Calling in on….Dorchester Town, the Prince’s choice Reply

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In deepest Dorset, there lies a town that is an aesthete’s delight – Poundbury, an experiment in surburban development. It’s an attractive place, designed to portray traditional buildings in a modern setting. It’s meant to be tasteful, although some people see it as a little antiseptic. It’s almost part of Dorchester, the county town of Dorset with a population of just under 20,000.

What’s the relevance of this ode to Poundbury? Well, Dorchester Town’s Avenue Stadium would not look out of place in Poundbury. It too has classic overtones and has been designed with the aim of pleasing the eye. And it does. Prince Charles, who dislikes “carbuncles” when it comes to architecture, and had a hand in Poundbury’s “look and feel”, would no doubt approve of Dorchester Town’s fine ground.

P1050249 (250x205)Amazingly, it’s been around for well over 20 years, which explains the slightly weathered appearance of the stadium. But it is still avenues ahead of many of the bolt-together football grounds being put up today.

Dorchester were relegated to the Southern League Premier in 2014 after a decade in the Conference South. They have taken their time to adjust to their new surroundings, but in 2014-15, they have been a little distracted by their FA Cup run. On October 25, they will play host to Bristol Rovers in the fourth qualifying round. When Hitchin Town turned up to play the Magpies, the queue for tickets was not for a Southern League fixture between two inconsistent teams, but for an appetising cup-tie.

Dorchester’s form amid their splendid surroundings has not been good. They had lost three of their seven home fixtures in the league before meeting Hitchin. Furthermore, they had lost their last three league games on the road. The FA Cup had provided some blessed relief, however, with wins against Yate, Abingdon and Hendon to set them up with a plum tiP1050258 (250x201)e with Bristol Rovers.

Hitchin’s early season flourish had given way to a string of setbacks. They were [surprisingly] beaten in the FA Cup by Wingate & Finchley and had also lost their last two league games, and were eliminated from the Red Insure Cup by local rivals Arlesey Town. The club could be forgiven for being distracted from events on the field, though, as the battle over their ground, Top Field, was now in full flow. The latest publicity to emerge from the club was a “pitch invasion” by a hedgehog that has proved more eye-catching than the “Save Hitchin Town” campaign that is in its nascent stages.

There was a touch of irony in Hitchin’s visit to Dorchester. The ground sits alongside Tesco, the very supermarket that is supposed to be up for a move to Hitchin’s dilapidated stadium. Sometimes, it does work! That said, the location of Dorchester’s home is in a much more agreeable location than the racetrack home that is being tabled as Hitchin’s future.

Dorchester included Nick Crittenden in their midfield. He’s a player that has demonstrated great durability in a career that started with Chelsea and continued with the likes of Yeovil, Aldershot, Weymouth and – since 2008 – Dorchester. He was the best player on the pitch, along with Andreas Robinson, also of the home side.

But Hitchin outplayed Dorchester in the first half and should have capitalised on their superiority. They went ahead after Jonny McNamara – shades of Francis Lee circa 1972 – went sprawling in the penalty area and Lewis Rolfe netted from the penalty spot.

Hitchin should have extended their lead when Matt Lench’s half-volley was parried by Dorchester goalkeeper Alan Walker-Harris and Robbie Burns’ follow-up struck the crossbar.

Rolfe was sent-off early in the second half for a second yellow card and from that moment, the game changed direction. In the 53rd minute, a low drive by Jack Odam found the back of the net. Hitchin goalkeeper, Tahj Bell was too slow to get down for the shot and really should have prevented the goal.

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Hitchin’s discipline was questionable in the second half. Brett Donnelly was substituted, possibly to prevent another red card but his brother, Callum, lasted around 12 minutes after coming on as substitute before being red-carded for foul and abusive language. Five minutes from the end, a tame header by Sam Lanahan caught out Bell once more and Dorchester were ahead…and winners.

As ragged as it may have seemed at that point, Hitchin could point to a good first half, but as we all know, one half doesn’t make a game. Top Field regulars, even that hedgehog, can expect some changes in the coming weeks if the Canaries’ current form doesn’t improve soon.

Dorchester seemed relieved more than elated. They may have an enticing tie with Bristol Rovers coming up, but they have a lot of ground to make up in the league. Their stadium is deserving of a much bigger stage. Perhaps the income they will pick-up in the FA Cup will help fund that?

