Sunday, 31 December 2017

30/12/17 Review: Bowers & Pitsea vs Ware

Bowers & Pitsea 0-2 Ware (Bostik First Division North)
Len Salmon Stadium

Exactly a year to the day since my failed expedition to Billericay Town's New Lodge, I was yet again in Essex for the New Year festivities and so I thought I'd have another go at getting to one of the Bostik League's grounds- this time I chose the fairly short hop over to Pitsea, on the border of Basildon, for my final game of 2017.

My 101st Ground
In truth, it will be the journey to and from the ground that shall live as long in the memory as the match itself, but I always maintain that Groundhopping isn't just about the 90 minutes of football on display, with the people, the ground and the many other factors all playing a part- my mate once took a drenching from a water sprinkler and it made an otherwise poor outing a great one. So with the 13:25 train from Leigh-on-Sea taking me to Pitsea, I arrived and mooched over to the Tesco Extra in anticipation of catching the number 5 bus to a place called Wilsner. So far so good. Having stood awaiting the bus with a few Pitsonians I thought I'd ask about the Bowers team, but after chatting with three different people it appeared that nobody actually knew anything about them, even to the extent that the junior bus driver questioned whether Wilsner was the right place for me to be getting off in search of the ground. Alas, I continued to take the ride until I eventually saw a bit of road that looked similar to what I'd seen on Google Maps earlier that day. As documented in a recent trip to Meadow Lane, I tend to make hard work of my public transport adventures due to a lack of botherdness to prepare for the journey, but with luck often on my side I dare say I've missed very little football as a result of it. With almost an hour until kick-off still, I knew that I was in the correct part of town and now just had to wander aimlessly until I saw that delightful nugget also known as a peeking floodlight from over yonder.

At least I could take in the scenery along the way
Having trawled through the graffiti-stained streets of Cliftonville in Belfast and some of the less delightful parts of Manchester I was no stranger to roughing it, but as I found myself roaming around alone and stumbling over bin bags and empty cider bottles on each street corner, I realised that this labyrinth of a council estate could go on forever and so I took temporary sanctuary in a pub on the Tyefields road. The folk in the bar were very friendly and after supping a quick beer, chatting about the mighty Macc Town and gathering information on the Len Salmon Stadium's location, I was again on my way with just under 30 minutes until kick-off. With the direct instructions ingrained in my mind, I soon found myself following a few other fans towards the ground. In an attempt to create a witty ice-breaker for the day I had prepared a humorous conversation starter that I soon found myself using as I approached the entrance. I walked up to the stewards guarding the side-entrance and said "who have you lads got today then?", to which they replied with "Ware". I was then straight in with "No, I said who, not WHERE!" and with a smile raised all-round I was happy to have added to the good mood of people at the ground, who were still buzzing from Boxing Day's bumper attendance of 208 for a massive 2-1 victory over local rivals Canvey Island. After heading into the well-attended clubhouse for a pre-match pint, I surrendered £10 at the gate and headed in to the ground with kick-off almost upon us. My first impression of the ground was that it has the rough-and-ready feel of the rest of the estate that the ground was built upon, but I soon realised that the tinpot style only added to the character of the venue and I was pleased to be at yet another ground that realistically matches the area it lives in. Just like the Lamb Ground I'd visited for my magical 100th last week, the Len Salmon came with a decent amount of covered standing and seating areas, with both home and away fans feeling welcome before the match. Before the start of today's match, the hosts were sitting pretty in 2nd, just 2 points off the top spot and an impressive 7 points in front of the rest of the pack and although table-topping AFC Hornchurch had three games in hand, the Bowers would feel that a win today could keep them in contention to make a challenge into 2018. For Ware on the other hand, today would be another chance for them to try and climb the table from their 22nd position and with just 2 points gained in 3 December games so far the odds weren't in their favour. My pre-match prediction for today was 4-1 to Bowers & Pitsea- how wrong could I be?

Game time
As expected, it was the 2015-16 FA Vase Finalists that started strongest in their red and white strip. Bowers looked to push forward in the early stages and the first big chance came in the 16th minute as Tony Stokes headed wide a free header following a great cross from the right-wing. This miss was to be the first of a few for the home side and it seemed like if they were going to gain the lead they would need a bit of luck- which almost came on a couple of occasions as the Ware keeper fluffed his goal kicks straight into the path of the front three for Bowers. It was not a great start in terms of action and I must admit that I was starting to feel that Ware would be happy to just play on the counter and not really do too much else. This remained consistent for the first-half and as the game turned into a simulation of a pinball table with the ball pinging up and down the field and bouncing off players without too much control being shown, the next real chance fell to Ware after 30 minutes and after Hamilton crossed in for Elsom it was only for an air-shot to deny the striker the opener.

