Sunday, 26 April 2015

#1* Memorial Stadium, Bristol Rovers

Bristol Rovers 7 (seven) Alfreton Town 0
Sat 25th April 2015, Vanarama Conference Premier


It was crunch time in North Bristol.

The final day of Rovers' first season in non-league football had arrived, with the Gas one point behind leaders Barnet. It had been all Barnet all season, with ex-Rovers loanee John Akinde running the show and racking up 33 goals in all competitions. We had however closed a ten-point gap and had briefly taken the lead on three occasions during the business end of the season but had let it slip every time. Barnet suffered a major wobble in the previous game where they ended up going one down against mid-table Kidderminster Harriers, eventually pulling back a draw. This should have been our moment as we were leading Dover Athletic 1-0 at the Crabble Ground but a keeper error in the 88th minute allowed Dover to clinch the draw and let Barnet off the hook. So with a final slip-up from Barnet a distinct possibility against a robust Gateshead side that had done well against the top six all season, a bumper crowd of 11,085 (featuring 97 Alfretonians) descended on the Mem.   

With me on this excursion, making his PB début is my conference cohort Louis "Loulou" Bodin.

Ladies form an orderly queue.
This being just under double the attendance for a usual Rovers home game and a late kick-off, Gloucester road was absolutely rammed, so our quest for food and booze was a long one as we crawled from The Full Moon in Stokes Croft to The Queen Vic in Horfield (a pub too good to be featured on Google maps, true story). This meant we were through the turnstiles just as the teams were being read out. I decided we should take this rare opportunity to watch from what is usually the away terrace, which had been given over to the home supporters.

1.2% of the parish of Alfreton. 
This was a good vantage point to digest the awesome spectacle of a sold out Mem. It's hard for me to objectively describe the ground for those who've never been to a Rovers home game before. In the words of gaschat.co.uk's very own inee it is "old, stained, smelly and sticky like a supporter's lucky thundercrackers." Take from that what you will. Originally a rugby stadium built in memory of the local players that died in service during the first world war; the Mem is, to be truthful, pretty run down and very odd but it has a lot of character which I've always appreciated. The photograph above is of the south stand, which as you can see is basically a massive stripy gazebo that wouldn't look out of place if it were at village fête and full of boy scouts selling burnt sausages to chumps. 


Next up we have the west stand, which has a layer of terrace and a layer of seats above, then the hospitality boxes up top. I don't know whether the stand is actually a re-purposed cricket pavilion or whether the person who designed it wanted to design cricket pavilions for a living but got stuck doing football ones and was resentful but we're acutely aware of how much it looks like one, thanks.



The east stand is more conventional, a long terrace with a large covered stand above which contains the best seats in the house view-wise. To the north is what is known as the Blackthorn end (it hasn't been sponsored by Blackthorn for a while but the Manorscrap.com end isn't as pithy). Every ground has it's fun place to be and the Blackthorn is ours. It's a raucous melting-pot of pissed off old boys, daft kids, would-be ultras and social misfits (hello!). I had a ticket for this area as that's where I like to go but by the time Loulou announced he was coming it'd sold out, so I brought two tickets for the east terrace and a nice man on the internet snapped my arm off for the last ticket to the nuthouse. I was a little disappointed to not be in my usual place because it's where 95% of the singing goes down but I needn't have worried as the whole place had a good vibe, including the hardy Alfreton supporters who were fighting for conference national survival and were in good voice.  

The Alfreton would-be cappa is roundly ignored by everyone. 
The game itself was an absolute massacre with Alfreton struggling to get even the basics right. Turned out Loulou and I being late had granted us a great spot to watch Rovers terrorize the Alfreton goal again and again. After many near-misses and a period of play where Rovers won three corners in a row, Jake Gosling (a Gibraltar international don'tcha know) scored a peach of a goal from long range. Ellis Harrison followed it up with a second nine minutes later. A couple of lads in front of us were streaming the Barnet game live on their phone and unfortunately for us they went one up against Gateshead in minute 25. 

