Saturday, 27 July 2019

26/07/19 Review: West Bromwich Albion vs AFC Bournemouth

West Bromwich Albion 0-0 AFC Bournemouth
(Pre-season Friendly)
The Hawthorns

There's nothing like writing up a 0-0 between two of the country's finest sides in a fairly standardised Championship stadium, right? Yup, I should have seen this one coming really as I set out to tick off my 22nd Football League ground and for the second season in a row I would see the real difference between top flight friendlies and non-league ones- pretty much a year to the day since I popped up to Stoke to see the Potters take on Wolves in an equally sombre match. Foolishly, I'd predicted the hosts to sneak a 1-0 win. Imagine expecting to see a goal in a pre-season game between a Championship and Premier League side. Ludicrous!

Boing, Boing, it's time to see the Baggies

I suppose in fairness to the two sides, it would be a tall order for anybody to live up to the goalfest that came from my match just two days prior, as I went over to Telford to see Wellington Amateurs win an eight goal game against higher opposition in the form of Eccleshall. This Friday night would be my fourth match of the season and also marked the start of a week off work, which means a whole heap of action for me! With the Out Of Office turned on and the train from Coventry to Birmingham booked, it was time to begin the search for West Bromwich Albion's stadium.
Next stop, The Hawthorns
Once I made it to the ground, I had a walk around the outskirts to see what this former Premier League ground had to offer in terms of pre-match watering holes. The answer- none. However, they do have a Greggs, which we all know is the true mark of any quality away day! Inside the West Stand was more choice of pastries and also a particularly tasty Sadler's craft lager called "Peaky Blinder", which was a nice surprise at an otherwise fairly generic looking midsize stadium. Don't get me wrong, it had it's quirks, with a few highlights to mention- such as the column that allowed you measure how high you can jump, a gaming corner and even a wall of fame. Who says the modern game is gone?

More of a PS4 guy personally...
A game for the technophobes too...
And all the greats are honoured appropriately!
In all seriousness, looking at the wall of fame was a great throwback to seeing some of the great Premier League stars the Baggies have seen come and go over the years. Chinese Super League newbie Salomón Rondón, ex-Manchester United lads Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans and Jonathan Greening and of course everybody's favourite Hungarian, Zoltán Gera. Of course, the current crop aren't too bad neither and after getting so close to bouncing back into the top flight just a couple of months ago, the aim for Slaven Bilic this season will be to go one step further than the Semi-Final heartbreak against rivals Villa and get back to the promised land where they'd been for the eight previous seasons prior to the one just gone. Bournemouth on the other hand are now one of the more established sides in England and will be entering their fifth season in the top tier. Not bad for a side that ten years ago almost dropped out of League Two and into the oblivion of non-league.
Match time
The south coast visitors got the game underway with some early pressure, but with international strikers in the form of Norway's Josh King and our very own Callum Wilson, that's hardly a surprise. Semi Ajayi was coped well though and largely kept a tight grip on Wilson in particular, eliminating the chances he would have. A Baggies half-chance went wide just before the half-hour mark but ultimately the first 45 would come to a calm close. Bilic and Howe retreated to their dressing rooms and the few thousand fans in the ground began to analyse the match so far. A few fans said they were expecting more action, whilst others seemed reassured and positive about the subdued display so far. When facing higher league opposition with good striking options, it is nice to go in having not conceded.

Either way, you can't complain for fifteen quid
So far the best moment of the evening had been when the crowd cheered for the steward as she hunted down and returned the ball to The Cherries goalie from the empty stand behind the goal, but with the second-half offering the likes of Kieran Gibbs and Oliver Burke a chance to get some game time, it was a little bit more competitive and in fairness West Brom could have nicked a goal or two. At the final whistle the fans headed off in high spirits knowing that they'd more than held their own here and although friendlies aren't exactly the be all and end all, they do offer the managers a chance to try stuff out, the players a chance to get a bit of form and fitness together, and of course the fans a chance to see what they've got to look forward to for the next ten months. Hopefully not too many 0-0 draws!

