Tuesday, 19 January 2016

#19 Kassam Stadium, Oxford United

Oxford United 1 Bristol Rovers 2
Sunday 17th January 2016, League Two

"Aren't you driving to Oxford today?" asked my wife Becky, standing at the door of our bedroom trying to rouse me from my hungover state of rigor mortis. I had organised an impromptu casual pints event the night before with some old friends that had ended up with us getting a little more Darrell Clarked than I had originally intended. I choked down some paracetamol and hit the road nervous about my blood alcohol content.

I had originally decided not to bother with this trip in the name of post-Christmas penny pinching, despite it's relative closeness. However the exciting return of Rory Gaffney coupled with Oxford's cup heroics made me think that this may be a classic and when I saw someone selling a spare ticket on Twitter I took it as a sign.

After just over an hour and thirty minute's drive through the pretty Wiltshire scenery (and Swindon) I had arrived on the outskirts of Oxford where the Alakazam stadium stands, surrounded not by the trappings of more traditional grounds: grubby pubs and long-suffering neighbours but by a Bowlplex and a Frankie and Benny's. I was almost glad to be driving, the thought of ducking into Bowlplex for a swift pint was not appealing.

I had arrived way earlier than my meet up time with Neil off of Twitter and it was a testicle-shrinking 3 degrees, so I decided to take a walk. I spent £2 on a sample pot-sized cup of coffee and began shuffling miserably around the perimeter of the stadium. I really hate the cold. The only thing of note on the stadium exterior front is the big reflective glass panelled entrance that gave the place a sort of late 90s leisure centre feel. Apparently there's a bronze statue of an ox somewhere but I didn't see it.

The interior of the Kablamo stadium consists of three all-seater stands. The south is two-tiered and contains the posh seats. The north is where the 2,300ish Rovers fans were seated, with about a quarter of that amount of Oxford fans one the far side. The east stand was similar to ours but obviously smaller because it was behind a goal. It looked to be the preferred place of the more raucous Oxford supporter. Conspicuous by its absence was the west end of the stadium, which is filled only by a small wall covered in adverts. I wouldn't like to hazard a guess as to how much OUFC has paid out to Bowlplex in window repair fees over the years due to stray balls.

As you have probably guessed this is another modern identikit stadium that I find difficult to make interesting with my puny human words. The beige breeze block concourse didn't help matters, though I did find it funny when I encountered in the men's room the handiwork of a Chesterfield fan who had written 'OXFORD SCUM' in what appeared to be crayon on the wall. I queued up dutifully for my sole cup of warm, nameless bitter as a feeble shield against the frosty bullshit I would be facing for the next two hours.

Out in the stands we were treated to the auditory delights of Sandstorm by Darude as an elderly chap in a suit ambled out onto the pitch with a microphone and addressed the east stand. He congratulated the crowd on the recent results against Swansea and Millwall which he said were made possible by the constant noise of the home crowd. He then tried to start a warm up routine to get the home crowd going but had to give up and shuffle off back down the tunnel after his three attempts were drowned out by the Rovers support who were positively delighting in ruining Oxford's party.

I enjoyed the flag waving antics of Oxford's small gaggle of ultras as they welcomed the players to the pitch, it was a nice little display even if no one could possibly be intimidated by a banner that says 'Oxford Boys'. I enjoyed the fact that the U's support appeared to encapsulate all the main segments of the modern fan, the silent ever-seated old-timer, the mad shouty singing section people and the belligerent frothing tosspot that stands as close to the opposition fans as possible in order to exchange obscene hand gestures all match.

All this didn't completely remove a nondescript feeling of being in a well-to-do place that chairpeople and local politicians would breathlessly tell you was a 'sustainable community asset' as they grip your hand a bit too tight and grin twitchily. Just to give you an example of what I mean: every single substitution had it's own sponsor read out over the tannoy: "Substitution, number 20 Taylor replaces number 15 O'Dowda. This substitution brought to you by The [suchandsucha] Hotel, Oxford." I have never heard of this happening before and it's one of those things that makes me think we may be a bit too far gone as a species at this point.

The game played out much as I had expected, a tight affair between two teams who should find themselves in the top 7 come May. Oxford passed slickly and were able to get themselves into good positions with very little notice, it was easy to see how they troubled Swansea and Millwall recently. Rovers defended tenaciously and looked threatening on the counter, helped by decent long-ball deliveries from Leadbitter and Clarke and the classy touches and turns of shiny new striker Rory Gaffney.

The deadlock was broken straight away in the 2nd half when a short corner was worked to the middle edge of the box to an unmarked John Lundstram who's shot was deflected/flicked into the net by wonderkid Kemar Roofe. A bit of a shit one to concede considering both teams had been defending well up to that point. Rovers drew even again 6 minutes later with a blistering run from young Danny Leadbitter who then produced a perfect cross for Matty Taylor to head in. I would have been happy with the point had you asked me at the start of the game but the players clearly weren't as Gaffney did his utmost to make it two by running on to a cleared ball from the Rovers goal, powering past his marker and breaking free before making the last minute decision to pass to the unmarked Taylor who dutifully smashed it into orbit as he often does when faced with 1-on-1 situations. Much-maligned veteran keeper Steve Mildenhall produced a fine save from Lundstram's powerful strike at 80 minutes and went on to save another from O'Dowda from a silly angle with his feet. I really think Mildy will have given Clarke pause-for-thought with his performance today and we should have fewer fears going forward in that department.

