Thursday, 23 March 2017

#48 Gigg Lane, Bury

Bury 3 Bristol Rovers 0
Tuesday 14th March 2017, League One

With it looking fairly unlikely at this late point in the season that Rovers would be going either up or down in the league this year, I wasn't massively looking to go to any more away games. However legendary Gas Marie Curie fundraiser Matt, aka The Rovers Ram, very kindly offered me a spot in his car and as I had the afternoon off work anyway it seemed that I wouldn't get a better opportunity to tick off this far-flung and historic league ground.

Based in the Greater Manchester town of Bury, the Shakers had most of their success prior to the World Wars winning a duo of FA Cups in 1900 and 1903. Bury were so successful in the first half of the 20th century that they didn't leave the top two divisions of the football league until 1957, an impressive 63 seasons. Since then they've been a lower league outfit but they did have a brief stint in the Championship in the late 90s. Rovers had a long-shot chance of reaching the play-offs, sitting in 8th place, 4 points from 6th-placed Millwall but with games in hand for the teams around them. Bury on the other hand were facing a relegation scrap, in 19th place, two places above the drop zone, 3 points above 21st placed Port Vale.

We set off from Parkway at 2:30 in the Ramobile, stopping only briefly in a lay-by to allow Terry to answer nature's call and have a little jog. We found plenty of space to park up upon arriving at Gigg Lane and dived into the club bar which was full of the ever-present away day faces of the supporters club coach. If this wasn't enough of a home comfort for the travelling West Country faithful, the clubhouse had Kingston Press on tap along with the standard mysterious brown northern ales called things like Courageous Victory, Grubby Sheep Best and John Robert Frank Steve's Bitter.

Bury have been at Gigg Lane since 1885 but it was completely rebuilt to modern standards in the 1990s. It is now an all-seated, all-covered ground with a capacity of 11,840. It's quite a wide and open feeling ground especially when you come in the visitors entrance and walk through the empty corner towards the Cemetery End where away fans are seated. All the four stands in the ground are of a similar height and are single-tiered with fairy shallow elevation. Only the main stand has any kind of elevated seating with small sets of steps leading up to it. The Cemetery End and Les Hart Stand curve into one another and could almost be thought of as one stand, whereas the Main and Manchester Road Stands are separate from all others.

Regarding our immediate surroundings what struck me immediately about The Cemetery End was just how shallow the elevation was, we were stood about two-thirds up and I still felt about level with the pitch. It was nice and spacious with the 346 travelling Gasheads able to sit or stand where they pleased without risk of impeding anyone's view. It's also the only stand in the ground with no supporting pillars to get in the way. The only downside is the fairly sizeable gap between the stand and the pitch but it's not a deal breaker. Apart from the side nearest the car park the whole ground is surrounded by trees which gives it a nice secluded feel despite it being in the middle of town. All in all another all-seater stadium I actually quite liked. This League One lark is making me a bit prawn sandwich. The home fans did have a drum in the stand though which did embitter me to them somewhat.

The game was one to forget from a Rovers point of view as the Lancashire-born referee Ben Toner dismissed our tame Catweazle impersonator/midfielder Stuart Sinclair after 39 minutes for a pair of apparent dives. Now Stuey has his strengths and weaknesses and his fair of share of detractors but I don't believe he's the kind of player that dives. I've poured over the highlights and the first yellow is admittedly hard to judge but I can't see why he'd dive in such a central area. The second yellow however looks a lot like he had his heels clipped but he seemed to be a marked man by that point and was shown red. The most infuriating incident however was Bury's penalty which looked most like a dive of the three incidents. Reading Bury's forum a few of their fans seem to think so too. It was supposedly Mansell that gave it away but I can't see that he touched Leigh anywhere but on his arm, which doesn't to me warrant an arms-out collapse to the ground. Bryon Moore was closer than Mansell to the incident but Leigh looked to be already on his way to the ground as he passed behind.

