Wednesday, 24 August 2016

#32 Stamford Bridge, Chelsea

Chelsea 3 Bristol Rovers 2
Tuesday 23rd August 2016, EFL Cup Second Round

We love a big game every now and again here at Partizan Bristle. Bristol Rovers have been starved of a glamour away day since January 2008 when they held premier league Fulham to a 2-2 draw at Craven Cottage. Rovers had already surprised a few by beating championship Cardiff City in the first round at the Memorial Stadium two weeks prior. A fairly drab, nervy game was brought to an exciting conclusion in the 115th minute through a Chris Lines wonderstrike. This was made even sweeter by the confusing way the EFL Cup draw was set up this season. Due to seeding, our victory meant that Bristol City would be missing out on the match against Chelsea and instead be going to Scunthorpe United.

High on the unexpected win, I immediately got to planning my trip. I headed off to the Mem bright and early on ticket release day to pick up tickets for myself, Loulou and another friend, the recent Gas convert Sam Evanson. The queue at Pirate Leisure was biblical, in all it took me 2 hours and 10 minutes to get the tickets. I was one of the lucky ones however. The unfortunate few that went to the supporters club shop in Kingswood were turned away due to a monumental underestimation of demand from the club, who had sent just 750 of our 4000 tickets to one of the staunchest Gas neighbourhoods in Bristol. You can tell we're not used to this kind of thing. Unfortunately Loulou was unable to get time off work in the end but luckily Holly, who eagle-eyed readers will remember from my trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers, stepped in to claim the spare ticket.

I decided to get the earliest coach I could find so as to make a proper day of it in the capital and luckily for me I was able to flog Loulou's coach ticket to Jack off of Twitter. Arriving at Victoria for 12:25, we decided to walk to Stamford Bridge in the blazing heat and I immediately regretted getting the earliest coach I could find so as to make a proper day of it. Chelsea is, for lack of a better word, very tory and finding somewhere for lunch and a pint that didn't look too financially ruinous or weird was a challenge. Notable options were Just Falafal, Whole Foods Market, a restaurant called 'Meme' and a Thai noodle place adorned with Chelsea flags. Eventually we found a pub called Elk Bar where I got a decent unpretentious burger and chips (£5) and a pint of pale ale that cost almost as much as the meal. We sat there for a fair while cooling off and chatting about UFOs. Jack off of Twitter is a character. Sky Sports was on in the background and I got the very surreal experience of reading the sentence 'Michy Batshuayi to make first start against Bristol Rovers'.

We went over to Stamford Bridge to have a nose round before the crowd gathered. We bumped into two other Gasheads, a man and his young son, coming out of the club museum and had a little chat. Buoyed by this new sense of comradeship, Jack attempted to greet another early bird in a quartered shirt who was walking in the opposite direction but was brutally blanked. One eyebrow-raising feature of the Stamford Bridge exterior is the fact that the walls to the entrance are totally covered in AstroTurf, so the reception and security rooms look a bit like extensions on the TellyTubby dome. After a while of examining the swanky hotel and restaurants affixed to the stadium whilst being eyed up by the security, Jack and I agreed that on balance we were happy put up with the tents and portacabins if it means we can approach the Mem without being frisked.

Five o'clock rolled around and it was time to gather the rest of my motley crew. We met Holly at Fulham Broadway and grabbed another mortgage pint in a home supporters pub. Because he was the only one of us that travelled in a Rovers shirt we had to meet Sam by the Bovril gate, which was a mean feat at this late hour as the streets were thronging. Things became more congested when several hundred Rovers fans were herded in by police on horseback singing and generally having a lovely time. Apart from the guy that got arrested. I left Holly petting a horse and managed to pick out young Sam from the crowd. We went to enter and once again I felt like I was being processed as three separate lines of security checked my ticket, patted me down and checked my bag before I got to the turnstile. It was one of those experiences that made me consider whether the security we see at football was a necessity due to disorder or if the disorder arose from supporters knowing that it was expected of them and acting accordingly. I once again thought to myself that I couldn't possibly do this every week.

