Friday 25 May 2012

I'm Back!

Sorry about my absence from this blog for the last two years. Here's what happened since:

After the solid but not completely satisfying day at Eastleigh in March 2010, City went on to lose three games on the bounce. It appeared to be all over. The only way City could still qualify for the playoffs would be to win virtually all of their six remaining games.

Amazingly, they did win their next five games and, with a tight 0-0 home draw against St Albans on the final day of the season, edged back into the playoff zone by the skin of their teeth. With 72 points City finished fourth (ahead of fifth place Woking on goal difference and ahead of sixth place Havant & Waterlooville by just a point).

Very much the form team going into the playoffs, City then defeated Chelmsford City 3-0 on aggregate in the semi-finals. A Kaid Mohamed penalty was enough to win the final against Woking and secure City promotion to the Blue Square Premier. The final was at Twerton Park and 4,865 people were there to see it. It was a magical end to the season to say the least. 

Despite the fact that the blog was not being updated, I was still attending games as normal. I went to every home game, about half of the away games, and every match in the play-offs. I was, however, suffering from a pretty serious case of burnout on the writing front.

When I began 'Nedved's Notes' at the beginning of the 2009/10 season I just thought it would be something I played around on from time to time. I didn't envision writing about my experiences and thoughts for every single match of the season, but I got hooked. By the time of the Eastleigh match I was staying up till 3am three or four times a week to work on the blog. It was a labour of love, but the physical toll became too much. When I arrived back at Twerton Park on the supporters coach at 2am from City's loss to Hampton & Richmond (the next match after Eastleigh) I had already begun to write the next blog post in my head. What I didn't know then was that when it came to blogging, I had (for the time being) lost my mojo.

About that time, however, the club announced they would be appointing a full-time Commercial Manager the following season. With the encouragement of board member Phil Weaver and prominent supporter Sebastian Buckley, I applied. I didn't really expect to get the job, but I did have several years experience managing a sales team in a different industry. It was worth a go.

Much to my surprise I did get a call from then-club-chairman Geoff Todd towards the end of May. After an initial talk on the phone of half an hour or so an interview was arranged. I didn't know at the time that a Commercial Manager had already been chosen, but I could tell from the way the questions were being asked that something was afoot. The question of how to increase gates and promote the club's profile kept coming up, even though that would not normally be the Commercial Manager's brief. After two interviews and several more phone calls and emails I was offered the post of Communications and Enterprise Manager. I began working full-time for the club that July. In an article in the Bath Chronicle I described the role as 'my dream job.' 

I'm happy to say that my quote in the Chronicle was completely accurate. The last two-years have been some of the most fun and fulfilling of my life. That being said, they have also been among the most stressful and frustrating. That is a subject for future posts, though.

Wednesday 23 May (two days ago) was my last day at Bath City. Although I knew that redundancy was coming, I didn't know what my final day would be until just before leaving work this past Monday. After tying up as many loose ends as I could in the final hours I shook hands with two of the directors, said goodbye to a soon-to-be-former colleague, and walked out the door into life-after-Bath-City.

Except, as any football fan will tell you, there never is any 'life-after.' Being a true fan is a life-long passion (or affliction maybe) that remains even when other things pass away. So, while I am no longer employed by Bath City, I am still a fan, and I plan to resume my previous habits as much as possible.

And so, Nedved's Notes is reborn. Please don't expect it to be the same. I won't be able to devote the time it benefited from previously. I will be able to bring a fairly unique perspective to both Bath City and English football as a whole, however, and I do plan to do that regularly. I may also from time-to-time write about other sport in the UK.

Bye for now!

Thursday 18 March 2010

In the Belly of the Beastleigh - Part 2

In the Belly of the Beastleigh - Part 1 can be read here.

One of the nice things that has happened wtih the emergence of the new, extremely vocal Bath City supporters group ('the Legion') is that I don't get nearly as worked up as I used to in the minutes before the match begins. Instead of brooding about what a loss or draw would do to City's promotions prospects I'm usually distracted by how the flags are going up, or what new song we are going to try today. Before I know it the match has usually kicked off and I've joined in an off-key rendition of We Love Jim Rollo. I'm struggling to decide if this means I have matured as a football supporter, or suddenly become more juvenile. Perhaps both.

The match did in fact kick off before I knew it, and in fact the Legion did sing a decidedly off-tune rendition of We Love Jim Rollo. And we kept singing after that and did not stop for a good twenty minutes or so. Despite being at home, the Eastleigh fans were entirely quiet during this period. The bucolic setting of Eastleigh's ground (the surrounding motorways are not visible), and the genteel deportment of the Eastleigh fans made the tuneless shouting we were doing seem really out of place. It felt like we a band of drunken louts who had crashed someone's suburban garden party. Six months previously we might have felt too embarrassed to continue. As we have grown larger, though, the Legion has found it easier to do as we please when we are visiting teams with quiet fans. Basically, get enough of your mates together and it is possible to summon the nerve to crash any suburban garden party.

