Looking back: The 1975 FA Cup journey

The day is almost upon us. Wembley provides Fulham with another shot at glory.

Back in 1975, West Ham proved just too strong for the Whites. Now another claret and blue obstacle stands in our way.

Fulham fans never expect, but always hope. Nevertheless, the return to the national stadium has been long overdue.

“You look at pictures of during the Cup run when you’ve got the team bus going around and you suddenly realise how distant a time 43 years ago was.

“Between then and now, I’ve gone to work, retired It’s a big spread of time,” reminisces Glen, who was 17 at the time.

In the pre-internet age, programme tokens were the way of getting your hands on a golden ticket. Stephen Date was one of the lucky winners and was driven to Craven Cottage by a West Ham-supporting cab driver to exchange them at the ticket office.

“He drove me all the way from West Ham to Fulham that morning. No fare,” he recalls.

“We pulled up outside Stevenage Road and got in the queue there. The funny thing I remember is that we were queueing up and half of us are wearing black-and-white scarves. It was a Sunday morning.”

The build-up was certainly not in keeping with Fulham’s status as a club that kept a low profile.

Under the guidance of Alec Stock, they had charted a seemingly impossible route through to the season’s showpiece, disposing of three First Division sides and somewhat surprisingly, every win came away from Craven Cottage.

 

Simon Coote
MEMORIES: Mementos remind fans of a bygone era

 

The concept of extra time and penalties hadn’t been introduced, meaning teams would contest replay after replay until there was a winner.

Fulham’s journey to the Final was the longest in history. This remarkable string of matches included four ties against Nottingham Forest, the last of which saw the enigmatic Viv Busby score twice to help the Whites progress.

That meant a fifth-round clash with Carlisle United and a long trek up to Brunton Park. It was a day Wayne Bradford would never forget.

“The players came on the train with us,” he remembers fondly. “I spoke to Alec Stock, got his autograph.

“They appreciated the fact that for someone to travel up to Carlisle back in the 70s, you were talking leaving at 4, 5 o’clock in the morning. It seemed to take forever.”

One of Wayne’s most vivid memories is staying in, desperately waiting for news from the semi-final replay against Birmingham. He had gone to the first game at Hillsborough, but being just 12, the journey to Maine Road was not possible on a school night.

“My friend was round my parents’ house and I remember it coming up on the news, saying: ‘Good news, it’s an all-London final.’ With that, we were all up in the air because that was the first time we knew what the score was and it took ages to see the actual goal from John Mitchell.”

West Ham, with Billy Bonds roaming the midfield, awaited and were probably slight favourites, but that underdog status did not dampen Stephen’s expectations.

 

FA Cup Final line-up
UNDERDOGS: If you want your son to play for Fulham, call him John

 

“I thought we were going to win it. I loved Viv Busby, he was on fire. Don Revie almost considered taking him into the England squad at one stage.

“We had Bobby Moore and Alan Mullery. What else do you need? You had the greatest player ever to wear the shirt playing against his old club. I thought it was written that we’d win.”

Others concur that Moore, despite moving to SW6 in the twilight of his career, was up there with the best to have pulled on the black and white shirt.

“It was amazing to watch him,” gushes Paul Baker, who attended the Final with a group which included Lesley Dunlop.

“He was amazingly calm because his positional sense was so extraordinary that the only time you noticed there was a problem was when he put on a turn of speed. If he was caught out of position, I remember seeing him and thinking: ‘What’s happened? Bobby Moore is sprinting, he never does that.’”

Saturday jobs were postponed for the occasion.

“I used to do rounds as a milkman and get a couple of quid,” said Wayne, who went with his friend Paul.

“I didn’t do it that day because we wanted to be up there to savour the atmosphere. We wanted to see what was going on.”

Sadly, the game didn’t go to plan for Stock’s men, with two second-half strikes from Alan Taylor taking the Cup to the East End for the second time in their history.

 

FA Cup Final photo
NO CIGAR: Mervyn Day scrambles the ball away from the attentions of John Mitchell

 

Stephen was not allowed to forget the result.

“I went on my own and stood in the Fulham end and the worst part of that story, apart from losing, was where I lived in those days was West Ham territory. We went out for a pint, me and my Dad, surrounded by West Ham fans celebrating. I was sitting there in my Fulham scarf. I felt a bit of a plum that night.”

Paul was similarly downcast. “What I remember about that day was a sense of inevitability when West Ham scored and then almost immediately again. That was such an enormous deflation. After all the excitement of the Cup run, the dejection of the match was tough.”

Wayne’s recollections are somewhat more rosy. “It was me and my friend, along with 20-odd thousand Fulham supporters. It was just a fantastic day and all I remember is from the time we walked into Wembley, we never stopped singing, even when we were losing.

“I’ve never known Fulham sing like that and I’ve never heard it since, to be honest.”

Clubs were not considered merchandising machines as they are now, but thankfully Stephen has some tangible reminders.

“Last year, for a Christmas present, my son got a programme of every team we played in ’75. He put them all in a picture frame, put a Wembley programme in front of it and a copy of a Wembley ticket – it wasn’t my ticket, I’d lost that since. It’s in a part of my lounge where I can see it. That was a really cool present.”

 

Stephen
COMPREHENSIVE: The Christmas present Stephen received from his son

 

However, there are other, more poignant memories attached to the occasion.

“My dad Bertie and I only had enough tokens to get one ticket,” Glen recalls. “So I ended up going. He died shortly afterwards.

“A friend of mine is a Spurs supporter and they got to the final which then went to replays, so I managed to get tickets on both occasions [in 1981 and 1982].

“That was still pretty good, but it wasn’t the same as my dad going to watch the club he’d supported all his life.”

Stephen is going to tomorrow’s match with his wife Christine and son Stephen, but working as a magnetic health jewellery on Romford Market means the decision does not come without its sacrifices.  

“Every time I give up a Saturday or a trade market, apart from the costs of the tickets and the fare, it also costs me a day’s takings and Saturday is my busiest day. This Saturday is costing me hundreds to go.”

 

Soccer - FA Cup - Final - West Ham United v Fulham - Wembley Stadium
ATMOSPHERE: The Fulham players were backed by a vociferous following from SW6

 

Wayne will be there with three generations of his wife’s family as well as his younger son Jack, who is, shock horror, a Chelsea fan.

“He always gives us a big cheer until Fulham start singing about the blue flag,” Wayne chuckles.

“I’ve already had a cheeky bet – 3-0, Mitrovic to score first. I really do believe Fulham will win this one.

“I just feel it’s right for us and my only dread is if we lose, what would our team be like next year. The one we don’t want to see go is Slav. Will he give it another go?

“That’s why I think the pressure is on Fulham a little bit more than Villa. If we don’t go up, we could lose a manager and maybe five or six players.”

 

Current crop
CURRENT CROP: The class of 2018 have shown remarkable spirit in an incredible calendar year

 

Despite the monumental changes that have taken place, the charm that characterises Fulham and Craven Cottage is still there for all to see. It keeps drawing Stephen back to the banks of the Thames.

