Wednesday 23rd November 2016, Southern League Division One South & West
Plain Ham. No it's not the name of the least exciting Subway order ever made, it is in fact the ground of Bath's Larkhall Athletic.
The day before this match I had been to the Mem and witnessed Rovers lose 5 (five) - 1 to managerless basket-case Charlton Athletic, a tie that did not satisfy my need for football for the week. So off I went into the winter's night in search of some. A possibility that presented itself initially was Willand Rovers vs Exeter City in *ahem* the Edenvale Turf Ltd Devon St Lukes Challenge Cup. This would be a chance to tick off another Western League ground but in the end I couldn't be arsed to drive to Mid Devon and a good thing too because it was called off. In any case, a quick 30 minute jaunt over to Bath was far more appealing on this cold night.
I never realised until I started this blog that Bath was so spoilt for choice in the football stakes. Bath City, Odd Down, Paulton Rovers, Bishop Sutton, Radstock Town, Welton Rovers, Keynsham Town and Larkhall are all based in Bath and North East Somerset and I'm sure there are more I don't know about. What a place. The Larks were founded in 1914 and joined the Western League in 1976 when it was expanded to two divisions. They achieved promotion into the Southern League after winning the Western Premier for the second time in 2013/14. It's been four decades of steady progression for Larkhall, who haven't been relegated since they first joined the Western League.
Travelling to Plain Ham this evening were AFC Totton from Totton & Eling near Southampton. The Stags are back in the Southern S&W since being relegated from the Premier Division in 2013/14. This was new gaffer Louis Langdown's second game in charge of the Hampshire outfit, who had lost their previous outing 3-0 at home to North Leigh. I am a big fan of Totton's club badge which is a picture of a Deer, who whilst walking past a 5-a-side pitch has had a wayward clearance land in his antlers and not yet noticed.
I'm not sure where Larkhall is in relation to Bath proper but what I do know is that I bottled out of driving down the very dark, very narrow country road which my sat nav asked me to go down and instead parked up on one of the city's ludicrously steep hills. By the time I'd negotiated a short-term deal with my car to remain stationary and stumbled down the pitch-black path I'd missed the first 10 minutes but the man on the gate helpfully informed me that it was still goalless.
The first noticeable feature of Plain Ham is the raised side of the pitch where spectators watch from atop a grass bank. It reminds me of pictures I've admired of Lewes' Dripping Pan ground. This hill houses what I'd probably say constitutes the main stand, which is a long corrugated iron hut with two long rows of chairs stretching the majority of the structure. On the other side at ground level there's a smaller hut with no sides which provides a little standing room. The only remaining stand is just beside the far goal and it is probably the silliest stand I've ever seen, accommodating about four people in what must be very personal quarters.
|"Mike move your arm"|
"That's not my arm"
One feature of the ground that I found absolutely adorable were the small blocks of wood scattered around the stands, which one slight lady was using as a makeshift personal terrace. There's also what looks like a rabbit hutch in one corner. I had a peak inside but sadly there was no Official Rabbit of Larkhall Athletic. Maybe it was on holiday.
|"Postcard from Nibbles in Magaluf. Looks like he's met a girl. That'll be another jab."|
Once I'd settled in and taken some snaps, I went searching for Burt of Gone for a Burton who I knew would be in attendance and who I eventually found in the main stand. At this point I was able to ask him what colour Larkhall were playing in, which I hadn't looked into before setting off. Sorry everyone, this probably won't be my greatest match report. The Larks were playing in blue whilst Totton were wearing their yellow away kit with black stripes that faded a third of the way up the shirt, which made them look like circa 2005 Rovers away kits that had been put through the wash one too many times.
As we took another lap round the perimeter I noticed some steps that led out of the ground and down into the darkness below. Burt opined that they might be an access route from some allotments into the ground, which would probably be my idea of retirement paradise. There was in fact a game going on in front of us but there wasn't much to write about taking place. Not that it was timid by any means but it seemed that every decent attack eventually resulted in a cross flying into the side-netting. Standout players were Totton's Neil Williams, a battling midfielder who broke up play well and Larkhall's Jamie Lyons, who was a constant threat on the wing. One drawback of playing here and having the benches embedded into the grass verge like the Teletubbie Dome is the fact that the subs had to perform feats of extreme hill walking in order to go for a warm-up jog.
Despite their best efforts and the fact that Larkhill had won their last game away at Shortwood 5-0, the match ended goalless. I'm sorry that this isn't up to my usual standard of hackneyed guesswork but I wasn't up for getting my gloves off to write notes as the winds were bloody arctic. Totton seemed pretty pleased with the result judging by the cheer that went up from their bench and considering they're hovering around the drop zone at this point an away point under the new regime isn't to be sniffed at.
I said my goodbyes to Burt and marvelled at the medical