Friday, 19 April 2013

40. Aldershot Town FC

Aldershot Town FC's welcome sign and a proper floodlight.
I was stood close to the gesticulating phoenix. I could see what he was doing - he was conducting the crowd, waving his fiery arms above his vicious beak in time to the military drum beat emanating from the East Bank Terrace, encouraging the noise.

And what a noise! The second-loudest fans in Hampshire singing, clapping and chanting, stood on by far the county's best terrace. "We are the left side! We are the right side! We are the middle! We are The East Bank! Aldershot!" The sound echoing off of the barrel roof, reverberating around the ground.

I suspect there was a man inside the phoenix (the arms were the giveaway - logically, if a phoenix is a bird, then it should have don't fool me that easily). He must have been able to see out of the beak - human eyes where a tongue should be - so when he turned to look at you, his big blue firebird eyes were pointing in another direction. Freaky and wrong. What do the children of Aldershot think of their mascot? I believe that if I was eight years old, I would have nightmares after returning from the Recreation Ground, but then, I was a peculiarly sensitive child. Perhaps the local kids are a hardier bunch.

Although much of the crowd would have had nightmares after Tuesday's game. Nightmares about relegation back to the Conference.

Home fans milling around the Recreation Ground's turnstiles at 7:25.
Aldershot Town FC (0) 0 v 2 (0) Southend United FC
Tuesday April 16th 2013
nPower Football League Division Four (none of this "League Two" nonsense, please)
Attendance: 2,568 (206 Southend fans)
Admission: £17
Programme: £3
Club shop: Yes, but it annoyingly shut 15 minutes before kick-off, just as I was walking up the ramp to enter.
Colours: Red / blue / white v All dark blue
National Grid reference: SU8650 / SU8750

The away supporters' entrance, reached via Redan Park.
The phoenix is Aldershot Town FC's mascot because they rose out of the ashes of the liquidated Aldershot FC in 1992. I know, I know, phoenixes are tiresomely predictable and unoriginal in these circumstances, much like prefixing a new club "AFC" or, nowadays, just "FC", but we'll let it go.

The original club were founded in 1926 as Aldershot Town, changing their name to Aldershot FC in 1932 upon election to the Football League. The war years were their most successful - being a garrison town, dozens of top players were stationed there, turning out for the club in various war leagues. If the club shop had stayed open for another five minutes, I would have bought Jack Rollin's book about their wartime history, Shots At War. I could then have listed all the stars that graced the Recreation Ground during those years. Next time I visit, I'll set off from home a bit earlier...

Joining the Football League in the same season as Chester FC, the duo's lack of promotions was a source of dismay for many years for their fans. As every schoolboy once knew, it was a race to see which of these clubs would go the longest without ever being promoted. In 1972/73, Aldershot broke their promotion duck, beating their northern counterparts to the old Third Division by just two seasons. They didn't last long there, coming back down in 1975/76 (with Tuesday's opponents as company).

Eleven years later, they beat the mighty Wolves in the play-offs to return to the third tier (going up with, amongst others, Southend United); two seasons further on, they were back down again (with, er, guess who as company...?).

Flag-waving fan passion at Aldershot Town...
When the old club were liquidated and resigned from the Football League, fans immediately formed a new Aldershot Town club, starting in the Isthmian League Third Division, five steps below where they'd just come from. It took sixteen years to rise up through the leagues to be promoted back to the Football League, creating record attendances at small clubs all over the south-east along the way (just about every club in the home counties' record high is against either the Shots or AFC Wimbledon).

They stepped gingerly up through the various leagues, like an timid dressage pony. Opponents on the way included Petersfield United, Cove, Basingstoke Town, Bashley and Farnborough Town, their near-neighbours and biggest rivals on their non-league travels. If you'd started following them in 1992 and went to every match, you would have seen the Shots play at well over two hundred different grounds. Superb groundhopping fun!

...and an equally passionate phoenix.
The Recreation Ground (or the EBB Stadium, as it is currently known - EBB being paper suppliers to the printing industry) is terrific. It has barely changed since the early 1970s, from whence I have an old Sun Soccerstamp showing the team lined up in front of the East Bank/North Terrace corner.

Entering via turnstiles on the High Street, the first thing you see are programme sellers sat at picnic tables under canopies. Behind them on a grass bank are several mature trees, reminding you that the ground is set within a public park. I believe you used to be able to walk through the park, past the football ground to the other side in the old days, but nowadays, access is restricted.

I entered the stadium itself at the north-east corner, and it was like stepping back in time with the large terrace in front of me, covered with a superb barrel roof. Built just after the Second World War, this is the East Bank. Raucous home fans occupy this terrace up until just over the halfway point, where a no-man's land begins, separating them from the away support. Within this otherwise empty area are a gaggle of red and blue ultras banners. Beyond these is the away fans' area, which contains two fully-grown deciduous trees, growing out of the terrace steps - I suspect this is unique in the Football League.

