By Matt Rowson
I suppose at midnight, any colour looks black; blue is clearly no exception. A bunch of players sporting this colour thunder past us with little warning, and are scarcely any more familiar than the shirts they are wearing.
Amongst those that we recognise there are further surprises... I certainly never expected to see Richard Lee in a Watford shirt again, however low-key the surroundings.
We take up position at the same spot from which we watched much of the same pre-season exchange almost exactly a year ago. The guy on the tannoy seems to be relaying the team news over a mobile phone from the central reservation of the M25; at any rate, he is precious little help in identifying our heroes, although the names "Albert Jarrett", "Joseph Desiré Job" and Ross Jenkins (yes, really) are just about clear above the crackle.
Much of the half, therefore, is spent pondering the identities of the starting eleven, and trying to match ill-remembered images of our younger recent recruits to the individuals in front of us. Dom Blizzard is quickly identified; as last year at Redditch he comes into the first pre-season game looking an absolute monster, not the gangly individual remembered from competitive action.
He's playing at centre back alongside someone who we assume to be Sheku Kamara (but isn't, as it turns out). No idea who the full backs are, the chap on the left in particular looks a bit uncomfortable... no more so than when a Northwood break results in a fine weighted ball from the left dropping just in front of Woods striker Peter Dean in roughly the space that you'd hope the left-back would be covering. In the absence of any intervention, Dean closes on goal, Lee comes bombing out (as was ever his wont) but Dean slips the ball tidily past him to give the home side the lead. His celebration is a little OTT for a pre-season friendly, charging fiercely to the corner, uprooting the corner flag and then diving into an embrace with friends or family at the front of the stand, but as seemingly an ex-Hornet we can perhaps excuse his exuberance.
Play resumes, and we're back to trying to work out who our players are. Toumani stands out in midfield, and the bloke getting stuck in alongside him is probably Ben Gill we decide, correctly this time. It's not clear initially whether Albert Jarrett is the small black bloke on the right wearing seven or the small black bloke on the left wearing eleven... until word arrives from someone who has moved along the stand that David Hockaday has spent the last couple of minutes shouting "Shoulders, Albert!" at the number eleven. Which means that eleven is probably Jarrett unless Hockaday's got it wrong as well, which might explain the apparent need for him to repeat whatever instructions "Shoulders!" might imply.
So we still don't know who seven is, or nine... Job is at least clearly identifiable at ten, even if his contributions are rarely eye-catching.
Most of the eye-catching duties in the first half, as it turns out, fall to Albert Jarrett who seems to gain in confidence and impudence as the half progresses. Our first attack of any consequence comes when he beats his man down the left - not for the last time - and sends what was probably a tempting ball across the face of goal that Job fails to connect with. The crowd are briefly stirred, and then revert to swatting wasps and discussing "University Challenge".
Five minutes later, however, Albert's at it again... this time fooling two markers before slipping the ball to Toumani Diagouraga who finds our anonymous no. 7 wide on the right. He earns a corner, but should perhaps have done better.
I'm on the phone to Dad, who's in a beer garden somewhere and perhaps not overly preoccupied with who our left back might be, when we equalise... fittingly it's Albert Jarrett who gets it, receiving a ball well laid-off by whoever our no.9 is and sending a bobbling shot through into the bottom far corner from right to left which the Northwood keeper will perhaps be rather disappointed to have been beaten by.
Joseph-Desiré Job shows his Premiership credentials shortly afterwards, holding the ball up well in the corner furthest from us before falling over and winning a free kick.
His next contribution is more positive however, and perhaps the only point in proceedings in which a significant gap between the sides is apparent... Jarrett starts it all off, predictably enough, slipping past his man again and laying off to Gill. Gill moves the ball to Job on the edge of the area who sends a peach of a through ball to our number 9, putting him clean in on goal. The big striker keeps his head and beats the keeper neatly, a fine culmination to a flowing move in which the pace of the ball has scarely fluctuated.
The game settles down again after this unseemly outbreak of excitement, to the point where we forego a degree of attentiveness in favour of navigating our way to the burger van on the other side of the stadium, where we might also establish whether Don Fraser knows who any of our team are.
Lucky half-time chocolate: A cheeseburger.
Reason: In this heat, chocolate is a very temporary concept.
Level of success: Not strictly relevant. But it was a decent burger.
