Wednesday, 24 January 2018

#72 The Elms, Highworth Town

Highworth Town 1 - Royal Wootton Bassett Town 1 (Abandoned after 57 minutes)
Wednesday 10th January 2017, Hellenic League Floodlit Cup Third Round

Contrary to how it may appear, not every one of my groundhopping trips is a well-planned, rip-snorting success. Occasionally they've been a testament to blind luck in fact. Arguably, with all the more local games for the week being called off due to weather, I should have considered a Wednesday night jaunt into rural Wiltshire to be too risky. However, the Yorkshire terror that is Daz Knapton was still blazing ahead of me in the new grounds steaks so I decided to take my chances.

The fare on offer wasn't the most exciting either, a third round clash in the Hellenic League Cup or the Pepetua Press Printing Solutions Floodlit Cup, if you like. Despite this, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I headed out along the motorway because the weather was remarkably dry. I was so happy with this in fact that I failed to spot the gathering fog which was only getting thicker the closer I got to Swindon.

Located outside of Swindon-proper (the lucky devils), Highworth have been going since 1893 and are currently playing at their highest level ever. Although they won the Hellenic Premier in 2004/05, they never went up and have been pretty all over the place ever since, finishing between 4th and 16th. Highworth's greatest cup success came in 2014-15 when they made it to the semi-finals of the FA Vase, losing out to North Shields 3-0 on aggregate. Royal Wootton Bassett Town are the older club, having been formed in 1882 but have never won the Hellenic League nor gone any higher. They also haven't had as good a run in any of the major cups as Highworth, though they did win something called the Brotherhood Cup in 1938-39. Your guess is as good as mine.

I was helpfully instructed by the club's twitter person to park up in the neighbouring golf club upon arrival, their car park being in the same massive field as the football pitch. I was having quite a bit of trouble spotting the main entrance in the fog but luckily two club stalwarts had the brainwave to man a large gap in the fence equipped with a change tin, so I entered through there. The fence that lines the far side of the ground was full of gaps, which is probably why the club failed to go up when they finished as champions. The side opposite this has two banks of covered seating, with a covered standing portion in the centre which bears the initials of the club hastily painted on breeze blocks. Magic. The end opposite where I'd entered is where the clubhouse stands, looming over proceedings on a little hill with a railed-off path for the players to access the changing rooms below. I've seen worse grounds but to be honest I'd never had so much trouble actually seeing a ground as you can probably tell from the pictures.

Highworth start the game brightly. They must really want to get their hands on those Printing Solutions. They overcomplicate a few good moves though and in time Wootton start to get the ball up their end a bit, meaning I have to move to a more central position in the vague hope of seeing anything. A Wootton player hacks down a Highworth player rather bad-temperedly on the goal line just outside the box. This looked like an ideal free kick position but unfortunately it's wasted. The kicker did what I thought was the sensible thing and rolled it out diagonally to meet a teammate in the D but the resulting shot was pitifully weak and easily dealt with. Later on Wootton get into a one-on-one but it's somehow blocked by the onrushing keeper with mighty thud. Minutes later another collision with the keeper leaves a Wootton player writhing on the ground. After some deliberation the referee shows a yellow card, much to the chagrin of some meathead behind the goal who spends the entire set-up of the kick screaming at the referee in a weird cockney Swindon accent. The free kick is spooned over the bar and our lad bellows "and that's a rubbish free kick!" leaving me wondering if he's a Wootton fan or just a general fan of being livid.

All-in-all it's quite a good half of football considering the lack of goals, very free flowing, occasionally end-on-end and most importantly: extremely bad tempered. Well, it is ostensibly a derby after all. Feeling a little chilly I decided to take in the clubhouse, just as soon as I'd waited patiently for the players and officials to climb up the unreasonably long path to the changing rooms. I wanted to drink my pint at a leisurely pace for once and luckily for me there was a window at the side of the room where I imagine on a clear day you'd get quite a good view of the pitch.

I left my executive box for approximately two minutes to use the facilities before heading back out to the action and during that time it transpired that I'd missed two goals, one from each side. Whilst I was still reeling from this, the referee called off the match due to the fog. Although some people in the ground made a valiant attempt to, you couldn't really complain about this. For lovers of a feisty non-league derby, the replay will take place on Wednesday the 31st of January (weather depending).

