Friday, 8 December 2017

#69 Ewood Park, Blackburn Rovers

Blackburn Rovers 2 Bristol Rovers 1 
Saturday 25th of November 2017, League One

Very much against my better judgement, I was heading up to Lancashire for my 5th competitive Bristol Rovers away game of the season. Similar to my trip to Accrington Stanley two years ago I would be staying with and attending the match with my Croston-based pal Jake "Nash" Hilton, a Blackburn Rovers fan. His mum Sam was kind enough to give us a lift to The Brown Cow, a local hostelry a mere 7 minute walk from Ewood Park. Sam was having a very productive morning rustling up balls for her husband Kev's charity Balls To MS. For some time now Kev and Sam have been travelling around the country soliciting balls (quiet in the back) and other signed sporting paraphernalia which will ultimately be auctioned off to raise funds for The MS Society. Kev was spending the day manfully braving the chill at Fleetwood Town, taking in their bore draw with Doncaster Rovers. Meanwhile while we were in the car Sam received a call from none-other than former World Cup winner Ben Kay offering an England rugby ball for the cause. The players apparently were very keen to beat the number of signatures that their Welsh rivals gave when they did the same. As anyone that knows me can attest, I don't give a solitary hoot about the old oval ball but it was still a lovely gesture.

We had a pint in The Brown Cow and watched a bit of Barnsley failing to get back into a game against Leeds on the telly. As with most traditionally placed town center grounds, Ewood is well served by pubs and we had plenty of space the whole time. I suppose a lot of the reason for this is that Blackburn's average attendance has been half of what it was in those heady mid-90s days when Kenny Dalglish and, uh, Tim Sherwood... led the Blue and Whites to Premier League glory. Four seasons later they were relegated after coming 19th out of 20 and winning only seven games. They bounced back in two seasons and spent the next decade happily mid-table, winning the Football League Cup in 2002. In 2010 Rovers were taken over by Indian conglomerate Venky's, who immediately sacked (relatively) popular manager Sam Allardyce and replaced him with the relatively-obscure Steve Kean, allegedly at the behest of legendarily bent agent Jerome Anderson. 

Kean's tenure was apocalyptically bad and featured low points such as Kean signing an improved contract while Rovers were bottom of the league then insisting to a baffled local press that now wasn't the time to discuss contracts and admitting to forfeiting a League Cup game for the sake of league form. Things got so bad for Kean that even former Home Secretary and MP for Blackburn Jack Straw was publicly calling for his head. In contrast to his willingness to keep going on Newsnight and make a tit of himself, this proved to be a rare moment of good judgement for Straw as Kean did indeed preside over the end of Blackburn's 11 year stay in the Premier League on the 7th of May 2012 when they lost to Wigan at Ewood Park. No representative from Venky's was in attendance. Kean moved on to a no-doubt lucrative job coaching the personal team of Brunei's Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah, whereas five seasons and six managers later, Blackburn were relegated to the third tier for the first time since 1970–1971. This is really only a brief overview of some of the actions that have turned fans so strongly against Venky's and lead sections of the press to dub them "corporate vandals" but I'll leave those interested to look into the debacle themselves. 

These are the circumstances that led to the BRFC derby (as I'm calling it) being played for the first time since March 1992 during Bristol Rovers' unlikely spell in the second tier under Gerry Francis (and some other, less good managers). As such a crowd of over 1000 Gasheads decided to ignore our poor form and venture out to this rare and exotic ground. The idiots. As we passed through Alan Shearer Way in the cold Lancashire air, the impressive stadium rose into view in the skyline. It's not difficult to envision the roads crammed with throngs of eager supporters just seven short years ago but as we got close they were still noticeably sparse, as were the stands inside. Points of interest outside the ground include a memorial to former chairman and "greatest fan" Jack Walker, a local steel magnate who provided much of the funding and materials for their Premier League charge and stadium upgrades. There's also a small memorial garden for Rovers fans that have passed on behind the Blackburn End, a club shop, a season ticket holders only bar and a beer tent for the riff-raff.