Moving round from here, you come to the second-oldest stand in the county, the South Stand (built in 1929 - Fratton Park's South Stand is the oldest), which appears sprightly for its age at a distance. Beyond that is another open terrace. At the far end are police incident boxes, an electronic scoreboard, and a new prefabricated stand, opened just a few weeks ago.

Coming back towards the corner where I entered is the Main Stand, a mixture of terracing and seats, its roof painted in jaunty stripes. The Dalai Lama sat in its seats a few months ago when he held a congress for the many Buddhists in the area (there is a large population of Ghurkas in the Aldershot/Farnborough area).

As Simon Inglis said in The Football Grounds of Great Britain, the Recreation Ground is like "part of an arboretum, with the nicely mildewed air of its surrounds".

The jaunty stripey roof of Aldershot Town's North Stand.
On a global scale, Tuesday's match was as inconsequential as a cat's penis, but to many of Aldershot Town's fans, it was as huge as a horny bull elephant's, er, trunk - the most important match since they reached the Football League. Defeat would leave them four points adrift of safety with two matches left to play. They were up against mid-table Southend United (or the "Thames Estuary Galacticos" as the Shots fans call them, presumably for their perceived arrogance), a club which could neither be promoted nor relegated - a club which should have been ideal opponents with nothing left to play for except the avoidance of injury before flying off to more important matters in Ayia Napa over the summer.

It seemed just a matter of time before Aldershot scored in the first half - their opponents moping around the pitch like bored teenagers being forced to accompany their parents to a Michael Buble concert. But Town's players have forgotten how to score recently, whanging the odd shot willy-nilly goalwards, but never really threatening Southend's goalkeeper.

The closest they came was from a mishit cross by Michael Rankine, a muscly man made of liquid beef and strontium, which nearly sneaked under the bar, but Daniel Bentley pawed it away, much to the phoenix's displeasure.

The barrel roof over Aldershot Town's East Bank Terrace.
0-0 at half-time. The only spectator in the ground with a beak and a pointy tail looked as anxious as the rest of the crowd. The Shots had to break on through to the other side in the next 45 minutes, or it would be the end, my friend. The door to the Satanic underworld of Conference football was unlatched with a bloodsoaked sign sticky-taped to its knob, saying "This Way, Shots. Come And Join Us Down Here. It's Lovely And Warm. You Know You Want To".

I stood behind a man wearing a cap full of pin badges in the second half, which, as a fellow badge collector, was very distracting. He had original "Aldershot, Pick of the Pack" pins x2, and a Gomm ball badge, straight out of the '70s. I couldn't stop staring.

Two dismal refereeing decisions eventually did for the Shots. Decision number one was not to award a free-kick for an obvious foul in a goalmouth scramble which saw Barry Corr hammer the ball into the roof of the net from a yard out. Decision number two was the most preposterous penalty award I've ever seen, as an Aldershot defender made a clean tackle on Britt Assombalonga, knocking the ball out for a corner. As the appreciative clapping for this magnificent piece of defensive skill died down, it became apparent that the ref was pointing not towards the corner flag, but towards the penalty spot, with the Southend players bent over double laughing at the ludicrousness of it all. Either that, or they were thinking about their boss, Phil Brown, dressing up as the Orange Tango Man. He certainly wouldn't require any make-up.

The penalty was duly dispatched, as they say in proper match reports, with aplomb to the sound of much opprobrium from the East Bank. They had a point, unlike their team, who certainly deserved at least one. Robbed by the Essex Galacticos, who saw it as some sort of revenge for having the match here last season abandoned because of floodlight failure when 1-0 and a man up. The defeat in the rearranged match cost them promotion.

Aldershot Town were unlucky on Tuesday night. By the time you read this, they may well have been relegated...Dagenham & Redbridge (home) tomorrow; Rotherham United (away) next week. In mid-August, who knows? Eastleigh? Braintree Town? Good luck to them and their gesticulating phoenix. May his pointy tail be a little more perky this time tomorrow.

The old South Stand at Aldershot Town.
Apologies for the relatively poor photography this time out. From experience, I know that stewards at the bigger clubs tend to bug you if you're taking photos with a decent camera, so I didn't take my best one. My second-best camera broke when I dropped it down some steps in Oldham recently; thus, I took my third-choice camera, which doesn't take particularly good pictures in the dark, all blurry and grainy and meh. The top photo and the picture of the away supporters' entrance were taken on my way to Eversley & California at Easter. There are plenty of better pictures of the Recreation Ground if you do a search, for example, here. Both club websites had reports and photos from the match, as well as their respective local newspapers.

One more to go, and that will be that!

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