Tuesday, 25 July 2017

#53 Wordsworth Drive, Taunton Town

Taunton Town 2 Bristol Rovers 2

Tuesday 18th July 2017, Pre-season Friendly

We were now about half way through pre-season. I hadn't done any new grounds for a while because I was busy on the 15th when Rovers took on Gloucester City at Slimbridge and didn't fancy paying the £12 Weston-Super-Mare were asking for on the 11th. The two games I had seen since Brimscombe were an 11-0 trouncing of Bristol Manor Farm at home against a Bristol City XI (boo) and the first half of a 2-1 victory for Avonmouth against St. George Easton in Gordano in their annual pre-season tourney the Evelyn Rowley Cup (yay).

As us full-blooded, muscular gentlemen often do, my colleague Daz Knapton and I had gotten carried away and laid down a challenge for this season to see who could get the most new grounds. With his visit to South Normanton Athletic on the Monday I was now lagging behind and would need to find a ground, any ground, to draw even for the sake of male pride. Expect this to become a theme this season. While the more adventurous Gasheads were all out in Albufeira watching the first team take on Hull at Estadio da Nora (home of Portuguese third division team F.C. Ferreiras), I opted to save my pennies and make the quick trip to Taunton to watch a selection of kids battle it out against the Somerset side.

Taunton Town play in the Southern League Division One South & West. They were finally allowed up from the Western League Premier in 2002 after alternating between finishing as champions and runners-up for 7 (seven) seasons. They had a decent FA Cup run last season, getting to the first round proper of the competition for the second time in their history and losing in a replay to Barrow, who famously and predictably knocked Rovers out of the competition at the Mem. Considering the bulk of our forces would be battling it out on the continent, I thought I'd play it safe and predict a 2-2 draw for this outing.

Jack and I left Bristol at about 18:10, even though the drive would be less than an hour because I knew our history of making it to games on time. Arriving in plenty of time for once was a surreal experience which left us plenty of time to grab a pint and poke around the stadium. Notably in attendance early doors were a group of about 10 Taunton supporters equipped with a drum standing behind one of the goals signing and banging away during the warm-up. Points for effort but their chants about Bristol City didn't really endear me to them. I guess it should be expected that in this part of the country most people are part-time City fans. Still if 417 folks (about equal with their normal league attendance) can be drawn out to watch a pre-season friendly against a mere Rovers youth side then we can only take that as a compliment.

Wordsworth Drive (or The Viridor Stadium for sponsorship purposes) is a very varied ground with a lot of different stands and sections so hang on tight for a lot of those wonderful paragraphs where I describe a shed in great detail. It's hard to say which of the stands one would classify as the main stand but the largest one is on the side of the pitch opposite the clubhouse and runs the full length of the pitch with a couple of rows of claret and blue seats under cover. One end of this stand is book-ended by a massive windowless shed of unknown utility painted snot green, a wonderful addition indeed. The end where the Taultras were gathered is a three-stepped terrace with a cantilever roof that shelters the middle portion and the end opposite looked to be identical, although I didn't go over there at any point so I can't be certain. 

The side that we stuck to (as it was closest to the bar) was mostly flat hard standing but did have a small and very ancient-looking seated stand with a moss-covered corrugated iron roof and three rows of seats with five large metal pillars running through the middle row. Finally there's another small terrace, this one uncovered, to the side of this small seated stand. Add to this a spacious clubhouse with a decent range of ciders and a nice sense of seclusion despite being on a main road and Wordsworth Drive is quite a decent ground. It's maybe a little more rustic than say Cossham Street or the Ray Mac but it was a nice place to be on this warm evening as dusk slowly drew in.

It was difficult to predict who would actually be playing for Rovers in the match. It wasn't billed as an academy match but literally every player I could name was out in Portugal, including youth teamers Cameron Hargreaves, Luke Russe and the newly-signed Rollin Menayese as well as two trialists. Luckily we had the likes of Lewis Leigh-Gilchrist who had scored the opener against Mangotsfield earlier in pre-season and our Jordanian wonder-kid Ghassan Abu Hassan on hand to give these filthy Somerset types a run for their money. It was also a pleasure to see long-serving recently retired Rovers goalkeeper Steve Mildenhall being his signature encouraging self in his new role as coach for the U23 team.

