Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The last post - blow the bugle or should it be a fanfare!

So, after blogging for over a year now I reach the last post. Blow the bugle for the last post or maybe it should be a fanfare.

Before rounding things up, I want to thank my youngest daughter Morag and her dog Dougal for helping me to promote this project. From the first time I saw it I have loved the ‘crazy baldheads’ logo that she designed. Special thanks also to Mo for designing the cover for this book.

The Road to Wembley from Scotland t-shirt worn by the designer

Barking Mad! Dougal shows off the crazy baldheads

It is in this post I will try to make sense of what it was all about. There were so many reasons for doing this project and the experience ticked every box. I met some wonderful people, I saw some great football matches and I have now completed one of my lifetime ambitions and written a book.

Football is essentially a silly game. As my father in law John ‘Johnny Boy’ Phillips is wont to say ‘22 grown men kicking a bit of leather around a field and people getting excited about that. Ridiculous’. And of course in many ways he is right. When he was a working man in the Post Office he used to often say to me ‘imagine if every time I sold a stamp all my colleagues descended on me kissing and cuddling me. If a footballer scores a goal he is only doing his job’. His dislike of the sport is, in my opinion, borne out of a lack of understanding of what makes football tick. So what makes the beautiful game so compelling and enables it to dominate the lives of so many people? I offer three possible answers: (i) the sport itself is both beautiful and magnificently simplistic; (ii) football clubs are at the heart of communities and provide a focus and a sense of identity for many and (iii) being a team sport football brings people together and promotes friendship. This is what makes a silly game wonderful. I have seen all of these three things in trumps on the Road to Wembley from Scotland.

When I was growing up in Teesside and then later in Midlothian, football was everywhere. My peers and I played it all the time. In the street and in the fields - in two a side bounce games or in organised matches. All you needed to play football was any old ball and any expanse of land. The game is simple. You do not need expensive equipment or a costly subscription to a sports club to play it or excel in it. Most of the superstar players come from very humble backgrounds. The scorer of the winning goal in the FA Cup Final, Aaron Ramsey, emerged from a very ordinary upbringing in Caerphilly in Wales. Although his Arsenal team mates are now highly paid international footballers from across the globe most of them come from working class backgrounds as do most Premier League players. As everyone (everyone I know at least) has played football at some stage of their life, everyone can appreciate the beauty and athletic skill when the game is played well. Football is art. To reach a stage where you become a semi professional footballer you must be pretty good at the game and even if you are playing in the lower echelons, you will be on occasions capable of great play. Hence when you see Oli Leedham of Dunston UTS flying down the wing with trickery and pace it can be as exhilarating as seeing Manchester City’s Sergio Aguerro strutting his stuff. I have seen some truly beautiful artistic performances by talented players at every stage on the Road to Wembley from Scotland.

Following the non league clubs in the qualifying rounds of the FA Cup, I was struck by how closely linked the clubs are to their local communities. Penrith, Dunston UTS, Skelmersdale United, Chorley and Spennymoor Town all provide the local residents with a sporting event to watch every week and also give a focus to the community. As the Moors from the Brewery Field progressed in the FA Cup, they helped put their town on the map by attracting national media coverage. As I have observed very recently in the case of Skelmersdale United when the local football club are failing the local community rally round to provide support. As the rounds progressed I suspected that this sense of community my not be as obvious but I was pleasantly surprised to note that bigger teams such as Lincoln City, Milton Keynes Dons, Burnley and Manchester City all serve their community and give their locale a sense of identity. MK Dons were perhaps the biggest shock in this respect as they are a new club who have been dismissed as the ‘franchise club’ but they are proud of where they play and the town that they represent. In an era where social isolation is a real issue it is genuinely heart warming that football can help to bring people together to support a local team representing the local community.

