Friday, 22 September 2017

#59 Springfield, Cadbury Heath

Cadbury Heath 2 Bridport 3 (1-0 Bridport in ET)
Wednesday 20th September 2017, FA Cup Second Qualifying Round

As September began making eyes at the bar and shuffling off stage left like a disinterested am dram performer, I was being left even further in the dust by my friend and colleague Daz Knapton in our new ground race. To make matters worse, we had spent the previous evening together watching a very entertaining Football League Cup encounter between Wolves and Rovers at the Molineux, ending in a 1-0 victory for our Championship-dwelling hosts in extra time. The downside to this enjoyable outing was the fact that this was yet another new ground for Daz and only a revisit for me, putting him 7 (seven) ahead of me. 

The match at Wolves had left me feeling particularly up for the cup and after scanning the fixtures list I settled on a local match between two Western League sides taking place in Cadbury Heath, South Gloucestershire. Cadbury Heath isn't an area I'm familiar with and turning to Wikipedia to fill me in on a little local knowledge turned out to be a fool's errand.

The mother of all stubs.

What I can tell you is that it was a half hour drive from Shirehampton and it's near Longwell Green. Journalism. 

Since winning the Western League First Division in 2011/12 Cadbury Heath or; the Heathens, are now an established Premier Division team that’ve finished upper-mid table for the last five seasons. They currently sit in 18th place but are many matches behind the rest of the pack due to cup chaos. It’s pretty much the same story with Dorset’s Bridport except they made the step up a year before Cadbury when they finished the 2010/11 season in third, pipping second-placed Oldland Abbotonians to promotion due to ground grading. A win today would equal the Bees’ best ever FA Cup run from the 1957–58 season where they were knocked out in the third qualifying round away at Portland United. Cadbury’s greatest ever run was in fact last season, where they too were knocked out in the third round qualifying away at Burgess Hill Town. Add to the mix that this is a replay (the fixture at Bridport ended 2-2) and this was on paper a very close contest indeed.

Another person who was brimming with gallus for the chalice was fellow Rovers away tragic Jack “Duke” Newcombe, also fresh(ish) from last night’s Black Country antics. It turns out Jack spent time as a player at Cadbury Heath when he was but a small, mutton chopless child and he ended up getting admirably behind the boys in red and white during the game. It was pissing it down all evening so I didn’t do too much moving around the ground but I’m not going to break the habit of a lifetime by not writing a paragraph or two about some sweet-ass sheds.

Springfield is a fenced-off area of a much larger public playing field, meaning on a number of occasions dogwalkers would pass by and have a chat with their neighbours watching the game. The two stands consist of a large old brick covered standing area and a modern metal seated stand. The standing area is a particularly congenial little nook with only a single step of terracing running along the back, most of which was taken up with various bits of furniture the club seems to be storing there. This stand is so cosy that the tea hatch is actually built into it, leaving no reason for the weather-beaten Western League codger to ever leave this stoney womb in search of caffeinated refreshment. If you want something stronger through you’ll have to venture across the field into the clubhouse where they hawk the beers and baps. There’s not really a lot to say about the seated stand, it’s the same covered metal contraption that you see in a lot of Western League grounds, practical but quirkless. The pitch itself is surrounded by white railing supported by concrete pillars that are painted alternately red and white (the club’s colours) leading to a pleasing old-timey barbers/sweetshop aesthetic.

The ground as a whole was positively buzzing with anticipation as just over 200 hot for the pot (sorry I’l stop this now) Heatheans and Bridportese packed the ground. There was, it must be said, a fair smattering of hardy Dorset folk who’d made the two hour trip on this soggy Wednesday evening. A doff of the PB hooded cagoule to them. Not wanting to disappoint, Bridport notched the first goal after 8 minutes as Richard Hebditch got on the end of a low cross and struck home from 6 yards, sending the gaggle of balloon-wielding Dorset teenagers behind the goal into a Panda Pop induced frenzy. Fourteen minutes later the Bees produce an absolute screamer from 35 yards as Tom Richardson launces a volley over the keeper and into the top left corner, a textbook example of what we in the industry call a “dipping thunderbastard”.

