Monday, 27 April 2015

Verwood Town v Whitchurch United

The long walk from dressing rooms to pitch passes an adventure playground at Verwood Town FC's Potterne Park. If only I'd put the flash on!
My last match report of the season, and the pressure's on! Winner of Onion Bag's Blog of the Year for two seasons running - could I make it a hat-trick? This is one of the many thoughts racing through my mind as I arrive at Verwood Town's Potterne Park 45 minutes before kick-off. I've not been at my best too often this season, and this inconsistency could cost me. Too many schoolboy errors (I should have put the flash on my camera for the photo above, for example. It's a good picture, but the players would have stood out more against the gloom with some artificial light...).

I needed to take a walk to calm down. Too self-critical by far. I bypass the ground - there's little happening there yet - the fellow at the pay hut is chewing the fat with a friend, but there appears to be little other activity. Ah, there's the entrance to Moors Valley Country Park. Memories of taking the children there a few years ago. My daughter got to ride on a pony, but my son was terrified of the pine cones. Moors Valley is full of pine cones, so it wasn't a good day out.

A pile of unsold programmes in the pay hut.
Verwood Town FC (1) 2 v 1 (0) Whitchurch United FC
Sydenhams Wessex League Premier Division
Saturday 25th April 2015
Attendance: c40
Admission: £6
Programme: £1
Pin badge: £3 (available at pay hut)
Colours: Red / black / red v All maroon with sky blue trim
National Grid reference: SU0907

The tea hatch/boardroom in a container at Verwood Town. Directors' seats laid out neatly in front. The fishing nets are for digging balls out of a nearby ditch.
A hundred yards in to the park and I hear the metallic thwick of golf club on golf ball, followed by a resigned harrumph as Foxy slices yet another one in to the rough. Jovial laughter and pats on the back from Foxy's mates - well, they seem pretty relaxed.

I sit down in the sunshine at a picnic table and listen to the Springtime birds calling for mates. There's the endless two note tooting of a male great tit. I look around and see him on a nearby bush, looking natty in a tidy black bib. He's looking good and sounding good - I'm sure he'll get a mate soon.

I feel a bit calmer now, so I get up and make my way back along the path towards the football ground. I pass by a pair of small girls on scooters, one of whom is asking mummy why it always takes so long to get where you're going, but hardly takes any time at all to get back again afterwards. These are the wisest words I've heard for weeks (and we're nearing the end of a general election campaign...). I've been wondering the same thing all my life and I still haven't come up with an answer.

Verwood Town's seated stand in Dennis the Menace red and black.
I take another look around before I enter the football ground. There's plenty going on in Potterne Park. There's the adventure playground full of twelve year old boys hanging from monkey bars. Over the other side of the path are dozens of smaller boys scurrying around like brightly coloured ants in their Chelsea, Man U and England shirts as they play some sort of supervised mini-football in a cage.

Then I notice a couple of tattooed men smoking and texting outside the changing rooms. These can't be Verwood or Whitchurch players, surely? Of course not - they're on the pitch behind me, warming up - these must be bored dads waiting to pick up their children.

Me? I put my collar up to stop my camera strap from chaffing my neck. I feel like a moth-eaten Elvis, but at least I'm a bit more relaxed now. Time to enter the stadium...

Rain clouds ahoy.
I was told in a comment on here a few months ago how friendly Verwood Town is, and my anonymous commenter was right. From the moment I handed over my cash at the pay hut (£10 for entrance, a programme and a pin badge), I was made to feel at home. Later on, the pay hut fellow came over to chat with me, and upon finding out that I liked photographing birds, he told me where I could go to find a family of short-eared owls. This has never happened to me at a professional club, and probably never will.

I'd been dithering all week about where to go for my final report. There were five relegation or promotion deciders in the Wessex League - I'd been tossing up between Andover Town v Fareham Town and Cowes Sports v Romsey Town for a few days, but decided I didn't want to see Fareham relegated (they pulled off their own version of The Great Escape by winning 1-0, as it happens), and nor did I want to see my Romsey Town boys lose at Cowes (which would have meant promotion for the Isle Of Wight club, which duly happened).

In the end, I decided against excitement and went for a meaningless game at Verwood instead. After all, I'd already seen Petersfield's promotion celebrations and I have Havant & Waterlooville's play-off matches to come (and I may go to Fratton Park for the Hampshire Senior Cup final between Sholing and Gosport Borough on May 5th as well).

So, I'm not averse to excitement - just not today.

Watching from a grassy knoll at Verwood Town.
The teams duly delivered on the lack of excitement. I'm not saying they weren't trying - they were - it was just the general vibe. There were plenty of chances, the majority of them falling to the home side, but several of their shots went over the goal, over the boundary fence, and in to a ditch which runs behind the ground.

I'd noticed a pair of fishing nets leaning up against the boardroom container as I walked in and had wondered what they were used for - there's no river flowing behind the ground, no man in a coracle needed to fetch wayward shots, as used to happen at Shrewsbury's Gay Meadow. When one ball landed in the ditch and a club volunteer picked up a fishing net, it clicked. It was a device to save his back. A minute or two later, he had come back, ball in net, ready for it to be used again in anger.

