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.
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
|My 101st Ground|
|At least I could take in the scenery along the way|
|The Bowers continued to push, but largely reduced to set-pieces|
|Half-time, get the beers in|
|Second-half, behind the goal view with the away few|
|And the victors would be on their way back Hertfordshire|