Monday, 30 January 2017

Banstead Athletic v Eversley & California

Standing on a raised concrete slab to gain a better view of the players' arrival.
It's funny the things you remember. Back when I lived in Portsmouth as a late teen / early twenty-something, I knew this lad who just couldn't talk to girls. So tongue-tied, so shy. He would have done anything to get a girlfriend, but whenever a girl came near, he would effectively shrivel up and disappear. He might as well have been wearing an invisibility cloak. We would give him advice, try and help him out, but nothing ever worked.

Then one evening, he did the strangest thing. We were out at a gig, standing near the front, waiting for the main act to come on. It goes without saying that we'd had a few beers, but even so, I don't think I'd have ever had the nerve to do what he did.

Without warning, he laid down in front of a girl we vaguely knew from our little scene. He then covered his face with his overcoat and lay with his arms stretched rigidly down by his sides. We all looked at each other - this shrinking violet, this totally anonymous guy that never drew attention to himself in any way at all, was being weird.

The girl looked nonplussed at first, but then we noticed a little smile. She knelt down, gently drew the overcoat away from our chum's face, and he sat up, eyes wide open, arms rigid and horizontal in front of him, vacant thousand yard stare, mouth open, baring his teeth. He then turned his head slowly round to face her and said, poker-faced, "I'm a vampire!"

She cracked up, couldn't stop laughing. For the rest of the evening, they were inseparable. I don't remember what happened after that, but for all I know, they got married, had babies, and lived happily ever after.

I don't remember this lad's name, or anything else about him, other than he supported Crystal Palace, and had grown up in Banstead in Surrey.

Big fluffy clouds welling up behind Banstead Athletic's seated stand.
Banstead Athletic FC (3) 4 v 1 (1) Eversley & California FC
Saturday 28th January 2017
Cherry Red Records Combined Counties League Division One
Attendance: 35-ish
Admission: £6
Programme: £2
Colours: Old gold / black / black v Blue and white hoops / blue / blue and white hoops
National Grid reference: TQ2357

Where were we again?
Vampire Boy is the only person I've ever knowingly met from Banstead. I can never recall names of fleeting acquaintances or temporary workmates, but I do generally remember where people come from and the football teams they support. It's just the way I am.

I visited Banstead on Saturday. Not to look for Vampire Boy (who would now be an unrecognisable Middle-Aged Dracula), but to watch a game of football in the Cherry Red Records Combined Counties League Division One (step 6 in the non-league pyramid - equivalent to Wessex One).

I normally write about clubs in the Wessex and Hampshire Leagues, with the odd diversion higher up the pyramid to the Southern or National Leagues. But I always feature clubs from Hampshire, and there are a small number in the north-east of the county that play in mostly Surrey-based leagues, for example, Hartley Wintney, Cove and Eversley & California all play in the Combined Counties.

I've only featured Eversley & California once before (coincidentally, also against Banstead Athletic in that stupidly cold Spring of four years ago), so I thought it was about time I wrote about them again - and as they were playing the league leaders, this seemed like a good opportunity.

Two-goal hero AJ Morrison on the ball. Banstead's popular covered terrace behind him.
Three or four of my workmates usually ask where I'm going on a Saturday, and they invariably know the places I'm visiting, but Banstead, being out of my usual range, just drew blank stares. So, for those who don't know, Banstead Athletic actually play in neighbouring Tadworth. You would find them by exiting the M25 at junction 8 and driving towards Sutton for five minutes or so. You would veer left after three roundabouts, and then drive through sweet suburbia for another three or four minutes before reaching The A's Merland Rise ground.

Alternatively, the nearest train station is Tattenham Corner, approximately fifteen minutes walk from the ground. If Tattenham Corner sounds familiar, think back to June and the Epsom Derby. That's right, it's the final bend on the famous racecourse. It just so happens that I was almost an hour early arriving in Tadworth (I assumed I would probably get held up on either the A3 or M25 and allowed for that possibility by setting off before my AA app advised me to), so I stopped off on Epsom Downs to have a look at the racecourse.

