Wednesday, 22 February 2017

#45 Vale Park, Port Vale

Port Vale 1 Bristol Rovers 1
Saturday 18th February 2017, League One

As winter began turning into spring and sunlight was creeping back into our meagre existences, it was time for Rovers to hit the road once again in search of our first league away win since October. Returning once again to the promised land of Stoke-on-Trent and château Daz to watch Rovers take on Burslem's finest Port Vale.

Vale are a team that have always sort of fascinated me. For one thing their name doesn't relate to any particular local area and is instead a reference to the many canals that run through Stoke from the Trent and Mersey rivers. Another is that for my whole three years of living in Stoke, I never encountered a single Port Vale fan. One of my friends lived with a guy who owned a pair of Port Vale shorts but when I questioned him on this he said he was really more of a fan of "football in general", in a very my family is Port Vale but I'm slightly ashamed please don't bring this up with me ever again kind of way. In fairness to the Valiants, Burslem wasn't really a part of Stoke that I ventured into all that much. Never straying too far from financial ruination, Vale have always felt to me like a "here's what you could have been" club, had Rovers not sorted their shit out over the last two years and City had pushed on. When I was there if a pub had football insignia it was Stoke City, if there were some rowdy lads on the train on a Saturday they were wearing red and if I spoke to a local about football it wouldn't be about Robbie Williams' Small Club of Good Boys.

On the other side of this assessment, Port Vale haven't been without their successes in the face of all this adversity. As well as their three stints in the second division of English football (the most recent being 1994 to 2000), they have also won two league titles, two Football League Trophies and bizarrely were runners up in the 1995/96 Anglo-Italian Cup. They also beat Rovers over two legs in the 1989 Third Division play-off final, with local boy Robbie Earle scoring goals in both games. Survival under adversity is a massive part of Rovers' history too and this only strengthened my fascination with the club and their ambitious stadium, initially envisioned to be the "Wembley of the North" is one I've been anxious to get to all season. At time of writing, Vale haven't won in 7 games and sit in 20th place, one above the drop zone.

I picked Jack up in Redland at about 10:30 and we made good time at got to Daz's place a little after 1:30, thanks in part no doubt to Jack's impressive collection of indigenous Canadian medicine chants and mid-00's club bangers. After a swift can of some bizarre Polish larger with a bull on the label, it was time to pile into the lovely Sophie's car and set off for the mystical land of Burslem. We decided to dive into The Bulls Head which happily was the pub that most of the Rovers contingent had gone for. I grabbed a couple of steins(!) of beer and a copy of the excellently named Port Vale fanzine Derek, I'm Gutted and headed out to the beer garden. The place was lively, with a barbecue in full flow and Gas flags adorning the walls, Rovers and Port Vale fans alike enjoyed the bright late winter afternoon in an atmosphere of friendly tranquillity. This was not to last.

What would prove to be a feisty afternoon to say the least kicked off for our little party right after leaving the pub. I'd gone on ahead with Jack and the other Rovers fans as we were more bothered about making it before kick-off. Daz and Will meanwhile stayed back to finish their drinks at a more comfortable pace, receiving a spontaneous mass chant of "Yorkshire Gas, you're having a laugh" from the gleeful Gas stragglers upon discovering their strange and exotic accents. This levity didn't last and on their way to the ground Daz found himself being hacked to the ground by a 40 year old Burslem meathead, seemingly uninterested in the fact that he was a neutral. By the time he joined us he was sporting a bandaged leg and probably couldn't be considered a neutral anymore.

Things didn't get much better inside the stadium as Vale's stewards decided to throw their weight around. Despite Rovers selling out their allocation of tickets and Vale offering pay on the door, only about one third of the away stand was open. Much has been argued about between fans as to what lead to things kicking off at about 30 minutes and I have no wish to spark off another round of it. Just look at the video and judge for yourself. Whilst Daz, Will and I were having some drinks (gone-off bottles of Carlsberg that Vale were hawking for £2 each) during half time, a squad of about six stewards went stomping down the concourse, all the while being berated by a women who claimed that they had headbutted her friend.

