Sunday, 23 September 2018

Kidderminster Harriers 5 v 0 Atherstone Town

Saturday 22nd September 2018
FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round
Aggborough Stadium, Kidderminster
Admission: £12.00
Programme: £2.00
Attendance: 1212
Match Rating: 3


With a coach ticket booked to Birmingham for today, and with today being FA Cup day, I shortlisted visits to Alvechurch, Stourbridge or Kidderminster Harriers. In the end, I chose Kidderminster, as it is a ground that I have wanted to visit for some time, was an opportunity to visit a former Football League ground, and reduced admission was being offered today - £12 for anywhere in the stadium, as opposed to the usual £15 for standing or £17 for seating.

Once I arrived at Birmingham Digbeth coach station, I made my way to Birmingham Moor Street train station, for the 40 minute train journey to Kidderminster. Aggborough Stadium is about a ten minute walk southwards from the station. The main stand backs onto the car park, to the bottom of which is the club shop, ticket office and, to one side, the Harriers Arms pub. Once inside, the ground is neat, smart and compact, with facilities offering something for everyone. It probably better reflects the fact that the ground was a Football League venue for five seasons after the millennium, than the club's current status in the National League North. Along both lengths there are all-seater stands, the main stand having hospitality boxes along the top and with quite a high back wall, whereas the opposite stand - where I chose to sit - just had seating, but with more rows than the main stand. Behind both goals there are very similar covered terraces stretching between corner flags. The compact and covered nature of the stands ensure that any noise generated in retained facilitating a good atmosphere. A thinner version of the club's regular programme was produced today, consisting of 16 glossy pages and it was adequate enough with some articles to read and the essential stats. Teamsheets were available from the club shop.

It would be fair to say that Kidderminster would be strong favourites to progress today, as they play four divisions above visitors Atherstone Town. Kidderminster have made a great start to their season in the National League North, in second place, having won five and drawn four of their opening ten league games, only losing their first league game in midweek at Chester. Atherstone Town are in Division One, the second tier, of the Midland Football League, and had drawn five and lost the other if their opening six league games.  They have had to negotiate three rounds to reach today's fixture, every time beating higher league opposition - Hanley of the North West Counties League Premier Division 4-1 after a replay, Southern League Central Division outfit Bedworth United 2-3 away, and then Quorn, of the Midland Premier, 0-1 away.

On a damp, drizzly afternoon, this was indeed a predictably one-sided affair, although enormous credit should go to the underdogs who battled hard to stay in the game for as long as possible, even if they were pinned back in their own half for long periods and barely had a sight of goal. Despite Kidderminster having plenty of sighters at goal in the opening half hour, Atherstone somehow held out until the 34th minute, when the hosts finally made the breakthrough. Declan Weeks struck the ball from the edge of the area, the keeper decided to punch the ball away, unnecessarily, and it fell to Dan Bradley who fired the ball home first time. Barely a minute later, another unnecessary punch out by the keeper resulted in a flurry of chances during something of a scramble, with one of the shots coming back off the underside of the bar. On 41 minutes, the visiting keeper was relieved when a shot he should have comfortably gathered instead bounced against his arm and only just wide of the post. But he did otherwise play his part in restricting Kidderminster to just the one goal lead at half time, to give the visitors some hope that, with a bit of fortune, this tie was far from over.

With Kidderminster Harriers renowned for offering possibly the best pies in English football, I felt I had to sample a cottage pie with gravy during half-time, not cheap at £4.50 but it was certainly a large portion, very tasty and filling, with a generous amount of meat and a lovely potato topping. It certainly kept me full for the rest of the day and evening. The second half then continued in the same fashion as the first, with Kidderminster utterly dominant and looking to attack while Atherstone focused on keeping men behind the ball. But the game was all but killed off on 54 minutes when they were awarded a penalty for a trip in the box, which Joe Ironside stroked down the middle. And it really was game over two minutes later  when Kidderminster scored their third following a good move forward, a good ball was played low diagonally through the defence, played out to Ironside, and with the keeper coming to close him down, he laid the ball off to Bradley, who tapped the ball into an empty net. The signs were there that the scoreline could get ugly in the final half hour, with the floodgates seeming to have been breached, and on 68 minutes, Kidderminster scored their fourth. A good low pass through the defence found Bradley, who took a touch before passing the ball into the net for his hat-trick. A very rare Atherstone shot on goal came on 74 minutes when Josh Ruff forced a fingertip save following a free-kick. It was their only shot on target throughout the match. In the end, Kidderminster only managed to score once more, on 87 minutes, when Lee Vaughan crossed the ball from the right and Kane Richards tapped the ball in at the far post.