For the first ten minutes of the match the Legion's singing was just about the only notable thing on view. As they had against Thurrock and Welling previously, however, City followed a period of relative stalemate with thirty-five minutes of sustained pressure. This was fantastic to watch. Last year on my first visit to Silverlake Stadium I had watched City get out-muscled by an Eastleigh team that relied on height and....okay, mostly just height. City had battled bravely, but were never really in the game. Watching City stretch Eastleigh's defence with a passing game that made good use of width was just what I had hoped for.

To be honest, though, I couldn't see it terribly well. As an experiment the Legion had decided to chose a single place on the ground and stay there for the entirety of the match. This was the M27 side. In the first half this turned out to be the goal that City was defending. This gave us a chance to cheer on the ever-improving City keeper, Ryan Robinson, but it meant we were a long way from the goalmouth action at the other end. It also meant that we were eventually joined, after fifteen minutes or so, by a small band of Eastleigh fans who had come to stand behind the goal their team was attacking. They didn't make much noise (although, to give credit where it is due, they made more than the rest of the Eastleigh supporters combined), but they did engage in a bit of banter with us. When we sang of Silverlake Stadium the old classic My Garden Shed is Bigger Than This, a man stood next to me shouted, 'Yeah, yeah, we hear that every week!' From whom, I wondered. And if you do get it every week, surely you've come up with some sort of witty response? Something like, 'Your garden shed is way too big! Your garden shed is way too big! Save your money for a decent striker! Your garden shed is way too big!' There, that took five minutes, and can be sang to the same tune. Oh, but then you'd have to sing. Oh well.

City took the lead at the half hour mark with a penalty. Adam Connolly launched a corner kick into the penalty area, and Darren Edwards had his shirt pulled by an Eastleigh player as he went for the ball. This brought howls of protests from the Eastleigh players and management. So much so that the offender, Luke Wilkinson, was given an additional yellow card. To be fair to Eastleigh, you don't see penalties given for shirt-pulling much. Technically it is grounds for a foul, though, and referees are supposed to award penalties for fouls in the box. So, unsure of whether this was luck or a rare instance of justice, we watched from the opposite end as Kaid Mohamed lined up the kick. He struck the ball hard into the bottom right corner and City had a one goal lead.

This goal gave me the warm sensation that everything was going to plan. This was the thrid match in a row that after an indifferent start City had rallied and exerted increasing pressure, resulting in a first half goal. Second place in the standings appeared to be on offer.

Ten minutes later things began to deviate from the script slightly. A scuffle broke out on the pitch after an incident involving Sido Jombati and Eastleigh's Shaun McAuley. These incidents do not happen spontaneously - someone has to make the first move. Unfazed by this logic, however, the referee (Alex Neil) took the failsafe option and booked both players. These events are not uncommon in football, but the body posture of the players indicated that this fracas was more acrimonious than most. Word got round the ground (via the Eastleigh supporters) that Sido had spat on someone. Having met Sido and spoken to him several times, that seemed highly unlikely. He is perhaps the gentlest, most unassuming footballer I've ever encountered. Whatever the truth of the matter, things were still heated as the players entered the tunnel at half time.

The break was observed in total silence by the Eastleigh faithful. Like Welling, there was no music, or anything else to disturb the rural calm. I decided to pass a few minutes reading through the matchday program. It was when I happened upon the 'honours list' page that I began to understand Eastleigh FC finally. Nestled in at the bottom of the first team honours was listed, 'Wessex League Champions 2003.' Wessex League? I didn't even know what that was. I've since looked it up, and this is step five of the non-league pyramid. That's three divisions below Easleigh's current position. This means that as little as five years ago Eastleigh were at the same level as Willand Rovers, City's Western League opposition from the second qualifying round of the FA Cup. I had been thinking of Eastleigh as a club with few supporters, a funny location, and an out-of-proportion grandstand. They are in fact a small club that has done extremely well to get where they are (especially when you consider how close they were to promotion last season). Compared to most step five grounds, Silverlake Stadium is a palace. I began to feel somewhat curlish, especially considering how Bath City are a club that has probably underacheived for the last two decades.

When the second half resumed the Legion were already in place behind City's attacking goal. This gave us the chance to get acquainted with Eastleigh's new keeper, Billy Lumley. As soon as he took his position in front of the net it was obvious why he had been signed. Considering how highly the Eastleigh coaching staff appear to value height, Lumley's 6 foot 5 inch stature probably got him a job before they even watched him play. Unfortunately, as we were to learn, he was also reasonably good at goalkeeping.

On the hour mark City appeared certain to take the lead. Adam Connolly's free kick was headed goalwards by City defender Chris Holland. Usually contact with 'Dutch's' forehead is enough to secure a goal, but it was struck with too much downward force to go in. Instead the ball fell to Darren Edwards who struck the ball sharply from short range. Lumley blocked it, but the ball went back towards Edwards. You'd think that letting the ball rebound to a striker in position would mean allowing a goal, but Lumley somehow recovered and blocked Edwards a second time.

