Wednesday, 29 November 2017

#68 Thornhill Park, Slimbridge AFC

Slimbridge AFC 1 Yate Town 5 
Wednesday 15th of November 2017, Southern League Division One West

Knowing I would soon be consumed by the ever-demanding festive social calendar, I was Gloucestershire-bound on this chilly Wednesday night for a Southern League clash between the Swans of Slimbridge and the Bluebells of Yate. With just under a third of the season gone, Slimbridge sit in 11th place and Yate in 16th.

As I pulled into the neighbouring business park that the club use as a car park, the familiar smell of organic bovine plant nutrients wafted daintily on the evening breeze. As I approached the entrance I noticed a small steaming lump just by the 'Welcome to Slimbridge AFC' sign. Surely, I thought, there's no way the club's custodians would solicit a local cow equivalent of Paul the Octopus to come and "bless" the ground before kick-off. I was relieved to discover as I drew close that it was actually someone's discarded fag. 

Slimbridge were formed in 1902 and play in the nearby village of Cambridge, after former player and president Evi Thornhill bequeathed land to the club in his will. In 2001-02 Slimbridge made the step up to the Gloucestershire County League and achieved double promotions to the Hellenic Premier. After four successful years in the top division, the last of which they finished as champions, the club suddenly announced they would be resigning from their place in the Southern League before a ball was even kicked, citing commitment issues. The first team took the place of their reserves in the slightly obscure Gloucestershire Northern Senior League (level 12) and rapidly made their way back up to where they had been in just eight seasons.

Yate are the more established Southern League side, this being their 26th season in the competition and their 9th consecutive in Division One after being relegated from the Premier in 2008/09. In 2012/13 they reached the first round of the FA Cup where the lost 3-0 away to Cheltenham Town.

Thornhill Park is quite a sparse little ground which wouldn't look out of place in the Western League, possibly a result of their aforementioned setback. There's a long covered seated stand across one side with four rows of seats and a small section of covered standing behind the goal nearest the clubhouse. That's it. There is, as appears to be a recurring theme in the Southern League, a large porch that extends out from the clubhouse which was quite popular. It doesn't have anything on the Frome Town überporsch though. I also particularly enjoyed Slimbridge's effort in ensuring their ground is enclosed, as is Southern League standard:

"They're football fans, you dolt! They don't plot, they don't scheme, AND THEY ARE NOT ORGANIZED!"
With the Bluebells and the Swans in resplendent yellow and blue shirts respectively (just to be perfectly confusing) the game kicked off. Both teams have opportunities in a very open first period. Yate force a low gather from the home keeper early doors and a Slimbridge defender had to take responsibility of punting away a powerful shot from close range as he blocked his keeper's view. A Slimbridge forward made a sumptuous run that beat many defenders but suffered a hamstring pull just as he got clear and was subbed off.

Yate hammered home the opener on 22 minutes with Ben Brooks receiving the ball in the center of the pitch and proceeding to unleash a rocket into the top right which the Slimbridge goalie couldn't hope to meet, despite his prompt dive. Slimbridge do get a deserved equaliser in a bit of a turd way that wasn't quite representative of their decent efforts in the first half. A Yate defender fumbled the slippery ball between his feet near the goal, causing it to dart off into the path of a delighted Marley Thomas, who found himself in a 1-on-1 with the keeper which he didn't waste.

I retired to the clubhouse with a tea at half-time, which had a very old folks home vibe to it, even more so than usual for a non-league club. Just feast your eyes on that faux leather.

Oh baby.
Slimbridge immediately burst forward as the second half whistle is blown and notch a goal which was disallowed for offside. Hard to comment on whether that was a fair decision or not as I had moved behind the goal but I can confirm the players were furious. They followed this up with a daisy cutter which narrowly missed past the post.

The Swans continue to push hard for the lead but Yate break without warning and Mayson Evans got a shot away. Slimbridge breaths were held as it hit the inside of the post with a ting but it ricocheted kindly for the away team and sunk into the inner side netting.

It was at this point that I noticed that Slimbridge were a vastly shorter side compared to Yate and that this was causing problems for them. A notable example was a lofted cross from the left back up to his striker, which the latter failed to bring under his control prompting the following exchange:

Striker: "Argh! Whip it so I can get hold of it!" 
Left back: "Mate, I'm 100 yards away!"