This cracking goal, the best I’ve seen this season, goes straight to the heads of the Bridport yoof who begin chanting “you’re just a shit make of chocolate” to their West Country equivalents. The opposing Heath fans don’t have the cutting wit to match but what they do have is a big red airhorn that they begin to sound off whenever the Bridport keeper goes to gather a ball. It doesn’t really work. These rampant displays of hooliganism bear a striking contrast to the lovely old bloke sat in the stands who offers support the only way a stately vintage gentleman can, by swinging a retro wooden football rattle about excitedly whenever the Bees break. Bridport absolutely run the show during the first half and could have quite easily been five up by half time. It was difficult to see how the Heath were going to come back from this one.

As cliched as it is to say, football sometimes really is a game of two halves. Cadbury had their tails up from the word go in the second half and got their first goal of the night after 61 minutes. A ball in from the wing was played into the centre and picked up by Simon McElroy who made a very determined run into a shooting position and drove it low, taking advantage of the now sopping wet surface. Heath continued to push and McElroy nearly snapped the post in half with a shot in the 80th minute as the keeper stood rooted to the spot. The resultant goal line scramble when the ball ricocheted off was eventually dealt with by Bridport. Just as it seemed nothing would be enough for Heath to get the second goal they deserved, Matt Huxley wriggled past his marker on the right wing and sprinted himself into a one-on-one with the advancing Brid keeper, opening a window for a simple chipped goal. 

Heath came agonisingly close to achieving something I've been desperate to see since I started groundhopping, namely a keeper scoring after coming up from a corner but it seemed Jack and I were destined to watch another period of extra time on a school night. I can only conclude football doesn't want me to sleep. Jack pointed out to me that Cadbury's pitch was very sloping, which isn't uncommon in the Western League by any means but this one undulates pretty wildly in several different spots rather than having a simple slant to one side. This might go some way to explaining the wild disparity in both teams' performance over the two halves. 

During extra time the two gangs of ultras elected to both stand behind the same goal and for once the general tranquillity of the deep non-league threatened to break as a few of the Bridport yoof got a bit salty. Two of the little scamps came running back to their elders in the stand where we were, grinning from ear-to-ear claiming "Jay's about to get sparked out!" Clearly finished off the Panda Pops and dived right into the Sherbet Fountains. We can only hope Jay finds the help he so clearly needs at this difficult time in a young man's life. 


After 19 minutes of damp, chilly struggle it was Bridport who walked away with the victory as Ed Butcher cut in from the left and fired past a diving Dan Worton to send the travelling fans wild. The previously absconded teens raced back to their comrades behind the goal to join in the goading of their Cadbury counterparts. As they rushed past the stand, an elder shouted out “keep them teeth in Jay!” to which Jay responded “I’ll try!”
Sadly we weren’t treated to some midweek amateur boxing to cap off the excellent cup match we’d just witnessed but it was a very entertaining 120 minutes all the same, with Jack commenting that Bridport’s second goal had been worth the price of entry alone. The win means Bridport book a glamour(ish) tie away against Conference South St Albans City where they stand to face such luminaries as Ben Herd and David Noble in an attempt to better their current best FA Cup performance. I will not be joining them for that match as it’s a two-hour drive but as a fan of the Western League I wish them luck all the same.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Abandoned: Strahov Stadium

6th August 2017

I'd like to apologise to my loyal readers (hi Mum) for the lack of activity over the last few weeks. I'm still getting into the swing of the new job and after watching Rovers slump to a disappointing 3-2 defeat at home to bottom of the league Oldham Athletic yesterday I decided I couldn't be arsed to go anywhere tonight. Until such a time as I manage to drag myself out of my sleep-deprived hovel, I hope to keep you occupied with the tale of how I dragged my whole family to look around an abandoned Soviet-era stadium on our summer holiday.

Actually to say Strahov is abandoned is somewhat disingenuous as it's currently the training ground of Czech First League side Sparta Prague. Although the vast majority of the stadium is pretty decrepit nowadays, boring twats like myself will appreciate the fact that it's still standing due to it's colourful history. Strahov first came into being in 1926 as a relatively modest wooden construction designed by Alois Dryák. The stands were made concrete in 1932 and the whole stadium was greatly expanded between the years of 1948 and 1975 into the 220,000 capacity behemoth we see today. If one were to be cynical, one might attribute the building of what remains to this day the largest stadium in the world (dwarfing the similarly ridiculous Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea) to the frantic desire of the newly-installed communist government to impress the rest of the world with it's willy-shrivelling massiveness.