“I know we’re all biased, but there is something about the club. It’s wonderful. I remember Chris Coleman said: ‘We don’t play in a stadium, we play in a ground.’

“We’re all going to say our fanbase is unique. It’s probably no more unique than Aston Villa’s, but we feel it is. We feel there’s something special.”

Now living in Falkirk, Glen is unfortunately unable to make the trip due to health reasons, but will enjoy the game in front of the TV with loved ones. He is happy with the owners.

“The way the Khans are looking after the club is pretty positive. You feel they have an affinity with what the club is about and appreciate keeping the heritage of the place as well.”

Stephen feels regretful about not inviting his dad along in 1975.

“I hope it’s not another 43 years, because I won’t be around to see it, that’s for sure.

“We’ll get the first goal, it will open them up and that suits us. I think that’s how it will be for us. What do I know? I just support Fulham.”

Featured image: Alex White

Images (top to bottom): Simon Coote, YouTube, Alex White, Stephen Date, Getty Images, Fulham Football Club

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Maidenhead step into play-offs after deserved win at Sutton

Sutton United 0-2 Maidenhead United

Sam Barratt was the star of the show as Maidenhead United took a deserved three points back to Berkshire after seeing off in-form Sutton United at the Knights Community Stadium.

The hosts went into the game in top spot, but struggled to cope with the vibrancy of the visitors.

In a game of relatively few clear-cut chances, the deadlock was broken when Barratt’s free-kick was bundled home after 73 minutes by Ryan Upward.

Alan Devonshire’s side wrapped up the three points when Harold Odametey embarked on a marauding run down the right wing before sliding the ball past Jamie Butler.

Maidenhead had endured a frustrating week, losing 1-0 at home to Leyton Orient before losing star striker Dave Tarpey to Barnet.

Last season’s National League South champions were the first to test the keeper, with James Comley unleashing a rasping drive which stung the palms of Butler.

Sutton then almost opened the scoring when Josh Taylor flicked the ball around the corner to Tommy Wright, who hammered a half-volley from distance just wide.

The half-chances continued to come and go, as both teams worried each other’s defence but struggled to find that clinical edge.

Barratt was the game’s brightest spark and on 32 minutes whipped on a vicious delivery, but Harry Pritchard’s desperate slide was not enough to apply the finishing touch.

Both sides continued to probe, with Aswad Thomas heading over a chipped delivery from Moses Emmanuel, before Pritchard’s low drive from Odametey’s low centre was blocked heroically by Nicky Bailey.

The early stages of the second half were lacklustre and it looked as if the match would trundle to a goalless conclusion.

Kenny Davis had been introduced at the interval and the summer signing from Boreham Wood almost sent the crowd into raptures with a powerful shot that whistled over the bar.

Barratt continued to show why he had played for Reading’s youth team as he flew past Bailey and Louis John and threw in a step over, but he did not trouble Butler.

However, the 21-year-old soon finally had some joy, with his set-piece leading to panic stations in the Sutton defence and allowing Upward to get on the scoresheet.

This spurred the south Londoners into a response, with Kieron Cadogan knocking the ball over the heads of the Maidenhead backline for Craig Dundas to chase.

The striker rounded Craig Pentney, knocking the keeper over in the process. However, he could not get the shot out of his feet.

Pentney was subsequently treated for several minutes, leading to accusations of gamesmanship from the Sutton fans.

The hosts continued to press in an attempt to salvage a point, with crosses bombarding the Maidenhead box without a finishing touch being applied.

However, they were made to pay in the second minute of stoppage time when Odametey picked up the ball close to the halfway line and went on a rampaging run before guiding his effort into the bottom left-hand corner past Butler.

Following their victory, the Magpies rose to seventh, while Sutton fell from the summit to fourth and both sides will look to push towards the automatic promotion place when they face Halifax and Gateshead respectively next weekend.

 

Ayite confident Fulham have the players to avenge last season’s Play-Off travails

This interview was conducted for Fulham Football Club’s official matchday programme for the game against Wolves on Saturday 24th February 2018.

 

A fit-again Floyd Ayité is looking to put this season’s injury frustrations behind him and aid Fulham’s promotion push…

This has been a difficult season for Floyd Ayité. Four separate injury problems this term have prevented him from enjoying a sustained run in the side, while the left-wing berth he has so often occupied since joining in the summer of 2016 has been taken by Ryan Sessegnon.

There’s no doubt the injuries have preyed on the 29-year-old’s mind, but he’s embracing the chance to come back stronger.

“I was frustrated,” he told the official matchday programme. “Every time I came back, two or three games later I was getting injured again.

“I worked with the staff to try and resolve all these physical issues, including changing the way I eat.

“I even went to see a specialist. He explained to me that I had a back problem causing an imbalance in my body and I was putting too much stress on my left calf and thigh. We’ve worked to realign the balance and avoid repetition of the problem.”

Nevertheless, he’s still only one goal shy of his tally at this point last season, with his long-range strike against Aston Villa a week ago the most eye-catching during his time in SW6.

“That’s the goal I scored from the furthest distance,” smiled Ayité. “It’s a pretty tough move to make. You can easily kick it outside on the right or on the left or above the bar, or just not hit it strongly enough. It was one of my favourite goals.

“I was very surprised to receive the ball. I quickly turned around and tried to control it as fast as I could, and there I glimpsed the empty goal at a distance. Then I remember concentrating to the maximum to hit it perfectly.”

The victory was a real statement of intent against a Villa side that had won seven league games on the spin, with the Whites recording their seventh consecutive Championship triumph at Craven Cottage in the process.

While Ayité is keen to guard against complacency, he believes Saturday’s win sends out an ominous message to their promotion rivals.

“It’s proof we can beat anyone in the Championship. As we’re about to play top teams, it’s important to know we have it in us. Against a team like Wolves, one just cannot afford to make mistakes.”

In becoming a professional footballer, Floyd followed in the footsteps of his uncle, Kodjo Afanou, who represented Bordeaux for ten years between 1996 and 2006, as well as picking up 12 caps for France U-21s.

Floyd’s older brother Jonathan also found his way into the pro game and is currently for Samsunspor in Turkey after spells at Nîmes and Brest. Their paths crossed at hometown club Bordeaux and international level, with both turning out for Togo at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. Les Eperviers reached the Quarter-Finals, the only time the West African country has progressed beyond the group stages at the tournament.

The relationship between the siblings is clearly strong, despite the vast distance between their current club sides.

“My brother started one year before me,” said Ayité. “We were together at Bordeaux.

“I was younger so he helped me a lot. We were sharing the same apartment. He helped me every day and we shared everything, like brothers do. We get to advise, support and encourage each other throughout our careers.”

Despite success in France, a move to England was always on his radar. After transferring from Bastia in the summer of 2016, it’s clear he is relishing the opportunity.

“It was one of my career goals for me and my family,” he explained. “I like the culture, the country and the way we play football here in the UK.

“The atmosphere we get in the stadium is incredible. I chose Fulham because it’s a great and famous clubs.