Good luck to Bilic, who I met as Besiktas manager when his team came to Macc Town in 2014!

Thursday, 25 July 2019

24/07/19 Review: Wellington Amateurs vs Eccleshall

Wellington Amateurs 5-3 Eccleshall (Pre-season Friendly)
Fortis Stadium

With pre-season in full-swing by now, the fitness levels are starting to get better, the long days of work follow the summer match nights and no, this is not just true of me, but it is more a reflection on the current state of play for most footballers who are getting ready for the 2019-20 season. Make the most of those daylight evening matches in delightful conditions lads, they won't last!
Unlike the cones, they will almost certainly be here... rain or shine
Since moving to Stafford in April I haven't actually had the luxury of being able to drive to a local ground yet, with both of my outings this season so far being pre or post work trips to nearby grounds around the Coventry area. Don't get me wrong, the last one was a real gem over at The Oval in Bedworth, but there's something extra satisfying about visiting a local ground. Even if you've never been there, it always seems somewhat familiar and in this case it was VERY familiar as I would be watching Eccleshall- a side who have about a third of the players and management team from the side I was involved with last season, Stone Dominoes. Nothing like a bit of non-league incest!
Here we go again, Ground #161
With temperatures soaring into the late twenties on this fine Wednesday evening, I spent the day stuck inside working on Business Continuity Plans for my job and generally hating life, so the chance to get out of the house and have a ride out to Telford was one that I could not pass up. I wonder how many people have ever looked forward to a ride out to Telford as much as I? Maybe someone's Nan? Anyway, enough of that- with a 7:45pm kick-off I found myself at the Fortis Stadium on School Grove just the right side of half past and after a leisurely stroll over to the ground I was eventually met by the gatekeeper. Donning his sun cap filled with badges from groundhopping exploits, the gentleman shook my hand and asked me if I was playing. Wondering if he was joking, I simply said "not tonight" and he then continued to quiz me on why! I suppose technically I wasn't lying when I said that I was retired, but either way he seemed happy of the chat and let me sail on in. Nice chap. Of course, with it being a hot night (like I need that excuse) my first stop was the clubhouse, pictured above, and a nice cold can of Staffordshire's finest was served up with smiles and all.

Safe to say that the travelling away fans weren't loving the heat as much as me

I had a quick wander around the ground, bumped into my pal Alan, who's son players for Eccy, and had a natter with the Newcastle Town coach. His side take on Eccleshall next week in a match that will divide the Baxter household, so I think he was here on a bit of a half-support, half-spy mission this evening. I continued to potter about until I found a leaning post just in time for kick-off. The sides came out and got the game underway, but not before I could pluck my usual pre-match prediction out of the sky. These two sides, of the tenth and eleventh tier respectively, were likely to be evenly matched, but having followed Eccleshall from afar last season I fancied them to eventually grab a 3-1 victory. Both games I'd seen so far had seen the same scoreline, who am I to bet against a third?

Early goal alert!
Less than a couple of minutes had been registered on the clock when the opener was scored and after doing direct from the kick-off, an Eccleshall corner would eventually fall to their number 11. He graciously teed the ball up for himself before acrobatically striking from inside the area to give the visitors a perfect start. Wellington 0-1 Eccleshall. The Eagles, in front of a decent crowd of around 60 or so, will have been chuffed to take the early advantage over a side who finished 7th in the West Midlands League Division One last season, compared to their own 13th place in the 2018-19 North West Counties Division One South campaign, however, the smiles from the dugout wouldn't last too long as Craig Bould saw his side soon back to being level-pegged after a soft penalty was conceded and converted. Wellington 1-1 Eccleshall. Both sides would proceed to play this match as though it were the real deal, with plenty of "non-friendly" tackles from Wellington's number 12 and a couple of half-chances squandered by Baxter at the other end. The number 10 firstly headed over before his second effort was closed down by the keeper moments after leaving his toes.
Here's trouble...
I popped over to the other end of the ground in search of a bit of shade, which was instantly made a worthwhile choice when I overheard the fully kitted Wellington sub keeper telling locals about all of the trophies he'd won over the years. "There's a picture of me with the three trophies I won one season, next to another of me when I did the double"- alright, calm down Buffon! Meanwhile on the pitch it was still pretty even, but Wellington were growing into the game whilst Eccy seemed to be looking forward to a half-time breather. The Ams eventually took the advantage as their number 14 ran through on the right-hand side before slotting in from a fairly unfavourable angle. Wellington 2-1 Eccleshall. Aside from one howler missed by the Eagles just before the break, the rest of the first-half would remain fairly uneventful.

