Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Wantage Town v Bashley

Valentine's Day treat at Wantage Town FC.
I try not to bore you with the minutiae of my life. I don't tell you what I had for breakfast on the day of the match*. I don't tell you who I was texting that morning, or what memes we were swapping**. I don't tell you which A roads, B roads and byways I drove along and whether the traffic was behaving on the way to the town where a match was being played. I don't tell you where I went for lunch and with whom when I arrive at my destination. Why would you want to know these things?

But I'll make an exception this time, because what happened upon arrival in Wantage on Saturday was exceptional.

I usually travel with members of my family who aren't interested in football - we go to a town together, have lunch in a cafe, then I leave them to mooch around whilst I'm at the match. And so it was in Wantage on Saturday.

We arrived. We found a car park. We parked. We set off on foot for the town centre. We start walking up a hill towards Wantage's main square. We see a boy in a souped up Vauxhall Astra loudly bombing down the hill as fast as he can towards a blind corner. We notice a cafe across the road. We hear a loud bang.

* A mixture of Cheerios, Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes with raisins and runny honey, washed down with tea, since you didn't ask.

** I can barely switch on my phone, let alone send a meme. That's those things with big fluffy cats on saying "U WOT M8", aren't they? I try to keep up.

For all your koi carp needs...
Wantage Town FC (0) 2 v 0 (0) Bashley FC
Evo-Stik Southern League Division One South & West
Saturday 14th February 2015
Attendance: 100 (official count)
Admission: £8
Programme: £1
Colours: Green and white hoops / white / green and white v Gold / black / black
National Grid reference: SU3987

Wantage Town's stands.
Well, this boy lost control of his pride and joy at the bottom of the hill and smashed straight in to a house on the bend. It made a dull boom of a noise. Of course, we had to run back down the hill to help anybody who was injured. I got to the scene just after several other closer witnesses - the car was a write-off, but the boy had already got out of his vehicle and was standing next to it, sobbing. With no passengers, nobody at home in the crumpled house, and nobody on the pavement at the time, there were - amazingly - no injuries.

Ambulances, fire engines and police cars all turned up. The road was cordoned off for the rest of the day, and the incident made headlines in the local newspaper. This was big news in Wantage (48 hours later, and the story is still number one in the most-read list on their website. To put this in perspective, at number five is a report on a sale at a local department store where a woman bought a jacket at a bargain £14...).

So, we arrive in Wantage, and the first thing we see is a self-inflicted car crash. Whatever is this place like?!

We enter a shop of curiosities just off of the square. The owner greets us but says she can't talk right now because she's just listening to the radio. Apparently, there's been a crash in town. She turns the radio off when she hears our eye-witness account. Much better than the radio. Having a first-hand account of the story makes her day. She assures us that this sort of thing never happens round here, but I can't help feeling nervous walking towards Wantage's football ground.

Bashley Bear goes to Wantage. Favourite player: Robbie Pethick.
After witnessing a real-life car crash, you hesitate to use the term as a simile for Bashley's season (indeed, most of their recent history). Near-death puts football into perspective.

I have a soft spot for The Bash. My soft spot for them is softer than a moleskin cushion stuffed full of eider duck feathers and bushy squirrels' tails. But along with many other people, they've had a hard time recently. I sat amongst their directors at an FA Cup match at Hartley Wintney in 2011. The writing was on the wall then, as they talked openly about the lack of money at the club and about how deeply the playing budget would have to be cut for the club to survive.

Then they came within a squirrel's whisker of merging with nearby Wessex League New Milton Town in 2013, which would have seen them move away from their home ground in the village of Bashley and move in with their townie neighbours. It would have meant them dropping out of the Southern League and starting again in the Wessex League as a brand new club.

These plans fell through and the club carried on, but with no money to spend, they had to stop paying their players. Of course, if people aren't being paid at least expenses for long trips to Gloucestershire and Devon every other Saturday, it becomes very difficult to retain the talented players and to recruit new ones. Unsurprisingly, despite the heart and endeavour shown by the current team, Bashley are bottom of the league for the second season running and look certain to be relegated to the Wessex League.

