Friday, 31 July 2015

#9 The Hallen Centre, Hallen A.F.C

Hallen A.F.C 1 Tiverton Town 0
Fri 31st July 2015, pre-season friendly.

Once again the league bears down upon us and an end to the wacky, consequenceless fun of pre-season friendlies comes to an end. No more spotty youth-teamers or hapless trialists. No more hilarious mismatches or cross-border absurdities. No more obscure local cup competitions or queue-less pasty vans. Good night sweet prince.

Before that though, a visit to the little club that almost wasn't: Hallen A.F.C. Local non-league dorks will no doubt be aware that Hallen were embroiled in a long and very stupid battle with Almondsbury parish council over the Hallen Centre, the council wishing to expel the club including their youth and community facilities. After finding a contractual get-out clause (not to mention a massive online campaign attracting support from the likes of Yannick Bolaise and an offer from Hallen's groundsman Terry Henderson to donate his life savings to save the club. The firmest doff of the PB cap to that man) it looks like the club will be staying put, for now.

I know for a fact this shop has been closed for over five years.
After a particularly annoying 9-hour day at work, I was well up for some Friday night football. Leaving my workplace in my hometown of Pilning at 18:30, Phil Kite's testimonial match against West Brom at the Mem just wasn't going to happen, despite tantalising rumours of Rovers legend Rickie Lambert's imminent transfer to the Black Country club. Luckily for me however Hallen's ground was a mere 10 minute drive and an even merer £2 to enter. 

Hallen is very much like every other South Gloucestershire village; small, dull, pothole-filled with the ever present smell of cow shit permeating everything. The Hallen Centre conversely is pretty well decked out for a Western league ground. Despite looking a little sterile from the exterior. When you arrive and walk up the single track road from the car park, past an abundance of grass practice areas, you get to what looks to all the world like your average leisure centre complete with an (unmanned that evening) reception counter. Not wanting to enter the ground half-an-hour early I went for a poke around. The entrance room was completely deserted, so I pushed open the first door I got to and was immediately greeted by 15 or so silent, surprised faces looking up from their pints at me in the compact clubhouse bar. I was driving and skint so rather than seek frosty refreshment I backed slowly back out of the room so as not to upset the natural order. 

After that I made my way through the turnstiles and had my customary wander. The ground has some truly lovely countryside scenes with rolling green hills a-plenty. The vast majority of the pitch-side is uncovered, single-layer hard standing but there is also a large seated stand opposite the dug outs. With a bus shelter-like construction behind the goal nearest the club house. If I had to make one complaint and I do, it would be that the railings are not at the optimal height for the standard groundhopper leaning on arms stance.

I'd decided to park by the seated stand and was watching the teams warm up when I noticed someone walking over to me. Once they'd got to me they asked me if I "was the one with the blog". Now I am a notoriously anxious man and I have been living in fear of coming into contact with someone who's club I've roundly taken the piss out of and getting my head kicked in but it turns out that these three were people I'd made contact with on twitter earlier, the Tivvy 12th Man fan group. They were really nice. Fair play to them coming up the motorway to this smelly old county on a weekday evening, that's fandom right there.

Tivvy ultras. Also the programme editors. And photographer. And ball boy.
The away fans passed the time of day with me talking about their Southern League exploits and what sounded like a thriving disability side they have at the club, interspersed by the occasional trip to retrieve a lost ball from the field behind the fence that one of their players had shanked. This happened so often that I'm pretty sure they started doing it on purpose to make the poor bloke run for yuks. Once the whistle had gone we went down to the other side of the pitch behind the Hallen goal where my companions assured me all the action would be happening in a classic example of famous last words.

The game started out very even. A tight contest between Tiverton's flair vs the hardy and well-organised Hallen. I'd say that Tiverton narrowly had the best of the first half, with Andrew "Rocky" Neal in particular standing out for me with his blazing runs down the wing, doing a fantastic job of beating men and keeping the ball in play. Tiverton just couldn't put the final ingredient into any of their many good crosses though, not helped by some heroic at times defending from Hallen, there was even the odd flying header, magic.

