Football: Fan's Eye View - Harrogate Town - `You might as well send over a fish!'

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The Independent Online
THE OTHER Saturday I went pay-per-view. I paid pounds 3 and in return saw an entire match from the comfort of my own personal piece of terracing. I saw five goals, possibly the best referee ever to blow a whistle and learned a few new football expressions from the dug-out in front of me.

Harrogate Town of the UniBond League First Division are the perfect antidote to football hype of the Murdoch variety. Tired of the histrionics from overpaid footballers, I had gone in search of a real football match where a match fee of pounds 30 is the only reward for 90 minutes of hard endeavour.

The UniBond contains a refreshing number of players who come in all shapes and sizes. Their opponents, Ashton United, had a bean-pole of a centre- half against "our" diminutive No 9, a player who could probably earn more money being fired from a cannon at a circus. Needless to say, there was no contest. Ashton United ran out convincing winners, 4-1. The Independent on Sunday printed the score in reverse, thereby giving Town supporters at least the knowledge of what it would look like in print to pull off a resounding victory.

I had positioned myself in the crowd of 165, just behind the dug-outs, hoping to pick up some new insights from the two managers. "Tuck 'im under," yelled the Harrogate manager at a player. "Go on, tuck 'im under, nah, you're not strong enough." The player gesticulated back.

I was debating whether to ask the boss what "tuck 'im under," meant when two corners arrived in fairly quick succession. The first was caught cleanly by the Ashton keeper. As the second was about to be taken, the manager yelled: "Not at the keeper this time. You might as well send over a fish!"

A fish? Shades of "Ooh aah Cantona" and seagulls. I hoped for more nautical analogies. Instead he contented himself with a tirade against the opposing manager over a refereeing decision.

The game? Occasionally a player would direct a header to a team-mate, cushion a ball, display a good first touch or even, although this was rarer, spray a pass across the park. Well played, Ashton United.

Indeed, one of their goals came from a ball to the wing, a first-time centre into the box, a thundering header into the roof of the net. If you delved far enough into your imagination, there was a picture of 40,000 fans going delirious.

Harrogate? The goalkeeper had clearly watched too many old Leeds videos featuring Gary Sprake between the posts. My man of the match for sheer entertainment value, he more than once reduced the visiting fans behind his goal to helpless laughter.

The home crowd had seen it all before. They nodded sagely and tutted quietly as goal after goal went in.

The ref had a blinder. Mr Wallace from Houghton-le-Spring had an iron fist on the game from the off. An ex-miner, he stood no nonsense from namby-pamby players who went down clutching their ankles. He would order the physio off and the player to get up.

Strangely nostalgic, the whole experience made me wish for a muffler scarf and a rattle to wave. As we all trooped out at the final whistle, the home supporters seemed to evaporate into houses just around the corner. It was obviously the habit of a lifetime, supporting Harrogate.

Would I return? Of course. You see, there is a superstore almost opposite. Football and shopping. That's what Saturdays are for, Mr Murdoch.