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. 

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