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.

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