Sunday, 26 March 2017

Didcot Town 1 v 2 Yate Town

Saturday 25th March 2017
Southern League Division One South &West
Loop Meadow, Didcot
Admission: Pay What You Want
Programme: £2.00
Attendance: 178
Match Rating: 3

Today I decided to support a club offering Pay What You Want entry, and for me a very rare dip into the Southern League Division One South and West.

Loop Meadow is located very close to and is clearly visible from Didcot Parkway train station, but with no direct path between the two, it is about a 15 minute walk. After passing through a car park, the entry turnstiles are located to one side of a long brick building which houses the changing rooms and clubhouse, which is cosy and with lots of memorabilia such as professional club shirts adorning the walls, but the room lacks natural daylight. Once inside the ground, straddling the half way line there is an elevated covered all-seater area backing onto the clubhouse building, which indeed looks rather attractive with its bricks coloured into neat linear pattern. Neatly tucked in towards the far corner from the entrance there is a black hut housing the tea bar, and immediately behind the goal closest to the entrance, there is a relatively large stand covering three terrace steps, whilst either side are smaller metallic all-seater stands. There is just hard standing around the remaining two stands, with flat grass between the hard standing and the wooden fencing. Whilst a very unremarkable place, it is very neat and tidy and a pleasant enough place to watch football. The programme was fairly standard fare for the level of football, containing everything it needed to.

There is very little left to play for both teams this season. Didcot were in 13th place, following ten wins and 14 draws from their 35 league games, but came into this game in very poor form, picking up just one win and five draws from their last 12 league games. Yate were in 18th place in the 22 team division, but with only two teams being relegated, the 14 point gap makes them virtually safe. Yate had experience an even worse form up to the end of February, picking up no wins and four draws from 14 league games, but March has been kinder, winning two wins and draws from their last three league games. When the two teams met earlier this season, Yate won 3-2.

On a brilliantly sunny afternoon but was chilly due to a strong wind, the first half was a midfield battle for the most part, and although Didcot showed more attacking intent - but showed a distinct lack of quality in the final third - Yate looked more dangerous on their occasional breaks. It was no real surprise that the scoreline remained goalless at the break, though.

Five minutes into the second half and Didcot took the lead. After some panic in the box, with the ball being whipped across the six yard box a couple of times, eventually the ball fell kindly for George Reid, who smashed the ball in off the underside of the bar. It did appear that Didcot were coasting towards seeing out a narrow win, as their played neat possession football and Yate barely threatened to get back on level terms. Out of nothing, they did though, with a terrific goal on 79 minutes, the ball landing at the feet of Lewis Fogg outside of the penalty area, and he drilled the ball into the top left hand corner despite the keeper getting a palm to the ball. A share of the points was about fair for two clubs that showed little flair or quality, but Yate won it with virtually the last kick of the game with a wonderful goal. Mike Baker took a free kick from his own half and, spotting the keeper off his line, struck a powerful shot which carried in the wind and sailed over the keeper who could not quite scamper back in time. Immediately after the restart, the referee blew the final whistle, with Yate victorious winning it courtesy of two moments of real quality in a match where precious little was otherwise on show.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Hungerford Town 2 v 1 Concord Rangers

Saturday 18th March 2017
National League South
Bulpit Lane, Hungerford
Admission: £12.00
Programme: £2.00
Attendance: 271
Match Rating: 3

After planning all week to go down to Dorset today, nervous noises coming from Gillingham Town last night regarding a pitch inspection (which is subsequently failed) made me reconsider, and with rail engineering works favouring a journey through via Surrey Hills, I eventually chose to tick off another ground in the National League South.

Bulpit Lane is about a 15 minute walk northwards from Hungerford train station, and following the club’s rapid rise through the divisions – playing in the Hellenic League as recently as 2008 with, as the programme proudly presents, higher league rankings every season since - it is fair to say the ground has not kept up with the club’s progress. It currently feels much more like a second tier Southern League ground, although perhaps today was not an ideal time to visit, with a lot of building work preparation in evidence to upgrade facilities. Spectators enter the ground in one corner, and behind the goal is the brick clubhouse, with the tea bar to one side and the changing rooms to the other. Straddling the half way line on both sides are low all-seater stands. To one side of one of them is a modern metallic stand covering steps, whilst on either side of the opposite stand, foundations are being made for a further stand and terrace steps. Behind the remaining goal there is a fairly narrow stand covering a couple of terrace steps. There is quite a pronounced slope of the pitch from end to end. Today’s programme was a double-issue, also covering Monday evening’s game, and was pretty average. Containing 60 pages, 25 of which were advertising, it contained the essential stats and penpics, but lacked interesting reading material.