Throughout the 90 minutes the teams were markedly well matched with Rovers' speed and trickiness snuffed out by Taunton's physicality and teamwork. It was the home side that had the first real chance when Matt Wright headed the ball powerfully into the post from a cross, admirably taking the bellowed advice of Peacocks gaffer Leigh Robinson for him to to "USE YA NODDLE!" to heart. This was a let-off for Rovers but in truth we have a very good 3rd-choice keeper indeed in Kieran Hodges, who made several vital saves during the first half including some real close-range face rearrangers.

4 minutes before the break la petite Gas opened proceedings through a 25-yard Ben Morgan screamer from a central position which dipped beautifully into goal. Taunton would have to wait until the 71st minute for their first taste of the net as Shane White floated a lovely free-kick from midfield into the box for Aaron Pugh to convert for the equaliser. The jubilation around the ground was only slightly tainted by the tannoy blasting Glad All Over in super low-fidelity tinny-o-phonic sound.

A Rovers youngster who's name I never discovered but was rocking some stunning late-90s frosted tips nearly put us ahead on the break but seemed to overthink his one-on-one with the keeper and left the shot until he'd run himself into an impossible scoring angle. Rovers did get their second goal soon after through trialist Dylan McGlade, who cut in from the right on the 89th minute and shot into the bottom corner.

You'd think that would be the end of it but Taunton had other ideas. Another trialist named Joe Charles went on a snaky run down the right wing and put a low cross into the box for substitute Ross Staley to smash home for the injury time equaliser. A bit of an easy goal to concede at the death from the Rovers youngsters who probably thought they were home and dry but nicely set-up all the same and a fair scoreline at the final whistle.

This trip briefly made me wish that more football was played in the summer months. I always enjoy pre-season for the knock-down prices and wacky team match-ups but the long evenings where I can attend the game in a t-shirt are an added bonus. I had to quickly rescind this opinion after I was strongly reprimanded by Jack for my fleeting un-British advocation of a winter break and the fact that my legs had been bitten to death by flying ants by the end of the match. During the trip home I was treated to a range of "feel good Latin and Zulu bangers" from Jack's phone played at full-volume. Always a pleasure to share a journey with Jack.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

#52 The Meadow, Brimscombe & Thrupp

Brimscombe & Thrupp 3 Chalford AFC 1

Saturday 1st July 2017, Pre-season Friendly

Pre-season proper wasn't kicking off for another week but, itching to take advantage of the glorious sunshine, I decided to get myself to one of the smattering of games that was taking place in the first week of July. My choices consisted of Brimscombe or Nailsea United. Nailsea was the obvious choice because it was half the distance but the fixtures list stated that the match would be taking place at Nailsea School, not the setting I had in mind for an impromptu countryside adventure, so Brimscombe it would have to be. Brimscombe & Thrupp are a Hellenic Premier outfit based near Stroud, Gloucestershire. They've been on a bit of a roll in recent years, winning the Gloucestershire County League in 2010-11 before spending two seasons in the Hellenic Division One West, going up as champions in their second season. Meanwhile Chalford were last season's winners of the Gloucestershire Northern Senior League Division Two (whatever that is) so another local team on the up.

Joining me this afternoon were smashing Gas lads Jack, Chris and Matt which meant I'd have to stop off in Redland and Yate on the way to darkest Gloucestershire. Adding these detours plus a stop-off at Tesco and a brief pause to prevent Jack from vomiting due to my erratic driving meant that we missed the majority of the first half, an unfortunate Partizan Bristle first. However, knowing that we were never going to make it in time did put me in the correct frame of mind to enjoy the lovely drive through this strange part of the world full of oddly named towns such as Petty France and Minchinhampton; a place so posh it's main road dissects a golf course. Less enjoyable were the hilly roads leading out of Nailsworth (Forest Green Rovers country), which my little car had serious trouble manoeuvring whilst full of stocky lads and probably didn't help poor Jack's stomach.

We arrived at The Meadow just as the teams were returning to the centre circle, Brimscombe having just scored in the 39th minute to cancel out an early goal from Chalford on 4 minutes to draw the sides level. Despite the fixture's early date, the atmosphere was thick with pre-season spirit. The barbecue was out and the several dozen ever-presents had re-emerged blinking-eyed and were busy chatting and reacquainting themselves with their preferred spots on the sidelines. While we acquired some frosty beverages in the clubhouse, Brimscombe pulled ahead with a goal in the 44th minute.

