Sunday, 30 December 2018

29/12/18 Review: East Thurrock United vs Dartford

East Thurrock United 2-2 Dartford (National League South)
Rookery Hill

For the third year on the trot I found myself ending the year down in Essex on family business, which of course meant that an opportunity would raise itself to head on down to my final game of the year and with plenty of National League action taking place I had a choice of Welling, Woking, Dagenham, Chelmsford or East Thurrock for my 140th ground. After narrowing it down to the two easiest accessible grounds by public transport from Leigh-on-Sea, I left it up to Twitter to make my mind up and with my poll drawing in the same percentages as Brexit, I was on my way to leaving the EU... sorry, I mean Rookery Hill.

It's what you voted for, so it's what you are getting!

So with my fate sealed I was sat at Leigh train station with a ham and mayo baguette and a can of Carlsberg Export all ready to see what second bottom East Thurrock United could muster up against promotion hunters Dartford. My form when it comes to travelling by train is pretty woeful, but even then it was somewhat better than that of the hosts who had lost three in a row, albeit against top half teams. Dartford came into the match as favourites despite only having won one in six in all competitions and because of this slump in form I was able to successfully predict my first correct scoreline of the season in my seventh effort. Yes, I was going in as an optimist for the hosts to snatch a point and knowing that the games were coming thick and fast at this time of the year, I was spot on (for once) with my 2-2 guess. Once I'd jumped off the train and circumnavigated my way to Corringham via the 100 bus in Basildon, it was time to head to the ground a little later than planned and have my usual whip-round of the ground that 163 of you picked as my big finale for the year.

At least it doesn't have a running track around it...
Needless to say that the ground was a little on the rugged side and that's absolutely fine by me. Having spent most of my season up in the North West Counties League lurking around Manchester and Staffordshire I was almost numb to the sight of portacabins and sheds, alas I wasn't quite expecting to see so many of them at this level. Rookery Hill, up until the 2016/17 season had been the home of Isthmian League football and despite losing many a playoff match over the years they finally had success as they beat Dulwich Hamlet 3-1 thanks to a brace from Ricky Hayles, who will no doubt go down in the East Thurrock United history books as he helped his side reach the promised land of National League South football. Much like North Ferriby United's ground, a place I was lucky enough to visit a couple of seasons back, the Essex based club I found myself at this weekend will no doubt admit themselves to being small fish at this level and a proud team that continues to punch above its weight alongside the likes of former Football League side Torquay United and infamous moneybags project Billericay Town. In short, the club are doing alright for themselves. On the other side of the field today would be a team making the short 15 mile trip over the Queen's bridge from Kent to Essex and last year's runner up side, Dartford. The Darts, who have themselves played in many non-league tiers from the National League Premier downwards, have also had to house themselves here there and everywhere in the last thirty years. Having moved out of Watling Street they have lived temporarily in Erith, Thurrock and Gravesend, amongst others, and they finally came back to Dartford in 2006 to their new Princes Park stadium. All's well that ends well, I suppose.

Rookery Hill has been the home of the Rocks since 1984, in case you wondered
Regardless of who lived where and with who, the main thing was that on this mild Saturday afternoon in Corringham, in front of 450ish people, these teams would do battle and I was thrilled to be there with a pint of Prava in my hand and a smile on my face. Dartford, who have more than double the amount of points that the hosts have, didn't start as well as I'd expected in terms of dominating the early play- but they did boast the crucial stat with ten minutes gone. Playing in a gorgeous purple strip, an early corner was nodded in by Charlie Sheringham in the seventh minute for Dartford and I can now proudly say that I've seen Sheringham score a header in real life. Who said non-league wasn't luxurious? East Thurrock 0-1 Dartford. The Rocks knew that following the early goal they would have to remain solid and, as their nickname suggests, they did just that. Most of the play came from United and although Dartford didn't seem to worried, there was always that chance of an equaliser whilst the hosts were on top. When it did eventually come, just after the half-hour mark, it was from a goalkeeping error and with Bailey Vose flapping around in no man's land it was left to Tom Derry to roam into the box, through the motionless Dartford defence, and then head home a much deserved equaliser. East Thurrock 1-1 Dartford.

An action packed game was only just getting started
With goals, red cards and much more action still to come on the pitch, the attentions would be switched to the touchline momentarily just before half-time in which the dismissal of a member of Dartford's technical area sparked an epic final few minutes of the half. I'm not really sure why the chap was sent off but shortly after this he would be joined in the changing room by a player as Lee Noble would also see red. The mini midfield maestro had to go in the referee's opinion following an alleged elbow on an opposing player. And as if all of this wasn't enough, there was to be another big moment in the first-half and it would come from Derry again. The number 12 showed poacher's instincts to beat Vose to the ball for the second time, this time with his feet, meaning the hosts would take a strong advantage of one goal, one player and one official more than the Darts. East Thurrock 2-1 Dartford. In truth it could've been three deep into stoppage time as a headed corner had to be tipped over from close-range, but ultimately the break would be a happy one for East Thurrock United as they looked for a first win in four.