I myself had a bit of a berate as we left the stadium and came across a man who had been handcuffed on the ground with a fairly nasty head wound. Despite the fact that he was clearly injured and detained he had a policeman kneeling on his head, I questioned the necessity of this but the officer wasn't interested. Granted there were people there who were waiting for a chance to have a pop at the Vale fans but it was also the only way out and it's easy to see how the older chap who was injured by the police could have been caught in the fray by accident but it seemed a heavy-handed affair all round.

When Vale were forced from the Old Recreation Ground, Hanley in 1950 due to financial difficulties their original plan was to build an 80,000 capacity "Wembley of the North". The finished product was a still impressive 40,000 capacity ground that was eventually made all-seater in 1998. Well, almost made all-seater, about half of the Lorne Street stand is still unfinished due to, you guessed it, financial difficulties. Since it doesn't look like the club are going to hit the Championship anytime soon it would make sense to me to convert this area into a terrace and inject some atmosphere into the place but as it stands it's just a glaringly empty set of concrete steps.

Should the Stand ever be completed it will be quite an impressive centrepiece. With a planned capacity of 5000, it has two levels of bright orange seating underneath two levels of balconied hospitality boxes. Opened in 1999, the stand is the most modern looking in the stadium but is afforded a dash of the classic by retaining the old clock from the original 1950s stand in the centre. On the opposite side to this is the Railway Stand, originally an uncovered terrace it was turned into a covered stand with seating on the back row but terracing was retained on the lower portion which became known as the Railway Paddock. The remainder was filled with seats in the 90s in order to conform with the Taylor report but it still retains something of a two-tier effect with both levels separated by a low wall and pillars.

Behind the home goal is the Bycars Road End which is basically the same as the Railway Stand and on the other end is the Hamil Road End which is reserved for away fans and probably has about half the capacity of it's opposite. The most eye-catching stand in the stadium is the little Family Stand nestled in the corner between the Railway and Bycars Road stands. In an amazing feat of cost-saving Vale actually removed and re-erected the Swan Passage stand from the Old Recreation Ground and when this was replaced by the Bycars End, a small section of the roofing was recycled once again to cover the new family stand. This means that this particular part of the ground is well over 100 years old.

Vale Park is a very impressive ground that wouldn't look out of place in the Championship. It's a good mixture of the old and the new and is one of the more unique all-seater stadiums I've seen so far. The only things that let it down are the unfinished Lorne Street stand and the fact that it was so bloody empty. Discounting the 765 away fans, today's attendance was 3695 and Vale have the 5th lowest average in League One. Daz was chatting to a steward after getting patched up in the medical room and he expressed doubt that the club could survive another relegation with crowds as they were. The weird thing is Vale clearly have a thriving fan culture, the zines on sale in local pubs and the excellent One Vale Fan website are testament to that but the sparse crowds in those massive stand cut a gloomy figure on this chilly potteries afternoon.


The match wasn't a great one and Rovers looked set to continue their away win drought pretty much from the word go. It wasn't that Port Vale were any good, both teams struggled to string three passes together and chances were rarer than a panda brothel. After only seven minutes we lost Partington to injury. He was replaced by Montaño which forced Sinclair to play as a makeshift right back with mixed degrees of success. We were looking a bit better when we came out for the second half but a cruel twist of fate allowed Harris to clear the ball in to the top of his own net in the 54th. Possibly too eager to please on his debut, Whispering Bob came forward to clear a cross that, while close to our goal, had no Vale players nearby to make anything of it and looked like it was going to be scooped up by Lumley anyway. He used the side of his foot for some reason which shot the ball high over Lumley's stunned bonce. I went out for another beer at this point.

With the Gas still having some issues in the scoring department it wasn't clear how we were going to claw our way back from this. However Billy Bodin had other ideas and when Montaño gave him the ball in the Vale half of the pitch he trotted up the edge off the box, decided he didn't fancy taking on the three defenders between him and the opposition goal and struck from where he was, sending the ball past the keeper who'd come too far to one post. I celebrated so hard I ended up on the floor on top of Jack. I love undeserved points.

Bad advert for League One and marred by the actions of a handful of dickheads though it was, I was still happy to have satisfied my long-standing curiosity about Port Vale. Vale Park is certainly an interesting and historical ground and I always enjoy a trip to the Potteries. For now though it was time to seek beer and pizza and look forward to tomorrow and some FA Vase shenanigans.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

#44 Penpole Lane, Shirehampton FC

Shirehampton 6 Wrington Redhill 3
Saturday 4th February 2017, Somerset County League Premier Division.

