Tuesday, 25 April 2017

25/04/17 Review: Stourbridge vs Workington

Stourbridge 3-2 Workington [After Extra Time] (Evo-Stik Premier Division, Playoff Semi-Final)
War Memorial Athletic Ground

The sad thing about this time of the year is that the season is coming to an end, but the great thing is that before the end we are treated to some great penultimate football matches as clubs up and down the country look to rise to the top or avoid the drop. In preparation for next weekend's trip to Bristol to watch Manor Farm lift the Western League Premier title at The Creek before visiting Rovers at The Mem for the first time, I found myself driving over to Stourbridge last night for some Evo-Stik Premier Division Playoff action at the War Memorial Athletic Ground- my 70th Ground to date.
This one was always gonna be a busy one
With a place in the National League North at stake for the Playoff winners, and more importantly an addition to Football Manager 2018, the two sides in action yesterday were the 3rd and 4th placed sides from the league that Blyth Spartans ran away with this year. As Stourbridge finished highest, the Glassboys would have home-field advantage over their opponents who finished just two points below them. Meanwhile, 2nd placed Spennymoor Town will host Nantwich Town in the other Semi-Final tonight before the two winning sides will face-off at the weekend to see who can follow in the footsteps of last season's promoted side, Salford City. I was at that game last season and I watched the Ammies edge a highly-dramatic game 3-2 over last night's away side from the North West- and so I was very curious to find out if I would see Workington go one better and make it through the playoffs, or whether they would fall again. As I arrived in Stourbridge I realised that the blue and white scarf I was donning on behalf of my beloved Macclesfield Town would stand out like a sore thumb amongst both sets of fans who were dressed-up in their red and white stripes. Early-on I was asked by a bunch of lads why I was wearing a Barrow scarf, whilst one very observant middle-aged chap simply approached me and said "ooh, blue" as I stood in the queue to purchase my ticket.
Come on you blues reds
With an average attendance of 839, the highest in the Evo-Stik Premier by almost 200, the Glassboys have had a truly splendid season this time around and you could tell as soon as entering into the ground that there was a sense of optimism for the big game. For Workington, they were hoping it would be third time lucky as they entered yet another dreaded playoff situation. After beating this season's champs Blyth Spartans in the 2015/16 semi-final, they lost a last-gasped thriller at Moor Lane in very unfortunate circumstances. In the season prior to this, the side finished as runners-up in the League but couldn't make it past Ilkeston this time around. 4th placed Curzon Ashton went up that year.

The Stourbridge lads would be hoping to see Workington bow out again

As the last few fans crammed into the ground's three-sided viewing areas, we were almost ready to get underway. One lad, who I'm guessing is a regular, shouted out to his mate "I see that all the FA Cup fans are back" and a few others around me certainly looked like first-timers at the War Memorial. Whereas some will have been here for the disappointment of a 0-1 defeat against Sutton Coldfield Town on Monday night in October, others will only have happy memories of the season's FA Cup run which saw Stourbridge go all the way to the FA Cup Third Round, knocking out National South side Whitehawk and League One outfit Northampton Town in the process. An eventual Adebayo Akinfenwa goal ended their record-breaking run as Wycombe Wanderers just about took the spoils, but for me the Glassboys were the greatest story of this year's FA Cup. A bold claim I know, and I'm sure the footballing hipsters out there will be quick to remind me of Lincoln City's triumphs over Brighton and Burnley, or Sutton United's win against Leeds United, but people also forget that Stourbridge started their Cup run back in September in the First Qualifying Round and they had to fend-off three sides before even being considered for the stage in which the Imps enter from.
Anyway, enough about the past. Time to grab a beer
I grabbed myself a pre-match beer and pondered my prediction for the game today. In the end, I went for 2-1 to the Glassboys. The bar reminded me of the clubhouse over at fellow Evo-Stik side Mickleover Sports, but with more people, and overall I got a feel similar to that of when I made the long trek down to Dulwich Hamlet back in February to see Macc draw 2-2 in the FA Trophy. With a beer in my hand, high-hopes in my head and a chill on my face, it was kick-off time. The opening 15 minutes provided little in the way of opportunity and the tension was evident all around, from the players on the pitch to the fans in the stands, who kept up the noise in an effort to boost their side. With the away bunch spread out around the ground, we were treated to the first "there's only one ginger Messi" chorus of the night as Scott Allison whipped in the first dangerous cross from the right-wing on 20 minutes. Unfortunately for the marksman, who managed 32 goals last season, his cross was headed wide in what was the only notable half-chance in the opening exchanges. For the hosts, I only really saw a spark from 11-goal forward Jordan Archer as we entered the half-hour mark and his target man attributes were not going to be enough on their own. With Workington looking slightly better in open play, and the hosts seeming decent from set-pieces, the opening goal eventually came from a free-kick. As the ball was whipped in from the right, it was Stu Pierpoint who latched on to Tonk's cross and the roar from behind the goal was truly magnificent. Stourbridge 1-0 Workington. After a very tame start, I was so glad to see a goal before half-time and it seemed to ignite the game for the remainder. Just before the whistle, Archer had a chance to double the lead and after a great run from the left over to the right, he eventually shot at Aaran Taylor, but he saved well.

