Tuesday, 27 March 2018

#75 Stockwood Lane, Bristol Telephones

Bristol Telephones 1 - Roman Glass Saint George 1
Wednesday 14th March 2018, Western League First Division

Well readers, it's mid-March and I've only done three new grounds since the new year. I'm in serious danger of facing charges of phoning it in. Daz and I had decided to formally dial down our groundhopping race for the year as he'd taken up a position as media officer at Stone Dominoes and had less time for it. Let's be fair, he had a pretty sizeable lead over me anyway. To my relief, once the nagging knowledge of needing to do probably two or three grounds a week as well as watching Rovers was quelled, the previously-wavering urge to travel to out-of-the-way Bristol suburbs on cold Tuesday nights returned to me. Apparently it's never left my fellow Gas Groundhopper Chris Power and his mate Aaron who were well up for this one. Another draw was the fact that I'd been curious about this club for a while due to their rapid rise up the Bristol non-league scene and their slightly odd name. So off I went to Stockwood to ring in my 23rd Western League ground.

Bristol Telephones were formed in 1948 as Bristol Post Office Telephones and initially played in the Bristol & Suburban League. I'd spotted their unusual name from time-to-time in the Bristol Post and mentioned it to my Dad one Sunday afternoon. He seemed to think they were a BT works team, being a retired BT engineer himself. After digging around online I came across a Word document entitled 'Bristol Telephones History' which contains the sentence "Playing at Bristol Civil Service Club, they had to leave that pitch when BT was privatised under Maggie Thatcher" which all but confirms this. The vicious Gladstonian onslaught the country faced at the time couldn't stop the plucky club finding continued success at their new Stockwood Lane home which they moved to in 1984. After 65 years of slogging it out in that hallowed amateur competition they made the step up to the Gloucestershire County League in 2013-14. They won the league on their fourth attempt and made the huge step up to the Western League Division One last season.

I did worry slightly when I learned that the Phones would be getting promoted to the Toolstation, with their gates rarely getting beyond the mid-twenties and the fact that they started this season without floodlights. Even when they finally got the latter in they proved to be a tricksy beast, with more than one match getting called off due to malfunction. I feel that level 10 is really the level where you can't be arsing about anymore in English football. While Shirehampton can get away with nothing but a structure that looks like a burnt-out bus shelter and a tea hatch in the Somerset County League, the Western League requires such frivolities as an enclosed boundary, a clubhouse and at least one stretcher. That's not to mention the cost of transport and officials. However my uneducated notion would turn out to be nonsense as the Stockwood sensations currently sit in 17th place, a good 10 points above bottom-placed Warminster Town. However it's worth mentioning that along with East Cornwall's Callington Town, they have the joint-highest number of league games still to play in the country, a staggering 17 (seventeen) fixtures to complete at this late stage.

Roman Glass St. George (from St. George, East Bristol) have the distinction of being the oldest surviving club in Bristol, formed way back in 1872. They have in recent years been forced to relocate to Oaklands Park in Almondsbury due to their traditional Whiteway Road ground not cutting the mustard (their reserves continue to play there however). As former non-league stars themselves (for Chipping Sodbury Town and Winterbourne United), Aaron and Chris were a good reference point for a lot of Bristol football trivia and apparently Whiteway Road has the biggest pitch imaginable; "hell if you're a wing-back and have just come from a day's work". The Glass came into the match second in the table, three points behind leaders Keynsham Town with a game in hand, so tonight was a big chance to put the title into their own hands. 

I arrived to a packed car park and pulled up on the grass behind two players unloading equipment from their boot. I went into the clubhouse, had a can, met Chris and Aaron and had a chuckle at this sign in the toilet adjacent to the changing rooms: 

There's not too much to say about Stockwood Lane, as a recently upgraded County League ground it's pretty basic but it gets the job done. There's a single covered seated stand down one side of the pitch and a very elaborate concrete sub bench/terrace thing which I couldn't work out how to access because the door to the middle bit seemed to be in a hedge. The rest of the ground is neat and tidy with hard standing aplenty, the only slightly tinpot feature being the hastily-erected wall of metal crowd barriers behind the near goal. Forgivable considering the club's relatively rapid rise and at least the see-through side of the ground wasn't right next to a public footpath like Longwell Green, so no chance of a skinflint local stopping to watch for free.   

Out on the pitch the first thing we noticed was lanky bearded full-back Jake Cox turning out for Roman Glass. I thought he may have left Manor Farm on the sly but it turns out he's on a duel-registration. My companions were full of praise for this Bristol non-league stalwart who seemed to be playing in more of a wingback position for the Western League side. Bristol Telephones opened the scoring in the first half but unfortunately we didn't see it because we were in the middle of looking for shelter from rain. You're welcome. Roman Glass generally struggled to get back into the game after this surprise setback, their main offering resulting in a goal line scramble and eventual clearance. Don't ask me how the Phones kept it out though because it looked like an Andy Capp fight cloud from where I was standing.