It's frankly criminal that I've left it this long to go watch a game at Penpole Lane. Located on the edge of Shirehampton Woods, Shirehampton's ground (which they share with Twyford House Cricket Club) is a brisk five minute walk from my flat. With Rovers away in Rochdale I decided this was going to be the Saturday I took myself along to check out my most local side. 

Since I've lived in the area Shirehampton have been quite a strong side in the Somerset County League, winning the Premier Division by 10 points in 2014/15 and reaching the final of the league cup and the GFA challenge trophy, which they lost to Bridgwater Town Reserves and Bristol Manor Farm respectively. Wrington Redhill (from the Somerset village of Wrington) first came into the Premier Division in 2014/15 and have finished in 9th place in both their seasons so far. Why Shirehampton, based in northernmost Bristol, finds itself in the Somerset County League as opposed to the Gloucestershire County League which is full of Bristol teams is a mystery to me.

Another reason I chose to come to Shirehampton was that I knew I wouldn't have to write much about the ground itself, at this level there isn't really much to say. Penpole Lane is a basic white metal railed field with only a small metal stand by the stone dugouts to provide shelter from the elements. Due to the end of Twyford House's season clashing with the start of Shirehampton's, the football team had to play their first seven games of this season away from home. A sign of the adjustable nature of the ground are the plastic railings that line the side of the pitch closest to the changing rooms, presumably so they can be easily removed to covert the place to a cricketorium.

Weirdly the clubhouse is about a minute's walk from the pitch itself, so the club uses a shipping container halfway between the two for corner flags, goal nets and the like and the cricket club's changing rooms and tea hut during the game. The attendance was approximately 42 today and I was too shy to venture into the clubhouse on my own after the match, especially with my house just down the hill. On the whole Penpole is a very pleasant place to watch football, it's gloriously leafy and was very picturesque towards half four when the light began to fade.

The downsides I can see are the lack of shelter from the weather; I certainly wouldn't want to come here on a Tuesday night in January and the difficulty Shire would have meeting Western League grading whilst sharing with Twyford House should they wish to push on at some point in the future. You could add seating and floodlights easily enough if you had the money and the ground is already nearly what you'd consider enclosed but you need hard standing to get into the Western League and it's hard to see how Shire could achieve that without ruining the place for cricket.

Compared to the Premier League game I'd seen earlier this week this was a much more rough and ready demonstration of the beautiful game. Shire got two weak shots off early doors but the Wrington keeper caught both with ease. It would take a ball whipped in from the wing and a shot across the ground into the bottom corner to undo this pink shirted dynamo at around 10 minutes in. No sooner had I jotted this down on my phone and looked up again, Wrington had possession of the ball in the Shirehampton box and hit it towards goal. The resulting strike bounced off a defender and over the Shire keeper into goal. Evens.

It was the home side who would regain the lead before the break in spectacular fashion with three quick-fire goals. In the 32nd minute they pushed forward and completed a well chosen pass to one of their forwards who smashed it past the diving keeper. The third came as the ball was whipped out to the right wing to a player who had a wealth of space to cut in and slot home from an angle. I know there was a 4th goal before the break but I haven't written down anything about it. Je suis un journaliste. Quality was in limited supply compared to what I'd seen on Tuesday but Shire were good at passing back to the keeper in order to snuff out danger and for most of the first half Wrington didn't really get a look in. They were also good at making space for themselves in attack.

It should be noted that this pitch had no sides and there were no ball boys, so whenever a stray ball left the pitch (often) the players were entirely at the mercy of the dawdling old boys in attendance to retrieve it. The level of crowd player interaction at this level is a joy to behold, with players walking and chatting with the crowd as both made their way to the tea hut and changing rooms at half time.

It's been a while since I've been able to include one of my favourite segments of a Partizan Bristle review: random overheard nonsense. It just hasn't presented itself as much lately but there were two absolute doozies today. One came as a Wrington player lay writhing on the floor after a crunching challenge from an opponent. I wouldn't like to say whether or not the challenge was legal but as the ref was assessing the clearly in pain player a man stood right by them was repeatedly saying things along the lines of "You can't penalise perfect tackles ref. You'll never see a better tackle than that. Perfect tackle ref and you know it. Dear oh dear." Methinks the fan doth protest too much.