Inside the stadium is a picture of modernity with identically tall two tier seated stands on three sides. The Ronnie Clayton Blackburn and Bryan Douglas Darwen Ends are identical to one another with the slightly smaller upper sections acting as family areas, shielding whippersnappers from the hearty Northwestern match-day vitriol below. We were in the lower stand of the Ronnie Clayton End which Wikipedia informs me "houses some of the most passionate Rovers supporters [citation needed]". Maybe a few seasons ago this was the case but today our only companions were a trio of grim-faced men and their grim-faced young son, who snidely remarked that he didn't recognise our faces from the previous home games when Nash joined in with the singing. Tough crowd! This brought my companion down a bit and he remarked that it wasn't like this when he was a regular as a child with his mum. I suggested we move up a few rows as the stand was pretty empty and this proved a good move as we found ourselves surrounded by a jollier cross-section of fans. This cheered Nash up immensely as he could now participate without being chastised but the downside of this was we were now right in front of the end of the stand's windblocker and thus in a kind of funnel which fired the frosty afternoon air directly at us. It still wasn't as cold as Accrington though.  

The main stand of Ewood Park is the Jack Walker Stand which stretches along one side of the pitch. It's basically the same as the two ends except the top-tier is the larger tier and there's a row of hospitality boxes separating them. Opposite this is the Riverside Stand, very aptly named as it sits about an arm-span's length away from the River, which was today positively raging due to the heavy rainfall. A bold choice which hopefully Rovers won't live to regret. Built in 1988 this is the oldest part of the ground and the only single-tier stand. In comparison to the other ultra-modern stands it does hold some vintage charm with it's red and blue banks of seats and it's low, pillared roof. I believe every ground should have at least one stand like this, if only to slow the march of the identikit. There are plans to rebuild and extend the Riverside Stand but it depends on attendances increasing and presumably global warming being halted. This blog is already too long so I won't discuss how the ground has been rebuilt over the years but I would recommend this account.

The match itself turned out to be a pleasing affair for both parties. I'd expected an absolute tonking and came away feeling robbed of a point. It was a much better away performance than I'd been used to this season from my Rovers and we benefited from having Billy Bodin back from injury as well as an inspired decision from Darrell Clarke to play defender Joe Partington in the middle of a 4-1-3-2 formation. It was in fact Bristol Rovers that rattled the net first, a none-to-pretty but dogged midfield battle was eventually won through a succession of sideways passes until the ball was at the feet of Bodin who turned on the style to circumnavigate his marker and cross to Leadbitter on the wing. Ollie Clarke headed the ball down, it took a deflection off of a Blackburn defender and Clarke pounced forward to smash it home. The players ran half the length of the pitch in celebration before it was called for offside. Annoying. The only player in an offside position was Ellis Harrison who wasn't anywhere near the ball. Mustn't get too hung up on it but the referee should be doing better in League One. Mind you Blackburn felt they were entitled to a penalty after a rather vigorous tackle from Gas keeper Adam Smith so maybe things evened out.

Still in the first half, Bristol Rovers were again denied as Lee Brown ran onto a lofted forward pass from Chris Lines. He worked this into the box and crossed for Billy Bodin to head the ball into the crossbar. Argh! Right out of the blocks in the second half Blackburn looked sure to score when Bradley Dack ran into a point-blank one-on-one situation with Smith after a cross from inside the box but got the angle all wrong and it rolled harmlessly out for a goal kick. Finally after 58 minutes the scoring opened as Ellis Harrison was played in and made his way up to the edge of the opposition box. After a brief stand off with a defender he tiptoed a few steps to the right of his marker and curled in a low shot that bounced past the diving fingertips of David Raya. The Welshman's 7th in all competitions this season. The end of the stadium opposite us erupted but I could only turn with a smug smile to Nash by way of subtle celebration. We'd deserved the lead for once.