It was at this point that Alfreton fan-watching became the main source of amusement for the afternoon. Immediately after the second goal, a pair of generously proportioned bald blokes jumped out of their seats, ripped their tops off, ran up the stairs and began attempting to rouse their fellow fans. My eyesight is terrible but Loulou swears there was a brief flash of boob from a female fan. Gotta admire the dedication it takes to whack 'em out at a rainy 5th-tier football match, must be fun at parties. Three or so people started meandering aimlessly around the portaloos, trying to conduct the 97 reds into some uniform chanting. The focus eventually became pissing us off and a number of chants along the theme of us staying down with Grimsby were levelled at the Rovers faithful. This was all met with mild amusement and general chatter about whether anyone knew where Alfreton actually was. Then someone started there's only one team in Bristol. Bravo chaps. You wanted aggro, you got it. Strong words were apparently traded between the rump of Gasheads in the south stand and the away supporters, strong enough apparently for balding chubster number one to leap over the dividing rope and attempt a pop at a group outnumbering him 5 to 1. This was quickly dealt with by the stewards and I don't believe anyone was removed. A frenzy of the usual chants were directed towards our portly hero and Alfreton as a whole and the roasting was complete when Matty Taylor walked the ball in at the half.

Token pastie shot.
For the second half we figured we may as well mosey on down to the other end of the ground as it didn't seem likely that anything exciting would be happening to Will Puddy today. We weren't wrong and Taylor had added a second to his tally within three minutes. The Alfreton left-back in particular had an absolute shocker, his touch deserting him entirely and failed to deal with anything Rovers threw at him and the goalkeeper had a similar ordeal with several roadkill-in-headlight moments, probably not helped by the baying mob of Blackthornenders pouncing on every shit goal-kick. This being my 8th Rovers game of this campaign, I was understandably baffled by this sudden ability to score for fun when we had only beaten three teams by more than two all season and drawn to the likes of Welling, Dartford and even Alfreton themselves when we visited North Street. It was gratifying to hear Loulou as a neutral compliment Taylor's movement on several occasions and to say he believed we'd have a good shot in the play-offs if this and the home game with Lincoln which he attended as well were anything to go by. He was less impressed by our luxury signing Ángelo Balanta during his 30 minutes but seemed to enjoy one of the more Marmite Rovers chants: "Ba-lalalalalalalanta" to the tune of La Bamba

Mammas don't let your babies grow up to be groundhoppers.
News trickled down the terraces of a second Barnet goal and everyone resigned themselves to the hard road ahead but the way we played today, it was difficult to go away feeling gutted. It will be a breath of fresh air to have our destiny firmly placed into our own hands once again and the reception that Darrell and the players got at the end confirmed a unity and belief that hasn't been felt at the Mem for a while now. 

Come on you blues!




Ed. note: This post is marked ground #1 despite being our third post because the Memorial Stadium is the first football stadium I ever visited, so that's how I'm counting it.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

#3 Moss Rose, Macclesfield Town

Macclesfield Town 0 Bristol Rovers 0
Sat 28th March 2015, Vanarama Conference Premier


My Macclesfield supporting friend Daz and I had been planning my trip up to see Rovers play at the Moss Rose for the best part of a year. He'd been excited about it ever since we went down and getting to go to a game with an old pal was a small comfort. I had forked out a hefty sum on coach fare, packed my bag for the weekend and he had admirably pulled himself together after a bout of food poisoning that had kept him off work for the week. Macc and Rovers were 2nd and 3rd in the conference at this point and we were pumped for a fierce contest and a potential record-breaking away attendance.

Things began going wrong when BT Sport announced they would be showing the game live on TV, thus putting many Gasheads off the trip and making my bragging to Daz about the massive crowd he was about to witness fall a bit flat. Nevertheless, off to Stoke I went to meet up with my mate and hopefully see a good game.

After a very stupid train journey where Daz first ended up accidentally guiding us to Stockport, 6 stations north of our intended stop, we arrived in the bustling modern town of Macclesfield. My way of describing Macclesfield would be like a version of Stoke that remembered to put on trousers when it left the house that morning. As we got closer to the stadium and started intermingling with other supporters, it became quite clear that the natives didn't know how to react to us super best palz walking merrily together in opposing Macc and Rovers shirts. Some adorable secondary school aged kids had a half-hearted crack at some bovver by singing “Bristol, Bristol, we hate Bristol, we are the Bristol haters” at me in reference to the long and bitter rivalry between the two clubs. Only Daz got to enjoy this however because I was preoccupied with frantically consulting my phone for directions to a pub. Now for my first word of Macclesfield travel advice: drink early, drink plenty, for there are no pubs within at least five miles of the Moss Rose. What a way to run a rail road.