The Bowers continued to push, but largely reduced to set-pieces
The most common sight from the stands was Jamie Salmon, who may or not be related to stadium named Len, taking free-kicks into the Ware box and although his delivery was often decent, there wasn't too much threat at the receiving end. Ware's left-back Oujdi had gone into the Ref's book following three fouls all of a similar nature, and when he soon conceded a fourth there was a moment's silence as the man in the middle decided whether or not to dismiss him. One fan tried to help the cause by shouting "that's his eighth one!" but in the end Oujdi was allowed to remain on the field, which would prove to be a key decision for the visitors. Bowers continued to attack and after Ashman waltzed through three defenders out on the left, he then picked out Lewis Manor who couldn't apply the finish. At the other end the lucky-to-be-on-the-pitch left-back Oujdi started a good counter in the 41st minute and after an initial shot was well saved, the ball fell to the poaching winger Marvin Hamilton and he just about bundled the ball over the line and gave the half a dozen travelling fans behind the goal something to cheer about just before half-time. Bowers 0-1 Ware.
Half-time, get the beers in
The afternoon was surprisingly mild considering the arctic conditions we'd seen recently, but that still didn't stop people wrapping up in three thousand layers. As a pint was poured for me at half-time, the bar staff couldn't help but comment on the temperature outside and said that my hands must be cold from being out there with a bevvy in hand. I quickly informed her that I was indeed wearing shorts and that left her unable to add further comment about the concerns of being cold. I did however start to feel the need to pull out my new woolly hat for the second-half and the colours of my Sheffield FC garment fitted in well with the red wear of the home fans.

Second-half, behind the goal view with the away few
The second-half was more of the same really and after Alaa Oujdi was subbed off before being sent off, the match was underway again. The first chance of note came on the hour-mark and unfortunately for the home side it was again a shot off target,this time from Leahy from close-range. I could continue to write about the chances carved and wasted by the hosts but ultimately it would be the away side who sealed the deal with another well-timed counter. Another ball was punted up towards substitute striker Sam Alderson and he took his chance to beat the back-peddling defence and then much to his delight he lofted a shot over a stranded Chafer in goal to ensure the three points. Bowers 0-2 Ware. In fairness, I couldn't knock the effort of Ware and they implemented their gameplan to perfection today as they countered with precision and played an otherwise unspectacular game in which they absorbed the Bowers & Pitsea attacks. I do think that Bowers would have easily won this one had they been more clinical at hitting the target, but that's how it goes sometimes at this level and I'm sure on another day it would have been a different story. The Ref soon blew for full-time after Ware almost made it 0-3, but either way Ware would be chuffed with the result. I promptly departed the ground and made my way back to the bus stop to begin my journey back to Leigh- after popping back to the pub for a post-match pint, of course.
And the victors would be on their way back Hertfordshire
I don't know when I'll next be making it to a new ground but hopefully it will be sooner rather than later and in the meantime I'd like to wish all the fans from Bowers & Pitsea and Ware a Happy New Year, as well as my other readers. Have a good 2018 y'all!

Sunday, 24 December 2017

23/12/17 Review: Tamworth vs Leamington

Tamworth 0-3 Leamington (National League North)
The Lamb Ground

So here it is, Saturday 23rd December 2017, also known as the day that I visited my 100th Ground. The centurion is something that I'd set myself a target of achieving by the end of 2017 and although I left it pretty late to get there, I must say that I'm pretty impressed with the 47 ground haul that I've managed this year. Throughout December I have been thinking of making a big deal of it, with ideas of seeing the Etihad, Turf Moor or Anfield to mark the occasion, but in the end I felt like I just needed to get on with it and so I asked for cover from my afternoon shift to get to a game. My initial plans were scuppered early in the day when a potential free ticket to Villa Park vanished into thin air and with few games to choose from in the area, I decided I'd make the ride down the M6 and across the A5 to a ground I'd been toying with visiting for a couple of years now- The Lamb Ground.
My Fifth National League North ground 
Tamworth Football Club are known as The Lambs and it is at the Lamb Ground that the Staffordshire side have lived in since shortly after their founding in the mid 30's. Some of you may remember a few decent FA Cup runs they've had since the turn of the millennium, but aside from that they have existed as a National League side, with many a season in the Premier and the Northern divisions. Following their most recent relegation at the end of the 2013-14 campaign, Tamworth have had three seasons of finishing just outside the playoffs and are still ambitious to make a return to the non-league's highest branch. Leamington on the other hand have just made it into the National League North after finishing runner-up behind Chippenham Town in last season's Southern Premier League, but that certainly hasn't stopped them continuing to progress as they started the day hoping to climb away from the drop-zone. The Brakes may have been 9 points off Tamworth before play began, but they would no doubt be looking back to a 2-3 away victory over leaders Salford City as inspiration and with expecting a close tie, I predicted a 0-0 draw for this one- surely it couldn't be a classic for my 100th, could it?