By the 5th minute of the 2nd half Bristol Telephones were sitting what I'd describe as San Marino National Team deep in defense, apparently content to try and frustrate the league leaders for 40 minutes rather than see the game off with a second goal. This didn't make for good watching. Assisting the players from the sidelines were a gaggle of hooded yoofs giving the officials the absolute dog's abuse for every decision that went against the home side. Their zeal suggested to me that they were unused members of the team rather than Bristol Telephones ultras, mainly due to the fact that they were standing beside one of the coaching staff but also that I couldn't imagine a Bristol Telephones ultras group existing. What would they be called for a start? Hands-free Hardmen? Buzz Brigade? Sector #? 

Despite these antics it was Roman Glass who were making their own lives difficult by spurning chance after chance. Too many to recall without making the blog too long but one that stuck out came from a decent cross from Cox that three red shirts in and around the box failed to get a leg to. That's no way to treat a Toolstation Campeón! Towards the end things got more fraught and physical, culminating in one beautiful moment where after contesting for a header a Phones player became squashed by his victorious adversary on his way back down, uttering a squeaky, plaintive cry of "Ref!" as he crumpled to the bottom of the dog-pile. No foul though. We thought Roman Glass had sussed it when a forward got on the end of a probing through ball and into a one-on-one situation but unfortunately he was undone by a high bounce from the bobbly pitch.  

Eventually the visitors did get the goal they needed to spare their blushes as Jake Cox (who else?) smashed a blistering cross from the left across the edge of the box for one of his strikers who managed to get his head to it, score the goal and probably get some friction burns to the forehead for his trouble. I celebrate a little too hard and can feel the daggers in the eyes of Forza Fiber Optics in my back. Luckily for me Roman Glass immediately go back to being turd, managing to fire a corner into the side netting and spooning it wide from the box after playing the advantage from a penalty shout right at the death.

Ultimately a draw was a fair result but Roman Glass would probably be the ones going home annoyed with themselves, whereas the Phones could be happy with a cheekily-acquired point against a high-flying team thanks to defensive tenacity, an early goal and a little luck. I was pleased to finally satisfy my curiosity about Bristol Telephones and be able to say I've been to a riveting Bristol Weirdly Named Club derby.    

Sunday, 4 March 2018

#74 The Field - Almondsbury

Almondsbury Ladies 6 - Oldland Abbotonians Ladies 0
Sunday 25th February 2018, South West Women's Football League Eastern Division

The Field. The Field. Have you ever heard such a meek name for a football ground? I've been to plenty of venues that were basically just fields but even they tarted themselves up to some degree with a fancy name. King George Recreation Ground, Penpole Lane, the Scatman John Memorial Hyper Glade (okay that last one was made up) but anything is more exciting than "The Field". In any case The Field is another ground that I've long been curious about as I often see it as I pass by on my way somewhere else. In a similar way to The Creek which you get a superb view of whenever you travel into town on the Severn Beach Line, you can see tantalising glimpses of the ground as you travel north on the M5 past Almondsbury. Although I was trying to have a bit of a break from groundhopping, I'd had such a lovely day at Rovers the day before doing the Gasheads Against Food Poverty collection with John and Jade that I decided to squeeze in another game.

Almondsbury started life in 1969 as Patchway North End, playing just down the road in the town of Patchway. In 1971 despite having only existed for 2 years and being relatively young boys at this point, the club decided to change it's name to Patchway Old Boys. The move to Almondsbury happened in 1989 whereupon they took their current name and one year into the new millennium they joined the Gloucestershire County League after finishing as champions of the Bristol & Suburban League. In 2009, a few years after gaining promotion to the Western League, the club went into partnership with the University of Western England and became Almondsbury UWE. This meant that the club suddenly had a pool of potential student players to choose from but the initiative didn't bring much success, the club have pretty much been mid-table since. Last season however they finished 22nd out of 22 but avoided relegation, the partnership with UWE was ended in the summer and a fifth re-branding returned them to life as Almondsbury FC. Since the untimely demise of Almondsbury Town, Almondsbury are the only game in town in the South Gloucestershire village and rather cheekily go by the former club's nickname The Almonds. The Field is just across the road from Oakland Park, Town's former home and current site of Gloucestershire FA HQ. Information on the ladies team online is scant but they were in the league below (Gloucestershire County Womens Football League Division One) last season and finished as runners-up in the League Cup. 