From that point onward we knew we were going home with a point at best. Tom Lockyer had a go from outside the box but his shot got a deflection which hit the post. Lee Brown looked certain to net the rebound but Tom Pope spread himself onto the floor quickly enough to send it into the side netting. At 65 minutes James Vaughn bangs in a volley for the unmarked diving scoundrel Leigh to nod in. Lumley falls the wrong way but he didn't have much of a chance from such close range. I'm not sure what Moore was up to as he was the closest man to Leigh but it was a well set up goal from Bury.

The routing is complete when Miller gets the ball in acres of space from the Bury half, walks it past Sweeney who looks scared to risk a tackle in the box and blasts it in top corner. A shame but nights like this will happen and to paraphrase Marilyn Monroe if you can't handle us at our Bury away you don't deserve us at our Northampton at home. Just to rub it in we had to drive around rural Cheshire for two hours because the motorway was closed on the way back and we got lost. Yet another successful away day in the North West of England for this blog, good job there are so few of them in this league left for me to tick off...

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

#47 Bristol Road, Portishead Town

Portishead Town 0 Oldland Abbotonians 1
Tuesday 7th March 2017, Western League First Division 

Venturing out on my first midweek trip for a while, I hopped across the Avonmouth Bridge to the North Somerset seaside resort of Portishead, famous for trip-hop, Adge Cutler and weird minimalist beach sculptures. Portishead Town joined the Western League in 2005, after making a nuisance of themselves in the Somerset County League by winning it five times in seven seasons from 1991/92 to 1997/98 and then being runners-up in four consecutive seasons from 2001/02 until their ascent, by which time everyone was probably thoroughly fed up with them. They made strong start to life in the Western League, consolidating in 2005/6 with an 8th place finish then finishing as runners up the season after but failed to go up do to ground grading. Since then it's been mostly mid to low table finishes for Posset, the most disappointing being 2013/14 when they finished bottom of the league. Today they sit at a more respectable 10th place. 

Oldland Abbotonians were formed in 1998 as a merger between Somerset-based Longwell Green Abbotonians and South Gloucestershire-based Oldland. Their home, Aitchison Playing Field, is in the South Glos village of Oldland Common near Bitton. Oldland were promoted to the Western League two seasons after Portishead and like their rivals this evening were able to finish as runners up early on in 2010/11, also without promotion. They come into tonight's fixture 18th out of 22 teams.

Bristol Road is another fairly basic Western League ground befitting of a club from a small town that have only relatively recently made the step-up to this level. Portishead share the site with Gordano Valley Cricket Club so it's a vast space with a long walk between the clubhouse and the pitch. The football portion of the ground has two stands, a small covered metal seated stand on the far side of the ground and another large covered stand near the entrance. The stand near the entrance is a bit of an odd one. If you, as a teenager, ever formed a terrible rock band and were forced into a cramped garage full of assorted bits of dusty furniture to practice by your parents, you'll probably feel quite a home in this stand.

The walls of the stand are made of sturdy blue-painted cinderblock and the roof is made of less sturdy wood which has crumbled in the corners over the years. The wooden beams in the roof and the random assortment of tables only added to this overall feeling of garage. The rest of the ground is that familiar combination of hard standing concrete and white metal railing. There is also a building containing the changing rooms and tea hut which has a small roof and some railings of it's own and a lady who I assume was the cook spent the half watching from here. The ground is situated next to a steel works so all sorts of weird machinery can be seen dotted between the trees in the distance.

As I entered the ground and did my lap around the perimeter a ball got loose and hit a crowd member squarely in the groin. I enjoyed this far too much and should probably extend my apologies to the gent in question. The evening of physical comedy continued towards the end of the first half when the ball went up high and a large clod of mud flew off and hit an elderly chap on the head. Judging by the way he didn't so much as blink during this aerial assault, it would seem he was too engrossed in the game to notice. A doff of the cap to this soggy stalwart.

In terms of the game itself Portishead were the team keeping hold of the ball and passing better but Oldland spent more time in attacking positions in the opposition's half. The first chance of note came from the home side, as a short corner was worked into the centre between two players, only for the third to scuff the final product hideously giving away possession in the process. This was the beginning of many woes up front for Portishead and their humorously named players Cookie and Twigsy.