Never ones to make things simple for ourselves, Bristol Rovers gave away a penalty just three minutes later as Tom Lockyer barged into the back of Dominic Samuel in the box. Captain Charlie Mulgrew coolly plowed this into the top corner and the score was leveled. Minutes later it was Tom Broadbent's turn to clatter an opposition player as Danny Graham was taken down on the wing about 25 yards out. The former Sunderland misfit put in a lovely free kick that floated kindly for it's many suitors but in the end it was headed just wide. After coming down expecting a big loss, I was now gripping my seat praying to any deities that might be listening for us to hang on for the important point towards keeping our heads above water in what might easily turn into a relegation scrap before much longer. Sadly though I must not have acquired enough good boy points that week as it took only five minutes for Blackburn to take the lead. Blackburn hoofed the ball from midfield, to box and back out to wing where Derrick Williams had enough time to set up the perfect cross for Samuel's mighty bonce to nod past the flailing Smith. In the immortal words of Ned Flanders: Aw, hell, diddly-ding-dong crap! Darrell stuck on Tom Nichols and Rory Gaffney to chase the game but the only other attempt of note was a bullet shot from the D by Liam Sercombe which was ably saved by Raya. 

Much like the shafted runner-up of The Weakest Link, we were once again leaving with nothing despite answering a lot of difficult questions from our opponents. The upside of feeling a bit robbed was the feeling that, for once, we'd put in a good away shift and this was something to build on against Rotherham at home next week. Meanwhile I had a pub crawl in Croston to look forward to. Thanks again to Nash, Sam and Kev for putting up with me and be sure to check out Balls to MS.

God bless the north.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

#68 Thornhill Park, Slimbridge AFC

Slimbridge AFC 1 Yate Town 5 
Wednesday 15th of November 2017, Southern League Division One West

Knowing I would soon be consumed by the ever-demanding festive social calendar, I was Gloucestershire-bound on this chilly Wednesday night for a Southern League clash between the Swans of Slimbridge and the Bluebells of Yate. With just under a third of the season gone, Slimbridge sit in 11th place and Yate in 16th.

As I pulled into the neighbouring business park that the club use as a car park, the familiar smell of organic bovine plant nutrients wafted daintily on the evening breeze. As I approached the entrance I noticed a small steaming lump just by the 'Welcome to Slimbridge AFC' sign. Surely, I thought, there's no way the club's custodians would solicit a local cow equivalent of Paul the Octopus to come and "bless" the ground before kick-off. I was relieved to discover as I drew close that it was actually someone's discarded fag. 

Slimbridge were formed in 1902 and play in the nearby village of Cambridge, after former player and president Evi Thornhill bequeathed land to the club in his will. In 2001-02 Slimbridge made the step up to the Gloucestershire County League and achieved double promotions to the Hellenic Premier. After four successful years in the top division, the last of which they finished as champions, the club suddenly announced they would be resigning from their place in the Southern League before a ball was even kicked, citing commitment issues. The first team took the place of their reserves in the slightly obscure Gloucestershire Northern Senior League (level 12) and rapidly made their way back up to where they had been in just eight seasons.

Yate are the more established Southern League side, this being their 26th season in the competition and their 9th consecutive in Division One after being relegated from the Premier in 2008/09. In 2012/13 they reached the first round of the FA Cup where the lost 3-0 away to Cheltenham Town.

Thornhill Park is quite a sparse little ground which wouldn't look out of place in the Western League, possibly a result of their aforementioned setback. There's a long covered seated stand across one side with four rows of seats and a small section of covered standing behind the goal nearest the clubhouse. That's it. There is, as appears to be a recurring theme in the Southern League, a large porch that extends out from the clubhouse which was quite popular. It doesn't have anything on the Frome Town überporsch though. I also particularly enjoyed Slimbridge's effort in ensuring their ground is enclosed, as is Southern League standard:

"They're football fans, you dolt! They don't plot, they don't scheme, AND THEY ARE NOT ORGANIZED!"
With the Bluebells and the Swans in resplendent yellow and blue shirts respectively (just to be perfectly confusing) the game kicked off. Both teams have opportunities in a very open first period. Yate force a low gather from the home keeper early doors and a Slimbridge defender had to take responsibility of punting away a powerful shot from close range as he blocked his keeper's view. A Slimbridge forward made a sumptuous run that beat many defenders but suffered a hamstring pull just as he got clear and was subbed off.

