Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Andover Town v New Milton Town

Welcome to Andover Town Football Club.
I'm a town boy. I've always lived in urban areas, so when I visit the countryside, I occasionally come across things that I don't understand. One of my many countryside mysteries is the never-ending sound of gunshots. I don't see people carrying guns very often (the last time was walking through Whitchurch on the way to the football ground - I passed by a row of cottages and a door opened. Out came a grizzled and bewhiskered gentleman puffing on a pipe and fondling the most enormous blunderbuss I've ever seen outside of the movies. I strode on as quickly as possible without making eye contact. Didn't want him to think I was one of those annoying townies...).

Where was I? Yes, I don't see people carrying guns around too often. Not even in Shirley. But every time I wander in to the countryside, I hear shots going off. What's that all about? Is it farmers and gamekeepers shooting rabbits and pigeons (or dogs not on leads)? Somebody once told me it wasn't gunshots at all, but the equivalent of caps going off to scare birds away from newly-planted crops. This could well be true, and is certainly more comforting than thinking too deeply about whatever the gent with the blunderbuss might have been getting up to in Whitchurch.

The back and side of Andover Town's stand at the Portway Stadium.
Andover Town FC (0) 2 v 0 (0) New Milton Town FC
Saturday March 1st 2014
Sydenhams Wessex League Division One
Attendance: 115 (headcount)
Admission: £5
Programme: £1 (well written and illustrated - very good value)
Colours: All blue v Orange / white / orange
National Grid reference: SU3346 / SU3446

The shelter by the entrance at Andover Town FC.
There were dozens of audible gunshots during the match at Andover Town on Saturday. You wouldn't think that the Hampshire new town would be a place to hear a lot of bangs, but the Portway Stadium is right on the edge of the urban area. Beyond the outer fencing to the south is an industrial estate, but to the north and west are fields and trees, and to the east a sports centre (the home of Andover Lions FC).

The Portway Stadium was built in 1989, which makes it a quarter of a century old this year. It opened in the same month that Phil Collins released his ...But Seriously album, and Chris Rea's Road To Hell came out (or, for the more underground music lover, Felt's Me and a Monkey on the Moon and Fugazi's 13 Songs). Film-goers would have been enjoying The Little Mermaid or Back To The Future Part II.

The most striking feature at the ground is the large brick, concrete and metal stand perched high above the pitch, from which you get a good view of the action, especially as the back step is used by standing spectators. Next to the turnstile block is another small area of cover, which was popular with the home fans when Andover were attacking that goal in the second half.

The referee and his assistants had a superb game, putting neither a foot nor a flag wrong for the entire 90 minutes.
Andover Town are brand spanking new this season. They are the indirect replacements for the 128 year old original town club, Andover FC, who were liquidated in 2011, crippled by debt. The Portway had fallen in to disrepair over the last couple of years. Apparently, it cost the council £325,000 to bring it back to a usable standard. A lot of money, which they want paying back over the next 15 years.

The most obvious tenants for the refurbished ground should have been Andover Lions, the club formed by ex-Andover FC fans. But paying all that dosh back to the council (at a rate of around £500 a week) would almost certainly have been beyond them.

Instead, the well-funded Sparsholt College Football Academy have moved in, in conjunction with Southampton FC's Elite Centre. You can see the attraction for Saints. £325,000 over 15 years would be the minutest pinprick in their finances if the academy produced just one first team player.

So, the football fans of Andover now effectively support a college team. But does that bother them? From what I could gather, not a jot. They just seem to be happy to have a team to cheer on once again back at the local stadium. Out in the fresh air on a Saturday afternoon, watching your local club winning every week (Saturday's victory was their ninth in a row). What's not to like?

New Milton Town on the attack.
However, according to people that I've spoken to around the grounds, the arrival of Andover Town in to the Wessex League was highly controversial. From what I've heard, last summer's Wessex League AGM was mostly taken up with arguments about the new club's place in the league. A brand new club, who were to start the season without a home ground (they played at the Hampshire FA headquarters in Basingstoke up until December, including their "local derby" with impoverished New Street).

Locks Heath, Hampshire Premier League champions, were upset. They had applied for promotion, but weren't allowed in. They may have thought the new club were taking their place. Not sure about that, as the Wessex League could easily have brought two new clubs in as they're short of numbers in Division One. Locks Heath's problems were down to council restrictions on using their floodlights.

To be honest, the Wessex league's First Division would have been down to just 15 clubs (since Stockbridge pulled out recently), so Andover's presence is a blessing. As far as I can tell, there are currently no clubs below the Wessex in the pyramid that both have the facilities and wish to play at that level, so college, academy and university teams are the only likely newcomers in the near future.

The Big Battle for the Bouncing Ball.
The football was good to watch on Saturday. The home team play 4-3-3 going forward and 4-5-1 whilst defending "just like Saints". I wouldn't have known this if I hadn't overheard it, as my football tactical knowledge is on a par with my comprehension of string theory.

There were no goals in the first half, mostly due to New Milton's outstanding debutant 18 year old youth team keeper Tom Jackson, who saved everything that was heading towards his goal. Contrast him with New Street's youth team goalie, who also played when I last drove to Andover - he was playing at centre-forward, as they had no other players available that day.

It wasn't until 20 minutes in to the second half that New Milton's heroic number one was beaten, and this was by a cross-shot by Olly Yates which flew over his head and hit the netting just inside the far post. Eight minutes later, Lloyd Foot let fly with a zinger from 25 yards to put the game beyond the visitors. New Milton hit the bar a couple of times late on, but the students deserved their win.

Contender for Bicycle of the Season (see also Kidlington v Lymington Town).
On the way home from Andover, I stopped off at Stockbridge FC. They pulled out of the league a couple of weeks ago after their ground had been under water for the entire winter. They knew they couldn't complete their fixtures and so resigned rather than pay a £250 fine for each match they couldn't play. I wonder if any other club will do the same before the end of March deadline?

Stocky's recreation ground was still waterlogged, but with large puddles rather than half the River Test covering it. It looked at least two weeks away from being fit to play on again, and that's assuming there's no more rain!

The other local club currently in trouble is Bashley, who may well fold at the end of the season. The proposed merger with New Milton Town didn't go ahead last summer and they've been struggling ever since, on and off the field of play. Their problem is a lack of members willing to pay their projected shortfall in funds of £50,000 come May-time. If they do go under, I wonder if they'll reappear in the future as another college-funded academy?

Staring at the sun.
If anyone was expecting me to report on Sholing's FA Vase game with Larkhall Athletic last week (and I had been writing about matches involving Hampshire clubs in that competition for every previous round so far this season), I apologise as I was 300 miles away at a university open day. I do my best though!

There is a match report on Saturday's game in the Andover Advertiser here (written by Kerry Miller, author of one of my favourite books, The History of Non-League Football Grounds). Also in the Advertiser this week, police are looking out for a suspicious scruffy man in Ludgershall. It wasn't me guv!

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