the ball in the middle of the park and sent a cute pass straight through the Cowden defence before the on-rushing Paton lashed a fine shot over Beajoui and high into the net. After the goal, however, Stenhousemuir offered little attacking threat and the game descended into an untidy affair with both sides offering plenty of bluster but little by way of guile and ingenuity. Chris McCluskey (who had replaced the injured Ally Brown at half time) performed superbly to push a Joe Mbu header wide of the post and later blocked decent efforts from Scott Linton and Kenny Adamson.

With both teams deadlocked, extra time followed. Stenhousemuir made several substitutions and shifted into an attacking 4-4-2 formation, but were still unable to breach a resolute Cowden defence. Mark Ramsay should have won the game for the home side in the first half of extra time after Corrigan utterly failed to deal with a long ball and fell over as he tried to usher it out of play for a goal kick. Greg Stewart stole in front of him and squared the ball to Ramsay but with an open goal beckoning, the striker somehow contrived to shoot wide. Extra time drew to a close and Stenhousemuir prevailed on penalties.

It was a mixed performance from Stenhousemuir. As mentioned previously, there were flashes of promise that the 4-2-3-1 system is beginning to take shape. In the opening twenty minutes especially, Stenhousemuir appeared to overwhelm their opposition - with players like Brett and Mbu appearing awkward when in possession, the pressure from Murray, Kean and Rodgers forced them into a succession of errors that led to the opening goal. Paton appears to be adapting to his advanced role and took his goal with aplomb while Ferguson and McHale appeared resolute from their deeper positions. Ross McMillan was superb once again and is beginning to look like one of the finest defenders I've seen at the club since Greig Denham. Strong, aggressive and commanding, he's the finest signing that Davie Irons has brought into the club this summer. Regardless of Ally Brown's injury, Chris McCluskey's second half performance should have convinced the manager that he's his first choice goalkeeper. If he had any doubts, all he needs to do is refer to the save from Mbu's header - utterly sensational.

On a negative note however, there were elements of the Warriors performance that were a source of concern. Despite impressing on his debut against Partick Thistle last weekend, Martyn Corrigan was poor throughout. His distribution was wayward and his punts "into the mixer" bore resemblance to the fare we've seen from Scott Gibb, Gary Thom or Chris McLeod in previous seasons. He was also directly culpable for Cowden's first goal - the way that Ramsay turned away from him was alarming. Although his superb pass set up Paton's equaliser, Andy Rodgers had another quiet performance. While he may still be trying to adapt to his role as a wide forward, he drifted in and out of the game once again and struggled to exert any influence. On several occasions, his touch let him down and he often reacted with petulance when decisions failed to go his way. For example, as Cowden celebrated their first goal, Rodgers was protesting with the referee over an imaginary foul as they broke forward with the ball. These criticisms may seem harsh given that Stenhousemuir progressed to the next round of the cup and most teams will be satisfied to leave Central Park with a point this season, but the Warriors can and will play better throughout the season.

Steven Pressley: popular with the locals.

The victory sets up a rather tasty second round tie with local rivals Falkirk at Westfield with the game is scheduled for Wednesday the 24th of August. Having only ever seen the Warriors play the Grangemouth-based side in friendlies and Stirlingshire Cup matches over the last few years, I'm reasonably excited about the match. Given the other teams we could have potentially faced in the competition (Hibernian and Aberdeen being the better of the seeded teams), we've probably been handed one of the more favourable draws. Falkirk are obviously the favourites for the tie but if I'm being honest, I have absolutely no idea if they're a good side or not. They've performed well in the cup competitions so far and have shown good form against lower league opposition, dispatching Brechin City and Albion Rovers in the Ramsdens Cup and the Scottish Communities League Cup respectively. Having looked at their squad for the forthcoming season, there are few names I recognise. Tam Scobbie and Mark Millar have been retained while manager Steven "Brown Shoes" Pressley managed somewhat of a coup by bringing in experienced defender Darren Dods from Dundee United. Having canvassed opinion from a number of their fans, they're also unsure if their team is any good or not or if they're equipped to push for the First Division title. We'll have a far better idea of the calibre of opposition we'll be facing over the coming weeks.

At this point, I feel as though I should confess something. A dark secret, the kind that can tear families apart and ruin friendships - I used to support Falkirk. Yes. Falkirk FC. Looking back, it's something I feel quite ashamed of. Standing on the terracing down by the cage on a Saturday afternoon, cheering on John Hughes and Owen Coyle... I feel so sullied. Back in 2002, my father enjoyed a working relationship with one of the Falkirk directors and arranged that we both attended their hospitality for a game against St Johnstone. I think Falkirk won the game 1-0 through a last minute Kevin James header, but I can't be quite sure. I remember Paul Hartley playing for the visitors and the chunks of onion in their sandwiches being outrageous. It was easy to be swept up in the euphoric rush of a late winner and I remember being quite taken by the whole thing. I began to attend their home games on a semi-regular basis and was even present at the last game at Brockville, a 3-2 defeat by Inverness Caledonian Thistle (I had to leave the celebrations early because I had a shift to cover at Argees). After the club failed to gain promotion to the SPL and relocated to Ochilview in 2003, I lost interest. I can't quite explain my reasons, but I just stopping going. The desire to watch them and the interest in following their results vanished. Several years later, a friend encouraged me to attend the matches at Ochilview and that was that... Where once there was a tender curiosity for Falkirk FC, there is now disdain and loathing.