Weirdly for such a snazzy stadium, the walkways around the ground are pretty grotto-like with their rugged dark stone walls lined with strings of white light bulbs. I've since learned that these walls which encase the new stadium are actually remnants of the old Shed End, which I think is a lovely design touch and adds a lot of character to this particular entrance. Once we got inside the ground it was already rammed with people and our allocated seats were taken, so we just sat in the nearest empty ones. We were on the upper level of the Shed End slightly to the left of the goal. Rovers fans took up about two thirds of the upper and lower portions of the Shed End and the atmosphere was great. Eventually we were forced to give up these seats when their real owners arrived. It didn't seem worth the trouble of trying to squeeze our way to our own allocated seats and kick whoever was there out, so we allowed ourselves to be herded to some empty ones at the edge of the upper tier. It was very annoying to have moved from those choice seats only to spot the three teenage girls who had taken up residence in them sat uniformly gazing into their phones during the first half.

On the pitch Rovers were getting pretty savaged during the first 15 minutes with the likes of Fàbregas, Pedro and Azpilicueta pushing our boys right back into their own half. Rovers held the former champions of Europe off for 30 minutes through a combination of rugged defending and Chelsea mishits, including one off the post but the deadlock was finally broken by new boy Batshuayi who fired it into the top of the net from close range after having the ball crossed to him by Matic. A very similar assist was provided for Moses by Azpilicueta (who did very well to keep Pedro's early cross in play) just 2 minutes later. 

At this point I limbered myself up for a hearty fisting but when Matic brought down Leadbitter 30-yards out on the right Chris Lines was able to chuck in a lovely free kick which floated across goal for Peter Hartley to calmly nod in. The Rovers end exploded. I'm not proud of this and I put it down to a combination of being the underdog and being on the end of an afternoon of high-handed stewarding but this was the first time I've ever been moved to run over and shout obscenities at the opposition after a goal. It's quite fun to be honest. My jubilance was short-lived however as Batshuayi netted his brace in the 42nd minute with the same bloody routine.

Whilst regular readers will know I'm not fond of modern all-seater stadiums, I did find Stamford Bridge to have a quite intimate feeling to it, despite it's large size. Even though I was on the top layer I didn't feel too far away from the action. I know some people come to this blog for detailed descriptions of the stadium in question but what do you want from me? It's a massive bowl with some blue plastic chairs in it. Moving on.

The aforementioned toryness of the area didn't show any signs of abating inside the stadium as Holly noted that you could purchase a lamb, garlic, mint and rosemary pie from the food kiosk, which absolutely torpedoes Ashton Gate's coffee shop out of the water in the pretentiousness stakes. Another curiosity is Chelsea's use of pre-match flamethrowers on the side of the pitch, which I've only ever seen before in MLS as a goal celebration. 

Onto the second half and Rovers were actually taking control for large parts of the game and attacking well. I'm sorry for the lack of detail but the whole thing is a blur of shouting and jumping around at this point. What I do recall is Stuart Sinclair making a run and looking like he might just wriggle past Pedro to go one on one with Begovic but instead got shoved over in the penalty box and awarded a penalty. Ellis Harrison was given the honours, which I personally thought was a shame because the unlikely event of our resident hobbit Sinclair netting one at Stamford Bridge was something that I'd joked about with Jack on the way up. Nevertheless Ellis proved to be the right choice as he coolly shot the ball into the centre of goal for Rovers' second.

We smelled the alluring scent of the history books beckoning and everyone was on their feet or drumming on an empty chair. One steward was having a very unsuccessful time trying to make people sit back down so instead satisfied himself by ordering one of his fellow stewards to sit down. The pressure seemed firmly on the home side and Rovers continued to press. We came so close to equalising when Jermaine Easter's shot from distance was palmed over for a corner by a flying Begovic. In the final minutes of added time Batshuayi thought he'd completed his hat-trick but was flagged offside and the final whistle went shortly after.