I turned up to the game about 20 minutes late because the entrance isn't the easiest to spot and missing it leads to an unfortunate and time-consuming diversion down the Almondsbury interchange. The football pitch is a fair walk away from the clubhouse (which is shared with a myriad of local sports clubs including Almondsbury Cricket Club) and by the time I got to the pitch the home team were already winning 1-0. It was an absolutely bitter afternoon and the fierce wind was causing a wind turbine on the touchline spin off it's hinges. This combined with the motorway running past the far goal makes The Field quite a noisy ground I must say. I guess it could be quite serene on a warm, still day with little traffic but today it served as a reminder of how built up the outskirts of Almondsbury is these days. The only two structures of a markedly basic ground are a funny little L-shaped covered seated stand which contains about 35 seats and room for wheelchair users below. There's also a tiny four step metal terrace with a roof, the kind of temporary-looking thing you see at a lot of grounds at this level. You do get a sense of seclusion despite the hum of the motorway due to the fact that the whole ground is on a raised grass bank that's accessed by stairs by the changing rooms below.

Once I'd established the score from a friendly local, I moved into the terrace in an attempt to stave off the chill. Not a lot happened during the rest of the first half but one glorious moment was the ample referee unfortunately finding himself in the way of a clearance and receiving the hurtling sphere square in the arse. As half-time was blown, I retired to the clubhouse for a pint in the warm. An elderly gentleman who was sat watching the Premier League game was joined by a young lad of about 5. The only bit of their conversation I overheard was "No you go out, it's too cold for Grampy today." I've got to admit I was with Grampy on this one and although I could see the game had restarted from the window, I took my time finishing.

I'd missed all the action of the first half but lucky for me (and this ailing blog) the second was a veritable goal bonanza. First off the tall Almondsbury number 10 who'd looked threatening for a while made it 2-0 when she latched onto a stray ball and moved into a 1-on-1 with the keeper who she slotted past from an angle. Not two minutes later this player had added her second as she lofted a cross into the box into the roof of Oldland's net. 4-0 comes as a player lobs the Oldland defence, including the onrushing keeper who is beaten back to the goal by a forward but even without her tap-in the ball was going to roll across the line for sure. The fifth comes from a fairly unforced Oldland defensive error, it's not been a good half for them. Just as I'm trying to control my shivering hand enough to note this down in my phone, Almondsbury score a sixth which I completely miss. Fucking hell girls, stop, they're already dead.

Despite this dominant display, the win only put the Almonds up to 4th in the table and the current leaders Wootton Bassett Town Ladies have played 13 and won 13. A promotion would see them duking it out with South Glos rivals AEK Boco Ladies and Downend Flyers, they have games in hand against the top three and clearly they have terrifying ability on their day. Good luck to them.

Friday, 16 February 2018

#73 Rodney Parade - Newport County

Newport County 1 - Morecambe 1 
Tuesday 23rd January 2018, League Two

It was exciting times in Gwent. Newport County, that much beleaguered phoenix club, were bracing themselves for a date with destiny. Having overcome Leeds United in a hard-fought 2-1 victory at their Rodney Parade home, they would soon welcome Tottenham Hotspur in a fourth round FA Cup clash, their first time in the fourth round since 1978/79. Before that though, the rather more pedestrian matter of this midweek league tie with relegation-threatened Morecambe. A mere 28 mile drive away from my Severn Beach home, Newport County has been a glaring gap in my portfolio for some time, especially considering my trip to Newport City last year where I literally walked past Rodney Parade on the way. The Exiles were offering £10 entry this evening in return for a donation to the local foodbank which was enough to tempt me along and an excellent gesture by the club.

The buzz around the place about the Spurs match as I entered was palpable. A huge queue had amassed outside the ticket office for the precious tickets and a few regulars strutted proudly in their new half-and-half scarves. Boy those market tradespeople work fast. The lady behind the counter seemed surprised when I asked for a ticket for tonight's fixture as opposed to the big'un but took the raffle ticket stub I'd been rewarded with at the gate in return for my small bag of cans and presented me with a boring old regular match day ticket. As I'm sure you can probably appreciate with the place playing host to County, two rugby teams (Dragons and Newport RFC), Newport Squash Club and probably some others, Rodney Parade is rather busy. This means you have to walk past the spare pitch and the squash hall in order to get to the football pitch. It was on this short walk when I first set eyes on a most beautiful sight: the Newport County Beer Gazebo™.