HT, 1-0 to the hosts
With a packed clubhouse, I took advantage of the quick service behind the bar and hastily pottered back out to pitch-side, knowing that I could get a space in and amongst the undercover terrace whilst the locals were still awaiting a frothy beverage. The second-half was soon underway and as the temperature plummeted towards zero, people started to huddle in and watch nervously to see how the remainder of the game would unfold. By this point we'd seen an hour pass and it would be through a defensive error that the away side almost drew level. Pierpoint, who'd been the hero at the attacking end, let the Workington striker in with an under-strength header which didn't quite reach Matt Gould in the Glassboys goal. Thankfully for Gould, he was quick to react and saved well to deny a goal, then Allison's rebound strike was deemed offside and therefore halted the premature pandemonium from the few dozen behind the goal who thought their Workington side had equalised. At the other end, Stour countered quickly and almost got a second goal. After initially winning a corner, a mess in the box saw one shot saved, another blocked off the line and then another blocked and cleared by the visiting defence. All of a sudden this game had turned from nervy and dull, to an absolute nail-biter.

Talk about end-to-end
On the 70th minute Workington were awarded a chance from 25-yards when a free-kick was given by referee Tom Kirk. As David Symington stepped-up the fans went silent, and on the ref's whistle Symington took a firm run-up before hitting his strike past the wall and into the left-side of the goal. Stourbridge 1-1 Workington.

Game on!
By this point the game really could have gone either way and with many a goal still to come, the momentum was shifting all of the time. Luke Benbow, the 38 goal striker who had been quiet so far on the night, tried his luck from range at one side, meanwhile a Workington player blazed a thunderbolt of a strike over Gould's bar on 75 minutes. With little time remaining it would prove to be top scorer Benbow who would break the deadlock, and as he twisted and turned around the box he eventually hit a left-footed cross-cum-shot into the mix. Despite Archer's efforts to get a touch on it, the ball clipped past him and the keeper too, before comfortably nestling into the bottom corner. Stourbridge 2-1 Workington. With that dreaded sense of another playoff defeat, Workington took a chance and went for an all out attack approach in the final 10 minutes. With only a couple of minutes left of normal time, Allison was given the best chance of the game after beating the offside trap and running in alongside the backtracking defence of the Glassboys. Allison lined-up and effort but screwed it wide in what I had thought would be the last chance for the visitors. However, their 440 mile round-trip was not to end just yet- and as the 4th official indicated a minimum of five minutes added time, there was chance yet to take this tie to extra-time. Deep into this added time, Workington earnt themselves a corner and it would be Dan Wordsworth who scored a massive goal for the away side. Stourbridge 2-2 Workington.

Next up, extra time
Not many people dared move from their place before extra time commenced, but I decided to move around to behind to goal again so that I could try to get a good view of the penalty shoot-out, if it went that far. With 97 minutes now on the clock, Jordan Archer, who had been solid all game, managed to produce the best moment of the game, and also one of the moments of the season for Stourbridge. He glided past his marker from outside the box and as the whole of the Workington side charged in on him he unleashed a quality strike which went into the underside of the roof of the net and gave his side the lead for a third and final time. Great goal- Stourbridge 3-2 Workington. I couldn't help but feel at this stage that there could be another goal to come and Workington certainly weren't giving this game up. Well into the second half of ET, a volley was hit nervously over the bar for the visitors and when the Glassboys conceded another late corner the fans started to murmur their concerns of another equaliser. "Oh, not again" is what the man next to me said as the corner was swung in, this time to be cleared well up to Benbow, who this time managed to have his strike saved on the break. And with that, the whistle blew and it was game over at the War Memorial Athletic Ground.

Queue pitch invasion
Stourbridge will have to wait until tonight to find out who they will face. They know that it will either be an away trip to Spennymoor Town or a home tie against the Dabbers, but either way I would like to wish them good luck in a massive tie. I would also like to make a promise to Workington that I won't come and watch them in the playoffs next season- having now seen them twice lose 3-2!