I have always enjoyed the team aspect of football. When playing I loved the fact that your pals would do their best for you to achieve a common aim and in turn you would reciprocate. Playing for the same team promotes friendship and some of my best and longest lasting friendships have been forged through football. The football ‘team’ mentality goes beyond the game. What I have found on the ‘Road to Wembley from Scotland’ is that there is a wider football fraternity. A promotion of friendship stemming from a shared interest. I have acquired some new pals along the way over the last 11 months on the road. Fellow Road to Wembley-ers Peter Tissington and Andy Phillips will no doubt be long lasting friendships. On most days since November I have been in touch with Nick Hedges and Colin Butler from MK via the internet and I am looking forward to catching up with these pals at a MK Dons match next season. In the last few weeks the friendship shown to me by Kev Panther of Skelmersdale has been astonishing. Many many thanks for helping me to put the book together Kev and I will forever be in your debt. The Road to Wembley from Scotland has also given me the opportunity to renew some old friendships and it has been great to see the likes of Howard ‘Howie Baby’ Nimmo, Jim Morrison, Derek Poots, Joe Black, Kevin Oliver and John Rees along the journey. The football fraternity also helped me out when I have struggled for tickets. The fraternity can also be a real focus for good in the world. The ‘Fists up for Frankie’ campaign for the Geordie toddler Frankie Sherwood stricken with a life limiting disease was both touching and poignant in the way that the football community in the far north of England supported the cause.

In the opening pages of this book I advised that I hoped to also learn how the game is evolving in England and find out about the Scots influence on the game south of the border.

The game is in rude health at grass roots / non league level in England. The football pyramid is now well established and the ambitious community based teams can aspire to move through the tiers and eventually, through success on the field, progress to the upper echelons of the game. The FA Cup provides a unique opportunity for football clubs at all levels to have a one-off crack at performing beyond their ranking. The true romance of the cup is that on any given day a non league club could knock out a Premier League club. David can defeat Goliath given the right circumstances. I feel truly honoured to have been at Turf Moor in February when Lincoln City knocked Burnley out of the cup. The evolution of the non league scene in England is being driven by the enthusiasm and dedication of the officers and volunteers of the clubs. I have seen many of them in action and met many of them on ‘The Road’ and I salute them all. The pyramid system here in Scotland has been imposed on the clubs and many (the ‘junior’ teams in particular) are not keen to embrace the opportunities that a hierarchical system provides. As a result the non league scene up here seems a bit more stale. Maybe if I live long enough I will see the Scottish pyramid embed and develop, become more inclusive and promote the sort of vibrancy that I witnessed in Penrith, Dunston, Skelmersdale, Spennymoor and Lincoln.

Investigating the Scottish influence on the beautiful game in England has been fascinating. It was such fun unearthing the massive influence that Scots had on the game about 100 years ago. The Scots came down and helped to develop football south of the border. I am indebted to Clifford Vagnolini for the information about his hard-as-nails grandfather Joe McGhie who helped Brighton achieve success in 1910 and it was with teary-eyed fascination that I reported on ‘the wee Scots lad’ Hughie Gallacher who starred for Newcastle and Chelsea in the 1920s and thirties. The Scottish influence continued to be prominent and when I was growing up Scots ruled English football with icons like Billy Bremner, Denis Law, Kenny Dalglish and Joe Jordan all starring in the English league. It was clear also that the Scots influence had helped to establish clubs like Skelmersdale, Sunderland RCA and even latterly MK Dons. It is sad to report that this project notes that the Caledonian influence on English football is waning. In the last few chapters it was hard to identify a current Scottish influence on the teams reaching the later stages of the FA Cup. The 2017-18 season will kick off in a month and for the first time in many years none of the managers of the 20 competing teams is a Scot.

I have travelled nearly 10,000 miles, made many new friends, become re-acquainted with a lot of old friends, seen some fantastic football matches and had the experience of a lifetime. As Sir Alex Ferguson, the most famous Scot to have plied his trade in English football, once said: “Football eh! Bloody Hell!”

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Publication date for the book 'The Road to Wembley from Scotland' could be soon and Dougal the Dog is keen to promote the launch

Just a brief update this weekend – for those who are interested. The publication date for the book was reported last week as Saturday the 5th August (to coincide with the extra preliminary round of the FA Cup season 2017-18). The book will definitely be available on this date. In fact there is a very strong possibility that it will be available for purchase even earlier – maybe even significantly earlier. Putting it all together is a painstaking experience but I am getting a massive amount of help from Kev Panther the programme editor for Skelmersdale United FC. Words can not express how grateful I am to Kev for his assistance and it is proof positive that there is such a thing as the football fraternity and it is a wonderful community to be part of – full of warmth and genuine friendship. Thanks Kev.

Fathers Day today and my youngest daughter Mo who has produced the artwork and branding for the Road to Wembley from Scotland (and who will produce the cover for the book) popped round to don the famous RtWfS T-shirt that she designed. Thanks Mo.

Mo’s dog Dougal also got in on the act and wore the famous T shirt with pride.