“At the time, I saw the opportunity to be part of the great project of bringing the Club back to the top, I saw that Fulham was ready to invest to achieve its goals and I wanted to be part of that.”

Ayité immediately noticed the difference between the respective countries, but had prepared himself to the adjustment.

“It was good to arrive during pre-season to get accustomed to the new style of play and work conditions.

“The difference was both the higher physical intensity and the higher speed of play.

“The games go from one side to the other very quickly. Meanwhile France, without being more tactical, is not as intense on the pitch and in the stands.”

Ayité also believes there’s a contrast in style between managers across the Channel and those in the UK.

“The coaches don’t talk the same way in France. Those I worked with were not as close to the players,” he observed.

“With our current Head Coach, we see that we can be both serious and easy-going at the right time. He knows how to convey the right message and keep us focused in reaching our goals.”

Last season saw Ayité stationed predominantly on the left wing, but this term he has increasingly been deployed on the opposite flank or as a ‘false nine’.

The latter of these positions may not be ideal, but the form of Sessegnon and Matt Targett means that situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.

“Playing as a false nine isn’t my favourite position, but as long as I play as a forward, I’m happy,” said Ayité. “I give 100 per cent wherever I play, it’s that simple.

“In Bastia, we had a forward player who was unavailable for a long time. I had to replace him. Since then I’m considered a false nine, but I would prefer playing on the wings if it was down to me.”

After the last two transfer windows, the squad looks even stronger than last season and Ayité believes the new additions have taken the team to the next level.

“If the Club targeted them, they can bring something that was missing,” he remarked. “The team is stronger than ever with the value they bring to the group.

“On all sides of the pitch, we’ve built a team with very clear qualities. Their arrival was a great boost.”

Ayité’s first season as a professional for Bordeaux in 2008/09 saw him farmed out to Angers, as his parent club claimed the Ligue 1 title for the first time in 10 years. Understandably, he didn’t feel part of this success, but thinks this Fulham side is the best in which he has featured regularly.

“With Bordeaux, we were French champions with [Yoann] Gourcuff, [Marouane] Chamakh etc., but I didn’t really enjoy it as much as I could because I didn’t really play,” he admitted.

“With this Fulham squad, I get to play with high-quality players: any of them is Premier League-worthy. To me that’s beautiful and definitely the team with the most qualities in which I have played so far.”

Fulham’s visit to Molineux in November was dispiriting, as Wolverhampton Wanderers toyed with the Whites and emerged 2-0 winners. The Black Country side’s stylish brand of football has wowed spectators, while the likes of Rúben Neves and Diogo Jota look ready-made for the Premier League.

However, this Fulham team is a different beast to the one that was comprehensively outplayed on a cold Friday night three months ago and Ayité is confident there will not be a repeat outcome.

“We always learn from our defeats and mistakes,” he insisted. “The team is particularly confident and motivated at the moment.

“When we played them we’d lost a couple of games before that. It’s not going to be the same script this time.”

Wednesday’s battling draw with Bristol City saw Slaviša Jokanović’s men exhibit different qualities to the win against Villa, as the defence repelled a barrage of crosses and long balls into the box to help extend the unbeaten league run to 11 games.

Now eight points adrift of second place, hopes of automatic promotion look to be fading. Ayité, though, is positive about the trajectory the Club is taking.

“Arriving here, we set ourselves a clear objective to reach the Play-Offs. Attaining it in the first season was already a great memory,” he recalled.

“There are still a lot of games to come. We’re on the right path and as we work towards the same goal, I’m sure we’ll have a beautiful surprise at the end.”

Mitrovic aims for Premier League return with Fulham before summer with Serbia

This interview was conducted for Fulham Football Club’s official matchday programme for the game against Aston Villa on Saturday 17th February 2018.

 

The Newcastle United loanee discusses Serbian connections and his aims for success at the Cottage…

As the January transfer window meandered into deadline day, many Fulham fans will have been relatively pleased with the month’s business. Keeping hold of prize assets Tom Cairney and Ryan Sessegnon was no mean feat, with the arrival of Matt Targett adding Premier League pedigree to the squad.

However, there was an Aleksandar Mitrovic-sized hole. Aboubakar Kamara and Rui Fonte had turned on the style in recent weeks, but reinforcements were always welcome.

The transfer was as remarkable as it was frantic, with the Club’s Twitter account hinting at the last-minute arrival with a tantalising teaser video following Cyrus Christie’s unveiling at Motspur Park.

After all the drama, the Serbian appears to have acclimatised to his new surroundings.

“I’ve settled in. The lads help me a lot,” Mitrovic told the official matchday programme. “I already know how they play, what they want and what my job is. Of course I need time to adapt, but it’s going well. Every game, every training session, I feel better.”

His first cameo appearance was certainly all-action, with a bullet header on his opening outing against Nottingham Forest cleared off the line by Joe Worrall.

Mitrovic’s first impressions of playing in front of the Craven Cottage faithful were positive.

“The stadium is really old and traditional, so it was a real pleasure to play there and the atmosphere was really nice,” he said. “The fans really accepted me well from the beginning.”

Fulham’s bid for the 23-year-old came at the eleventh hour, with a number of clubs on the continent set to secure his signature.

“On Tuesday night, we made a deal that in the morning, I should fly to Bordeaux,” explained Mitrovic. “After I made the deal with Bordeaux, I went for a sleep and then Anderlecht called my brother who is also my agent. I was thinking, because I’d already played for Anderlecht, I would adapt faster because I know people there. That’s why I changed my mind.”

Mitrovic flew to Belgium, but the Brussels outfit couldn’t stump up the cash required and late on Wednesday Fulham stepped up their interest, with Slavisa Jokanovic sending WhatsApp messages to the man he coveted so highly.

This eventually convinced Mitrovic to opt for a move to SW6 and it’s clear the young striker holds a great deal of admiration for Fulham’s Head Coach. Their association goes back to Partizan Belgrade, where Jokanovic won the double in both the seasons he was in charge.

“He did a lot of great things for Partizan as a player and a manager,” the Newcastle United loanee gushed. “He’s one of the best managers Serbia has. He represents our country in the best way, so I’m very proud. He’s a lovely guy and it’s a pleasure to work with him.”

However, the pair didn’t know each other well at this point. While Jokanovic was winning titles, Mitrovic was juggling his responsibilities as an academy player with his duties as a ball boy for Partizan.

“I had to stand behind the goal with the home support on the south side,” he continued. “I watched so many big teams and big players.”

After growing up during a period of great unrest in the Balkans, Mitrovic is mindful of the help his family provided in setting him on the path to becoming a professional footballer.

“It was hard for all my family,” he remarked seriously. “They gave me support and didn’t allow me to quit. They gave me that power you can only get from family. In the end, I made my dreams and they really helped me a lot with that.”

Mitrovic believes the difficult circumstances in the region forced people to develop grit, something he believes has stood him in good stead.

“It’s hard to break the Serbian guy, so I think I’m like that,” Mitrovic smiled. “I never give up.

“This is something you pick up in your childhood. It’s not always going to be nice and sometimes it’s going to be awful, but like Serbian people say, ‘After any war comes sun.’ That’s life.”