Don was no more clued up than we were, as it turned out. Paul Goldsmith appeared with more useful if incomplete information though... the impressive no. 9 was a Hungarian trialist; no. 5 was another trialist, not Sheku Kamara as suspected; the right back, who had made little impression, was Ross Jenkins - but not the same one, unless he's lost six inches and at least thirty years somewhere. And the right winger was someone called Olly.
After one or two more pleasant post-summer "hellos" we were back around the edge of the pitch, slightly better informed and gratified that these weren't people that I really should have recognised. We return to discover both that the sun setting seems to have made everything hotter, and that no sooner had we identified our no. 9 (later research also yielding a name, Tamas Priskin, 19 year-old ETO Raba Gyor striker) then he was off, replaced with Job at half time for two appropriately anonymous substitutes.
The subs had warmed up in front of us for periods of the first half, prompting Paul to protest that either he was getting older, or the players were getting younger. Both were true as it turned out... the conspicuously impish no.14 turned out to be Harry Forrester, only 15 and therefore only three or four years old when BSaD first ventured onto the web. Ulp.
Forrester is lively, and quickly has Northwood shirts scuttling around him nervously. "Olly" seems to have been moved inside where he does a so-so job as a target man, strong enough to hold off markers and win headers but not adept enough at directing them. Forrester seems to be playing off him, and is much the more obvious threat... his direct play sees him draw a foul on the right hand corner of the penalty area. He takes it quickly, and dinks a wonderful chip to the far post; Dom Blizzard throws his considerable frame at it, his header crashing back off the post but stranding the goalkeeper who is left helpless when Dom contorts himself sufficiently to turn in the rebound.
Northwood have an attack, their first for a while, which culminates in a blond striker, possibly Dean, heading wide. At this point we notice that Scott Loach, looking suitably large even from our distance, must have replaced Lee at half time. He's called into action minutes later, when a neat Northwood free kick sees a ball slipped down the side of the wall for a shot to be lined up from a narrow angle. Loach does a passable job of blocking the first shot, struck with force such that he can only parry, but an outstanding job of covering the second.
Jarrett, meanwhile, has been taken off... the announcer has long since given up on reporting these changes, perhaps accurately deducing that the names aren't going to mean a lot to folk anyway. Not just the travelling support either... it's confirmed later that not one of the Northwood players on show faced us in last summer's encounter, such is the turbulent nature of non-league squad turnover.
Forrester is now officially our main attacking threat... scuttling through before being crowded out on the left side of the area and sending in a weak shot. Jarrett's replacement is another youngster called Gibson; he plays wide on the right and isn't short of pace or determination. Unfortunately he's up against the mould from which ninety percent of all non-league left-backs are pressed... fierce, balding and the very definition of "no nonsense", he is clearly in no mood to be shown up by a kid and demonstrates his physical superiority more than once, even if Gibson claims a couple of victories with cleverness of movement before the final whistle.
It's not just the number three giving it some welly... Northwood are getting stuck in now, whether no longer able to chase and harry or merely as aggravated by the bloody heat as the rest of us, there are some rather meaty challenges going in. We see the best and worst of Toumani Diagouraga within two minutes... an attempted drag-back on the edge of his own area that almost yields a Northwood opening, followed quickly by a sublime ball that releases Forrester wide on the left. Little comes of the opening, but Forrester wriggles through a minute later and the referee, some yards behind the play, is generous to the home side by not awarding a penalty when the youngster is felled.
If I'm making this seem exciting, it really isn't. Our attention is increasingly distracted from the nonsense on the pitch by the process of trying to work out who is an "official" ball boy and who is just a small kid who's clambered over the fence. A Northwood official helpfully ends debate by doing a tour of the circuit and dispatching all illegal interlopers whence they came. Meanwhile on the pitch, Northwood have brought on someone without a shirt number at all, as if confirming the irrelevance of proceedings. Perhaps he was someone dragged from the crowd, the winner of the raffle maybe.
After what seems like an age, the game ends. We're briefly held up by the opening of the player's tunnel, then released as it become apparent that the players aren't departing the pitch any time soon. Hot and listless, we head home.
My co-editor holds a fairly sceptical view on the entertainment value provided by pre-season friendlies. Personally I enjoy the process of easing myself back into the swing and renewing acquaintances. Which is a good job really... ig wouldn't have enjoyed this one.