Barking Mad! Dougal is on the Road to Wembley from Scotland

 I will pop out a blog post next weekend when I hope to be absolutely precise about the launch date for the book. I also intend to write one last long-ish post where I try to make sense of what this wonderful nonsense was all about … so keep reading.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Some good luck for me in getting the book ready. A large black cat (a Panther) has crossed my path ! Also boozing at Hampden ...

Well dear readers you will have noticed that the posts are becoming more intermittent and it is highly likely that this post will not make it into the book. The posts will continue on a sporadic basis until the book is published. However to bring you all up to speed on the progress towards book publication I offer the following update.

I have sourced a publisher! The book ‘The Road to Wembley from Scotland’ will be published by FlexiPress of Ormskirk in Lancashire. One of the great joys of the ‘Road’ journey has been sharing experiences with fellow football anoraks. In September I first met the magnificent Kev Panther the programme editor of Skelmersdale United.

Skem programme editor and ace wordsmith: Kev Panther 

 We have become great pals and Kev sent me a copy of his excellent book ‘The Boys in Blue from 1882: A brief history of Skelmersdale United FC’ published by FlexiPress. I was so impressed with the book, the layout the content, the pictures that I got in touch with FlexiPress and they have quoted me a reasonable price to publish my tome. By the wonders of email and the internet and I am in regular contact with Kev and he is helping me put together the book. Words can not express how grateful I am for his assistance. Obviously, given the amount of editing and re-editing that will be necessary before the book comes out it is dangerous to nominate a publication date but I am hopeful that the book will be available for purchase on Saturday August 5th 2017 – the date of the Extra Preliminary Round of the FA Cup for season 2017-18!

Meanwhile the world of football rumbles on. Yesterday I attended my first match since the FA Cup final when me, my wife Anne, her sister Carole and my brother in law Dougie were at Hampden Park for the Scotland v England World Cup qualifier. The football for the first 85 minutes was attritional but with so much at stake was compelling. The final 5 minutes though were sensational as Scotland went from 1-0 down to 2-1 ahead only to concede an equaliser in the final minute of stoppage time. A highlight of any big match is the bevvying before the game when the sense of anticipation tastes almost as good as the beer.

Dougie Hunter, Anne Donkin and Carole 'Hollow Legs' Hunter

A pre match libation or 5 with Dougie
Another post next weekend when I hope to be a bit more precise about the actual publication date. I also intend to write (and post) my final chapter of the book trying to make sense of what it was all about and what I have learned from the project about football and about life … so keep reading. 

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Wenger rewarded for FA Cup win with 2 year contract and blog almost complete ... now for the book !

So, a week has gone by since the FA Cup final when I finally completed the 10 month long Road to Wembley from Scotland. Over the last week, the victorious Arsenal have offered their manager a new two year contact and I have made some very small progress with getting this blog published as a book!

Those of you who have been following the blog in the latter stages of the FA Cup will know that a major sub plot was the Arsene Wenger story. On many occasions over the last three months it has looked like the ‘The Professor’ was going to be hounded out of the hot seat at The Emirates due to a combination of poor results and supporter unrest. Just when it looked like his position was untenable the Prof put together a string of fine victories culminating in the famous FA Cup final win last weekend. Prior to the Wembley triumph over Chelsea the Gunners won 7 of the last league games. Wenger went from almost unemployed to almost unsackable.

The Prof with the big prize: Wenger holds the FA Cup aloft last weekend at Wembley
On Wednesday the Professor was rewarded with a new 2 year contact. Not all of the Arsenal fans are happy about this but I am pleased to see him extend his 20 year reign at Arsenal. In my opinion without him Arsenal would very soon become a mid table team. With his guidance they could win more trophies, including the coveted Premier League title. I wish him well.

Also in the last week I have been tinkering with the text that I have produced for the blog to produce a very first experimental draft of the book ‘The Road to Wembley from Scotland’. At first sight it looks as if it will be about 500 pages, about 140,000 words and contain loads of pictures. I was hoping to turn some sort of big handle and the blog would magically become a book but it is clear that it is going to be a bit more complicated and time consuming than that. So bear with me. Updates will be posted as the culmination phase of this project progresses. I still hope to have the book out by early August. I will pop another post out hopefully with a firmer estimate of the publication date next weekend. Keep reading !

Monday, 29 May 2017

The end of the road! From Penrith to Wembley. What a journey and what a Cup Final to round things off!

Saturday the 27th May 2017

FA Cup Final (Wembley Stadium)

Arsenal 2 Chelsea 1  

After 10 months on the Road to Wembley from Scotland covering nearly 10000 miles, watching 17 football matches and meeting some wonderful people along the way I finally made it to Wembley for the FA Cup Final.