The away fans will be hoping for a better second-half display
As you can see from my pictures, the ground was fairly basic but also in really good condition. The main stand had that delightful smell of fresh timber combined with drying paint, whilst the other congregation areas seemed fairly decent too. The pitch itself wasn't great, but compared to the pre-season conditions of last season it was certainly an improvement on some that I have seen. Eccy's Pershall Park has a similar format from what I can recall from my visit there in the pre-season of 2017-18, with the main seating area backing on to the bar. Perfect for those old-age drinkers... and the young ones too!

The money shot
The Eagles began the second-half hoping to emulate the first, with Baxter again going close for the visitors. Some fans would call their keeper's save a top stop, but from where I was stood I think the strike was too sweet and was practically hammered straight at the host keeper. Either way, they would rue the miss on the hour-mark when the Eagles goalie would take down a Wellington striker, meaning that a second penalty would be slotted home- this time by the red shirted number 8. Wellington 3-1 Eccleshall. By this stage the shape and formation of the Eccleshall eleven had gone out of the window, with their relentless right wing-back starting to get very frustrated at the lack of options. At the other side, the Wellington right-back was having much more joy and he scored arguably the goal of the game with a nice finish from the wing. Wellington 4-1 Eccleshall. Three minutes later he made the most of the sleepy opponents and made another darting run that ended in him doubling his tally on what can only be described as a fantastic second-half display. Wellington 5-1 Eccleshall.
Both right-backs were the stand out players for me
With just five minutes to play, Eccleshall finally decided they were going to give it a go and 83 minutes on from their early opener, the first of two consolation goals came as Jordan Benton slotted home a well-executed penalty. Wellington 5-2 Eccleshall. And as if that wasn't enough, the visitors would grab another, this time from a free-kick, as their number 7 rasped one home from 25-yards. Wellington 5-3 Eccleshall. Although the scoreline now looked a lot more respectable from the visiting perspective, it was still an overall disappointing result for Kyle Adams, who's team don't have long before their opener against West Didsbury & Chorlton at the start of August. For me, the next outing will be a rare trip to a "big ground" as I hope to make it to The Hawthorns for West Brom's Friday night match against Premier League AFC Bournemouth. It's about as hipster as it gets for me and no doubt I'll be taking on more non-league grounds next week whilst I am on holiday from work. Yaaaaaaaaaaay!

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

16/07/19 Review: Bedworth United vs Coventry Sphinx

Bedworth United 3-1 Coventry Sphinx (Pre-season Friendly)
The Oval

Match two of pre-season and time to crack on with my aim of reaching the big 200 by the end of the season. I have applied for tickets for Budapest, Bucharest and Dublin for EURO 2020 and I have a big trip abroad planned in July 2020 so I'm hopeful of making it a memorable one to mark my double century. Will it be as good as my 100th? I suppose we'll have to wait and see!

For now you'll have to make do with this belter
Since moving to Stafford and beginning work in Coventry, my groundhopping prime focus has moved from the north-west of the country to the midlands area and with this shift I have opened up all sorts of new opportunities. This season, expect to see me knocking around at the finest that Birmingham, Coventry and Leicester have to offer- plus everything in between. Tuesday night would be one of those inbetweeners and after finishing for the day I was on the train over to Bedworth in search of my 160th ground. The choice was between the Oval and Boldmere St Michael's Trevor Brown Memorial Ground, both of which took my fancy, but after running a Twitter poll it was decided for me that Bedworth would be my next port of call. I arrived in the town with a good hour or so to spare and so I searched high and low for a bit of dinner and a pre-match pint.

