Thursday, 24 November 2016

#40 Plain Ham, Larkhall Athletic

Larkhall Athletic 0 AFC Totton 0
Wednesday 23rd November 2016, Southern League Division One South & West

Plain Ham. No it's not the name of the least exciting Subway order ever made, it is in fact the ground of Bath's Larkhall Athletic.

The day before this match I had been to the Mem and witnessed Rovers lose 5 (five) - 1 to managerless basket-case Charlton Athletic, a tie that did not satisfy my need for football for the week. So off I went into the winter's night in search of some. A possibility that presented itself initially was Willand Rovers vs Exeter City in *ahem* the Edenvale Turf Ltd Devon St Lukes Challenge Cup. This would be a chance to tick off another Western League ground but in the end I couldn't be arsed to drive to Mid Devon and a good thing too because it was called off. In any case, a quick 30 minute jaunt over to Bath was far more appealing on this cold night.

I never realised until I started this blog that Bath was so spoilt for choice in the football stakes. Bath City, Odd Down, Paulton Rovers, Bishop Sutton, Radstock Town, Welton Rovers, Keynsham Town and Larkhall are all based in Bath and North East Somerset and I'm sure there are more I don't know about. What a place. The Larks were founded in 1914 and joined the Western League in 1976 when it was expanded to two divisions. They achieved promotion into the Southern League after winning the Western Premier for the second time in 2013/14. It's been four decades of steady progression for Larkhall, who haven't been relegated since they first joined the Western League.

Travelling to Plain Ham this evening were AFC Totton from Totton & Eling near Southampton. The Stags are back in the Southern S&W since being relegated from the Premier Division in 2013/14. This was new gaffer Louis Langdown's second game in charge of the Hampshire outfit, who had lost their previous outing 3-0 at home to North Leigh. I am a big fan of Totton's club badge which is a picture of a Deer, who whilst walking past a 5-a-side pitch has had a wayward clearance land in his antlers and not yet noticed.

I'm not sure where Larkhall is in relation to Bath proper but what I do know is that I bottled out of driving down the very dark, very narrow country road which my sat nav asked me to go down and instead parked up on one of the city's ludicrously steep hills. By the time I'd negotiated a short-term deal with my car to remain stationary and stumbled down the pitch-black path I'd missed the first 10 minutes but the man on the gate helpfully informed me that it was still goalless.

The first noticeable feature of Plain Ham is the raised side of the pitch where spectators watch from atop a grass bank. It reminds me of pictures I've admired of Lewes' Dripping Pan ground. This hill houses what I'd probably say constitutes the main stand, which is a long corrugated iron hut with two long rows of chairs stretching the majority of the structure. On the other side at ground level there's a smaller hut with no sides which provides a little standing room. The only remaining stand is just beside the far goal and it is probably the silliest stand I've ever seen, accommodating about four people in what must be very personal quarters.

"Mike move your arm"
"That's not my arm"

One feature of the ground that I found absolutely adorable were the small blocks of wood scattered around the stands, which one slight lady was using as a makeshift personal terrace. There's also what looks like a rabbit hutch in one corner. I had a peak inside but sadly there was no Official Rabbit of Larkhall Athletic. Maybe it was on holiday.

"Postcard from Nibbles in Magaluf. Looks like he's met a girl. That'll be another jab."

Once I'd settled in and taken some snaps, I went searching for Matt of Gone for a Burton who I knew would be in attendance and who I eventually found in the main stand. At this point I was able to ask him what colour Larkhall were playing in, which I hadn't looked into before setting off. Sorry everyone, this probably won't be my greatest match report. The Larks were playing in blue whilst Totton were wearing their yellow away kit with black stripes that faded a third of the way up the shirt, which made them look like circa 2005 Rovers away kits that had been put through the wash one too many times.

