Saturday, 21 September 2019

21/09/19 Review: Darlaston Town 1874 vs Bilston Town

Darlaston Town 3-0 Bilston Town (West Midlands (Regional) League)
The Paycare Ground

Sunny September Saturdays are made for a ride out to Darlaston, right? Well, for 'Pint of Football' they are and with a local derby on the agenda in this West Midlands League encounter I decided to use my free afternoon to take the short drive down the M6 to see what all the fuss was about at The Paycare Ground, home to Darlaston Town 1874. Formed (or should I say reformed?) in 2014, the phoenix club of the dissolved originals were allowed back into the West Mids League family and since then have been treated as a new club. Their opponents for the day, known as the Steelmen, also have a bit of history behind them and since 1894 they've been called everything from Bilston Town all the way through to Bilston Borough. With just three miles separating the two clubs on the Black Country Route, the sides started the day just a point apart and it therefore promised to be a tasty encounter. I decided that there was no better time to get down to see a game and so without further ado, let's see how it all panned out.

Not a cloud in the sky this afternoon- lovely!
As regular readers know, I always pluck a pre-match prediction out of the air and although I got the number of goals right, I was not quite correct with my 2-1 early doors guess. I arrived at The Paycare Ground a good fifteen minutes early and after parking up and accidentally walking through the gap between the trees into the ground I then backtracked into the car park and made my way over the proper entrance... I'm tight, but not tight enough to sneak into a ground at this level. After relinquishing a fiver for entry, I then made my way straight into the modern and well-presented clubhouse for a pre-match Coors so that I could get in the mood for the big derby. One thing that I've not got used to, despite living in Staffordshire for a third of my life now, is the hugely differing accent that belongs to the Black Country folk! Being originally from Yorkshire, I know that I can't really judge, but their language is a hard one for me to grasp and I even stumbled across a lad and dad couple arguing in the toilets whilst discussing their hopes for the game. The dad thought that his son was saying "hopefully we'll get three pints today" and was rejecting the notion of having that much to drink, when all that the lad was actually hoping for was a win! I tried to add to the confusion by asking them if they'd need more than three pints if they didn't manage three points, but I think my humour was lost so I quickly departed out to sunny pitchside.
Everyone outside... it's game time
My last new ground was two weeks at time of writing and although my trip to Butts Park in Coventry was something a little more glam than what I'd witness today, my main focus would be on whether the hosts today could do better than the disappointing United side a fortnight ago. With that, the sides started to emerge on to the field and after a minute's silence in the centre-circle and around the ground, we began. Darlaston began the game strongest with Romano Graham looking lively up front, but as is customary for a derby at this level the fouls count was rising at a much higher rate than that of the shots registered. Into the twentieth minute I overheard a fan say that Man City were already 5-0 up against Watford, which at the time I didn't believe, but I couldn't help but start to wish that a Sergio Aguero character would enter the field here to convert some of the half-chances that Darlo were creating. At the other end, Bilston created a rare chance of their own through Sam Melia, but there wasn't too much testing Liam Whittaker in the home goal. The black country answer to Bjorn Lodbrok stood tall and watched as his side largely took control of the first-half.

No goals for this lot to cheer about though, HT 0-0
Whilst the attendance was fairly decent from what I could see, there was a notable lack of absence in terms of atmosphere and there was only one Bilston boy who made up for this. Yes, fully kitted out in his bright orange attire, the lad who I believe was named Frankie, stood out as being one of the looniest but also undoubtedly passionate fans I've come across so far. He was vocal throughout, giving general tactically instructions out such as "mark him, marrrrrrk him" and of course "have a go" as his side got anywhere near the 18-yard box. You can't knock this sort of commitment, as I've seen present in "Gladiator Tony" at The Creek over at Bristol Manor Farm, but I also couldn't allow myself to spend too much near him. He was making me feel sweaty just by looking at him.
Yup, that's him
The highlight of the break, aside from a second pint, was listening to the crowd moaning that the raffle was a fix. It was one of those 'pick a team off the card and the winner is then revealed later' things and the winning team was Wolves. One fan shouted out "it's them every week!" whilst another simply labelled the raffle a fix. With the heat rising in the clubhouse to match the soaring temperatures outside, I headed back out to get ready to see whether Darlo could turn domination into goals as they looked to build on what they would no doubt have considered a good first 45. It wasn't until the hour mark, but the inevitable opener did come and it was from a tidy Daniel Bolzon finish. The striker raised an arm as he jumped in the air to celebrate, whilst the rest of the ground gave a relieved cheer. Darlaston 1-0 Bilston.

