Tuesday, 28 February 2012

21. Bashley FC

Bashley FC @ The Groovy Food Company Stadium.
I felt dirty.

Despite visiting one of the cleanest, most sanitary football grounds in the entire history of the universe, I felt very dirty indeed. As a Pompey fan in St Mary's, it felt so very wrong. Maybe it was the army of cleaners with wet wipes, scrubbing the seats whenever someone stood up. Perhaps it was the enforced family-friendly atmosphere - a bacteria-free stadium, safe for your precious young ones (they will never be poorly again!) - a place for germ-free adolescents and their Stepford mothers and fathers, all holding hands together, faces gleaming with their sanctimonious sickly smiles. It was horrible.

I needed to go somewhere with character, somewhere more earthy, somewhere that's not afraid of a bit of muck - indeed, somewhere that prized muck above the brass that Saints were constantly trying to part from me with their loud and shiny advertising. That somewhere was Bashley, and I was happier than a room full of sandboys to be there. Back to proper football in a proper stadium. And on a lovely sunny Spring afternoon too.

It felt right.

Proper turnstiles at Bashley.
Bashley FC 2 (0) v (0) 1 Leamington FC
Evo-Stik Southern League Premier Division
Saturday 25th February 2012
Attendance: 219
Admission: £10
Programme: £1.50
Club shop: Yes. Badges £3. According to their website, they may have some yellow wigs on offer - I can't say if they were curly Scouser wigs or Jedward gonk-style, because unfortunately I didn't see any in the shop.
Colours: Gold / Black / Black v All blue with yellow trim
National Grid reference: SZ2497

Leamington FC fans hog one of Bashley's covered terraces.
Of course, Bashley's ground isn't dirty as such, more "lived in". There may be a patch of rust here, a splurge of algae there, but it's all healthy countryside muck. Along with Brockenhurst, Bash are one of only two clubs that I'll be visiting within the New Forest National Park boundary. There are a pair of becoated horses in the field next door (more interested in hunting for hay than watching a football match), and a caravan site beyond the far boundary fence. It's an idyllic place to watch a match. You can understand why so many fans of other Southern League clubs say that Bashley is their favourite away trip of the season.

Leamington brought a large number of supporters on Saturday - at least 50. Clubs from the Midlands usually have a good raucous following, and they are no exception. They are the reformed version of the old AP Leamington, who were in the Conference for a few years. They originally broke up when the parent company sold their old ground for housing, but the new club (in a new ground) are steadily working their way back. I'm sure they'll make at least Conference North in the near future.

Gorgeous Spring weather in the New Forest for this Southern League match.
In love for the very first time:

When I first moved to Southampton, just over twenty years ago, there were no non-league sides locally who were playing at a higher standard than the Wessex League - AFC Totton, Eastleigh and Sholing were all lower down the ladder then. If Pompey were far far away in the north and I wanted to watch a semi-professional game to sate my Saturday yearnings, the choice was between either Waterlooville or Bashley. I occasionally went to both. Whereas Ville played on an industrial estate in the middle of a fairly bland town, the journey to Bash might involve a stop-off to look for shrikes on the heaths of the forest. It was more of an adventure.

And when arriving at the ground, there was an old sign at the entrance, which I half-remember said "Come On The Bash" in slanty capitals. I couldn't help but love them.

I didn't stop going on purpose - I just had children. Everything else stops for small children. Even trips to Bashley. I did take my son there for his first-ever football match at the age of five, but he was bored, so we never went back.

Leamington's subs look on as Bashley take a corner.
When visiting elderly relatives, my children invariably earn some "ooh, haven't they grown!" money. In other words, they are given £1 every time someone mentions how much they've grown. My daughter would wear 20-inch platform heels if she could, just to squeeze a little more cash out of her poor old dad. Returning to Bashley after such a long break, I wondered if they would earn some "ooh, haven't they grown!" money from me? The answer turned out to be No, as the ground hadn't changed at all since I was last there (with the exception of the old sign, which was nowhere to be seen). And that's just fine by me.

If you'd been there at the club's formation in 1947, they say that you would have seen a stream running through the centre of the pitch. Can you imagine that at, say, Stamford Bridge? Imagine Ashley Cole having to wear wellie boots when he takes a throw-in. He'd lose all our respect. I know that health & safety hadn't been invented in 1947, but even so, I rather think that the stream story must be an exaggerated version of the truth (whatever that truth may be).

Heads it's mine! Bashley attack whilst members of the crow family caw approvingly from the oak tree beyond.
The match was to be a mid-table clash. Bashley have been hovering a little above the relegation zone for most of the season; Leamington have just dropped out of the play-off positions after not winning a single match thus far in 2012.

It was an open game between two attacking sides, with chances to score at both ends. When nothing was happening on the pitch, you could turn around and watch the neighbouring horses gallumphing around their field - they were doing everything together, as though they were tied together with string.