You can park on the racecourse car park for free and wander over the large expanse of grass within the race track, joining dozens of dogs and their human companions. So I did. Down below you to the north, you can see London stretching off in to the distance, with teeny-tiny jumbo jets coming in to land at Heathrow every minute or so. In the foreground are the racecourse buildings, with a steep concrete terrace at the finishing line. I wondered why it's safe for behatted poshos to stand on that terrace guzzling champagne, and yet football fans at large stadiums have to sit down, shut up and not drink any alcohol whilst watching a game...

Banstead congratulate each other after their first goal, as a telecommunications mast / floodlight pylon stares down upon upon them from above.
After enjoying the view over London in the fresh air, I retraced my steps back to Merland Rise. You can live near Banstead Athletic's ground in a three-bedroom semi if you have a spare £463,000. How anybody can afford to live in this area of Surrey is beyond me, but live here they do, and 30 or so of the local residents had turned up to watch the table-toppers take on the team in fifth place.

Merland Rise is a very good ground for the level that The A's currently play at, but when you consider that Banstead were an Isthmian League side for around twenty seasons (with all the ground improvements that would have been required back then), then it's not so surprising.

The club car park is split in to two parts. By the back car park entrance is an abandoned turnstile block, which might come in handy again if the club regain their Isthmian status one day. Instead of paying at the turnstile, a woman sits at a picnic table by the entrance and takes your money, stowing it carefully away in an old ice cream tub.

Looking ahead and to your left, you will see three main structures: the popular terrace is directly in front of you, with a high roof; the less popular terrace is on your left behind the near goal, with a lower roof and less steps. Over the far side is a seated stand. Within this stand are four rows of backless red plastic seats, plus three cordoned off areas with more comfortable, blue plastic seats with backs, reserved for home officials, away officials and The Press. No "Press" here today, other than me and the home programme editor, who was busy snapping away and taking copious notes.

Excellent programme, by the way, very colourful and informative.

Ouch, wasn't that painful?! An Eversley defender crashes to the ground, but there was nothing he could do as Banstead score their third.
Eversley & California have been knocking on the door of promotion for several seasons now, only being denied through ground grading issues (floodlight arguments with neighbours, I believe) two seasons ago when they finished second in the league, whereas Banstead haven't finished higher than sixth in recent seasons. Indeed, the home club haven't won any league they've played in since 1965. It would be a rare and noteworthy achievement should they finish top this season.

However, they were shocked by their Hampshire-based visitors after just three minutes, when Eversley's James Osler shot home from close in on the right. Sam Jhonson-Freeman got a hand to it, but the ball trickled in to the far corner to put the visitors one up.

According to the programme, Banstead never know when they're beaten this season, and they proved as much after 15 minutes, when AJ Morrison scored from a similar position as Osler at the other end. This time, there was possibly a deflection off a defender which wrong-footed Charlie Lusty in Eversley's goal. Banstead celebrated under one of the imposing telecommunication masts / floodlight pylons which overlook the south side of the ground.

I have to assume that Banstead must make a few bob by renting out their floodlight pylons, as they play without any adverts, either on pitchside boards (very unusual) or on their shirts.

Morrison scored Banstead's second goal after 33 minutes when he headed a cross home from six yards. This was followed ten minutes later by the best goal of the game, as debutant Danny Penfold picked the ball up 30 yards out on the left and ran at Eversley's defence. There was no stopping him as he bore down on goal, walloping the ball home from the edge of the six yard box past despairing dives from Lusty and an unfortunate defender who appears to have landed on his neck in his desperation to keep the ball out of the net if the photo above is to be believed.

More fluffy clouds, glowing in Banstead Athletic club colours as the sun sets over Tadworth.
Banstead's most famous ex-player is arguably current Swansea City boss Paul Clement. One day, management team James Cameron and Rod Davis may well go on to manage at a higher level. If they do, they will never have an easier half-time team talk. All they had to do was to encourage their side to carry on as they were. Their tenacious appetite for victory was always going to be too much for Eversley.

The league leaders didn't even have to create their fourth and final goal for themselves, as an Eversley defender misplaced a pass straight to an unmarked Billy Frost, 25 yards from goal. One step forward, two steps forward, pick your spot and pass the ball into the net from eighteen yards. More celebrations for the team in old gold as the setting sun lit up the clouds above the stadium in club colours.