Shortly after this, the City defence allowed its first goal in over 330 minutes of play. It came as a bit of a shock, to be honest. Clean sheets had begun to seem pretty routine. It resulted from a pass travelling the length of the goal before being struck by Eastleigh's Ross Bottomley. Ryan Robinson had to allow a goal at some point, I suppose. It didn't feel too depressing, though, because City clearly had the ability to fight back.

Things change quickly in football, though. Before that goal the City supporters had been hoping for another 'routine' victory. Fifteen minutes later and we were desperate for City just to hang onto the point. Jombati, already on a yellow, got booked again after a strong challenge outside the penalty box. It didn't look like a particularly vicious tackle to me - Sido tends to wrap his long legs around his opponents rather than come in full force. The Eastleigh supporters were roused enough by this second booking, and the subsequent sending off, to actually make a bit of noise. They were that angry!

Despite City being a man down, Eastleigh never looked like they were going to score again. Unfortunately, City didn't much either (although substitute Dave Gilroy managed a decent shot towards the end). When the final whistle blew I wasn't sure whether to be pleased that a draw had been salvaged, or disappointed that a dominant position in the first half had been squandered. The City players wandered in our direction and clapped us for our singing. After packing up our flags, it was time to head homewards.

Like several other City supporters, the prospect of finding my way back to Southampton Airport Parkway station was daunting. I found another fellow train traveller and asked him if he knew the way. 'No, I took a taxi,' he said. I confessed I did the same. The warren of roundabouts and dual-carriageways was too tricky to try anything but the same on the way back, but finding a taxi was going to be much harder in this direction. Facing the inevitable, we asked a safety-yellow clad steward for directions.

'I'll drive you,' he said. 'I'm headed that way. It's no bother.'

We didn't know what to say. Dressed in black and white stripes, we were obviously supporters of the opposition.

'We're all football supporters, aren't we?' he explained. He was so nice, and so matter-of-fact about it, we accepted his offer.

Mr. Sheridan, I learned, had become a club steward and all-around volunteer after he retired. He tuned in a local radio station that reported non-league football scores, and chatted away about how Eastleigh had nearly won promotion the previous season, their terrible run of injuries, and about the problems they had with the pitch's drainage system. After the necessarily circuitous journey he dropped us off in front of the station and wished us well for the rest of the season. 'Maybe we'll meet up again in the playoffs,' he said.

Non-league football is supposed to be full of heart-warming moments like this, but we couldn't help but be surprised by Mr. Sheridan's generosity. I can't remember the last time I asked a complete stranger for directions and ended up getting into their car. It is a testimony to the non-league game, though, that he felt comfortable enough to offer to drive us, and we felt comfortable enough to take up his offer.

As we waved Mr. Sheridan goodbye, I couldn't help but think that his kindness was going to ruin my blog post. Eastleigh are a club that I've always disliked. How can you dislike a club where this sort of thing happens? Where's a pantomime villain when you need one? Oh, okay Eastleigh! As long as you are not playing City, I hope the rest of the season goes well for you. And if we do meet in the playoffs, well, that wouldn't be so bad. Just don't win them.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

In the Belly of the Beastleigh - Part 1

Bath City drew 1-1 at Eastleigh (or 'Beastleigh' as everyone in non-league football appears to call them) on Saturday. On many counts, it was a frustrating draw. It did, though, keep City in the vital playoff zone in the standings. Considering that Eastleigh defeated City at Twerton Park earlier in the year, getting a point on the away leg isn't too bad a result I suppose. Eh!

Like many journeys, my trip to Eastleigh's football ground on Saturday began when I consulted a map. Getting to the general area was easy enough - the train times to Southampton Airport Parkway rail station were convenient and straightforward. It was the quarter-mile journey from the train station to the ground that was worrying me. The key to the problem can be found in the station's name. Anyone at all familiar with Britain soon learns that any station ending with the word 'parkway' is best avoided at all costs. In my decade of experience I have made the following observations about these stations: (1) they are always windswept (2) they are always surrounded by roundabouts, dual-carriageway 'A' roads, and motorways (3) other than the roundabouts, dual-carriage 'A' roads, and motorways there is very little else of any interest. You might think that Southampton Airport Parkway station is an exception on this last count, thanks to the presence of the airport and Eastleigh's football ground. You would be wrong. The airport only serves short, regional destinations. The football ground could easily be confused for an industrial business park. Clutching the map I had printed off the Internet, and with a strong wind blowing in my face and the roar of the zooming traffic in my ear, I emerged from the station's front door into a taxi. I was in no mood to traipse around on the labyrinthine, pedestrian-unfriendly highways and risk missing kick-off.