Hoofing the ball wasn't working for Slimbridge but keeping it on the ground wasn't much better as Yate seemed physically stronger than their opponents to boot.

The home side's woes were compounded by another, more dubious flag offside and another Yate goal, an initial strike clattering off the crossbar and back out into play was easily tapped in by a well-placed Brooks. From this point on it really isn't Slimbridge's night. Their best opportunity of the second half was denied by Yate's keeper as he masterfully pushed the powerful 1-on-1 strike behind his goal. The resulting corner yeilds a shot on target from midfield but it's blocked by a Yate body in the box. Other than this moment they spend much of the second half on the defensive, looking particularly vulnerable when Yate break.  

Despite the protestations from the Yate goalkeeper for his players to hold their areas and see the game out, Yate charge forward and add another goal. Brooks gets his hat-trick through an easy-as-you-like cross from wing to box.

At the time I didn't feel like Slimbridge quite deserved this pummeling but they certainly didn't deserve to win either and a lot of their fans sounded pretty fatalistic about the whole affair since as early as the second Yate goal. Just as I'm mulling this over, Yate make it 5-1, with Steve Davies banging one in from a very sharp angle indeed. They're taking the piss now. This came minutes after Swans are almost taken apart by a mistimed pass-back between their midfield which allowed Yate to break.

Bad times indeed for the Stroud side. Having just conceded 5 against Evesham the Saturday prior they went on to ship 8 (eight) goals against Wimborne Town the weekend following this loss. Lets hope things pick up for them soon.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

#67 Aspray Arena, Sporting Khalsa

Sporting Khalsa 3 Coventry United 0 
Saturday 4th of November 2017

After the previous day's disappointing capitulation, Daz and I retired for some consolation pints in *shudders* the UK's only remaining Hooters bar, due to the fact that it was the closest bar to the train station. Despite this we still missed the last train to Beeston where Daz had parked and had to grab the tram. Tragically enough this was probably my favourite part of the evening as I love a tram. It was made all the more special by a chat with some local eccentrics who looked like they had just come back from a LARP/magic convention and kept referring to the station as "Beeston Intergalactic" for some unknown reason. Add to the mix that no one emerged to charge us for the journey and you can write that up as a fairly successful escape from Nottingham, allowing us to turn our attention to the second game of the weekend.

Sporting Khalsa have the honor of being, to my knowledge, the first British Asian football club (their formation in 1991 slightly edging out those of 1993's London APSA and 1996's Sporting Bengal United). The Sikh side began life in the Walsall & District Sunday Leagues, moving to the West Midlands (Regional) League for one season in 1996, dropping out, then rejoining in 2004 after a reorganisation. This proved a shrewd decision as the club gained promotion from Division Two to Division One in their first season and were able to purchase the Abbey Park Stadium after it was vacated by struggling Bloxwich Town. Within five years the ambitious club had outgrown Abbey Park and took up residence at Willenhall Town's Noose Lane when, once again, the previous owner's financial woes presented the opportunity.

The Lockmen and Khalsa were landlord and tenant for 4 years as the ground was redeveloped into the Aspray Arena before Willenhall moved on to Long Lane Park in Essington after a series of relegations. Pushing on again Khalsa were promoted into the Midland League Premier Division as champions. The following season in what was probably their finest hour to date, the club made it to the 4th Qualifying Round of the FA Cup where a crowd of 2,252 watched them take on FC United of Manchester at the Aspray. With only mild handbags when some Wolves' baby squad decided to crash the party for two minutes, throw bins at some pensioners then leg it down the street as soon as the cops showed up. The season after they made it to the Quarter Finals of the FA Vase and this season will be looking to take things forward another level still by gaining promotion to the Northern Premier League. They started today's game in 3rd place with 12 wins in 14 unbeaten games.

Their opponents for the afternoon were 5th place Coventry United. United were formed only four years ago in protest, quite understandably in my view, by fans of Coventry City who decided that being asked to travel to Sixfields in Northampton for home games was a bridge too far and thought they'd have more luck starting from scratch than dealing with SISU and Arena Coventry Limited. Three promotions in three seasons sees them in the Midlands Premier and they have encroached on their shunned big brother already by taking over Coventry City Women and making their home in Butts Park Arena, much touted as the future home of the Football League club. The way things are going at the moment it's not inconceivable to envision the two meeting in Conference South within a decade. Obviously they don't have much in the way of history yet but they did once beat Polesworth 28 (twenty-eight) - 0.