Made It !! The teams come out for the FA Cup final and I am there.
Maybe I am just born lucky because the final match on the journey turned out to be the best. Arsenal were in superb form and Chelsea were worthy opponents. Wembley was spectacular and resplendent in the summer sunshine. It was a thrilling match that has been heralded by the pundits as the best FA Cup final in years. This is how the day panned out.

Pre Match Communications: When you are preparing for a match in the qualifying rounds, a couple of ‘follows’ on twitter and a couple of clicks on facebook and you can find yourself in a dialogue with the team manager or the club chairman. Not so with the big boys and to be honest I did not make serious attempts to contact those at Chelsea FC. I continued to check in to the Scots Arsenal twitter feeds @ArsenalScotland @Grampiangooner for Scots Arsenal related updates. 5/10

Pre Match Pint: The pre match pint was in fact three pre match pints in three different locations. I arrived by car in North London at about 1320 more than four hours before kick off and immediately stumble on this scene in ‘The Torch’ close to Wembely Park.

More than four hours until kick off and the beer is flowing at The Torch

I grabbed a pint of cold Fosters and took a few pics and was minding my own business when a very loud American started engaging some nearby young Arsenal fans in conversation. He told the lads “when I realised the that FA Cup saacker final was on I just had to get a ticket and I bought one from a tout an hour ago”. Unperturbed by their indifference he continued “Do you want Arsenal to win?” … with an exasperated slow swivel of the head and a look that took in a look at hundreds of red-clad Arsenal fans the young fella said ‘well yes’. Immune to their lack of interest the yank said “I have been reading in the morning paper that some Arsenal fans want Coach Ven-ger to step down – is that right?” … ‘well yes’ was again the reply. “But why? I read that he has won 3 FA Cups”. “Six”: I joined the conversation and corrected him. “Six – jeez and how many Preeemier Leagues?”. “Three” I told him. The lads were now looking a little uncomfortable. “Jeez. Three Preemier Leagues and six FA Cups and you guys want him out? What does that guy have to do to keep his jaab?!!”. A difficult one to answer that boys.

I moved on from the Torch to The Watkins Folly pub where I met up with Andy Phillips and  his pal Jeremy. Andy was also completing the Road to Wembley and we have been in touch ever since August. His route ended up in the other half of the draw and although we have communicated most days since August Saturday was the first time that we met up. A nice chap and a fellow football anorak it was great to swap stories about our journeys. 

Andy Phillips: A fellow Road to Wembley-er

Andy's pal Jeremy pictured with Antonia. Loving the retro replica shirt
It was interesting to note that Andy had a much better experience than I in dealing with the FA. While the Association were fobbing me off with platitudes and excuses for not helping my quest for a ticket for the semi final (the most disappointing bit of the dialogue was when the FA were unprepared to consider me as part of the ‘football family’ and allocate one of the many thousands of briefs they had sloshing about for that match – despite the fact I was promoting their flagship competition) Andy actually secured his ticket for the Chelsea v Spurs semi from the FA. Most impressive of all is that Andy’s subsequent relationship with the FA meant that his journey was featured in the match programme for the final. Nice one Andy.

Andy was in a different part of the ground so I went in to the stadium to meet up with Peter Tissington and imbibe pint number 3. As has been previously reported Wembley is a very expensive experience but if you are prepared to pay their fancy prices it does have everything that the traditional football fan would want. This extends to having real ale available in some of the bars in the stadium. The English EPA on offer (I am not sure what brewery produces this nectar) was excellent. An oaky tang and a pleasant aftertaste.

Programme: The programme is excellent and with it being the FA Cup Final programme will no doubt, in time, become a collector’s item. It is a mammoth publication and is A4 size and 116 pages.

 The journalism is good and interesting throughout and the quality of the photography is wonderful. Superb coverage of the two teams and fascinating articles relating to past FA Cup finals. It was priced at £10 and (I can’t believe I am writing this!) it was worth the money 10/10

Ground: Wembley Stadium in the sunshine on cup final day has to be just about the best place in the world to be.

Close to kick off - 90000 inside and Wembley looks amazing
Within the last 20 years both Hampden and Wembley have been re-developed. Hampden failed. There is still a semi circle behind the goals and you can still be miles from the action with a poor view. Wembley took out the half circles and moved the spectators closer to the pitch. The redevelopment has been a resounding success and Wembley Stadium is quite simply magnificent.