Eastleigh's ground is actually called 'Silverlake Stadium.' There is no lake, actually. It is a rare example of non-league corporate naming rights sponsorship, provided by Silverlake Garage Autoparts (We are able to supply almost any part for any vehicle!!). Nevertheless, the name is still somewhat descriptive. Much of the ground is made up of grey corrugated metal, which, at a stretch, could pass for silver. Kind of.

The first thing you notice upon entering the ground is the imposing Grand Stand. If this stand was extended and wrapped around the entire pitch then Silverlake Stadium would be an impressive structure indeed. Its 341 seats are pitched at an invitingly steep angle, and probably give an excellent view of the match. It does not continue around, though, and the Grand Stand looks out of place among the relatively spartan facilities on the rest of the ground. The result looks as if someone sliced up a league ground like a cake, and left a section standing in the middle of a cow pasture.

I'm not going to spend this whole blog post slating Eastleigh's ground. I realise how hard it is for any club to build a new ground these days, and the Eastleigh supporters I met were incredibly kind and gracious to me. So, I don't mean this in a personal or vicious way when I say that I found their ground decidedly odd. I couldn't escape the sensation that I was actually in an airport container-unit storage facility. It was therefore with mild surprise when I saw players appear on the pitch and prepare for a football match to kick off.

Oh, wait! Did someone say 'pitch?' Eastleigh's pitch was in atrocious state. I found out after the match that this was due to excessive rainfall overwhelming the drainage system. Part of the subterranean layer of gravel was washed into, and now blocks the drainage pipes. This has resulted in several boggy patches, liberally dosed by the hosts with layers of sand. According to the match program the pitch was recently responsible not only for two Eastleigh players getting injured, but also for allowing St Albans City to score in a tight 1-0 victory the previous week. Yikes!

Despite these hazards, the players from both teams managed to line up on the pitch and shake hands with each other without anyone falling over. After the coin toss, City ended up defending the goal on the M27 end (okay, I actually made that up. I can't find any reference to the names of the various parts of the ground other than the Grand Stand, and only a small field separates the goal from the M27). This was the end that the City ultras group, known as 'the Legion,' had set up camp. We had turned out in number for the match, and received a big thumbs up from City keeper Ryan Robinson as he approached us.

Actually, it wasn't just 'the Legion' that had shown up in force. An estimated 150 fellow City fans had shown up. Since very few had opted for the Grand Stand, we made up roughly half of the spectators standing along the pitch. It was a very good showing, and this only further encouraged the Legionnaires behind the 27 goal. As the players were lining up for kick-off we belted out a very loud rendition of 'We Love Jim Rollo!' When this was met with virtual silence from the home fans, we realised that no matter what happened on the pitch, the City fans were going to have some fun!

Sunday 14 March 2010

Firebrand Nedved

After the Welling match I stayed in the area to visit some of Mrs Nedveds's relatives in Kent. On the way back home on the train the next day I decided to try and write a letter to the Bath Chronicle to encourage more Bathonians to turn out to City matches.

I was feeling pretty pumped up after the Welling victory. I was feeling really pumped up, actually. And, deep down, I've always secretly regretted the fact that I'm unlikely to ever start a revolution. Perhaps it came out just a bit over-the-top.

The Chronicle did print it a week later than I had intended, but they did make it the week's main letter. They also took the opportunity to reprint a photo of Eric Cantona wearing a City scarf from his visit to Twerton Park last July. Underneath the photo was the caption, 'If it's good enough for Eric...:our writers below urge local people to get behind Bath City Football Club.' It was signed by myself and two other members of 'the Legion' (it may represent the thoughts of many more of us, but there wasn't time to get more people's consent).

Here is the letter in full:
Citizens of Bath, there is greatness among us!
A group of men, heroes to many, are on the verge of triumph. And you have the opportunity, and the privilege, to cheer them on.
We speak not of the pampered prima donnas, who prance across our wide-screened tellies, but of real flesh and blood men.
Men who work and toil through a five-day week as we ordinary people do, and yet find the will to trample the muddy playing fields of southern England, week in and week out, in search of their meagre portion of glory.
We tell you, despite all the obstacles and hardships they have faced, they are succeeding.
We speak, of course, of the players and coaches of Bath City Football Club. Racked by injury, and shorn of the budget their competitors enjoy, they nevertheless are playing with a drive and determination that is inspirational to behold.
The recent victory over Welling United brought them, for the first time this campaign, to a play-off position and with only four home matches of this glorious season left they need all the support they can get.
Last Saturday, the battle continued at Twerton Park with a key victory against fellow play-off contenders Thurrock. Our next vital home game is against fellow promotion chasers Braintree on Saturday, March 20. Come and join us and cheer the city boys to victory!
They are YOUR team. They play for YOUR city.
Join us as we celebrate their success!

So, if you are reading this, and you live somewhere in the West Country, get down to Twerton Park this Saturday for City's match against Braintree Town. We need you there!

