Tuesday, 10 May 2016

#26 Norton Lane, Hengrove Athletic

Hengrove Athletic 2 Chard Town 1
Wendesday 4th May, Western League First Division

The final day of Daz and I's Western League triple threat took us to one of Bristol's southernmost clubs, Hengrove Athletic. We had actually passed Hengrove's ground on the way to Welton Rovers the previous day, so we were in much less of a hurry to leave for the ground when I got out of work at 18:30. As a result I forgot to replace the SD card in my camera or bring my new glasses. I work best under pressure.

We arrived with minutes to spare and were shepherded into a field to park by the attendant, who parted a group of spectators to let us through which was fairly embarrassing. Norton Lane is a fairly basic ground but by no means the worst I'd seen at the level. All the stands are one side of the pitch; a long single-tier covered terrace with two seated metal stands either side of it. One of these was mysteriously named the EWW Stand, presumably the favoured haunt of the grimier Hengrove supporter. 

The side with all the stands on it has a waist-height brick wall running along the pitch, which is just as well as the stands are built very close to the action and without it many a spectator's crotch would be in serious peril. All the other sides of the pitch are bordered by classic non-league white metal railings. There's also another pitch right next to the main one, which I presume is for training and community use. Hengrove is right on the edge of the northern tip of Somerset so similarly to yesterday's trip to Welton, there's green and pleasant aplenty to savour as you take in the match. 

Keep comic sans out of football

This match had the potential to decide the First Division title which at the time was a battle between Chard and Wells City, with Western League new boys Chipping Sodbury Town having an outside chance of nicking it on goal difference if other results went their way. Wells looked to have the best chance though as they had a game in hand over Chard after today. This was a game that Chard had to win. With that in mind we were a little surprised that the attendance for such an important clash was so low, a rather meagre 30 but to be fair it was a Wednesday evening and Chard is a good hours drive.

Chard started the match well and nearly took the lead in the 10th minute when a sliced clearance from a Hengrove defender careened towards his own net but luckily another home player was there to clear it off the line. However it was Chard that opened the scoring in the 15th minute with a 25-yard wonder strike, which Daz claimed was the best goal he'd seen all season. I'm sticking with Liam Lawrence's free-kick against Crawley for the Gas at this point.

Chard came close to doubling the lead in the 25th minute from a header which I thought had gone in but actually hit the post and fell kindly into the keeper's hands. My legendary lack of depth perception strikes again. My mind kind of wandered for a bit at this point and I focused on supping my Ashton Press and boring Daz with my love of Nathan Blissett, which he doesn't seem to share. This could be due to the fact that the big man scored a brace against Daz's beloved Macclesfield Town during his recent spell of form for Torquay. This dispute led me to make the extravagant 10 (ten) pound wager that Torquay will finish above Macclesfield next season, posted here for posterity.

As I was examining my raffle ticket number, an unfortunate Chard player took a meaty ball to the face right in front of us. He took it in his stride initially but spent the next two minutes visibly dazed, eventually going to ground and needing physio attention. 

As this was going on I overheard an old boy adorned in bright running trainers and a flat cap regaling some other groundhoppers with the stats of how many balls the club had lost over each hedge this season. I can confirm that 8 (eight) had been lost over the one we were stood by and 3 (three) to the one behind the goal opposite the clubhouse. I'd like to dedicate a doff of the flat cap to this gentleman for his efforts and for making me feel better about my own internal compiling of insanely tedious stats.

Half-time arrived and we retired to the clubhouse to recharge our drinks. The clubhouse had some cool memorabilia such as old Hengrove shirts, a memorial to a lifelong club volunteer featuring old pictures of squads stretching back to the 60s, a clipping from a feature on the club in the Non League paper written when they went up the the Premier Division in the 2011/12 season and a certificate commemorating their first floodlit match in October 2009 against a Bristol City XI. 

Only place for him

As we were returning to our spot, another old chap, this one adorned in a bucket hat, beamed at us and said "That's what I like to see lads. Yeah, yeah, have a beer" as he walked past us whilst making his own way to the bar. Right on good sir. 

Hengrove were a lot more settled during the second half and evened the score in the 66th minute with a towering header from a corner. A second headed goal in the 85th minute would put paid to Chard's chances of ending the season with an away win and quite probably their title chances. 

Hengrove defended really well and were able to run a lot of Chard assaults out for goal kicks. Chard for their part seemed understandably panicked after the first Hengrove goal and struggled to maintain their shape whilst also squandering a brilliant chance right in the centre of the box towards the end. This disorganisation only got worse during the 5-minutes of stoppage time, brought on by the farcical amount of calls for handball during the match. This would prove a costly loss, as Wells City won 5-1 away at Calne Town and given the distinct possibility of a Chipping Sodbury victory or draw at the weekend, it's likely that the Robbins will now finish the season in third place. The Toolstation League is a harsh mistress.