Yate hammered home the opener on 22 minutes with Ben Brooks receiving the ball in the center of the pitch and proceeding to unleash a rocket into the top right which the Slimbridge goalie couldn't hope to meet, despite his prompt dive. Slimbridge do get a deserved equaliser in a bit of a turd way that wasn't quite representative of their decent efforts in the first half. A Yate defender fumbled the slippery ball between his feet near the goal, causing it to dart off into the path of a delighted Marley Thomas, who found himself in a 1-on-1 with the keeper which he didn't waste.

I retired to the clubhouse with a tea at half-time, which had a very old folks home vibe to it, even more so than usual for a non-league club. Just feast your eyes on that faux leather.

Oh baby.
Slimbridge immediately burst forward as the second half whistle is blown and notch a goal which was disallowed for offside. Hard to comment on whether that was a fair decision or not as I had moved behind the goal but I can confirm the players were furious. They followed this up with a daisy cutter which narrowly missed past the post.

The Swans continue to push hard for the lead but Yate break without warning and Mayson Evans got a shot away. Slimbridge breaths were held as it hit the inside of the post with a ting but it ricocheted kindly for the away team and sunk into the inner side netting.

It was at this point that I noticed that Slimbridge were a vastly shorter side compared to Yate and that this was causing problems for them. A notable example was a lofted cross from the left back up to his striker, which the latter failed to bring under his control prompting the following exchange:

Striker: "Argh! Whip it so I can get hold of it!" 
Left back: "Mate, I'm 100 yards away!"

Hoofing the ball wasn't working for Slimbridge but keeping it on the ground wasn't much better as Yate seemed physically stronger than their opponents to boot.

The home side's woes were compounded by another, more dubious flag offside and another Yate goal, an initial strike clattering off the crossbar and back out into play was easily tapped in by a well-placed Brooks. From this point on it really isn't Slimbridge's night. Their best opportunity of the second half was denied by Yate's keeper as he masterfully pushed the powerful 1-on-1 strike behind his goal. The resulting corner yeilds a shot on target from midfield but it's blocked by a Yate body in the box. Other than this moment they spend much of the second half on the defensive, looking particularly vulnerable when Yate break.  

Despite the protestations from the Yate goalkeeper for his players to hold their areas and see the game out, Yate charge forward and add another goal. Brooks gets his hat-trick through an easy-as-you-like cross from wing to box.

At the time I didn't feel like Slimbridge quite deserved this pummeling but they certainly didn't deserve to win either and a lot of their fans sounded pretty fatalistic about the whole affair since as early as the second Yate goal. Just as I'm mulling this over, Yate make it 5-1, with Steve Davies banging one in from a very sharp angle indeed. They're taking the piss now. This came minutes after Swans are almost taken apart by a mistimed pass-back between their midfield which allowed Yate to break.

Bad times indeed for the Stroud side. Having just conceded 5 against Evesham the Saturday prior they went on to ship 8 (eight) goals against Wimborne Town the weekend following this loss. Lets hope things pick up for them soon.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

#67 Aspray Arena, Sporting Khalsa

Sporting Khalsa 3 Coventry United 0 
Saturday 4th of November 2017

After the previous day's disappointing capitulation, Daz and I retired for some consolation pints in *shudders* the UK's only remaining Hooters bar, due to the fact that it was the closest bar to the train station. Despite this we still missed the last train to Beeston where Daz had parked and had to grab the tram. Tragically enough this was probably my favourite part of the evening as I love a tram. It was made all the more special by a chat with some local eccentrics who looked like they had just come back from a LARP/magic convention and kept referring to the station as "Beeston Intergalactic" for some unknown reason. Add to the mix that no one emerged to charge us for the journey and you can write that up as a fairly successful escape from Nottingham, allowing us to turn our attention to the second game of the weekend.

