Tuesday, 24 January 2017

#42 Bescot Stadium, Walsall

Walsall 3 Bristol Rovers 1
Saturday 21st January 2017, League One

Discounting the rained-off game against Swindon Town back in August, today was to be my first league away trip with Rovers this season. I'd had my eye on this one since the fixtures were released as it's conveniently located close to my old stomping ground of Stoke-on-Trent, so it could be ticked off on the way to a meetup with some uni mates. 

Working to stabilise after two successive promotions, Rovers were doing better than many expected and were sitting a few positions shy of the playoff spots before the match. Our away form was shocking however having lost the last five on the bounce and receiving a pair of thumpings from South London rivals Millwall and Charlton. Despite finishing third the season prior to this one, Walsall were distinctly mid-table but did have the noteworthy scalp of league leaders Sheffield United who they had seen off 4-1 at the Bescot Stadium the week before today's encounter. Somewhat grim knowledge for us going into the match.

The day started symbolically enough at IKEA Eastville, former site of Rovers' spiritual home Eastville Stadium, where I met up with Jack, Max, Harley and Sam for the drive up to Walsall. The time passed quickly as we drank, played radio quizzes and took the piss out of Sam's inexplicable decision to come dressed as Woody from Toy Story.

When we rocked up to the stadium things were already pretty busy and the club were operating and one-in-one-out policy at the away supporters bar to cope with the 1,991 strong Gas contingent. With this in mind we decided to nip into a nearby hotel in search of liquid refreshment. Unfortunately about 100 other people had the same idea so we were waiting for ages. We did however run into Terry and Luke who were nice enough to share some of their Buckfast with me, the beginning of what would be a slippery slope for this reporter.

At around this time the day's line-up was announced on Twitter, featuring the surprise return of earnest Bedfordshire gnome Stuart Sinclair in a central midfield trio with Chris Lines and Ollie Clarke with winger Billy Bodin playing behind Matty Taylor and Rory Gaffney. Notable by their absence were in form striker Ellis Harrison and winger Cristian Montano, who's inclusion you would think would allow Bodin to play in his more natural winger position. However neither one of this duo were even named as substitutes. Possibly there were training injuries we didn't know about but on the other hand we've grown used to the odd head-scratcher line up from Darrell Clarke. The prospect of a drubbing loomed ever closer.

I've often peered at the Bescot Stadium as I've passed over the M6 through Walsall as you can see into it's large main stand clearly from the road. No disrespect to Walsall intended but it's always seemed like a huge ground for a club that usually only pull in crowds around the high 4000s. While it's true that a lot of the ground was empty today, it's still quite a tidy stadium for the level. The obvious main focal point is the aforementioned two-tier main stand (or the Tile Choice Stand as it is somewhat nauseatingly known). The other three sides of the stadium are much smaller and more befitting of a club with Walsall's crowds. I like the fact that all the sides are boxed in with no gaps between them which allows crowd noise to travel better and kept the wind away on this cold afternoon. Despite this lack of gaps the stands still feel quite separate from each other so the stadium doesn't feel like a drab bowl. Of all the new build stadiums I've been to in the league, this has so far been my favourite. 

The game kicked off and the sides fought evenly for almost the entirety of the first half, with perhaps Rovers having an edge on attacking chances. At one point a pass from Stuart Sinclair found Billy Bodin in enough space to dazzle his marker with step-overs and shot for the bottom corner, his hopes of notching first blood dashed by a fine diving save by Saddlers keeper Neil Etheridge, seen here taking a selfie in front the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang, North Korea whilst on international duty with the Philippines. The cheeky Juche snapper would continue to perform well, saving an accurate, if rather tame shot on goal from a Chris Lines free kick from the edge of the box.

Things were looking up for the Gas as it's not often this season we've made it through 45 minutes without conceding a goal, especially away from the Mem. However a defending masterclass from James Clarke in which he flailed forward to clear a Walsall free-kick which floated into the box, only to somehow fail to boot it away and instead flick it onto his trailing heel. This caused the ball to sail into the air right above the penalty spot to be met with a perhaps understandably bemused Lines who panic-headed it into the path of Eoghan O'Connell who smashed it home. Monkey with hands over eyes emoji.