Having been promoted via the play-offs after finishing in fourth place in the Southern League Premier Division last season, Hungerford were comfortably inside the play-offs again this season, before picking up just one point from their last three games, leaving them in seventh place, five points adrift of the play-offs, following 15 wins and nine draws from their 32 league games. Concord Rangers still have work to do to avoid the possibility of relegation, they were in 17th place in the 22 team division, following eight wins and ten draws from their 33 league games. When the two teams met in October, Hungerford won 2-4.

On a dull, overcast aftercast, Concord Rangers kicked down the slope in the first half, but into a very strong wind. With conditions tricky for both sides, the game was even, the visitors looking the more threatening in the attack although for the most part it was a midfield battle. However on 31 minutes, the visitors took the lead. A cross from the left was knocked down beyond the goal to Adam Nasha in a central position 12 yards out, and he fired the ball home. They held onto their lead fairly comfortably until half time, with plenty of work to do for the home side to get their push for the play-offs back on track.

And on 52 minutes, the home side were level. As they did throughout most of the match, the visiting bench loudly protested a free kick being awarded against them, the ball was swung in from the deep wing, and found its way through a crowd of heads to allow Jon Boardman to tap the ball home. The game was getting increasingly niggly, and the visiting manager Adam Flanagan was sent from the dugout after seeming to take objection to nearby spectator comments. Both sides looked lively without threatening as the game meandered towards its conclusion, but on 83 minutes, Hungerford took the lead. A high looping cross was sent in from close to the corner flag, and Stefan Brown headed the ball home at the far post. That sealed the three points as the visitors never looked likely to get back on level terms, and the result meant Hungerford rose to within 3 points of the play-off positions, while Concord Rangers are still looking for the couple of wins which would probably ensure their survival.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Hull City 2 v 1 Swansea City

Saturday 11th March 2017
FA Premier League
KCOM Stadium, Kingston-upon-Hull
Admission: £9.00
Programme: £3.00
Attendance: 19,195
Match Rating: 3

Motivated by a sale by Virgin East Coast, meaning that I managed to get return travel from London to Hull for just £15, this was a fixture that would evoke strong memories for me. Both clubs I followed closely during my university days – I watched most Swansea City home games at The Vetch whilst I was at university, and my girlfriend of the time lived in Hull, meaning that I paid keen interest in the fortunes of Hull City as well as visiting the club's former home, Boothferry Park, on a few occasions. How times have changed since then for both clubs though, following remarkably similar paths to the top table of English football. Back in the late nineties, both clubs plodded along in the bottom tier of the Football League, with promotion to the third tier surely the limit of their realistic ambitions, and both played in wonderfully atmospheric but ramshackle old stadia. Since then, they have both moved into impressive modern stadia shared with a local rugby club, and have enjoyed several seasons in the Premier League.

The KCOM Stadium is about a 20 minute walk westwards from Hull train station, in the same direction but a short distance before where Boothferry Park was located. The stadium is set within a park, and it is rather plain around the outside, with not much of interest to see, and although the main entrance is quite attractively decorated main entrance, it is partially obscured by trees a short distance away. Once inside, the stadium has a quite interesting design for a relative new-build. The seating is continuous around the whole stadium and is single tiered along one length and behind both goals, with the roof rising to accommodate a second tier along the remaining length, with a row of executive boxes between the tiers. The stadium looks smart, with the seating attractively finished in black and amber and with a couple of interestingly designed floodlights in two corners. The 100 page programme was a very good read, interesting laid out with the halves back to back, one half focusing on today's game and opponents, the other half being more general club material. Special mention should be made of the club's excellent pricing today, meaning I could watch Premier League football for the price of Isthmian League football, a refreshing change to the generally much overpriced Premier League tickets.

At the turn of the year, survival prospects looked very bleak indeed for both clubs, as they occupied the bottom two places in the table, however new head coaches for both clubs has dramatically improved those prospects, particularly Swansea's, as Paul Clement oversaw five wins from eight league games and they came into this game fives points clear of the relegation zone, following a total of eight wins and three draws from their 27 league games. Hull also had an upturn of fortunes after Marco Silva's appointment, although picking up just one point from their last three games has stunted their progress, and they came into this game second bottom and four points adrift of safety, following a total of five wins and six draws from their 27 games. The two teams have already met twice this season, both ending in 2-0 wins for Hull, one in the league and one in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup at the KCOM Stadium.