Sporting Khalsa have the honor of being, to my knowledge, the first British Asian football club (their formation in 1991 slightly edging out those of 1993's London APSA and 1996's Sporting Bengal United). The Sikh side began life in the Walsall & District Sunday Leagues, moving to the West Midlands (Regional) League for one season in 1996, dropping out, then rejoining in 2004 after a reorganisation. This proved a shrewd decision as the club gained promotion from Division Two to Division One in their first season and were able to purchase the Abbey Park Stadium after it was vacated by struggling Bloxwich Town. Within five years the ambitious club had outgrown Abbey Park and took up residence at Willenhall Town's Noose Lane when, once again, the previous owner's financial woes presented the opportunity.

The Lockmen and Khalsa were landlord and tenant for 4 years as the ground was redeveloped into the Aspray Arena before Willenhall moved on to Long Lane Park in Essington after a series of relegations. Pushing on again Khalsa were promoted into the Midland League Premier Division as champions. The following season in what was probably their finest hour to date, the club made it to the 4th Qualifying Round of the FA Cup where a crowd of 2,252 watched them take on FC United of Manchester at the Aspray. With only mild handbags when some Wolves' baby squad decided to crash the party for two minutes, throw bins at some pensioners then leg it down the street as soon as the cops showed up. The season after they made it to the Quarter Finals of the FA Vase and this season will be looking to take things forward another level still by gaining promotion to the Northern Premier League. They started today's game in 3rd place with 12 wins in 14 unbeaten games.

Their opponents for the afternoon were 5th place Coventry United. United were formed only four years ago in protest, quite understandably in my view, by fans of Coventry City who decided that being asked to travel to Sixfields in Northampton for home games was a bridge too far and thought they'd have more luck starting from scratch than dealing with SISU and Arena Coventry Limited. Three promotions in three seasons sees them in the Midlands Premier and they have encroached on their shunned big brother already by taking over Coventry City Women and making their home in Butts Park Arena, much touted as the future home of the Football League club. The way things are going at the moment it's not inconceivable to envision the two meeting in Conference South within a decade. Obviously they don't have much in the way of history yet but they did once beat Polesworth 28 (twenty-eight) - 0.

Joining us on this chilly Walsall afternoon were our female companions (I know, surprising isn't it?) Becky and Sophie as well as our old uni pal Mikey Southan, a Wolves fan (bin throwing pedigree unknown) who is currently trying to get a play about groundhopping off the ground along with other less ambitious projects. We entered the ground and Mikey and the girls took seats in the main stand while Daz and I walked the perimeter taking pictures of floodlights, causing much pointing and laughter from our companions. In our defense the Aspray Arena is quite an attractive ground, despite clearly being a work-in-progress. The main stand is a massive metal barn with six pillars in front of rows of flamboyant custard yellow and azure seats. In lieu of team benches there are two sections of cordoned off seats in the actual stand for the substitutes to sit among the supporters. This wasn't used by feisty Khalsa manager Ian Rowe, who couldn't even be contained by his own technical area as he ventured back and forth between screaming at his bench and wading onto the pitch, even when his team were 2-0 up. In fairness it's not like anyone was going to be brave enough to tell him to stop. Up the top of the stand there is a large empty, flat section which a few people were using to stand. The view was pretty bad because of the roof though and I'm only 5'11 so I can't recommend it, unless Khalsa have an active short person ultras firm I don't know about.