Wembley Way: The most famous walkway in football
The pitch looked great. Thanks to 'Ticket Master' Peter Tissington I had a great view to watch the action – in the Arsenal end in the lower tier. 10/10

Atmosphere: The atmosphere was rocking throughout. Peter and I took our seats just before ‘Abide with Me’. Most fans joined in singing this hymn that dates back to the ‘communal singing’ pre match programme of events of FA Cup finals of yesteryear. Even an atheist like me joined in to participate in this wonderful cup final tradition. I did not join in with the national anthem (I don’t want anyone to think I am a Rangers sympathiser!) but noted this was sung with gusto and what seemed like defiance. In a week that has seen innocent people murdered by a terrorist in Manchester there was tangible feeling in the stadium of ‘the cup final is part of the British way of life and we are going to observe it’s traditions come what may’.

When the match started the volume went up another notch. The Gunners were being urged on by their vocal, almost desperate, fans. A wonderful cacophony. At the other end the Chelsea fans were also giving it laldy. The goals were greeted by joyous celebration and the atmosphere was passionate without ever being unpleasant or vitriolic. 10/10

Scottishness: As has been reported on this blog, Arsenal do not have any Scots in their squad and have not selected a Scot to play for their team for 19 years. Hence not much Scottishness in their ranks. Chelsea also do not have any jocks in their squad at the moment either and indeed they have not had a Scotsman in their team for over 10 years. Both clubs do have a strong Scottish heritage and their clubs have been shaped by a Caledonian influence, but at the moment it is all a bit quiet on the tartan front.  2/10


A great match and the level of technical ability on show was on occasions breathtaking. Arsenal started as long-odds but very early on belied their underdog status. One very early moved seemed to feature about 765 passes! The Gunners opened the scoring after only 5 minutes when the prolific Sanchez scored in controversial circumstances. He appeared to handle the ball as he worked his way into the Chelsea penalty box. He then prodded the ball forward towards Ramsey who was in an offside position. Ramsey did not touch the ball and was adjudged to be ‘not interfering with play’ so Sanchez continued and stuck the ball in the onion bag. Chelsea claimed for both handball and offside but to no avail and the goal stood.

Arsenal continued to dominate the first half and were playing with a freedom and confidence that had been absent from their game for much of the season. Wellbeck and Ramsey both hit the post before the 45 minutes had elapsed. HT Arsenal 1 Chelsea 0.

The first part of the second half was more closely contested and the Blues were now causing the Gunners some problems with Diego ‘ugly bloke with a talent’ Costa beginning to show some interest. Halfway through the second period Chelsea shot themselves in the foot. The talented, but flaky, wing back Victor Moses raced into the Arsenal box and then theatrically threw himself to the ground trying to con the referee into awarding a penalty. Less than valiant Victor had already been booked and hence the yellow card the ref showed him for diving meant that he was off. The Nigerian Moses became only the fifth player to be sent off in an FA Cup final.

No promised land for Moses! Young Victor heads for first use of the Wembley showers
It was expected that the Gunners would use their numerical superiority to retain possession and see the game out. However, as the old saying goes, football is a funny old game and Chelsea scored in the 76th minute to level the scores. Diego Costa was surprised to see that his scruffy, deflected shot managed to get past the Arsenal custodian Ospina and nestle in the net. While Chelsea were celebrating their equaliser the wise old Wenger made a substitution before the game restarted. He withdrew Wellbeck and brought on Oliver Giroud. With his first touch of the ball Giroud was instrumental in restoring Arsenal’s lead. He crossed the ball from the left for the alert Aaron Ramsey to move forward and head the ball into the net. FT Arsenal 2 Chelsea 1

Rampant Ramsey! Welshmen Aaron heads the winning goal in the 2017 FA Cup Final
The winning goal in the FA Cup final 2017 was not scored by a superstar globe trotting footballer but by a modest Welshman from Caerphilly. They do say that the Scots and the Welsh have a lot in common. A tenuous Scottish connectionon the Road to Wembley from Scotland! Well done Aaron Ramsey, the Celtic fraternity are proud of you. 10/10

Match Day Catering: The pie stalls at Wembley offer ‘Steak and Ale’, ‘Chicken Balti’ and a vegetarian option. I went for the chicken balti pie and although not up to the standards set early on ‘The Road’ at Dunston UTS it was pretty decent. Inevitably, this being Wembley, I did not get much change from a fiver. 8/10

