Sunday, 30 July 2017

#54 Huish Park, Yeovil Town

Yeovil Town 1 Bristol Rovers 3

Tuesday 25th July 2017, Pre-season Friendly

Cheapskate swine that I am, the opportunity to tick-off one of the 92 in pre-season for a knock-down price is an alluring prospect, especially when someone else is driving (cheers John). Yeovil Town are a team I probably wasn't going to be doing anytime soon under normal circumstances. At an hour and twenty minutes away they are a little over what I'd really accept as local game, plus they're a club Rovers have battled on many an occasion over the last decade since the Glovers were promoted into the football league for the first time in 2003. So I while I had no plans to go out of my way to see them again, I knew I'd have to tick off Huish Park at some point so may as well seize the day.

The little club from South Somerset were non-league mainstays for the first 108 years of their existence, winning the Conference League Cup in 1989–90 followed by the FA Trophy in 2001–02. After years of steady progress it was inevitable that Yeovil would eventually make that difficult jump into the league but it was to the surprise of the entire west country when they went up as champions in only their second season in League Two. Yeovil reached the play-off final in their second season in the third-tier where they were beaten by Blackpool but this was an outlier sandwiched between six seasons of struggle where their average finish was 16th. So you can imagine our shock when in the 2012–13 season the club finished 4th in League One and beat Brentford at Wembley to secure a place in the Championship. The tiny market town with it's population of 45,000, of whom only 4,000 turned up to watch the local side, had somehow got themselves into the second tier of English football just a decade after joining the league.

The club, managed at the time by former Cambridge United and Latvian national team boss Gary Johnson, had gone hell for leather in the transfer market and signed 13 (thirteen) players including experienced head James Hayter who, at the age of 33, already had 520 league appearances under his belt.  Other notables were previously misfiring Carlisle striker Paddy Madden, who went on to score 23 goals in all competitions for the Glovers and Bristol City youth graduate Joe Edwards who eventually joined the club full-time. The epic period of over-achievement turned out to be the beginning of an equally epic downfall, with chairman John Fry commenting in 2015:

"When we came into that Championship I could see what was coming. I was probably the one person that day when looking around at the celebrations and I thought 'hang on a minute, we have to get the money in here'. To get into the Championship was an absolute miracle for a club of this size."

Yeovil finished their first and only season in the Championship in last place resulting in relegation back to League One and as if that weren't enough, they repeated the feat next season, scoring a mere 36 goals and parting company with Johnson in February. Back in League Two under Paul Sturrock followed by Darren Way the Glovers just about avoided triple-relegation by finishing 19th in 2015/16 (thus ending any future competitive meetings with Rovers for the time being) and 20th the season after.

Terry, John and I set off nice and early in John's gurt big van, fresh from Nozstock where it's driver had been working the week before. Encountering only moderate traffic on the way we had plenty of time to kill after arriving at the ground. We were herded into what I believed to be an executive lounge, complete with a sign pleading with visitors to adhere to a dress code of no shorts and no replica shirts on anyone over 16. The pleas were unsuccessful on this occasion and the place was full of portly elderly chaps proudly cutting about in their finest home kits. The bar reminded me of a hotel from a 70s horror movie with it's over-saturation of dark wood paneling and assorted brass bits, which only went to complement the eminently tasteful green and yellow Yeovil Town Branded Carpet™. We sat for a while drinking in the ambiance with some light refreshments and studied the teamsheets. Appearing for Rovers were new boys Rollin Menayese, Adam Smith and former armed forces man Tom Broadbent who is roughly the same size as a tree. John made the comment that Broadbent's remarkable physique could potentially cost us a few offsides this season simply because of the width of his chest and biceps. A formidable addition to the back line indeed if he can make the step-up to professional level. Notably absent from the Yeovil line-up was former Rovers striker Jermaine Easter who is currently a trialist with the Somerset club but another former player, Henbury's finest Brazilian Alefe Santos, was starting on the bench having signed for the Glovers the previous day.

Huish Park isn't the most interesting stadium to be brutally honest. It's like a lot of lower league grounds built in the 90s. There are two identical single-tier seated stands on either side of the pitch and two large terraces behind each goal with the uncovered one being reserved for away fans. Each of the four stands is self-contained. The only real quirky design feature to write home about is the metal weather vane depicting three men in green kits running for a ball that adorns the top of the electric scoreboard on the away terrace.

The first goal of the afternoon came when the owner of the largest forehead in North Bristol Byron Moore found himself running into a decent crossing position after a deft one-two with Lee Brown. As he was running towards the box, the last man shoved him over from behind and Rovers were awarded with a free-kick. Chris Lines hit the ball low across the middle of the box for Billy Bodin to burst onto and slot into the top corner. A perfectly executed set-piece routine.

Straight out of the blocks in the second half Ellis Harrison found himself in command of a stray ball on the edge of the D. He had to take his shot fast as a pair of Yeovil defenders were bearing down on him. I'm unsure whether his effort was a scuffed shot or a masterful and unselfish set-up but the end result was the ball rolling gently into the penalty-area for Bodin to slide past the keeper for his second. Bodin is pleasantly toasty, your defence is marginally less confident about Luton away next weekend.

Next it was time for the home side to net one as James Bailey trotted down the right wing and booted the ball into the box for Nathan Smith to redirect in the air past Adam Smith and into goal. The home fan's jubilation would prove to be short-lived however when straight out of the blocks in the second half Rovers scored again. Chris Lines stole the ball just inside the Rovers half before putting in a through-ball for Bodin to run onto. Bodin did well to navigate past Nathan Smith's tackle to supply Moore with another fine through-ball allowing the Potteries native to chip it over the encroaching keeper. This was the cherry on top of what had been a good afternoon for the oft-maligned Moore. The fine team goal led to me hearing my first Terryism of the new season as my bearded friend cupped his hands to his mouth and boomed: "SHUT UP YOU GAGGLE OF MUTANTS" to the Yeovil fans.

So a comfortable and pleasing pre-season victory for the Gas. All the sweeter for being on the road against 'local' rivals. I'm not one for reading too much into pre-season friendlies but the likes of Broadbent, Liam Sercombe and the new keepers look to be bedding-in nicely and it's good to see Bodin firing on all cylinders since he seems to be our main attacking option going into 2017-18. As I write this Rovers have gone on to lose to Bath City 1-0 at Twerton Park but then overcame a strong West Bromwich Albion side 2-1 back at the Mem, so God knows what shape we'll be in come the start of August. Either way I'm looking forward to the start of the season proper next week when I'll be checking out some more grounds in Prague. Watch this space.

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.