This massive white tent, the kind you get at outdoor weddings, contained a well-stocked bar, ample lighting and seating, carpet and even a little wooden dance floor. As a Bristol Rovers fan I’m used to obtaining my matchday vittles from tents of various sizes but this one put our efforts to shame. I’m not even being snide, it was a nice place to be. A good idea for clubs that lack space for matchday hospitality in the stadium proper. I had exactly one pint of Brains Bitter (when in Rome) and moseyed on over the turnstiles. For some reason I’d always had the impression that Rodney Parade was all newfangled redeveloped stands haphazardly thrown together, à la Barnet’s The Hive but it does some some charming retro bits. The oldest-looking portion of the ground is known as the Hazell Stand and is for me the most attractive part of the place. It has a layer of raised seating above a standing terrace that runs the whole length of the pitch. The raised tier doesn’t stretch as far as the whole terrace so there’s a section of uncovered standing towards the home fan’s entrance. One quite quaint feature is the white painted wooden fence that lines the bottom of the seated portion, which makes it look like one of those lean-to verandas you find on houses from the American Foursquare era of US architecture. Drink it in folks, that’s the most intellectual sentence this blog will ever inspire. As if the gazebo wasn’t enough, there’s a small concourse that serves beverages underneath this stand. The only drawback is you don’t get a very good view if you stand to the far south of the terrace because of the tiny pyramid roofed building crammed into the corner, which houses the player’s dressing rooms.

Opposite this is the very Hivesque Bisley Stand. A grey cantilever roofed stand with a jarring array of yellow, red and black chairs arranged in a pattern I’m too stupid to understand. This probably cost them the most money out of anything in the ground and looks to hold yet more matchday hospitality facilities but I’m afraid it looks horrible. Behind the goal nearest the entrance in a small uncovered standing terrace which was in the middle of having temporary extra seating erected behind it, so it was out of action today. The opposite end to this contains a bank of green temporary seating. A cursory glance around Google images has shown me that Rodney Parade has changed a lot over recent years and is very much a ground in transition but considering I thought I was going to be spending this blog laughing at it’s higgledy-piggledy nature, I was pleasantly surprised by the Hazell Stand, where I found myself today. This might be due in part to the efforts of the small group of lads huddled behind an ultras style banner adorned with Amber Army who made an absolute racket throughout most of the first half. While this would ultimately die off as the slightly drab game dragged on, their initial efforts were up there with some of the best fans I’ve seen, bringing to mind the Stanley Ultras from a few years back. Also commendable in their own way were the c. 12 Morecambe fans that had braved this 448 mile round trip on a miserable Tuesday night. The mad twats.

There was a lot of enjoyable basement-division banter flying round as a pair of old ladies harangued vintage Morecambe winger Kevin Ellison on his perceived likeness to Jonjo Shelvey (a comparison the veteran seemed to quite enjoy). Also prevalent was Morecambe assistant manager Ken McKenna, who spent the majority of the first half cockling impudently on an ice box right in front of the home fans, responding to their various jibes by muttering “Ooooh Cymreee!” in an exaggerated South Wales accent. This tit-for-tat escalated and reached it’s peak after the first goal when the home crowd burst in unison into a chorus of “Fuck off Grandad, you’re Jim Bentley’s bitch!” (Jim Bentley being the first team manager). Considering Ken is an ex-semi pro with over 180 Welsh League appearances under his belt, not to mention a seven year stint managing The New Saints, I’m guessing the old-timer is just a lover of a good old-fashioned shithouse rather than a hater of our Celtic chums. Later the much gruffer Bentley began barking orders to his players, which prompted a chorus of what I can only describe as demented blooping noises from the home fans. No idea.

Anyway as previously mentioned my enjoyment of these hijinks was briefly interrupted by Newport’s first goal in the 14th minute from a slightly unexpected source, defensive midfielder Ben Tozer. Willmott received the ball in the top corner and pinged a ball into the box which Nouble tried to get a diving head to but missed. Luckily Tozer had strayed obscenely far forward and narrowly beat his marker to poke it past the Morecambe keeper at close range. It was off the back of a very attacking first period for Newport with the only Morecambe break I can recall being snuffed out when their diminutive number 10 is overrun and robbed of the ball causing him to shove an opponent in frustration. Any other half-chance they muster in the first period is either very tame and easily gathered or blasted over. It really didn’t look to me like Morecambe were going to create a goal today, they might end up capitalising on a mistake but they weren’t going to make one of their own I thought to myself, in a rare moment of fidelity. During the break I popped back out to the gazebo to stretch my legs. There didn’t seem to be anyone keeping track of people wandering around the place and I briefly flirted with trying to sneak into the Spurs game at half-time.