After Daz had picked up his tickets, we parted ways and I headed for the away terrace. On my way I was handed a rather fetching orange t-shirt by a Rovers supporters club member as part of their ingenious spontaneous protest in front of the TV cameras; namely wearing the home colours of the league leaders Barnet in an attempt to make Sainsburys pay up the agreed £30m for the Mem. Despite my protests to the bloke that I was preparing for a possible chilly northern afternoon on the terrace by already wearing two t-shirts under my quarters, I eventually submitted and added another layer.

Lord save a cracker from Barnet Rovers.
Piece of bad luck number two arrived when I attempted to enter the ground with a home supporter’s ticket I had somehow allowed myself to purchase from Macclesfield’s website. Div. After a five minute conversation between myself and a club official on the other end of a kindly match day steward’s radio, during which I had to produce my coach ticket to convince him that I was a true Bristolian and not a 70s style hooligan going to incredible lengths to suicidally perturb one of the most volatile and pent-up fan bases in the league. Eventually the kindly match day steward managed to smuggle me in under the condition that I surrender my ticket stub for admin purposes. I was not arsed by this as Macclesfield clearly have better things to spend their budget on than fancy tickets, so I eagerly surrendered my grey piece of card.

YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE? YOU'RE IN THE CONFERENCE BABY.
Macclesfield travel advice part two: don’t fucking go on the away terrace. “The Silkmen end” closely resembles a massive skip that one would encounter at a recycling tip, the toilets are foul, they wouldn't let anyone into the clubhouse bar (even though it’s open to away supporters who chose to sit) and the food van ran out of food before half-time. After getting over my initial disappointment and drinking in the view of the rest of the much nicer looking parts of the ground; I decided to give Daz a bell.

“Hey man, where you at?”

“Stand to your right, in the middle. I'm doing the secret signal.”

*waves arms frantically*

“Hiiiii!”

“Hiiiii!”

“Dude your ground is pants.  Also I brought a Macc ticket somehow.”

“You should’ve just gone in that way, the bar was full of Rovers fans.”

“Fantastic. I'm off for a bleeding coffee then.”


The Rovers fans amused themselves with some giant inflatable footballs, which were swiftly confiscated by the steward. Then they amused themselves by abusing said steward at length. Also there was a brass band for some reason.

"Do the Corrie theme lads."
I have nothing nice to say about the match. It was a very difficult thing to view without alcohol. Macclesfield were in control for most of the game, aside from a brilliant 15 or so minutes from Rovers in the second half where we did everything but score a goal. Other than that we were inept and struggled to put anything together. Balanta in particular was woeful, seemingly having trouble moving at any speed with the ball, Blissett failed to win any headers despite his 6" frame, Puddy had a horrible game distribution-wise, despite making some great saves and Matty Taylor continued his punt at being non-league’s most unlucky striker. The prodigal son Chris Lines almost won the game for us at the death from a decent low free kick that beat the keeper only to miss by an inch. Another “highlight” included a very near own goal for us with a defensive mistake too stupid for me to want to recall. I believe it involved the ball bouncing off one of our players while Puddy was out of goal, meaning the Dutch dynamo could only watch as the ball bounced, painfully slowly, just wide of the goal as the Gas collectively voided it’s bowels.

Macclesfield were able to exploit one of our prominent weaknesses from last season in successfully aggravating Tom Parkes to the point where he was lucky not to get sent off before half time, escaping with just a yellow for descent. I’m fairly sure only the sheer volume of bile from the travelling fans saved him in the end. The atmosphere was unbearably tense from the 20th minute, the triumphant “let’s show these guys a proper away crowd” singing giving way to a torrent of abuse at just about everything. The home fan’s chant “Oh, Maccy, Maccy” was misheard by a young fan as “Oh, wanky, wanky” and roundly mocked; along with the standard bombardment of insinuation that the north is full of unwashed, violent Neanderthals.

They totally are but they can be placated with beer fairly easily. Still dirty though.
One particularly vocal Rovers supporter who I always hear but never spot because he has one of those great voices that you can hear over everything came out with: “YOU’RE A SHITEHAWK REF. NOT EVEN YOUR MOTHER LIKES YOU.” As previously mentioned the game turned very nasty for a spell before the end of the first half and by the final whistle six players were carded. For the first time I was at last glad not to be anywhere near Daz because I may well have head-butted him.