Br00tal kvlt groundhopping black metal \m/

Sunday, 14 January 2018

#71 Longwell Green Communuty Stadium, Longwell Green Sports

Longwell Green Sports 1 - Bitton 5 
Tuesday 26th December 2017, Western League Premier Division

Ahh the Boxing Day fixture. A chance for those of us that can muster the energy to stand around in the cold, attempting to focus on a match while secreting a noxious, gravy-tinged discharge from every pore. Deciding early-on that I wouldn't engage with a return trip to Walsall's Bescot Stadium to watch Rovers, I'd settled on a mere 5.5 mile jaunt to local Western First Division side Almondsbury to watch them take on Roman Glass St. George. This was scuppered however by heavy drizzle throughout most of Christmas Day itself which caused the game to be called off. Unfortunately for me, I had engaged in my usual Christmas tradition of staying up all night drinking, ingesting garbage and ruining EastEnders for my wife by howling with laughter at this year's improbable mass death. As I result, I didn't learn about this postponement until around 11 o'clock the next morning and the only reasonable not called-off alternative was kicking off at 12. So with bleary eyes and a bad head I set off for the East Bristol suburb of Longwell Green.

Although it was a last-minute change of plan I was pretty happy to be going to Longwell Green for shamefully voyeuristic reasons, namely the fact that the side were without a win so far in the entire 2017-18 season. In fact, over 22 matches played they had acquired a grand total of 2 points and a goal difference of -62. This struck me as pretty remarkable and I'd had the club on my to-do list for some time, A: because I couldn't imagine what they were doing to obtain a record like that other than all the players running headlong into each other after kick-off, and B: because it would be great scenes to be in attendance for the first time they nabbed 3 points during the current campaign. Of course I'd already seen Paulton Rovers U18s who weren't only winless but pointless to boot, so how bad could they really be?


As previously mentioned I was pressed for time that afternoon and unfortunately it was one of those grounds where the postcode didn't quite get me to the right place. So after finding a quiet place to park, I scanned the skyline for floodlights and the sound of men swearing and romped towards them. I ended up getting to the local park which, as is the case with many recent additions to the 10th tier (Longwell obtained promotion to the Western Division One in 2005) contains a hastily ringed off rectangle containing the pitch and clubhouse, as is in the ground regulations at that level. This has varying degrees of success, not least in at Cadbury Heath where I spotted several places a person could sidle in and Welton Rovers where the village playground is mere inches from the ground boundary with only a waist-high brick wall interrupting a perfect view of the pitch. This is used to great effect by many. Even today as I walked towards what I assumed was the entrance a dog-walker paused by the fence to eye the action for 10 minutes or so. Perhaps he was on a one-man boycott, refusing to enter the ground until the club had turned things around but unable to drag himself away completely, like a tinpot South Glos version of Coventry when they were at Sixfields.     

The exterior of Longwell Green Community Stadium is very much the archetypal small town community center, the entrance to the football ground sandwiched between a Scout hut and a modern church building. The place was originally farmland that was given over to the staff of Longwell Green Coachworks, who opted to form a club in 1966 in the wake of England's World Cup triumph. Their greatest success was in 2008-09 when they finished as runners up in the Western League Division One and went up as a result. Other than that they've reached the second round of the FA Vase on two occasions and were Bristol & District League Senior Division champions in 1991–92. Although it's a far-cry from the farmland it once was, Longwell Green Community Stadium is still a fairly spartan ground. There are two metal covered stands, one with four rows of fold-down seats in blue and white and another right next to it which is half the length and holds a standing metal terrace. That's all there is. The rest of the ground is just railing and two painted blue brick dugouts. 

As I took my place behind the goal, I couldn't help but wonder how on earth these lads could be arsed. I was feeling very woozy under the effort of just standing outside and watching their Christmas lunch paunches sway in the breeze, imagine playing! It was a pretty cold one as well but mercifully the rain had left us alone for the afternoon. Some of the players seemed to be looking to just get through the afternoon with as little fuss as possible, as evidenced by one lad that went absolutely ballistic at an opposition player for clearing a ball into the opposite field early doors. I would've been happy for the momentary break personally. It's true there's no such thing as an easy game, especially on a cold boxing day but Bitton certainly would've fancied themselves considering the record of their opposition.

I was expecting wanton incompetence from Longwell Green but they're an industrious side who mark and defend decently enough but are severely lacking when it comes to strength in possession and creativity. Despite keeping things even for 35 minutes and forcing a few weak saves, Longwell do eventually concede as Best shoots low past the diving fingers of the goalie. Bitton make it two on 43 as the ball is passed from near the corner flag into a mostly empty box, well, empty of Longwell players anyway. There were, if I recall correctly, three Bitton players waiting in the box for the man by the flag (who was being kept onside by his marker) to put in the cross which Baker diverted into the goal, making my earlier comments about Longwell's defending seem a bit premature.