It may have been this exact ball that ended up rippling Whitchurch's goal net after 20 minutes. Jordan Fisk was in the right place on the edge of the six-yard box to volley in a loose bouncing ball. Sweet as chutney.

Whitchurch United on the attack in the second half rain.
The same player scored an almost identical goal on the hour to double Verwood's lead. I can't call this one "sweet as chutney" again, so how about "smooth as a masala" this time? I was told that this was a dangerous scoreline for the home side, as they'd let two goal leads slip so often recently. The home fans wouldn't be entirely comfortable with the situation until the ref had blown his final whistle.

The next chance that Whitchurch had to get a goal back was a free-kick right on the edge of the opposition's penalty area, to the far left of the box. Perfect for a right-footer to curl one in to the top corner. Unfortunately, the right-footer that stepped forward to take it was their goalkeeper, Brad Snelling. I can understand his frustration at never getting the opportunity to score (as I played in goal myself), but us goalies should know that we are between the sticks for a reason - we can't shoot for toffee. Sure enough, the free-kick was blasted so high and so wide that I thought I heard Foxy going "Yaroo!" on the golf course a quarter of a mile away as the ball whacked him on the back of the bonce.

On 82 minutes, I heard a home fan complain that the game had "lost its fizz". On 83 minutes, Whitchurch got a goal back. Danny Phillips nodded in a looping header across goal and just inside the far post.

As is usual on the last day of the season, people were discussing scores coming in from other grounds. I got to hear all the news from the relegation and promotion matches in the Wessex League, but nothing from elsewhere. Screw you and your irritating narcissism, Premier League! Not everyone is as obsessed with you as you'd love to think...I got the impression that nobody from Verwood wanted to lose their annual local derbies with Christchurch, and that Tadley-Calleva were "Whitchurch Reserves" (presumably this information came from an away fan). Well, Christchurch ended up in a relegation spot, and Whitchurch Reserves missed out on promotion to Cowes Sports.

A delicious spread awaits club officials in the boardroom. Battenburg, sponge cake, biscuits and something mysterious covered in foil.
Photos from the game can be found on Verwood Town's excellent website here. I have to say that whenever I've been thinking about going to a new Wessex League ground over the last few years, I've quite often looked at VT's website to check out their pictures so I have an idea of what to expect. It's a valuable resource.

I shall be back again in a couple of weeks with the latest end of season roller round-up. Then I shall post sporadically throughout the summer - perhaps some statistical stuff this year - before returning in August for a new season of hopping around Hampshire and nearby counties.

Now, have I done enough to get that hat-trick of awards from Onion Bag?

Monday, 13 April 2015

Petersfield Town v Lymington Town

"Always Believe"
I have a standard way of setting out my match reports. I choose my eight favourite photos, and in between, I have seven pieces of writing, plus the match details. I try and make the writing mildly diverting, so that it has some sort of longevity - I hope you can look back at anything I've previously written and whether or not you were there at the time, there should be some entertainment value for you as a reader.

However, I occasionally put up more photos and cut down on the words - usually at an end of season match where something big was at stake. The previous example of this was Sholing's Wembley victory in the FA Vase last year. Sometimes, pictures say more than words, and I think Saturday at Love Lane was another of these occasions.

So, without too much excess waffle between the pictures, I present for you:

Petersfield Town's Promotion Match! Less Words! More Pictures!

The Petersfield Town Ultras celebrate a goal which was harshly disallowed a second or two later.
Petersfield Town FC (0) 1 v 0 (0) Lymington Town FC
Saturday 11th April 2015
Sydenhams Wessex League Premier Division
Attendance: 150-200 (I forgot to count, but it wouldn't surprise me if the official attendance was even higher)
Admission: £5
Programme: £1
Colours: Red and black stripes / black / red and black stripes v Yellow / blue / blue
National Grid reference: SU7523

Love Lane looking as stunning as ever in the Spring sunshine.
Things I like about Petersfield Town:

1. The Ultras. There was a piece in the Telegraph recently about the spread of ultra culture at non-league clubs. Sholing have them; Fareham Town have them. Groups of friends who come along, stand together and make a noise - something you used to be able to do at Football League grounds until we were all told to sit down, shut up and watch the big shiny rotating advertising boards. And woebetide you if you try to stand up or bring any food or drink in to the stadium or take any photos whilst the match is on. IMAGE RIGHTS! OUT YOU GO!

New seats and standing area all ready for the FA's ground inspectors.
Petersfield have a group of lads with a vuvuzela and some sticks which are regularly banged together to create a beat (of sorts) for their chants. Nothing you haven't heard before, but they make a racket up in the old stand. The older regulars seem to like them, or at least, put up with them. They've certainly given the old stand a new lease of life with their flags and their singing. Last time I was at Love Lane, there was nobody in the stand for the majority of the game, so it's good to see it receiving some love. It's a shame they won't be playing Bashley with their own noisy ultras next season - I'd like to have seen that match. With ear plugs, obviously.