As we took another lap round the perimeter I noticed some steps that led out of the ground and down into the darkness below. Matt opined that they might be an access route from some allotments into the ground, which would probably be my idea of retirement paradise. There was in fact a game going on in front of us but there wasn't much to write about taking place. Not that it was timid by any means but it seemed that every decent attack eventually resulted in a cross flying into the side-netting. Standout players were Totton's Neil Williams, a battling midfielder who broke up play well and Larkhall's Jamie Lyons, who was a constant threat on the wing. One drawback of playing here and having the benches embedded into the grass verge like the Teletubbie Dome is the fact that the subs had to perform feats of extreme hill walking in order to go for a warm-up jog.

Despite their best efforts and the fact that Larkhill had won their last game away at Shortwood 5-0, the match ended goalless. I'm sorry that this isn't up to my usual standard of hackneyed guesswork but I wasn't up for getting my gloves off to write notes as the winds were bloody arctic. Totton seemed pretty pleased with the result judging by the cheer that went up from their bench and considering they're hovering around the drop zone at this point an away point under the new regime isn't to be sniffed at.

I said my goodbyes to Matt and marvelled at the medical shed room on my way out of the ground. Another thing I noticed upon exiting is that Larkhill have a ground share that blows Bradford Town's bowls club and Street's Kickers & Dribblers Day Nursery out of the water. The Larks share a portion of Plain Ham with the City of Bath Pétanque Club, a revelation that lead me to spend the half hour drive home wondering what the hell pétanque is.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

#39 Keys Park, Hednesford Town

Hednesford Town 4 Sutton Coldfield Town 1
Monday 31st October 2016, Northern Premier League Premier Division

It was a cold and foggy Halloween night as we set off to Cannock Chase to complete the Partizan Bristle/Pint of Football Four Day Four Nation Groundhopping Extravaganza™. We'd now seen the champions of Ireland, the oldest club in Northern Ireland and the champions of Wales and were on our way down the English pyramid with a trip to Northern Premier side Hednesford Town. As a side note, this would be the most we'd have to pay to get into a game this trip. Cheers England. Entry to Keys Park will set you back £12/11 depending on whether you favour sitting or standing but to be fair it is by far the poshest ground of the four.

The Pitmen moved from their traditional home The Cross Keys which had been their ground for 92 years in 1995. A need to expand and the general disrepair of the old place was the given reason for the move that took them to Keys Park, built a mere 300 yards from The Cross Keys on the site of a disused brickyard. Town have had a decent amount of success in their time, spending six seasons in the Conference Premier between 1995 and 2001. They also won the FA Trophy in 2003-04.

We parked up outside the massive main stand, wandered through the turnstiles and up into the clubhouse. We sat for a while in the warm, spacious bar and watched Joe Hart let in a howler for Torino on the projector screen. Back out into the cold, we were instantly very impressed with Keys Park. With an overall capacity of 6039 (of which standing makes up a whopping 5028), Keys Park is a tidy ground that you can imagine wouldn't look out of place in League Two with a few more seats should Hednesford push on in the coming years.

Opposite the main stand; which can be accessed through sliding glass doors from the bar, there is a large terrace that stretches the entire side of the pitch. Behind the goal is another terrace of the same depth and opposite that is a small seated area. All of these stands are covered but there are various areas for uncovered standing should you wish to be damp. The main stand is all-seated, with a cantilever roof and while it doesn't accommodate a huge number and is a little on the short side it certainly does the job. A very plush ground for Hednesford's current level but one without much of the quirk or rustic charm you hope to encounter at a non-league ground. However after the trip we'd had it was nice to just be in a comfortable environment with lots of good views. This was also the first grass pitch we'd had on this trip and it was in fine condition.

The game kicked off and for the opening exchanges Hednesford, whilst by no means being perfect, were in control and looked the better side. On two occasions in the first 15 minutes the home team almost got things off the mark, once through a slick back-heel pass from a winger that came to nothing right in front of us and again when Gurjit Singh found himself in a good position in front of goal but scuffed his shot wide. You can imagine the shock in the ground when Sutton Coldfield drew the first blood at 16 minutes forcing a Hednesford own goal. Sutton had put a cross into the box which the Hednesford goalkeeper rushed out to gather, without banking on defender Michael Williams diving in for a headed clearance which headed straight for goal. A poor one to concede.

