Tuesday, 2 February 2016

#20 Crown Ground, Accrington Stanley

Accrington Stanley 1 Bristol Rovers 0
Saturday 30th January 2016, League Two

Accrington Stanley Football Club; butt of a hundred jokes, the team you have to be if you're playing FIFA with your 5 year old nephew to give him a chance, league two favourites for relegation every season. Here's the story of our sixth consecutive loss to them.

Rovers were having a pretty good time of things in their first season back in the league, sitting in fourth with the play-offs looking like a likely destination for us come May. I had seen them fight hard to overturn a very good Oxford United side and narrowly lose out on all three points due to a last minute equaliser against Plymouth Argyle in a tight home game, coincidently my Dad's first Rovers match in 30 years. With most Gasheads agreeing pre-season that mid-table consolidation would be the name of the game for 2015/16, this rather unexpected push for consecutive promotions has put a real buzz around the Mem with a near-capacity crowd turning out to watch the Argyle match.

A similar story was unfolding at Accrington with them occupying a lower play-off space but in a false position due to a period where weather forced them to postpone 4 (four) home games in a row. Accy haven't had much luck in League Two (aside from 2010/11 where they finished 5th but went out in the play-off semis to Stevenage) so the club were in the unusual position of looking up rather than over their shoulders around the relegation spots. 

The weather the week leading up to the game had been pretty bad. Nothing compared to the stuff that had caused the floods earlier in the month but still enough to make me nervous about a wasted 3-hour drive that I was starting at 6:30 on the Friday evening after work. I needn't have worried however as Accy had pulled out all the stops to get the game on with it's groundsman, owners and fans all mucking in, a doff of the cap to all involved. Always trying to make a weekend out of long away trips I was being kindly put up by another old uni pal, Jake "Nash" Hilton (who supports Blackburn Rovers) and his family who live in Croston.

We left for Croston station pretty early and caught the train to Accrington via Preston, where we stopped for some pints. I was alarmed by the pedestrian etiquette in the city and what Nash explained as the "shared space" policy in which all single lane roads in the centre were designated free-for-alls between road users and pedestrians. This works about as well as you'd expect and will probably be in George Ferguson's next mayoral manifesto.

We arrived in the tiny town of Accrington and began up the massive hill from the station to the ground, stopping in the Hare & Hounds pub because the Thwaites sign reminded me of Rik Mayall's character from Guest House Paradiso. As you'd expect the place was packed with old flat-capped gentlemen sipping bitter, just as I had hoped. Everyone was very friendly with one vintage gentleman quipping "I can tell you're from Bristol cuz you just used the word sir" as I brought a round. I also encountered my first loon of the afternoon in the toilets; a man who turned to me and remarked "that's the worst pineapple rock I've ever tasted" in reference to the yellow urinal cakes. The worst part is I think he was Bristolian.

The Crown Ground is a bit of a basic one; a distinct hangover from their 35 years in the non-league with the familiar sightings of white-painted breeze block walls and rickety corrugated iron roofs. The main stands, named the Jack Barret Memorial Stand and the John Smiths stand run the length of the pitch behind the dugouts and contain the majority of the seats in the stadium. They look like one stand but if you look closely you can see the gap between them. The John Smiths stand contains fewer seats due to an unfortunate slope. Opposite this is the Whinny Hill stand, also known as the Cowshed, which is probably the most non-league of all the stands and reminded me of the Lotus Side at Stafford Rangers. It used to be a terrace but was filled with seats to get the ground up to league standard. 

Some Rovers fans were sensible enough to get seats in the Whinny Hill stand but the vast majority (me and Nash included) were on the open Coppice Terrace getting the shit kicked out of us by hailstone and chilly Lancashire winds. Opposite us was the Sophia Khan stand which consists, oddly enough, of a small terrace behind a row of five or so seats. This was the favoured spot of the "Stanley Ultras" a small gaggle of flag-waving, drum-pounding vocal fans. The temptation was to laugh at the notion of Accrington Stanley having an ultras group but to be fair to them they did keep the noise up for most of the game. Not quite enough to make me rethink my views on drums in the English game though. 

The Elmer the Elephant stand
Stanley Ultras. Pies not £££.

Unfortunately considering how long it took to get there, there game wasn't really much to write home about. The weather was worse than Oxford with strong gales and hail, the upshot of standing was I wasn't as cold. Stanley played from the back effectively and frustrated Rovers early attempts. Rory Gaffney came close to getting his first goal as a permanent Rovers player but headed just wide and Adam Buxton forced a decent save from Mildenhall from 20 yards. Then in the 69th minute Sean McConville hit a cross that looked to have caught the wind but nevertheless bounced too far for the perusing Crooks to do anything with but then carried on past Mildenhall, who dived too late. A truly shit goal to concede. From that point on Stanley were completely in control and it became obvious the 543 Bristolians who made the trip wouldn't be seeing a goal. So we set about entertaining ourselves with the chant "jump around, just to feel your feet". Also there was someone there in a bear costume, probably not a bad idea considering the temperature. 

96 quite bitter beings

This was a highly disappointing result for the Gas when it looked like we might have had an outside chance of automatic promotion but I must give credit to Stanley, who knew how to exploit our weaknesses and were well organised in the harsh conditions. We were unquestionably beaten by the better team on the day. I've long had an admiration for the club and was glad I had been able to make this pilgrimage to find that it was every bit as friendly and passionate as I'd hoped. The crowds may be small but they've carved themselves out a tiny piece of lower league paradise here. It'll be fun to see how far they can take their run this season.