5-0 was how it finished, and it could been an awful lot worse for the visitors, but they deserved a fairly respectable scoreline for battling so hard to stay in the game despite the vast gulf in quality between the two teams. But they have had a decent cup run and will now focus on earning promotion to Step 5 football for next season. Kidderminster will hope this is the start of another memorable run into the competition proper, for which they are famed. Mention should also be made of the 179 visiting fans, who gave their team superb support throughout with almost constant noise on their big day out, even when the game was up for their team.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Langney Wanderers 1 v 2 Newhaven

Tuesday 18th September 2018
Southern Combination League Premier Division
Priory Lane, Eastbourne
Admission: £6.00
Programme: £2.00
Attendance: 125
Match Rating: 4

With evenings still mild and dry for now, I decided to take in a local midweek game this evening. I had the choice of a cup game at Seaford Town, or a league game at the home of Eastbourne Borough. In the end, I chose the latter, for the simple reason that it would be an easier journey home "on a school night". Although the Seaford game finished 6-1, I still chose an entertaining and eventful game.

This is the second season that Langney Wanderers are playing at Priory Lane, home of National League South outfit Eastbourne Borough, thereby benefiting from facilities superior to those usually found at Step 5 level. Programmes were produced for this fixture, and whilst I am generally loathe to criticise programmes these days as their existence is in grave danger - several league permitting clubs not to produce paper versions of the programme - the one produced by Langney Wanderers is probably a good example of why they are not purchased so much these days. Although it was well presented, and printed on good quality paper, content was very thin on the ground and overpriced at £2.00.

In their first ever season at Step 5 level, Langney Wanderers have found life a bit more of a struggle so far this season, still looking for their first league win, and have picked up three draws and three defeats from their opening six league games. Newhaven are one of the fancied teams to do well this year, and have made a decent start, winning three and drawing one of their opening five league games.

On a mild, dry evening, this turned out to be a very eventful match, although there was little sign of that in the opening half hour, which Newhaven had the better of, creating some reasonable chances, although Langney were holding their own. The home side's task was to become harder on 32 minutes when Wayne Wilkinson was shown a second yellow card and then a red for a bad, flying tackle - senseless as he was on a yellow card. The score remained goalless at the break, which the hosts would be the happier with but would have to work hard to get at least a point, with the prospect of playing almost an hour of the game a man light.

The second half was more even, although with the visitors still creating some decent chances, the hosts were grateful for their keeper being in good form and making some smart saves. But on the hour mark, Newhaven were awarded a penalty for a pull back in the box, but Lee Robinson saw his shot by keeper Dan Hutchins to his left, and also saving the follow-up shot. On 67 minutes, Langney were reduced to nine men, when Luke Denton was also shown a second yellow card for another late tackle, trying to retain possession after overrunning the ball. But incredibly, it was Langney Wanderers who opened the scoring on 72 minutes, when Gary Ingram struck the ball home from the edge of the box, beating the keeper at his near post. Their lead would last just three minutes though,  after an initial shot was parried by the keeper, Seb Saunders drilled the ball home from a central position. It then felt like a question of whether Langney Wanderers would hold on for a point, which they probably deserved with their battling, organised display despite their numerical disadvantage, and were helped by their keeper continuing to be in great form, some poor finishing and decision making by the Newhaven forwards. In added on time, the hosts saw a looping header following a free-kick from deep tipped over by the keeper, before Newhaven's Oliver Davies went over in the box following an apparent trip. The referee did not give it initially, the linesman did not raise his flag, but then to most people's surprise, the referee eventually decided to award the penalty. Robinson took the penalty, and did well the smash the ball home. The referee blew the full-time whistle almost immediately after the restart, and Newhaven were celebrating a win they deserved, with the Langney keeper surely the man of the match, but it was impossible not to feel sorry for Langney Wanderers, who played really well despite their numerical disadvantage and really not getting of the rub of the green from the referee, particularly during the second half.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Saffron Walden Town 1 v 4 May & Baker

Saturday 15th September 2018
FA Vase 2nd Qualifying Round
Catons Lane, Saffron Walden
Admission: £7.00
Programme: £1.00
Attendance: 170
Match Rating: 3


With engineering works on Southern Railway making any trip westwards unpalatable today, I decided to visit a ground that I have long since wanted to visit, but was always put off by the ground being not the easiest to access via public transport. I also wanted to take in a FA Vase game today, and this would be an attractive looking game between two teams in decent form. It would also be interesting to watch the team I saw win 8-1 in the last round a fortnight ago against higher opposition today.

