Monday, 28 September 2015

Larkhall Athletic v Havant & Waterlooville

Havant & Waterlooville warming up before the game at Plain Ham. Pow's Field rises up above Larkhall's ground.
Whether you're a player, a club official or a fan, what do you do during the close season? When all the football fun is over?

Do you mope around, wishing the days away whilst waiting for the first friendlies in early July? Or do you go on holiday somewhere hot, chug a few beers down and forget all about the game for a month or two?

Perhaps you fill your time with another hobby - playing cricket, or travelling down to Newquay every weekend in your VW camper van, surfboard strapped to the roof, whistling along to the Beach Boys as you crawl along the busy West Country lanes?

Me? I do a bit of moping in May and June at 3pm on a Saturday, but I mostly fill my time with other worthwhile hobbies. I'll go out for long walks, binoculars bumping into my chest, looking for birds. Or I'll take my camera out, screw the macro lens on, and crawl around in the heather searching for compliant grasshoppers to photograph.

And, yeah, I like a beer as well. Of course I do.

Kyle Phillips makes a catch in front of picturesque Bathampton Down.
Larkhall Athletic FC (0) 1 v 1 (1) Havant & Waterlooville FC
Saturday 26th September 2015
Emirates FA Cup Second Qualifying Round
Attendance: 210
Admission: £8
Programme: £1.50
Colours: All blue v All white
National Grid reference: ST7567

The seated stand at the top of the grassy bank.
As for summer sport, I'll happily watch a game of cricket, but Wimbledon and the British Open leave me cold. The sport I follow during the football close season is cycling. In May, there's the Giro d'Italia for three weeks, but of course, the big one is Le Tour de France in July.

The sprinters' stages are exciting for the last few hundred metres...will Cav win or is he off the pace today? I admire the strength and speed of the time trial specialists. But the real spectacle in road race cycling comes in the mountains.

There's the scenery - if the race itself is boring, well, just look at that amazing castle they've just ridden past! And look, someone's dressed their donkey in a polka dot jersey! And then there's the sporting element - the team setting up the race for their leader, then it's man versus man, all the way to the summit.

There's the immense crowds - loud, drunk and colourful - it looks as though there's no way through - they're waving flags of obscure French and Spanish regions in your face, but they part like the Red Sea for Moses and his followers. Attack and defend, attack and defend, until suddenly someone cracks and the race is yours if you can only push your flagging feet around on the pedals for a few hundred more metres.

The Long Shed on the far side at Larkhall.
Why do I mention cycling in a football match report? It's because the roads leading up to Larkhall Athletic's ground wouldn't be out of place on a particularly strenuous mountain stage on a three week professional road race. Climbs are split in to five categories on a road race - category 4 being the easiest to climb (supposedly you could drive a car up a Cat 4 hill in fourth gear), through Cats 3, 2, and 1 (first gear), each progressively harder than the last, until you get to Haute Categorie, the toughest mountain climbs of them all.

Well, I drove to Larkhall. The road up to the ground was a Cat 1. There was no way through for the Havant & Waterlooville team bus, which had to park well away from Plain Ham.

Hawks fans cramming into The Small Shed at Larkhall.
Larkhall Athletic's ground, Plain Ham, has gone into my imaginary list of top five football ground names. The others? (I have to have been there for the purposes of this list, and yes, I've probably missed an obvious local one...):
  • Gay Meadow (Shrewsbury Town's old ground).
  • Gang Warily (Blackfield & Langley)
  • The Butchers Arms Ground (home of The Bloods of Droylsden)
  • New Sirs (NW Counties League side Daisy Hill play there)
Plain Ham is a truly lovely place to watch a game on a sunny day in September.

Once you've got up the hill and into the car park (plenty of space for everyone), the first thing you notice is the petanque pitches between the car park and the ground. Petanque is the French equivalent of our crown green bowls, but with a gravel pitch instead of grass. My cats would absolutely love that gravel...

Walk towards the pay box, and on your left is the cosy clubhouse. You can buy rolls and drinks here before the match. Pin badges are for sale behind the bar at £3.50 each. There's a separate tea hatch for refreshments once you've passed the turnstiles.

Dan Strugnell hits the bar early in the match.
Walking clockwise around the ground, you come very quickly to the covered seating area. This was almost certainly "ramshackle" at some point in the past, but the people at the club have worked extremely hard to improve Plain Ham over the last few years, so it's now better described as quaint. Two rows of fifty or so plastic seats run for most of the length of the cover, with seats reserved for the press in the middle.

The view from the seats is superb. As the stand sits at the top of a 3m high grass bank, you get a great view of the action, but if there's a lull in the game, you can admire Bathampton Down to your right, and then to the left, there's Solsbury Hill - yes, that Solsbury Hill, as made famous in the Peter Gabriel hit record from 1978. Now, there's something about that song that's always annoyed me - it's the bit where he sings "Eagle flew out of the night"...


You probably saw a buzzard, mate.

