It is often said that it is lower down the footballing pyramid where the spectator can experience football in its truest and simplest form, unadulterated by egos and gross commercialism. ‘Real’ football with ‘real’ fans. Local people supporting their local club, for the love of it. No glory seekers here, just honest supporters enjoying the beautiful game, win, lose or draw.
Maidenhead United are a fine example of this, and are currently plying their trade in their highest ever league, in the modern era, in their 147 year history. They were champions of the Alliance League South last season, which propelled them into the rarefied heights of the National League, formerly the Conference, which lies just one tier below the Football League.They have made a good fist of it too and lay in eleventh position coming into what might be termed a mid table clash with FC Halifax Town.
Maidenhead are managed by the former West Ham starlet Alan Devonshire, in his second spell as the ‘gaffer’ at the club. So revered is he around these parts that the new, and indeed only, hospitality suite, well terrapin to be more precise, bears his name. The club are clearly hoping that he will be their manager for some time yet.
The ground lies in the shadow of the Great Western railway, visible from above to the daily London commuter, and located in the middle of this relatively nondescript town centre. Maidenhead is a relatively affluent town in Berkshire yet it has no real sporting pedigree or history. The football team are certainly attempting to put it on the sporting map.
Arguably the football club’s greatest claim to fame is that they have played at their ground in York Road since 1871, making it the oldest senior football ground continuously used by the same club. Some feat and it looks largely unchanged from those days, bar a new all seated stand, ‘The Railway Stand’, that was built in 2014 and which seats 550 supporters, which sits in lieu of the railway, and which has raised the capacity to 4,000.
Despite a couple of recent defeats and the distance to travel for the visitors from Halifax, a relatively healthy crowd of over 1,200 made their way to York Road. The home supporters largely as much in hope as anticipation of a home victory, taking into account recent results and the difficulties of having to play four matches in ten days, when the club remain one of only five in this division to still be part timers.
Football clubs at this level invariably reflect their position within the overall football structure and hierachy, bar the odd exception. Maidenhead United, also known as the ‘Magpies’ and wearing black and white striped shirts confirming the appropriateness of their nickname, very much fit into this mould and their position in the pyramid.
However, they have had to adapt to this higher division in accordance with stringent league regulations and bags now have to be checked on the gate and no alcohol can be consumed within sight of the pitch. A step too far perhaps, but in these days of health and safety paranoia, rules are rules. Clubs must abide.
However, £15 admission on the gate with £10 for concessions and £5 for juniors represents reasonable value. An excellent programme for £3, which rivals many from higher divisions, provides a worthy and informative read plus a number of tea shops located around the ground ensure that the supporters will not go hungry or thirsty, and most certainly not at Premier League prices.
Some will even make their way into “Stripes”, for their pre-match sustenance. This is the club’s function room, which is also advertised as being available for hire. Alas “Stripes” is hardly an alluring venue, sitting as it does within a very tired, outdated and unattractive looking single storey breeze block structure that also houses the dressing rooms and adjoins the pitch.
The official club shop is housed within a trailer that can be transported on the back of a van. The club are cutting their cloth accordingly yet a convivial atmosphere awaits all those who pitch up and pay their money.
For all their efforts off the pitch to provide an agreeable product for their supporters, alas on this occasion the fare on the pitch was entertaining in parts but ultimately largely forgettable. Both sides huffed and puffed, they both gave it their all and were fully committed, indeed at times the match became quite heated, but neither quite had the nouse or guile to break the other down and force a winner.
Maidenhead had the better of the first half and were unlucky not to take the lead on a couple of occasions. Their big number nine, Sean Marks, arguably had the best chance when his header struck the bar but, alas for their supporters, they generally lacked composure in front of goal.
Maidenhead tired after the break, perhaps reflecting their heavy fixture schedule and their part time status, whilst their opponents significantly improved as the match went on and were only denied a goal by the linesman’s flag plus some last gasp saves and defending by the Maidenhead goalkeeper Carl Petney and their assured club captain, Alan Massey.
The home supporters urged their team forward but to little effect. These being the home supporters that filled the “Bell End” behind the goal in the second half, having relocated from their position in the “East Terrace” behind the goal at the opposite end of the ground in the first half. This is arguably one of the idiosyncrasies of non league football and for supporters to be able to move around the ground to suit themselves is clearly something of a novelty when compared to football at higher levels and definitely a big attraction for those watching at this level. Any form of segregation is a rarity and only occasionally introduced when the likes of local rivals, Aldershot, come to town.
It could be argued that the supporters sing louder as a result and create a better atmosphere in the ground, albeit their reference to Halifax’s support being ‘rather poor’ largely fell on deaf ears as it appeared as though only a mini bus full of supporters had made the long trip down from Yorkshire.
As the second half wore on, the long ball tactic suddenly became Maidenhead’s only tactic and this was largely meat and drink to the experienced Halifax centre back pairing. As the Maidenhead players tired, the once effective overlapping runs from the dangerous full back, Frenchman Remy Clerima, and the equally talented right sided midfielder, Harold Odametey, suddenly ground to a halt and with it Maidenhead’s best attacking threats ended.
However, their manager Alan Devonshire is no mug. Whilst he was renowned for being a sparkling attacking ball player, he has been around the block and his tactics reflect a certain pragmatism, arguably alien to a player of such natural footballing talent. Needs must in this league and he really could not afford for his team to lose a third match on the spin. Clearly realising that Halifax were in the ascendancy it was time to batten down the hatches and not commit too many men forward for fear of conceding on the counter. It proved to be a wise move.
Maidenhead’s attacking potential subsided but they held out for a nil nil draw and a well earned point, for which they deserve some credit, despite their more dominant first half display.
As the supporters headed off into the night air, most will have reflected on an enjoyable afternoon and a reasonably entertaining match despite no goals. Maidenhead are continuing to establish themselves in this league and if they continue to perform at this level, they should certainly cement their position in it for next season, no mean feat in view of their history and without any experience playing in this league and at this level.
Whilst most attention in the footballing world today is focussed on Philippe Coutinho’s huge £142m transfer to Barcelona, football at the lower echelons of the game lives on and still provides an outlet for the local person to support their local team and arguably enjoy the occasion just as much as a trip to a much bigger club, where the money is swilling and commercialism is rife.
Yet on a day, and indeed a month, when such huge sums of money have and will change hands between football clubs, spare a thought for the Halifax coffers and indeed their striker, Tom Denton. A beanpole of a man, not dissimilar in height and stature to Peter Crouch, he came onto the pitch as a substitute in the second half, wearing his usual number 9. Some feisty collisions followed, blood was spilled and the referee ordered him to change his shirt. Five minutes later, as he turned, it became apparent that his no doubt treasured number 9 shirt, which he had presumably earned and wore proudly, had been replaced by a clean shirt bearing the number 43. That’s football, it works and it survives, and money really is not everything. All hail the little people.