Football Diary

by Patrick O’Connor

AS the indulgent, self-obsessed Premier League glorified in its over-hyped finale, there was a splendid illustration that English football has much, much more to offer.

With the Premier League games being played on a Sunday, and my usual fare, the Championship finished apart from the play-offs, I resisted the chance to watch a game from League One or League Two but instead settled down in front on the television on a cold, wet, windy May afternoon.

ITV 4 were showing live the FA Trophy final (the cup competition for non-league teams) between Stevenage and Barrow.  It was expected to be a one-sided affair, Stevenage have already clinched the Football Conference title and next season will be playing League football for the first time in their history whilst Barrow finished 15th in the Conference.  But it turned out to be a real cracker, full of incident, controversy, thrilling goals and at times some excellent, flowing football.  It proved that you don’t necessarily need the pitch to be inhabited with overpaid, foreign mercenaries to have a fabulous game of football.

Barrow is in the far north west of England and the trip to Wembley meant a 300 mile journey and an early morning start for their supporters. Stevenage were only just down the road from the famous stadium.  A spectacular shot from Stevenage’s Andrew Drury gave them the lead and it looked as the final was going to evolve as predicted but then his team-mate David Bridges was sent off for a hefty two-footed challenge on Andy Bond. The big question then was could Barrow make the extra man count?

For a long time it seemed that a superbly drilled Stevenage defence would hold out, but then, 11 minutes from time Barrow substitute Lee McEvilly headed a crisp equalizer and it was game on. Matters ebbed and flowed in thrilling fashion  but there was even more drama on the way.  In stoppage time, Barrow’s Robin Hulbert hurled himself into a dreadful aerial assault on Charlie Griffin, blatantly leading with his elbow and was immediately sent off. So that would level matters up, 10 a side.

Unfortunately Griffin was carried off on a stretcher, breathing through an oxygen mask with blood gushing out from a cut above his right eye. There was no way he could come back and so the numerical advantage to Barrow was restored with Stevenage having to soldier on with nine men.  They battled bravely and even had a few chances to take the lead but two minutes into the second period of extra time a stunning strike by Jason Walker, the only locally born player in the Barrow side,  clinched the trophy for the underdogs.

Wembley Stadium only housed 21,000 fans but those that were there and the television audience were treated to an epic final.

Meanwhile Chelsea won the Premier League. Big deal. Watched by their billionaire Russian owner who has obscenely bankrolled their way to the top, Chelsea, needing a win to see off Manchester United, walloped poor Wigan 8-0, to follow up their previous home victory against Stoke which saw them triumph 7-0.   Is this the level of competition that the deluded Premier League bosses and Roman Abramovich want? Winning games at such a canter week after week, apart from titanic tussles seven or eight times a season against the rest of the co-called ‘big four’?  If they do, they could be in for a big surprise for the general footballing public may eventually find that a big turn-off.

This weekend another big favourite, Chelsea, face massive underdogs, Portsmouth who have already been relegated from the Premier League, in the FA Cup final at Wembley.

Will they be able to provide as much entertainment as Stevenage v Barrow or will the corporate box occupants have turned their backs and be watching something else on telly by half-time as Chelsea notch up another glut of goals?