The action for the rest of the half was fairly open, with Sutton nearly doubling their lead in a box scramble towards the half. However on the brink of half-time a Hednesford corner was cleared but only to Joel Logan, who pressed forward with some lovely step-overs and stuck in a low cross which ricocheted off a Sutton player and fell to Simon Maye who was six yards out and couldn't fail. Hednesford had been the better side for sure but they were susceptible to counters though and Sutton attacked well at times and forced the blunder that had them level. A feisty midlands affair to be sure.

As we were walking out of the bar to the far terrace we witnessed Hednesford take the lead right off the bat through Jamie Matthews who was played in by Singh from the left wing and feinted past two defenders and slid a shot past the keeper.

At this point we were in for an unusual treat as a previously unheard group of Sutton Coldfield fans began blasting out a score of elaborate mariachi numbers from the stand opposite, much to everyone's amusement. Fair play to them for injecting some atmosphere on this cold night just as their team were beginning to get pushed back.

The Pitmen were in full flow now and after a long spell of constant attacks they got their third after the Royals keeper blocked but failed to gather a shot from Logan which Matthews rushed forward to tidy up. The rout was completed shortly after through a superb team effort as Logan received the ball 25 yards out, dribbled past a couple of defenders and picked out a pass to Tom Thorley who laid the ball off for the ever dangerous Matthews who whipped it to George Carline at the post, leaving the goalkeeper flummoxed.

Hednesford continued to fight and should have made it 5-1 when Singh struck the post from a couple of yards out. The fact that he didn't and the game ended 4-1 did leave us with the unlikely record of watching four teams in four days win at home by a margin of three goals. I hoped this run of good fortune would last until the day after where I would be off to watch Rovers take on Fleetwood Town at the Mem.

And so we had come to the end of our trip. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Dundalk, Cliftonville, The New Saints and Hednesford for their kind hospitality and especially Daz for organising the trip, putting me up and driving us. Rest assured we'll have another crazy adventure lined up for next year.

Monday, 7 November 2016

#38 Park Hall, The New Saints

The New Saints 3 Connah's Quay Nomads 0
Sunday 30th October 2016, Welsh Premier League

And so we must bid a fond farewell to Ireland after a jam-packed, boozy two days. We were whisked back to Brum at an astonishing pace by our pilot, the Latin maniac Esteban and after scrapping with the spaghetti junction for a bit and getting some much needed sleep, we were ready to hit the road for a place closer to home, namely Oswestry in Shropshire for a taste of the Welsh Premier League.

The New Saints are a pretty eccentric entity with a shedload of curiosities attached to them. They are the only team to my knowledge that represent two places in different countries, the English town of Oswestry and the Welsh village of Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain. Oswestry lies a mere 5 miles from the Welsh border and shares many cultural ties their neighbours. The town's previous club Oswestry Town played in the Welsh league until it merged into Llansantffraid's local team, which were at the time known as Total Network Solutions because a telecommunications company of the same name based in Oswestry had arranged a £250,000 sponsorship deal with the club making them the first instance in the UK of a football team being named wholly after a sponsor. With me so far? Good.

The new millennium brought professionalism to the club who went full-time in 2003, changed their name to The New Saints in 2006 and moved from The Recreation Ground in Llansantffraid to Park Hall in Oswestry in 2007. Since the downfall of Barry Town, TNS have been the only professional club in the Welsh Premier League and have won the top flight 10 (ten) times. Despite this success they have the same problem as the rest of the Welsh league when it comes to attracting crowds, with an average attendance of 247 so far this season.