The next morning we said goodbye to Daz as he made his way back up to Stoke. Be sure to check out his blog Pint of Football and stay tuned for his trip to non-league finals day at Wembley in a few weeks. 

#25 West Clewes, Welton Rovers

Welton Rovers 1 Gillingham Town 1
Tuesday 3rd May, Western League Premier Division

Day two of the great Daz and Tom west country groundhop marathon took us to the Somerset town of Midsomer Norton and the home of already-relegated Welton Rovers: West Clewes. 

Sitting second from bottom of the table (ahead of only Winterbourne United who resigned from the league), Welton entered this match having gained a paltry 17 points from the season, sending them straight back down to the First Division from whence they came the season prior. Dorset's Gillingham Town meanwhile find themselves a respectable but unspectacular 9th.

We managed to get to the ground in time to listen to the PA man rattle off his end-of-season thanks for the efforts of the club's intrepid volunteers, including a ball boy ball man who had been in the position for 36 (thirty six) years. 

West Clewes is an absolutely cracking ground, surrounded by rolling green Somerset countryside and squat stone cottages that billowed woodsmoke from their chimney's out into the warm evening air, it's a fine example of what gems you can find in the Western League if you venture out of the cities. It has been the base of operations for the Rovers since their inception in 1887. During this time it also served as the headquarters of the local Miner's Welfare from 1923 until 1975 when the last of the coal mines were closed.

Next to the clubhouse there are two temporary-looking metal stands; the smaller for sheltered standing and wheelchair users, the larger housing about 150 fold-down seats. These are a recent addition, replacing the original wooden seating. Further down on the same side of the pitch there is an ancient-looking stone terrace, which is uncovered, covered in moss and crumbling but apparently well-loved by the Welton faithful.

A unique feature of West Clewes is the vast amount of children's play equipment dotted around the ground. In fact, a set of that newfangled aerobic play equipment is located directly behind the terrace. Their location and the fact that all the equipment is painted green leads me to believe that this is what the Welton players use during weekday training, followed by a rousing game of pogs for team bonding.  

Welton looked the most likely to score during the opening moments of the match. Their number 11, who looked like he might be a winger being tried as a striker, produced a lot of good touches and runs but struggled in front of goal. Their efforts were eventually rewarded in the 20th minute when Peck burst down the right wing and passed low to Dunn who bundled it over the line from close range. There was much rejoicing from the green army, including one bloke watching from his car who began frantically tooting his horn in approval. 

It looked like the Gillingham players were expecting a whistle to be blown for offside, as they seemed to give up chase when the ball was crossed to Dunn. I didn't think it was but frankly they should know better than to expect correct calls to be made at this level. The referee was decent however, a lot less fussy than some I've seen in the Western League and played the advantage well on many occasions. 

For a while it was difficult to see why Welton were so low in the table based on this performance. Then a moment occurred right in front of us where a Welton player took possession and entered a stalemate with a Gills player. The Welton player decided to rectify this by attempting the weakest lob ever over the Gills player's head, which duly cost him possession. Attempting to be needlessly clever snuffed out many chances for Welton and I found them quite a frustrating side to watch as they did do a lot of things right. One of the home players, who we referred to as Čech due to his protective head gear, was everywhere and cut out several of Town's more threatening attacks.

During the half, we went into the clubhouse so Daz could buy a scarf. He wasn't tempted by the official Welton Rovers Teddy Bears™ however. We were served at the bar by an eccentric couple with matching blonde mullets. The man saw my camera and struck a pose like a World War II pin-up, sadly I was too surprised to react quick enough for a shot but the guy was clearly a legend.

Gillingham Town came out strong during the second half, managing to pull their minds away from upcoming weeks in Magaluf. They looked sure to score early on when a forward who was facing away from goal got the ball in the box and passed to a nearby forward-facing team-mate but the shot that followed was a weak one and the keeper held on to it easily. Daz and I were stood in front of some radio commentators during the second half who were reporting live into a microphone. Their best moment came when Welton's number 11 absolutely skied a shot from distance, prompting these two leading lights of the airwaves to comment "Well that's gone well wide. Could've been a sensational goal though." 