Friday 12 March 2010

An Encounter at Clacket Lane

Saturday's coach journey to Welling included a fifteen minute stop at Clacket Lane services on the M25. As the coach pulled into the car park I noticed that we were pulling in alongside another coach with the exact same livery. It took a moment for the penny to drop, but eventually it did. My deduction was confirmed by the exclamation of a fellow passenger: 'It's the players' coach!'

And so it was. I tried to peer through the windows to see if I recognized anyone, but I could see only shadows through the two sets of tinted glass. Although my immediate reaction to this chance encounter was a mixture of delight and excitement, by the time I was alighting from the coach and preparing to share roadside facilities with my sporting heroes, I was feeling acutely awkward.

The reason for this is not easy to explain. It goes to the heart of the relationship between fans and players - a relationship that everyone is aware of but no one talks about much. Back in the days before I developed a passion for non-league football I thought I understood it. I was wrong.

As a kid growing up in Atlanta in the 80s, my heroes were the players of the Atlanta Braves baseball team. In the hundreds of games I attended over the years I never had a conversation with any of them. The idea that this would even be possible would have sounds absurd to me. The closest I ever came was on the rare occasion when I managed to elbow past other fans, and with outstretched arms, clutching a pen and something they could write on I would say, 'Will you sign this please?' I still have ever hat, baseball and scrap of paper those players graced with their signatures. They are like holy relics.

Twenty years later I find myself in a equally passionate relationship with Bath City Football Club, but with a level of intimacy I am constantly surprised by. I first became aware that things were different a bit over a year ago at an evening match at Eastleigh. At the conclusion of the pre-match warm-up Matt Coupe walked over to where I was standing and began to lean against the fence to stretch his legs. He then began engaging in the entirely normal activity of chatting to the person nearby him. Or he tried, rather. I was too tongue-tied to say anything remotely intelligent. At one point he stretched out his hand and said, 'Hi, I'm Matt.' I wanted to simultaneously laugh and pinch myself. 'Yes, yes, I know!' I said.

I've had several conversations with the players since then. I'm always nervous to the point of making an idiot of myself, of course. I am, however, always struck by how normal the players seem. I should not really be surprised. They all have careers outside football and lead otherwise normal lives with mortgages and crowded commuter trains like the rest of us.

In fact, the City players seem so normal when I talk to them I always become conscious of how abnormal I am. Non-league football fans are part of a fairly small subculture. The more dedicated ones of us are viewed by society at large as only a few grades up from Trekkies and plane spotters. We do, after all, spend our Saturdays on coaches making 300 mile round trips to stand in the cold with a few hundred fellow-abnormals and cheer on teams most people are unaware even exist. If you are lucky then your loved-ones will laugh it off as an amusing eccentricity.

I can't help but wonder, though, if they were not non-league footballers, would City's players be giving up their Saturdays to travel to places like Bishop's Stortford or Thurrock? Would they be travelling, like, me in a replica kit, clutching banners and a packed lunch? I don't mean to question their loyalty. I just get the feeling that they are a lot cooler than the die hard element of their support. It is the sort of thing you become aware of when you see a player in the bar after a match wearing a smart shirt and tie, or a dapper earth tone ensemble, and you are wearing a garish black and white striped shirt with matching hat and scarf.

And so I entered Clackett Lane services with some trepidation. The first thing I saw was City's manager Adie Britton reclining on a coin operated massaging chair, smiling and laughing with a couple players. I kind of wanted to walk up and share in the joke, but I couldn't for the life of me think of what to say to a football manager while he received a mechanical massage. 'Great for getting rid of those pre-match nerves, huh Adie?' or, 'Bet you'd love to have one of these chairs back at Twerton Park?' Adie is a nice man and I didn't think he deserved to be bored to death before leading the team into an important contest.

Further on, the rest of the players stood in a circle outside of WH Smith's. I felt like the awkward girl at the school dance as I headed in their direction: simultaneously hoping to be recognized and to pass by unnoticed. I skirted round them cautiously, self-consciously clad head to toe in Bath City merchandise, and headed for the crisps rack. I employed a forced nod and half-smile when I made eye-contact.

As I stood queueing for the checkout I realised there was another layer of awkwardness I hadn't given much though to before. A couple places ahead of me in the queue stood Marcus Browning. The veteran City midfielder has been the subject of a considerable amount of criticism from supporters this season. I consider myself lucky that this season I haven't had many occasions to write anything critical about City players, but Browning is an exception. I didn't hold back when I described his theatrics that led to a straight red card against Hampton back in September. Would he have read it? Would he know who I am? It seemed highly unlikely, but I couldn't help but feel a little bit guilty as he stood only a few feet away. He is not some sort of unapproachable Premiership star. He is a normal guy like me in the queue at Smith's. Who am I to take him to task on a public website that could be ready by anyone? What if his mother read it?