Things went from bad to worse in the second half when Rovers captain Tom Lockyer lunged forward but failed to make any meaningful contact with a ball that had been lamped forwards from inside the Walsall half, allowing the ball to bobble into the path of Simeon Jackson who now faced only an already committed Joe Lumley. This wasn't even an attacking move for God's sake. The doubtlessly overjoyed Jackson popped in an easy chip and made it 2-0 to Walsall.

A mere five minutes later another aerial ball was chested down at the edge of the box by Byron Moore, or I should say started to be chested down, before it touched the ground Moore was, there's no other word for it, mugged the fuck off by Joe Edwards who swiped the ball in the air and went around Moore who was by this point on the floor. Lumley rushed out (he had little other choice) and Edwards slotted past him. Three pieces of utterly miserable defending.

Matty Taylor gave us something to cheer about in the 82nd minute, heading Lee Brown's cross over the head of Etheridge who had come too far forward. Another away loss sees Rovers 10th in League One, a position I'm perfectly happy with but displays like this make me less inclined to follow them away. Unfortunately for me I've already made plans to attend Port Vale away in four weeks but a bit of suffering is good for the soul, or something.

It was all a bit too much for Luke

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

#41 Oakfield Stadium, Melksham Town

Melksham Town 3 Bristol Manor Farm 5
Saturday 14th January 2017, FA Vase Fourth Round

As the second weekend of the new year rolled into view and the turkey-based malaise of the festive season subsided, I decided it was well past time to come out of hibernation and hit the road once again.

I spent the festive season being quite spoiled by Rovers who produced 4-1 and 2-0 wins over Coventry City and AFC Wimbledon on Boxing Day and New Year's Eve respectively. This was capped off by the 5-0 vanquishing of Northampton Town last weekend. As such I have had no real desire to explore beyond the warm bosom of the Memorial Stadium.

However with bleak midwinter comes exciting cup ties and local boys Bristol Manor Farm were at it again, hoping to improve on last season's Vase run which saw them knocked out at the quarter finals. Following Farm away in this competition last season wasn't very appealing as it meant going to such exotic lands as Ryhope and Morpeth which is frankly not something I'm willing to do for ninth tier football. The portway outfit had struck it lucky then, with this away replay against the relatively local Melksham Town.

Just to sweeten the deal for all involved, this would be the first competitive game ever at Melksham's new ground Oakfield Stadium, weather having dashed their hopes to kick things off there sooner. In moving across town Melksham end a 90 year stay at the The Conigre which I sadly never got to visit. The hope is that Melksham will be able to push on with this new modern facility having being denied promotion in 2014/15 due to ground grading. The Yellows reached the third round of the Vase last season and their best ever run in the tournament was 2014/15 when they reached the fourth round.

This fixture had all the hallmarks of an absolute classic; Farm and Melksham sit in first and second place in the Western Premier (Farm were 14 points ahead but Melksham had a trio of games in hand), it's a replay, it's fairly local and a decent crowd should be guaranteed for the stadium's opening. With my good pal Jack along for the trip I was looking forward to resuming my assault on the Western League.

The day began innocently enough at Bristol Temple Meads where we hopped on a train heading east, stopping momentarily in Trowbridge to change for Melksham. The temptation go on the hunt for legendary Rovers centenarian Kitty Thorne was strong but we were able to stick to the task at hand. Upon arriving in Melksham I punched the postcode for the new ground that Manor Farm had tweeted (and Melksham Town had re-tweeted) hours before into my phone sat nav. After a long time walking and chatting absentmindedly about Neanderthals, it became clear that we weren’t going the right way.

Eventually we did end up at a football ground, specifically that of a Sunday league club called Forest AFC. I was infinitely confused by this development because I would have thought that if the two clubs had mistakenly given out the wrong postcode on Twitter, it would've been a simple case of Manor Farm not updating their address book and we'd have been on our way to The Conigre instead of some random playing field nowhere near either the old or new ground. Moving house is always a stress. By this point we were a good 50 minutes from where we needed to be so a taxi was the only option if we wanted to catch the first half. The taxi driver said that the club was expecting a couple of thousand to the first match at Oakfield which seemed wildly over the top but sure enough when we arrived there was a queue up round the block to gain entry. The actual attendance was 1,215 which is a fine turnout indeed for a fourth round FA Vase tie, considering the reverse fixture at The Creek had pulled in 245.