Value for Money: I paid the face value for my ticket and it cost £115. This may seem like a lot, but I would have happily paid three times the amount to be present at what was an unforgettable football match, the final tie in the latest edition of the world’s oldest football competition played at arguably the most famous football stadium on the planet. 10/10

The je ne sais quoi factor: A feature throughout the Road to Wembley from Scotland has been meeting up with pals along the way. Since September I have been meeting up with Peter Tissington every three weeks or so as Peter has also just completed the Road to Wembley. Peter’s journey started at Stavely Miners Welfare and our routes collided as early as Spennymoor in the third qualifying round. Sheffield United fan Peter has become a great friend and we are destined to keep in touch as we will forever be bound together by the Road to Wembley in season 2016-17.

Well done pal! Peter Tissington also completed the Road to Wembley

I will also be forever indebted to Peter for sorting out my ticket for the final. Good Man!

The other je ne sais factor about Saturday was just being there. The whole event felt special. There was an almost perceptible sense of history and tradition that pervaded the whole afternoon. I am pretty sure I will never do this again but I have enjoyed the whole ‘Road’ journey and it was such a privilege to be at the FA Cup Final at the end of it all. 10/10

Overall Road to Wembley from Scotland Rating 84/100 (The highest score on the journey!)

So Chelsea complete the season as League Champions but failed to do the double. I have developed an affection for every team that I have met along the route – except for the Blues from West London. Their recent success seems to be bought by ‘funny money’ and the wealthy owner Roman Abramovich seems like the type of person you could only feel warmth towards if you were a Chelsea fan. The Blues club captain is the grotesque, graceless self publicist John Terry and the talisman goalscorer is the obnoxious ego-maniac Diego Costa. Rumour has it that the mercenary Costa will play in the Chinese League next season to earn even bigger bucks rather than to try to fulfill his potential by scoring more goals in the much more competitive English Premier League. Chelsea are a hard team to love. Arsenal on the other hand …..

The Gunners have been great fun to spend some time with. Their fans are committed and enjoy their football. I do wish however, that they would give a bit more credit to their genius manager Arsene ‘The Professor’ Wenger. I have seen the Gunners score some great goals and play some beautiful football over the last three months. OK, they missed out a Champions League by a single point after 38 games but surely it is better to win the FA Cup and finish 5th than to not win the FA Cup and finish fourth. The FA Cup victory provides their fans with a real cause for celebration and a nice warm feeling that should last all summer. It is, after all, the oldest and most famous knock out competition in world football. A good friend of mine up here in Scotland, Sanjoy Das, is an Arsenal fan. I noted that he summed up the Gunners cup win on facebook yesterday as follows: “We are the champions of the Football Association. The FA Cup is definitely the most important football competition in the world and yet again Arsenal are the winners. Untainted by the whiff of filthy lucre this competition is all about how good you are as team on that night against the other team. It's more Grateful Dead than Cliff Richard, more fresh and innocent like your first kiss than some old slappers paid-for embrace. It's like the first warm day of spring a benediction and blessing from the Gods above rather than simply buying yourself to the top with black money. Everything was perfect including the referee.” Nice one Sanje

What now? I will continue to blog until I sort out who will publish this blog as a book. My initial thoughts are that it will be 140,000 words long, about 500 pages and contain about 250 pictures and will be launched in early August. I will keep you posted as this rolls out. I will also post at the weekend on the future of Arsene Wenger. An announcement about his future is expected on Thursday. Will he stay on for another two years or will he retire on a high? Come back here on Sunday to find out … and keep reading

Miles on the clock for this match 802

Final total on the Road to Wembley from Scotland 9555

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Where are they now? How did the teams that decorated the Road to Wembley from Scotland finish the season?

With the FA Cup Final now just three days away, in this final post before the Wembley showdown I am checking up on how the teams that I said goodbye to from round 1 onwards on The Road to Wembley from Scotland fared in the remainder of the season.

Charlton Athletic were in absolute turmoil back in December when I intruded on their private grief and the club is still a basket case 6 months later. The CARD campaign (Coalition Against Roland Duchatalet - the Charlton owner) was in full cry back then and they remain committed to ousting their asset-stripping owner. The match I attended at the Valley was attended by less than 5000 fans and this once famous club have continued to have ‘attract’ small crowds to their huge stadium as the CARD encouragement for fans to boycott games and starve the owner of income continues to have a big effect. Unfortunately for CARD the club did receive a huge inflow in January when teenage midfielder Adebola Lookman was sold to Everton for a reported £12 million

Look ! I am the Man! Lookman moved from Charlton to Everton for big bucks in January
The income from the Lookman sale means that Duchatalet is not reliant on ticket sales for a while and he has re-iterated his vow that the club is not for sale. A stand off where the real losers are the Charlton fans. Not good.