Barnstorming run down the left from Bashley's Dammy Bada.
Bashley still have loyal (and loud) supporters, who never stopped cheering on their boys at Wantage. There were around 15 people following the side from the New Forest, which is about the same as several clubs in the much higher-ranked Conference South bring to Havant & Waterlooville on an average Saturday (I'm thinking of you, Weston-Super-Mare, Boreham Wood, Whitehawk, etc).

With the two sides having a combined record of P58, W6, D7, L45, F44, A178, Pts25, I wasn't expecting a high-scoring classic, and so it proved. The first half passed by without me making a single note in my notebook. There was no lack of effort, but Wantage have had problems too (they are one of at least three clubs in the division who don't pay their players - Fleet Town are another, and I'd be surprised if Bishops Cleeve do, as they are the other club adrift with Bashley at the bottom).

The home fans were convinced that Bashley's keeper was wasting time after just five minutes when he banged his boots up against the goalpost to shake off some mud before taking a goal kick (there was a lot of mud after the previous day's rain). "Book him ref! Look how long he's taking!" As if Bash had come to Oxfordshire looking for a 0-0 draw - I don't think so!

This advert amused me. The next board gives the address of an optician, but I prefer it without context.
The second half was better. Still not a belter, but at least there were a few more efforts on goal. Unfortunately for Bashley, the only two efforts that counted were both at the wrong end of the pitch. At 75 minutes and still at 0-0, Bash still had hope of victory and an outside chance of catching Wantage in the table and thus avoiding relegation.

It was at this point that a home player went down injured just inside Bashley's half with Wantage in possession. More than one homester shouted for the ball to be put out of play, and it looked as if one of the players in possession was just about to do just this, but he changed his mind and passed the ball to their right-winger instead. Bashley's defenders had stopped and Ben Whitehead was away, with no chance of catching him. He shot - the keeper saved, but the ball rebounded straight to George Reid who side-footed home from close range.

Bashley's fans and coaching staff were incensed, but there had been no rules broken, so there was nothing the referee could do about it. A last minute free-kick from Sam Barder sealed Bash's fate, both in this match, and for the rest of the season. There will be no coming back now.

So it looks as though Bashley will be playing the likes of Fawley and Brockenhurst next season. Their true fans won't desert them, and one day, the club will be back.

Wantage Town's second goal, direct from a free-kick in the 92nd minute.
Did you notice the bear sat on the plastic seat in one of the photos above? He's one of Bashley's teddy fans. There's another one in their bar wearing the same bobble hat. When I'm older and less busy with work and family, I shall offer my services to one of the local non-league clubs to help out around the ground on a match day, and perhaps assist with writing articles for their programme.

One item I see quite often in programmes is a "Focus On..." type feature. If you don't mind, I'd just like to practice writing one of these pieces by interviewing the bear before I sign off...

NAME: Van Broccoli Bear (I was named after Dutch goalkeeper Hans van Breukelen, hero of the Euro 88 winners).

DATE OF BIRTH: June 1st 1988.



FAVOURITE FOOTBALLER: Robbie Pethick, ex-Portsmouth defender. I do a good impression of him - it's my party piece. I also admire ex-Huddersfield Town midfielder Chris Billy.

FAVOURITE FOOD: Marmalade. And Hunny. Obviously, I'm a bear.

FAVOURITE DRINK: Lager, and lots of it. Obviously, I'm a bear.

MISCELLANEOUS LIKES: Hiding under a pile of stuff in a cupboard, safe from harm.

MISCELLANEOUS DISLIKES: People putting their fingers in the hole in my neck and pulling out my stuffing. I also dislike being carried upside down by the chain on my neck.

WHICH FAMOUS PERSON WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO MEET?: Adrian Chiles. I look a bit like him. I wonder if we're related?

Thank you, Van Broccoli! That was excellent practice for me for when I interview real people in the future!

Floodlights shining through the gloom.
There are proper match reports from The Freds'*** website here and fellow-blogger Sheridan Sparkes on South Coast Journalism here. Having just seen pictures of Sheridan on his blog, I think we may have spoken briefly at half-time, so a belated hello to you, Sheridan!

