Monday, 4 April 2016

AFC Stoneham v Romsey Town

AFC Stoneham's handmade wooden stand.
Anybody that knows me well will know that I make my living as a mapmaker, and I have done for quite some time now. It's a job that I enjoy, so I've never seen any compelling reason to move on and try something else. At the place where I work, this isn't unusual - anyone with transferrable skills in, say, marketing or HR, tends not to hang around too long, but the mapmakers love their job and stay put doing it for years and years. Or perhaps our skills aren't easily transferrable since Bartholomew's bit the dust? I don't know.

When I first arrived in Southampton to work for my organisation, it was still run by the military. We would make maps by etching rivers, trees and houses on to a brass plate, watched over by a retired colonel with a handlebar moustache who couldn't stand slackers. Stop for more than a few seconds to wipe the brass detritus from your fingers, and the old boy would have you outside, yomping around the courtyard with a bag full of brass offcuts on your back.

Things gradually changed over the years as the old military men retired and were replaced by civilian management. It was still a hard job. Brass plates went the way of the dodo, and were replaced by brittle plastic sheets, upon which we had to scribe our maps with the help of a variety of arcane instruments - does anybody remember pens, set squares or rulers? The only fluid that would stick to this form of primitive plastic was human blood, so every Monday morning, we would arrive at work and donate half a pint of our own blood so that we could create the organisation's famous products throughout the rest of the week.

Let's get ready to rumble! Here comes the referee and his assistants...
AFC Stoneham (2) 2 v 0 (0) Romsey Town FC
Saturday 2nd April 2016
Sydenhams Wessex League Division One
Attendance: 80-ish
Programme: £1.50 (glossy, colourful, well produced and interesting! 60 produced, and all sold)
Colours: All purple v Yellow and blue / blue / yellow
National Grid reference: SU4317

...closely followed by the respective teams.
The organisation I'm talking about is, of course, the Ordnance Survey, whose headquarters are in Southampton. It's all zeroes and ones nowadays, and we tend to provide data rather than maps. Paper maps still exist, but are almost irrelevant compared to the company's digital services, which are used mostly by public sector and commercial concerns. Individuals are far more likely to use Google maps on their pocket telephones these days.

Anyway, one evening after work in the 1980s, feeling slightly feint through lack of blood, I wandered down to the Civil Service Club in Shirley with a couple of friends for some cheap beer and a game of snooker. It was a fine, sunny evening in late summer and on the football pitch outside the club, there was a football team having a training session. They happened to be a bit short on numbers, so one of them called us over and asked if we'd like to join them for a game. In my head, I thought this could be my big break - show off my skills with this bunch of lads, and who knows? That guy over there on the bench seat - could he be a Football League scout on a spying mission? By the weekend, I'd be pulling on a blue polyester shirt and making my debut for Halifax Town at The Shay. Of course, I'd have to make sure to visit the barbers first and get a mullet haircut. Need to fit in, obviously.

These lads were the Ordnance Survey football team. At this time, the team was exclusively for employees (not that I recognised any of them - maybe vaguely - the OS was a big employer in the 80s and it was impossible to know everyone). Of course, I was hopeless - they ran rings around speccy, spotty me. My dream was over before it had had a chance to germinate and grow.

Romsey's goalkeeper, Amadeusz Skryzniarz takes a drink during a break in play. Behind him is the mad professor's mean green machine.
Fast forward a number of years, and the OS football team became open to anyone as it lost funding from the organisation (we get 10% off at David Lloyds nowadays...). They did alright, reaching the second tier of the Hampshire League in 1999/2000. They even had two seasons in the short-lived Wessex League Division Three. But it was becoming more and more difficult to field a team affiliated to the OS as the workforce both shrunk and aged.

In 2006, the club changed its name to Stoneham, then a year later to AFC Stoneham, as they moved from the now shut and abandoned football pitches in Shirley to the old Pirelli Ground in Eastleigh. Around this time, the club merged with Granley Rovers, a youth team from Eastleigh which had a ready supply of young players looking to play at a senior level whilst remaining with their friends in the process.

The new, stronger club did very well indeed, winning the Hampshire Premier League in 2007/08, and thenceforth being "there or thereabouts" until applying for promotion back to the Wessex League last season. Finishing fourth was good enough for promotion, but they also needed a ground of the required standard for the higher level.

Romsey's subs watch from inside their breezeblock dugout.
So this is where we come to Saturday, and AFC Stoneham's league match against my adopted Wessex League club, Romsey Town. As I neared Chestnut Lane, I couldn't help but notice the number of people in football shirts streaming towards the ground. Unfortunately for Stoneham, the fans were wearing the blue of Eastleigh FC, and they were heading towards the Silverlake Stadium to watch a National League game against Yorkshire's Guiseley.

The Silverlake is only half a mile or so from AFC Stoneham's Elliotts Arena, and you can hear the crowd roaring, singing and sighing whilst the game is going on. Whilst there were over 1,700 people at the Silverlake, there was still a healthy (by Wessex League standards) attendance at Stoneham, with a goodly number of supporters making the short journey from Romsey to cheer on their lads.

It's a friendly place. Mark Stupple, the chairman, and Gary Rushby, the programme editor, welcome you at the turnstile, which is located down a stony track. If you wish, you can park in the ground - go through the purple gates, pass by the changing room block and choose a space on your left (I didn't realise this and parked outside the gates in what is the car park of the golf driving range next door, but that was okay).