The pivotal moment came in the 87th minute when Jermaine Easter flicked the ball past the last Oxford defender and was taken to the ground by their keeper while chasing it. Sub striker Ellis Harrison cooly launched the penalty into the top centre and there was much rejoicing followed by mass confusion when it was announced Harrison would be going on loan to Hartlepool straight after the game. Good old basket-case Rovers.

It could be argued that Oxford were hard done by and certainly deserved a point in my view but the penalty was a pretty clear one for me and they were fortunately unable to take advantage of their equal share of the chances. A real testament to the never say die attitude of Rovers under Darrell Clarke and a great away day for one of the larger away followings we'll see this season.

#18 Cossham Street, Mangotsfield United

Mangotsfield United 1 Taunton Town 3
Saturday 9th January 2016, Southern Football League Division One South & West

With the insanely wet January dancing a merry jig on the fixtures list and cancelling matches up and down the country from Wimbledon to Altrincham to Newport, I was forced to cancel my plans to take in Cheddar vs Chippenham Park and hurriedly seek an alternative. This seemed like a good opportunity for me to finally check out Mangotsfield United, a club that have interested me for a long time due to their Rovers links including: 
  • Former players David Mehew and Steve Elliot are the current management team.
  • In the last two seasons alone we have loaned them Danny Greenslade, Dominic Thomas and Kieran Preston.
  • Players we've signed from Mangotsfield include Gary Penrice, Steve White and Phil Purnell.
  • Former player and Radio Bristol man Geoff Twentyman is responsible for bestowing Mangotsfield with their slightly odd nickname "the Mangos".
These aside, I've heard nothing but good things about Mangotsfield locally as a cheap no-nonsense alternative to the Bristol big two. Their highest attendance this season has been 303 and they even used to have their own ultras. They were at one point in the Southern League Premier Division but currently reside a level lower, SPL Division One South and West.  

As I drove to Cossham Street in torrential rain I kept one eye on Mangotsfield's twitter account. I couldn't believe this was going to be on but sure enough as I approached the gates there was a man in waterproofs perched on a camping chair, guarding the players' entrance, looking thoroughly miserable.

I had a pint in the clubhouse and watched Wycombe play out their draw with Aston Villa. I stood admiring the signed Rovers and City shirts framed around the room and the impressive collection of scarves above the bar. I must have been gawking pretty hard because the kindly barman asked me if I'd spotted my club's scarf, to which I could only nerdily reply that I hadn't but I was impressed by the Almondsbury Town one (Almondsbury Town having ceased to exist sometime around 2012).

Eventually I could delay leaving the warm, dry clubhouse no longer and made my way through the turnstiles, paying £8 for the privilege.

The first thing I noticed as I passed through the gates into the near-torrential rain was how many people had turned up. Whether that was down a lack of any other non-league action available that afternoon or just people getting the date of the much-anticipated pig race wrong I didn't know but the 'field had pulled a respectable crowd of 186 for the afternoon.

Cossham street is a very tidy ground indeed for step 4, with ample seating in the Ralph Miller stand and three covered standing areas, two of which had terracing. I particularly enjoyed the shed opposite the Ralph Miller stand which has the subs benches built into it, creating a sort of tunnel where I could hide from the rain with my tea and chips.

The pitch really was in a sorry state by the time the game kicked off, with total devastation dealt to the grass in both penalty boxes and small pools of water gathering around the wings. Players were sliding into the concrete walls left right and centre from standard tackles and the physio made four forays onto the pitch during the first half that I counted. 20 minutes in and every challenge is looking like a potential career-ender for someone. Ryan Batten for the Mangos suffered a dislocated shoulder in the 25th minute which physio Megan Weston popped back on-pitch before he was carted off to hospital.

Six minutes later Lewis Powell was the first man to wade his way to a rebound from the post and poke the ball over the line. Taunton were ahead and were only denied a second in the 40th minute by the crossbar, as the rain finally began to let off. Before the half-time whistle the Mangos lost another player, Luke Bryan, to injury.

Taunton did get their second pretty quickly in the second half via an easy header from a corner. An older chap stood near me was apparently privy to some "blatant" pushing in the box and proceeded to unleash the single greatest torrent of lino abuse I have ever heard: "FUCKING UNEMPLOYABLE. FUCKING FAILED HIS 11-PLUS. CAN'T EVEN KILL A FUCKING WOODLOUSE. DISGUSTING."

By this point Taunton had control (well as much control as a team can have playing on a bog) and Jordan Rogers scored their third with a lovely 20 yard punt. At this point I figured I'd start making my way to the exit ready for a quick getaway as I was pretty wet and very cold indeed. As I passed behind the Taunton goal, the out-of-play ball bounced in front of me followed by the Taunton goal keeper. Wanting to be helpful, I hit the ball towards him along the floor without noticing the massive muddy puddle that had formed between the two of us and was now flying up into his face. I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to the Taunton goalkeeper who was magnanimous enough to thank me for my efforts. To be fair it's not like he could have gotten any more soaked.

Unfazed by my ineptitude, the Taunton keeper produced a fine save from a Mangos free kick that was just short of being a penalty. He did finally concede when substitute Joe Hillard scored a nuts volley from distance for his first club goal in injury time.

As has been mentioned elsewhere on the web, I feel a massive doff of the cap needs to go to Mangotsfield groundsman Pete Crowley for getting this game on when more or less every non-league fixture in Bristol had been abandoned, not to mention the players and the other 185 wackos that came to watch on a day like this.