During the second half it became clear that the hosts were going to need another goal as Morecambe began to grow into the game and force a couple of more probing saves, forcing Newport keeper Joe Day out of his net to charge down a threatening attack at one point. County look to be sitting back a bit, possibly high on confidence after Leeds. This begins to frustrate their fans who demand shots from any player in a central position 30 yards out from goal. I began to wonder if years of Rugby had affected the way their brains perceive football. The hosts appear to be happy to sit back and wait for the counter, which was a far-cry from their dominant first half performance. Suddenly Day slides and takes out Garry Thompson in the box and the ref points to the spot. A clear penalty which Morecambe have won in the final 15 minutes of the game. Michael Rose steps up and calmly slots it into the bottom corner. The baker’s dozen of travelling Morecambe fans go wild. It’s all very funny. Newport chuck on big Paul Hayes for the last five to try and salvage the game but it’s no use. The Shrimps steal a point and as I’m watching the players leave the pitch a young linesman zips past me on a beeline for the changing rooms, pursued by a beetroot-faced middle aged man screaming critique at him. It’s the perfect ending really.

It’s a funny old game, football. It’s taken me so long to write this report that I’ve been able to reflect on the fact that I left Rodney Parade scoffing at the Exiles chances of getting anything but a pasting against Tottenham. However on the day they held Spurs to a 1-1 draw, with only an 82nd minute Kane strike saving the white half of North London from cringing themselves into oblivion. Still the FA Cup is an unpredictable beast by nature and I don’t see Newport getting promoted this season but they’ve certainly already set themselves up for better things in the near future. 

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

#72 The Elms, Highworth Town

Highworth Town 1 - Royal Wootton Bassett Town 1 (Abandoned after 57 minutes)
Wednesday 10th January 2017, Hellenic League Floodlit Cup Third Round

Contrary to how it may appear, not every one of my groundhopping trips is a well-planned, rip-snorting success. Occasionally they've been a testament to blind luck in fact. Arguably, with all the more local games for the week being called off due to weather, I should have considered a Wednesday night jaunt into rural Wiltshire to be too risky. However, the Yorkshire terror that is Daz Knapton was still blazing ahead of me in the new grounds steaks so I decided to take my chances.

The fare on offer wasn't the most exciting either, a third round clash in the Hellenic League Cup or the Pepetua Press Printing Solutions Floodlit Cup, if you like. Despite this, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I headed out along the motorway because the weather was remarkably dry. I was so happy with this in fact that I failed to spot the gathering fog which was only getting thicker the closer I got to Swindon.

Located outside of Swindon-proper (the lucky devils), Highworth have been going since 1893 and are currently playing at their highest level ever. Although they won the Hellenic Premier in 2004/05, they never went up and have been pretty all over the place ever since, finishing between 4th and 16th. Highworth's greatest cup success came in 2014-15 when they made it to the semi-finals of the FA Vase, losing out to North Shields 3-0 on aggregate. Royal Wootton Bassett Town are the older club, having been formed in 1882 but have never won the Hellenic League nor gone any higher. They also haven't had as good a run in any of the major cups as Highworth, though they did win something called the Brotherhood Cup in 1938-39. Your guess is as good as mine.

I was helpfully instructed by the club's twitter person to park up in the neighbouring golf club upon arrival, their car park being in the same massive field as the football pitch. I was having quite a bit of trouble spotting the main entrance in the fog but luckily two club stalwarts had the brainwave to man a large gap in the fence equipped with a change tin, so I entered through there. The fence that lines the far side of the ground was full of gaps, which is probably why the club failed to go up when they finished as champions. The side opposite this has two banks of covered seating, with a covered standing portion in the centre which bears the initials of the club hastily painted on breeze blocks. Magic. The end opposite where I'd entered is where the clubhouse stands, looming over proceedings on a little hill with a railed-off path for the players to access the changing rooms below. I've seen worse grounds but to be honest I'd never had so much trouble actually seeing a ground as you can probably tell from the pictures.

Highworth start the game brightly. They must really want to get their hands on those Printing Solutions. They overcomplicate a few good moves though and in time Wootton start to get the ball up their end a bit, meaning I have to move to a more central position in the vague hope of seeing anything. A Wootton player hacks down a Highworth player rather bad-temperedly on the goal line just outside the box. This looked like an ideal free kick position but unfortunately it's wasted. The kicker did what I thought was the sensible thing and rolled it out diagonally to meet a teammate in the D but the resulting shot was pitifully weak and easily dealt with. Later on Wootton get into a one-on-one but it's somehow blocked by the onrushing keeper with mighty thud. Minutes later another collision with the keeper leaves a Wootton player writhing on the ground. After some deliberation the referee shows a yellow card, much to the chagrin of some meathead behind the goal who spends the entire set-up of the kick screaming at the referee in a weird cockney Swindon accent. The free kick is spooned over the bar and our lad bellows "and that's a rubbish free kick!" leaving me wondering if he's a Wootton fan or just a general fan of being livid.

All-in-all it's quite a good half of football considering the lack of goals, very free flowing, occasionally end-on-end and most importantly: extremely bad tempered. Well, it is ostensibly a derby after all. Feeling a little chilly I decided to take in the clubhouse, just as soon as I'd waited patiently for the players and officials to climb up the unreasonably long path to the changing rooms. I wanted to drink my pint at a leisurely pace for once and luckily for me there was a window at the side of the room where I imagine on a clear day you'd get quite a good view of the pitch.

