Sunday, 26 April 2015

#1* Memorial Stadium, Bristol Rovers

Bristol Rovers 7 (seven) Alfreton Town 0
Sat 25th April 2015, 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'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 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.

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