A PB match report is never complete without a couple of dumb overheard comments. A chant of “We hate Sainsburys, we hate Sainsburys” followed by “We love you Tesco, we do” elicited a furious reaction from the bloke beside me: “EXCEPT IT WAS TESCO WHO BROUGHT EASTVILLE. SHORT MEMORIES.” Just to make the protest that bit more embarrassing. There was also the standard kid, that always seems to stand behind me, that has learned to comment on football solely by parroting lines from his moaning father, regardless of context. So during a rare smooth, non-aerial patch of play from Rovers I was treated to “KEEP IT ON THE GROWND GAAAAAAS-UH” in my ear, repeatedly.

Obligatory match shot.
Final whistle blown, I found Daz, dumped my t-shirt in the nearest bin and demanded we seek frosty beverages and plenty of them for my frayed nerves. Later whilst I was just finishing up my rant about the state of the club like any good Gashead, Daz stopped me to say Alfreton had equalized with Barnet at the last minute and there was much rejoicing.

This was in a pub toilet. Because the North.



Ed note: Apologies if you are a Macclesfield fan and it seems I’ve been unfair to Moss Rose in this post. To be truthful the rest of the ground looked like a nice place and had a charming classic feel to it. If I’m ever back I will definitely get a seat and give the clubhouse the once over. 

Thursday, 9 April 2015

#2* The Creek, Bristol Manor Farm

Bristol Manor Farm 1 Brislington 1
Sat 21st March 2015, Toolstation Western League - Premier Division



Having missed Bristol Rovers vs. Aldershot on Friday and conscious of the need to get as far away from the Six Nations as possible, I decided to spend my first Saturday as a Shirehampton resident in the company of local leading lights of the Toolstation Western League; the superbly named Bristol Manor Farm.

Sea Mills is a one stop and three minute train ride away from Shirehampton and sod getting a bus in Bristol. While I was waiting for the train I got to vicariously live out my lifelong urge to press the button that connects you to a First employee via the help machine tannoy. A nearby toddler took advantage of his father being too distracted by his phone conversation about Bristol City’s upcoming Wembley match to notice the plucky sprog waddle over, melting kit-kat in one hand with the other reaching out to hit the big green button. After sitting through 10 minutes of “please wait, connecting you to an operator”, all the while having to restrain his sticky offspring lest he hit the button a second time, the man had to make a grovelling apology to the poor probably underpaid bastard on the other end of the line, much to the amusement of myself and my fellow passengers. Everything continued to come up Tom when for the third time this week First Great Western neglected to charge me any money for the privilege of using their trains.

 

As a frequent user (occasional customer) of the Severn Beach line, I've often marvelled at The Creek (BMF’s stadium) which can be seen in all it’s ramshackle glory as you pass by Sea Mills station. Until quite recently the club were the unhappy owners of a notoriously sloped pitch, which produced a noticeable even from ground level incline away from the mud docks behind one of the goals. Steps have been taken to correct this and it is now noticeable only in a couple of the corners (but still completely obvious from afar).

What makes The Creek really stand out is it’s stunning surrounding scenery. The ground is perched at the intersection of the Trym and the Avon rivers, where rickety old pleasure boats can be seen nestled in the ruins of the wet dock built in the 1700s. From the dugouts you can see the grand old stone bridge that takes the portway over the railway and from the stands you can look out at the rolling fields towards Abbots Leigh. BMF are very lucky in this respect and the walk to the ground from the rail station was lovely.   


The ground is accessed via a left turn on the portway, a 6 mile road linking Avonmouth with the city centre, with nothing either side but houses and tinpot football clubs, so there was no chance of ducking into a pub for a frosty beverage and some crisps to make up for the lunch I’d forgotten about. As a result I entered the clubhouse early enough to settle down with a pint (£3) to watch West Brom get bullied by Man City. The clubhouse was cosy, plush and decorated like my Nan’s front room. I took my seat between two half-asleep old-timers and wondered if this new choice of hobby would 40 years from now lead to me discovering a clubhouse I’d love enough to settle down in it for a nap at midday every other week. I had to question whether a large flat-screen telly on one wall and a projector on the other wasn't slightly overkill for such a small room as I could just about cross my eyes to view both.

Glass drained, I moseyed on down to the two turnstiles and paid my £6 (plus a pound for a programme which I ingeniously left behind somewhere) to a smiling man with a Tesco bag. I did this quickly so I wouldn't have to make eye contact with the slightly over enthusiastic lone man behind me who was repeatedly and forcefully muttering “come on Briz...” on his way to the entrance.