The other moment came as I was waiting to get a coffee at half-time. As previously mentioned the tea room is located right beside the changing rooms and shortly after I arrived, so to did the last of the Wrington players and their manager who said, fairly calmly, "alright get in there and close the door." What followed was the most almighty bollocking that would make Jürgen Klopp himself want to go off into a corner and think about his life. The gaffer's voice was too angry for me to clearly make much of it out but one thing I did hear towards the end was "and no it's not the new formation's fault!"

Back out for the second half and the weirdness continued as a Wrington defender started taking goal-kicks for his keeper. Being a relative newcomer to football I had to text Daz to check whether this was allowed, he said it was technically but he hadn't seen it since he played in competitions as a kid. By now I'd moved to behind the dugouts and was delighted to see that the assistant manager for Shirehampton, a small bald man with an incredibly gruff voice, was smoking a cigarillo as he barked instructions to his players. What a don.

Early on into the second half Wrington clawed one back through a penalty and the bollocking at half-time must have worked because they scored the next goal too, making it 4-3. A corner from the away team wasn't dealt with and was sort of scrambled into the net between several green shirts. According to the lads standing next to me, this was "so Shire". Wrington very nearly drew level from a free-kick about 15 yards out but the keeper managed to hold onto the powerful shot. Shirehampton managed to take the pressure off themselves when a forward was played through into a one-on-one with the keeper and slotted into the bottom corner. Shire almost followed this up with the perfect free-kick, which curled beautifully toward the top corner leaving the keeper for dead but in the end drifted just over. However they followed this up by missing an open goal, so you know, still anyone's game.

At I'd guess about 80 minutes Shire get a bit clinical as the ball is wrestled away from the Wrington midfield by a portly substitute midfielder and crossed into the middle for one of their strikers who unleashed an absolute rocket which pinged off the bottom of the crossbar and into goal, making it 6-3 to the home team. The last action of any note was from the poshest named duo in non-league football; as a Wrington player called Jerry hit the post causing the ball to roll slowly across the Shirehampton goal line. It was eventually palmed out by Shire's keeper but only as far as another chap named Rory who struck from close range but hit the crossbar somehow. In all honesty from where I was standing I think it was probably a goal the moment it came off the post but there we go. Can't ask for goal line tech in the Somerset County League.

On the whole I had a nice afternoon watching Shirehampton. Penpole Lane is a pleasant ground and they don't charge an entry fee, so if you're local go along and buy a few drinks.

Friday, 3 February 2017

#43 Liberty Stadium, Swansea City

Swansea City 2 Southampton 1
Tues 31st January 2017, Premier League

Life comes at you pretty fast folks. With the first month of 2017 already at a close, I was browsing the fixtures list and planning my next move. Bristol Soccerworld advertised such tantalising clashes as Gloucester City vs. Tamworth, Taunton Town vs. Shortwood United and of course Cirencester Town Development vs. Hook Norton. So basically I was braced for another cold Tuesday night in a wooden shack somewhere in the West Country.

Step forward my old uni pal Emma. Always a prolific (some would say obsessive) enterer of online competitions, she had won herself four tickets to the midweek Swansea home match against Southampton, utterly useless to her as a non-football fan that lives in Stoke-on-Trent. Offering them out on Facebook for "enough to buy my lunch", I grabbed the opportunity to tick off my second Premier League ground and brought the tickets for myself, Jack and Loulou. God bless you Emma, you lucky swine.

Swansea City have tread a distinctly turbulent path since forming as Swansea Town in 1912. They spent their formative 57 years as a lower league outfit but famously rocketed from Division Four to the top flight in just four seasons from 1977/78. They spent two seasons in Division One, finishing 6th in their first and delivering bruising defeats to teams such as Leeds, Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs and Manchester United. However in the season that followed they were relegated, beginning a fall back to Division Four that would be just as fast as their meteoric rise. It would take them 25 years to climb back into the top flight where they remain to this day. Their greatest triumph in recent history was winning the 2013 Football League Cup, overturning Chelsea and Liverpool in the process.

