The cashless Non-league society and Luiz in Brazil

OK, it was my fault, I didn’t read the small print, AFC Rushden & Diamonds don’t take cash – unless, of course, you buy a programme. Whatever the reason for the club not to take hard currency, they are making a mistake. Non-league football is not big-time football – there were just 387 people at the game with Hitchin, not 38,700. The stewards claimed it was protecting their people, a bizarre statement given the rest of the ground was free and easy and there appeared to be no obvious precautions in place. They may only be losing a dozen or so fans per game as a result, but as a percentage of their average gate, that’s not to be sniffed at. Non-league football needs the casual fan who decides to turn up on the day, or at the very least, needs the facility to accommodate last minute decision-making. Hitchin, by the way, operate a similar system, although to be fair, they did show some flexibility at the recent FA Cup tie with Cheshunt. Non-league isn’t wealthy enough or popular enough to exclude people. On this occasion, I made an error of judgement and did not bring a wallet with cards, just a cash holder, but I truly believe operating cashless non-league football is flawed and not in the spirit of inclusiveness. Presumably, the clubs now pay their players electronically these days rather than little brown envelopes? The game, incidentally, was half decent, Rushden edged it 2-1 with a late header.

Crisis at United – again?

The new season is underway and we’ve already witnessed the start of the game-by-game assessment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. After the hysteria over the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, United have now lost three games, a 2-1 setback in Bern in the Champions League, a 1-0 home defeat against West Ham in the Carabao Cup and now a 1-0 loss at home to Aston Villa. People are now talking about 2021-22 season being make or break for OGS and insist he has to win a trophy. The Norwegian must be tired of the constant examination of his future. United do not have the playing resources to be genuine title contenders and their reliance on a 36 year-old striker is not exactly forward-looking. The Villa defeat was their first of the campaign and the Carabao Cup game saw a much-changed United team take the field. In the Young Boys game, they were reduced to 10 men. United’s season has not taken a turn for the worse, at least not yet. Nevertheless, OGS continues to be two or three games from the sack if you believe the rumours.

Familiar at the top

CIES Football Observatory, who provide some of the most revealing statistics and data in the football world, have published their forecasts for the big five leagues in Europe. The results are far from startling, as one would expect. According to CIES, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan will be champions. In the Premier League, Newcastle, Watford and Norwich will be relegated, and the top four will be unchanged from 2020-21. In Serie A, Juventus will finish sixth, according to CIES, with Napoli coming in second behind Inter.

Flamengo and Luiz dancing to the final

Brazil’s Flamengo won the first leg of their Copa Libertadores semi-final, beating Ecuadorian side Barcelona in the first leg. The second leg is on September 29. If they succeed, they will face fellow Brazilians, Palmeiras or Atlético Mineiro, who drew 0-0 in the first leg of their semi-final clash. This year’s final is on November 27 in Montevideo. The cup tie with Barcelona saw the debut of former Benfica, Chelsea, PSG and Arsenal defender David Luiz, who recently signed a 16-month deal with Flamengo. Luiz had an impressive first game and was roundly applauded throughout the game. Flamengo were delighted to capture the 34 year-old. Their official site trumpeted his arrival: “He’s won all over the world, and now is in a place where our anthem says, ‘win, win, win’. We want to welcome Luiz to Mengao! Our nation is more than ready to see you in the Sacred Mantle!”

When game management goes astray

HITCHIN TOWN’s FA Cup run seems a long time ago these days. Since losing to Solihull Moors on November 11, they have played 14 games and have lost nine of them. Six home games in the league have yielded a combined attendance of 2,230 – whatever happened to those new found fans that discovered their local club when the TV cameras were present? How fickle and opportunist the football community can be!

A four-match winning streak that ended a week before Christmas has been overshadowed by five consecutive defeats from December 22 – the holiday season has not been kind to the Canaries, who now face a desperate battle to keep away from the dotted line of shame in 2019.

This was always going to be a year of transition for Hitchin. The team that went close to promotion in 2017 has fallen apart and the replacements are either learning their trade or have been found wanting. The old zip and thrust of the team that reached two play-offs just doesn’t seem to be there. Some fans keep talking about “we’re not playing to our potential”, but 22 games have now passed, you know what sort of team you have when you reach that stage of the campaign. There’s not many surprises to unlock, unless you dramatically revamp the squad.

There was hope in the aftermath of the Solihull game that there were funds to strengthen the team and when Matt Lench – arguably the best player from the team that almost went up – returned on a dual registration from Weladstone that things were looking up. But he left as quickly as he arrived as the Stones recalled him for Christmas.

Even Mark Burke, the club’s manager, used the word transition after the latest defeat, at the hands of AFC Rushden & Diamonds, but the trick is to evolve and not accidentally fall through the trapdoor while you’re rebuilding.

Burkey likes to use terms like “game management” but against the reconstituted Diamonds, who contributed a very healthy chunk of the 530 attendance, there was a distinct lack of that very modern of clichés – by both teams.

Rushden looked home and dry as early as the 20thminute, two effortless goals for which the Hitchin defence should have been credited with a couple of assists. All too easy. “That’s game over,” said one veteran Top Fielder.

After a miserable Christmas at Hitchin – the team was very below par against Needham Market and did little to impress in the big derby against Biggleswade, and on top of that, club stalwart Roy Izzard was taken ill – it was not unreasonable to suggest Burke’s team might capitulate after conceding two early goals. However, they had a route back in the 24thminute when the very eye-catching Isaac Galliford volleyed home to reduce the arrears.

Actually, Rushden seemed to lose the plot or at least their own game management at this point. “If I were a Rushden fan, I’d be pretty annoyed the way their team has thrown away control,” said a Hitchin fan at the interval.

It got worse for them after the break, with Hitchin equalising through Galliford and then Matt Nolan rolled back the years with a first-time effort from a corner. Apparently, this move has been tried many times, but you do need someone like Nolan to finish off the manoeuvre. It would have been a storybook ending, but Rushden scored two goals in the final seconds to win 4-3. Hitchin’s “game management” had certainly gone out of the window. Actually, it was bloody sloppy.

It was a sickener for the Canaries and made it five defeats in a row. The big R word has been mentioned, albeit quietly, and it is starting to look more like a possibility, but there’s still time for another feat beginning with the same letter – revival.

Would it be the end of the world if Hitchin did go down? This is their eighth season in the Premier, and the past two relegations (excluding the restructured relegation in 2004) have come after 10 and eight seasons. Moreover, the revival – i.e. promotion – has come after one and two seasons in 1998-99 and 2010-11 respectively. The club’s three relegations (1987-88) have all seen them bounce back stronger and with support still intact. Not that anybody would welcome the drop with open arms, but sometimes it is a way to get rid of staleness and relaunch a club. Hitchin are, arguably, too big for step 4 but the club has, historically found it hard to sustain step 3 over the long haul.

But that’s worst case scenario and with a huge percentage of points up for grabs, Hitchin can banish any fears of relegation with a few decent results. Mark Burke, as ever, was upbeat despite his team handing out the points like confetti – as a former defender (and an exceptional one at that), he will have been pained by the generosity of his back line. He used that magic word “transition” again as he sped along Bedford Road and the glow of the floodlights started to fade.

Actually, he was giving me a lift home from Top Field. Given that he’s one of those characters that epitomise the claim “cut my arm and I bleed yellow and green”, he’s surely hurting at the moment. Equally, he’s been around long enough to know that the old adage, “what goes around, comes around”, is very true in football.

Photo: Peter Else