Believe it or not, this was one of the better options
The Bear & Ragged Staff was my only viable choice, so I popped in and noshed out on Spoons' finest chicken burger before meandering through the mean streets of the Warwickshire market town. I made it into the ground in one piece and after relinquishing a fiver to get in, I populated the clubhouse for a wee while. My first impression of the ground was very positive. Standout features for me were the main stand and the great blend of old facilities mixed in with the new pitch and up to date feel. I've been to very few grounds where they've achieved this delicate mix to a standard of this quality, so I have to give the Bedworth boys a round of applause at what they've got at The Oval. As you can see from an above picture, they've obviously spent good money on getting an artificial pitch in, but they haven't made the common mistake that some clubs make in knocking down their surrounding structure in order to replace it with a tin can stand that is as generic as the next one. When I visit a ground, I like to see the nooks and crannies and this one certainly offers a memorable and high standard ground.

Battered old disused turnstile....
... meets gleaming new astroturf pitch. Perfect!
For me, the key to a successful non-league ground is in using your usually quite limited monies on the practical stuff, like the pitch, equipment, etc. whilst also maintaining a sense of originality. There have been so many grounds I've visited that have a splendid brick clubhouse that serves three different craft ales, yet the pitch is nothing short of a pig sty! Thankfully, this was not the case here and the Southern League outfit looked in good nick to host Midland Premier League side Coventry Sphinx. My last outing had taken me to a Coventry ground in the shape of Allard Way and already the theme of my season has been set with this match also featuring a team that lives in the same city as my workplace. No doubt it'll only be a matter of time before I'm down at Sphinx Drive to sample their goods.

I bet they don't have a club shop to rival "Deb'z Shed"
With kickoff looming I stopped mooching around and got in position by the halfway line ready for the Greenbacks to get us underway. I'd completely messed up my pre-match prediction last time out, so I am delighted to make note that this match would be one of the rare occasions where I guessed the correct scoreline- should've stuck a tenner on the guys in green! The hosts started on the front foot against Sphinx, who were donning a very nice sky blue and white strip, complemented by dark navy shorts and socks. I love me a good kit, hence my decision to rock up in my ludicrous purple Hua Hin City top. Yup, if you were there you'll now know exactly who I am!

Not that anyone cares
Inside the opening fifteen minutes, we were treated to an early goal and with the Bedworth attackers linking up nicely, Luke Rowe was slotted in through a gap in the Coventry boys' defence and the number 10 showed a cool head to finish a great move. Bedworth 1-0 Sphinx. The remains of the first-half were entertaining enough yet not exactly enthralling in terms of goalmouth action, with the main point of note being a little scuffle amongst the players after a tasty tackle from a familiar face lining up in the visiting team. The Sphinx centre-back made his way into the attacking box and nodded a header over at one end, whilst at the other Blyth tamely tried his luck to no avail. When the Ref blew up for half-time, I headed back into the clubhouse for a top up on my beer so that I could find a prime spot for the second from the main stand. Although it wasn't a particularly sunny night at The Oval, it was a warm one and in my opinion it was a perfect night to be spectating.
Lovely stuff
Sphinx started the second-half in search of an equaliser and the MFL side, who finished 9th last season in the Step Five league, weren't a million miles off the pace of their Step Four opposition. I know that it's only pre-season and it's not always a true indicator, but United looked in good form in this outing and considering they finished rock bottom of the Southern League Premier last season, this test was proving to be a good one. With pressure being created again by the home side, it was eventually a corner that led to Parrott having an easy tap-in to double his side's lead. Bedworth 2-0 Sphinx. Amongst all of the action, I somehow missed out on one of the ground's hidden gems- the Peter Randle Boardroom Terrace, which sits snug above the clubhouse as a little VIP treat. A very nice touch.