After a quick pint in the packed out clubhouse, I took a spot on the metal terrace for the second half. It was from here that I overheard the mad statistic that Longwell have fielded 54 (fifty four) players over this half season. Truly a mind-boggling feat which one would assume leaves the hope of getting any consistency on the pitch a far-off dream. This lack of organisation is highlighted in spectacular fashion when their goalkeeper tries to dribble the ball outside his area instead of going for a clearance and is dispossessed, allowing a Best to walk it into an open goal for his brace. I decide at this point that's it for them and it's just a matter of how many get let in now.

However they do claw one back, a somewhat fortunate nod in at the near post from a corner, to much rejoicing. A dogged period of resistance following Bittons third goal ensues where the home team see a bit more of the ball and create a couple of chances but it's short lived and Bitton score two more in the closing 15 minutes. At this point most people around me shuffled of home for some turkey sandwiches and I was left to contemplate the passing of another successful year of groundhopping. Here's to many more.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

#70 The Athletic Ground, Paulton Rovers

Paulton Rovers U18s 0 - Yate Town U18s 7 (Seven)
Thursday 21st December 2017, Somerset Youth Floodlight League Premier Division

Somerset Youth Floodlight League. Are there any words more thrilling to the human soul? The chance for the festively-stretched (in terms of time, not waistline, that came later) football ground enthusiast to take in various west country stadiums on a Thursday evening(!) at a knock-down price. Perhaps more importantly, a competition for the top non-league clubs of Somerset, Bristol and South Glos to bash their youth teams against each other like an angry toddler with a new set of WWE figures. Having never really enjoyed playing football myself at school, I have to give a doff of the cap to these young lads who will have no doubt come in after a long day at school, had a stodgy meal shoved down them by a doting parent, been ferried to a strange Somerset town in a rickety minibus and finally shoved out onto a cold pitch to play 90 minutes for a dozen (if they're lucky) overly-enthusiastic dads and club lifers who love nothing more than to bark instructions from the stands. Nevertheless, it's something that all budding footballers must go through and no doubt something they'll look back on fondly in later life whether they make it as players or not. 

Still if you must go to a SYFL fixture, Paulton Rovers have one of the plushier grounds in the league and the clubhouse edges out the village pub in terms of space and bar facilities. There was also no gaggle of jeans and shoes wearing young men shouting about Bristol City in the clubhouse (because there was no one in there at all but still). I was surprised by the professional touches throughout the place, not least the small TV screens they had behind the bar scrolling through fixtures for the senior team, the youth team and even the netball team. Eat your heart out Beşiktaş. Inside, the ground is similarly well-equipped and comfortable. Again it's nothing fancy, just simple things done right. When approaching the turnstiles from outside you can see the iron roof of a slightly raised 4-step covered terrace that spans the entire end of the pitch. A similar stand, albeit at ground level, runs along roughly one-half of the edge of the pitch up to the team benches. This has one step of terracing which extends out of the covered area. The end opposite the raised terrace is empty, save for the gated entrance to the netball... rink? Maybe I should check out a netball bout during the off season.

On the remaining side there's a ground-level stand with four rows of fold-down seats. A rather bog standard, temporary looking thing that you see at many non-league grounds. Next to this though is a brick, raised main stand accessed by stairs. This has another four rows of seats, in three colour banks, under cover. It's affords a decent view with only some pillar obstruction. Your obligatory quirky feature is the strange bungalow clubhouse, half coated in sky blue wooden panelling, half pastel orange plaster, which backs onto a stand-less section of the turnstile side. It looks like the fanciest property on the beach front in some Floridian retirement community. All in all The Athletic Ground is a very tidy facility indeed, I'd say the only better step 4 grounds I've seen are Marston Road and the Ray Mac, neither of which are fair comparisons because both are former Conference Premier venues. 

