Match of the month

The heat is on – and not just because summer has put in a rare appearance. A spending spree has raised expectations at Upton Park, but so far money hasn’t bought Hammers happiness, as Barney Ronay reports

Money: does it ever really make you happy? Heading towards Upton Park through the exciting new infrastructure of the Greenwich peninsula prompts this kind of question. South London’s former dockland has been ambitiously made over of late. Money hasn’t just been spent, it’s been recklessly slathered around the place with a loaded pallet knife. Here and there it even covers some of the cracks. There is probably some kind of comparison here with the new model West Ham United. At its old industrial heart, Greenwich now has the Millennium Village, known for its gleaming white dome, symbol of an aspirational spending beano that never quite got where it wanted to go, but did spark off a whole load of aggravation. West Ham, these days, are fronted up by Eggert ­Magnusson, the Icelandic businessman also known for his gleaming white dome, ­symbol of an aspirational spending beano that… well, you get the idea.

It’s 23 years since the “Hadrian’s Wall derby” was played in league or cup, but luckily hostilities can be renewed in a pre-season friendly staged in high summer – at least that’s what the calendar claims. Pete Green writes

It’s the odd-numbered summers that get to you. The close seasons unrelieved by World Cups or European Championships. As much as we feel sick at the corruption of our game; as much as we feel jaded and excluded by the Premier League’s closed shop – and the impenetrable play-within-a-play that is the top four – we still need football like we need air. We believe the game can overcome the choreography of balance sheets, can still depart from the script. This is why we still feel itchy and restless in these alternate summers, when the grandest international tournaments aren’t ­available to tide us through. This is why 12,346 people have left dry and comfortable homes to watch Carlisle and Newcastle play out a tame and inconsequential draw on the wettest and dankest of summer days.

Madrid’s fourth team have become Madrid’s third team in recent years – but manager Bernd Schuster could be stepping up even further. At least if he goes, Getafe fans can look back on a first major final. Andy Brassell was there

What makes a cup competition special? The FA Cup was always meant to be far above any of its counterparts around Europe or the world. Of all the changes in the game over the last ten to 15 years, the FA Cup being reduced to virtually a private contest between the top four has shaken the faith more than most.

A day after the FA Cup final, the next game at Wembley is the conclusion of the Conference play-offs. Considering the hype and disappointment of the first game, how does the battle for League status fare? Cameron Carter writes

For the past seven years, Wembley has meant nothing more than a building site quite near Neasden and a not-bad place to get a South Indian curry. Now, suddenly, Wembley is back on the popular consciousness map and has regained its third syllable. All up the Metropolitan Line, families are singing: “Wemberlee, Wemberlee, We’re the mighty Morecambe and we’re off to Wemberlee.” In no sense could you fault the veracity of the song. As one soul they disembark at Wembley Park and amble to the new stadium.

Five years ago a brand new stadium arrived in Darlington, even if Faustino Asprilla didn’t. This visit of play-off contenders to play-off hopefuls reveals a lot about life in League Division Two. Ian Plenderleith was there too

South Korea and Portugal built a number of stadiums for major international football tournaments that now sit underused and half-empty on match days, but at least they had their World Cup and Euro days in the sun. In Darlington, the 25,000-seat 96.6 TFM Arena has never been full to capacity and it probably never will be. It’s destined to spend its days under the eternal grey clouds of ­England’s fourth division.

Over recent years these clubs have faced each other many times but never at such levels of comfort as this meeting, both on and off the pitch. Did the game itself reflect current contentment? Roger Titford went along to find out

Reading’s first season in the Premiership has been a sweet dream so far. Back in October we did a double-take as Sky announced “three big games for you this weekend: Man United v Liverpool, Reading v Arsenal and Real Madrid v Barcelona”. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to the attention and by February the blandishments of the broadsheets had become commonplace. Europe, rather than relegation, was our struggle. Premiership foes, who looked so big, fast and fit in early autumn, had shrunk in the face of our sustained teamwork and intelligence. We could even travel to the Emirates in hope.

The Northamptonshire marriage has already made it into (and out of) the Football League; now an east London club with roots in four others are riding high in the Conference. David Stubbs watches the battle of the mergers

There’s always that great Saturday afternoon matchday sense you get that you’re approaching a stadium. Suddenly, as you walk into the station, you realise you’re part of a steadily growing crowd. The pace has quickened, with everyone walking with a slightly cocky, anticipatory gait. You squeeze on to the District Line, a hitherto empty carriage now bulging. Then, two stops down, everyone ups and pours out of the carriages en masse. Everyone, that is, except you. For the stop is Upton Park. They’re all off to West Ham v Watford, whereas you are heading further up the line, towards Dagenham East. And now, as the train pushes on, you’re alone in the carriage, except for another bloke and a dog. And they’re getting off at Upney.

There should be an air of panic around Elland Road, but it’s hard to locate. Have the past few years been so traumatic that no one can yet admit that a season ticket starting in August could be for League One? Al Needham investigates

Norris. That’s who I think of automatically when Leeds United’s glory years come to mind. Not Don Revie with his reams of dossiers, or sock-tags, or the Smiley badge, or seats on the pitch of the Parc des Princes. I think of horrible, devious, pill-pushing Norris, the ginger vermin of Slade prison who conned poor Blanco out of his treasure map in that episode of Porridge, only to find himself desperately scrabbling away in the dead of night in front of the imperious East Stand with the floodlights at full glare and the police advancing.

With the autumn crisis all but forgotten, Glenn Roeder’s side face up to one of his former clubs against a backdrop of takeover rumours that could make one man, somewhat undeservedly, even richer. Harry Pearson looks on

The experienced approach Newcastle on the penultimate Saturday before Christmas with caution. The city is the scene of such frenzied shopping that the unwary football fan can easily find himself swept away by a tidal wave of present-hunters outside Central Station and deposited without warning in Fenwick’s ladies’ gloves department.

It may have been minus ten in August, but things are warming up at Millmoor. Slowly, the South Yorkshire club are adjusting to life without a managerial legend. Is the same true for the visitors? Pete Green investigates

It is a bore to draw parallels between football and love affairs. Too many tiresome blogs talk about the magic having gone, the need to rekindle the spark, and flirtations with other clubs. But if every cliche hides a kernel of truth then maybe this one tells us something about management, because the longer a manager has been in charge, the longer it seems to take the club to get over it once the record collection is divided up.

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