Time for a HT pint!
Unlike the rest of the ground, Rookery Hill's clubhouse was a thing of beauty and with all the mod cons from projector screen with the footy, to luscious wooden flooring and blue lights in the ceiling, it was a very impressive piece of work. I took my sweet time to sit and enjoy another Prava in the comfort of a brown faux leather sofa whilst watching the recap of Rangers beating Celtic earlier in the day. Needless to say that the bar ended up being pretty rammed and with fans flocking back out for the second-half I reluctantly lifted my carcass from my seat and joined them. I decided to go over to the other seating area at the opposing end of the ground for the second half, which didn't last too long as I found myself benched next to that one couple that every club has- the couple that sit and moan about everything their players do, the opponents do, and of course each action of the officials. Urgh, I know.

"It was never off, you plonker!!!"
Ten man Dartford began the half much better than they'd ended the first, and Teddy Jr went close to his second goal in the 54th minute after rounding Jack Giddens only to then see his shot deflected away by one of the two desperate on the line defenders. It remained a very good and open game all-round and with both sides carving half chance after half chance, the nerves seemed to be building all over Rookery Hill. Giddens was handed a caution by the referee for time wasting and the hosts keeper would now have twenty minutes of having to "get on with it" as Dartford started to claw at an equaliser. Soon enough the visitors had a corner from their right-hand side and as I stood by three fans all pointing out the poor United marking, surely enough they would be proven right as the unmarked men at the back post would eventually be queuing up for a header. In the end it was Elliot Bradbrook who claimed it in the 73rd minute. East Thurrock 2-2 Dartford.

Still fifteen minutes left, this could go either way... or neither
The scores were level again in this roller coaster ride of a match and the last five minutes would provide a final twist to the tale. At one end, the Rocks won a free-kick which bashed the base of the Dartford woodwork, meanwhile at the other end the Darts attacked to the point where Danny Harris lunged in and saw red meaning that the game would end well and truly level. Great game to end the year with! Following the game I made my way through the graveyard of the nearby church and into The Bull, where I would end my night watching Liverpool thrash Arsenal on the TV whilst taking some random abuse about being a gravy loving northerner. I wouldn't mind, but of the trio of southern softies having a pop at me, one was drinking from a challis, the second had an "extra chilled" beer and the third was on the gin. Grow up.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Non-League Grounds of Staffordshire- The Pint of Football Top Five

Non-League Grounds of Staffordshire- The Pint of Football Top Five!

Ever since I started groundhopping back in 2015 I have always tried to support as many local teams as possible, which has naturally led me into visiting many of the county's top stadia... and even a few muddy fields disguising themselves! Yes, that's right- in my 29 Staffordshire grounds visited to date, of which 26 are non-league, I have been everywhere from Stoke City's Bet365 Stadium for European Football, to my most local ground in Florence to take in some local Staffs County League action. Despite being a proud Yorkshireman, I can't help but admit that I've fallen in love with my adopted county and the footballing delights it offers. My Bracknell-based fellow footy fanatics over at "Football in Bracknell" offered me the challenge to name my top five non-league grounds in the area and of course that's what I'll be aiming to do in these next few paragraphs. Personal feelings aside, I'm gonna try and be objective as I look to pick the best ground out there. Wish me luck! 

#5- The Novus Stadium, Kidsgrove Athletic
Ground Name- The Novus Stadium
Home Club- Kidsgrove Athletic
PoF Ground Number- #13

I begin my search for Staffordshire's finest ground in north Stoke-on-Trent, where I teeter on the border of Cheshire in Kidsgrove and it's Evo-Stik Western Division side, nicknamed The Grove. On paper, the club isn't too much of a special case and having played at the same level for seventeen consecutive years they don't feature much in the great rises nor falls of non-league clubs. That's not a bad thing though in my opinion and the club's mediocre stature should also be considered as a credit to the consistent stability at the Novus Stadium.

There must be something that has attracted more than just myself to be involved with The Grove and with the likes of former Watford star and Jamaica international Lee Williamson on their books, alongside local footballing hero Ant Malbon, the real appeal for me here is the club's community feel. On both of my visits to the Novus Stadium, where World Cup 2006 star Chris Birchall also spent some time, I was very impressed with the club in terms of offering a friendly and inclusive experience. Is it the best club in the land? No. Does the ground compare with the likes of some other Evo-Stik facilities? No. Is there a better place to watch a game of football in a comfortable ground, with local supporters and community values in abundance. Certainly not! Kidsgrove was also the first club to spot the footballing talents of Macclesfield Town forward Nathan Blissett during his time at Staffs Uni, which in itself makes them a legendary club. 

#4- Keys Park, Hednesford Town
Ground Name- Keys Park
Home Club- Hednesford Town
PoF Ground Number- #49

I now jump from the very north of Staffordshire to its most southern reaches in my search, which can only mean that I'm in Cannock and more importantly Hednesford, the home of the hefty travellers who are known as The Pitmen far and wide. Their ground is the very impressive Keys Park and it is placed in my top five county grounds based on the fact that it a very impressive facility that should really be seeing National League football. 

The former Conference Premier club is one of the strongest non-league outfits in the region, but it is the ground itself which is the real draw for me. I visited Keys Park on an icy, foggy, dreary Halloween Night back in 2016 and was instantly impressed by the clubhouse and adjoining function rooms that complement the late nineties structure which has been lucky enough to see teams visit from the National Leagues, as well as the Northern AND Southern Premier League. The club has spent its last two and a half seasons languishing in the lower depths of the Evo-Stik Premier League and despite averaging the best part of 400 fans a game, they could easily be a League side thanks to their impressive set-up. Over 4,000 people crammed into the ground back in 2013 when the Pitmen beat FC United of Manchester in the Northern Premier League Playoff Final and I'd like to think that when Keys Park is rocking, it is one of the best places to be when watching non-league football. 