Unfortunately, there was a five minute break in play towards the end of the first half, as Bashley's Matt Findlay fell awkwardly. It was immediately obvious that he was in a great deal of pain, as you can hear everything that goes on on the pitch at this level. It turns out that he broke his ankle. He was carried off on a bright yellow stretcher. I hope that he has a job that doesn't involve standing, as his Bashley appearance money won't be enough to live on. Part-time players aren't operated on by Dr Richard Steadman, and they don't have private swimming pools to recuperate in. I hope he recovers enough to play again next season.

That put a downer on the first half. However, something wonderful happened at half-time: there was delicious home-made cake for sale outside the refreshment hut! As half-time at this match was the exact halfway point in my journeys around the grounds, I really had to buy some to celebrate. Washed down with a nice cup of tea...it couldn't have been better!

Bashley all a-buzz as their team win 2-1.
I haven't seen a 0-0 draw yet, and I didn't think this match would end up scoreless. It didn't.

Leamington scored first. If I'd been in front of the TV doing some knitting* and glanced up as the shot left the forward's boot, I would have thought "ah, that's going over the bar, I shall carry on knitting safe in the knowledge that I'm not missing any significant action..." I would have missed the goal, as the ball dipped under the crossbar.

Two minutes later, Bashley's Mark Gamble, er, gambled that the ball would come to him six yards out with the keeper beaten by a low hard cross. It did, and he side-footed home for 1-1.

There were further chances for both sides in the pleasant Spring sunshine. Eventually, after several home corners, Bashley's Dave Allen scored with a slow motion header. I expected the Dulux dog to leap up and nod the ball off the line (as currently happens in an advert for phones or insurance or something other than Dulux paint). Neither a dog nor the Leamington defence managed to stop the ball, and as it hit the net, I jumped up and hollered a big YEEEEESSSS!

In love with Bashley all over again.

*The match wasn't on TV, and I don't knit.

Big Bash congratulations for goalscorer Dave Allen.
An afternoon at the football that was as life-affirming and as joyous as the first time I heard The Raindrops. As the lyric in one of their songs goes: "Boss with a capital B!"

I'll be back.

As a puzzling addendum, it's okay to follow four clubs, isn't it? Plenty of people follow a league club, a non-league club and perhaps a Scottish third division team, after all. But four? I already have Pompey, Havant & Waterlooville and Romsey Town - none of whom are ever likely to play each other in anger. If I added Bash to my list, they could easily end up playing the Hawks in the league. Who would I cheer for? Something to ponder...

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Tuesday Night at Romsey Town

Floodlit trees at Romsey Town.
I've visited Romsey Town several times since I saw them lose 6-2 to Lymington Town last season, and I've yet to see them defeated since that humiliation. Last night, they beat their bogie team Christchurch 1-0 with a penalty at the death, scored by the deadly Simon De'ath. The regulars tell me that this was the first time they've beaten the well-organised Christchurch in living memory, so well done to Romsey!

I do go to matches other than the ones I post about, but I don't usually mention them. However, something caught my eye in the freshly-hacked undergrowth last night - something I'd not previously seen at Romsey...

Well hidden under a twig!
How could I have missed this before? What else must be hiding under twigs and leaves at Romsey Town?

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

20. Southampton FC

Crossing the railway bridge towards St Mary's, home of Southampton FC.
You know the old adage, "If you have nothing nice to say, then don't say anything"? Well, I'm a Pompey fan...

 ...well, go on, I'll try, but if it goes all snidey, please understand! A Saints fan writing about Pompey would find it just as hard to say nice things...

It's just the way of the world.

St Mary's, as viewed from Northam Road.
Southampton FC (2) 2 v 0 (0) Burnley FC
NPower Football League Championship
Saturday 11th February 2011
Admission: £29 (!!!)
Programme: £3 (generally a good read, although the manager's notes were of the vomit-inducing middle-management motivational skills variety: "We are healthy, we are strong, we are focused, we are positive" etc)
Attendance: 24,099
Club shop: Yes, a megastore.
Colours: Red and white stripes / Black / Red v All yellow
National Grid reference: SU4211 / SU4212
Video highlights: Yes, if you're quick, free on the BBC iPlayer!

The statue of local legend Ted Bates, which no longer resembles Milan Mandaric!
This was the hardest ground for me to visit - the one I'd been least looking forward to. The elephant in the room. The monkey on my back. The steaming dumpling in the ice cream.

It wasn't always like this for the supporters of Hampshire's Big Two. My grandparents (and many others) travelled up from Portsmouth to welcome Saints home after they won the FA Cup in 1976. They bought me a celebratory golden flag, which I still have. If the triumph had been the other way round in '76, people would most certainly have taken the train from Southampton Central to cheer Pompey's returning heroes. I very much doubt if that happened in 2008 when Pompey brought the Cup home to Southsea Common.

It was normal for people to watch one team at home one week, the other the next. The residents of both cities are similar - working class, salt of the earth and all that. I know, I've lived in both. For those who diss supporters of the other club, they might as well be shouting at their own reflection in a mirror.