As we passed each other at the exit Browning gave me the same awkward nod-and-smile combo I had given the other players a few minutes earlier. I felt a small wave of guilt and carried on. I walked past that same group of players and tried to pretend we were all just fellow travellers stopping at a motorway services (admittedly, though I blew it when I stopped to take their picture).

Back in the safety of the supporters coach I began to relax again. For the rest of the day there would be reassuring boundaries between me and my heroes. There might be an embrace after a goal celebration, but even then there would be a wall separating us. I shuddered, though, when I though about what it would be like to come across the players like that on the return drive after a dispiriting defeat. Or what if I had gone into the men's room and found myself standing at a urinal next to Chris Holland? Would it be possible to wee while standing next to Chris Holland? It made what I had just gone through seem tame in comparison.

The surprising thing I've had to face since becoming a Bath City supporter is that I want a bit of distance between me and the players I adore. It is surprising to me because during an entire childhood of worshiping athletes from afar, I always assumed that it would be much better to worship them from short range. The reality, though, is that it can be a bit embarrassing (and maybe a bit creepy for the players). The obvious solution is not to diefy the players, but just to treat them like the normal people that they are. I can't help but wonder, though, if that wouldn't take all the fun out of it.

As I write this I wonder if this awkwardness I feel is maybe just unique to me. Perhaps I have just brought hang-ups with me from following large American sports teams. If I had grown up being much closer to the people I pay to watch would this whole non-league experience seem normal now? Maybe. There is in fact one player I have had contact with who has been so relaxed, and so unassuming, I can't help but wonder if the awkwardness I sense is just something I've made up.

I am speaking of the Bath City captain, Jim Rollo. I contacted him on Facebook once (as I do with players from time to time to clarify points for this blog, and always with great caution). He sent me a very helpful reply. He then, much to my surprise, requested to be my 'friend'. Also, perhaps uniquely in the history of sports, he has signed up as a member of the Bath City supporters group known as 'the Legion.' He sends us encouraging messages when he thinks we've done a good job cheering the team on. When we send out group invitations on Facebook to find out which of us is going to which match, we always find that Jim Rollo has confirmed that he will be attending (and to be fair, he does attend every match). It is really an incident that happened offline, though, that I think is most telling. It is perhaps my favourite ever Bath City moment, even though I wasn't even present to witness it.

City were drawn against League Two club Grimsby Town in the first round proper of the FA Cup this season. As this was a visit by a non-league club to a league ground, it was possibly the most important match many of City's players will play in their entire careers. City's program editor, Mark Stillman, also acts as one of the club's photographers, and he managed to secure a media pass to patrol the sidelines during the match. It was an especially big day for Mark, because besides watching his beloved Bath City try to force an upset against league opposition, it was also his birthday.

A few minutes after City took the lead in the first half off of a Chris Holland header, the ball was struck into the crowd by a Grimsby player. Mark got ahold of the ball, and Rollo came towards him gesturing that he wanted it to take the throw. As he did this he said, 'yes Mark, Happy Birthday.' Rollo threw the ball in, and then resumed playing the match of his life.

This is the type of story that makes non-league football so appealing. Of course, this appeal relies on exactly the sort of encounter between fans and player that is potentially so uncomfortable. Personally, I've decided I'm going to have to get used to it. I want to spend my Saturdays cheering normal, genuine people instead of Premiership prima donnas. If that means that occasionally I end up feeling like a dork when I speak to some of them, so be it. I will, however, draw the line at taking a wee while standing next to Chris Holland. That would just be taking things too far.

The Thugs with Laundry Issues Go Down

Bath City defeated Thurrock 1-0 at Twerton Park Saturday. Despite the rather tame sounding scoreline, it was a momentous victory for City. I will get to why it was so important in a moment. Before then I will pause to take a few digs at Thurrock. It is too tempting to resist.

Thurrock are a relatively recently formed football club, having entered the already crowded London-area football scene in 1985. Here are some other things that happened in 1985: Ian Wright made his League debut with Crystal Palace. Ryan Giggs singed for the Manchester United youth program. Jim Rollo (Bath City's captain) celebrated his ninth birthday. Considering that most of City's opponents were founded in the obscurity of the 19th century, Thurrock is a relative tot in comparison. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. Two very prominent non-league clubs have recent foundings: AFC Wimbledon and FC United. These clubs were formed in response to a groundswell of local support, though. Were any local fans annimated at the prospect of Thurrock's appearance in 1985? Was there an army of potential non-league fans left unsatisfied by local clubs Grays Athletic, Hornchurch or Eton Manor? Oh wait, there was also
View Larger Map Dartford and Gravesend & Northfleet just across the Thames. Oh, and of course East Thurrock United! How could I forget East Thurrock United? So, upon its forming Thurrock FC was able to draw upon the vast army of non-league football fans from the eastern London suburbs not already loyal to Grays Athletic, Hornchurch, Eton Manor, Dartford, Gravesend & Northfleet OR East Thurrock United. How many supporters was that?