Let the Darlaston decimation begin
And with that, the floodgates opened and despite freshening things up with the introduction of a Coby Jones lookalike, Bilston would ultimately have little left in the tank to formulate a response to the opener. Leon Taylor had been impressive all afternoon and it would be the home captain who would grab the second as he made the most of a frail and tiring defence to slot home and double the lead fairly soon after the first from his strike partner. Darlaston 2-0 Bilston. A couple more subs came on for the visitors, but ultimately they were of a very poor standard and in particular their new right-back looked leaky in both offensive moves up the field and defensive plays at the back. Taylor found himself with space in the 75th minute and he chested the ball down, wriggled past Zack Stretton- who had a good game, in fairness- and then walked into the net with the ball between his legs for his second of the afternoon. Darlaston 3-0 Bilston. By this time Frankie had stripped down to an equally as bright orange shirt and for a moment I thought the old-timer was going to run on to try and change his side's fortunes, but instead the frustrated chap released the instruction "hit it with a coal shovel if you want next time!"

Some away fans had seen enough...
When you have the monstrous three mile trek back to Bilston, you couldn't help but sympathise with the away fans who began to leave as we approached stoppage time, but thankfully for them they didn't miss anything and the game drew to a close with an important three points and boost to the goal difference going to the hosts. For the oranges, it would be back to the drawing board for their new manager who has 13th place Dudley Sports visiting next Saturday. Darlo will travel to another very local side in the form of Black Country Rangers, who will start the day just two points above them in 6th.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

07/09/19 Review: Coventry United vs Haughmond

Coventry United 0-2 Haughmond (Midland Football League Premier)
Butts Park

When you have to work on a Saturday it can often be a gloomy affair, especially when you know your mates are out and about, having a beer, watching the footy. Thankfully for me, I'd arranged a strategic split shift that allowed me a "long lunch break" between 2 and 5 to go and check out the stadium around the corner. Step up Butts Park and my first venture over to see Coventry United in MFL Premier action against Haughmond.

Not bad for an eggball stadium

Although we are still early in the season, yesterday's trip would be my second to a ground that is purpose built for rugby, following on from a very special outing to Burton Rugby Club's Peel Croft in August to see the first football match there for over a century. In comparison, Butts Park is a dual-use stadium that hosts four teams across the two sports and the 4,000 capacity blue and white structure houses matches for Coventry RFC, Coventry Bears and of course Coventry United and Ladies football clubs. There also used to be an American Football Club playing there in the form of Coventry Jets, whilst the universities of Coventry and Warwick have also used the ground for their varsity day matches too, making it a valued asset to the City following Cov City's expulsion to Birmingham. Gotta be worth a visit on a sunny Saturday afternoon in September, right?
First though, a pre-match pint in the Broomfield Tavern
After polishing off a Spon End Fish Shop lunchtime deal I made my way down Broomfield Place and into the delightfully rough and ready saloon bar intending to sup up a quick shandy. Those who've been in there will know that it is not a shandy kind of establishment and instead I found myself guzzling down a pint of North Cotswold Shagweaver Ale- just the light lunch refreshment one needs before heading back to work. As pictured above, I wasn't the only chap in there awaiting the game and as 2:45pm rolled around it was time to mooch over and get ready for my fourteenth match of the season. Would it be as exciting as my last outing to New Bucks Head earlier in the week? Probably not! But nevertheless I was excited to see what the match could brew up and based on league positions, plus the fact that Shropshire's Haughmond were winless so far, meant that I very wrongly predicted a 3-0 win for the hosts as they looked to keep the pressure on my boys Sporting Khalsa who sit at the summit of the MFL Premier division. 