Romsey's Dan Fox wins this aerial duel.
After paying at the hut, you walk down a path past the changing room/toilet block - this path runs parallel to the players' own barriered path between the changing rooms and the pitch. As you reach the pitch and start to walk anti-clockwise around it, the first thing you see is a gloriously bright brick-built tea hut, painted in white and purple - on Saturday, this building glowed welcomingly in the sunshine. Mugs of tea are available here. I bought mine and carried on.

The next feature, and the dominant feature of the ground is the stand. This is handmade, which makes a pleasant change from the usual off-the-shelf offering from Arena or Atcost, and you can tell it's been built with love. It's a wooden structure with slats at the back to let the air circulate. Under the roof are three rows of bench seats, each with their own painted number. There are eight wooden stanchions at the front, but they don't impede your view too drastically.

The rest of the pitch surroundings are either hard standing (paving slabs) or grassed.

Behind the far goal is a mean, green machine of uncertain origin. It looks like a nineteenth century mad professor's idea of a steam-powered map-making machine, all steel and pistons and cogs and draughtsman's pens. Sloping away behind the machine is another pitch, which was having white lines painted upon it by the groundsman during the early stages of the match.

Around the corner, and here we find some old floodlights and their rusty poles lying on the ground, taken down as the club look to upgrade their lights this summer.

Chris Manning wheels around after scoring direct from a free-kick.
At three o'clock, the two teams walked down the path towards their destination, resplendent in purple, yellow and blue - between them more colourful than a puffin's beak. It was Romsey who had most of the early chances, but a series of corners didn't produce any shots on target.

They would come to regret their lack of penetration towards half-time, as Stoneham found the back of the net twice within a matter of minutes - once through inspiration, thence through perspiration. Firstly, Chris Manning curled a free-kick around Romsey's wall - the perfect banana shot, low and just inside the post.

As the clock ticked over 45 minutes, a large white aeroplane came in to land at Southampton Airport, appearing to skim and bounce across the tops of the mistletoe-enhanced trees to the east. As the plane disappeared from view, Terry New picked up the ball and bundled straight through the middle of Romsey's defence, tucking it away into the bottom left corner for a 2-0 half-time lead.

And that was that, really. Romsey were clearly tired after playing on Thursday, and Stoneham were happy with the points as the second half dribbled away. There were very few cheers coming from the Silverlake, as Eastleigh struggled to a 1-1 draw in their match. The only sounds, apart from the shouts of the players and the distant roar of aeroplane engines, was the laughter of a flighty woodpecker and the "cok-cok" of a cocky pheasant which wandered across the second pitch.

Captain and keeper congratulate one another on a job well done.
And that concludes the Sydenhams Wessex League for me. I've visited all 38 grounds and uploaded photos of them all to this blog, so if you'd like to know what Team Solent or Andover New Street or Laverstock & Ford look like, you can browse the old reports and admire the various stands and structures of this league.

Groundhoppers call completing a league a "champagne moment", but I celebrated with a couple of beers and a pizza instead on Saturday evening. Of course, my completion of the league will last only as long as the next league constitution meeting in June, when I shall doubtless feel compelled to visit any new clubs that arrive next season.

And who might these new clubs be? Well, for this season, the FA are allowing two clubs to be promoted from each feeder league, and they don't necessarily have to finish in the top five, as they did previously. So, from the Hampshire Premier Football League, three clubs have applied to join the Wessex: Baffins Milton Rovers, Hamble Club and Stockbridge. Portsmouth's Baffins have had their ground passed fit for purpose already and will be promoted. The next club in line, Hamble Club, are having trouble with floodlights (a prerequisite for promotion) - they had permission to erect them, but their period of grace ran out before they could get them up. Now, bats have been found on the site, so they could have difficulty in reobtaining planning permission. Which may well let in Stockbridge for a return to the league they left two years ago. We'll see what happens there.

A second feeder league to the Wessex is the Dorset Premier, and from here, Shaftesbury and Weymouth Reserves are the only two applicants. I would presume that both have suitable grounds and will be promoted (Shaftesbury are former league members, and Weymouth's ground is more than adequate).

The third feeder league is the Wiltshire League, but nobody will be coming up from there. The only other possibility is AFC Aldermaston from the Thames Valley League - they dropped out of the Wessex about six years ago, but they would prefer to play in the Hellenic League this time. If they do go to the Hellenic, would the FA transfer near-neighbours Tadley-Calleva across with them? In a similar vein, would the geographically isolated Fleet Spurs be transferred to the Combined Counties?

Oh, and don't forget Bashley, who must surely be coming back down from the Southern League.

Anything could happen. Watch this space in June...

Another view of the stand.
If I was to make a top ten list of my favourite Wessex League grounds, AFC Stoneham would be in there. They're a very friendly club, and their stand is the best new structure I've seen at this level since I've been writing this blog.

There is a match report on Romsey Town's website here, with post-match reaction here and here. I shall post extra photos from the match on the Hopping Around Hampshire Facebook page later this evening (after dinner and maybe a bit of telly...).

In other news, I've started making a pretty picture map which is going to be a guide to all the grounds in the Wessex League. I hope to finish that within the next week or so and then release it to the wider world. It should certainly be ready by the time my next match report appears on here. I'm dithering over two matches at the moment, but leaning towards one on the 23rd, which is three weeks away. This will be my 100th report, and the final one this season.

In the meantime, enjoy your football over the next few weeks. I'll be back.

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