A very, very pleasing performance from Rovers and a memorable away trip that even five pound pints and bossy stewards couldn't spoil. Considering the team Chelsea put out for this match and the fact that they subbed on Oscar, Terry and Hazard in the last 15 minutes should give us a lot of confidence going forward because we were done proud today. The thing I will take away from today personally though is that supporting a small club and occasionally getting to piss off a big club beyond all reason is the best thing in football.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

#31 Crown Field, Keynsham Town

Keynsham Town 3 Almondsbury UWE 2
Tuesday 9th August, Western League First Division

The veritable smorgasbord of fixtures that is pre-season was over for another year. I'd had a lengthy absence from any groundhopping and indeed the only match I'd caught since Tytherington was Bristol Manor Farm vs Thornbury Town at The Creek. During this time, my excellent good friend Daz Knapton who is my friend and in no way becoming my bitter hopping rival was ticking off new grounds at a truly terrifying pace. Something had to be done. I had designs on Manor Farm's FA Cup replay at Gillingham Town in Dorset, or maybe Street's replay at home in the Mendip against AFC St Austell. Sadly I was to be denied the magic of the cup at this early stage of the season due to being kept at work longer than I'd anticipated. The only option I could see was the short trip south to Keynsham.

Keynsham Town joined the Western League in 1973 and have spent the last four decades bouncing back and forth between the two divisions. Almondsbury UWE rose up from the Suburban League since forming in 1969 as Patchway North End. As the name suggests, they are affiliated with South Gloucestershire's premier learnatorium University of the West of England. I know that the team use the facilities on UWE campus for training but I have no idea to what extent the team is made up of students. Feel free to enlighten me in the comments or over on Twitter. Since the demise of Almondsbury Town, UWE are the main team of the town of Almondsbury and play at The Field just off the M5 interchange. Keynsham and Almondsbury finished last season a mere two positions apart at 9th and 11th respectively. As things stand Almondsbury lost their opening fixture 1-0 at home to Westbury United, while Keynsham are yet to play a league game in 2016/17.

As soon as I entered the ground I was surprised. During the small amount of research I did, I happened across some old pictures of Keynsham's ground and frankly was expecting an absolute wreck. What I found instead was the most well kept, modern ground I'd encountered in all my Western League travels so far. Crown Field has a 3G pitch like all the cool non-league clubs these days, not my favourite thing in the world but I certainly respect the benefits for smaller clubs after the havoc winter 2015 played on the fixture schedule. Behind the goal nearest the entrance is a raised platform. It's wide enough to hold about 5-6 rows of people and would be fairly simple to add a few levels to in the event of a big FA Cup clash, which would not be forthcoming this season as the K's were knocked out in the first preliminary by Bemerton Heath Harlequins. The side with the team benches on it is separated from a neighbouring rugby pitch by a green wire fence. An added bonus for visitors in the event of a boring match as you could simply switch sports (if you're into that kind of thing).

The other goal end is similar to the first but isn't elevated at all and is slightly narrower, owing to the two tiny five-a-side pitches situated behind the path. The main stand is the most eye-grabbing side of the ground, with a covered main stand built off of the clubhouse. There are terraces to both sides of this, one shallow and continuous to the right as you leave the clubhouse and a pair of three step deep ones either side of the changing rooms to the left. The whole place was very impressive and had the distinct whiff of refurb about it, with certain portions of the main stand looking like it could be someone's patio. If I had to make a complaint I'd say there weren't enough seats, only 20 but there were a couple of walls in front of them which could be used as benches. Even so, Keynsham will have to improve in this area if they wish to attract and maintain the key Western League demographic of ever-present eccentric elderly gent. Sure enough, the gent in question rocked up at the 10 minute mark, fully clad in a Toolstation Western League cap and rain jacket, with his wife in tow and took one of these seats.