Butts Park is red and green again
Just six years since their formation as a backup club for if and when the Sky Blues fold, United are still going strong and despite slowing down after back to back promotions from the MFL Division Three all the way to the Prem, they are still considered to be one of the stronger sides in the league. A bit like Khalsa, who I actually saw beat United 3-0 back in November 2017, they have been unfortunate enough to find themselves battling very strong clubs in the form of Alvechurch, Bromsgrove Sporting and most recently llkeston Town, United have found themselves finishing 8th in each of their seasons at this level so far. This season is arguably the biggest chance for a side like Khalsa, United and other ambitious clubs to break out of the MFL and with the red and green army taking on Shrewsbury side Haughmond this would be a big chance for them to build momentum before a tough encounter with Walsall Wood, another side who've leapt up in recent seasons since I saw them in 2017. Of course the Mond, newly promoted after finishing runners-up to Tividale in the West Mids Regional League last season, would be looking to end their baron run of five league games so far without a win (two draws, three defeats) and in additional they would be seeking revenge on the hosts today who beat them 2-4 in the reverse fixture over at Shrewsbury Sports Village, which is the most westerly ground in the division and about 60-miles or so away from Butts Park. All the signs pointed toward a home victory today, but with the Acadmeicals beating Stone Old Alleynians 3-1 and United losing 0-2 at the Aspray Arena, anything could- and did- happen.

Butts Park, are you reeeeeeady?!
With the match kicking off on time and debuting a brand new astroturf pitch, I was still midway through my tour of the ground and indeed it's safe to say that I was a big fan. The XL Motors Stand, pictured above, is the 3,000 seater main attraction and it stands up as being arguably the meatiest stand I've seen in the MFL. Another rugby ground that I went to back in 2016, in the shape of AFC Wulfrunian's Castlecroft Stadium, may argue the toss but for me Butts Park has the edge due to the clean, modern and stylish structure. The underneath of the stand houses a splendid clubhouse area, including a bar, club shop section, full catering and all the mod cons, whilst at the back of the seating there is a couple of VIP boxes making it a proper all-in-one. Behind one of the goals is a windowed Guinness Bar which was not opened for the footy, and across the other side was a fairly old-school looking roofed standing terrace, which had yet another unopened bar attached to it. It seemed sad to say in such a high-quality venue, but I couldn't help but feel most at home in the standing area as I spent a good chunk of the first-half stood alone.
Now that's more my cup of tea
When you consider the typical standard of grounds at this level tend to be more like the ones I've visited such as the very old school Moat Ground in Gresley, the delightfully scruffy and wonderfully simple South Normanton Athletic home and wider afield my hometown ground, Queensgate Park of Bridlington, Butts Park is more like the quality of National League grounds I've visited in terms of facilities and of course this is largely down to the rugby residents but equally for the men's and ladies' clubs of Cov United, of which a superb 389 were in attendance for yesterday's match.

Speaking of which..
On the new pitch, the game was well and truly in full-swing by the time I settled down and just ten minutes had passed-by when Haughmond took the lead. The visiting ponytailed striker, known as Spud, made the most of his side's early pressure by striking a post-corner volley into the ground and as it lofted up into the air it caught out Otuyo in the Coventry goal before landing in the net. United 0-1 Haughmond. The rest of the second-half was fairly 50/50 and although United were creating chances, they showed absolutely no quality in the final third and as a result they went into the dressing room knowing that they'd need to turn things around in the second-half to make up for their one-goal deficit.

For me though, it was time to check out the bar
After fifteen minutes soaking in the half-time atmosphere in the clubhouse and resisting the urge to buy some merch, I made my way back out into the sun soaked seating stand ready for part two. Could the green and red side do any better with their shooting this time around? The answer was no, despite their best efforts, and in fact things would go from bad to worse as Haughmond almost started the half with another goal. Thankfully on this occasion the Acadmeicals striker couldn't make the most after big man Otuyo struggled to retreat back to his goal after running out, but after going up the other end and missing from as close as two-yards out they would later be punished as Spud made the most of some poor defending and pounced to grab his brace and almost guarantee the points with just twenty minutes left to play. United 0-2 Haughmond. Had this battle been a game of rugby I dare say Coventry would have been much happier as their attackers punted over the crossbar for the thirty-eighth time in an effort that would have been deemed pointworthy, but ultimately even when they did finally score in the 90th minute the goal would be ruled out for offside, therefore consolidating a very poor afternoon all-round. Haughmond's first win in the league was secured and they will be glad to have the last laugh having got through this early return game against a side who'd previously toppled them.