It’s perhaps little surprise that Mitrovic’s other sporting interests in his younger years revolved around physical combat and aggression. However, these took a back seat once the football started to take off.

“I played fighting sports a little – kickboxing, a little bit of karate – and that’s it. After that, it was football,” he insisted.

After spells in the first team at Partizan and Anderlecht, a move to England beckoned in the summer of 2015 and a chance to showcase those competitive instincts to a wider audience.

For many players, the Premier League is an extremely attractive proposition. It was no different for Mitrovic, who sought the advice of players from his homeland who had found success on these shores, namely Nemanja Matic, Aleksandar Kolarov and Dusan Tadic. It is not a bad contacts list to have.

“They are big names in Serbian football and here in English football and they told me it’s the hardest league in the world, so I wanted to see what it was like,” Mitrovic said.

“I joined Newcastle because from a young age I supported them. I don’t why, but they had black and white colours, the same colours as Partizan Belgrade. I chose Newcastle and I didn’t make a mistake.”

The first season at St. James’ Park was certainly a baptism of fire. Despite posting a solid tally of nine goals in 34 league goals, the Magpies were relegated.

This meant Newcastle and Fulham collided in England’s second tier and Mitrovic was impressed by what he saw of the Whites.

“Last season, Fulham definitely played the most beautiful football in the Championship. They beat us at St. James’ Park 3-1. It could have been 7-1,” he admitted.

“They were unlucky in the Play-Offs, but I also followed the team this season. Fulham have some new players, but the manager and the staff and a lot of the players are the same.

“They played really offensive football, so that is the reason I chose Fulham.”

The other motive for moving south is to get regular playing time ahead of the World Cup in Russia this summer after falling down the pecking order under Rafael Benitez.

Going into their last qualifying match against Georgia, Serbia’s qualification hopes were hanging in the balance.

Despite leading their group, they’d suffered a 3-2 defeat to Austria a few days earlier and needed to win to ensure their place at the finals.

The enormity of the occasion wasn’t lost on Mitrovic and his compatriots.

“It was the hardest game I’ve played in my life,” he admitted. “Not physically, but mentally.

“You have players like [Branislav] Ivanovic, who has won everything in club football. I spoke to Matic as well. They say it was one of the hardest games they’ve ever played.

“When we played our first qualification game against Ireland, it was like 7,000, 8,000 people and in the last game it was almost 50,000, a full stadium, so it was a really nice feeling. It was a big thing for the players and the whole country because after eight years, Serbia will be in a big football competition.”

It took 74 minutes for the deadlock to be broken, with Mitrovic arrowing in a pinpoint cross for Aleksandar Prijovic to stab home from close range.

“Two or three times they kicked the ball from the goalline,” he recalled. “I get the ball on the side, I see Prijovic, I just put the ball in. I didn’t think too much and he finished it.

“It was an unbelievable feeling, some release. The stadium exploded. You cannot describe this with words.”

Having dropped down a rung on the English league ladder, Mitrovic will be looking to add further firepower to a team that has only been outscored by Wolverhampton Wanderers in the current campaign.

However, Saturday’s draw at Bolton reminded everyone that this league is no walk in the park and the Smederevo-born player believes that in some respects, the Championship is the more difficult division.

“In the Premier League, you have seven, eight top teams and seven or eight alright teams, but in the Championship, all the teams are of a similar level,” he said.

“There are so many games with a short time to recover. In the Premier League there are better teams with more quality, but you see Man City played Bristol City and Bristol was really tough.

“They beat Man United, so it’s not a big difference between these two leagues. For me, the Championship is a physically harder league. The Championship has so many running, fighting duels and it’s really tough football.”

While Mitrovic relishes the battle, the hot-headed streak that led to him receiving two red cards in his debut season at Newcastle appears to have been reined in.

Fulham fans will no doubt hope this improved disciplinary record continues. Mitrovic, meanwhile, recognises the crucial role the supporters can play as we enter the business end of the season.

“This is going to be a long 15 games and we need their help,” he said. “I hope they stay behind us and help us to get promoted.”

After donning black and white during a successful promotion charge last season, Mitrovic hopes lightning can strike twice in three months’ time.

When asked if the team can finish in the top two, his response was emphatic.

“Of course, why not? In the next two weeks, we have really tough games against direct opponents and the gap between us is seven points,” he stated.

“This is nothing. If we win most of the games, we have a big chance to get automatically promoted.”

Alex Bowmer

Featured image: Fulham Football Club

 

Edmund success heralds new dawn for British tennis

It was perhaps inevitable it would end here.

After slaying Grigor Dimitrov, a second consecutive top-ten triumph was a tall order, but Kyle Edmund has finally thrown off the shackles of being Andy Murray’s friend.

His career trajectory has not been quite as spectacular as his British compatriot thus so far, but his progress in the last few years is cause for optimism.

To describe this as a changing of the guard may be straying into hyperbole, but if the condition of Murray’s hip fails to improve, Edmund will have to get used to being the headline act.

Going toe-to-toe with Cilic is no easy task, but the 23-year-old was holding his own in the early stages and had twice had the opportunity to break.

Those went begging and from there, the 2014 US Open champion took charge with a break in the sixth game.

Edmund barely had time to draw breath before Cilic sealed the set with a laser-sharp forehand into the corner. 

The Beverley-born player was receiving a tough lesson on one of the biggest stages in the sport and was beginning to be bothered by a groin problem, leading to a three-minute medical timeout.

Nevertheless, the underdog came out fighting in the second set and this passion spilled over in the fifth game.

A Cilic serve was called out by one of the line judges. The subsequent challenge showed the ball had dropped in, gifting the point to the Croatian.

Edmund was incensed, arguing with chair umpire John Blom that the call led to him dumping his forehand into the net.

It is a rule that needs urgent review, with a replayed point far more appropriate in the circumstances.

After turning his ire on the tournament referee, the man resembling a liquorice allsort flounced back to the baseline. 

The injustice certainly seemed to sharpen his mind, with a thunderous forehand skidding off the baseline shortly afterwards. The anger was palpable.

A tiebreak was the natural conclusion to a set in which both players had been exceptionally potent on their own serve.

Cilic’s big-game experience came to the fore again and a two-set lead was looking insurmountable for his plucky opponent.

The groin injury that reared its ugly head earlier on in the match was beginning to impede Edmund’s movement, as the match began to drift towards a disappointing denouement.

Cilic seems to be enjoying life under new coach Ivan Cinkus and he was really starting to find his range against an opponent who seemed to have accepted his fate.

A further break in the seventh game was the final nail in the coffin, with an Edmund error bringing an end to the match.

While the result was ultimately emphatic, there is no need to be downhearted from a British perspective.

This was a notable milestone for Edmund and, at 23, you would expect there is plenty more to come.

Cilic was modest in victory and is on course for a showdown with Roger Federer, who comfortably dismantled him in last year’s Wimbledon final.

Asked about Edmund’s physical condition, the World No.6 said: “I noticed in the third game of the third set, he let a couple of balls go.