#3- Harrison Park, Leek Town
Ground Name- Harrison Park
Home Club- Leek Town
PoF Ground Number- #15

As with the ground ranked in number five, this one is yet another member of the newly restructured Evo-Stik Western Division and with international pedigree of its own, Harrison Park is a worthy contender for being one of Staffordshire's greatest. Leek's very own point of pride, a 3,600 capacity ground which has hosted many England Youth Level international matches, is also the current home of Stoke City's Under 23 side.

With the late great Eric Bristow being a big fan and often guest of the club, Leek Town's Harrison Park is a fab ground and has one of the best viewing stands I've come across at this level. The main stand is risen above the pitch and supported by cement steps up to it, with an old school corner bar clubhouse over to its left. I've been to Harrison Park twice and would not hesitate to revisit it with any groundhopper who is willing to take a punt on my highest of recommendations. The ex-Conference side these days has to settle with less than 300 average gates, but with a strong campaign in 2018-19 so far I wouldn't be surprised if the Blues made their way back into the Northern Premier League sooner rather than later and with the links with the national setup and the Potters junior side, the sky is the limit for Leek Town and the only drawback with progress here would be the lack of space at the north end of the ground, which inconveniently backs directly on to the very busy A523.

#2- The Lamb Ground, Tamworth
Ground Name- The Lamb Ground
Home Club- Tamworth
PoF Ground Number- #100

Last year as I approached my significant 100th ground, the choice was made by myself to check out another local delicacy and this time it would be East Staffs, and more specifically Tamworth, where the Lamb Ground would have the honour of being my centenary stadium. At the time of my visit, Tamworth were a struggling National League North outfit but with it falling in the festive season I was treated to a well-attended affair in a sturdy old ground full of excellent seating and standing areas alike.

To put it in context, the Lamb Ground is one of the great historic non-league grounds and since its opening in 1934, Tamworth have lived there through thick and thin in their 4,500 capacity ground. Last year's relegation aside, there have been some great matches played here and although I remember it as being the ground where I saw Leamington beat them 0-3, many will remember the FA Cup runs, the 2009 Conference North League triumph and their record breaking attendance back in 1948 against Atherstone Town. The fans on the day of my visit were nothing short of brilliant and they did their best to fill the Lamb Ground from all four sides. Red painted walls, seats and roofing are as memorable as the simple but atmospheric behind the goal standing cement tiered area, whilst the well-maintained bar area in the clubhouse serve up a tasty half-time pint to top off an all-round brilliant groundhop for anyone passing by. Of course Tamworth are currently in the Southern Premier League, compared to the other four grounds I've selected who are in the Northern equivalent, and they are currently fighting against the likes of Rushall Olympic and Redditch United in mid-table oblivion.

#1- Marston Road, Stafford Rangers
Ground Name- Marston Road
Home Club- Stafford Rangers
PoF Ground Number- #16

So, here we are at the official Pint of Football top ranked non-league Staffordshire Football ground- also known as Marston Road in Stafford. Home of Evo-Stik Premier League side Stafford Rangers, this one has the right amount of history, infrastructure and fan support to be known as one of the finest at this level in any area of the country. The county town is in fact home to three reputable non-league sides, with Stafford Town and Brocton both playing fairly nearby, but if you ask any Staffordian who is the best team in the land, they'll raise their fists to the air and shout "up the Boro" in support of Steve Burr's side.

In my hat-trick of visits to Marston Road I have seen some great football in both league and pre-season encounters, but Stafford Rangers don't just boast a strong team- they've got the scrap books at the ready to tell you all about what a fab club they've had for over 130 years. With everything from FA Trophy success in the seventies to eleven triumphs in winning the Staffordshire Senior Cup, the 05/06 Conference North victors draw the fourth highest average crowd in their league- which is good going considering their less than lofty finishes in the table since winning the Evo-Stik First Division South back in 2015/16. The main stand is as good as any in the division, their legendary historic Shed End is often rammed with their loudest supporters and with one of the best clubhouses I've come across, I am pleased so crown this one as my number one. As with many grounds wedged in the town's community, Marston Road doesn't have much capacity for expansion and it has often been suggested that Rangers may look to move over to Town's facility, Evans Park, in the future to build on their impressive work in building up the site on Riverway. For me, I'd rather they stayed at Marston Road and continued to maintain their home of over 100 years as they search to eventually make it back into the top tier of non-league football.

Final Thoughts...

I hope you enjoyed reliving some of my favourites and if you are ever in Staffordshire I would urge you to give at least one of these grounds a go. The Novus Stadium, The Lamb Ground and Marston Road are all within one mile of their town's respective train station and all five offer ample parking. As I depart from my thoughts now, I leave you with three other great local grounds to check out too- they weren't quite in my top five but I found it hard to leave them out completely!

