Tuesday 7th June, Women's Euro 2017 Qualifying
It was a sticky, humid early summer's day and desperate for release from the between-season fixture lull, I was off to Newport to catch this European Championship qualifying clash between Norway and Wales.
I set off from Shirehampton via train and changed at Temple Meads for Newport. Once again in what is becoming a recurring theme on my trips, First Great Western neglected to charge me for this transnational voyage.
Newport is the nearest Welsh city to Bristol and sometimes gets a bad rap from the English as being a bit of a shit-hole. I don't really agree with that, possibly because of the small gaggle of pals I have from there but I will concede it is a very strange place. Almost everywhere you look something a little off is happening. As I was walking from the station to the stadium I passed an unaccompanied preschool-age girl who was stood by a bus stop, taking individual plum tomatoes from a punnet one by one, dropping them on the floor and defiantly stomping on them. The real highlight however was the man re-painting the window frame of a high-street pizza shop. This chap had placed a cardboard sign in the window to warn passers-by who might brush up against the wet wood but for reasons known only to himself, he had chosen to express this warning not via the more traditional 'wet paint' sign but had instead written one which simply read "PAIN".
|Trapped in oil-based torment.|
|Take that society.|
This trip would serve as a good reminder to my dear readers that every so often groundhopping is actually quite hard work. Due to hurrying from work and not doing the research, I had failed to realise that Newport Stadium (or Spytty Park as it's also called) was a good 45 minute walk for someone that knew where they were going. For me, 1 hour 10 minutes. It was baking hot and I was a grumpy sweating mess by the time I reached the ground.
The afternoon also provided me with an insight into why the Welsh league is struggling because who in their right minds would walk half an hour past Rodney Parade into an industrial estate to watch football in a "sports village".
When I got to the entrance there was quite a queue. This was because the stewards had one gate open for people who had pre-brought tickets and another open for people paying on the door and nobody had pre-brought tickets. The turnstile operators, not to be deterred, handed everyone a pre-ripped ticket upon entry which slowed things down even more.
Newport Stadium certainly isn't the worst stadium I've visited this season but I'm afraid it is by far the dullest.
Originally built for athletics, hence the running track, the stadium sits alongside such salubrious facilities as the Dragon Park football development centre, the Wales National Velodrome, Newport Cricket Club, a swimming pool and tennis courts. It's clearly a great community asset but it's pretty soulless as a football ground.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the place is that it provided the second homecoming for the reformed Newport County when they moved to the ground in 1994. They had spent the previous five years going between Moreton-in-Marsh (to avoid being placed in the Welsh league), their former home Somerton Park in Newport and Gloucester City's Meadow Park when Somerton Park was closed in 1992. After spending all this time driving 70 miles for "home" games, I can't imagine any Exiles fans would have shared my reservations for the place at the time.
County moved on to Rodney Parade in 2012 and Newport Stadium became the home of Newport City AFC, formally known as Llanwern, who play in the Welsh Football League Division 2.
The ground consists of a large seated grandstand that you emerge at the foot of as you walk out of the main building. Across from this on the other side of the pitch is a terrace which seems far too big for what the ground currently deals with. Behind the goal to the left of the pitch when viewed from the grandstand is a tiny uncovered terrace. Football ground naming conventions would have this known as the "Southern Distributor Road End". The place is very open and sparse and feels very temporary but it serves it's purpose.
The glorious weather had brought out a bumper crowd of 703 for the afternoon and why not? With men's team riding high on a crest of footballing success interest had clearly received a boost in this rugby nation. The ladies were in a slightly more precarious situation, needing three wins from three to qualify from their group. Sections of the crowd were quick to remind me that football hasn't been this nation's favourite pastime, including a young girl and her Dad who were arguing about whether De Gea or Casillas is the best goalkeeper in the world by comparing their ratings on FIFA 16. The mother of this girl had to be taken through the procedure for deciding if a ball that goes over the goal line is a corner or a goal kick several times before sighing "I just don't get football..." I didn't immediately notice any Nordic fans in attendance but then both the Nords and the Welsh are a notoriously pale people so it was hard to judge.
I brought a Coke to re-hydrate after my trek and was amused to be asked to surrender the lid in order to prevent the bottle being used as a missile. Viva international football. The teams came out and I was surprised to see that Wales, unlike their opponents didn't have names or numbers on the back of their shirts.
As is often the case in women's football due to the smaller average height of the players, there were long balls aplenty. Seattle Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock had just returned from injury and was the provider of many decent aerial passes to the forward players but despite having two strikers on the pitch, Natasha Harding and Wales' top-scorer Helen Ward, they looked like they needed more support from their deep-lying teammates.
Norway for their part passed competently enough but struggled to deal with the Welsh physicality, culminating in the moment Ingrid Mold was sparked out by a defender and needed treatment. After which she stood waving frantically at her manager by the touchline, getting in the lineswoman's way.
Half-time came and I headed back inside to see if there was anything more to see. I witnessed a nice moment which I think sums up the nature of women's football in it's current state: a player who had started on the bench trotted through the door, still in her boots towards the toilet passing by an elderly gentleman. The two recognised each other and briefly clasped hands as the man said "hope you get on bab!"
As there were lots of official looking people milling about and blocking doors I decided I'd back out of snooping around this time.
Norway would always cross the ball in front of goal rather than having a dig from any reasonable distance which was frustrating. The game was finally livened up when Kayleigh Green smashed the ball towards goal from dead centre at about 15 yards out only for the Norway keeper to push it onto the crossbar, a save that would prove agonising when Ada Hegerberg scored a simple header from a corner minutes later. The silence that followed told me that no Norway fans had made the journey.
Some people that were making a lot of noise were a gaggle of 12 or so little kids that were waving flags and screaming "1, 2, 3, WALES" repeatedly and arrhythmically in a spirited display of support which very quickly turned from being cute to being maddening. Unfortunately these mini-ultras would have nothing to celebrate as Miss Hegerberg smashed a 25-yard screamer past Claire Skinner in the 81st minute.
Wales played some good football in places but a defensive lapse and a moment of brilliance proved their undoing. Even if the most interesting part of visiting Newport Stadium was coming across remnants of when County played there, it was still a much needed respite from the end-of-season drought.
|Bristol is the what? THE WHAT?|
P.S: shout out to the ticket collector on the train back for complimenting me on this picture I took at Welton Rovers whilst I was sat flicking through my camera. You really made my day, even if I had to pay this time.