It turns out to be not many. But don't worry, the fans that Thurrock has attracted since the year Angie and Dirty Den opened the Queen Vic (1985!) are a plucky bunch. Let's have a look at a rare thread from the Official Thurrock Football Club Forum about the upcoming match against Bath City:

Tony Flood, the Thurrock FC press officer wrote:

'Who else is making the journey to the wonderful city of Bath this weekend?! Hopefully as many of you as possible will be there to sing your lungs out!!'

A respondent known as 'BUM' replied:

'Should be a decent turnout by the sounds of it, there are 11 people going that I know of so far. They'll probably have segregation at this rate.'

That just about sums up Thurrock. In the end there were in fact twelve of them. Not counting club officials. And they did sing their lungs out. Kind of made you think that if all of the non-league fans from that part of the Thames estuary weren't split among a dozen rivals, they could make up a pretty amazing club together. Oh well.

Okay, I'll admit there is something childish about making fun of Thurrock. It is mean-spirited, I suppose, to taunt such an open target. Kind of like making fun of the fat kid, or Weston-super-Mare. I'd better talk about the match.

There is a chap named Jeremy I gossip with before most home matches. He is a level-headed sort of fellow who is able to say something full of football wisdom in almost any situation. As I chatted to him on Saturday Jeremy was of the opinion that a draw against Thurrock would be a very good result for City. As usual, it was hard to fault his logic.

Despite Thurrock only being spared relegation last season because of the financial collapse of Team Bath, they have been near the top of the table for most of this campaign. They were coming to Twerton Park having been defeated only once in their last eight matches. The previous match had been an 8-2 shellacking of fellow playoff hopefuls, Eastleigh. Of course, City were entering the match with an eight game unbeaten streak themselves. This seemed reassuring, until you remembered that City's last defeat was nine matches ago when they lost 3-1 to.....Thurrock.

So, it was with a healthy dose of trepidation that I watched the teams emerge from the tunnel and engage in the pre-game formalities. The City players we had cheered at the end of the Welling match seven days previously had seemed invincible. Now, as I watched them line up against another club, I couldn't help but fret about how fragile their playoff hopes were. This inability to think rationally during matches is why I've never been tempted to pursue a career in football management (that, and the fact that I really don't know much about football compared to the average English twelve-year-old).

Perhaps because of my relative ignorance of the intricacies of football strategy, I often focus on the trivialities that surround the game. As the match kicked off I was intrigued by Thurrock's uniforms. Rather than wearing the club's traditional colours of green and gold (which would have provided ample contrast with City's black and white stripes) they were sporting their away kit of claret and blue. I couldn't remember seeing a club using claret and blue for a 'change kit' before. Perhaps they were hoping to draw a few errant supporters from their Premiership neighbours West Ham? Then I noticed that the Blue Square South league patches on their shirts were in fact white squares (the square patches should have been, fairly obviously, blue). This is a club that should switch to non-biological washing powder, I thought. Or maybe these uniforms were actually knock-off West Ham kits bought from an East End market trader that the club had then altered? But that doesn't explain the faded Blue Square South patch, I realised. West Ham shirts, even counterfeit ones, wouldn't have had those. No, it must be the washing powder...

I was woken from my contemplation by a powerful shot by City striker Kaid Mohamed. I had been paying attention, actually. My mind, or one section of it, had only been allowed to wander a bit because the muscular City midfield once again appeared perfectly capable of cutting off any opposition attack. I stayed pretty focused after Mohamed's shot, though. City were playing like they might score any minute.

Three minutes later, in fact, Lewis Hogg had an almost unmissable shot in front of an open goal. Mark Badman made a fantastic pass to the unmarked Hogg as he rushed into the six yard box. Unfortunately, I had to call the shot 'almost unmissable' for a reason. Hogg missed. It was his first match back after a suspension, though. And he is normally a totally reliable player. Along with the rest of the crowd, I quickly forgave him.

More action was to follow, although this time it was nothing to do with goals. Not content with a desperate lack of supporters, a lack of footballing history, and a regretful choice of washing powder, the Thurrock players decided to give the City supporters some additional reasons to despise them. With spikes showing, Thurrock's Rob Swaine launched a vicious tackle on City's Adam Connolly near the Thurrock bench. Both benches emptied and several scuffles nearly started as Connolly received medical treatment. We all held our breath. Eventually Connolly was able to get up, and he rejoined the match moments later. Match referee Lee Collins decided the fairest outcome would be to give a yellow card to players on both teams. That'll show 'em!

Except it didn't. Thurrock continued to behave like thugs throughout the match. With time, they also managed some spectacular diving screams as well. Yellow cards continued to be handed out by Collins throughout the match, although he was meticulous in making sure no Thurrock player go more than one.