I left my executive box for approximately two minutes to use the facilities before heading back out to the action and during that time it transpired that I'd missed two goals, one from each side. Whilst I was still reeling from this, the referee called off the match due to the fog. Although some people in the ground made a valiant attempt to, you couldn't really complain about this. For lovers of a feisty non-league derby, the replay will take place on Wednesday the 31st of January (weather depending).

Br00tal kvlt groundhopping black metal \m/

Sunday, 14 January 2018

#71 Longwell Green Communuty Stadium, Longwell Green Sports

Longwell Green Sports 1 - Bitton 5 
Tuesday 26th December 2017, Western League Premier Division

Ahh the Boxing Day fixture. A chance for those of us that can muster the energy to stand around in the cold, attempting to focus on the match while secreting a noxious, gravy-tinged discharge from every pore. Deciding early-on that I wouldn't engage with a return trip to Walsall's Bescot Stadium to watch Rovers, I'd settled on a mere 5.5 mile jaunt to local Western First Division side Almondsbury to watch them take on Roman Glass St. George. This was scuppered however by heavy drizzle throughout most of Christmas Day itself which caused the game to be called off. Unfortunately for me, I had engaged in my usual Christmas tradition of staying up all night drinking, ingesting garbage and ruining EastEnders for my wife by howling with laughter at this year's improbable mass death. As I result, I didn't learn about this postponement until around 11 o'clock and the only reasonable not called-off alternative was kicking off at 12. So with bleary eyes and a bad head I set off for the East Bristol suburb of Longwell Green.

Although it was a last-minute change of plan I was pretty happy to be going to Longwell Green for shamefully voyeuristic reasons, namely the fact that the side were without a win so far in the entire 2017-18 season. In fact, over 22 matches played they had acquired a grand total of 2 points and a goal difference of -62. This struck me as pretty remarkable and I'd had the club on my to-do list for some time, A: because I couldn't imagine what they were doing to obtain a record like that other than all the players running headlong into each other after kick-off, and B: because it would be great scenes to be in attendance for the first time they nabbed 3 points during the current campaign. Of course I'd already seen Paulton Rovers U18s who weren't only winless but pointless to boot, so how bad could they really be?


As previously mentioned I was pressed for time that afternoon and unfortunately it was one of those grounds where the postcode didn't quite get me to the right place. So after finding a quiet place to park, I scanned the skyline for floodlights and the sound of men swearing and romped towards them. I ended up getting to the local park which, as is the case with many recent additions to the 10th tier (Longwell obtained promotion to the Western Division One in 2005) contains a hastily ringed off rectangle containing the pitch and clubhouse, as is in the ground regulations at that level. This has varying degrees of success, not least in at Cadbury Heath where I spotted several places a person could sidle in and Welton Rovers where the village playground is mere inches from the ground boundary with only a waist-high brick wall interrupting a perfect view of the pitch. This is used to great effect by many. Even today as I walked towards what I assumed was the entrance a dog-walker paused by the fence to eye the action for 10 minutes or so. Perhaps he was on a one-man boycott, refusing to enter the ground until the club had turned things around but unable to drag himself away completely, like a tinpot South Glos version of Coventry when they were at Sixfields.     

The exterior of Longwell Green Community Stadium is very much the archetypal small town community center, the entrance to the football ground sandwiched between a Scout hut and a modern church building. The place was originally farmland that was given over to the staff of Longwell Green Coachworks, who opted to form a club in 1966 in the wake of England's World Cup triumph. Their greatest success was in 2008-09 when they finished as runners up in the Western League Division One and went up as a result. Other than that they've reached the second round of the FA Vase on two occasions and were Bristol & District League Senior Division champions in 1991–92. Although it's a far-cry from the farmland it once was, Longwell Green Community Stadium is still a fairly spartan ground. There are two metal covered stands, one with four rows of fold-down seats in blue and white and another right next to it which is half the length and holds a standing metal terrace. That's all there is. The rest of the ground is just railing and two painted blue brick dugouts. 

As I took my place behind the goal, I couldn't help but wonder how on earth these lads could be arsed. I was feeling very woozy under the effort of just standing outside and watching their Christmas lunch paunches sway in the breeze, imagine playing! It was a pretty cold one as well but mercifully the rain had left us alone for the afternoon. Some of the players seemed to be looking to just get through the afternoon with as little fuss as possible, as evidenced by one lad that went absolutely ballistic at an opposition player for clearing a ball into the opposite field early doors. I would've been happy for the momentary break personally. It's true there's no such thing as an easy game, especially on a cold boxing day but Bitton certainly would've fancied themselves considering the record of their opposition.