Ball Haye Green- Rough and ready on the outskirts of Leek, my 109th ground was a good outing

Hillsfield- This Midlands League ground was my 82nd and a thoroughly enjoyable one

The Scholar's Ground- My 25th and home of Chasetown in the Evo-Stik West Division

Sunday, 9 December 2018

08/12/18 Review: Gresley vs Pontefract Collieries

Gresley 0-4 Pontefract Collieries (Evo-Stik East Division)
Moat Ground

If alien lifeforms landed on earth and asked me to show them what non-league football was like, I'd take them to the Moat Ground in hope of a repeat of yesterday's match between Gresley and Pontefract Collieries- it really was the epitome of "proper" football and within the confines of a ground that I can only truly describe as wonderfully tatty, this Saturday's Evo-Stik East action was not to be sniffed at in terms of goals even if the weather did its best to stop it.

Not much to look at from the outside
My original plans for the day had got me set for a double, with Ellesmere Rangers versus Stone Dominoes looking like a great basement battle to start me off before a trip up to Wales and Flint Town's Cup tie with Bala Town, however the weather gods were not with me and with early confirmation of the match in Shropshire being cancelled, I decided to look east of my Stoke-on-Trent abode where I would be drawn back to my old love, the Evo-Stik leagues. Being as I'd already made my way to sixteen Evo-Stik grounds so far, I certainly didn't need any motivation to jump in my little red car and drive over to Swadlincote, a wee little town that sits upon the borders of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire. I wouldn't be the only Yorkshireman in town though and with yesterday's high-flying West Riding opponents coming in to this one with four wins on the bounce and thirteen goals in the process, the Colls will tell you the sky is currently the limit and a win could (and did) see them go second behind Morpeth Town. The hosts knew that they would be in for a tough day and knowing they'd face the league's topscorer to date in Eli Hey, I suspected them to suffer this time out- 1-3 was my pre-match prediction.

A first outing to Harry's bar for the Colls
According to the highly active matchday announcer this would be the first league meeting between the two clubs, which was hardly a surprise after Pontefract spent last season in the North East Counties League. At time of my arrival, the sun was shining on the Moat Ground and I looked forward to a second consecutive new ground in as many Saturdays, having been in the region last weekend for Basford United against Scarborough in the Premier Division bout. The Moat is very red, to say the least, and as I entered I couldn't help but think that if I walked in on this day ten years ago I would get the exact same image. I love it when a club doesn't feel obliged to move with the times and as a community football club embedded in the Church Gresley sector of Swadlincote, I would honestly say that I would be proud of that red paintwork if this was my local club. Yes, parts of the ground looked like they were a health and safety nightmare waiting to happen, yes, the pitch was as uneven as the possession stats for a Barcelona match and yes, this is the sort of ground that if you take your girlfriend to she'd probably ask to wait in the car, but it is a classic and one that I'm pleased to finally visit. If you could image a ground that crosses somewhere between the Old Spotted Dog in Clapton and a larger version of Bridlington Town's Queensgate Park, that's about the level we're at here if I was to compare it to previously visited grounds.
I'd take my chances with the fire, I reckon!
Anyway, enough about the ground, I was here for a football match and at 3pm sharp we were underway. With the pitch still grassy at the start of play, Ponte got the match underway the stronger of the two sides and a fifth minute penalty gave Vaughan Redford the chance to open the scoring. He stepped up and calmly slotted home meaning another poor start for the hosts, who were 0-4 down by half-time in their last game, away at Marske United. Gresley 0-1 Pontefract. The Moatmen had certainly made a stiff start to the match and as I sat perching on the even stiffer wooden seats over on the opposite side from the more modern main stand, I began to wonder if the match would even last ninety minutes as the heavens started to open up. The Colls remained on the ascendancy despite the rain starting to drizzle down and with Eli Hey, who looks like a tall Kingsley James, showing glimpses of quality it seemed like a second goal was coming. Gresley were starting to become frustrated and their captain took it out as he raged out at the officials- something that none of us will have ever witnessed at a non-league match. "Fuckin' linesman, get your fuckin' flag up!” balls out Jamie Barrett as Redford looked likely to get his second in the 16th minute. Near where I was sat, the less stressed out Gresley left-back took a moment to turn to Brian, a fan, and ask him how his birthday was? He simply replied with, "it was better than going away to Marske with you lot". Classic.

It's hard to tell from the pic, but the rain is fairly heavy by now
Between all of this, Colls kept their pressure up and the next person to have a pop would be their impressive right-back Jack Greenhough, who amazingly continued to run up and down that wing as though his feet weren't being sucked into the now inch thick mud surrounding his every step. In the 24th minute Ponte would go for a different approach and with Glyn Cotton finding himself with time and space he struck a low shot from long-range, watching as it beat Oliver Fairbrother in the Gresley goal. Gresley 0-2 Pontefract. Even though it seemed to be getting pretty comfortable for the Colls, it wasn't all going the visitor's way though and after Hey went in the book for manhandling the Gresley keeper, the hosts had a few moments of their own as they attacked the brick wall end. By the way, this is not me complementing the away side for being as solid as a brick wall.

Behind the goal at one end is literally just a big brick wall
After a free-kick tested Ryan Musselwhite, the hosts then went even closer moments later as the resulting corner led to a goal line scramble- Gresley arms raised to claim a goal, but the Ref turned it away. The action from the rest of the half came from above unfortunately and as most of the crowd headed into the Harry's Bar, I slowly but surely walked around the ground trying to get a picture that would show just how bad the weather was. I didn't succeed with anything apart from potential pneumonia and so I gave up and joined the majority in the clubhouse just as the half-time whistle blew. I was almost certain that the match would be ended there and then, but the officials instead decided to run inside to dry off before coming back out to see if there would be a chance of the game restarting.