** Hitchin have played 13 league games, eight away. Dorchester have played 14, eight at home. Surely a league of the Southern League’s status can come up with a better system for fixture compilation?

2018 – When football went virtual Reply

Golden team to a new golden age...

Golden team to a new golden age…

It all started in Hungary, a country with a long history of invention. The Rubik Cube, the Biro, electronic scoreboards at football matches, they all began life in Hungary. The country was once, for a few years, the centre of world football, giving birth to one of the most outstanding teams of all time. But it all went wrong and in the post-Glasnost years and early 21st century, Hungarian football declined to such an extent that barely 3,000 people watched the top games of the country’s once proud sport.

Hungarian football became a sideshow as football fans tuned-in to watch English Premier, Bundesliga and La Liga games. Finally, in 2018, the Hungarian football authorities had seen enough. They decided to close down football as we know it. The money, public interest and talent just wasn’t there anymore. Crowds had dropped to such a low level that club officials would hijack buses and trams of people and force them to watch games. Armed police were hired to keep crowds in the stadiums. Fighting broke out and the Hungarian public barricaded football grounds to make them inaccessible.

Then a young student, Istvan Orban, came up with an idea that would change the face of European football. A football fan himself, Orban, who would later win the Nobel Prize, devised a computer programme that would take gaming to an extraordinary level. He used the basic technology of a computer game to make Hungarian football a virtual experience.

Launching it at the old Nep Stadium, or the Ferenc Puskas Stadium as it became, Orban proposed to the Hungarian people that their football would be a glorified computer game, but with a difference. The teams would be virtual CGI-designed players with skills and techniques and values. The games would be played via computer, with the real stars being the gamers who would be assigned to the clubs. The gamers would play the fixtures, managing their squad of CGI-players. Clubs would have a staff of just a few people, most of whom would be computer geniuses who could get the best out of their players. The Hungarian media was outraged and FIFA immediately announced that Hungary would be forced to leave the organisation if they adopted the concept.

But the computer-mad young people of Budapest bought it and within weeks, the Hungarian Virtual Soccer League was formed. The leading technology firms around the world flew to Hungary to try and secure a franchise. Suddenly, after years of penury, Hungarian football was awash with money. The top developers, designers and manufacturers left silicon valleys in various corners of the world to get a slice of the action.

Gabor Nagy, a Hungarian entrepreneur whose father had been involved in Hungarian football during the golden age of the 1950s, seized the moment. Nagy poured money into Honved Pixel, the newly adapted name for the old masters of the Hungarian game. A dozen developers and programmers managed to create a set of players that compared to the Mighty Magyars of the 1950s. It didn’t stop there – Ferencvaros brought Florian Albert back to life with their virtual star Floriano.

When the first games were played, in August 2019, nobody knew quite what to expect. Honved Pixel and Ferencvaros played the first game at the old Nep and 60,000 people turned up to watch the large screens where the 90-minute game would be played out. Honved Pixel had hired two 17 year-old computer geeks from California to lead their team. Ferencvaros had a Chinese computer programmer and a 14 year-old Hungarian running their team. The crowd was astounded by the quality of the game – nobody had seen such superb football in Hungary for decades. It ended in a 6-4 win for Honved, with Laszlo Puskas scoring all six for Honved.

All over Hungary, people were flocking to watch these computer games. Things started to evolve, however, and before too long, virtual players were being developed by the clubs and sold in a new virtual transfer market. The players started to acquire followings – in 2020, Ujpest GigaByte star, Hidegkuti Hussar, was named “Hungarian of the Year” by the newspaper, Magyar Nezmet.

Hungary’s brave move was soon copied across European countries where football had lost much of its audience and prestige. Romania and Bulgaria followed, creating Virtual leagues that attracted much larger audiences. FIFA lost 25% of its membership in Europe within two years. By 2025, the only “real” football leagues in Europe were in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France.

What co-existed was a two-tier sport – real and virtual. Even in the countries where real football still existed, virtual leagues sprung up, but the real loser was FIFA. The World Cup had shrunk so much that they were running out of venues to host their flagship competition. In desperation, they decided to award the 2030 edition to Qatar.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, in 2024, they celebrated victory in the first virtual World Cup, 70 years after West Germany deprived them of the title. “We are back,” screamed the headlines. Well, virtually…