On a gloomy but mild afternoon, the match started in a lively fashion, with the visitors looking slightly the better side and they came closest to scoring on 9 minutes. Gylfi Sigudsson played a perfect low pass through a couple of defenders for Wayne Routledge to run onto, but his low shot was deflected wide by the keeper's legs. Neither goal was seriously threatened for the remainder of the half, as Swansea seemed happy to sit back and attack on the counter, whilst Hull did not appear to have the guile to create much. Swansea were hampered by losing two of their players to injury, experienced Angel Rangel, and their star striker, Fernando Llorente.

Into the second half and Routledge missed an even greater chance than he had earlier, when the keeper palmed the ball to him along the ground but the shot was skied high over the bar. On the hour mark, Sigurdsson saw his free kick palmed wide, but what would turn out to be the game changing moment came on 63 minutes, with the introduction of Hull striker Oumar Niasse. Within six minutes, he gave Hull the lead, initially passing to Abel Hernandez, who played the ball back first time for Niasse to run onto and clear towards goal, and he kept his cool to slot the ball low past the keeper. Hull doubled their lead on 78 minutes, when Ahmed Elmohamady sent the ball from deep into the penalty area and although Hernandez couldn't get meaningful contact on the ball, it dropped to Niasse, who took a touch before striking the ball home low across the keeper. That felt like game over, although the visitors pulled a goal back in the first of four minutes added on at the end of the game. Sigurdsson struck a free kick from wide into the penalty area, and Alfie Mawson was all alone to head the ball home from 8 yards at the near post. All suddenly did not look lost for Swansea, as Hull's players seemed to panic and kept giving away possession, but they did manage to hand for a priceless three points, which lifted them within a point of safety, but also brought Swansea back into trouble and with work to do to, with just three points now separating them from Hull in the relegation zone.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Chalfont St Peter 0 v 0 Egham Town

Saturday 4th March 2017
Southern Football League Division One Central
Mill Meadow, Chalfont St Peter
Admission including Programme: £9.00
Attendance: 70
Match Rating: 2

Nothing much really appealed to me today, and with a lot of wet weather originally forecast for last night and this morning, I feared that I would have to play a plastic pitch joker card today at Slough Town. Happily the rain did not materialise and I decided to head to Buckinghamshire, an area I haven’t watched much football in over the years.

Mill Meadow is about a half hour walk northwards from Gerrards Cross train station and is located close to the village centre, beyond a set of allotments and amongst various community facilities. Spectators enter via a turnstile block in one corner of the ground. Next to the entrance is a long, fairly low brick building with the clubhouse amongst the facilities inside, which doubles up as a children’s nursery during the week, making for a unusual surrounding whilst supping one’s pint. Along the front of the clubhouse there is wooden overhang providing covered standing, again decorated with children’s props. Beyond the clubhouse and straddling the half way like is a stand containing old fashioned wooden seating but has not been in use for many years. Behind the goal closest to the entrance is a smart modern all-seater stand, raise up a little from the pitch, and with a separate small covered area for disabled fans. Behind the other goal is much more rudimentary cover for two rows of seating, although the narrow cover above does not offer great cover from the elements. Along the remaining length there is just hard standing. The ground has a pleasant enough setting, with a rural, tranquil feel to it. A programme was provided with admission and although, with just 20 pages, is quite thin, it is perfectly adequate, covering the essentials very well and just two pages contained advertising and no “filler” material.

There is little left for Chalfont St Peter to play for this season, coming into this game in 16th place in the 22 team division, 17 points clear of the relegation zone but 15 points adrift of the play-offs, having won 12 and drawn four of their 33 league games. Egham Town still have hopes of making the play-offs, seven points adrift but with two games in hand on the fifth placed team. When the two teams met in October, Egham won 2-0.

On an afternoon when the ground was bathed in sunshine during the first half, giving way to gusty drizzle in the second half, this was quite a dull match, in particular during the first half which was even and with barely any sights of goal being created.

The second half was certainly an improvement, which is not saying much. Indeed, Egham saw a shot and rebound both blocked within a minute of the restart. On 53 minutes, Egham's Brendan Matthew met a corner with a header which was unorthodoxly blocked by the keeper, before Chalfont had a decent spell, doing some decent attacking without ever really convincing that they would score. Egham had a couple of great chances to win the game in the closing minutes, On 83 minutes, a low cross whipped inside the six yard box just eluded a tap in, and two minutes from time, a long punt forward by the keeper sent two forwards through on goal, but although the ball bounded favourably to his team mate in a good central position towards the edge of the area, the shot was slice high and wide of goal. But the game finished goalless, which was a fair reflection of a game that was low on quality and urgency.