Almost considered a tea to warm me up 
Half-time lasted roughly twenty minutes whilst Mr Cooke and his assistants assessed the pitch with the officials from both sides. The rain had stopped by now, but in my opinion the damage to the grass had already been done and I'm somewhat surprised that the Ref's whistle blew to start the second half. I only say this because I was feeling bad for the home club who will no have a massive job to get the ground back in good order for the rest of the season. But, either way it did resume and with a two goal lead I'm sure the visitors were chuffed to not have travelled 86 miles each way for nothing. The first fifteen minutes struggled to provide any real footballing moments and with the majority of the players struggling to stay on their feet it became quite humorous as the originally white and red shirts of Gresley's players started to turn pure brown. The first real move of significance in terms of goalmouth action came after a Fairbrother pass was collected by Redford, who then proceeded to hit the post before Hey then had an effort superbly blocked. A minute later, Mike Dunn would add the third goal and the points would certainly heading back to West Yorkshire- the question now was, by how many would they win? Gresley 0-3 Pontefract.

It's not like me to write this, but it was DAAAAAAAMN cold out there
With bad weather there usually comes a few bad tackles and the final half an hour in particular is what I would sum up as "the dirty thirty". Both sides picked up numerous fouls and cards, with the highlight being a last man lunge in the 80th minute which saw Gresley substitute Jake McIntosh see red. The game may not have been quite over yet but with Ponte boasting the league's top scorer, there was always going to be chance of a final goal or two from the visitors. Hey may not have been a scorer on this sodden afternoon in Derbyshire, but he was so heavily involved in most of the blue attacks and this time would be the same again as he rolled the ball in to Nick Guest to add the 84th minute final goal. Gresley 0-4 Pontefract. Needless to say that once the game ended I ran straight back to my car and blasted the heating from my car onto my moist jeans, before making the hour journey home. My next groundhop probably won't be until after Christmas now as I intend to take in an end of year stadium or two down south when I visit family before another year comes to a close. My options so far look like Chelmsford City, East Thurrock, Dagenham & Redbridge or maybe even Millwall. Either way, I'm sure it'll be a dryer outing than my day out at the Moat!

Saturday, 1 December 2018

01/12/18 Review: Basford United vs Scarborough Athletic

Basford United 3-1 Scarborough Athletic (Evo-Stik Premier Division)
Greenwich Avenue

With a rare free Saturday afternoon in my arsenal today I was given the chance to go along to see what northern Nottingham had to offer in what would be my first Evo-Stik match of the season and a fifteenth new ground for 2018/19. I've gone on record before and stated that the Evo-Stik leagues are the best around, with a constantly improving standard of football, some of the country's best grounds and great groups of fans- today's match between 6th place and 1st in the Premier Division certainly produced a cracking game for the neutrals at Basford United's Greenwich Avenue.

Here we go again

This would be my third time watching both of these sides and up until today I had not seen much success for either team, which is surprising as both have been on the rise in the past year. In the early days of my Blogging, I saw Scarborough Athletic draw 0-0 with Glossop North End at my hometown ground in Bridlington, in perhaps what still remains to this day the worst match I've ever seen. In that same season I also visited Warrington Town, who claimed a 1-0 win over the Seadogs, so this third game for me watching Scarborough would continue the trend for me as I am yet to go up to their new ground- which is very much on my radar for this season. Basford's form under my watching eye had been even worse, starting back in 2016 when I went down to see them get battered 0-5 by Coalville Town in a playoff semi-final. Almost a year on from that, I watched United at one of my local grounds and they left Kidsgrove Athletic's Novus Stadium with no points in a 1-2 loss. Poor form aside, I'd decided to cheer for the league leaders this time out and I predicted a 3-1 win for the day. Correct score, wrong team!

Look out, the Seadogs are on the comeback
The hosts came into this one in sizzling form, with six wins in seven that included a shock victory against National League North side Curzon Ashton, but with the top team in the league visiting they knew that they would have to be at their best for arguably their biggest test of the season so far. Their Yorkshire coast opposition had already beaten them in the league this season, also by a scoreline of 3-1, and despite having lost two of their last three league matches they were still holding off Nantwich Town. I arrived at Greenwich Avenue shortly before kickoff and after grabbing myself a cheeky pint I went over to behind the goal where I would spend the next few minutes listening to some tight old Yorkshire lads talking about their respective problems caused by having the heating on all day. Classic. Shortly after this, we were joined by the two teams and it soon became evident that the Boro fans had travelled in numbers as pockets of the ground started to chant for their side. Kickoff was bob on 3pm and the game was underway.

Up the Seadogs!
Both sides won promotion from their respective league last season and it was clear to see from the off that the standard was going to be high. Within the opening ten minutes the tempo was set and the end-to-end nature of the game on the pitch was being matched by the support of the away fans as they went very close to an opener in the 13th minute as Jack Johnson headed wide. Moments later there was a goal but it was at the other end- Greg Tempest made no mistake as he slotted home with great precision to give his team the lead. Basford 1-0 Scarborough. The visitors were clearly shook up and feeling the pressure from this early goal, with Josh Lacey coming very close to an own goal just minutes later. As United continued to look for a second, I made my way around the ground and although there wasn't too much to say about it aside from it being a bit "portacabin city". Obviously it is a modern facility and the key features for me were the 3G pitch and of course the atmosphere.