Lymington's Stuart Williamson makes a flying save.
Things I like about Petersfield Town:

2. The stadium's setting. It's a pretty place, with all the mature trees surrounding the ground, and the South Downs as a backdrop. On a sunny Spring day, there are few football grounds that could be more pleasant. I was even able to photograph a red kite for the first time at a match (I saw one the previous week circling above Romsey Town's ground, but I didn't have my camera handy).

Half-time, and the Ultras have left their vuvuzela behind and gone off in search of a nice cup of tea.
The club have had to add more facilities to achieve the ground grading for the Southern League, but they've integrated these new features sympathetically. Since I was last there two years ago, the turnstiles have been completed (they were under construction then). The clubhouse remains unchanged, but beyond there, the piece of cover next to the dugouts has been replaced by a scaffold and corrugated iron shelter with red bench seats beneath the roof.

Over the other side of the pitch, Ronaldo shimmies down the wing.
The dugouts themselves have also been replaced. I don't remember them being particularly small (the usual reason for replacement), but the new ones are cosy and, dare I say it, the home dugout looks luxurious with high-backed seats for the coaching staff and substitutes. The away dugout has wooden slatted seats which look like the shelves from an airing cupboard. But hey, if you want to sit on comfy seats in a dugout, go and sign for Petersfield instead of your team!

Petersfield Town score the promotion-winning goal and it's time to celebrate!
Beyond the dugouts is a new red hut which will be used for refreshments when they play at the higher level next season. Next to the hut is a new scaffold and corrugated iron construction with a plank of wood attached to the roof at the front proclaiming it to be The Wain and Hunt Stand (I think - I forgot to write the name down...). Whether the stand has been named in honour of their star players or built by them is hard to tell. Anything is possible at this level! The new shelter has a row of fifty or so red plastic seats in front with a slightly elevated area of wooden boards behind for spectators who prefer to stand. I liked this new shelter a lot. Home-made but effective.

I'm sure that ball landed up there somewhere...poke, poke...
Even the hard standing around the rest of the pitch has been replaced with new tarmac. It's all looking very smart. New floodlight bulbs as well, to create the required lux for the Southern League. I say the Southern League, but the club won't actually know yet which league or division they will be playing in next season. All they know is that they have been promoted to the next step up in the pyramid.

Lymington's players look on as Petersfield lift the league trophy.
The choices for the FA's Leagues Committee will be the Southern League Division One South & West (joining AFC Totton and Sholing); the Southern League Division One Central (near-neighbours Godalming Town play in this division, as might Fleet Town next season); or the Isthmian League Division One South (very unlikely, but could happen - they would be playing lots of teams from South London, Sussex and Kent were they to be placed here). Whichever division they are placed in, they will be on the outskirts and thus have to travel long distances, whether it be to the west, north or east. I hope their finances don't get stretched too much by this, as their predecessors, Petersfield United, found it tough in the Isthmian League.

A thumbs up from manager Ian Saunders.
Things I like about Petersfield Town:

3. They have pin badges for sale! It's sad, I know, but I like to collect a pin badge from every club I visit. I have them all attached to a velvet-covered pin board, and they look great! I like clubs that have their merchandise displayed in a club shop, or obviously for sale behind the bar or in the tea hut - put up a cardboard sign and let us know if you have things for sale! Failing that, let us know what you have for sale in the programme, and where exactly in the ground we can buy it! When I remember, I ask behind the bar at most clubs I visit for a pin badge - they either pull out an ice cream tub full of them, or tell me that so-and-so has some on him but he's not here today, or I get a blank look as if I've asked for the moon on a stick. Other times I forget to ask and they've potentially lost out on my £3, as I'll send my cash off to Terry's Badges instead to fill the hole in my collection.

Post-trophy-lifting, an empty bottle of fizz gets left behind on the pitch.
Anyway, Lewis Hyde scored the close range winner for Petersfield on Saturday to clinch the three points they needed to win the league. At the end of the match, we were treated to Queen's We Are The Champions, David Bowie's "Heroes", and Chris Montez's Let's Dance over the tannoy. Champagne was sprayed, players wore the Sydenhams Wessex League trophy's lid on their heads, the management team were interviewed by local radio, and all the club's volunteers had their photo taken with the trophy in the sunshine. It was the perfect day.

I know I'm probably not supposed to have favourites, as I cover all the teams in Hampshire on here, but hey, I do like Petersfield Town. Well done to them. I hope all their fans turn out in force for them next season as they did at the weekend. It will be tough, as they will be playing so many clubs that they have no historic rivalry with and that most of The Rams' supporters will not have heard of (and who have no travelling support to swell the Love Lane coffers). The league above will force them to raise their prices, and they will be trebling or quadrupling the number of miles they travel for away won't be easy, is what I'm saying. But they deserve their chance at the relative big time.

Go for it, Rams!