If Vampire Boy was in the ground (very unlikely with Palace at home on Saturday afternoon), he would have been impressed by the way that Banstead had scented blood and then proceeded to sink their teeth in to their opponents, with what may prove to be near-fatal consequences for Eversley's promotion chances this season.

Two rose-ringed parakeets squawked their appreciation as they flew over Merland Rise as the referee blew the final whistle. Banstead remained top of the CoCo Division One, one point ahead of Redhill. Three teams will go up this season to the Premier Division, but Eversley trail the final promotion spot by 11 points in sixth place. It's still doable, especially as they have games in hand, but sneaking in to third place will be tough for Hampshire's most northerly senior club.

I shall post another 40 or so photos on the HAH Facebook page on Tuesday teatime.

Next up, I shall be on more familiar territory, as I visit a Hampshire League club in the Portsmouth area on February 11th.

Well, there'll be no climbing up there this afternoon...

Monday, 16 January 2017

Hamble Club v Totton & Eling

Leaving the changing rooms at 2:55. Minutes away from kick-off!
Mine was one of the last generations to grow up before the internet took over the world, before everything you could possibly want to know was just a click or two away on your PC, tablet or smartphone. In the 1970s, if I wanted to know where Dortmund was, I had to search for it in the index of a world atlas, then hunt for it somewhere in square H10.

If I wanted to know what people did for a living in Denmark, I would go to my dog-eared set of  encyclopaedias (all sixteen books), choose the right volume (Cod to Elbow), and flick to page 237, wherein I would read all about bacon production and then be tempted to carry on reading by the links at the bottom of the article ("See also: MERMAIDS, CHEESE, BEER*").

If I wanted to read about local football, well, there wasn't much information at all in my books - maybe a league table or two at the back of the Rothmans Annual, if I was lucky. The Sports Mail would be the place to go on a Saturday evening for local football news. Waterlooville, Fareham Town, Havant Town and Gosport Borough would all have a hastily phoned-in match report, and perhaps a short news story on the comings and goings that week. Beyond the big clubs, there might be a feature on one of the smaller Wessex or Hampshire League sides.

* My ideal night out...

Hamble Club's bright and cheerful wooden stand.
Hamble Club FC (2) 2 v 0 (0) Totton & Eling FC
Saturday 14th January 2017
Sydenhams Wessex League Division One
Attendance: 43
Admission: £5
Programme: £1 (although I forgot to ask for one!)
Colours: All yellow v Red and black stripes / black / red and black
National Grid reference: SU4707

Throw-in for Totton & Eling.
Things have changed. You can find anything at all now within seconds. Nothing needs to be memorised, unless you wish to win a pub quiz without cheating. For example, I didn't know the current champions of Albania until a few seconds ago. Why should I? Nobody's ever going to ask me that anyway (it's Skenderbeu of Korce if anybody's interested - six seasons running apparently - clearly another European league skewed by Champions League earnings...).

However, there are still things that are difficult to find on the internet. Whilst searching for information on Hamble Club prior to my visit on Saturday, I wondered why they effectively had the word "Club" in their name twice - "Hamble Club Football Club". I couldn't find the answer, but I guessed that they might be affiliated to the local Working Men's Club (known as Hamble Club).

I asked at the ground if the club had originally sprung from the working men's club, and it so happens that they did, so Hamble Club FC is indeed their correct name - and it makes sense.

Hamble Club's Murray Holmes passes the ball forwards.
As I've started a history lesson here, I might as well carry on...

Hamble Club were formed in 1969 as a youth team. The senior section of the club only came in to existence in 1993, when they joined the Hampshire League Division Three. They enjoyed varying degrees of success before the club withdrew from the by-now single division Hampshire League during 2012/13 after several dismal seasons hovering around the bottom of the league.

It was time to regroup and come back stronger and with a vision. They rejoined the Hampshire League in 2013/14 (now with two divisions) and immediately won promotion to the top division. They duly won the league, scoring 105 goals in 34 matches. However, the facilities at their home ground fell short of the standard required for promotion to the Wessex League, so they had to bide their time and spend another season in the Hampshire League.

To be promoted, they needed covered seating, floodlights, and hard standing around the pitch, amongst other things. Luckily, their owner was able to provide the facilities that the Wessex League required, so third place last season was enough for promotion, along with Portsmouth-based Baffins Milton Rovers.