Token match shot
As this was playing out an elderly gentleman mentioned to us that Hallen had in fact scored only a paltry 41 goals in the entire 2014-15 season and had ended up with a goal difference of -21, so I wasn't holding out for a goal fest.

Half-time came, I got coffee, the refreshment shipping container sold French fancies, the shitty tannoy blasted out pop music, we discussed whether Rovers or Tiverton had worse run-out music.

Second half came and the immediately obvious on-pitch shift was the changing of Hallen's goalkeeper, presumably to give both a run-out before the season started. The new keeper was, shall we say, jollier than his younger counterpart and after a bit of fancy footwork gone awry early on in the half, Tiverton started to smell blood and pelted the home box for a good 15 minutes with cross after cross, it almost looked like a training exercise for a while but still no goal. There was a great save from the new man in net however, so that showed me.

Much like the owner of a car parked on a beach slowly filling with seawater, I failed to pay attention to the moment the tide turned and was absent-mindedly enjoying the sunset halfway through the second half when Hallen pulled ahead with a goal. This caused flapper #2 to get a bit cocky." Better get used to the Toolstation league, you'll be down here next year!" he belted with delight and much banter was enjoyed by all.

From this point on Tiverton, sensing an embarrassing defeat going into the season on the cards, got a bit hoofy, two players nearly got into a fight because of course and a free-kick on the edge of the box got missed. It wasn't to be and Hallen won the day with a strong display that should see them bothering the top half of the Western league if they keep it up.

I gave my commiserations to the travelling fans and agreed to see them at Ladysmead sometime soon.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

#8 King George Recreation Ground, Avonmouth FC

Henbury FC 4 Sea Mills Park 2
Tue 28th July 2015, Evelyn Rowley Cup Semi-Final.

It was a shite, cold, rainy summer's day in Shirehampton. I'd been to two dire Rovers friendlies since my trip to Salisbury, both losses, against Arsenal U-21s and Reading. Something had to be done. The temptation to pop down to The Creek to see Manor Farm take on the hilariously named Undy United was strong, as I knew they had ample covered areas and generous chip portions. I felt however that I ought to preserve my thin veneer of journalistic intrigue and find myself a new ground.

Step forward Avonmouth FC. Avonmouth FC (based in Shirehampton because the chemical fumes have obviously ruined their brains) host their answer to the Emirates cup, the Evelyn Rowley cup, every year to warm up for another hard, thankless year in the Bristol & Suburban League, inviting teams from every obscure suburb and village of Bristol to duke it out at their home ground, the King George Recreation Ground. So yes, I was off to a level 12 ground to see two teams I'd never heard of, neither of which played there, in the rain. Yay groundhopping.

The first notable thing about the King George is how incredibly well hidden it is. You get to where the postcode takes you and find a row of houses opposite a bunch of trade counters. You'll wander about for a bit then spot a dark, overgrown footpath down the side of one of the houses. This is the entrance to a huge field about the size of three football pitches, bordered completely by industry and suburbia on all sides. King George obviously wasn't fond of the idea of the serfdom recreating on his ground.

The second notable thing about the place, one which instantly puts it up there amongst the weirdest football locales I've ever had the pleasure to visit, is that the whole playing space exists in the shadow of a colossal, heaving ruin of an old warehouse*, which audibly creaks with every gust of wind.  

Full of ghosts and a million deflated Mitre balls.
These minor eccentricities aside, Avonmouth seem to be a pillar of amateur football in the area, boasting a first team in the premier division of the B&S league, as well as a reserve and 'A' team that play in lower divisions of the same league. They also house a thriving youth section. A doff of the Partizan Bristle cap to you fine folks. 

Whenever I go to a match at this level I always get a feeling like I'm crashing the gathering of an extremely close-knit group of old friends and sure enough the barbecue is out, the Natch is flowing, the children play kick-about in their Arsenal and Real Madrid kits and the locals chat merrily amongst themselves, not paying me the slightest heed as I slink in. Or in my mind: glaring in bewilderment at me and assuming I'm there to nick anything not bolted down during the match because who in their right minds could possibly pop along to a game like this for fun?   