I have plans to visit a Wessex League club in Dorset when they host the current league leaders in March. After that, I intend to drive to north Wiltshire to see another Southern League game. As for my next report, I'm dithering a little at the moment, but I may go to a Hampshire Premier Football League ground on 28th February. It depends a little on the weather though, as the club I'm thinking of has no cover. Something to ponder over the next ten days or so. Wherever I end up, I'm just hoping I don't witness another car crash.

*** Wantage Town's nickname is one of the best in all of football. They are known as The Freds, due to the fact that King Alfred was born in the town.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Laverstock & Ford v Andover New Street

Viewed from nearby Cockey Down, Laverstock & Ford FC is just behind the schools, bottom right.
I don't know if you've noticed, but on the back of every Penguin biscuit wrapper, there's a joke. Children love these jokes. As a school lunchbox treat, the joke on the wrapper makes the Penguin more popular than the Rocky Bar or the Mint Viscount. There's nothing to laugh about on a Kit-Kat wrapper. You can't chortle along to the ingredients of a Club Milk. But a Penguin?

Sample joke:

"What did the magician penguin say to the other penguin?"

"Pick a cod, any cod."

The perfect biscuit for any wisecracking 10-year-old aspiring to popularity amongst his/her classmates.

I overheard a pair of my workmates making up their own, more adult, penguin jokes a few days ago. I can't print a sample joke here because this is a family blog, but if you know that there is a species of penguin called a rockhopper, and you take away the letter R and turn it into a C, and then make up your own question to which this new word is the answer...yeah?

Laverstock & Ford FC from the rough grassland behind the far goal.
Laverstock & Ford FC (2) 2 v 1 (0) Andover New Street FC
Saturday 31st January 2015
Sydenhams Wessex League Division One
Attendance: 15 (first half headcount)
Admission: £5
Programme: No
Colours: Green and white hoops / green / green v Yellow and black stripes / yellow / yellow
National Grid reference: SU1531

Spectator cover is all in one corner near the clubhouse.
Anyway, I couldn't help it. Their laughter was infectious. I thought I'd join in with the penguin jokes...

It took me a minute or two, but this is what I came up with:

"Which species of penguin has had number one albums called 19 and 21?"

[Workmates]: "We don't know Andy. Which species of penguin did this thing that you are asking us about?"

"The Adele Penguin!"



What had I done wrong? It was a play on words...Adélie penguin / Adele the popular singer...Surely that was worth at least a smile?

Apparently not. It was explained to me that nobody had ever heard of the Adélie penguin - the only well-known species are the Emperor, King and Rockhopper. Never mind that I could reel off ten species straight off without drawing breath - most people can't. Oh, and I would have been better off using Adele's songs rather than her album titles...

Whoops. So, jokes require that the recipients know what you're talking about...

Must remember this for future reference.

Andover New Street on the attack.
"I'm going to Laverstock & Ford this weekend!"

More silence.

More tumbleweed. I should be getting used to this by now...

I used to be a season ticket holder at Pompey. Anyone could talk to me and they would have some knowledge of the club and we could have a proper conversation. Inevitably, the other person would support a club I knew about and we could talk about their team as well. Male bonding (occasional bonding with women too) depends upon shared knowledge. Such-and-such a team are really missing so-and-so's goals this season...manager X should sign a new keeper to replace that useless Y - did you see how he flapped at that cross last Saturday to let Z in for the winning goal?

But I'm now in a netherworld. A place that few people understand. Laverstock & Ford? Two workmates had heard of them - indeed, had even been there, but the other 100+ people I know? I might as well have told them I was going to fly to Titan for the weekend. At least they might have heard of Saturn and its moons...

Somebody once told me that I listened to obscure music to annoy them, to give myself some sort of intellectual superiority over them. No, I didn't understand their argument either. I've always listened to music because I enjoy it - I neither know nor care if a song is popular. Similarly, I go to obscure football matches because I enjoy them. There are others out there like me. We should have a secret society, with handshakes and code words and our own slightly odd penguin jokes.