The Northam End.
The violent rivalry only really started in the early 1970s. In a country where casual racism, homophobia and the like were normal, every day occurrences (and nobody really knew these were bad things back then), and drinking and fighting were healthy hobbies for a young man, mere dislike of anyone who wasn't like you and your gang regularly turned nasty. The biggest gangs of all met up on the terraces.

Pompey were on the way down in the 1970s; Saints on an upward trajectory. There was jealousy from the blue half of the county; condescension from the red and white half. Unpleasantness ensued, and it's never really gone away. Southampton became Scummers; Pompey (after several years of being the unoriginal Pompey Scummers) morphed into Skates.

From experience, when Pompey fans and Saints fans meet up one-to-one, they get on just fine. A bit of teasing and ribbing, but no fisticuffs. It's when the other side are an anonymous mass, an abstract concept, that the mutual fear and loathing starts. Working long hours every weekday for next to no reward, desperate to let your frustrations out, it's healthy to scream and shout, no doubt about it, and the "other side" are a better target than people of another race or sexual orientation, etc. For Pompey and Saints fans to tease each other is fine (so long as it's a two-way process and it ain't bullying), fighting isn't. Most of us know this. Numpties don't.

Spot the difference: The Chapel End.
The Dell was a wonderfully quirky ground, randomly designed by MC Escher, then constructed even more haphazardly by five-year-old builders with Duplo. Its impossible angles were filled by noisy fans, even for the most humdrum fixture against the likes of Luton Town or Oxford United. I went there several times (always supporting the opposition, obviously) and always came away knowing I'd been to a "proper" football match at a "proper" football ground. There may be antipathy between Pompey and Saints fans, but I'm sure most rival supporters would have had respect for the other's rabid support in their creaky old grounds.

There's only one creaky old ground left, and it isn't in Southampton.

Waiting patiently for the match to start.
And so to St Mary's, Saints' ten-year-old "new" ground. The charitable might say that it is just like Wembley with the top sliced off. The uncharitable may claim that it has all the character of the inside of a giant red toilet bowl (watch out, here comes Gulliver with his Toilet Duck! Quack quack! Squirt!).

The ground has been built with monetary optimisation in mind. Any ideas of individuality were binned at the design stage (see also just about every other new ground built in the last quarter of a century). The customer experience here is passive. You might as well be sitting on the sofa at home eating a microwave meal on a tray in front of the TV for all the interactivity with the tattooed millionnaires way down on the pitch below. Russ Abbott wouldn't have liked it - he loved a party with a little atmosphere, of which St Mary's is lacking. Holding a seashell to your ear to hear the sea would be more deafening than listening to Saints fans singing in the new stadium. I've known church mice that make more noise.

They do try to sing and shout in the Northam End, but the sound is deadened to virtual non-existence by the time it reaches the Chapel End. You need a fellow using sign language for the deaf on the big screens to understand what they're trying to communicate.

Mustn't disturb the neighbours, eh?

St Mary's rafters. Raised twice today.
Never mind all that, I'm supposed to be writing about the Burnley match here. I sat amongst the enemy, rebelliously wearing as much blue as I could find, as nervous as an orphaned baby zebra on the savannah, desperately hoping none of my Saints-supporting workmates spotted me and revealed me for what I truly am. One did see me, but he's a mellow old fellow - we exchanged nervous glances as we acknowledged each other's presence. He took his seat and nothing was mentioned.

I noticed several Nigel Adkins lookalikes in the nearby seats, which raised an interesting question, similar to the old chestnut about owners looking like their dogs - do football fans come to resemble their club's manager, or does the manager model himself on the predominant look of the club's support? One to ponder as I shave my hair off later and tattoo my own arms, Michael Appleton-style.

Burnley and Saints both like to pass the ball around on the floor, with Saints being slightly more interested in penetrating the opposition defence. The away team, dressed all in yellow, were as pretty as parrots with their passing skills, but about as effective as eleven sleepy kittens when it came to the final third.

The home side scored twice in the first half. A looping header by the excellent Adam Lallana, and a bizarre shinner/possible own goal which took several minutes to cross the line as the Burnley defence stood around arguing amongst themselves about the architectural merits of the new Titanic museum in Southampton city centre. Both times I was forced to stand and clap. I never really understood the concept of gritted teeth before, but after spitting out a couple of mouthfuls of ground-down enamel on Saturday, it's not something I would recommend.

Homeward bound after another satisfying home victory.
An easy win for Saints. They look hard to beat, so they could well stay in the top two until the end of the season. I don't expect I'll go back to St Mary's unless I'm there with Pompey or Havant & Waterlooville. I prefer the unexpected delights of the majority of the local non-league grounds to the bland corporatised matchday experience of St Mary's. Thank chuff Pompey never got their new ground built when they were rolling in Sky money. I would have hated it.

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I'll be at another match on February 25th, weather and health permitting.