The main stand, however, is the place to be for me
With the last ten minutes approaching, the visitors gained a big chance of their own from a free-kick within shooting range. As the Sphinx number 9 stood above the ball ready to hit one, a fan from the touchline shouted at another player, asking him "why aren't you taking it? You've scored the last two!", but despite the pressure the Cov forward ran up and cracked the ball sweetly into the net to set up an entertaining final few minutes. Bedworth 2-1 Sphinx. The goal would, however, only prove to be a momentary blip for the hosts and it would be up to their lanky centre-back and scorer of the second goal to double his own tally as the unlikely hero struck again in the 83rd minute. Bedworth 3-1 Sphinx. The rest of the game played out and came to an end, meaning that for me it was time to say a fond farewell to The Oval. What a great night out in what I can only describe as a fairly morbid town. Bedworth, you are lucky to have this on your doorstep! Get on down and support the Greenbacks!

Sunday, 7 July 2019

06/07/19 Review: Coventry Copsewood vs Northfield Town

Coventry Copsewood 1-3 Northfield Town (Pre-season Friendly)
Allard Way

Having suffered an off-season break of fifteen long days since returning from Italy and the EURO Under 21 tournament, yesterday would be the first day of preseason 2019/20 for 'Pint of Football'. Last season I spent most of my time with Stone Dominoes in the North West Counties League in what was an absolutely crazy year! Having started as their "Twitter guy", I became the Club Secretary during July 2018 and by Christmas when players and management left the club, I helped to rebuild a new club in time for the second part of the season. At one point, I was due to be on the bench for a game away at Ellesmere Rangers, believe it or not! It is a miracle that we made it to the end of the campaign, albeit in last place, but with the club being secure again and ready for competing in the Staffs Senior League I decided it was my time to leave and get back on with the good stuff. A lot will be different for me this season as I look to fall back in love with groundhopping and all being well the aim is to reach 200 grounds by the end of the season. I have also changed jobs and now live in Stafford, but with Coventry being my place of work I have now opened the door to a whole world of Midlands madness and that started with my first Coventry ground, Allard Way.

Get ready, lads. This season is gonna be a good en

I've always enjoyed preseason due to the fact that I can usually find a match whatever day I fancy, so I began my plans and with Coventry hosting many non-league clubs in the shape of the Sphinx, United, Alvis and Plumbing just to name a few. Apparently the city has a Football League club too, but I couldn't find where they play Coventry... ahh well, I suppose I'll find them at some point. In the meantime, I knew that Allard Way was a good place to start off and with an evening shift at 5pm to follow in Earlsdon, this ground was just about local enough to suit my needs for a 3pm kickoff.
And if that didn't work out, there's always the Miniature Railway
Yup, a bit of a quirky one to start off with at Copsewood Sports Club and before eventually finding the football match I encountered a labyrinth of sport and entertainment, with the club offering everything from bowls to a Saturday night Bavarian Oompah session in the clubhouse! I had a good mooch around and when I eventually got on to the main ground I was met with an ongoing cricket match and so I pretended to be half-interested whilst making my way over to the Ken Naylor Memorial Stand to have a look at what could have been. This small main stand, pictured earlier in the post, is a sky blue similar to that of City's and I have been informed by one of my fellow football fanatics that the seats are actually from the old Highfield Road ground. Makes sense I suppose, being as how most of the non-league grounds I've been to in Stoke and the surrounding area seem to have old Bet365 Stadium seats knocking around.

Not too many places have one of these in the patio, though
My tour then saw me head upstairs into the clubhouse and it was at this point that I found one of the greatest seats in history. From the balcony bench that I sat on, I had a view of more sport than the eye could comprehend. Not only could I see the cricket match going ahead, as well as the bowls I'd passed on the way in, but I could also just about see the empty rugby field, the televised horse-racing through the window AND between the treetops I could see the Copsewood and Northfield lads warming up ready for the match I'd come out to see. Now I'm no mathematician, but that adds up to a whole lot of sporting goodness.