Friday, 14 April 2017

14/04/17 Review: Cefn Druids vs Llandudno

Cefn Druids 3-2 Llandudno (Welsh Premier League)
The Rock

Good Friday, named in the Great British calendar for its meaning to Christians amongst the Easter holidays- but in my calendar, it is named as good just for being a day off from work. Having already made my way out to a couple of fairly local grounds earlier in the week in, the ML Safety Stadium and the McDonald's Community Stadium in Walsall and Lichfield respectively, I fancied something a bit different for this afternoon's jaunt. Having looked at League options in the English divisions and even briefly considering a trip down to Woking to watch the mighty Silkmen, but in the end I hopped into my car at half 12 and headed for Cefn Mawr in Wales, all-ready to take in some Welsh Premier League action between the Druids and their north coast rivals Llandudno.

My second visit to a Welsh ground
My lone-standing trip to a Welsh Premier League game so far was during my "four games in four days in four countries" groundhopping adventure with Tom (Partizan Bristle) and it had been to see champions TNS defeat 2nd place gap Connah's Quay in an eventually comfortable 3-0 home win at Park Hall. With a fairly peculiar ground in Oswestry, I spent half of that trip on TNS Radio with "The Rev", making for an all-in-all strange afternoon- so I was hoping today to get more of a "real feel" for what the Welsh League had to offer. I arrived in the village outside of Wrexham with ten minutes to spare before kick-off and was instantly amazed by the scenery I found overlooking the ground. Named "The Rock", I could see why Cefn Druids ground was titled with that handle as I stared at the vast ridge which ran across the length of the pitch. A truly magnificent sight for a first-time visitor.
I couldn't wait to get inside for this one
As with most of my trips to unknown grounds, I tend to have a bit of a read of the clubs I'm watching before deciding who I'd be cheering-on for the day. With the Druids returning to the Premier League after relegation back in 2014/15, they started the day in 9th out of the 12 teams and just one point and place below their opponents for the day. With relegation still a possibility for both sides, the pressure was on and I'd decided that based on the Druids recent good form with just one loss in eight since the League split in half for the second phase, I'd have to back them today so 2-1 was my guess. In a game that would feature three Jones's, a triplet of Williams's for Llandudno and a couple of Roberts's, there was also plenty of spectators about- and for anybody who was there will certainly have noticed the lairy lads who gave it their all from start to finish. I'm not sure if these seemingly massive fans have their own name, but I decided I'd call them "The Druids Dozen".
Give me a "D", give me an "R", give me a "U", give me an "I", give me a "D", give me an "S" 
The chants went on, and on, and on, for the full 90 minutes and with their tones bouncing off the opposing crag it gave an echoing sound which for a second made me forget that I wasn't at a packed out 30,000 seater ground. On the 3G pitch in-front of us, there was a game going on too and it got off to a cracking start. With just over 10 minutes played the ground erupted as the first goal found its way into the net. Former Warrington Town and Rhyl striker Ash Ruane looked good from the off for the hosts and it was his run and shot that left Mike Pritchard with an easy finish and the first of many goals to come in this tie. Druids 1-0 Llandudno. From the opening exchanges I had a good feeling about this match, and both sides seemed to be playing better football than I remember from the TNS vs gCQ game I'd been to back in October, although I may be mistaken. Cefn Druids may not have the greatest nor most successful history over the years, but one proud moment for this village side of course came in 2012 when they played a two-legged tie in the Europa League Qualifying Rounds against Finland's MyPa-47. True, they may well have lost 0-5 over the two encounters, but for teams in Wales it is all about getting into Europe and so for the Druids to do this is a great bit of history for them to recall upon. For now though they would have to make do with staying in their nation's top division, and Llandudno weren't going to roll over. When Lee Thomas had a point-blank volley saved by possibly the greatest stop I've ever seen, the ball was hit again against the bar and then eventually a defender too- but despite all this, the ball did cross the line and Llandudno were level. Druids 1-1 Llandudno. With the game pretty even in terms of possession and equal on the scoreline, the opening 25 minutes had been very entertaining so far. This pattern was to continue in this way and just before the half-hour mark we found ourselves up cheering another goal. As with the opener, it would be Ruane who would prove to be the play-maker and after dispossessing a Llandudno defender he tore down the right-hand side before picking out his mate Pritchard again to apply an expert finish and restore the home side's lead. Druids 2-1 Llandudno. The ball was now back in the Druids court again and they looked to seize the initiative before half-time, which was fast-approaching by now. The Druids Dozen continued to shout out support for the lads, and in a hilarious turn of events for two old chaps who started to head to the bar just before the whistle, they found themselves being subject to a "we can see you, we can see you, we can see you sneaking out!" chant. Meanwhile on the pitch, the Druids had five consecutive corners and with Stuart Cook playing some great football in the heart of the home side's midfield, Llandudno would have been happy enough making it to the break at 1-2.

