Monday 22 January 2018

Long love affair with the lower leagues

Jack Stephens of Swindon Town avoids Chris Basham of Sheffield United during the Sky Bet League 1 play-off semi-final second leg at the County Ground
Jack Stephens of Swindon Town avoids Chris Basham of Sheffield United during the Sky Bet League 1 play-off semi-final second leg at the County Ground

Myself and the good wife celebrated our wedding anniversary at the weekend. Seven wonderful years of wedded bliss.

A famous blockbuster from the silver screen immediately springs to mind, The Magnificent Seven or was it The Seven Year Itch?

During our honeymoon in southern Italy, Manchester United beat Chelsea to win the Champions League and my how times have changed, from champs to chumps in less than a decade.

A quick search revealed that copper and wool are the thoughtful gifts of choice for a seventh anniversary. Herself was mightily taken aback when she unwrapped an ornate chamber pot and a PC Plod tea cosy.

Speaking of presents, the Aston Villa defenders were in a very giving mood on Saturday as they gifted Sadio Mané the fastest hat-trick in Premier League history but, unfortunately for Liverpool fans, Steven Gerrard wasn't able to summon up a parting gift on his last hurrah at Anfield.

Aside from my darling wife another of my passions in life is for lower league football, a love affair that has already lasted for more than three decades.

You can keep your Cindy Crawford-esque Champions League or your glamour girl Premier League, give me the plain Jane Championship, League One and League Two any day of the week.

Never mind your Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich et al in the upper echelons of the game, it's Ispwich, Bolton, Preston and Colchester where it's really at.

There may be a divide between the leagues bigger than Neil Ruddock's shorts but there's also a lot less preening, diving, rolling around and waving imaginary cards and more down to earth, honest to goodness football where a proper full-blooded challenge isn't frowned upon and you'll get occasional flashbacks to the muddy pitches of yore.

If ever there was an advertisement for the lower leagues it came in last week's League One play-off semi-final second leg between Swindon Town and Sheffield United.

Being a fanatical fan of Swindon for as long as I care to remember obviously makes me a bit biased, but a 5-5 draw is exciting fare in any man's language, with the Robins progressing 7-6 on aggregate, after the nine minutes of injury-time tested my thumping ticker to the limit.

The biggest drawback of being a fan of a club like Swindon is in a joyous moment like the final whistle of the gladitorial joust against Sheffield United is you have no one to share the elation with.

A few years back when Swindon were last in a Wembley play-off final I wrote a piece headlined 'The loneliness of a Swindon Town fan' and was more than a tad surprised by the response.

I received a phone call from Drogheda (the article appeared in a paper up there) inviting me to join a few fellow Swindon supporters to watch the match in a pub in the Wee county, as well as e-mails from Leeds United, Millwall, Derby County and Watford fans telling me they feel my pain. The following week an anonymous reader even dropped the official match programme from the Wembley showpiece into the office post box (thank you kind stranger whoever you are).

Of all the sporting subjects I've tackled and opinions I've voiced, I didn't expect the biggest reaction to come to a piece on Swindon Town, yet people actually went out of their way to source my e-mail address and phone number. Maybe I should set up a support group for fans of lower league football, like a dating website without the seediness for football deviants.

If anyone wants to open their eyes to the joys of the football league you could do worse than tuning into the League One play-off final between Swindon and Preston North End next Sunday, two exciting sides who believe in playing football in the right way.

After me bigging it up no doubt it will be a boring 1-0 but after what I went through in the semi-final as long as it's settled in Swindon's favour that will suit me just fine.

While the excitement level of the play-offs reach fever pitch, the Premier League is wallowing lower than a worm's belly at the moment with Chelsea being the best of a very average lot. Man City continue to underachieve considering the astronomical investment, Arsenal flatter to deceive and Louis Van Gaal has a better chance of winning Britain and Ireland's Next Top Model than Man United do of winning the league or Champions League in the next three years.

The Sky Sports-billed best league in the world has already been overtaken by Germany and can now see Serie A in its wing mirror as the Italian league takes its place in the fast lane.

It won't be long before England loses one of its Champions League spots so Arsenal and United will soon be battling it out for third place if they want to join Europe's elite, giving the likes of Liverpool and Spurs even less chance of gaining a place at the continent's top table.

Settling down to watch the Ulster Championship opener I was expecting to be bored to within an inch of my life with all the talk of the slow death of Gaelic football.

In truth Donegal versus Tyrone wasn't as turgid as I feared but some of the cynicism, play-acting and mouthing off would put the winking Ronaldo to shame, and there was so many colourful cards flashed it could have been sponsored by Dulux.

However, the opening weekend of the championship wasn't bad enough for me to turn into one of those Ostrich reporters Nigel Pearson was on about, no need to bury my head in the sand for the summer just yet.

Wexford People

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