The most alien aspect of the stadium to the Western European mind is the fact that it was built not to host sports of any kind. Instead Strahov was host to displays of mass synchronised gymnastics known as Sokol (or Spartakiad under Soviet rule) which played a massive part in the development of Czech nationalism and could apparently draw in huge crowds in those wild pre-television days. Another noteworthy use of the ground was an American Football match that was played on the 28th of September 1945 between two US army units that had helped liberate the country from the Nazis just months prior. This game was watched by 40,000 Praguers and ended with the 94th Infantry Division beating the XXII Corps 6-0, whatever that translates to in yank rugby.

The stadium has also played host to motor racing meets and large concerts in the more modern era but these days is totally dedicated to the training of Sparta Prague, one of the cities 'big two' clubs along with rivals Slavia Prague. This means that the absurdly huge turf has been split into 9 (nine) pitches of varying lengths, some of which I gather host youth and reserve fixtures from time to time. On the inside the pristine, modern training facilities look completely strange encased by the crumbling stands and terraces that tower over them in all directions and it's almost incomprehensible that they exist from the outside.

When you approach the ground from the outside it truly does look abandoned, despite it being obviously a very notable part of the cityscape. The rain-darkened brutalist lumps of stone that jut out into the surrounding streets are covered in graffiti in a lot of places and there are a lot of smashed windows, making it a favourite haunt for urban explorers. There are a few parts of the concourses that appear to have been recolonised by modern Prague, I saw a few gyms with Lycra-clad people going in and out. While I was leaving, a coachload of female athletes, possibly Sparta Women, arrived at the stadium to meet with waiting family members, which I took as my cue to leave.

A truly strange and unique mixture of forgotten relic from a long gone world and much-loved community asset, I would suggest taking a look at Strahov if you're in the area because who knows how long it'll be there. I also recommend checking out some of the awesome urban exploration reports online as I've really not done the place justice with my 20 minute wander.

Monday, 4 September 2017

#58 Valley Parade, Bradford City

Bradford City 3 Bristol Rovers 1
Saturday 2nd September 2017, League One

Everyone loves a lower league game being broadcast live on Sky. The chance for the famously appreciative Premier League fans to while away the international break by enjoying a match between two of the FL72 sides they spend the rest of the year ripping the piss out of for being tinpot. The only slight downside being that away fans of the match in question suddenly find themselves having to arrive at whichever far-flung town two and a half hours earlier than expected. Thus we were forced to begin the three and a half hour drive to Bradford at the merry old hour of 6am, with the only crumb of humanity from our TV scheduling overlords being a free SkyBet Brand Breakfast Baguette™ for those travelling on supporters club busses. For John, Jack, Terry and I however there was only the long, unseasonably misty, road ahead with only some irresponsibly early cans to tide us over.

Where's me bloody bap Sky?

Rovers were on a decent run of form going into today's game with wins against Bury, Fleetwood and Fulham, not to mention a decent show from the youngsters in the Checkatrade who overcame Wycombe 5-1 at Adam's Park. Bradford were strong favourites for promotion this season having narrowly missed out after losing 1-0 to Millwall at Wembley last season. We arrived in the West Yorkshire city about an hour and a half prior to kick-off and parked up about five minutes from the ground. Having heard a lot of horrible things about Bradford in the past I was pleasantly surprised by the surroundings; rolling green valleys and old sandstone buildings surround the stadium which has been built into the hillside and overhangs the streets below in several places.

Going away with a football team is an excellent way to get to know one particular road and one particular dingy pub in all the great cities of the UK and today we would be getting to know the Bradford Arms. Decorated like the set of a 1960s kitchen sink drama and somewhat sparse on the beer selection front but run by a very friendly pair of ladies and full of Gasheads. Studying the teamsheet, it seemed Darrell Clarke had done the obvious thing and chosen Tom Broadbent and Johnny Burn to fill the Lockyer and Sweeney shaped holes in central defence rather than try anything unorthodox. Sercombe, Clarke and Lines were the three in midfield, Harrison, Bodin and Moore in an increasingly familiar attacking triangle and Slocombe in goal. Notable by his absence from the starting line up was Joe Partington, dropped to the bench after a very convincing performance against Fleetwood, which raised a few eyebrows around the room.