A third would've been nice before the break, but it was not to be... yet
During the break, I left pitch-side to grab myself a very reasonably-priced pint. Needless to say that the Druids Dozen were in there enjoying a couple of brews whilst playing some classic drinking games- standard! Things could have turned sour for the lads though as a game of grenade ended with pints spilled and glasses accidentally smashed all over the clubhouse floor. Oops.

It was peaceful just moments earlier
With kick-off coming back around, I headed back out and took my seat again ready for hopefully more of the same. I overheard people talking about already-relegated Airbus UK Broughton being 0-6 down at HT to Newtown in the "top vs bottom" game in the League's lower section. The game continued to be decent, but there was a bit more tension than seemed to be before the break- and as a result of this most of the chances came from range. As Ellis Healing and Stuart Cook went close, I started to feel as though my pre-match prediction may well be a good call. My stand-out player of the match, Ash Ruane, had other ideas though and he would set-up an interesting final few minutes in this game. As Llandudno looked to push for an equaliser, the ball was eventually hoofed up-field to the ever-chasing Druids #26. He had no support and many a defender approaching him as he came to a stop about 25-yards away from the goal. With nowhere to go, Ruane put his head down, took a potluck strike on goal and hit it perfectly out of reach of the keeper and superbly into the net. Druids 3-1 Llandudno. With only a few minutes left now, it seemed likely that the hosts had done enough now to clinch the points. Regardless of this, Llandudno gave it a go and with the 90th minute approaching an inch-perfect run from Danny Hughes led him to receive a pass in on goal. After lining-up his shot from the keeper's right, Hughes curled his effort past Jones but also just past the post- had that gone in, the final moments would have been very close. Alas, there was still time yet and Llandudno pushed on again, and when Hughes had another shot which this time struck the bar, luck this time favoured the away side and the ball came into the eye-line of Marc Williams and he dived in to head the ball into the net. Druids 3-2 Llandudno.

Squeaky bum time now! 
Thankfully for Cefn Druids the last-ditched corner for Llandudno came to nothing and Huw Jones called for the final-whistle in a real humdinger of a game. With the combination of the goal-friendly game, a lovely view surrounding a decent ground and of course the Druids Dozen giving a bit of atmosphere to the afternoon, I think that The Rock will definitely go down as one of the more memorable grounds I've been to this season. Good luck to both sides in the last couple of games- this is likely to be my last WPL outing for the season, but it certainly won't be my final trek over the border.
Cheers again- "you are staying up, I said you are staying up!"

Thursday, 13 April 2017

12/04/17 Review: Lichfield City vs Sporting Khalsa

Lichfield City 0-3 Sporting Khalsa (J.W Hunt Cup, Quarter-Final)
The McDonald's Community Stadium

Yet again I found myself taking advantage of a night off from work last night, and tonight's action would come from the little old city of Lichfield. After seeing a West Midlands side take down a Staffordshire team last night in the form of Walsall Wood's 4-0 trouncing of Rocester, I would yet again be placing my metaphorical money on a West Mids side to do the business in the J.W Hunt Cup. Sporting Khalsa, whom I saw stitch Stafford Town up last season in this competition, were the visiting side for this game and being from the division above their opponents, they were favourites for the tie. I went in with a 0-4 pre-match prediction, which was mainly inspired (copied) from what I'd seen on Tuesday night. Khalsa are currently 4th in the Midlands Premier, whilst City are a very respectful 7th place in the First Division and were it not for an admin error on the behalf of Lichfield last season, this match would have been a repeat of the 2015/16. Lichfield were booted out of the Cup just before the final due to fielding an illegible player, meaning that Sporting Khalsa lifted the trophy after an entertaining final in which they beat Wolverhampton Sporting Community 3-2 at Molineux.
Today would be a chance at redemption, with home court advantage
One instantly noticeable thing about Lichfield City is that they are indeed sponsored by McDonald's. After Mayor McCheese himself agreed a deal with the club in 2015, the ground was renamed and rumours have it that Ronald has been paying the players in legendary McNuggets since then. As I arrived at the ground ready for the big game, I parked up on the side of the hidden roadway and popped straight into the bar to have a quick pint and watch the last minutes of Borussia Dortmund's 2-3 loss against Monaco. Donning my Khalsa scarf, I sat in and amongst the fans of both sides and soaked in the pre-match atmosphere inside the fairly packed bar. It was great to see the youth teams of Lichfield and Khalsa respectively kitted-up and having a good time, as well as the classic group of Villa fans sat in the corner slurping pint after pint.

My Clubhouse pictures never do justice to how busy it actually was
When kick-off came around I took my mooch over to the entrance, coughed up my fiver to get in, and then took shelter from the suddenly cold winds in the very basic seating area to the left of the gate. Doubting they'd remember me from my trip to the Aspray last season, a lot of Khalsa's owners and representatives had already packed out the seating and a few of them said hello to me as I perched amongst them ready for the game to begin. Note for if they are reading, I will be back to see you next season and I'll be bringing a few mates along to experience the quality ground, great hospitality and awesome post-match curry!