One of the smaller Evo-Stik grounds I've visited looked pretty full thanks to the away fans
With half an hour almost gone a slick United attack down the left produced a chance for Nathan Watson and the striker showed a cool head to finish off a very nice passage of play and leave Boro in a bit of a bad way. Basford 2-0 Scarborough. Tempest had run the show so far in my opinion and the home side would continue to utilise the big number 8 in central midfield, meanwhile the Seadogs would be limited to half-chances and they came closes as Jamie Forester whipped a strike just wide of Kieran Preston's post. Sensing the rising queues of disgruntled visitors in the kitchen just before half-time, I quickly jumped in and awaited some chips and gravy. Ooooh yes! Whilst awaiting a guy who'd ordered nine pies (nine!!!) to get his order, I just about saw the next goal right on the stroke of half-time as Michael Coulson's strike was witnessed through the window of the servery. Basford 2-1 Scarborough. Another thing that I couldn't help but notice was the brand of chips being used at Greenwich Avenue- McCain! I wondered whether this was their usual choice of fried potato or if they'd got them in especially in honour of Scarborough's old ground.

Back before Scarborough were Athletic
With the second-half starting just after I'd reemerged from the kitchen, I stood near the corner flag ready for one of the best 45 minute spells of football I can recall for a long time. Scarborough were desperately chasing at least a point from the game and with their assertion at one end, they often looked frail at the other. In the 65th minute they almost imploded when their defence conceded a penalty. Thankfully for the visitors they would be let off as Watson failed to double his tally for the day. This wake-up call for Scarborough wasn't quite strong enough and shortly after they were scrambling again, this time with a United shot being cleared off the line. Up in the Basford half the hosts continued to defend with all of their might and with over a dozen chances being made from Scarborough corners and free-kicks you could smell the tension in the air. The 450+ fans gasped in the final few minutes when substitute Declan Bacon missed an absolute sitter and moments later Nathan Valentine would see a header go close.

A truly superb second-half
With the injury time being calculated, it was time for the big finish here in Basford and the home side would eventually be able to reap the rewards from their solid defensive display. Watson, who could've been celebrating a hat-trick were it not for his woeful penalty, made his final contribution to the game in the 88th minute with a counter attack finish adding his team's deciding third. Basford 3-1 Scarborough. Five minutes extra time were announced soon after this and even this additional time had some drama. Dom Roma, who used to be a Boro boy, left the field a few minutes earlier than the other 21 players after he went in hard with a two-footed lunge which was pretty horrendous and unnecessary. He received some deserved abuse from the fans and was then on his way, but ultimately it made no difference to the remaining minutes of the match and with Nantwich claiming an away win at Whitby it would be an all-round disappointing day for the Seadogs. I didn't stick around too long after the match neither and I hit the road back home knowing that I'd certainly had nine quid's worth of football in a top of the table thriller.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

09/11/18 Review: Bedfont & Feltham vs Kensington Borough

Bedfont & Feltham 4-0 Kensington Borough (Combined Counties Football League Division One)
The Orchard

Another two month break from Blog action finally came to an end last night as I dusted off my Groundhopping boots ready to travel down from Stafford for a full weekend of football, which started off at The Orchard- home to Combined Counties First Division side Bedfont & Feltham. Yes, this weekend is certain to be one full of travelling about, with FA Cup ties at Maidstone and Barnet just around the corner, but before I could possibly become excited by those ties I would have to get myself deep into the heart of the South-East's non-league scene and visit two teams that sound like the sort of made up team names you'd go for if you were writing an American sitcom mocking our beloved sport. "Did you see that awesome soccer game last night? Bedfont & Feltham really did give Kensington Borough a good whipping!"

Proper clubhouse!

Joking aside, the Combined Counties League is one of the very few footballing areas of the country that I am yet to visit and this was in fact my first CCL ground visit. Astonishing. In all honesty The Orchard was not my first choice for this evening and had it not been for Holland FC's rearranged fixture being swapped to today, I would have been on the seaside freezing my bollocks off instead of outside Heathrow Airport. Not that I was bothered, the main thing for me was that I was getting myself out to a new ground and after a three hour crawl through the Friday night rush hour down the M6, M40 and M25, I made it into Bedfont. The blue and yellow crested high-flyers started the night in 2nd place, but with two games in hand on league leaders Sheerwater you had to fancy them to climb to the top if they could overcome lowly Kensington Borough, who have a slim chance of ending the weekend in the dropzone if Bagshot, Fleet Spurs and Deportivo Galicia all claim victory. So far the only side to topple the Yellows in the league were Tooting Bec and with that being their latest game, I was predicting them to bounce back on this rainy Friday night encounter- 4-1 was my guess. Not too far off!