The day was a bit of a whirlwind for Bristol Rovers fans as it was deadline day in the January transfer window. What began at around 9am as a nasty-sounding rumour rapidly snowballed into a done deal and by the time I'd pulled up outside Loulou's house Rovers' top scorer for the past two seasons Matty Taylor had signed for Bristol city, the venomous blood-sucking Tory-voting nonce scumbag. These events left Loulou flitting between attempts to comfort me and laughter at the sheer audacity of the move, which is incidentally the first instance of a player moving from Rovers to City in 30 years. Jack was in a similarly agitated state and much of the journey up was spent ranting, interspersed with dancing to zouk music and LEN's 'Steal My Sunshine'.

The rain was neigh-on torrential the whole journey down and by the time we got there Plasmarl was a quagmire. We parked up in a residential street and began stumbling in the darkness down a small concrete path towards the stadium. Suddenly and without warning this path turned into a hearty stream and we were suddenly in a wading situation. Things got worse when this path ran out, leaving us with little option but to walk along the side of the road past the stationary traffic if we wanted to get in on time. Old lady groundhopping, she bucks pretty hard.

Liberty Stadium is fairly out of the way as far as the city of Swansea is concerned, so you don't quite get the hustle and bustle of a match day on the approach like you do in places like Swindon or Wolverhampton, with their more traditional digs in the centre of their respective town centres. It took until we were right up against the exterior of the stadium for the crowds to amass and as we weaved through the clusters of chattering Jacks towards our turnstyle there was that familiar sense of occasion.

Swansea really needed a win tonight. Despite beating high-flyers Liverpool 3-2 at Anfield in their previous fixture the home team were still knocking around the drop zone and needed to kick on with three points. The Saints had surprised a few by overcoming the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal to reach the final of the League Cup but they had also lost to Arsenal 5-0 at home in their previous fixture. Funny old game.

Once again I find myself in a big modern stadium and once again I find myself stuck for things to talk about architecture-wise. The stadium is all-seated, obviously and takes the form of a big bowl. All the sides are two-tiered and covered. Literally the only interesting things I could spot were the coloured white seats laid out in a wave pattern, perhaps alluding to the maritime history of the city and the clear roofing on the South Stand, which would be decent for letting as much natural light in as possible during weekend matches. Overall it's a comfortable, spacious stadium and we were afforded a great view of the whole pitch from our seats near the middle of the upper tier.

Jack and I, being used to standing behind the goal on the Blackthorn Terrace immediately began bitching about our new surroundings. There was a notable lack of standing from the home fans and a patchy atmosphere around the ground, with only one corner far off into the distance making any kind of effort at singing at all. We agreed that a Tuesday game in the middle of winter should be a battering experience for only the hardiest souls but here we could barely even tell we were outside. Loulou meanwhile was talking about formations and making many an intelligent comment from our vantage point. This led me to wonder if maybe lower league and Premier league fans learn to appreciate football differently because we view the pitch from different levels and proximities, since I tend to value atmosphere and Loulou values tactics. It could equally just be that I'm a simpleton who likes drinking and shouting.

Once the players had emerged from the tunnels and the fanfare had died down we were underway. Swansea's passing and general movement left a lot to be desired throughout the first half but they were never overpowered by their opponents. At 37 minutes Gylfi Sigurdsson took a corner for the home team and hit it damn near perfectly into the goal area for centre-back Alfie Mawson to head towards goal, off Oriol Romeu's shoulder, off the post and into the net. A lovely, if slightly fortunate header for the young defender.

In the 57th minute Steven Davies received the ball in a wealth of space and picked out the shamefully unmarked Ryan Bertrand for a through-ball which he crossed low to Shane Long for the easiest prod into goal you'll ever see. However Swansea weren't happy with the draw and after regaining possession after a Southampton corner the ball was booted up field to Luciano Narsingh, who was 10 minutes into his club debut. The Dutchman charged forward, outpacing a Soton defender and lobbed the ball over the head of another for Sigurdsson to drop low and bobble into the bottom corner and that was game, set and match to the home team.

Swansea were by no means outstanding but were given two solid chances and capitalised on them both. My man of the match was probably Mawson who put in a couple of vital blocks that kept the Swans in the game as well as scoring, a good shift for the young lad. It was great to see Sigurdsson, who was one of my favourite Spurs players back in the day, notch the winner and to see Swansea nick those much-needed points.