In truth, they might not have scored even with another 90 minutes to do so
With a return to work now calling me I made my way back indoors ready to oversee an ABBA tribute band, but on the plus side I left very happy knowing that Butts Park is undoubtedly going to become one of my regular haunts. Hopefully after seeing them lost 0-3 and 0-2 so far, I won't prove to be an eternal curse for them and I expect that I'll eventually see them grab a win!

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

03/09/19 Review: Telford United vs Gloucester City

Telford United 4-3 Gloucester City (National League North)
New Bucks Head

Almost a month on since I headed down to Leamington to see the Brakes beat Brackley Town, I was again on the hunt for some National League North action and this time it would be a fairly short westward ride over to Wellington to see Telford United versus Gloucester City in a real ding-dong battle between two sides who started the evening in 13th and 14th respectively. This early contender for game of the season was certainly a spectacle for the fans and it again showcased the true beauty of football at this level, making it an all-round thrilling night out in Telford... astonishingly, the second one I've had this season after getting over to the Fortis Stadium during Pre-Season. Also surprisingly, that game had one more goal too as Wellington Amateurs beat Eccleshall 5-3.
Still, the artwork alone is worth the entry fee here...
.... well, some of it is!
In terms of my limited relations with the Lilywhites I have only seen them play once and it was back in March 2015, when United visited Moss Rose to take on my beloved Macc Town. We triumphed in this crucial battle thanks to a Thierry Audel goal on a dreary Spring evening in a season that saw Telford go down to the division they've been in ever since. Their fortunes almost turned last season as they just missed out on the playoffs through goal difference, but aside from that they've lingered in the lower parts of the table and have failed to rekindle the success of the 2013/14 season that saw them win the league, with their most recent minor trophy coming last season in the confusingly named Huddersfield Cup. The 2004 remake of the original Telford United will be no doubt looking to get back into the top flight of non-league football, but hopefully not in the same fashion as their defunct predecessors who folded at the end of the mid-table Conference campaign fifteen years ago. Looking back, that same campaign contains a few fallen clubs such as the original Scarborough, the club formally known as Leigh Railway Mechanics Institute- now Leigh Genesis of the South Lancashire Counties League- and of course old Hereford United team. Bury may well be the biggest side to fall into dismay, but they certainly weren't the first.

Ask any lower league club- they need their fans!

By the time I'd made my way into New Bucks Head, opened in 2003, I was ready for action and so I made my way around the ground starting in the Hamer Leisure Stand and walked around to my seat in the Wolverhampton Uni Stand. The ground has some similarities to the Moss Rose, with a friendly and polite fanbase sitting alongside me in the main seating area. The two identical stands behind each goal seemed to house the "proper" fans who stood in the terraced areas with flags aloft to show their support. The stand running opposite the one I sat in was the busiest and I'm assuming that was because there was a bar close-by! As the two sides began to enter to Prodigy's "Firestarter" I began to feel the excitement. The Gloucester City opponents, donning one of the most sublime purple away kits I've had the pleasure of seeing, looked well up for the match and after a minute's applause was taken for a passed lifelong fan we were underway between two sides level on points at the start of play. I'd gone for a 2-2 pre-match prediction, which would have seemed like a bore draw after the events that would unfold in front of me.