Joining us on this chilly Walsall afternoon were our female companions (I know, surprising isn't it?) Becky and Sophie as well as our old uni pal Mikey Southan, a Wolves fan (bin throwing pedigree unknown) who is currently trying to get a play about groundhopping off the ground along with other less ambitious projects. We entered the ground and Mikey and the girls took seats in the main stand while Daz and I walked the perimeter taking pictures of floodlights, causing much pointing and laughter from our companions. In our defense the Aspray Arena is quite an attractive ground, despite clearly being a work-in-progress. The main stand is a massive metal barn with six pillars in front of rows of flamboyant custard yellow and azure seats. In lieu of team benches there are two sections of cordoned off seats in the actual stand for the substitutes to sit among the supporters. This wasn't used by feisty Khalsa manager Ian Rowe, who couldn't even be contained by his own technical area as he ventured back and forth between screaming at his bench and wading onto the pitch, even when his team were 2-0 up. In fairness it's not like anyone was going to be brave enough to tell him to stop. Up the top of the stand there is a large empty, flat section which a few people were using to stand. The view was pretty bad because of the roof though and I'm only 5'11 so I can't recommend it, unless Khalsa have an active short person ultras firm I don't know about.

Opposite this is a covered six step terrace used sparsely on this occasion by the away fans. It's set back quite far from the pitch and had a lot of timber and lose gravel in front of it, suggesting renovations are afoot. The Khalsa owners are on record as saying they ultimately want to turn the facility into a conference standard stadium and although they're quite far at the moment, they are blessed with space to build into that a lot of league clubs would snatch your left arm off for. Behind the goal near the entrance there are a number of rooms with signs like "Stadium Cafe" and "Hospitality Suite" above them, which sound fancy but are in reality small conservatories full of people enjoying tea and samosas. The facilities are basic but well done and the club are making the most of what they have. The only notable exception are the toilets which seem to be a work in progress as most cubicles have their doors and seats detached, leaving what Daz would describe as a "build your own" approach to toileting. The goal opposite this has nothing but a grass bank and as always some mad solitary fool who decided that was the best place to watch from on this chilly Black Country weekend. In terms of making the most of the facilities, Khalsa have wasted no space at the front of the ground, with five-a-side pitches, a martial arts gym and the pièce de résistance: the 4-4-2 bar and Indian restaurant all crammed in near the turnstiles. 

Indeed fair readers I can deny it no longer, a slap-up curry meal was a huge draw when it came to earmarking this ground and I'm pretty sure it's the only reason Becky deigned to make an appearance at all. Already I was wondering if Khalsa would best such culinary delights as the Aggborough pies or the banging full-Irish cooked for us by Lenny the kindly B&B owner back in Dundalk but I would have to wait until after the game to find out. Khalsa were wearing yellow shirts and blue shorts with similar luminosity to the seats while Cov rocked a Christmassy red top, green short combo. The whole effect was quite visually distressing, leading Mikey to remark that it looked like the nucleus of one of Neil Buchanan's Big Art Attacks. 

Shocking after only 4 minutes, Khalsa were gifted the opening goal when a deflected ball landed kindly for Kyle Brady who slotted in the one-on-one, sending the keeper the wrong way. This completely trashed my 71st minute first goal scored raffle ticket. Every United player around Brady was shouting for offside which makes me wonder if it was an offside trap gone wrong which credit where it's due is a brave thing to attempt at this level. United faffed around with it too much in their own half at one point during the first half, were dispossessed and were lucky not to be two down as Craig Bannister flashed a low ball across the face of goal which would've been a tap-in if anyone had got there in time. Mitch Piggon came closest to netting for the visitors in the first half as he a cross in the box but seemed to wrong-foot himself under pressure from a Khalsa defender and ended up missing his target. He made the effort to chase the ball and kept it in but was in such a poor position by then he could only smash it into the side netting. Piggon was in for a frustrating afternoon and managed to drive a great header just wide of the far post just before the end of the half. Khalsa played it defensive for the rest of the first half, so attention was turned to the linesman nearest us who ran with his arms stretched out behind him and his fists clenched like a big bald toddler. 