Considering Paulton has a population of just over 5,000, the Rovers are doing pretty well for themselves. This may be in part due to the windfall the club will have come into during the 2009-10 FA Cup where they overcame Bideford, Tiverton Town, Didcot Town, the then Conference South Newport County and Chippenham Town to get to the first round of the competition. Luck did not smile on them in the competition proper however and they were trounced 7-0 at home by League One Norwich City. Not before they'd got a bumper crowd of 2,070 and the TV cameras through the doors however. This season's cup run was also a memorable one for them as well, narrowly losing 2-3 to Sutton United in the fourth round qualifying. Whether this had much of an impact in the long run I don't know for sure but I do know they've come a long way from being a Western League yo-yo club with an old RAF shed for a stand (no really). Rovers spent two seasons in the Southern Premier, their highest ever level, after beating the reformed Merthyr Town in the 2013-14 play-offs. They have since been relegated back down to the Southern West where we find them today.

I wandered out onto the near terrace as one of what I would estimate to be a 15-strong crowd. This gave me lots of space to myself, allowing me to take photos and hunt for Sutton United stickers without feeling like a weirdo. Yate were really the dominant force during the opening 10 minutes, missing the opportunity to drive their first shot past Paulton's Rod Flanders look-alike goalkeeper by mere inches in the 8th minute. Soon after this Rod denied a marauding Yate forward, bravely putting his body on the line to block the close-range effort. A few of the aforementioned overly-enthusiastic dads began hooting instructions from the main stand at this point and an attempted tactical adjustment lead to the following delightful exchange:


*long pause*

Louie (despondently): ""    

A hairstyle challenger approaches

It must be difficult at such a tender age to be on show like this and no-one in the ground that night would have a tougher night than our Rod, who conceded the first goal at around 21 minutes. It was a similar effort to the one he'd saved earlier but from the opposite corner of the 6-yard box. He got down in time but the ball went just wide of him on the muddy surface. Unlucky. Two minutes later Yate strike a rocket from midfield and rattle the crossbar, Rod sensibly commits to this, possibly whilst reaffirming his faith in an all-loving god but unfortunately the ball is already bouncing it's way toward being the perfect second ball for an ensuing Yate player. It was hard not to feel sorry for the lad as wadded to retrieve the ball from his net, muttering about the horrendous condition of his goal area thanks to the December weather. I wouldn't have thrived in youth football.

On the half, Yate make it three with a similar move to the first goal. I learn that Rod's name is in fact Ollie when a young girl holding her Dad's hand walks past and remarks: "Ugh! Look at Ollie's goal. It's like a pig pen..." Still in the first half, Yate slide a cross into the centre of the box which skims it's way past the entire Paulton defence, allowing a free Yate player to smash the ball past a diving Ollie for Yate's fourth. If it sounds like I'm ragging on Ollie during this report I'm really not. The poor lad didn't have much of a chance for any of the goals once the pitch and his defenders had their influence. It may be because I was stood behind him or (more likely in my opinion) his woes took me back to my own miserable afternoons between the sticks for inter-tutor football, being shouted at by meatheads with names like Jayden, Kye and Spud but I was silently willing him to keep his head up all game. To add weight to his complaints, one of a pair of Yate players who were practising distance shots during half time cried: "How the fuck are you meant to move through that!" as he retrieved his mate's shot. It should not be thought that their goal mouth was the thing stopping Paulton from having a decent crack at the game however. Yate were their better in pretty much every aspect. I don't want to harshly criticize children on these pages so I'll just say that Paulton's point free season thus far in the SYFL Premier (which includes a 2 - 12 defeat against Weston-super-Mare and a 0 - 16 defeat against Radstock, both at home) is evidence enough that there's a lot of work to be done. 

Weirdly enough the other goal mouth was looking a lot healthier so as I changed ends to show solidarity with my new best mate, I thought that Paulton may yet have a shot at restoring some honour if they brightened up for the second half. This didn't materialise and despite some nice Paulton moves including a nutmeg and a fine diving save by Ollie (#OllieUltras), Yate continued to press and look dangerous. This culminated in the visitors fifth goal at about 65 minutes. A ball that the entire Paulton defence thought had gone out of play was deftly crossed into the middle from the goal line, just right for the grateful head of a Yate player to nod home. Nothing special but a great advert for playing until the flag's raised. Mind you when you're 5-0 up it's hard to care too much about how pretty the goals were and they weren't done yet, a sixth is scored as a result of a one-on-one from a midfield through-ball.

It doesn't get any better during the closing minutes of the game as the drizzle starts in earnest and Yate are winning corner after corner. The visitor's seventh and final goal is also probably the worst one to concede on Paulton's part, a goal-bound lob that trickles in over Ollie's fingertips when he doesn't jump high enough. Another bruising night for the Rovers youngsters but I'm sure it builds character, or something. Let's hope they can get those psychologically important first points under their belts soon and have a good run in the league cup which they're somehow still in.