My lodgings for the evening
The game started off well enough, with both sides looking intent on getting the early advantage. Despite a bobbling pitch, Khalsa looked confident in knocking the ball about and they looked to have the edge when it came to possession. Lichfield looked decent on the counter from early-on and Joseph Haines was making some promising runs from left-back, however their first effort on goal after about 10 minutes was straight down the path of Khalsa's number one. At the other end Khalsa had a long-range drive wisp past the posts and a header was nodded wide, but it was Khalsa's left-back who was looking dangerous and as the ball sat up Michael Perks tested his luck on 25 minutes with a thumping 30-yard strike which flew over. With half an hour now gone, the away side were awarded a penalty and had a big chance to take the lead. Despite stepping up confidently, Meese had his spot-kick very well saved by James Lawson, keeping it at 0-0 for now. This memory won't serve long in Lawson's memory though, as the resulting couple of corners eventually led to the opener and it was captain Tes Robinson, the Brummy-born St. Kitts & Nevis international, who rose highest to power home his headed effort. Lichfield 0-1 Khalsa. Having seen the penalty saved just before this opener, Lichfield could ill-afford to feel sorry for themselves and would hope to gain a bit of luck to help them get back into it before half-time. Unfortunately for them though, fortune favoured the Sporting and we were to be treated to an outstanding strike just before the break. With 5 minutes left for City to hang-on, Khalsa's sharpshooting left-back found himself approaching the ball from about 25-yards out. Having already set his sights with an earlier worldie-attempt, he this time followed-through with a beautifully struck volley which headed towards Lawson's goal. The unfortunate keeper guided his way towards his right-hand post as the shot went past him, before the ball rattled off said post, straight at Lawson and then finally bounced into the net. To call it an own goal would be harsh, as it was a truly magnificent strike! Lichfield 0-2 Khalsa.

HT, 0-2 to the away side
Despite being two down at the halfway point in the game, I didn't feel as though the hosts were out of it yet. A set-piece header and a stunning goal were the difference so far, but I'm sure David Langston will have been telling his lads that they can get back in it. Whilst he was doing that, I headed back into the bar to warm-up whilst watching a few HT highlights from Bayern vs Real, and before I knew it we were ready to get back out there for the second-half. Khalsa's executives decided to watch the second 45 from the shelter behind the goal, meaning that I was left alone in the stand with some of the competitions officials. With the second-half lacking in chances and flair, I ended up listening-in to some of the weird and wonderful topics of conversation around me which ranged from 'the six-second rule for keepers' to 'referees wearing pink'. In fairness, tonight's Referee and Officials were pretty much spot-on with most calls and this allowed for a fairly calm second-half. It wasn't a boring one, and Lichfield did give it their all to open the Khalsa door, but it probably won't be one that sticks in my mind long-term. Despite this though, there was to be a final goal in the game and with Sporting refreshing their wings for pacey substitutes, it would be the favourites that got the killer third goal. I thought it was Meese from where I was that had made amends for his earlier penalty failure, however the Khalsa Twitter page suggests that it may well have been Fabrice Kasiama. Either way, a good run on the 77th minute from the right-hand side eventually made its way to someone and they converted coolly. Lichfield 0-3 Khalsa. Fair play to Lichfield as they continued to play decent football for the final ten minutes, and despite looking suspect to conceding a fourth on the break they did almost pull one back as an expertly dispatched free-kick by the number 8 bounced off the bar in the closing stages.

The full-time whistle blew, and it was safe passage into the Semi's for Khalsa
The three-goal victory for Khalsa was comfortable in the end and next up in the Semi-Final will be a tough game against the MPL leaders and almost certain champions Alvechurch, whilst fellow Midland Prem side Highgate United will encounter Wednesfield FC from two divisions below in the other Final Four fixture. For Lichfield City it should hopefully be back to winning ways in the League now, with a home-tie this weekend against Coventry Copsewood. All that's left to say from me is good luck to reigning champs Sporting Khalsa for the Semi-Final- depending on when the final is, I'll make an effort to get to the final at Molineux as it's a much better excuse to make a visit than a Wolves game!

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

11/04/17 Review: Walsall Wood vs Rocester

Walsall Wood 4-0 Rocester (Midland Football League Premier)
ML Safety Stadium

With the football season sadly closing in, a Tuesday night outing to my first game of three this week would see me take on a fairly short ride over to Walsall in search of yet another Midland Football League game. With a rare week of day shifts falling upon me, I decided to take advantage of my newly-found nine til five rota and get on down to my 67th ground and at the same time gather a preview of a Staffordshire side that is on my list of local grounds to tick off.