I was expecting wanton incompetence from Longwell Green but they're an industrious side who mark and defend decently enough but are severely lacking when it comes to strength in possession and creativity. Despite keeping things even for 35 minutes and forcing a few weak saves, Longwell do eventually concede as Best shoots low past the diving fingers of the goalie. Bitton make it two on 43 as the ball is passed from near the corner flag into a mostly empty box, well, empty of Longwell players anyway. There were, if I recall correctly, three Bitton players waiting in the box for the man by the flag (who was being kept onside by his marker) to put in the cross which Baker diverted into the goal, making my earlier comments about Longwell's defending seem a bit premature.

After a quick pint in the packed out clubhouse, I took a spot on the metal terrace for the second half. It was from here that I overheard the mad statistic that Longwell have fielded 54 (fifty four) players over this half season. Truly a mind-boggling feat which one would assume leaves the hope of getting any consistency on the pitch a far-off dream. This lack of organisation is highlighted in spectacular fashion when their goalkeeper tries to dribble the ball outside his area instead of going for a clearance and is dispossessed, allowing a Best to walk it into an open goal for his brace. I decide at this point that's it for them and it's just a matter of how many get let in now.

However they do claw one back, a somewhat fortunate nod in at the near post from a corner, to much rejoicing. A dogged period of resistance following Bittons third goal ensues where the home team see a bit more of the ball and create a couple of chances but it's short lived and Bitton score two more in the closing 15 minutes. At this point most people around me shuffled of home for some turkey sandwiches and I was left to contemplate the passing of another successful year of groundhopping. Here's to many more.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

#70 The Athletic Ground, Paulton Rovers

Paulton Rovers U18s 0 - Yate Town U18s 7 (Seven)
Thursday 21st December 2017, Somerset Youth Floodlight League Premier Division

Somerset Youth Floodlight League. Are there any words more thrilling to the human soul? The chance for the festively-stretched (in terms of time, not waistline, that came later) football ground enthusiast to take in various west country stadiums on a Thursday evening(!) at a knock-down price. Perhaps more importantly, a competition for the top non-league clubs of Somerset, Bristol and South Glos to bash their youth teams against each other like an angry toddler with a new set of WWE figures. Having never really enjoyed playing football myself at school, I have to give a doff of the cap to these young lads who will have no doubt come in after a long day at school, had a stodgy meal shoved down them by a doting parent, been ferried to a strange Somerset town in a rickety minibus and finally shoved out onto a cold pitch to play 90 minutes for a dozen (if they're lucky) overly-enthusiastic dads and club lifers who love nothing more than to bark instructions from the stands. Nevertheless, it's something that all budding footballers must go through and no doubt something they'll look back on fondly in later life whether they make it as players or not. 

Still if you must go to a SYFL fixture, Paulton Rovers have one of the plushier grounds in the league and the clubhouse edges out the village pub in terms of space and bar facilities. There was also no gaggle of jeans and shoes wearing young men shouting about Bristol City in the clubhouse (because there was no one in there at all but still). I was surprised by the professional touches throughout the place, not least the small TV screens they had behind the bar scrolling through fixtures for the senior team, the youth team and even the netball team. Eat your heart out Beşiktaş. Inside, the ground is similarly well-equipped and comfortable. Again it's nothing fancy, just simple things done right. When approaching the turnstiles from outside you can see the iron roof of a slightly raised 4-step covered terrace that spans the entire end of the pitch. A similar stand, albeit at ground level, runs along roughly one-half of the edge of the pitch up to the team benches. This has one step of terracing which extends out of the covered area. The end opposite the raised terrace is empty, save for the gated entrance to the netball... rink? Maybe I should check out a netball bout during the off season.

On the remaining side there's a ground-level stand with four rows of fold-down seats. A rather bog standard, temporary looking thing that you see at many non-league grounds. Next to this though is a brick, raised main stand accessed by stairs. This has another four rows of seats, in three colour banks, under cover. It's affords a decent view with only some pillar obstruction. Your obligatory quirky feature is the strange bungalow clubhouse, half coated in sky blue wooden panelling, half pastel orange plaster, which backs onto a stand-less section of the turnstile side. It looks like the fanciest property on the beach front in some Floridian retirement community. All in all The Athletic Ground is a very tidy facility indeed, I'd say the only better step 4 grounds I've seen are Marston Road and the Ray Mac, neither of which are fair comparisons because both are former Conference Premier venues. 