Opposite this is a covered six step terrace used sparsely on this occasion by the away fans. It's set back quite far from the pitch and had a lot of timber and lose gravel in front of it, suggesting renovations are afoot. The Khalsa owners are on record as saying they ultimately want to turn the facility into a conference standard stadium and although they're quite far at the moment, they are blessed with space to build into that a lot of league clubs would snatch your left arm off for. Behind the goal near the entrance there are a number of rooms with signs like "Stadium Cafe" and "Hospitality Suite" above them, which sound fancy but are in reality small conservatories full of people enjoying tea and samosas. The facilities are basic but well done and the club are making the most of what they have. The only notable exception are the toilets which seem to be a work in progress as most cubicles have their doors and seats detached, leaving what Daz would describe as a "build your own" approach to toileting. The goal opposite this has nothing but a grass bank and as always some mad solitary fool who decided that was the best place to watch from on this chilly Black Country weekend. In terms of making the most of the facilities, Khalsa have wasted no space at the front of the ground, with five-a-side pitches, a martial arts gym and the pièce de résistance: the 4-4-2 bar and Indian restaurant all crammed in near the turnstiles. 

Indeed fair readers I can deny it no longer, a slap-up curry meal was a huge draw when it came to earmarking this ground and I'm pretty sure it's the only reason Becky deigned to make an appearance at all. Already I was wondering if Khalsa would best such culinary delights as the Aggborough pies or the banging full-Irish cooked for us by Lenny the kindly B&B owner back in Dundalk but I would have to wait until after the game to find out. Khalsa were wearing yellow shirts and blue shorts with similar luminosity to the seats while Cov rocked a Christmassy red top, green short combo. The whole effect was quite visually distressing, leading Mikey to remark that it looked like the nucleus of one of Neil Buchanan's Big Art Attacks. 

Shocking after only 4 minutes, Khalsa were gifted the opening goal when a deflected ball landed kindly for Kyle Brady who slotted in the one-on-one, sending the keeper the wrong way. This completely trashed my 71st minute first goal scored raffle ticket. Every United player around Brady was shouting for offside which makes me wonder if it was an offside trap gone wrong which credit where it's due is a brave thing to attempt at this level. United faffed around with it too much in their own half at one point during the first half, were dispossessed and were lucky not to be two down as Craig Bannister flashed a low ball across the face of goal which would've been a tap-in if anyone had got there in time. Mitch Piggon came closest to netting for the visitors in the first half as he a cross in the box but seemed to wrong-foot himself under pressure from a Khalsa defender and ended up missing his target. He made the effort to chase the ball and kept it in but was in such a poor position by then he could only smash it into the side netting. Piggon was in for a frustrating afternoon and managed to drive a great header just wide of the far post just before the end of the half. Khalsa played it defensive for the rest of the first half, so attention was turned to the linesman nearest us who ran with his arms stretched out behind him and his fists clenched like a big bald toddler. 

Mr. Frosty Tips
It was a very open second half with too many chances for both teams to list here but in the end it was Khalsa who would add two more goals before the end. Liam Holt skipped from a central position just outside the area into the top left of the pitch and crossed it past the United defenders around the goal for Bannister to kind of stamp it into the net from a tight angle. The small gaggle of Coventry old boys continued to shout encouragement right until the death, spurring Piggon to make yet another tantalising near-miss when he received a nice through-ball, sidestepped his defender and shot across the floor from an angle, going just wide at the far post because of a deflection. What a day for that lad who could've made it evens on his own had it been any other day. Still, near-misses don't win football games and the home team hadn't finished yet. In the 89th minute Holt received the ball dead centre about 25 yards out and decided he may as well have a crack. This looked to take everyone by surprise and the United goalkeeper could only watch as the shot slinked past him to guarantee victory for his opponents. 

Mission accomplished for the boys in yellow, it was time to dive into the bar and smash a curry. I went with a lamb jalfrezi which was bloody delightful. We spent a lovely evening chatting, drinking, watching West Ham get destroyed by Liverpool on telly and being confused by the 90s rave music that was periodically blasted out over the speakers. It felt good to have finally ticked this one off after having it on the list so far and to have caught up with Mikey after such a long time.