Feeling Festive yet?
I finished work in Stafford at 2pm on the dot and by the time I crossed South Staffs it was just about time for kick-off. The ground is located right in the heart of a housing estate in Kettlebrook and can be seen from the Snowdome, and so I parked up on a side street and started to mooch over with the last few stragglers. Entry was priced at £12 for today, which I thought was fairly reasonable considering my last trip to Kettering's Latimer Park in the league below was a tenner and whenever I go to National League Premier matches it tends to cost me a whopping £17-£19. I stepped through the turnstile just in time for kick-off, and I was pleasantly surprised with the scenes that were unfolding between my eyes. Painted in a bold red coat, the majority of the roof was covering concrete standing areas and one fairly modern looking main stand that provides the only seated area at The Lamb Ground. The away fans had already taken over a fair chunk of the only non-covered section of the ground and there were a couple of food huts on-site too. If I were to categorise the ground in any way, I would say that it is a typical non-league venue with a lot of character and some decent viewing areas all-round, and for me it is what you would describe to people if they asked what a football ground was like at this level. Prominent colours, the smell of burgers, a good sprinkling of fans and clutter crammed into every corner and crevice surrounding- a much happier and familiar place for me than the generic feel of being at most Football League stadiums.
Talk about painting the town ground red
On the field, the game started at a reasonable pace and both sides showed signs that they could play a bit. As the away fans continuously chanted "Ohhhhhhh Lemmy, Lemmy" it would be Callum Gittings who almost got the opener on 9 minutes, but he was only able to slide his effort wide as a desperate Stephan Morley tracked back for Tamworth. Once the Lambs got the ball moving on the astro-turf pitch they looked pretty good themselves and the play-off chasers carved a half-chance on 12 minutes- this time the shot on the edge of the area would be high, wide and not too handsome. The hosts did continue to press in the opening stages and after Darryl Knights pulled out a flick that Neymar would have been impressed with to release Zack Kotwica, the midfielder then ran in on goal before eventually hitting a poorly composed strike straight at the well positioned keeper and captain Tony Breeden. Amongst these chances there was a few rough challenges going about too and after two bookings in as many minutes for either side, I was finding myself at the heart of a proper game of footy and the opening goal was just around the corner.
But first, a quick toilet break
With the half-hour mark surpassed it was former Notts County forward Colby Bishop who pulled out a great goal as he fired in a 25-yard rocket that flew into the net in front of the rapturous away support. Tamworth 0-1 Leamington. The yellow and black scarves were waved as the fans piped up again, this time with a round of "One shot, One goal. One shot, One goal!" as Tamworth restarted the action. An injury to an away player had forced an early change to the side for Leamington and it would be Ahmed Obeng on the left-wing who would make a crucial chance just before the break. The number 14 ran down the left-wing with only a cross into the box on his mind, and when he eventually picked out the pass it was expertly placed in to Gittings who simply couldn't miss from inside the 6-yard area. Tamworth 0-2 Leamington.

Half-Time, best give the Clubhouse a try
With Leamington showing a crucial and cutting edge thus far, the break gave fans from both sides time to reflect on a slightly unexpected scoreline to this point. To do this, I plonked myself in the thick of it amongst many heavy drinking fans in both red and yellow, ready to sample a pint of my own. It was nice to see the bar rammed with people and with the added delight of both sets of fans mixing and exchanging conversation, I supped my beer before heading back out for the second half. With the cool air drawing in the night, I decided to jump in the long stand running across the opposite side to the main stand and soon after kick-off I realised that this was where the noisy home fans were housed. With not much to shout about for the home lads, they turned their attentions to festive frivolities by singing a full verse of Rudolph. The good will and fun nature amongst the crowd soon turned back to brief silence and disappointment though as Bishop was gifted another chance which he took after rounding the keeper easily to create himself an open goal. Tamworth 0-3 Leamington. The collapse at the back for the Lambs was compounded by the fans who piped up again with a round of "we're shit, and we know we are" whilst the away fans cheered an easy three points with still half an hour to go. Connor Taylor would have a decent chance towards the latter knockings, but his quickly taken shot summed up the host's day to be honest. The 708 in attendance had a fair spread of home fans and they did continue to cheer on their side, but it was one man stood a few meters to my left who kept me entertained as he continued to shout out the word "clueless" after every failed attack, waiting a beat before then repeating the word in a louder and longer-drawn tone.

The main positive I can report from the day was that Dexter Walters, a second-half sub, was a shining light amongst an otherwise dull offensive outfit from Tamworth and the young left-winger showed some awesome skills down the flank, beating Leamington's Richard Taundry on every occasion they faced up. He showed some flicks and tricks that reminded me of Justin Kluivert and if the lad picks up a bit from the experience of National League North football, I predict that he'll go on to bigger things and maybe even the Football League. As it was for this afternoon though, his efforts would be fruitless and despite a lot of late pressure we were to see no consolation goals from the red-shirted Lambs. I stuck around for a few minutes to clap both sides off and I continued to applause as the Leamington players approached the away fans. Having known little of the visiting side today, I must say I was very impressed and I'll look forward to eventually getting over to the New Windmill Ground.

Merry Christmas to all Lambs fans and Brakes supporters alike, and also to my regular readers!