Love me a night under the floodlights

As I was a good 40 minutes early, I made my way into The Orchard Bar and got lost in conversation with an old cockney bloke who follows Hendon and Edgeware Town, both whom reside at Silver Jubilee Park. The newly retired former London Underground workman now spends 99% of his time groundhopping and claimed to already be on 80+ matches for the season- compared to my meagre 19th outing on this occasion, he's not doing badly for a chap who can't drive. We spent the pre-match propping up the bar and talking about Sporting Khalsa, London's non-league scene and his ventures in the 80's and 90's following Man United in Europe. Amongst all of the excitement, 8pm had crept up on us and we supped up and headed out into the windy and wet conditions alongside the other 80 or so in attendance. After a quick mooch around, I housed myself in the main stand with a good majority of the crowd, ready for some CCL action!

Blending in with the locals, apart from my notable Sporting Khalsa scarf
The hosts started the match well and seemed likely to grab a comprehensive win from the off. With a good balance to the squad, Ross Nunn set the tone by coming deep regularly to set some early attacks off, whilst Fahad Mahboudi and Michael Capon looked eager in the attacking third, and it wasn't to be too long before their 20th minute opener. Mahoubi gathered the ball on the left, passed his man with ease and then whipped home from just outside the box to cap off a great bit of play. B&F 1-0 Kensington. It was clear that Borough had set up to try and grab a goal on the counter, and although Ashley Fianore looked lively in places, the hit and hope attacking from the visitors made it all too easy for the Yellows to regain possession and look to grab a second. That goal wouldn't come before the break though and we would head back into the bar with the score at just 1-0. I spent the majority of half-time thinking about how the side I volunteer for, Stone Dominoes, would do against both of these sides. We play in the North West Counties Division One South, which is also in the tenth tier of English football, but despite sitting 19th of 20 teams in the league, I'd still fancy us to give these sides a good game. I've often wondered if there is a higher quality of football in specific parts of the country and who indeed would come out on top if there was a tournament of the champions from different tenth tier divisions. Instead of faffing about with this proposed European Super League, I'd much rather see the expenses paid for Dunkirk FC to face Plymouth Parkway- but then again that's probably just me!
Surely you'd rather come here for a big game than the San Siro...
Back outside I'd missed an early second goal for Bedfont & Feltham, with Capon apparently taking an early chance in a one-on-one situation. B&F 2-0 Kensington. The old bloke who described the goal to me was stood in the sodden area behind the goal, pictured above, and as the rain continued to edge him closer to pneumonia he eventually turned to me, said "fuck this" and headed back in to the clubhouse. The home goalie looked over at this point and I couldn't help but wonder if he felt the same- with a 2-0 lead and the ball largely being played 80 yards away from him, it couldn't have been easy to stay warm. Now stood alone, in the wet, I decided to make my way over to the other goal in order to see the remaining half an hour.

That's more like it
The last fifteen minutes would provide two more goals and unlike the last one I actually had a cracking view of both from my new post. As well as being able to see the 64 flight takeoffs soaring over the ground and deafening me every other minute, I would also witness Capon tap home his second after a ball in from the right. Apparently he's on 28 goals already this season, according to the home side's website! B&F 3-0 Kensington. Five minutes later and Ross Nunn would complete a fine performance by floating in a corner to unmarked substitute forward Reece Gairy and he took great delight in adding the final goal of the day with seven minutes still to spare. Thankfully for the visitors, the pain would end here. B&F 4-0 Kensington. After winning 11-0 in the first game of the season, you could see why the hosts would end the night at the top of the table, for the next few hours at least! I departed fairly promptly and didn't see my new mate to say goodbye, but he did mention that he may well be at Barnet on Sunday for the Bristol Rovers game- so maybe our paths will cross again! Until then, cheers to Bedfont & Feltham for putting on a Friday night game, it was a pleasure!

Sunday, 26 August 2018

25/08/18 Review: Great Wakering Rovers vs Leyton Athletic

Great Wakering Rovers 4-1 Leyton Athletic (FA Cup Qualifying Preliminary Round)
Burroughs Park

With Bank Holiday weekend in full flow by now, Saturday afternoon saw me heading into the south-east wilderness of Great Wakering for a second dose of FA Cup Qualifying action and this time Burroughs Lane was the place to be for me. As I was visiting family, I tried to keep it as local as possible and despite the fact that I was itching to tick off the likes of Victory Road in Dagenham, East Thurrock United's Rookery Hill and a few others in East London, I contained my urge and decided to make the twenty minute ride from Leigh-on-Sea along to the little Essex village instead.
Ground number 127, Burroughs Park
I'm a man of simple pleasures and when it comes to groundhopping all that is you give me a good ground or an entertaining match. Last night I was at West Street in Coggeshall and although the facility was head and shoulders above today's, the 0-0 game between the Seed Growers and their neighbours Witham Town was far from a classic, so my main hope for the game here would be to see two sides trying to gain some early form with an end to end match here. I'd predicted 3-1 to the hosts on this occasion, which wasn't a bad old guess in hindsight. Leyton Athletic, a side I'd seen under their old name of Wadham Lodge at the back end of the 2016-17 season, were currently in their first season under the new handle and with no league wins yet in the Essex Senior League, the only taste of victory they'd had was in the FA Cup as they saw off Barkingside on a replay. Rovers had themselves won the Essex Senior League last season and despite beginning their new campaign in the Isthmian Northern division with a 0-3 pasting, they had recovered well last weekend with a 2-0 win at home to Felixstowe & Walton United which would make them firm favourites for this match- but, this is the FA Cup after all, so anything could happen.