Oakfield is a very swanky facility that will no doubt solve Melksham’s ground grading problem and then some. Built on the edge of town and accessed from a long dirt path, the ground is surrounded by green fields and training pitches for rugby and football as far as the eye can see. There are two structures in the ground: a small shed with a couple of rows of seats on one side of the pitch and a whopping great staircase of seats built against the clubhouse. This main stand is protected from the elements somewhat by a flat roof that extends off of the clubhouse. The rest of the ground is flat concrete standing surrounded by wooden fences. Interestingly the pitch railing isn't your more standard white metal pipe but is instead a thick white hollow plastic tube which makes a very satisfying noise when you drum on it. The ground has a very sports village feel to it and while it's undeniably a great facility and the correct thing for Melksham Town going forward it doesn't exactly feel homely to me. As you might expect for it's first game the pitch was in excellent condition, so much so that I thought it was 3G when I first entered, which would have fit in with the overall feel of the place.

When we got through the turnstile at last the game was in full flow. We walked around the ground towards the smatterings of Manor Farm fans behind the far goal. One familiar face was one-man ultras firm Tony, who had come dressed in a full centurion costume for some reason and was in superb voice as always.

Go on lad

Melksham applied some strong early pressure and were only just denied in the first few minutes when a long ball caught Ashley Clark off his line. His blushes were spared by one of his defenders who chested it down on the goal line and cleared it. What I assumed was going to be quite a close run contest unexpectedly turned into a hot buttery dicking for Melksham Town as Ben Bament headed home for Farm in the 5th minute, followed by a free header at the back post from Troy Simpson in the 24th to make it two to the away side. Bament was involved again in the 29th minute, putting in some tidy step-overs before whipping it low across goal for big Dean Stamp to slot in for the third. Manor Farm were exhibiting the clinical attacking that has given them a goal difference of +53 (plus fifty-three) in the league this season. Melksham for their part were overly reliant on long-balls and were easily sussed out, Clark having to make only routine saves throughout the first half. This didn't stop Tony from loudly and repeatedly claiming him to be "England's number one" from the side of the pitch.

Half time arrived and it already looked like a position of no return for Melksham on this day of days. Freezing our nuts off by this point, Jack and I were already making our way up the stand and into the clubhouse. The crush that awaited us at the door would serve as a timely reminder that just because a ground's capacity is technically a couple of thousand, doesn't mean that it will function well with anywhere near that number. As the stewards began to operate a one-in-one-out system a chap asked if he could squeeze past me as he was a club official. As I shuffled along behind him I held my camera aloft so it didn't get squished in the crowd. As I got to the door the steward clocked my camera and asked me if I was also an official. I should've really seized this golden opportunity but being a terrible liar I could only reply with "Uhhhhhhhh" until he grim-facedly replied "...you're not are you" and I had to stand with the other peasants avoiding eye-contact until I was let in.

Back out for the second half Melksham nearly regained some pride as a yellow shirt scampered past his marker and into the box. His shot was blocked but rebounded out to the edge of the D for another Melksham man to launch toward the away goal. Clark parried this bullet shot in the air but it fell perfectly for Melksham's unmarked number 9 who reacted quickly and stuck the ball between Clark's legs and into the goal. The elation around the ground was short-lived as the flag was raised for the obvious offside. The hosts did finally claw one back through Mike Perrott in the 60th minute, who leaped for an aerial cross and turned his head perfectly to guide it in to the top of the net above Clark's flailing hands. A lovely header to be sure.

The comeback wasn't to be however. Bament notched another to the good 7 minutes later and Simpson joined him on a brace in the 70th after tapping in a fumble from the Melksham keeper. To their credit, Melksham never took their foot of the pedal and a pair of last minute goals by Luke Ballinger and Ricky Hulbert narrowed the gap to two by the end of the match.

So Manor Farm progress to the fifth round in which they will play Midland League Division One side Bromsgrove Sporting away at the Victoria Ground on the 28th of January. It's the end of the road for Melksham though who now concentrate on closing the gap between themselves and Farm in the league. Fair play to them for putting on a cracking first game at their new gaff. It may look like Generic Non-league Ground A from Football Manager but it's gonna be a smashing asset to the club in the future.