Catons Lane is almost a three mile, 45 minute walk from the nearest train station, Audley End, although it is a pleasant enough walk along a quiet country road, then finally through the quaint town centre of Saffron Walden. The football ground lies just to the north of the town, with spectators entering through a turnstile block behind one goal. It is an interesting ground, scruffy in places, recently enhanced in others, with lots of different furniture and vantage points, and not a modern metallic stand in sight. Behind the goal by the entrance there are various container type buildings, mostly seeming to house maintenance equipment but also the PA room, and the quality of announcements and playing of music was far better than one normally encounters at this level of football. There is also cover over flat standing area stretching from these buildings. Just around the corner is the clubhouse, in a white building, and which is quite dated but spacious inside, with a more modern extension for hospitality. Next to the clubhouse there is a small tea bar building, and the straddling the half way line there is quite an old fashioned stand with wooden bench seating inside, but all freshly painted in bright red and black club colours. On the opposite side, a few rows of seats are covered, and either side spectators can enjoy quite good views from the top of a short grass bank. Behind the remaining goal there is another (small) stand, with a couple of rows of seats along the front and more room to stand to the rear. A really pleasant feature of this ground is the attractive church perched quite close by behind one corner, but otherwise plenty of trees and a quiet location make this is very pleasant venue to watch football at. The 36 page programme was decent for £1, with plenty to read inside, an acceptable level of advertising, and printed on stiff glossy paper.

Since finally switching from the Eastern Counties League for this season, having expressed a desire to do so for some time, Saffron Walden have enjoyed a good start to their maiden Essex Senior League campaign, winning two and drawing the other two if their four league games so far. They reached the First Qualifying Round of this season's FA Vase, before losing in a replay to St Ives (two steps above them) in midweek, and today would be their first game in this season's FA Vase. May & Baker have not played since their 8-1 victory at home against Burnham Ramblers in the previous round, and are in seventh place in the Eastern Counties League South Division following three wins and a draw from their four league games, and have at least two games in hand on all teams above them. These two teams have already met this season in the Essex Senior Cup in late August, with Saffron Walden winning 4-3 at home.

On a warm, sunny afternoon, on paper this result was a shock, but the result was actually quite a fair reflection of the match, even if the scoreline did flatter the visitors, as Saffron Walden put in a surprisingly poor performance given their recent form and cup exploits, with their passing particularly woeful. After a quiet opening to the game, the visitors took the lead on 26 minutes, following a poor back header by a defender, allowing Reece Tranter through against the keeper, before slotting the ball home. The home side did create a few half chances approaching half time, but they went in behind at the break and would need to come out a lot more fired up after the break if they were not to exit this competition at the first hurdle.

Instead, they went further behind on 50 minutes. Following a corner, the ball was floated into the box and Craig Hall got a glancing header to guide the ball into the net. Arguably the game deciding moment came three minutes later when Saffron Walden were awarded a free kick just outside the area, much to everyone's disbelief, as the foul of pulling the player back seemed to clearly happen inside the area. That free kick came to nothing, and then the visitors came very close on a couple of occasions to scoring a third, forcing an excellent reflex save and then have the ball hacked away from close to the goalline, before they did on 67 minutes to all but wrap the tie up, Dan Gilchrist drilling the ball across the keeper and into the net with a very good finish. A rare moment of quality from the hosts on 74 minutes saw them almost claw a goal back, the ball was crossed from the right and Charlie Portway volleyed the ball powerfully against the underside of the bar, but the ball bounced the wrong side of the line. With ten minutes remaining, Saffron Walden did give themselves faint hope with a goal, the ball was floated over the defence and Portway beat the offside trap and struck the ball home. Three minutes later and the hosts had a great chance to really make the game interesting, again after the ball was floated diagonally over the defence but Lewis Francis acrobatically struck the ball over the bar with his foot when a header probably would have been more successful. But on 88 minutes, the visitors restored their three goal lead to seal their passage into the next round following yet another stray pass by the hosts being intercepted, Tom Harvey eventually dribbling in too easily from the right before firing past the keeper.

So a surprisingly comprehensive win for the visitors, who could not have wished for a much better start to senior football. Despite playing well below par, Saffron Walden still had their chances and the outcome could have been very different with a little more fortune and if the penalty decision went their way. But they just could not get going today and will be massively disappointed to exit a national competition, one they could have progressed far in, at the first hurdle. With May and Baker's potency, who knows how far they might progress in this competition with their attacking prowess, particularly should have they get kind draws.