Next to depart the Road were the wonderful MK Dons. After knocking out Charlton in a replay they finally succumbed to Brighton and Hove Albion on a winter afternoon in early January. The Dons were great fun to be with and they are a very misunderstood club. All this ‘franchise’ stuff happened a long time ago and was largely misrepresented.  The contemporary Dons fan is typically a Buckinghamshire person simply supporting their local team and I think these supporters have some exciting times ahead. While I was following the Dons they managed to persuade Robbie Neilson to leave my beloved Hearts and take up the role of manager at Stadium MK.

Me and my mate Robbie Neilson! My favourite pic from The Road to Wembley from Scotland
When Robbie joined the Dons they were in danger of being relegated and his remit was to steady the ship and build for a promotion push in 2017-18. He guided them to a top half finish in the league and I suspect he will make some astute Scottish signings in the summer to add a bit of Scottish claymore steel to the silky Dons play. He has already nicked the very promising Robbie Muirhead from Tynecastle and more may well follow. I predict that the Dons will finish in the top six in League One next season.

I was not with Brighton for long as they lost in round 4 at Sincil Bank Lincoln. In both Brighton games that I watched, the Seagulls played a less than full strength XI as they were clearly prioritising their league campaign. In a sense they got what they deserved against The Imps when the Lincolnshire men dumped them out of the FA Cup. Not many tears were shed in Brighton and their focus on the league paid dividends as they were promoted to the land of milk and honey that is the English Premier League. The only Scot in the Brighton squad, Jamie Murphy, got his personal reward for a strong finish to the season when, on Monday, he was named in the Scotland squad for the forthcoming World Cup qualifier. I could be seeing the tartan clad Seagull winning his first cap in the match at Hampden against England in early June.

It may be an Irish name but Glaswegian Seagull Jamie Murphy is set to play for Scotland
Burnley were next to leave The Road when they bowed out to Lincoln City in dramatic circumstances at Turf Moor in February. The villain of the peace that day was marmite man Joey Barton who started the season with Glasgow Rangers. Joey has since been banned from the game for betting offences (1260 offences to be precise) and yesterday Burnley released him from his contract. Burnley’s league form dipped a bit after their cup exit and eventually the slump saw them finish 16th in the Premier League. One player who showed some good form in the latter stages of the season was Scottish international George Boyd. George can not expect to be adding to his 2 Scotland caps any time soon as he has been omitted from the Scotland squad to face England on June 10th.

The cap does not fit. George Boyd stars for Burnley but overlooked by Scotland
I followed Lincoln City on The Road to Wembley from Scotland for about three months and witnessed their thrilling, historic victories against Brighton and Burnley. Arsenal at the Emirates proved a bridge too far and they lost heavily to the Gunners in the quarter final of the FA Cup. After bowing out of the cup, they sustained good league form and won the National League with a couple of games to spare and gained promotion to League Two for season 2017-18. The unforgettable season was masterminded by the Cowley brothers Danny and Nicky.

Brothers in arms: The Cowleys steered the Imps to League Two

It is my fervent hope that my beloved Hearts sack the hapless Ian Cathro and appoint the Cowleys as co-managers at Tynecastle in time for the start of the new season. When I put this idea to my cronies at The Merchiston Hearts Supporters Club I was laughed out of court – but why not. The Cowleys are ambitious and Hearts are a much bigger club than Lincoln City.

The last team to leave The Road was Manchester City about a month ago. My time with the Citizens was all too brief but I enjoyed seeing City's team of superstars in action. City completed their league campaign on Sunday with yet another emphatic win and secured third place in the Premier League. There is plenty to look forward to for the fanatical City supporters next season with Champions League football now beckoning.

So the Road to Wembley from Scotland will reach Wembley on Saturday. I will be there at the 136th FA Cup Final and I can hardly contain my excitement. I have been obsessed with football from the moment I could kick a ball and obsessed with the FA Cup for over 50 years, but I have never been to an FA Cup Final. Chelsea and Arsenal, two of the finest teams in world football will be going head to head and it promises to be a great match. I have seen 16 matches on the Road and have travelled almost 9000 miles. On Saturday I reach my final destination. A total of 736 teams entered the FA Cup in season 2016-17 and I have seen 13 of these teams experience the bitter taste of defeat and on Saturday night only one of the 736 entrants will remain undefeated and claim the FA Cup. Will it be the Blues from West London or the Gunners from North London who are running round Wembley with the cup? Come back here on Monday to find out!