It may not look it from down here, but that's one hell of a view!
The day's game would be between two members of the Midlands Football League, with the hosts being in Division One (Step Six) and their Brummy based visitors being in the division below. Northfield Town did actually win the second division of the MFL last season, edging out another Coventry side in GNP Sports, but for some reason or another Town weren't able to go up and so GNP took their spot alongside the likes of Copsewood. The home side remain in the same division as they have since the Midlands Football Alliance and Midland Football Combination leagues merged back in 2014 and last season's 15th place finish was their lowest yet. This would surely mean there would be a close encounter here today at Allard Way and I made a 2-1 prediction for the hosts on this occasion. I knew the visitors would be tough, but would they be good enough to grab the win?
Spoiler alert... they were
Once the lads finished up their warm-ups, went for a pee in the nearby bush and decided who was starting, the game got underway. Northfield had the first chance as their exciting number 11 worked his way down the wing and into the box before looking to set up his attacking pals. Both strikers fluffed their lines and on this occasion Copsewood went unpunished. Looking around I'd say the attendance was a respectable 35 or so and as with many games at this level it appeared that a good chunk of the viewers were with the away team, possibly providing transport as much as support, making for a decent crowd on this warm but drizzly afternoon. The visitors continues to pagger the Cov goal but with half an hour already gone they just couldn't put the ball in the net. The sky blue home side eventually forged a chance of their own as their lanky number 9 forced the young opposing keeper into a save, but aside from him and the number 4 in central midfield, the hosts didn't seem to be quite finding their rhythm so far. Northfield eventually took one of their chances and it was the number 11, this time on the receiving end of a parry from Cov's keeper, who could tap home the opener. Copsewood 0-1 Northfield.

He'd looked the most lively all through the first-half
Just before half-time things took an unexpected turn as the heated "friendly match" broke into handbags. The Cov number 4 wasn't happy about a foul by Northfield's number 16 and from what I could see the lad threw an arm in on the youth. This caused a few lads to get involved, with the Copsewood number 10 barging in and getting a bit too involved. Once the Ref had spoken with his lino, he dismissed the Northfield number 16 and also showed a yellow to Cov's 10. I was half-expecting to see my first use of the new sin-bin rule, due to the behaviour of a couple of the players, but it wasn't to be. As play resumed, Northfield's keeper turned to me and said "dramatic first half". He wasn't wrong!

Proper footy
After a quick sip of water and a swap of sides, the Ref soon got us back up and running with Copsewood looking to turn the tables on their disadvantaged opposition. First up the tricky right-back went close by forcing a save from the keeper, but nothing came from the following corner. The frustrations for number 10, already on a yellow, continued to rise and it culminated in him dropping a C-bomb on the Ref after he accused him of falling over. At this stage, I was beginning to wonder if the sin-bin was a myth? If pushing opponent players and swearing at the Ref don't get you binned, what will? Another Cov player went into the book on the hour-mark but on the positive note for the hosts, all of the football was being played in the Northfield final third. The pressure finally told in the 65th minute as a 25-yard equaliser was struck home in splendid fashion. A great goal for the hosts! Copsewood 1-1 Northfield. Cov couldn't make the most of being level-pegged though and just five minutes passed before Northfield retook the lead against the run of play. It came as a disappointment to the home side who had put all of their efforts into getting back into the tie. Copsewood 1-2 Northfield. With the game almost seeming to be calming down, the Ref decided now was the time to wind a few of the players up and this time he turned his attentions to the subs. He used a break in play to turn to the sideline and shout at players who were kitted up and stood off-field, telling them to sit down. It's always a drama with referees!
Has nobody ever heard of bibs?
The final fifteen mins saw ten-man Town continue to dominate and when their left-back stepped up to take a free-kick of good quality that flat-footed the keeper, a third and final goal would land in the back of the net. Copsewood 1-3 Northfield. The game ended nice and promptly meaning that I could shoot off to work with time to spare. All that remains to say from me is that it's great to be back in non-league action! Following a week of top-quality international matches on my last ventures, it was so good to be back in the grassroots field, literally in a field, for a proper kick-about in my new footballing hunting ground. Thanks to Copsewood and Northfield for the game- it wasn't quite up to the standard of Germany's 6-1 rout of Serbia in my last outing at Stadio Nereo Rocco in Trieste, but it was still a more than worthy trip to my 159th ground. Cheers lads and good luck for the season!