It's hard to describe from where my animosity towards Falkirk FC stems. Stenhousemuir haven't played against them in a competitive fixture since around 2002, long before I started supporting them. When I attended Brockville, the locals always seemed a pleasant enough bunch. Harmless. I have several friends and workmates that support Falkirk and on the whole, they're mostly decent people. A little myopic and with an inflated sense of self-entitlement perhaps, but they're generally alright. Although their locality should play a factor, I've always considered East Stirlingshire as our more traditional rivals. The only rational explanation I can give for my dislike of Falkirk came from a source of great consternation. Before games at Ochilview on a Saturday, my friends and I used to meet at the Crown in Stenhousemuir's town centre for a few beers and vodkas. We would talk about the latest pop videos, Bret Hart and dancing at the Maniqui, we would eat crisps and play the quiz machine (I remember winning £4 on Deal or No Deal). Most of all, however, we loved playing pool. We laughed, conversed and bonded over that table... And without fail, every afternoon was ruined by two loutish Falkirk fans. Two brothers, probably twins, beer-bellied and bearing a striking resemblance to the Chuckle Brothers, terrible spiked hair with a matted back and sides, grizzled moustaches, a deep-seated misery fixed behind their smiles, their arms coloured by greenblue tattoos like Stilton cheese... They were arguably two of the worst people I've ever met. Their patter was cliched, loud and boorish and relied on the crudest of innuendos, like a pub bore muscling his way into your conversation and shouting in your face until you relent. Their wrists were draped in cheap, shiny jewellery, and the pair prowled around the pool table, heckling one another and jabbing the butt of their cues in our faces without apology as they took their shots. They sucked the fun out of drinking in the Crown. I cringe as I think about their Beezer Homes replica shirts and their cagoules... Thinking hard about it, I can pinpoint my dislike of Falkirk FC solely on those two men. Picture me, if you will, wearing large headphones with a microphone pushed into my face, my eyes wild and incensed, jabbing my finger at you - I would love it if we beat them.

Craig Charleston: ruining football since birth.

On Tuesday night, meanwhile, Stenhousemuir's U-19s defeated Stirling Albion's U-19s 4-0 at Ochilview in the opening round of the Stirlingshire Cup tie. A Jordan Burns penalty, a Paul Quinn lob and a brace from Stewart Love secured victory for the Warriors, but the game was marred in the first minute after referee Craig Charleston saw fit to send off Albion goalkeeper Gary Booth for a last man foul on Stewart Love. Despite the scoreline, the Albion youngsters can be proud of their general performance. Stenhousemuir, meanwhile, have been rewarded with a trip to face Dumbarton in the semi-final. As of writing, there is no indication as to when the tie will be played.

After barely a minute of the game played, Love burst onto a fine through ball but as she shaped to shoot, he appeared to be tripped by the on-rushing Booth. From my vantage point, it was difficult to tell if Love's touch was heavy and he collided with Booth or if the goalkeeper had actually fouled him, but Charleston's decision to send the goalkeeper off was astonishing. Substitute goalkeeper Neil Desmond replaced forward Jordan Mailey and his first action of the game was to pick the ball from his net after Burns crashed home the resultant penalty kick. Paul Quinn doubled Stenhousemuir's lead a minute later, collecting the ball outside the penalty area and lofting a fine chip over Desmond and into the goal. Love added a third after racing onto Jack Hamilton's fine throughball and drilling a neat shot into the net and in the final minutes of the second half, he added his second goal, sweeping home from close range after Desmond parried a shot into his path.

With their opposition playing virtually the whole match with ten men, it was difficult to gauge just how good Stenhousemuir's performance was. Fullbacks Jack Hamilton and Alan Lawson, both on the fringes of the first team, impressed. Both showed drive and indusrty down the flanks and their deep, whipped crosses were a threat. Joseph McCaffery, playing in midfield, looks a fine prospect. From a deep position, he was composed and skilful and displayed a cunning range of passing. Paul Quinn, meanwhile, had a mixed game. Given that game was purely for U-19 players, it was surprising to see him playing. He prospered when he dropped into a deeper position in the trequartista role behind the frontline and threaded some glorious passes between defenders, but at other times he looked lethargic and unwilling to track or block his opponents. He looks a little chubbier now than he did last season. If Andy Rodgers or Stewart Kean are ever injured or suspended, it would difficult to imagine just where Quinn would fit into Davie Irons' current system.

I plan to return later in the week, possibly tomorrow, and provide my own in-depth and cultured preview on the forthcoming 2011-2012 Scottish Second Division. Having read some of the guff printed in the mainstream media, it beggars belief at the inaccurancies and ignorance shown towards the lower divisions of the Scottish Football League (remarkably, last week's edition of the Scotland on Sunday offered previews on the First and the Third Division but utterly neglected to provide any sort of commentary on the Second) and I cannot fathom why journalists and commentators are unwilling or unprepared to research their subject before committing anything to paper. Instead, I will give you my well-rounded and expert analysis on the upcoming league campaign. I must offer you this disclaimer, however - it will be based on nothing more than the games I took in last year, where the teams finished in last season's league table and which players they've signed up. This is the best I can offer you. If you can't accept these terms or just plain don't like it, tough. Because it's probably the best you're going to get anywhere else.

No comments:

Post a Comment