Monday, 22 May 2017

Arsenal miss out on Champions League and JT is OTT as Gunners and Blues gear up for Wembley on Saturday

Yesterday the two FA Cup finalists played their final league games of 2016-17 and now there is just one football match to be played in England to this season, namely the FA Cup final at Wembley next Saturday. The Gunners and the Blues both won but the two results have had very different consequences.

In north London Arsenal won 3-1 against an Everton side that were already on the beach. The Gunners won despite having to play for 76 minutes with 10 men. Their captain Laurent Koscielny was sent off early in the first half for a reckless mistimed tackle on Everton’s Valencia

A red card and a red face! Koscielny is sent off and will miss the FA Cup Final
Koscielny’s dismissal has serious consequences as he will now be banned for the FA Cup final. One of his defensive team-mates is also likely to miss the Wembley showdown as Brazilian Gabriel was carried off on a stretcher in the second period. Facing Costa and Co with two key defenders missing is a worry for Wenger. The match featured some good goals from the Gunners with Sanchez again on target and Welshman Aaron Ramsey completing the scoring in stoppage time with a picture goal. The result however was not enough as Arsenal missed out on a coveted top four place by a single agonising league point. Arsenal needed to win and for Liverpool to drop points if the Gunners were to sneak into the Champions League qualifying spots. The Liverpool match against Middlesbrough was the live game on Sky TV and I was watching a very nervous Liverpool team looking like they might slip up. Midway through the first half, with the score at 0-0, Boro’s Bamford got beyond the last defender Lovren and was pushed in the back as he was about to pull the trigger. He tumbled to the deck. A clear penalty, but not given. Had the ref made the correct decision, awarded the spot kick and sent off Lovren for being the ‘last man’ then the story of Arsenal’s league campaign may have been so different. As it transpired Liverpool went on to win and hence pipped Arsenal for fourth place by the narrowest of margins.

Bamford barged! Liverpool's Lovren lucky as ref decides no penalty or red card
As is their wont the football broadcast media went in to meltdown and many pundits have branded Arsenal as failures. A bit harsh when they have just finished fifth in the league and still have the FA Cup final to look forward to. As is now de rigueur Wenger bore the brunt of these outpourings. Since the draw for the quarter finals of the FA Cup was made in mid February and Arsenal became my team on the Road to Wembley from Scotland I have followed the ‘Wenger must go’ story with great interest and dismay. I just wish my beloved Hearts could unearth a manager who would be as ‘unsuccessful’ at Tynecastle as The Professor has been at The Emirates. With the foaming-at-the-mouth pontifications about the great man come a whole load of urban myths that are just untrue. Consider these: (i) Wenger is intransigent and will never change – untrue – he changed his back four to three at the back after 20 years for the last 8 games of this season and the Gunners won 7 of these games; (ii) Wenger won’t pay big money for players – untrue – he paid top dollar for Sanchez and Ozil who are two of the best players in the world; (iii) Since his early days at Arsenal when the Gunners were regularly champions Wenger never wins anything – untrue – he has won the FA Cup twice in the last three years and may well make that a hat trick later this week. You will have gathered that I have become a big fan of the Prof over the last three months.

Meanwhile across the capital in West London it was party time at Stamford Bridge. It was the last appearance at the Bridge for the Chelsea icon John Terry. Terry has been with Chelsea for 22 years and during his entire career he has always worn the squad number 26. So yesterday, in an orchestrated move that JT himself decided would take place, he was substituted in the 26th minute. When opponents Sunderland kicked the ball out of play in the 26th minute the board went up and he left the field flanked by a guard of honour. All a bit tacky and it was OTT JT. There was a premier league match going on for fucks sake!

Hard to believe this pic was taken during the game. JT is a bit of a John Thomas
Having already won the Premier league Chelsea played with carefree abandon and won handsomely by 5 goals to one. They now look forward to Saturday at Wembley with great optimism and the chance of doing the double.

Just one blog post to go (on Wednesday) before I head south for Wembley and the final destination on the Road to Wembley from Scotland. On Wednesday read how the teams I met in the later rounds of the cup finished the season … and keep reading!