"How are a club with such a modest gate able to maintain professional status?" you may ask. Might have something to do with the fact that the large clubhouse at Park Hall is more of a leisure centre than a clubhouse. We entered the main building upon arrival and were greeted by a room full of young families enjoying the soft play area, bowling alley and cafe which is nestled between trophy cabinets, the club bar and newspaper collages of the team's European adventures. Swarms of young children hopped-up on sugar and arcade machines tear around tables of old-timers supping their pints during half time. It's very weird but undoubtedly a great earner for TNS. It's also probably the reason that they host their European matches in other locations such as Wrexham's Racecourse Ground or Rhyl's Belle Vue as it's hard to imagine Slovan Bratislava or Legia Warsaw ultras having a go in the ball pit.

Eventually someone took pity on us and pointed out the direction of the turnstiles. We entered the ground to the sound of a pop song paying tribute to Jeff Stelling's famous "they'll be dancing on the streets of Total Network Solutions tonight" quip that he made on Soccer Saturday whenever the Saints won a match. Park Hall boasts the third 3G pitch we've seen a match played on this trip and is a very modern, training-facility like ground with not a massive amount to write home about. At ground level there are two temporary stands, one a metal contraption behind the far goal and one a tent (see it's not just Rovers that have a tent) on the clubhouse side. The ground is also home to the most elaborate gantry I've ever seen.

The posh seats take the form of a handful of wooden tables and chairs arranged on the balcony of the leisure centre, this area also contains the press desk. The ground was strewn with practice goals of all shapes and sizes, which were tucked away wherever there was room. Including as I would find out when I went to look, down the back of the metal temporary stand. The ground is at least in a nice wooded area, so the pitch was surrounded by trees in beautiful autumnal colour, which added some much-needed character to the place.

As per for the Saints, this top of the league clash only tempted a modest crowd of 248 to North Shropshire but this did include an adorable gaggle of mini-ultras that spent the first half excitedly banging their drum and cheering for the home team. This was the only real noise, apart from a group of lads old enough to know better chanting "keeper's got a boner" as the opposition player was being treated by the team's female physio.

The game itself wasn't what you'd call a classic for the first 45 minutes. Both teams got into space fairly often but were hesitant to take anyone on. There was lots of passing back and very little tackling, "a bit like watching England" as Daz would opine in possibly the most offensive way one could talk about the champions of Wales. We wondered whether the combination of chilly afternoon and 3G pitch was causing the players to only commit to a shin-shredding tackle when there was absolutely no other option. Do to boredom I pursued Daz's programme and was surprised to see such luminaries as New Zealand and Scotland internationals Greg Draper and Steven Saunders turning out for the home team. Draper was such a big name that he warranted his own sponsorship, which this match was none other than Oswestry's own 'Crumbilicious Bakery', who clearly recognise a star of a rising league when they see one (arf).

I'd have to watch the second half alone as a shadowy figure known only as "The Rev" had invited Daz to be a commentator on TNS Radio for the afternoon. The encounter was streamed live to the club's Facebook and is posted here for posterity. My favourite bit was:

Rev: "and I see you've come in a TNS scarf!"
Daz: "uh, no. Welton Rovers."
Rev: "oh right... and how are they doing?"
Daz: "well when I saw them they got relegated."

The Saints turned the screw in the second half and went on to win the game 3-0. Wes Fletcher came off the bench, turned his marker and smashed it past the reach of the Nomad's keeper. The second goal came through Steve Saunders, assisted by the left-back Ryan Pryce. Finally Jon Routledge opened up his TNS account, putting the final product on a good counter attacking move from Ryan Brobbel.

Me having a hard time processing it all

The New Saints are without a doubt the wild card club of this trip. We really didn't know what to expect going in. I think it's fair to say that Park Hall is the better equipped of the three we've seen in terms of playing and hospitality facilities but they won't be to everyone's taste. I'd certainly rather rough it in the Cliftonville Social Club or the pub under the stand at Dundalk but considering those wanting to bring their families along, there's covered seats to spare at Park Hall and what better way to bribe the wee'uns to a freezing midweek Welsh Premier fixture than a go on the old 10-pin after? The club have obviously got a plan for growth going forward and good luck to them.