Here we go again
The village of Rocester is known for being the home of a little company you may well have heard of called JCB, but aside from that it is just one of Staffordshire's quaint little cubbyholes and sits quietly upon the border of Staffs and Derbyshire. It is safe to say that the village's football team, known as the Romans, are fairly well established in the Midlands Premier League but haven't exactly shown signs of making a shove for the next level- despite having success in the Staffordshire Senior Cup back in 2008 with a win over Kidsgrove Athletic in the final. The Wood, on the other hand, have had one stand-out adventure in recent years as they made it all the way to the quarter-final of the FA Vase in the 2012-13 season, before eventually losing a replay away at Guernsey- and that must have been some away day!

Perfect night for it tonight
This season had been so far proven to be a bit of a damp squib for both sides, who sat in 14th and 17th respectively before the kick-off tonight. The Wood had 44 points to start the day with and were in the midst of a good old survival scrap, which went as far down as 20th placed AFC Wulfrunians on 41 points and right up to Boldmere St Michael's who were 12th with just 48 points. A win today would take them above their opponents, meaning that we should be in for a tough fight all-round. My pre-match prediction today was for a 2-1 victory in favour of the home side.

Lights, camera, action!
With my drive only taking 40 minutes or so from Stafford, I had arrived at Walsall Wood's ML Safety Stadium with plenty of time to spare- always a bonus when you have a hankering for a cheeky pre-game beer. Plenty of grounds I've visited in the non-league do have the odd quirky feature to boast, which is what makes them so memorable on my groundhopping ventures. Whether it is the gorgeous scenery overlooking Matlock's Causeway Lane, the giant Thurrock Hotel sitting over Ship Lane, or the Aspray Arena's delicious "442 Bar", there is quite often a feature-piece that I enjoy taking in before the game- and today's ground can only be described properly as being the back garden of a KFC! Nope, I'm not even joking, the ground literally sat behind the Colonel's car park and will now therefore be ingrained in my mind as being the one at the back of KFC- sorry lads! I swiftly entered the ground after a brief interaction with the nice chaps on the turnstile and apart from the picturesque sunset looming over the West Midlands, my eyes were also drawn straight towards the delightfully long-lived Geoff Woodward stand. I won't dwell on it too much, but I do love a good grandstand and with wooden panelling lining this non-seated build it was a joy to behold as one man put up his "For The Good Of The Wood" flag.

Long-live the Geoff Woodward stand
Call me a romantic but on my travels I have come across so many grounds which have adapted the modern-style stand, so it is always a pleasure to see a modern day relic like this stand- especially when you don't know how long they may last for! Round at the other side of the ground, I found myself at the bar, just for a change. The decent-sized clubhouse was attended by many a fan, with some having a catch-up and others watching the build-up to Juventus vs Barcelona. As the weather was still decent at this stage, I grabbed myself a pint and headed back outside to scout out potential star-players during the final part of their warm-up. I won't lie and say that I picked out the next Jamie Vardy or Troy Deeney, and instead I found myself reading up on the previous results wondering who would have the edge in this important tie. The reverse fixture back in October was a 3-2 victory for the Romans, but a big 1-0 win this weekend for the Wood over fellow strugglers Long Eaton United has given them the confidence to crack on and pick up a few more crucial points. Rocester, on the other hand, had stumbled through a goalless draw with relegation candidates AFC Wulfrunians on Saturday and it's safe to say that with anybody capable of beating anybody at the moment in the MPL, it was well and truly game on.

Let's ave it, then
The game started off with an early goal and it was about as sloppy as they get from the away fans point of view- not that Joey Butlin minded, his scuffed volley barely made contact as the ball came in on the right and it found its way into the net. Wood 1-0 Rocester. The shaky start by the Romans was noted by Walsall Wood and they looked to kill the game off early, and on 8 minutes they missed a glaring chance as the Wood's left-winger missed an open goal. The number 11 obviously couldn't believe his luck as the ball bounced over the Rocester defender and keeper, but the end result was that the lad had his face in the grass as his shot flew wide. Whereas the footballing display was less than pleasant from the visitors, I must make a note of how fond I was of their blue and white kit- one I'd certainly consider purchasing to add to my collection.