Brian Stock of Havant & Waterlooville and Larkhall's Jamie Lyons chase after this loose ball.
Wander beyond the stand (it's all downhill - great fun if you're ten years old and are riding down there on a scooter), and around the first corner, and you come to a homemade Shed structure, which measures 2m x 2m - well, there was enough room in there for approximately twenty Hawks fans on Saturday!

Flat hard standing takes you around to the far side, where there is another homemade structure - the same as The Small Shed, but much longer, with tasteful paving stones laid along the entire length. I stood here for a little while and listened in on a conversation wherein the participants agreed that they can't stand messy hair...luckily I'd had a haircut earlier in the week, so everything was good.

Beyond The Long Shed, and next to the corner flag, there's an advertising board for The Fat Friar, a local chip shop. It appears as though the friar in question is holding a carving knife. I didn't like the look of him. I've seen murderous monks like him on the telly...

Straight Outta Cadfael.

Past The Fat Friar, and what goes down, must go up again, as you walk along more hard standing, uphill back to the entrance.

Another view of Larkhall's stand.
Havant & Waterlooville play at a level two steps higher than Larkhall, so they were clear favourites going in to the match. However, they had lost three league games in a row, and their opponents from the north side of Bath were unbeaten in ten, so it looked like a possible FA Cup upset on paper. For this reason, the Non-League Paper had sent my photographer pal, Paul Paxford, to cover the game. We joked beforehand that if Larkhall won, he would be on the front page; if the Hawks won, his pics would be buried on page 36...

Larkhall started with a swagger, having a couple of efforts on goal early doors, but the Hawks took the lead after five minutes, Ben Swallow doing what Ben Swallow does best - beating the full-back and swinging over a super cross, which the experienced James Hayter nodded in to the net with aplomb. Ben's family would have been delighted, sitting up in the stand cheering on their boy. Sat behind them was a Bath City fan, who had a Ben Swallow shirt from his days at Twerton Park. It was a mini Ben Swallow Fan Convention up there, as I'd voted for him in the Hawks Player Of The Season competition last year.

He nearly had a second assist a few minutes later, as his corner was headed on to the bar by Dan Strugnell. It was all Hawks - Hayter also hitting the bar after 15 minutes from a corking volley from twenty yards, helped on to the woodwork by Kyle Phillips's fingertips. Great save.

After these scares, Larkhall started to put themselves about a bit and picked up some yellow cards, but it seemed to work for them as 'Looville had less opportunities up to half-time.

What should have been the defining moment came after 57 minutes, as the Larks' Brad Norris was sent off for wrestling Brian Stock to the ground. However, instead of dominating the rest of the match and adding to their goal total, H&W conceded the equaliser just two minutes later. Joe Raynes bobbed round a pair of Hawks defenders and slotted the ball into a vacant space to Ryan Young's right. You can see his goal celebrations on Paul Paxford's photo set. Happy times in north Bath.

For the last half hour, the Hawks had chance after chance after chance to win the game, but nothing would go in. There were two incredible blocks on the line and Hayter missed a sitter from six yards - there were many other shots from here, there and every-bloomin'-where, but the upshot of it all is that there will be a replay at Westleigh Park on Tuesday evening.

My summertime ornithological knowledge tells me that in the world of birds, hawks would naturally hunt larks, but occasionally, the lark will get away...

A herd of alpacas chomping away at some juicy grass halfway up the hill.
Paul Paxford's photos of Larkhall's goal and celebrations appeared on pages 35 and 39 of the NLP on Sunday, so we were nearly right with page 36! He was knocked off the front page by pictures of Holbeach United's goalkeeper scoring a 94th minute bicycle kick equaliser in their match against Worcester City. Better luck in the next round, Paul!

Paul's brilliant photo set from Larkhall can be found here. If my mum and dad are reading this, I'd recommend you click on the link and see if you can spot me in the crowd...

Hawks FC Online have uploaded a video of the match to Youtube here.

There are several proper match reports on the web. For example, Larkhall Athletic's website report is here. The report from The News is here.

The draw for the next round of the FA Cup was released this afternoon. The winners of tomorrow's replay will travel to either Horsham YMCA or Aveley in the Third Qualifying Round.

The two sides I wrote about in previous rounds this season are, incredibly - considering they are both Step 5 clubs - still in the competition.

Hartley Wintney have been drawn away to Eastbourne Borough, and Brockenhurst will be at home to the winners of the replay between Wealdstone and Biggleswade Town - just two wins away from a place in the First Round Proper!

The Fat Friar. Straight Outta Batheaston.
All of which leaves me with a conundrum for October's two match reports...

I was intending to go to an FA Vase game next Saturday, and then somewhere else on October 17th - but the next round of the FA Cup is on October 10th, and it's been riveting so far. What to do? What to do? Decisions, decisions...


  1. Thank you for the lovely piece of writing. I look forward to reading the upcoming installments of the journey through the early stages of "the world's most prestigious cup competition" as I am sure it has been referred to in the States more than once.
    Although on a side note, last weekend was taking a walk, and realised I was being watched by a Bald Eagle. If you wish to see portent in that, then be my guest.

  2. Thank you for the lovely comment! Are you sure the eagle wasn't a buzzard? You are Peter Gabriel, and I claim my £10 prize.