Mr. Frosty Tips
It was a very open second half with too many chances for both teams to list here but in the end it was Khalsa who would add two more goals before the end. Liam Holt skipped from a central position just outside the area into the top left of the pitch and crossed it past the United defenders around the goal for Bannister to kind of stamp it into the net from a tight angle. The small gaggle of Coventry old boys continued to shout encouragement right until the death, spurring Piggon to make yet another tantalising near-miss when he received a nice through-ball, sidestepped his defender and shot across the floor from an angle, going just wide at the far post because of a deflection. What a day for that lad who could've made it evens on his own had it been any other day. Still, near-misses don't win football games and the home team hadn't finished yet. In the 89th minute Holt received the ball dead centre about 25 yards out and decided he may as well have a crack. This looked to take everyone by surprise and the United goalkeeper could only watch as the shot slinked past him to guarantee victory for his opponents. 

Mission accomplished for the boys in yellow, it was time to dive into the bar and smash a curry. I went with a lamb jalfrezi which was bloody delightful. We spent a lovely evening chatting, drinking, watching West Ham get destroyed by Liverpool on telly and being confused by the 90s rave music that was periodically blasted out over the speakers. It felt good to have finally ticked this one off after having it on the list so far and to have caught up with Mikey after such a long time.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

#66 Meadow Lane, Notts County

Notts County 4 Bristol Rovers 2
Friday 3rd of November 2017, FA Cup First Round

Seemingly not satisfied with our seven game in three days bender last month, Daz and I were linking up again to take in a couple of games together, one in the East Midlands, one in the West like the suave cosmopolitans we are. The first match would be the FA Cup first round clash between Bristol Rovers and League Two leaders Notts County at Meadow Lane. Rovers had been in a bit of a slump of late, losing three league games in a row to Oxford United, the lowly Rochdale and worst of all from my point of view, a 4-0 tonking away at Shrewsbury Town. Some cheer had been returned by us overcoming MK Dons 2-0 on the weekend and losing to West Ham Academy in the annual quest to exit the EFL Trophy as early as possible. As an added bonus, misfiring striker Tom Nichols had managed to open his Rovers account with a goal in both games and would hopefully be high on confidence going into this match. I couldn't hand-on-heart claim the same however. With our league away record for the season standing at P8 | W2 | L6 (discounting the hard-fought 1-0 win at Craven Cottage in the League Cup) and my personal record standing at P12 | W2 | D3 | L7, it was hard not to feel fatalistic about an encounter with high-flying County, considering also our tendency to flop against lower league opposition. I don't however go to away games to see us win, I go to drink beer, shout and tick off grounds, so I dutifully piled into the Ram express leaving Bristol Parkway and we hit the road along with Duke and Andy Gale.

Notts County, as they like to frequently remind everyone, are the oldest professional football club in the world (the honour of being the oldest club in general belongs to Sheffield FC who play in the Northern Premier League). Formed in 1862, though anecdotally existing informally before even that, the club has played at Meadow Lane since 1910. Arguably their greatest claim to fame, other than the 1894 FA Cup, is the fact that they were the inspiration behind Italian Giants Juventus' black and white striped shirts. Perhaps befitting of a club that's been around for such a long time, the Magpies have had a wide variety of successful and not-so successful periods in the league. At present they are at the foot of an almost two decade long slump, having travelled from the old first division all the way down to League Two from the 1991-92 season onward, with only brief respites from fourth tier to third in a general downward spiral. The past two seasons in League Two haven't been too inspiring for them, finishing in 17th and 16th place but they appear to be breaking the juju this time around and have been in an automatic place since September.

The east midlands hasn't been a favourite haunt of Partizan Bristle since I started, to date I've only been to Northampton Town despite my mother originally hailing from the land of Robin Hood and scabs and my great aunt continuing to live as she always has in the village of Bunny (no really). As such I was looking forward to ticking off another classic league ground. One thing I hadn't realised was that the distance between Meadow Land and rivals Nottingham Forest's City Ground was quite literally gobbing distance. 300 yards and (perhaps just as well) the River Trent separate the two adversaries, beaten in the UK only by Dundee's Dens Park and Dundee United's Tannadice Park which in a testament to pure British obstinacy stand on the same road, with no watery barrier, a mere 200 yards apart.