Considering Paulton has a population of just over 5,000, the Rovers are doing pretty well for themselves. This may be in part due to the windfall the club will have come into during the 2009-10 FA Cup where they overcame Bideford, Tiverton Town, Didcot Town, the then Conference South Newport County and Chippenham Town to get to the first round of the competition. Luck did not smile on them in the competition proper however and they were trounced 7-0 at home by League One Norwich City. Not before they'd got a bumper crowd of 2,070 and the TV cameras through the doors however. This season's cup run was also a memorable one for them as well, narrowly losing 2-3 to Sutton United in the fourth round qualifying. Whether this had much of an impact in the long run I don't know for sure but I do know they've come a long way from being a Western League yo-yo club with an old RAF shed for a stand (no really). Rovers spent two seasons in the Southern Premier, their highest ever level, after beating the reformed Merthyr Town in the 2013-14 play-offs. They have since been relegated back down to the Southern West where we find them today.

I wandered out onto the near terrace as one of what I would estimate to be a 15-strong crowd. This gave me lots of space to myself, allowing me to take photos and hunt for Sutton United stickers without feeling like a weirdo. Yate were really the dominant force during the opening 10 minutes, missing the opportunity to drive their first shot past Paulton's Rod Flanders look-alike goalkeeper by mere inches in the 8th minute. Soon after this Rod denied a marauding Yate forward, bravely putting his body on the line to block the close-range effort. A few of the aforementioned overly-enthusiastic dads began hooting instructions from the main stand at this point and an attempted tactical adjustment lead to the following delightful exchange:


*long pause*

Louie (despondently): "...no."    

A hairstyle challenger approaches

It must be difficult at such a tender age to be on show like this and no-one in the ground that night would have a tougher night than our Rod, who conceded the first goal at around 21 minutes. It was a similar effort to the one he'd saved earlier but from the opposite corner of the 6-yard box. He got down in time but the ball went just wide of him on the muddy surface. Unlucky. Two minutes later Yate strike a rocket from midfield and rattle the crossbar, Rod sensibly commits to this, possibly whilst reaffirming his faith in an all-loving god but unfortunately the ball is already bouncing it's way toward being the perfect second ball for an ensuing Yate player. It was hard not to feel sorry for the lad as wadded to retrieve the ball from his net, muttering about the horrendous condition of his goal area thanks to the December weather. I wouldn't have thrived in youth football.

On the half, Yate make it three with a similar move to the first goal. I learn that Rod's name is in fact Ollie when a young girl holding her Dad's hand walks past and remarks: "Ugh! Look at Ollie's goal. It's like a pig pen..." Still in the first half, Yate slide a cross into the centre of the box which skims it's way past the entire Paulton defence, allowing a free Yate player to smash the ball past a diving Ollie for Yate's fourth. If it sounds like I'm ragging on Ollie during this report I'm really not. The poor lad didn't have much of a chance for any of the goals once the pitch and his defenders had their influence. It may be because I was stood behind him or (more likely in my opinion) his woes took me back to my own miserable afternoons between the sticks for inter-tutor football, being shouted at by meatheads with names like Jayden, Kye and Spud but I was silently willing him to keep his head up all game. To add weight to his complaints, one of a pair of Yate players who were practising distance shots during half time cried: "How the fuck are you meant to move through that!" as he retrieved his mate's shot. It should not be thought that their goal mouth was the thing stopping Paulton from having a decent crack at the game however. Yate were their better in pretty much every aspect. I don't want to harshly criticize children on these pages so I'll just say that Paulton's point free season thus far in the SYFL Premier (which includes a 2 - 12 defeat against Weston-super-Mare and a 0 - 16 defeat against Radstock, both at home) is evidence enough that there's a lot of work to be done. 

Weirdly enough the other goal mouth was looking a lot healthier so as I changed ends to show solidarity with my new best mate, I thought that Paulton may yet have a shot at restoring some honour if they brightened up for the second half. This didn't materialise and despite some nice Paulton moves including a nutmeg and a fine diving save by Ollie (#OllieUltras), Yate continued to press and look dangerous. This culminated in the visitors fifth goal at about 65 minutes. A ball that the entire Paulton defence thought had gone out of play was deftly crossed into the middle from the goal line, just right for the grateful head of a Yate player to nod home. Nothing special but a great advert for playing until the flag's raised. Mind you when you're 5-0 up it's hard to care too much about how pretty the goals were and they weren't done yet, a sixth is scored as a result of a one-on-one from a midfield through-ball.

It doesn't get any better during the closing minutes of the game as the drizzle starts in earnest and Yate are winning corner after corner. The visitor's seventh and final goal is also probably the worst one to concede on Paulton's part, a goal-bound lob that trickles in over Ollie's fingertips when he doesn't jump high enough. Another bruising night for the Rovers youngsters but I'm sure it builds character, or something. Let's hope they can get those psychologically important first points under their belts soon and have a good run in the league cup which they're somehow still in.