Fun it most surely was however. A run-down of the Highlights for your consideration: 
  • A Henbury (or 'The Tangys' as they like to be called, no really) striker wandering about smoking a fag minutes before kick-off.
  • Sea Mills going down 2-0 in the space of about 20 minutes. Leading their rotund, shouty, cap wearing keeper to scream "FUCK SAKE" and boot the ball up the field as hard as he possibly could, firmly striking one of his team-mates who had knelt down to tie their boot in the arse before adding: "YOU'VE DONE FUCK ALL LADS. YOU DON'T DESERVE IT." as everyone in the vicinity collectively winced.
  • Avonmouth's amply stocked clubhouse. I wanted to get pictures but it was quite busy and I felt conspicuous enough all evening as it was. Rest assured however that should you choose to visit the club can offer a range of frosty beverages in glass, can or bottle format as well as your standard crisp and nut based fare. I went for a can of Natch (£2) for portability purposes. No non-league clubhouse is complete of course without a myriad of crazy crap adorning it's purple plaster walls. Pictures of handlebar moustached men in striped leotards, a reminder of the Avonmouth squads of old hang opposite the fossilized remains of a pair of old-timey boots worn by some unknown local legend. A shelf full of obscure trophies and a dirty great Bristol City union jack lay between an ageing fruit machine and Top of the Pops jukebox. Truly a Mecca for the wandering non-league lover.  

Sea Mills Park were 3-0 down by half time. Though they were not as hopeless as that scoreline suggests, they did squander an open net between about three players and skied their first decent chance of the second half off the roof of the clubhouse and into the back-gardens of the unsuspecting residents. Eventually their persistence paid off and they were rewarded with a goal with about 15 minutes remaining, unfortunately the comeback was not on and Henbury made it 4 minutes later, which rendered a simple tap-in from Sea Mills' own David Luiz lookalike Frankie a mere consolation.

With that over with I decided I was freezing and toddled off back up the road to my flat, to ready myself for another wacky adventure on Saturday.

Slip Slop Slap, kids!
The Tangy/Milly faithful.
Medical science has yet to explain the mechanism behind
 the mysterious healing powers of the magic orange bucket.
*Correction: ancient creaky ruin of an old sports centre. Thank you Avonmouth FC twitter guy!

Friday, 17 July 2015

#7 Raymond McEnhill Stadium, Salisbury FC

Salisbury 1 Bristol Rovers 4
Sat 11th July 2015, Pre-season friendly.

The season at last begins in earnest. Midweek jaunts to North Somerset notwithstanding, the time was finally at hand to dust off my hopping shorts and mingle with normal people who don't feel the need to go to poorly advertised academy games and can wait for the real thing. Really, I can give up football whenever I want.

The destination of Rovers' first pre-season jaunt was the "Ray Mac", home of the recently reformed Salisbury FC who, sadly, succumbed to fiscal clusterfuckery at the end of the 2013-14 season and had to go through a torturous re-formation that saw them ejected from the Conference Premier and spat out in the Wessex League. Rovers of course have Salisbury to thank not only for our manager Darrell Clarke but also fan favourites Stuart Sinclair and Will Puddy, new boy defender James Clarke was also part of the final Salisbury line-up before moving to Woking.

The day began at Bristol Temple Meads where I again met up with Dave and his crew. We headed into the tiny town centre for beers and the ashes and I embarrassed myself with my lack of cricket knowledge. We got a taxi to the Ray Mac as it's about three miles out of town, behind several rows of posh looking flats with the biggest "NO BALL GAMES" signs I have ever seen.