The Farm & Spinney Trail takes you right up to Laverstock's ground. In the distance, Cockey Down, without panda face.
So, what is this Laverstock & Ford place like? I walked there from what used to be Britain's tallest building, Salisbury Cathedral, which took me around 40 minutes. The Farm & Spinney Trail begins (or ends) next the ground, so I was able to get a sneak preview across the club car park before I entered. There was no-one there at 1:45, so I carried on walking and climbed up Cockey Down to take in the view.

Apparently, Cockey Down used to be disfigured by a panda's face hewn in to the chalk. No sign of it now, as the wild downland grasses have long since covered over Chi Chi's ugly mug. The hill is also well-known as one of the few places in Britain where you can find the rare flower, bastard toadflax. No idea what it looks like, but it does sound like the sort of thing that I hear refs being called from time to time.

Back at The Dell (Laverstock's ground) at 2:45, I paid my fiver entry fee. I was directed to a gap between two corner stands to go in. From the outside, I imagined that I was going to enter a magical world, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole (in my defence, I think I was suffering after climbing up and down Cockey Down in sub-zero temperatures - I believe wind chill makes some people hallucinate...).

It wasn't really a magical world. Immediately to my left was a kit stand with green and white plastic seats, and on my right was an identical stand. Beyond that was some home-built shelter for those wishing to stand. Other than these structures, the only other built objects were the two dugouts (brick), with a tea hut behind them.

The sun sets behind the corner flag at Laverstock & Ford.
Walking to the far end of the ground, I kept going past the corner flags, past a series of molehills to the river at the bottom of the gentle slope. Here, there were moorhens strutting about their business, as only moorhens know how to do. As I was the only spectator inside The Dell until five minutes before kick-off, the moorhens were my pre-match entertainment.

I counted 15 people watching the match halfway through the first half - and this included at least one of New Street's subs, who was drinking a cuppa from the tea hut with a mate in civvies. As some of the spectators must have been club officials, this meant that the number of paying customers must have been in single figures. I was surprised at how few people there were, as with nearby Salisbury City going bust recently, there must be several hundred football fans in the vicinity with no team to watch on a Saturday afternoon. I would have expected Laverstock & Ford to have benefitted from at least a few of these fans at a loose end, but it seems they haven't, sadly.

Prince Xhamela heads Andover New Street's goal with 15 minutes to go.
I've never seen Andover New Street lose a football match until last Saturday. I've covered them twice on here, and then I saw them beat Romsey Town 3-2 over Christmas (Romsey 2-0 up until the 75th minute...New Street win with a last minute goal...Christmas ruined). This unlikely record for one of the Wessex League's perennial strugglers was bound to go eventually, but they didn't go down without an almost heroic comeback.

The two goals for Laverstock & Ford were almost identical - both backpasses straight to a skulking forward, both within 60 seconds of each other around the 30 minute mark. Firstly, Oliver Batchelor rounded Dave Tasker in New Street's goal to slot in, then Luke Lewis took his shot slightly earlier to ripple the net for a second time.

Within a minute of the second half getting under way, New Street tinged the outside of the post (you don't realise the sound a ball makes when hitting the so-called woodwork when you watch a pro match in a big stadium - it's a metallic "ting!"). The match was end-to-end, as it had been all the way through. With fifteen minutes remaining, Prince Xhamela headed home a deserved goal, but despite more chances at either end, that was it, goalwise.

A New Street player (Craig Harman?) was harshly sent off in injury-time for a second yellow card given for two ball-winning tackles. Then it was time to go home.

Burning sky with Salisbury Cathedral visible on the horizon.
I feel as though I should wrap up this report with another penguin joke, but it would probably be overly-intellectual and unfunny if I made it up, so here's a random one from a website dedicated to Penguin jokes that I linked to in the opening paragraph:

"What do penguins wear on their heads?"

"Ice caps"

Okay, that's enough penguin jokes.

In two weeks, I should be at a Southern League ground in Oxfordshire for a vital relegation battle, watching a team that three - or possibly four - of my workmates have heard of. Which would make them twice as famous as Laverstock & Ford...