Despite this, it was all Wood so far
With 20 minutes now reading on the Ref's watch, the away side finally looked likely of getting into the game as the impressive number 11 worked his magic out on the right-wing before cutting inside and unleashing a sweet strike that soared just past the post. The talented winger tried this a couple of times on the rare Rocester counters and looked fairly threatening on the offence- clipping the crossbar with his next dig. At the other end though, the Romans keeper wasn't doing himself much justice between the sticks and after dropping a shot into Butlin's path he could've almost had a brace, but as with his last error in judgement this one was not punished. Another goal was to come before half-time though, and it would be Butlin again on hand to poach the goal. His header from close-range was well-taken and with that the crowd were treated to a large, singular roar from one thrilled local in the Woodward Stand. Wood 2-0 Rocester. Usually I do try and keep track of bookings in a match too, but those of you who may have been there will sympathise with me in struggling to keep track of it all. As one Rocester player was muscled out and reduced to the floor, a rowdy fan in shorts bawled out to him, "this ay' the Premier League, mate." As more than a couple of players went into Mr. Corbett's book just before the break, Rocester went in two down and with everything to do in the second 45.

The Official Walsall Wood Shorts Crew- my kind of people
I quickly popped in to grab myself another beer, at which point I got chatting with the lass on the bar. After serving me my Lager in a glass, I pointed out to her that I would be taking it outside with me. She looked at me and told me "a pint in a plastic doesn't quite taste right somehow. A bit like a cuppa, you need it in a china cup". I think I'm in love!

After a quick laugh at Barca being 0-2 down in Italy, it was time to get back out there
The second-half started in a similar fashion to how the first had ended. Despite the temperature in Walsall dropping as darkness fell upon us, the pitch remained pretty hot as the players continued to draw many a foul in a very stop-start 45 minutes of football. As the Rocester left-back took a rough tackle from a red-shirted foe, one moment of relief was when the "physio" (I use this term loosely) ran on with just a water bottle to attend to the floored defender's ankle. Clearly he did his magic as the lad limped on for the rest of the game, but Walsall Wood were still eyeing a couple more goals and they pushed on in the final half an hour. A free-kick was lobbed over a crowded box from the left to Louis Harris, and he took the ball inside before clinching the game with his side's third goal. Wood 3-0 Rocester. By this stage the few travelling fans, including one man who seemed to be wearing Dr Seuss's Cat in the Hat's hat, were getting very frustrated by the referee and I think also their team's detached performance. One man picked up on a tumble by two-goal Butlin and shouted out, "it's like watching the Italians", which was ironic because in the clubhouse Juventus were also 3-0 up against Barca!

Walsall Wooventus vs Rocestalona?
There was a fourth goal to come for the hosts and even a couple of red cards in the final 10 minutes- talk about action. With the Rocester side already deflated, Walsall Wood added a fourth goal as Lewis Taylor Boyce got in on the act from the bench and he hit home a good strike on the counter to end the goal glut. Wood 4-0 Rocester. The substitute striker for the opponents didn't quite have the same effect though, and he was sent off for a second bookable offence on 87 minutes. As the shorts-wearing twosome shouted "get off, fat arse", the Romans were now down to ten- and in stoppage time it would be nine as the hefty centre-back was given his marching orders for his second yellow- which I didn't really see what it was for.

I know where I'd be going if I was sent for an early bath!
The game ended 4-0 meaning that it was an all-in-all great day for the Wood and as if to rub salt in the wound of the Staffordshire side, the Wood jumped up to 14th and took over Rocester in the process. A tough trip to Coventry Sphinx is next up for the Wood, meanwhile the Romans will look to look to bounce-back at home with a very tough tie at home to high-flying Lye Town. And for those of you wondering if I popped in for some chicken before embarking on my journey back to Stoke- of course I did, it'd be rude not to!

Saturday, 1 April 2017

01/04/17 Review: Mickleover Sports vs Hednesford Town

Mickleover Sports 0-1 Hednesford Town (Evo-Stik Premier Division)
Don Amott Arena

With yet another birthday looming over me, it was time to get out to another ground at the end of my annual leave from work- which this time would come as a treat from my girlfriend. We'd originally made plans to double-up a trip to the northern seasides of Wales as a groundhop to Colwyn Bay, however the weather put us off that idea and we instead decided to go for a day out in Derby and of course a trip to see Sports take on Hednesford Town in the greatest League in the world!
My 17th Evo-Stik ground across the three divisions
In yet another instalment of 'Pint of Football does Evo-Stik', I was excited to be getting down to another ground within my comfort zone after visiting such obscure Southern grounds as the Wadham Lodge Stadium, Lower Road in Hullbridge and Thurrock's Ship Lane this week. It was nice to get some groundhopping in down in Essex this week, but for me there's nothing better than a Saturday afternoon Evo-Stik tie and to those footballing hipsters I say that you can keep your Jamie O'Hara's and Paul Konchesky's- I'd rather see a bit of Clinton Morrison!