Money paid, I took the mandatory stroll around the then empty ground. The perimeter of the pitch consists of a concrete walkway which could contain about two people in restraining order issuingly close proximity to one another. There is a covered area on the opposite side to the clubhouse behind the dugouts and two seated stands, one near the clubhouse and one a few meters away named the Geoff Sellek stand after the club’s eternal president... Geoff Sellek. Geoff emitted a somewhat ubiquitous presence around the club. In the clubhouse I was inadvertently privy to some kind of planning meeting between what I assume must have been two club officials on what steps Geoff wanted them to take in order to better to promote the club online. (Alright lads?) On the side of the pitch there was an argument that went something like: “Hi, Geoff’s announcing the charity skittles tournament next week.” “Why’s Geoff announcing it? It’s my skittles team.” “Well, Geoff’s chairman.” “BUT IT’S MY SKITTLES TEAM”. Of course what this young upstart failed to recall is that (quoted from the club website, capitalization unaltered) as a “founder member of the club back in 1961, Geoff IS Manor Farm.”



Eventually the teams were welcomed onto the pitch by a selection of flag-waving youth players and the match began. Bristol Manor Farm started the game second in the Western League Prem, tantalizingly close to leaders Melksham Town so I was expecting a veritable tier nine classic. This wasn't to be. Farm’s work rate was unfaultable but apart from their number 10 (dubbed “The Shed” by fans) reading a long goal kick superbly, getting on the end of it and easily slotting past the bemused Bris flapper, they struggled to get anything right in the final third. This may have been something to do with their other striker being 5’6 with a frame I can only describe as all-torso, who gave it absolute beans for the entire time he was on but in all fairness was probably not suited to the role. Their number 6, a lanky winger with incredibly floppy hair, always seemed to beat his man (at least when I was paying attention) and made some nice passes. Brislington scored a soft goal at 21 minutes of the back of a bit of defensive disorganization from Farm and the rest of the half was uneventful.

Seemingly not entertained by the game unfolding before them, a gaggle of the more boisterous Farm supporters began making their own entertainment in the form of bowling stray balls to the kit bag by their teams bench, presumably in preparation for the all-important skittle tourney. The youth team began some orchestrated flag waving and chanting when Bris drew level, producing the following eyebrow-raising back and forth:

“You havin’ a sing then?”

“Nah, can’t cuz of that child protection register.”

*raucous laughter*

The Unplanned End

One thing about minnow football that should have been obvious to me but was a surprise in practice is the ability of everyone to hear absolutely everything anyone else says in the entire ground. So much so that when a man in the clubhouse stand shouted “Come on then Farm!” before a set piece, the aforementioned hilarious blokes beside me on the other side of the pitch shouted back: “Yes Mark!” to which Mark replied, seemingly genuinely delighted to be acknowledged, “Cheers then!” You just don’t encounter that level of beautiful inanity in anything other than being a bit bored at football. I had to wait for the end of the first half for something brilliantly amateur to happen but boy was the pay-off worth it when the referee, fresh from giving a yellow for a trip, managed to accidentally trip the victim a second time before resuming play. Delightful. Our hardy official had to be 60 if he was a day and was having genuine trouble keeping pace with the players, which resulted in him giving a handball against BMF player for a fine piece of chest control while the player in question was turned away from him entirely, making the mistake glaringly obvious to everyone in the now incensed Holy Geoff Mother of God stand.  



Half-time upon us, I brought one of BMF’s frickin’ huge portions of chips and a coffee which came to less than £3. Bloody love non-league me.

The second half left me with very little to write about. Brislington were well organized but unspectacular and looked content with the point. In the final 5 or so minutes Manor Farm seemed to get a bit hungry for a win and things opened up, briefly becoming end-on-end. The home team had a real chance to finish it off when the Bris goalie slipped to the floor but sadly when locked in this one-on-one “The Shed” could only boot the ball into the downed goalie's gloves for an easy catch and that was the end of it.



In conclusion, I enjoyed this ground. The Creek was every bit as lovely inside as it looked from the train and surprisingly well provided for match day amenities wise. A classy operation all round. I hope to be back before too long as I feel I haven’t seen Bristol Manor Farm play as well as their league positions over the last two seasons suggest. Also I love their chips.

* Ed. note: This is ground number two because Bristol Rovers' The Memorial Stadium is my first ground. I'll be covering that in a later post.