When we got to the ground, we were immediately herded towards what turned out to be the home team's gym, which had been re-purposed for today as a bar. It had the distinct feel, as one of my companions for the day reflected, of being at an awkward teenage house party where the host has been instructed that he can have friends over as long as all drinking takes place in the garage. One thing I really wish I'd got a picture of was the 10-inch TV haphazardly bolted to the breezeblocks by it's side, left to dangle precariously like a long forgotten to-let sign on a shitty old abandoned warehouse and of course, it didn't work.

After a pint of suspiciously sweaty smelling local ale, we sauntered into the ground early to set up Dave's aforementioned best crowd-funded banner in the history of Bristol Rovers (if not football) for it's début.

We thought we'd be pretty safe just throwing the banner up anywhere at the Ray Mac but sadly moments after it went up, a steward came and told us off for covering up an advertising board so moss covered it would amaze me if the company still existed. So it had to be moved to a location slightly down the fence, in front of a bin that had been nailed, nailed, into place to prevent, I don't know, someone stealing it? Money really was still tight at Salisbury it seemed.

Now then

Darrell Clarke's unfortunate bulge
With that out of the way I turned my attention to the stadium. We were stood on the "Partridge Way Terrace" which was four steps deep but extended down the whole end of the stadium and a little around the corners where it met with a couple of little seated stands on one side and the much larger main stand and clubhouse on the other. Opposite us was a much larger home terrace. I really liked the place. You felt very close to the action, meaning we could enjoy some grins of approval from Steve Mildenhall and Nathan Blissett over their new personal chants ("Because maybe, you're gonna be the one that saves me and after all, you're Steve Mildenhall"/"Do you really like it? Super Nathan Blissett, we're loving it, loving it, loving it, we're loving it like this." - It had been a long summer.) With intimacy like that, I could forgive the overarching vibe of cow shed the wooden fence and breeze-block combo was giving out. Salisbury's ground is internet famous for being the site of an accidental pitch-invasion by a hapless parachutist in 2013. Sadly, as much as I willed this incident to recreate itself, it did not.

Boring competent parachutists.
The little engine that could.
The match itself delivered a good afternoon's entertainment. Salisbury's hastily assembled squad sprang from the stocks quickly and had Rovers defending for the first five or ten minutes but they seemed to lack a moment of inspiration in front of goal. Rovers quickly managed to find their feet on the bone-dry pitch and our new winger Cristian "La Araña" Montaño beat the already committed keeper to a loose ball and hit it into the path of recent youth team graduate Jamie Lucas for an easy chip-in in the 12th minute. That was it for the first half but shortly after the whistle for the second super Nathan Blissett took advantage of the fact that no Salisbury player apparently wanted to get near him at any point to roll in an easy second. Danny Leadbitter showed some lovely skill beating three men from the half way line to whip it in for a Lucas header.

Macca goes ham on an unsuspecting midfielder.
Salisbury's George Coulson finally provided the home team with some bragging rights when he unleashed a perfect 35-yard ball into the top centre of goal, apparently taking Mildenhall completely off guard, with much rejoicing from the whites faithful. Sensing our embarrassment, Blissett ran on to a wayward clearance from another Rovers trialist winger Billy Bodin, left his only pursuer in his dust and slotted home from a sharp angle. Probably the best goal I've seen old Luther score so far, a really strong performance from the big man.

Look kids, it's the enduring symbol of the city of Salisbury: a... panda?
So with that boring match report out of the way, time for what you all came here for; the hijinks. After their initial burst of attacking energy, the gulf between recently promoted-to-league Rovers and newly reformed Wessex league Salisbury became pretty obvious. The gas were given comically absurd amounts of space all over the pitch and the resident chubby non-league ref sought to readdress this balance by giving us absolutely nothing all match. Almost every pause in play resulted in a Salisbury free-kick, which lead to raucous laughter from the majority and explosive rage from the one or two old-timers that had perhaps misjudged the atmosphere of this pre-season friendly. The ref took all threats of violence/questions regarding his eyesight and physique/accusations of wearing a Salisbury shirt with excellent humour, waving and grinning at all his assailants. A doff of the PB cap to you sir. My sheer delight at watching the man only increased when it was noticed that he appeared to be carrying some World Cup 2014 Magic Spray™.

