Sunday, 18 February 2018

Black Country Rangers 1 v 1 Stone Old Alleynians

Saturday 17th  February 2018
West Midlands (Regional) League Premier Division
The Grove, Halesowen
Admission: £5.00
Programme: £1.00
Attendance: 24 (head count)
Match Rating: 3

After four consecutive soggy Saturdays, I decided to make use of expiring Tesco clubcard vouchers to book a National Express return ticket for free from London to Birmingham for today, with options of 3G pitches readily available if required. As it turned out, the last of the rain fell on Thursday night,  meaning very few games would be postponed anywhere today, and I decided to take in some step 6 football, at a ground which also hosts step 4 Northern Premier League football, being the home of Halesowen Town, and which I had heard was well worth a visit.

Having arrived at Birmingham Digbeth coach station, I then caught a bus to Halesowen bus station, from where The Grove is about a ten minute walk, although en route I stopped off at the excellent Waggon and Horses pub, with a really impressive wide selection of local real ales to choose from. Spectators enter in one corner of the ground, through a roadside turnstile block, and once inside there is a small clubhouse to one side, and this was the only spectator outlet open today. To the other side, there are white huts, one to obtain programmes and “memorabilia” from, the other is a club shop, but logically both were closed today, as they are Halesowen Town outlets. After passing a toilet block, the really pleasant sight of the ground itself comes into view. Stretching along the length is a bank of uncovered terracing of 13 steps, complete with hand rails, and which stretches to behind the far goal, although as it passes immediately behind the goal, the terrace is diagonally cut off. Behind the goal closest to the entrance is a covered terrace of 7 steps, perched above a grass bank, and it has an intimate feel thanks to a low roof. Along the remaining length, an all-seater stand stretches along about two thirds of the length, offering good, unobstructed views for those who do not wish to take advantage of the fabulous terrace areas. Indeed, there really is something for everyone inside this fabulously old-school ground, which is well maintained and easy on the eye. The 16 page programme issued today was basic in terms of being on regular paper, but it was more than adequate, containing some welcome messages and all of the stats to give a good preview of the match. Although the programme had the wrong date on it, it was otherwise up to date inside.

Black Country Rangers are having a good season so far, coming into this game in second place in the division, with 16 wins and seven draws from their 28 league games. Promotion looks a very long shot though, with only one club promoted to the Midland Football League Premier Division, as they are four points behind leaders Malvern Town having played a game more, but also only a point ahead of third placed Tividale having played six games more, and six points ahead of fourth placed Wolverhampton Sporting, having played nine games more. Stone Old Alleynians were in 17th in the twenty team division, having won five and drawn one of their 22 league games. When the two teams met on the opening day of the season back in early August, Black Country Rangers triumphed 1-5.

On a bright and sunny afternoon, the predicted comfortable home victory, based on league positions, never materialised, as particularly in the first half, the home side just didn’t seem to be able to get their game going. They did have slightly the better of things, and had a few sights of goal, but the visitors were holding their own and a level scoreline at the break was a fair reflection on proceedings.

Black Country Rangers would go on to dominate the second half, camped in the opposition half and coming close to scoring on several occasions, but as it increasingly looked only matter of time before they would score, it was the visitors who took the lead thanks to a very attack on 81 minutes, Cameron Sinclair diverting a deflected cross just out of the teach of the keeper and into the net. Eight minutes later and Black Country Rangers came agonisingly close to an equaliser when a low shot across the keeper came back off the far post and into the keeper’s arms. But in the last minute of added on time, they did grab an equaliser, a low cross from the left into the six yard box was tucked home at the far post. The home side pushed for a winner, but there just wasn't time, with barely a minute left before the referee blew for full-time.

Overall, a point apiece was probably a fair result despite Black Country Rangers' dominance in possession, as generally theirs was a rather flat performance, and Stone were rewarded for plugging away and staying in the game.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Slough Town 0 v 1 Banbury United

Saturday 10th  February 2018
Southern League Premier Division
Arbour Park, Slough
Admission: £11.00
Programme: £2.00
Attendance: 514
Match Rating: 3

With the threat of waterlogged pitches yet again looming today, following heavy rain on Friday, a hard frost overnight and rain arriving in the south-east late morning, I decided to head to Burnham, with the plastic pitch of Slough Town as a convenient back-up. With no sign of any issues at Burnham, despite light rain continuing to fall, I decided to stay on the train one stop beyond Slough and embark on the half hour walk to The Gore. Just before I arrived at the ground, I noticed that the game had indeed been postponed, and so I hastily turned around and headed back to the station and got on the train back to Slough, eventually arriving about 5 minutes before kick-off.

Arbour Park is about a ten minute walk from Slough station, and is a very impressive and attractive stadium. Opened in August 2016, the outside fascia welcomes visitors to the complex, although it is noticeable that there are no permanent club signage present at this council owned facility, so the club puts up various banners to give their matchday home some identity. There are turnstile blocks in each corner, and just inside the one open today, there was a gazebo offering programmes, while team line-ups are posted with various other fixture and supporters club notice on a board by the corner of the pitch. Straddling the half way line on one side is the main stand, which is pleasantly designed with some nice colour to it, steep rows of seating with no obstructing pillars to get in the way, and at the top of the seating, there is an indoor area with a bar and refreshment outlet. On the opposite side, there is a shorter stand with four rows of seating, whilst behind both goals there are identical covered terraces, with six rows of steps to stand on. The 40 page programme was a decent read with all of the necessary information contained inside.