“I saw that his movement was restricted so I was trying to move the ball around.”

There was a relaxed focus to Cilic’s game and although he has a massively inferior head-to-head record against Federer (8-1), his sole triumph came on a hard court at the US Open.

Edmund will only be looking up.

Murray’s career has been defined by an incredible consistency at Grand Slams and a relentless work ethic to maintain that level of excellence.

The fact that the Scot has invited the young charge to his training camp in Miami shows that he clearly has the appetite to succeed.

If Edmund continues to show the hunger and big-game composure that has characterised his Australian fortnight, accolades will surely follow sooner rather than later.

Featured image: Getty

Chris Baird: A foot in both camps

Now wearing the black and white of Derby County, Chris Baird’s passion for the game remains undimmed. Having started out at Southampton, he later served Fulham with distinction….

 

Chris Baird is the epitome of an unsung hero. While flashier teammates have stolen the headlines down the years, the Northern Irishman has been working diligently and without fuss, admired greatly by both Southampton and Fulham fans. He turns 36 next month, but his stellar performances for current club Derby County suggest there’s no reason for him to hang up his boots.

Baird’s big break came in 1998 when, at 16, he left the comforts of home and Ballymena United for Hampshire.

“I didn’t know what to expect going to a different country,” he says. “I know it’s only across the water, but it’s still very strange for a 16-year-old. Once I got to know the rest of the players in the academy, I settled in really well. They looked after me brilliantly. I’ll never forget it, because it was my first club and it just took off from there.”

As a defender, he was in good company. He continues: “I cleaned Jason Dodd’s boots, along with Francis Benali and Claus Lundekvam. I always looked at them and how they would perform week in, week out. They would always have a chat if I had any problems and gave good advice about how to improve my game.”

The fixture Baird is perhaps most well-known for during his time at Saints is the 1-0 FA Cup Final defeat to Arsenal in 2003. It was just his second start for the club, but he acquitted himself superbly and was singled out for praise.

“One of the best days of my career,” he states. “I was just delighted to be in the squad, so then to be named in the team was overwhelming really.”

After a sustained period of nearly 30 years in the top flight, Saints men dropped into the second tier in 2005. Although it was a devastating blow for the South-Coast club, it did allow Baird to establish himself as a regular fixture in the team.

Two years later, Baird opted to make the move to SW6, but looks back on his time at Southampton with pride and a tinge of regret after the side fell at the Championship Play-Off Semi-Final stage to Derby.

“I really wanted to get promoted with the club,” he reflects. “It wasn’t to be. I was just grateful for the opportunity they gave me.”

Lawrie Sanchez brought his fellow countryman to the Cottage as part of a Northern Irish influx that included Aaron Hughes and one of today’s opponents, Steven Davis, but it was under Roy Hodgson when Baird really blossomed.

Many argue the ‘Great Escape’ began with the astonishing second-half comeback against Man City. Trudging back to the changing rooms at the interval, Fulham’s relegation seemed pretty much certain. For Baird, it underlined the potential in the squad.

“Anything can happen when you show a bit of fight about you and that set us up for the rest of the games,” he says. “We knew we could do so much more and it showed in the second half.”

The transformation was remarkable. Having conceded 60 goals in the 2007/08 campaign, they nearly halved that figure the following season. Baird was to quick lavish praise on his former boss.

“Roy made us such a hard team to play against,” says Chris. “We never really had any massive players in the squad. We were just a really organised, hard-working, hard-to-beat team. That was all down to Roy.

“We had a fantastic record at home [from 2008/09]. Even against the big teams coming to the Cottage, we turned them over. You could just sense they didn’t want to be there.”

The incredible improvement was topped off by qualification to the Europa League. Of the many highlights during an extraordinary journey, the Juventus home leg stands out.

“We lost away 3-1 and Dickson [Etuhu] scored,” remembers Baird. “It was a big goal for us. Bringing them back to the Cottage, we knew we had a good chance.

“In the first minute, Trezeguet scores and you’re down 4-1. Looking back, it made the achievement even more amazing. To come back against a team like that was truly unbelievable.

“The fans still got behind us right up until the 94th, 95th minute. The Cottage only holds 25,000, compared to Man United or Liverpool which can take 60,000 or 70,000, but it did sound like that, because the fans generated so much atmosphere. It was a big help to us.”

There were so many firsts for Fulham that season. Was it the most enjoyable of Baird’s career?

“Oh yeah, definitely,” he agrees. “Just for what we achieved. We played 63 games that season and I played 52 of those. It was non-stop, Thursday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday for a long, long time, but it was really enjoyable.”

That said, Baird is keen to highlight the brand of football played by the team during the season under Mark Hughes, a period often overlooked. Despite languishing dangerously close to the bottom three in December, the team rallied to finish eighth. The managerial change also saw a more expansive style of football compared to the conservative approach adopted by Hodgson.

“Players have asked me who the best manager I played under was and I keep mentioning Mark,” Chris reveals. “I wish he had stayed on for another year.”

Baird spent much of his time on the banks of the Thames at right-back and it comes as little surprise that one of his favourite players was Damien Duff.

“I did like playing with Damien because his work rate was fantastic,” smiles Chris. “He would always help me out to double up, but when I had the ball, he would give me so many great options. He would go long, he would come short, he’d be inside, he’d be outside. It made it easier for me.”

This was not the only position Baird occupied during his time at the club and the reason he’s held in such high regard by the supporters was his ability to adapt, with his pinpoint passing and excellent positional sense proving to be major assets. He sees this versatility as both a blessing and a curse.

“Whether it’s right-back, centre-half, left-back, holding midfielder or central midfielder as part of a two, I’m not really fussed,” says Baird, who returned briefly to Fulham on loan in the 2015/16 campaign. “I really enjoy football. Sometimes being versatile can be a bad thing. For example, when John Pantsil’s playing and he’s playing well and we had a fully fit team, then I have to wait for someone to get suspended or injured to get my chance.

“Sometimes I wish I had just held down the right-back position, but on the other hand, I was happy to play in midfield. I got to know the position well.”

Alex Bowmer

Featured image: PA

 

Elliott: ‘You can play on a ploughed field in the Football League’

Sutton United chairman Bruce Elliott has expressed his desire to see the club retain its artificial surface should the club gain promotion to League Two this season.

The EFL currently only allows teams to play on grass pitches, with the most recent vote on a change of policy in November 2014 resulting in a dead heat.

The pitch at Gander Green Lane drew plaudits during their glorious FA Cup run and Elliott knows full well the advantages that an artificial surface can bring.

“It’s been the best thing we’ve ever done. I’m surprised that a few clubs in the Football League haven’t put their league under more pressure. These clubs are being held back from putting a 3G pitch in, which surely will make them more financially stable. That’s what the leagues want their clubs to be.

“If it’s good enough for the FA Cup, for European games, for World Cup games, why is it not good enough for the Football League? Very strange.”

Elliott has questioned what he sees as a “contradiction” between the stringent regulations governing the installation of 3G surfaces in EFL competition compared with the seemingly more relaxed approach to the condition of grass pitches.