The previously mentioned veteran ball boy was called into action for the first time during the second half when a ball bounced slowly out of play and over the low wall into the car park. I'm not sure what happened exactly but it looked like he unsuccessfully tried to control the wayward sphere with his feet, resulting in an embarrassing tumble to the floor. What was initially quite funny became concerning two minutes later when a small crowd had gathered around him and the commentary duo began to remark on the fact that he hadn't returned to his post. Fortunately moments later a thumbs up from the ground indicated he was okay and sure enough he was soon back on his feet and munching a banana. A doff of the Partizan Bristle cap to that man. 

Despite a decent shift from the home team to keep themselves ahead for the majority of the game, it all fell apart in the 71st minute when they gave away a free-kick on the edge of the box, which a Gills player launched softly over the wall for the keeper to collect then immediately fumble into his own goal. This is probably why Welton are on 17 points.

Disappointing result for the home side notwithstanding, I really enjoyed our visit to Welton Rovers. You can tell just by being there that West Clewes is a ground with a lot of history. When you add some local characters, a decent bar and some nice countryside, there's not a lot more you can ask for in a Western League ground. Hopefully they'll bounce back from this disappointing season.

Monday, 9 May 2016

#24 The Lawns, Cribbs FC

Cribbs 1 Melksham Town 4
Saturday 2nd May, Les Phillips Cup

In an effort to make the most of the dwindling fixtures list as we creep into summer, my old pal Daz was dropping by for a few days to check out the delights of the Western League. We had originally planned to watch Manor Farm attempt to recoup from their dashed promotion hopes by progressing in the league cup at Buckland Athletic but the bank holiday traffic put us off. We travelled to Portishead Town but didn't realize that it was the reserves playing instead of the first team, which seemed anti-climactic. This left us with only one option, the league cup fixture at Cribbs FC.

Cribbs FC are based in Cribbs Causeway, South Gloucestershire, which is basically a massive retail park. I'd always found the idea of a club based at Cribbs a little weird because I never considered it as a place that people actually lived, just one that people went to work and shop. However it must be said that The Lawns was a real find considering we very nearly didn't get to see a game at all. 

The ground is located on an easily missed single track just off Station Road near Henbury. Pitchside there are two small seated stands, one of which is placed curiously far from the touchline up a small hill with a path leading up to it. Perhaps some kind of executive box. The ground seems to be on a pretty large hill because you can see for miles out over Henbury and Catbrain which was nice on the bright clear day we had for it. My favourite bit of the ground was the wonky path of white wooden fences that made up the players tunnel, forcing the teams to amble muddledly onto the pitch like 22 confused Roombas struggling with a stiff bit of polyester carpet.  

Things turned from surprisingly good to actually pretty great when we entered the clubhouse for pints and a chat with the delightful barman Roy. Daz, being from Yorkshire, has a special vocal setting reserved specifically for when he finds bargains which was activated when he clocked a sign advertising "Roy's Rolls" for a mere £1 a pair. After lots of shouting, we retired to the far corner of the room next to some very tasteful artificial flowers and I alternated between watching some unknown European match on the telly and watching Daz eat his discount baps like a malnourished squirrel.

The match began and within 5 minutes Cribbs were one up after the Melksham goalkeeper rushed miles out of his net to clear a stray ball, only to boot it into a Cribbs player, who walked it into the open goal. It was bloody lovely to behold. 

At around 15 minutes a tussle for the ball ended with a player from each team on the floor and Cribbs' George Brimson was shown a straight red for an apparent lashing out after the whistle had blown. 

During the second half Cribbs struggled on manfully and if you'd just arrived you'd be hard pressed to tell that they were playing with 10 men without doing a head count. Seeking a greater challenge, Cribbs defender Josh Jones conceded a penalty in the 65th minute and got himself sent off. Someone from the home bench shouted "you're corrupt!" at the referee, highlighting the near Czech Republic level match fixing problems that plague the Les Phillips cup. Gary Higdon stepped up for Melksham and drew his side even.

Whilst it became clear from this point onwards that this was one Cribbs weren't going to win I would like to give massive props to my man of the match, Cribbs goalkeeper Matt Turner. A 5'9 whirlwind of yelping, swearing, hairy fury that managed to keep his depleted side in the game with 5 (five) world class saves. Instilling leadership, organisation and probably no small amount of fear, he organised his team-mates in a Stalingrad-esque garrison of their net, which left Daz and I in no small amount of awe.

This made it all the more wounding when Dan Kovacs scored a hat-trick in the second half of extra time for Melksham. The dejected figure of Matt Turner will haunt my nightmares as long as I live.

So a scoreline that didn't quite reflect the match we'd seen but Cribbs could take pride in the way their team struggled on and kept things even for the majority of the match. I quite enjoyed my visit to The Lawns and will almost certainly be back someday. In the meantime however, we had two more grounds to visit this week...

and you can read a very similar write-up by Daz here.