Entering the away stand you get a good idea of how elevated the ground is as you have to ascend a massive flight of ancient-looking stairs to the TJ Dallas Stand where we were to be housed today. It's a funny little stand which shrivels in terms of size compared to the rest of the ground despite being two tiered. Seating around 1,840 supporters half on the floor and half in the stand itself. It feels quite tight in some parts of the bottom section, so much so that I wonder if a particularly tall person might even whack their head on the ceiling if they celebrated a goal too hard. The much better views are afforded on the top tier where we were sat, with only six thin pillars spread over the whole stand to contend with.

What instantly hit me when looking out of the rest of the stadium was the colour scheme. It's pretty common for a stadium to have at least the seats the same colour as the club's traditional attire but Valley Parade's fondness for florescent yellow is really something else. Most of the supports, rafters and handrails are painted this colour, with the more restrained burgundy saved for the external supports, possibly to respect local light pollution laws. Fortunately half the seats inside are also burgundy so it's not too overpowering.

The home stands at Valley Parade much like the TJ Dallas Stand are strange customers. The main and cop stands are huge and two tiered, connected by a curve of seats in the west corner. These two stands look like they could've been carved from any modern all-seater bowl, save for two low sections of seating that jut out of the bottom of each corner which I shall henceforth refer to as the 'flaps'. Next to the leftmost flap (relative looking out from the away stand) you can clearly see parts of the original terracing from the old wooden main stand which was destroyed in the infamous 1985 stadium fire, claiming the lives of 56 Bradford fans in the process. The main stand only runs about three-quarters of the pitch, with the remaining space taken up by a small red brick building which contains the team's changing rooms. Weirdly, Valley Parade houses it's own dental surgery.

The remaining stand, the Midland Road Stand, sits opposite the main stand and is the only single tier stand in the stadium. It's fairly unremarkable other than it's small size in comparison to it's brethren. All the stadiums seats are coloured in equally sized blocks of gold and burgundy which makes them look a bit like football scarves. All-in-all Valley Parade is quite a higgledy-piggledy stadium, understandably so considering the massive rebuild demanded by the fire but it's got a lot of charm and stands out from some of the more identikit league grounds. My favourite part by far is some of the views of the valleys you're afforded if you can glance through the gaps in the stands or out from the top of the big steps to the away stand.

The match that we'd travelled so far to see turned out to be a bad day at the office for Rovers. Not the worst I'd even seen them play away, that honour goes to Walsall 2017 or Accrington 2016 but without our regular central defensive pairing we struggled against a clinical Bradford side. The first goal came after just thirteen minutes when Leadbitter failed to prevent Romain Vincelot heading a corner down for a spuriously marked Charlie Wyke to tuck between Slocombe's flailing legs. As we anticipated, the stadium's massive half-bowled design lead to the home fan's celebrations being channelled into an almighty roar. The jubilant pricks. Byron Moore had the best chance of the half for Rovers, heading a ball that Ellis Harrison had just about managed to cross before it went out downwards towards goal but Doyle was able to make a good reaction save with his foot after returning to the centre of his goal in the nick of time.

Back out in the second half Rovers were undone by yet another corner in the 62nd minute, again a Charlie Wyke header which was so similar to the first I can't even be bothered to describe it. If I sound salty it's because I am. A mere eleven minutes later the young Smoggie upstart completed his hat-trick when Jake Reeves outwitted Sercombe and Leadbitter to stick in a cross right to the far post for Wyke to HEAD INTO THE NET ONCE AGAIN. A brilliant afternoon for Wyke but a toothless display from our defence. The travelling Gashead's respite only arrived nine minutes from full-time as Tom Nichols received the ball on the wing, turned and squeezed past two Bradford players and ran to the outside line of the box. His curved attempt hit the post but Bodin was there to tap in the rebound while Doyle was still on the floor.

To be fair Bradford had only had one defeat in 33 games at home so it was an understandable scoreline. It was just a shame to travel so far to witness such a timid performance from the team that had beaten Fulham away a mere week before but I suppose these are the risks we take. I try not to let the games I see colour my feelings towards a ground but considering the four hour trek home I don't think I'll be in a hurry to revisit Valley Parade, a decent one to tick off all the same.