“I’m not singling them out for special treatment, but a number of people have used the example of Newport County’s pitch last year. They were allowed to play Football League matches on a pitch which clearly left a lot to be desired and there doesn’t seem to be any rules and regulations about the quality of grass pitches.

“You can play on a ploughed field it seems in the Football League. But if you’ve got a 3G pitch, it has to be FIFA two-star rated and has to have rigorous testing every 12 months. There does seem a little bit of a contradiction there, which I’m sure at some stage will get addressed.”

While acknowledging that the current state of play means that the club has to replace the top surface with grass, Elliott believes that the club should bring pressure to bear on the EFL to reconsider their stance.

“I don’t what the procedures would be, but obviously the first thing if you found yourself in that position would be to put some pressure on to see whether the rules could be changed. We’re so far away from that scenario that we’ve got enough to worry about without worrying about that at the moment, but we’d deal with it.”

Featured image: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

‘I can’t remember a time when we actually had a bit of money to spend’

Ask English football fans to pick their fairytale story from last season and many would plump for Sutton United’s memorable run to the fifth round of the FA Cup.

The south Londoners, who were enjoying their first season in the National League, disposed of four higher-ranked teams to make it to the last 16, where they came up against Arsenal. Alas, the Gunners had too much quality on the day, but for a club that train twice a week and who are kept ticking over by an army of volunteers, just reaching that stage of the competition was an achievement.

For Bruce Elliott, the campaign was particularly sweet. “That was my 20th season as chairman of the club and obviously that would be my best ever. We got promotion at the end of the previous season, so we were entering a little bit into the unknown with the National League. It was a big step up, so we had that to look forward to and then of course we got caught up in a wonderful FA Cup run as well.”

This was very much uncharted territory. The level of attention that non-league clubs receive is usually pretty limited, so to have hordes of journalists flocking to Gander Green Lane on a fairly regular basis took some getting used to.

Gander Green Lane

“It was difficult and quite stressful at times. We’re very lucky that we have so many good volunteers who know the club and have been involved for some years, so there’s a great continuity there, but it took quite a few of us out of our comfort zone.

“I don’t think those of us who were trying to work got very much work done. I kept coming into the office and ending up spending the whole day on football business.  It was enjoyable, but it took over our lives for a few weeks. Would we do it again if it came along this season or next? Of course the answer is ‘yes’.”

Sutton have always spent responsibly under Elliott’s stewardship. Despite the windfall they received following their fantastic journey, it was never going to disappear overnight.

“By profession I’m an accountant, so that probably tells you all you need to know. The way the club has been run, we’ve never gone mad on the occasions we’ve had money. We were never, ever going to take what I suggest is a slightly irresponsible route, which is just to splash the cash on players.

“There’s a certain amount needed to ensure, as far as we can, that we stay at this level. We’ve competed at National League level now for one season only. The second season is traditionally quite difficult, so the first priority is to make sure, as far as we can, that we stay in this league. But there was always going to be a long list of things that we wanted to do at the football club that have never, ever got to the top of the priority list for expenditure. Every penny we earn from the cup run is going to be reinvested into the fabric of the club, which is how it should be.”

Sutton Wimbledon

A prime example of this community focus has been the club’s partnership with the Knights Foundation, who will sponsor Sutton United’s Academy for the next three seasons, while the ground will be renamed the Knights Community Stadium. Four new classrooms will be instated on-site at the ground, which will allow the Academy’s players to receive a formal education in conjunction with their football training. This September will see a fresh intake of 100 16-year-olds.

However, the club had already made great strides prior to their cup heroics. In a drive to entice local residents and disaffected supporters of more illustrious teams in the capital, the U’s took the bold move to reduce season-ticket prices dramatically.

“It was a calculated gamble on our part a couple of years ago. We started adult season tickets at £99, which was unheard of at National League level or above. In fact, when the BBC did a survey of the top five divisions for season-ticket prices [the Price of Football survey in 2016], it was no surprise to find that we were the cheapest season ticket.

“I think we’ve signed up just over 1400 for the season ahead, which, bearing in mind we’ve just had a couple of pre-season games, is pretty phenomenal really. I think what’s happened is, because we made them cheap, we’ve got a lot of Chelsea and Palace and AFC Wimbledon and Fulham supporters that live in and around Sutton and I think a lot of them have decided to adopt us as their second team, so when their team is away or not playing on a Saturday at 3 o’clock, they can come down to Sutton and enjoy some decent football. That’s really worked for us.”

The 3G pitch was another game-changer for the club and was the brainchild of manager Paul Doswell, who had previously brought in the idea at Eastleigh, where he had been at the helm for eight years. It was pointed out by Doswell prior to the Arsenal match that most League Two clubs are “skint”; the artificial pitch allows the club to rent it out to any group that wants to make use of it, meaning that a steady stream of income trickles in all year round.

Sutton 3G

A related strength is the durability of the pitch. The surface is not adversely affected in poor weather conditions, in contrast to grass pitches, which are susceptible to wear and tear as the season progresses. Elliott lamented the “anomaly” between the comparatively lax regulations for grass pitches and the far more rigorous assessment of artificial surfaces.

“I’m not singling them out for special treatment, but a number of people have used the example of Newport County’s pitch last year. They were allowed to play Football League matches on a pitch which clearly left a lot to be desired and there doesn’t seem to be any rules and regulations about the quality of grass pitches.

“You can play on a ploughed field it seems in the Football League. But if you’ve got a 3G pitch, it has to be FIFA two-star rated and has to have rigorous testing every 12 months. There does seem a little bit of a contradiction there, which I’m sure at some stage will get addressed.”

Despite the obvious advantages that the pitch brings, a vote on whether to allow them in EFL competition back in November 2014 ended in a dead heat, with 68 of the 72 member clubs choosing to have their say. Elliott was unsure about when the next vote would take place, but was surprised at the lack of persistence from some sides in favour of the proposed introduction, given that they are in dire financial straits.

“It’s the best thing we’ve ever done. I’m surprised that a few clubs in the Football League haven’t put their league under more pressure. These clubs are being held back from putting a 3G pitch in, which surely will make them more financially stable. That’s what the leagues want their clubs to be.

Newport Gwent Dragons v Newcastle Falcons - Anglo-Welsh Cup - Rodney Parade

“If it’s good enough for the FA Cup, for European games, for World Cup games, why is it not good enough for the Football League? Very strange.”

Sutton are entering their second season at this level and the club are certainly not entertaining the possibility of going up, either automatically or through the play-offs. However, were they to achieve the highly improbable for the second year running, would they revert back to a grass pitch?

“Well, if the rules don’t change and we were in that position, then we’ve signed an undertaking saying that in that scenario, we would take up our 3G and put grass down. Now of course, it’s not as though you waste the whole expense of the 3G because without knowing the technicalities of it, you only take up the top surface and replace it with grass, so you take up the carpet and put grass down.

“Obviously, we don’t want to do that because it would stop a lot of usage of the pitch, which obviously brings in much-needed income. But I think it’s one of those situations we’d worry about if and when it happened.