Onto the action and it was Keynsham that had the first opportunity with a super chance at around 5 minutes. The ball was taken right down to the corner with acres of space by a home player and crossed across the edge of the box. A one handed flail was enough for the Almondsbury keeper to push the powerful shot over for a corner.

Throughout the match the lads practising on the rugby pitch opposite were kept busy with returning stray balls that had flown in over the fence. I hope that these two teams never have to play a competitive fixture at the same time as I imagine it would be absolute mayhem.

The game was very open in the first half with lots of chances for both sides. UWE hit two shots just over the bar within in the first 10 minutes. Keynsham's best chance came when a player drilled a powerful shot along the ground towards goal which looked to be beating the keeper but was stopped when another home player accidentally ran into it.

The ref for the afternoon struck me as a bit niggly and I really do hate it when refs call every little thing at this level as it breaks up the delicate flow of the games. He did however wave away what looked like a blatant dive in the penalty box from a UWE man. 

It would be the home side that opened up the scoring. A corner flew past the UWE defence to an unmarked Samuel Duggan who was waiting by the post and dropped down for a header which sent the ball into the net.

During the match I got talking to local sports journalist Mark Tanner, who writes about all manner of Bristol and Bath based teams from Bath Spartan Dodgeball Club to the Bristol Bats and Badgers baseball sides. He knew Keynsham very well and informed me that the impressive Crown Field refurb was the result of a lone businessman putting in a considerable amount of money to save the club and improve the facilities while he was at it. The only drawback to this deal was that this businessman now held the ownership of the ground and it's profits in a 20 year lease. This means that the only way Keynsham are able to make money is via entry fees and raffle tickets. They used to make 10p on every pint sold at the bar but even this was brought to a stop. One effect of this is the notable lack of advertising boards on large parts of the stadium, as there would be no point financially for the club to get them filled.

Despite the extensive redevelopment of the rest of the ground, I'm happy to say the clubhouse retains the essence of tradition that you'd expect from a 70 year old stadium, all dark wood and washed-out photographs of grinning players past. Mark informed me that he was once the proud owner of one of 12 hand-knitted Keynsham Town scarves that were the handiwork of the chairman's wife but sadly he had left this in a pub at some stage. I'd like to think that it proudly adorns their walls to this day.

During the second half my attention was drawn to Keynsham's number 9, Matt Brown. Matt was notable for his impressive scoring record with fellow Keynsham-based side Fry Club FC, with whom he had scored a staggering 30+ goals in the last three seasons. Also notable was the chap's hair. Now there are many men out there who suffer from premature baldness and a common solution to this problem is simply to shave it short all over. This solution was not for our Matt though who had taken full ownership of his genetic handout and allowed what remained of his hair to grow into a style identical to my 55 year old uncle who works in insurance. I was delighted when Mark told me that he had been given the nickname "The Reverend" due to the similarities the haircut shared with a monastic tonsure.

UWE drew the scores level in the 51st minute through Joe Weare who smashed in a rebound off a Keynsham defender but the Rev netted the K's second soon afterwards. The home side won a corner and were able to force 2 or 3 good saves from the defence and keeper including one which looked to be off the line but the ball eventually fell to Brown in a central position just six yards out for a tap-in. Smelling blood, Duggan almost got his brace on 70 minutes when he rattled the UWE bar from distance but it was UWE who would be next to score when out of nowhere Harry Thomas pinged in a shot from 35 yards, leaving keeper Ashley Wintle for dead. Thomas' goal came in the 91st minute so I was getting ready to head home thinking I'd seen a very entertaining draw but a mere 2 minutes later Jordan Anstey pelted a short corner into the net for his first senior goal and there was much rejoicing from myself, Mark and the old chap in the full Toolstation clobber.

I said my goodbyes to Mark and left knowing that I'd probably seen some of the best facilities I was likely to see in this league and a pretty exciting game for a change.