After walking round and round the perimeter of the ground in opposite directions a couple of times, Daz and I eventually organised ourselves to the same location and went in. With an away attendance of 454 there was plenty of room to meander about, grab a drink and admire the opulent glossy posters featuring the complete record of meetings, goals and results between the two clubs stretching back all the way to our formation that Notts had stuck up all over the concourse. Thanks, I guess. Must be nice to have that much disposable income, most Rovers fans thought we were living fancy when the new board added the second tent.

We took our seats in the Jimmy Sirrel Stand next to the large strip of tarpaulin separating us from... several hundred empty seats. It seems the Friday kick-off to avoid a clash with Forest put off the extra 3.307 that County have been getting on average this season. Perhaps they were all at the last surviving Hooters in the country, conveniently located just across the road from the stadium like Daz was, the sexcase. Not much to say about such an old ground sadly as once again in conforming to the post-Taylor Report world it became another identikit stadium but if I had to sum it up I thought Daz's description as a "mini Molineux" was quite apt.

Out on the pitch Rovers unleashed a rare display of early dominance with Liam Sercombe netting in the 8th minute with an assist from Joe Partington. This was followed quickly by an even rarer beast, a Stuart Sinclair goal as the hirsute centre-mid headed home a Chris Lines corner in the 12th minute, dreamland! The small but jubilant crowd of County supporters behind the goal evidently took the advice of the travelling support and stuck their drum up their arse while the blue and white battalion enjoyed an unfamiliar period of tranquillity and confidence, even merrily discussing whether a celebratory slide down the tarpaulin would be worth the shattered limbs and the inevitable appearance on The Lad Bible. Sadly this was not to last. Pretty much immediately after Sinclair's goal, Notts County started getting forward more convincingly and like so many before them often completely bypassing the midfield, as former Champions League semi-finalist Alan Smith did with a cheeky back-heel moments after coming on under drunken screams of "YOU NEVER MADE IT" from Gale.      

The tide really turned in the 29th minute when Tom Broadbent brought down Shola Ameobi in the attacking half and Carl Dickinson curled the free-kick perfectly for Ryan Yates to stride past the ponderous Rovers defence and nod home. Not a minute later Yates drew the scores level by bundling a corner into the bottom corner of the net past an incapacitated, or possibly just crap Adam Smith, who was flopping about with his arm across his face as soon as the ball came in. That said, the veteran of weird racist orgies was far from the only man at fault, as other members of the Great Leak of Horfield positioned themselves too far away from the two men at the far post. There were suggestions of a kit-clash due to both sides wearing their half-white half-black/blue home kits in a night game but really if most of our lads can't pick out a set of quarters on a pitch by now questions need to be asked.

As I'm sure you can imagine, the atmosphere below ground during half-time wasn't the most jubilant. Really the very least you might expect from a professional football team playing another from the league below would be to defend a two-goal lead longer than 18 minutes. Although Daz and some others were treating it as though Rovers were essentially starting the game over again for the second half, I'd seen this pan out too many times to have any sort of hope. Only the bizarre faces of the Notts County stewards glaring at me from the bottom of the stand could cheer me up now.

Mullet goals

On 58 minutes the inevitable happened as the ball was lamped forward from the half way line up to the waiting and totally unmarked Jorge Grant, who trotted leisurely into the box and slid it across to Jon Stead who poked it past Smith for an easy home lead. The only resistance came from Broadbent who stuck his foot out but somehow didn't connect with the cross and Lee Brown he was level with Grant the whole time but apparently powerless to affect the shot in any way. Notts set off the drabbest flare ever and I gaze up to the sky and think about the life choices that lead me to this point. Having about as much will to continue as most of the crowd at this point, Rovers let in yet another goal in the 6th minute of injury time, as the ball was again played out to a home player in the corner in acres of space, this time Forrest loanee Jorge Grant, who skipped forward into a one-on-one with zero resistance and shot it past Smith, who couldn't seem to decide whether he should come out of goal and try and smother the attack or not, eventually tiptoeing forward and doing a little jump before falling to his knees and watching the ball over his shoulder.

Really I expected nothing from this game and only went along as a warm-up to the real football tomorrow in the form of Sporting Khalsa vs. Coventry United. I can't see myself heading out to another Rovers game until the great BRFC derby against Blackburn Rovers at the end of the month where hopefully some regrouping will have occurred in the meantime.