Sutton dressing rooms

“Let’s be realistic about it, look at who didn’t go up last year. A club the size of Tranmere is playing another season in this league, which shows just how difficult it is to get out of. You can’t plan for every eventuality, so we just crack on for the time being and let’s see how the season progresses.”

That said, Elliott feels that pressure should be brought to bear on the EFL in order to give themselves the best possible chance of retaining their current surface if they were to go up. Promotion would certainly provide Sutton with a dilemma should the policy on pitches remain unchanged and there could be the possibility of foregoing entry to the Football League to keep the artificial surface intact.

“This [the decision whether to accept promotion] would be the decision of the board of directors of the club at the appropriate time so I wouldn’t like to conjecture on it, but my personal opinion would be that we would have to make absolutely sure that if we were in a position of promotion, that we took it. The FA would be interested. They’ve authorised all this.

“I don’t what the procedures would be, but obviously the first thing if you found yourself in that position would be to put some pressure on to see whether the rules could be changed. We’re so far away from that scenario that we’ve got enough to worry about without worrying about that at the moment, but we’d deal with it.”

Roarie Deacon

A mounting injury list stifled their progress in the league last season, but they still finished 12th and the club will be looking to consolidate that performance during their follow-up campaign in non-league’s top flight. Much of their success has been built on snapping up players released from the academies of more established sides, helping them to rekindle their enthusiasm for the game and then moving them on to a professional outfit.

Two beneficiaries of this approach were Max Biamou and Roarie Deacon, who have joined Coventry City and Dundee respectively over the summer. Both were standout performers last term and the club hopes that two of their recent acquisitions from Dover Athletic, Moses Emmanuel and Ross Lafayette, can fill their shoes.

This policy of nurturing and developing young talent is not a recent phenomenon though. “Nicky Bailey was a youngster at Fulham many moons ago and was thrown on the proverbial football scrapheap [back in 2000]. Our youth team manager cajoled him into playing in our youth team at Sutton. He did really well for us as a club, got to the first team, went to Barnet, then ended up at Charlton and Middlesbrough and did really well and the fact he’s returned home is great for us, towards the end of his career.

“Recently, we seem to be getting a very nice reputation, which is along the lines of picking up players who seem to have lost their way a little bit and don’t seem to be doing themselves justice, putting them in the shop window and giving them some really good-quality fitness and coaching. If you’re good enough, you’re going to get noticed. They see that we’re not going to stand in their way.”

Nicky Bailey

The conversation turns back to what they will do with the money. If the FA Cup adventure seemed other-worldly, the priorities now are far more prosaic.

“We’re refurbishing both home and away and referees dressing rooms. They were very, very old, well-publicised also as to how small they were during the cup run, particularly when Arsenal came to us. We’ve got some temporary dressing rooms as well, there’s a new turnstile block going in, there are some new toilets, there’s a new club shop coming in, so it has enabled us to do all those things that were OK, but you really wished you’d got a bit of extra money to be able to replace them, renew them and generally upgrade and that’s what we’ve been able to do.

“It is exciting. I can’t remember a time when we actually had a bit of money and sat round a table discussing how we were going to spend it! It’s normally the other way round, you sit round the table wondering where the next few thousand pounds is going to come from.”

This is a club that has their feet firmly on the ground, choosing responsibility over recklessness. Doswell has been in the managerial hotseat for nine years and it is easy to see why he and Elliott have one of the longest-lasting partnerships in English football’s top five divisions. The hubbub may have died down after last season’s madness, but don’t be surprised if they write more headlines in 2017/18.

Featured image: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Europe

Images (from top to bottom): Press Association, Clive Rose/Getty Images, SUFC 3G website, David Davies/Press Association, Press Association, Rex Features, BPI/Matt West

 

Why were Djokovic and Murray not subject to the same criticism as Klizan and Dolgopolov?

One of the main talking points during the opening days of this year’s Championships was the issue of retirements, with seven retirements on the men’s side during the first round compared to just one in the women’s competition. This issue was brought into particularly sharp focus when the Centre Court saw two out of the three matches curtailed on the second day, as Martin Klizan and Alexandr Dolgopolov bowed out prematurely in back-to-back encounters against Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer respectively. The matches lasted for a combined time of one hour and 22 minutes.

John McEnroe was quick to pile in, saying that there has “got to be a rule for guys who come out clearly not giving or able to give 100 per cent. Ultimately the player needs to be given advice and made to understand what he is doing to his own reputation and to the sport.”

The criticism of Klizan and Dolgopolov was that they came into the tournament carrying injuries, but were happy to pick up the cheque for those exiting at the first-round stage of £35,000 (which is awarded even if you retire injured). The Slovakian and the Ukrainian could have both dropped out prior to the match, giving an opportunity to a lucky loser who would put up a better fight than these two men did, potentially progress far and pick up decent prize money in the process.

This argument definitely holds some merit. Crowds want value for money and you don’t get that if an opponent is clearly in discomfort from the early stages.

However, both men were merely making the most of their opportunity to play on Centre Court. While both have had spells in the top 50, they have not been in the upper echelons of the game for long enough to enjoy these massive moments on a regular basis. The rule is the problem, not the players. By choosing not to dish out prize money to those who drop out, Wimbledon could send a message that only those who are fit can compete.

Which opens up a can of worms. Both Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were carrying niggles coming into the fortnight, but they were able to avoid criticism when they eventually bowed out. They also deprived a lucky loser the chance to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, but McEnroe was strangely silent.

The problem that people had with Klizan and Dolgopolov was not that they retired, it’s that they were unseeded and they retired. Murray and Djokovic got sufficiently far in the tournament that they were spared the accusation of making a quick buck (or hundreds of thousands of bucks in this case), despite knowing that injuries were hampering their performance and that the crowd was not able to enjoy a match with two physically fit athletes going hammer and tongs at each other.

There is this perception that the world’s top two were right to expect that they would reach the latter stages at SW19 due to their past success, whereas Klizan and Dolgopolov were not. This completely overlooks the fact that shocks do happen and the latter two men have just as much of a right to prove themselves as the former.

It may be that, as the tournament progressed, different topics began to occupy the minds of the columnists, pundits and tweeters. Certainly, the fact that successive matches ended abruptly on the main show court is rare and will provoke debate. It does seem convenient though that while the integrity of Klizan and Dolgopolov was questioned, Murray and Djokovic’s reputations remained intact and the critics fell silent.

While Klizan and Dolgopolov may not be blameless, they were simply not judged by the same yardstick as Djokovic and Murray. Perhaps if they win a Grand Slam singles title, they will be.

Featured image: Andy Hooper

Riders muffle Lions’ roar

As show time drew nearer, I had no idea what to expect from my first experience of watching professional basketball. In the UK, the sport is a long way down the pecking order. Its top domestic league, the British Basketball League, receives fairly sparse coverage and draws in small crowds compared to its football and rugby equivalents.

Despite having some games streamed on the BBC Sport website, the division still has massive steps to take if it wants to be a major name in the sporting landscape of this country.