Hamble Club's Mo Nyang just gets to the ball before Totton & Eling's Matt Taylor to open the scoring.
So, here they are. Hamble Club have a nice ground with decent changing rooms, a hut to dispense tea and burgers at half-time, an experienced management team, and a squad full of players who have previously played at Wessex League level and above.

Just as happened last season, when Portland United joined the league and absolutely stormed it, both Hamble Club and Baffins Milton Rovers look like they're heading for a second successive promotion together, in first and second place respectively going in to Saturday's game, both having scored nearly a hundred goals already.

Mid-table Totton & Eling were Saturday's visitors. As their fans entered the ground for their first Wessex League visit, they would have been greeted by a volunteer at the new pay shed. £5 for adults, less for concessions - a small amount to pay for their afternoon's entertainment. Immediately to their right, they could have had an early warming cuppa in the green tea hut. On a nippy January day like Saturday, the proper mugs would have warmed the fans' hands as they waited for their tea to cool down to a drinkable temperature.

The Hamble Club subs blasted a ball over the bar and in to the neighbouring field at half-time, but not to worry - this police dog was on hand to tidy up!
Behind the tea hut is a large field which I believe belongs to the neighbouring police training centre. At half-time, an off-duty copper was taking one of the training centre's dogs for a walk across the field. A couple of balls had been booted out of the football ground by the subs. The dog decided to have some fun, dribbling the footballs around an imaginary obstacle course with its nose. Fantastic half-time entertainment, but I can't guarantee that this happens every Saturday...

Anyway, as the Totton & Eling fans made their way around the hard standing which surrounds the pitch, they would have arrived at the lovingly-crafted brand new wooden stand on the halfway line on the far side. This is painted bright yellow and has three rows of bench seats - enough room for at least fifty people to shelter on a dreary afternoon, if needs be.

The only other structures at the ground are the two dugouts, brick-built, with the home dugout being twice the size of the away dugout!

The sun goes down as Hamble Club attack in the second half.
The Totton & Eling fans would have feared the worst coming in to this game. They have a young team, whereas Hamble Club's experienced players have been around the block a few times. They had nothing to be ashamed about however, as their lads acquitted themselves well. They didn't have many chances to score, but they defended well, restricting the home side to a lot less goalscoring opportunities than they've been used to having this season (Hamble Club have hammered a few teams so far, including an 8-2 away victory over the normally useful Tadley-Calleva in their previous game).

The opening goal came after 14 minutes, when Mo Nyang ran on to a bouncing through ball, leaping like Zebedee out of The Magic Roundabout to nod the ball over the advancing Matt Taylor in Totton & Eling's goal. The ball bounced four times and trickled just inside the post. Nyang laid down, looking nonplussed, as though he couldn't believe how high he'd jumped to win the ball.

Hamble Club's players were half a second quicker in thought, half a yard quicker in action and had a little more nous than their young opponents, so I was expecting a few more goals after the opener. There was a second after 36 minutes, but it proved to be the last. Nathan Lynch rose high and headed in from a corner as Totton & Eling's defence temporarily took the Mannequin Challenge.

There were other chances, the best of which was late in the second half when an away defender headed off the line when Taylor had been beaten by a hard shot, but Hamble Club will have to wait at least another week to rack up 100 league goals for the season. Seven against struggling Pewsey Vale this coming Saturday would do it. Baffins need five against the equally hapless Andover New Street to beat them to it. If either of them reach a ton this week, they'll be the first in the country at step 6 to do so. It should be an interesting afternoon.

Would you like your ball back, mister?
Thank you to Hamble Club for their hospitality on Saturday. I shall return to watch them another time. It will be fascinating to see the club develop even further over the next few seasons as they potentially become a force in local football.

I shall post another 40 or so photos from the game on the Hopping Around Hampshire Facebook page before bedtime this evening.

For my next report, I shall be visiting the divisional leaders in another league at the same step in two weeks time. Compare and contrast. As ever though at this time of the year, the weather may intervene, so it's a liquid situation.

Right, you'll have to excuse me, but I have to get off the internet now and dig out my old encyclopaedias. I'm off to read about mermaids, cheese and beer...