Blowers kicking it in "the bush". Immortalised in mural form.

Throughout the game the ref was getting absolute dog's abuse from at least three people at any given time. It was probably the most feisty game I've seen at this level. Not violent, although there was a bit of handbags after one tackle, just quite bile filled. I couldn't see that the ref did much wrong during the first half but it didn't stop anyone on the pitch or in the technical areas having a good old shout. One lightning rod of criticism was a poor Portishead forward named Tyler who received the bulk of advice bellows from his comrades. I genuinely feel that Portishead's general fury towards one and other might have had something to do with them losing the game as they often piled on right after a mistake while the ball was still in play.

Right at the end of the first half Portishead forced a very good one-handed save from distance but it was Oldland who scored the only goal of the game in the 53rd minute. A daisy cutter was sent forward to David Saffer who turned to lose the defenders and stick it in the top of the net.

Not great but nothing on Viktoria Žižkov.
From this moment on Portishead battled hard and got forward but could not find a goal. Free headers go begging, goal-line scrambles come to nothing, shots go wide and Tyler ponders whether spending his Saturdays gardening might be more fulfilling. The last action was a free-kick from about 25 yards that Oli Trevarthen blasted dangerously towards the top corner of the Oldland goal only to have it palmed away by Shaun Semmens who had a very good game.

It was good to get another tick in the Western League from a ground that's so accessible from my flat that it's pretty stupid that I hadn't done it yet. You can expect a few more North Somerset games in the near future. For now though it was time to get home and prepare myself for the big Bury trip next week.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

#46 Community Drive, Stoke City Ladies

Stoke City Ladies 6 Stoke City Ladies Reserves 0
Sunday 19th February 2017, Staffordshire Ladies Challenge Cup Semi-Final

I'd been convinced by Daz to stay on in Stoke for an extra day and catch the FA Vase quarter-final game between Bromsgrove Sporting and Buckland Athletic on my way back down to Bristol. This was of particular interest as Bromsgrove were the side that knocked my beloved Bristol Manor Farm out of the competition and Buckland are a fellow Western League side. We were just about to leave to the house when I noticed on Twitter that the game was an all-ticket affair and Bromsgrove had sold-out all 3000 tickets, unheard of for an FA Vase clash! Under pressure to find an alternative for the afternoon we turned to the local fixture pages and one in particular jumped out at us because, let's face it, it's not everyday you get to see a team play it's own reserves in a competitive fixture.

Stoke and their reserves had both entered the competition in it's second round, with the ressies beating Brereton Town 4-0 and Goldenhill Wanderers 5-1 while the firsts overcame Florence Ladies 11 (eleven)-0 followed by seeing off Sporting Khalsa 6-0. A cruel twist of fate allowed the ressies to be drawn against the firsts in this the semi-final, which I'm sure must be one of the biggest possible psychological disadvantages possible for a team. Just imagine it: 'Who are we playing in the next round?' 'That team none of us were good enough to get into.' 'Oh, right...' *tugs collar*. However entered into with the right frame of mind there wouldn't be many better opportunities for the ressie girls to stake a claim for first team inclusion. Stoke play in the Women's Premier League, which weirdly is the third level of English women's football.

A big draw for going to this game was the fact that Stoke play at the ground of former Smallthorne-based Northern Premier League club Norton United. Despite being quite a big player in the local non-league scene Norton went bust in 2015 leaving Community Drive, owned by Norton Cricket Club & Miners Welfare Institute, without a club. This allowed Stoke to move on from their previous arrangement where they were sharing with Stone Dominoes and set up shop at a place of their own.

Community Drive is quite a hodge-podge collection of structures that I'll try and briefly describe to the best of my ability. When approaching the ground you'll need to ignore the cricket club entrance and walk down a narrow path between the clubhouse and some walled mini football pitches. There you will find the turnstiles, next to the other much older looking, rusted, fenced-off turnstiles. There are a few instances like this that remind you this is a ground in transition, from a ramshackle disused refreshments hut behind the floodlight nearest the entrance to the Norton United insignia that can still be spotted in various places.