The first of many applause

Even in the opening minutes the action was full-on, and within just two we saw the opener from the visitors as an early cross from the left was met by Bristol Rovers loanee Luke Russe. The forward managed to wriggle in between the Telford defence and he beat them to the ball to knock it home- giving the visitors the perfect start. Telford 0-1 Gloucester. The team in the media box behind me clearly weren't expecting a goal so early as they scrambled around trying to speak about the goal, whilst their Twitter guy clearly missed it as his Tweet simply states "can't describe it as I didn't really see it"- we've all been there, pal. By the time the second goal came in the 18th minute we were all settled in thankfully, but unfortunately for the hosts it was another visiting strike that would hit the net. This time it would be Gloucester born and bred lad Joe Hanks who hit a thunderbolt of a free-kick which flew hard and low. Telford 0-2 Gloucester. With Telford now two down they actually woke up a bit and started to play and on the half-hour mark their star man Brendon Daniels, formally of Crewe, Tamworth, Harrogate and many more, stepped up to rifle home a set-piece of his own to rival that of the one Gloucester's just a few minutes ago. Telford 1-2 Gloucester. There could have been more in the way of goals too, as both sides continued to press. Telford were playing the better football and looked most likely to grab the next goal, but equally they looked suicidal at the back and seemed almost as though they were trying to gift City a third. As it was though, the half ended at 1-2 to the visitors.

Gotta beat those HT queues...
Despite there being over 900 in attendance this evening the ground seemed fairly easy to negotiate, which is a rarity at any football match usually. With no problems finding a space at the urinal, an empty bar to plunder and even space to stand an check the half-time scores elsewhere, this was an odd sensation for me. I did wonder whether it's the case that the ground is just really well managed, or if it is just a quiet night at the New Bucks Head. To be fair, this was their first sub-1000 attendance of the season so that may answer a few questions on that front, but either way I stood and enjoyed my pint, checked that Macc were beating Newcastle's youth team in the ballbag trophy, listened to a lad recalling his weekend away day to Bradford Park Avenue and then headed back out for the second-half. One thing I did enjoy was that one of the kiosks was alcohol only and it was separate from the food counters to allow for us larger louts to grab a quick pint without having to listen to Edna list the four varieties of pie on offer, before checking them and then announcing that there is only cheese and onion left. Thanks Edna!

At three quid a pint, it would be rude not to
The Bucks started the second-half in fine form and although the opening ten minutes didn't bring any reward, the signs were there and with Daniels looking like pure class on the right it would only be a matter of time. The Stokie, who scored a brace during the weekend win, was involved again as he turned the left-side of the Gloucester wing inside-out, before pinging in a sumptuous cross with the outside of his boot towards an on-rushing Telford player to then nod it back across the six-yard line to allow Marcus Dinanga to rattle a close-range volley off the bar and into the net. Telford 2-2 Gloucester. Game on now and it was time for the side who wanted it most to step up and grab a winner. The hosts continued to ride the wave of their attacking fortunes and when a corner was won in the 70th minute it would be the United captain Shane Sutton who would rise the highest to header against the bar and the ball was deemed to cross the line, giving Telford the lead for the first time. Telford 3-2 Gloucester. It was fitting that the captain would be the one to grab this crucial goal, as the former Newtown man celebrated after a slight hesitation from the Ref to allow the header. Imagine that, a referee making a goal-line decision in 2019... madness!

They're not singing anymore
Sutton may well have captained his former side in the Europa League home and away to FC Copenhagen back in 2015, but the now Telford skipper would have been delighted by that and his glee would only grow as he watched his side steal a fourth goal thanks to a defensive mix-up at the other end of the pitch. A Gloucester defender nodded past his own keeper and former Football League striker Aaron Williams was there to mop up the finish. Telford 4-2 Gloucester. And as if my magic the Shropshire side had gone from two down to two up, but the question would be whether their leaky defence could firm up in the final ten to seal the points. The answer to that is a partial yes, but it wasn't without its complications as a very contentious penalty was awarded in stoppage time. As most of the crowd wondered why the spot kick was given, Joe Parker stepped up and lashed home to set up an unnecessarily nervy final few minutes for the Lilywhites. Telford 4-3 Gloucester.

Thankfully there would be no more twists in the tale
As the Ref brought the game to an end there was a huge sigh of relief followed by rapturous applause for the two sides who gave us a hugely entertaining game. On what was my fifth attempt to watch a game at New Bucks Head, after poor weather, a car crash blocking my route, a pre-season cancellation and a last minute location change for an England youth game preventing my previous four, all that I can say is that it was well worth the wait! I'd love to say that I will be back soon, but after that game I feel the bar of expectation may be too high to risk ruining! Well played both teams, I'll look forward to following your respective seasons.