The Meadow has been Brimscombe's home for over 100 years, most of that time being before the club merged with Thrupp in 1970. It's one of those multi-tiered grounds, like Larkhall Athletic's Plain Ham, that uses grass hillocks to afford it's visitors a raised view of the pitch. One side and one end are on the elevated part of the hill, whilst the opposite side and end are at ground level. The only stand in the ground is on the elevated side and is a long jobbie with half given over to fold-down seating and the other half metal terracing. This side also contains the clubhouse and a large raised concrete area which I have dubbed the patio stand.

Three sides of the ground have hard standing but the end closest to the clubhouse doesn't. During the match the hill at the end opposite the clubhouse had a smattering of people watching from it, like a smaller-scale version of Springfield Park's famous Grassy Bank. Overall I was a big fan of The Meadow. I'm a sucker for multi-levelled grounds as they give a good view of the pitch whilst retaining standing space and are naturally pleasing to my eye, the big nature-loving beatnik that I am. There pitch did have a bit of a dip in it due to the grass verge but it was only on the very edge so hopefully doesn't cause too much trouble.

Whilst doing a lap round the ground and taking my pictures, I witnessed the only goal of the four that occurred while I was in the ground. A deep cross from a Brimscombe player into the box saw the keeper charge off his line but fail to connect with any of his frantic swats at the ball. Another white player touched the ball into control, took it to the edge of the box and put in a second cross whilst the keeper ponderously made his way back to goal, making a simple header from Sam Blackie all that was needed to notch Brimscombe's third of the afternoon.

Throughout the second half Brimscombe play well and do a fine job of passing the ball nicely along the ground, always an unexpected treat in non-league. Chalford for their part look tired and I couldn't really blame them in this heat but whenever they really needed to cut out an important pass between opposition players, they'd struggle to rise to the occasion. One moment in particular towards the end stood out where Chalford had possession but when the player met with his opponent, rather than try to take the ball around him, simply turned and charged into him with his back, falling over and losing the ball in the process.

We're nearly treated to a 5th goal on a couple of occasions, one lob struck from afar seemed to be dropping dangerously but hit the bar and another good effort was stopped manfully in the top corner by the Chalford keeper, who clattered himself on the post in the process and was down for a few minutes as a result. Ultimately another goal wasn't forthcoming and we'd have to be happy with a tame 45 minutes of football but that's pre-season and poor planning for you. The Meadow is a lovely ground and was an absolute treat to be in on such a beautiful summer's day with friends, hopefully the first of many this pre-season.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Abandoned: Brandon Stadium, Coventry Bees

Sunday 28th May 2017

The wife and I were down in Coventry for the bank holiday weekend visiting her dad in hospital. I say we but in actuality I was given the task of dropping off and fetching so we wouldn't have to pay for hospital parking. Having a good three hours to kill, I decided to see if I could indulge my strange curiosity for abandoned stadiums by checking out Coventry Stadium (or Brandon Stadium), home of Speedway team Coventry Bees. I don't know much about Speedway but from what I can gather it's a type of motorcycle racing held on a dirt track with bikes that have no breaks or suspension, with an emphasis on a rider's ability to drift or 'broadside' around corners. Coventry Bees raced in the Elite League, which was the top division of the sport until the league was restructured last year. The Bees face an uncertain future after 88 years of existence as their licence was frozen in February due to them being unable to guarantee the fulfilment of their fixtures at Brandon Stadium or the use of Leicester Lions' Beaumont Park stadium for the duration of the season.

Speedway is something I've heard some older Rovers fans discuss from time to time as Bristol Bulldogs spent a season racing at Eastville Stadium in 1977. In true bloody-minded Bristolian spirit the speedway track was placed on top of the already-existing greyhound circuit and then dug up again every meeting for the entire season. The sport seems to have been a staple in the 70s and 80s for people looking for a summer sports fix after the football season ended. Bristol Bulldogs are no more and the fate of Coventry Bees does lead me to worry for the health of the sport somewhat. Brandon Stadium isn't in the best of states as you can see from these pictures but I can imagine it being an absolutely cracking place to be during a busy meeting, with it's massive curved terraces and grandiose main stand. Sadly this looks to be another great sporting venue that will soon be lost to the ages.