Once you're in the ground there's a raised path that stretches along much of one side of the pitch. It has railing so is clearly meant to be a vantage point but some of the view is obscured by the stand below. Next to this is a large dark red prefab-looking building which I assume serves as the changing rooms as it has a fenced-off set of stairs from it to the pitch. Along from this again sitting quite aloof from the rest of the ground on it's own little part of the grass verge is what looks like the executive box shed, where someone was filming today's proceedings. From up on the verge you get a great view of the Potteries stretching out as far as the naked eye permits during a grey day in one of Staffordshire's never ending winters.

Underneath this verge is a covered stand with a couple of rows of seats and some standing. I've never seen so many pillars on a small corrugated shed before but safety first I guess. Behind the goal is just plain old concrete hard standing but there is another covered standing area opposite the entrance side. The club didn't seem to want people going round the perimeter any further than this as the path stops abruptly at the end of this sheltered area and the fence around the steps to the changing room prohibits going any further on the other side. The ground is in need of sprucing up here and there but with four strong-looking floodlights, decent hospitality features and a good amount of space for punters Community Drive ought to allow Stoke to push on as far as their ability permits.

The game kicked-off and we made the assumption that Stoke were playing in their famous red and white stripes while the reserves were playing in the sky blue away kit. For a long time Daz and I were confused by the fact that the team in red and white looked somewhat hesitant and timid off the ball until a kindly woman standing next to us leaned over and told us that in fact the reserves were playing in the home kit and vice-versa, leaving us to feel a bit silly.

With my only previous taste of women's club football being WSL 2 side Yeovil Town Ladies, I wasn't sure what the standard was going to be like today. That quandary was put to bed early on as Summer Holmes chested a wayward ball forward down mid run and played a through ball for Kate Asher, who hopped over a sliding tackle before slotting it into the bottom corner. Evidently it was going to be decent.

Holmes was at it again just before the half-hour mark, netting one of her own on her debut for the club and Harriet Wellings added another bit of quality as she collected the ball on the edge of the box, dribbled past a defender and lobbed the ball over the keeper and into the net. 3-0 to the firsts at half-time.

In search of a piss and some hair of the dog, I wandered off back towards the entrance. Community Drive has the smallest toilets I've ever seen at a public venue. I opened the door, took one step in and was immediately in the personal space of a gentleman making use of the one urinal. I decided to wait until he'd finished before attempting to get past him in the limited space between him and the back wall and risk a costly mid-stream jostle. Instead I had to shuffle past awkwardly while he washed his hands. I decided to go into the pitch-black cubicle to avoid facing this problem again and nearly hit Daz in the face with the door on the way out. There you go folks, an entire paragraph about me going for a piss. Please remember to subscribe.

I went into the club house and ordered two pints of Worthington's in plastic cups only to find Daz doesn't like Worthington's because he's a shit northerner. It was fine though as the cheery gal behind the bar assured us it wouldn't go to waste as she was partial to a good cream flow on duty. We chatted to her for a while and she provided a much-needed dose of that familiar Stoke-on-Trent joviality after yesterday's fracas. In the clubhouse we noticed there was another women's team playing a game on the cricket pitch but I didn't think I'd get away with claiming another tick off of this.

"Hello boys..."

Back out for the second half and we'd barely returned to our spots by the time Ashley Hayes had smashed in the first team's fourth goal from distance in the 49th minute. Willowy left winger Anne-Marie Atherton set Hayes up for her second in the 58th, receiving the ball in space and beating a defender mid-run before floating the ball into the 6-yard box for Hayes to chip in for the first team's fifth goal of the afternoon. The firsts completed their rout 8 minutes away from full time as Hayes dinked the ball over the heads of three defenders for Asher to latch onto in the box and slot home for six.

If Stoke City Ladies go on to lift the trophy again this season it will be the ninth consecutive year that they have done, so I don't think their reserves should be too gutted about today by any means. They'll face either Norton Athletic Firsts or Sporting Khalsa Development in the final on the 14th of March, so go along if you're in the area for what should be a decent clash. For me though it was time to say my goodbyes to Daz and head back to the west country.