The magic of the cup
I got myself into the ground with fifteen minutes to spare, meaning just enough time to search around the ground for a Saturday afternoon slurp at the bar- which was back outside the actual ground, in the main clubhouse. The spacious venue was in decent albeit unspectacular nick and had plenty of Wakering locals sat awaiting kick-off. As this was an FA Cup game, the Rovers officials had decided to be one of the few clubs that observe the "no alcohol at pitch-side" rule and as a result I had to neck a swift half before the game began. Well, you can't go in completely sober, can you?
It'd be classed as rude in some parts
Outside, the actual ground was fairly simple. Two stands, one at either side, with a few decent seating areas and a tea hatch near one corner flag, located in "Nobby's End" alongside the toilets, changing rooms and other facilities inside of Burroughs Park. It seemed that there were roughly 80 to 100 fans around the sides as the teams came out, with most housing themselves in either stand, whilst the remainder would lean on the outer white border fencing. Quite often when I visit a ground like this, so far out in the sticks and with the most basic of facilities, I do hope and wish that they can make it through the eight rounds that they need to win to make it to Round Three, where they could hopefully get a home tie with Klopp's Liverpool or one of the big London sides in what would not only be a glamour tie for the hosts, but also no doubt a massive culture shock for lads like Eden Hazard or Mo Salah. In the meantime, Rovers had to get past Leyton Athletic and with a strong start, the hosts looked eager to bag an early goal.

Those clouds!!!
The first chance of the match fell to Simon Thomas, with the number 9 heading just past the post, but it wouldn't be long before the opening goal and after Danny Hurford put Billy Harris on his way into the box, the Leyton defender felt the need to gamble and a rash tackle knocked his opponent to the ground for a penalty. Stephen Butterworth stepped up with infinite confidence and sent the keeper the wrong way with a perfect penalty. Rovers 1-0 Leyton Ath. An early goal was just what I'd hoped for and it helped to get a good flow going, with Wakering proceeding to dominate the play after the goal. It seemed likely that more goals were on their way sooner rather than later and although they had chances, Leyton rode the wave into the 20th minute before going on an attack of their own. In what was essentially a one man effort, Dwade James picked up the ball on the counter, had a bit of luck to beat the Wakering defence and then he applied a tidy finish to level things up. Rovers 1-1 Leyton Ath.

Is there a shock on the cards?
Although Leyton seemed much more settled after the equaliser, Rovers continued to look the more likely side. Butterworth forced a save from James Scammell with a curled free-kick, but the visiting keeper made his best save moments later as Thomas was denied from point blank range. James continued to keep the home defence on its toes but ultimately the game would be level at the break. I made my way back into the bar for a pint and awaited the restart. So far the game had been very end to end and even though the quality was sometimes lacking, the creativity certainly wasn't and I had been impressed so far. I still fancied the hosts to grab the win, but Athletic would have no doubt been happy with the display they'd given. Not that it would be of note to either side on the day, but I couldn't help but look back at last season's league table and see that the away side had finished a whole 54 points worse off than the rampant Rovers on the way to only just avoiding relegation. Back outside the sun somehow was still shining through the stormy clouds and although I heard a loud ripple of thunder at the top of the half, thankfully the rain held off.
The only electrifying performance would come from the hosts in the second half
In the first-half the hosts made a lot of headway down the left-wing as they looked to exploit the slightly rotund Nico James, and although the big number two nearly scored within a couple of minutes the restart, Rovers had clearly made a note of where the gaps would appear and as the remainder of the match unfolded we'd see umpteen chances created from here. Before that though, Leyton almost netted a second as Brian Simpson took a long-range snapshot that landed on the roof before the home side won another spot kick. Butterworth was the man to step up again and although he hit his shot the other way this time it was the same result. Goal for the green and white stripes! Rovers 2-1 Leyton Ath. Straight from the kick-off Leyton's lone forward rattled the home bar but ultimately that would be as good as it got for the visitors. Just after an hour of play, Rovers won a free-kick on the left-hand side and when Butterworth put in a delightfully teasing ball into the six-yard area, all that Thomas needed to do was let the ball ricochet off him and into the net once again. Rovers 3-1 Leyton Ath. The goldmine also known as the Wakering left-wing continued to see plenty of action and as Thomas went close on a couple more occasions there was almost enough space to set up a picnic as big Nico was clearly tiring at right-back. With five minutes to go, we witnessed goal of the day as a switched ball from the left fell to the on-rushing Jason Ring. The right-back controlled it well, turned his opposing defender and then unleashed a left-footed strike which rippled into the goal the final time on a day with plenty of goals. Rovers 4-1 Leyton Ath. There was to be one final chance for Leyton and in injury time they went into the box with three attackers, but unfortunately in an opportunity that looked impossible to miss, an Athletic striker walloped the bar underside of the bar and was then cleared by the backtracking Wakering defence. The Ref had seen enough and shortly afterwards he put the visitors out of their misery. Great Wakering Rovers were the deserved winners here and although Leyton Athletic gave it a go, the result was more than fair and I hope to see Rovers continue in the Cup into the latter stages of the Qualifiers... and hopefully beyond!

Rover would be dreaming of facing another Rovers side later in the competition, even Forest Green!