My own exposure to the game had come through fleeting snatches of Olympic competition on TV and the less salubrious surroundings of City of London School’s sports hall, where my coordination and speed was certainly found wanting in PE lessons.

The game I had come to see was London Lions v Leicester Riders. Much like their city’s football team last year, the Riders were top of the tree at the conclusion of the regular season. However, unlike their counterparts, they still had play-offs to negotiate (similarly to rugby union’s Aviva Premiership) if they were to be crowned champions. This encounter was the first of two legs which would determine who would make the final to face either the Newcastle Eagles or Worcester Wolves at the O2.

The Copper Box Arena stands in the shadow of the London Stadium, where West Ham and Tottenham were doing battle in the lucrative Premier League. The former venue and the British Basketball League make up a far more modest package, but comparing the two franchises is hardly fair.

London Stadium

It was fairly obvious as I meandered my way to Stratford that the vast majority of those heading in my direction were going to watch the Hammers, but thankfully there were still a few thousand who had decided that the basketball was the better option.

Once inside, those with media passes could make their way down courtside. However, the lack of media seating presented a problem, so I decided to place myself in a section of seating that was not occupied by the crowd, in line with one of the baskets.

It soon became clear that the environment was far less hostile than during the build-up to a football match. Even though there was a lot at stake, there was no chance of anyone kicking off or lobbing coins at the visiting contingent, which was probably the case at the other big sporting event going on in E20 at that time.

There was applause for visiting coach Rob Paternostro as he was announced as the league’s best coach for the season. However, the ovation was certainly more muted when his charges entered the court, with attention turning to the task in hand.

The PA announcer, who also happened to be the club’s chief executive, Vince Macaulay, succeeded in geeing up the crowd during the warm-up. The cheerleaders for the Lions were already assembled on court, with the players snaking their way through to loud cheers, the substitutes receiving just as big a roar as those starting.

London Lions-Leicester Riders

Then, out of the blue, a gospel rendition of the national anthem was belted out. Craven Cottage this was not.

After the all the hubbub, the tip-off was almost upon us, with the Lions mascot (a lion, funnily enough) patrolling the perimeter of the court to engage the team’s younger fans.

As the match began, it was clear that Macaulay was much more than the club’s figurehead and his charisma greatly endeared himself to the crowd. The opening stages were incredibly to-and-fro, with both teams taking their chances. Slam dunks drew the biggest gasps and the first of those was put away by the Lions to level the scores at 5-5. At 10-10 Macaulay growled “have some of that!” as the hosts netted their second three-pointer of the contest. It was clear that he would not remain impartial.

London Lions-Leicester Riders

One of the Lions substitutes did his best to try and involve the crowd, stamping his feet and throwing sweets in their direction. However, things were threatening to turn sour for his team-mate, with the Riders flying into a 19-12 lead and demonstrating why they were such a fearsome force during the campaign.

Whenever a free-throw attempt was converted, there was a gameshow-style noise which could have been plucked from Pointless, while other interesting references include Woody Woodpecker, the “puppy power!” rallying call from Scooby-Doo and an alien-like zap which could have the beginning of “I’m Blue (Da Ba Dee)”. Macaulay was also back at it, booming “hand in the cookie jar from Conner Washington …. Digestive” as the Leicester man was unable to put away his free-throw.

Basketball clearly appeals to a younger demographic, with groups of teenagers and twenty-somethings standing out in the arena. At a time when people lament the cost of a football ticket, attending a basketball match seems a viable alternative, with tickets as cheap as £7 in advance for kids and just £10 on the door, with the most expensive adult ticket being £22. Family tickets ranged from £35 to £60. The relaxed atmosphere was also a strong point, with spectators allowed to bring food and drink to their seat, although there was not too much of the latter. The engagement with the crowd and the regular use of tunes during breaks in play mirrored Davis Cup tennis and T20 cricket.

London Lions-Leicester Riders

Leicester seemed to be pulling away, but this did not dampen Macaulay’s sprits, as he responded to one of the Leicester being penalised with “if you’re going to travel, you’re going to need an Oyster card”. Tempers began to fray for the first time midway through the second quarter and it became clear why there were three match officials.

The refs rotated anti-clockwise seamlessly and although I initially thought that having three seemed excessive, the thicket of long limbs meant that the ball was often obscured, so it was advantageous to have more than one view of a specific incident.

One of the features of the sport was the way that points were scored extremely regularly, with no time to draw breath, aided by the use of rolling subs. It was no less true in this encounter and while the Lions were seven points down at the halfway mark, the first leg was by no means beyond them.

The interval saw the crowd entertained, as several kids had to make a free throw as part of a competition to get tickets for the BBL Final. These children were, on the whole, extremely diminutive in stature, so I arrogantly assumed they had no chance. After many wayward attempts, Summer made me eat my words with a perfectly-executed effort. No-one managed to replicate her feat, so she scooped the prize.

London Lions-Leicester Riders

“All The Way Up” was blaring out of the speakers, but unfortunately the same could not be said for the Lions, as the Riders still had their noses in front and underlined their championship-winning credentials. Tempers did flare at one stage – the three officials were useful once more – and there was a bit of ‘rutting stags’. Macaulay’s one-liners continued to amuse, as he gently mocked Brandon Clarke with the line by saying, “Hand in the cookie jar, Oreos for you.”

Despite the Lions being thwarted in their attempts to get ahead, they were chipping away at the Riders’ advantage. Having been down 47-40 coming into the quarter, an emphatic three-pointer for the home side meant that they were just two points away from drawing level. Cries of “defense!” reverberated around the arena as the Lions looked to ride the wave of positivity. The importance of the rest of the game was now ramped up – the encounter could go either way. This significance was reflected in the angry reactions of the players following a decision that they felt should have gone their way.

Going into the final quarter, it seemed that the Lions were going to be frustrated, and so it proved. This did nothing to dampen Macauley’s spirits as he admonished Brandon Clarke once more, comparing his footwork to that seen on Strictly Come Dancing. The Lions were six points adrift of their opponents and while they followed this with another shot from outside the three-point arc, their Achilles’ heel in this fixture was being able to capitalise on that conversion. Cries of “Lions” rained down from the stands, as the home support desperately tried to rally the troops. Their partisan backing extended to booing Leicester’s Eric Robertson as he stepped up to take a free-throw.

As the pressure increased, it was the Riders who stood up to the task. The game had become very stretched and there were definitely some tired bodies out there, but it was only the visitors who were able to take their chances in an end-to-end denouement. The final score was 90-71 to the Riders, a healthy lead to take into the second leg.

London Lions-Leicester Riders

The Lions were understandably dejected, but they showed their professionalism by posing with fans at the end of the game, while also shaking hands with those who had hospitality seats. Children flooded onto the court, revelling in the opportunity to occupy the space recently vacated by their heroes.

In the end, it was not be for London’s only professional basketball team, as they were defeated in the return leg 72-55 in the East Midlands. Nevertheless, their season was a successful one, as they made an improvement on their quarter-final finish in 2015/16. Coming away from the match, I got the impression that this was a club very much in touch with its fans and had aspirations to pick up silverware in the not-too-distant future. Watch this space.