"Yeah, whatever dickheads, I got a stake n' ale Fray Bentos waiting for me in the changing room. Mmmmmm." 
Hijinks continued to rule the day when someone who shall remain nameless decided to steal some toilet roll from the portaloos and wait for an appropriate moment to recreate a Standard Liege moment. This moment didn't arrive so they chose to let loose upon the referee giving yet another hilariously incorrect corner to Salisbury. This moderately amusing act became classic when an elderly steward in a high-viz jacket came along and laboriously re-rolled the soft, thoroughly absorbent projectile whilst having a chat with the fans. Money must really still be tight at Salisbury.

Overall then, a lovely little away day and a promising start for Rovers in 2015-16. Congratulations to Salisbury for getting back on your feet and back into your lovely little stadium. Don't screw it up again.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

#6 Court Hay, St George Easton-in-Gordano

St George Easton-in-Gordano 2 Bristol Rovers U-18 5
Tues 7th July 2015, Pre-season friendly.


I've been so bored these last few months. Rovers' summer transfer business has been slow and the spectre of the Sainsbury's court case looms over us with no respite in sight. The women's world cup was a welcome distraction but these last two months have been slow. So I was delighted to learn about this academy game for a chance to check out a new ground and whet my appetite for Salisbury this weekend.

I decided this was one I could walk to, using the M5 bridge and my innate sense of direction and time management (I set off two hours early and used Google maps). Sadly technology could not save me from straying hopelessly off the route and ending up on some cycle track to Portishead. I rectified this situation by climbing through some bushes, up the side of a stone bridge and emerging onto a single track road, scaring the crap out of a BMW driver going way too fast.

I am a genius. No doubt about it.

I eventually arrived at the tiny village and got into the ground about 45 minutes early, in time to rest my legs and amuse myself with the pitch-side advertisement for Bell Tools.


Eventually Dave (of best crowdfunded banner in the history of football fame) arrived and we went to the pub where I listened, astonished, to his tales of transnational long weekend ground hopping exploits. I have much to learn.

Court Hay is situated right next to the cemetery of St George's church, which the club takes it's name from. An interesting choice for a football ground perhaps, I thought as the first ball left the pitch and ricocheted off the gravestones. On the other side from this stands a small tea-toom/toilet and even smaller changing rooms. A good amount of villagers turned out, along with enough bored gasheads and the families of the U-18s players to create a mini Bristol derby on the smaller practice pitch contested by a gaggle of little kids wearing the kits of both Bristol teams. Didn't catch the score of that one though.

The Rovers youth impressed, netting five against a rough and ready Easton side. I spoke to the Dad of one of our left backs who said there are nine right midfielders vying for place right now and the quality really shone through for me in that area. Particularly impressive was our number 17 (no idea of the name) a compact blonde winger who tore up the right side of the pitch with some tidy pace and chased down every ball that came his way with Sinclair-like determination. Later we were joined by an apparent Easton first team regular, who got the call for this match but refused it because he'd only just got back from two weeks in Ibiza and "wasn't gonna get chased about by a bunch of 18 year-olds." So maybe they weren't firing on all cylinders.

Token match shot

Tinpot highlights included the fact that the Easton players were all wearing a pair of job lot Southampton socks, a player fouling another then rolling his ankle on his victim's floored bonce and Easton's portly, ageing number 10 trying to wind up a Rovers youngster, drawing a free kick in a dangerous spot and then punting it into the trees behind the goal. 

I found it a little hard to take the last 20 minutes in because I'd brought two mugs of coffee during half time only to find that Dave doesn't drink coffee, leaving me to drink both and end up needing the biggest piss of my life. The kind of expert reporting you've come to expect.

The Deadman End. Not pictured: the world's most determined bell-ringers.

Overall the match was a good afternoon out in a very pleasant part of North Somerset which gave me a lot of hope for our academy set-up. A new ground and meeting some nice people being worth the absolute drenching I received on the walk back. 

The things I do for the Gas.