But first, a beer!
Arriving at the Don Amott with time to burn, I "entertained" Sophie by reading through the Match Day Programme and telling her a bit about the teams and I even got a pre-match prediction to add to mine. With the home side starting the day in a less than spectacular 18th place and Hednesford looking steadily average in 13th I predicted a 1-1 draw and Sophie decided to take a punt on the hosts, guessing they'd take a famous 2-1 win over their Staffordshire opponents. As a resident of Staffs myself, I must admit that I'd walked into the ground as a Pitmen fan for the day but after reading about Mickleover's team and finding out that former Silkmen one-season wonder Pablo Mills was in the Starting XI, I changed my allegiance and thought I'd get behind the side in red and black for this bout. Taking advantage of having a driver for the day, I supped a couple of pints just in time for the sides to come out to the field and with the clouds descending we took shelter in the main stand ready for the action to begin. It is worth noting that before the start of today's match, my other-half had managed to watch two matches this season (both 0-0) and she also saw two goal-less draws in 2015/16- it's easy to see why her love for the game isn't as strong as mine! Despite this though, we enjoyed a good opening to the game in which both sides worked some good play in an end-to-end start. With former Republic of Ireland international striker Clinton Morrison, who has played 88 Premier League games with Crystal Palace and Birmingham City, starting up-top alongside 19-year old Mansfield Town loanee Tyler Blake, I fancied Sports to have a good crack at Hednesford Town. I had seen the Pitmen at Keys Park at the end of October and although they confidently dispatched Sutton Coldfield Town on that evening, an away day in Derbyshire would be no walkover and with mixed results plaguing their reach for the Playoffs, it was now seemingly a big ask for Town to return back to the National League North at the first time of asking. On the field, we had to wait for about 20 minutes to pass before the first real chance on goal. Jake Scott, a pacey left-winger, looked to be the brightest spark from the off and after a right-footed hit was well saved in the box, he then powered a long-range strike wide of Dan Crane's right-hand post just minutes later.
Talk about man-marking
Despite Hednesford looking decent on the counter, the ball was looking more likely of ending up in their net than the home side's as half-time drew ever closer. Andy Dales went close with a good effort from out-wide, meanwhile at the other end there was a bit of handbags between Tony Clarke and Kevin Grocott. With the game lacking in rhythm in some places thanks to Mr. Dadley's strict approach to proceedings, we saw a few moves stopped by the Ref who deemed many a heavy-tackle to be against his liking.

HT, 0-0
Half-time proved to be a happy sight for me because of one particular score I'd spotted on the big screen in the clubhouse. As a Macclesfield Town fan, needless to say I was thrilled to see that we were 4-1 up away at Boreham Wood.

The question was, would we get any of those sweet, sweet goals?
The second 45 got off to a decent start, especially for the travelling fans who managed to see their side notch the winner before the hour-mark. As the 54th minute approached, a melee in the box eventually led the ball into the path of Joe Ballinger who had the simple task of heading home. Mickleover 0-1 Hednesford. The remains of the game were very entertaining and I couldn't believe how the score ended 0-1. Ultimately, Mickleover were wasteful with their chances and they were punished by Ballinger's prompt finish. The number 10 for Sports, Lewis Belgrave, was the main culprit today and after his shot on the hour-mark was blocked on the line his luck didn't get much better in-front of goal. On another day, I'm sure the lad could have bagged a hat-trick, but when a chance was offered to him on 66 minutes from close-range, the youngster could only lift his strike high, wide and not very handsomely over the Hednesford goal. To add insult to injury, the Ref was at this point filling up his little book with what seemed to be half of the Sports' eleven. Player/Manager and former Villa player John McGrath joined Mills and Turner in the book as a very frustrating afternoon came towards its conclusion. On 85 minutes a free-kick hit the woodwork and even with Mills and substitute Aaron Cole joining the strike-force late-on, Hednesford would pick up three crucial points that lifts them up to 11th in the table.

Credit to Hednesford, they took their chance. Sports did not
Knowing that the delights of delicious food were to follow, we quickly headed to the car park and we were on our way to Stone for some restauranty goodness. I concluded my trip by having one last look at Don Amott's ground, knowing that I had ticked-off another impressive Evo-Stik ground. It may not have been as vastly seated as some in this division, but I would say that Mickleover's Arena is perfectly acceptable for their average of 235 fans per game. So often will you see pictures of my exploits in which I'm surrounded by rows and rows of empty seats, and unless Sports make a terrific push towards the next level, I'd say their venue is a great size and with decent facilities. I even purchased a scarf for my collection, which is a sign that I'd had a great time!

Plus they had a healthy bar- always a winner in my book
My next venture, ironically, was scheduled to be a trip to this ground in a week's time to see Derby Ladies take on Blackburn, but I'll probably give that one a miss now and wait for a couple of midweek games in mid-April. The end of the season is approaching, gotta cram those games in!