Slough came into this game in fifth place, and although they have between three and six games in hand on all teams around them, they were ten points behind fourth placed Kettering. They had won 16 and drawn six of their 26 league games. Banbury were in ninth place, having won 14 and drawn eight of their 33 league games. When the two teams met in late November, the game finished 2-2.

With fine rain continuing to fall through most of the match, the visitors had to wear a former away kit of Slough's, after the referee deemed that their red and yellow strip would clash with Slough's kit. Slough would have the better of the first half, having most of the possession but neither team really looked like scoring, at least from open play. On 23 minutes, James Dobson struck a free kick which hit the top of the crossbar and went over, whilst on 30 minutes Banbury were denied what looked like a penalty when Elliott Sandy was bundled over in the area. Dobson drew a good save from the keeper from another free kick on the stroke of half time, but a goalless scoreline was a fair reflection of a half in which both teams really cancelled each other out.

The second half continued in much the same vein, although Slough looked even less likely to score, and it was Banbury who scored what proved to be the winning goal. Sandy dinked the ball down the middle for Ricky Johnson to sprint through defenders to run onto the ball and towards goal, and he showed good composure to fire the ball past the keeper. Slough did manage to come close a couple of times in the closing minutes, and in stoppage time, they had a goal disallowed when the ball was bundled over the line but only thanks to a foul on the keeper, and with the last kick of the game, a free kick was drilled into the defensive wall.

Banbury will feel this was a very good away win, a solid performance with the three points gained from a rare attack, whilst Slough will need to show more creativity if they are to maintain their push for a play-off berth. Whilst for me this was not the most entertaining of games, at least it was a game on a day of many postponements, and a visit to a nice ground. I certainly long for warmer, drier, more relaxing Saturdays though, following four consecutive Saturdays affected by rain.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Alton 2 v 1 East Cowes Victoria Athletic

Saturday 3rd February 2018
Wessex League Division One
Anstey Park Enclosure, Alton
Admission: £5.00
Programme: £1.50
Attendance: 84
Match Rating: 3

After two consecutive stressful Saturdays, when rain continued to fall throughout the morning causing many games to be postponed and even the games I did go to I was not completely confident that they would go ahead until I arrived at the ground, I decided on a more relaxing day today. With light rain forecast to fall on already saturated ground, I chose to visit a ground with a 3G pitch.

The Anstey Park Enclosure is about a ten minute walk from Alton station, not far on the opposite side of the road from the site of their previous home ground, the Bass Sports Ground, which they were obliged to vacate in December 2015 by the owners Molson Coors brewery. As part of the deal, Molson Coors helped fund the redevelopment of their new Anstey Park ground, which had previously been home to the original Alton Town Football Club. And very good facilities it now offers too, and is a neat and well maintained venue. Plenty of attractive club signage attracts visitors to the ground, and spectators enter through a turnstile block, which is attached to the changing rooms building, along one length. Immediately to the left of the entrance is the brick clubhouse, with a covered refreshment window in one corner. To the right of the entrance is an all-seater stand, which unfortunately does have a floodlight pylon to the front. On the opposite side, four steps of terracing is the one remnant from the ground prior to redevelopment, and a stand covers the middle third of the length. Hard standing is available behind both goals, and the ground is enclosed by green mesh see-through fencing. The 20 page programme covered the essentials well enough, was neatly presented with a card cover, and whilst £1.50 was probably a little expensive in itself, purchasers could claim a free tea or coffee, which was much appreciated on a cold winter’s day.

Alton came into this game in eighth place, having won 11 and drawn three of their 23 league games, whilst East Cowes are having their best season in a while. After finishing second bottom last season, and rock bottom in each of the previous three seasons, they came into this game in 15th place in the 18 team division, having won four and drawn six of their 19 league games so far. When the two teams met back in August on the Isle of Wight, the game finished 2-2.

On a cold, dreary afternoon with occasional spots of drizzle, Alton took the lead on 13 minutes, Danny Knee striking the ball firmly from just outside the area and inside the keeper’s near post. The first was generally a fairly even affair, although the home side always looked more like a goal in them, and a couple of minutes before the break, a shot which beat the keeper was awkwardly cleared by a defender close to the line.

The visitors looked slightly the better team after the break, and it was no real surprise when they equalised on 67 minutes. After the defence failed to deal with a couple of balls dinked into the right side of the penalty area, captain Dexter Malin burst through and fired a low shot across the keeper and into the net. That seemed to wake Alton up, as they forced several desperate blocks and clearances. East Cowes really should have taken the lead on 86 minutes though, when a wonderful cross from the left wing found a couple of his teammates unmarked and in a great position to head home, but they distracted each other and the ball bounced harmlessly wide. That was to prove costly for the visitors, as after the visiting keeper had pulled off some good saves, Alton went back in front on 89 minutes. After a frantic little passage of play in the penalty area, Matt Graham took possession of the ball to the right of the goal, and drove a powerful shot through the keeper and into the net. Even though the referee surprisingly played more than five minutes added on time, East Cowes never looked like grabbing another equaliser, and as Alton claimed a win they just about deserved.