The fates soon made up for the justice Mr. Collins was unwilling to disperse, however, when Rob Swaine helped to gift City the goal that won the match. A long, looping clearance from Chris Holland landed with a high bounce between Swaine and City striker Darren Edwards. City's other striker, Kaid Mohamed, was on the wrong side of the Thurrock defensive line when the ball was struck, so he ran non-chalantly away from the goal to avoid an offside call. Swaine, misinterpreting Mohamed's position as offside, stopped his run and raised his arm, indicating that he was expecting the referee to blow his whistle. All this did, though, was allow Edwards a free run at the goal. The two remaining defenders, who had not been influenced by Swaine's gaffe, were too far away to bring any meaningful pressure on the City striker. Edwards scored, the crowd went wild, and the gods of football were appeased. Thurrock manager, Hakan Hayrettin, moaned a lot after the match about how Mohamed had actually been offside. If I follow his logic correctly, he seemed to think that when Mohamed had been running away from the ball he had actually been making an attempt to get to the ball, just very, very badly.

For the second match in a row City entered the interval with a 1-0 lead over an in-form team. There were a lot of parallels with the Welling match, in fact, by the end of the day. In both matches City made good teams look completely ordinary. In both matches City controlled the game so effectively they really should have scored more goals. In both matches City keeper Ryan Robinson kept a clean sheet (and this time thanks to an excellent reflex save at sixty-eight minutes). In both matches Hector Mackie and David Gilroy made cameo appearances in the closing minutes that made you wonder how such gifted players weren't making the starting lineup. The only real difference was that against Welling the combo of Mackie and Gilroy got a goal. Against Thurrock they came desperately close.

And there was one more similarity. When the final whistle blew both the City players and supporters celebrated with pure joy. Although the victory had in the end seemed a bit routine, we all knew it was a real accomplishment. City's appearance towards the top of the table was not a flash in the pan. They had seen off yet another fellow-contender. The run for a playoff spot was for real. City is a team with no one to fear, everything to play for, and nice crisp colours on their uniforms. Bring on Eastleigh!

Thursday 4 March 2010

Ee-ai-ee-ai-ee-ai-oh, Up the Conference South We Go! Part 2

You can read Part 1 of this article here.

By the time all of the Bath City fans had resettled themselves behind the High Street Goal the match had already been underway for a couple minutes. There wasn't room for our gigantic white ensign, but the rest of the flags were hung as visibly as possible and we got down to the serious business of cheering the team on. We began with 'We are the Bath,' and 'We Love You City.' There was no response from the Welling supporters. It looked like we had the ground to ourselves, at least as far as noisemaking goes.

Things were not so one-sided on the pitch. Neither team looked very dangerous in the first twenty minutes. As it often the case, City's strong midfield was able to hold the oppostion at bay, but this was not resulting in many goal-scoring opportunities. I find in these sorts of matches I get kind of comfortable, but it is the sort of comfortable that makes me very uneasy when I realise I'm getting comfortable (I suspect if you are a football fan that makes sense. If you are not a football fan you probably think I need therapy. And you are probably right).

There was one worrying thing for City fans in the opening stages, though, and that was Mark Badman. It took several of us, including me, several minutes to realise the player getting onto the ref's naughty list was Mark Badman. His newly-shaven head made him very hard to recognize. I heard more than one supporter say, 'Who's the new guy?' But it wasn't a questionable choice in grooming that concerned me (I am no one to cast stones), but rather the attention he was getting from the official. He got an early yellow, and a few minutes later, in the presence of captain Jim Rollo, he appeared to get a 'final warning.' It would have been a disaster if he got sent off, so he was going to have to play cautiously for as long as he remained on the pitch. The concerning thing, and one of the reasons he is so popular with the fans, is that it is almost impossible to imagine Badman playing cautiously. Fortunately he did managed to go the rest of the match without another card (much to the frustration of the handful of vocal Welling supporters).

Despite our worries about Badman, City's attack became more and more threatening as the half progressed. Welling keeper Charlie Mitten was given several opportunities to show his skills. He was forced to block shots from both Darren Edwards and Kaid Mohamed. An objective observer would have probably surmised that City was on the verge of taking the lead, but I am no objective observer. I found Mitten's stops extremely frustrating. I could only see squandered chances and half chances, which City might not get again. I suppose it is hard to see the full picture when you are cheering yourself hoarse on the goal line.

As it turns out, cheering myself hoarse on the goal line made it hard to even see the picture right in front of me. Adie Harris found Mohamed wide on the right. I was standing on the fence between Mohamed and the net. Seeing that his angle was too tight to take a shot, I turned away from Mohamed to my right towards the goal, expecting to see a cross come into the six-yard box. Then, in my peripheral vision, I saw the ball come from my left, skirt along the ground, and go just far enough to the left to avoid Mitten's outstretched hands (but not so far left as to go wide of the post). I didn't understand what had happened at first, but eventually I realised that the angle was not too tight for Kaid Mohamed. It was a superb goal, and once I finished scratching my head I joined in the riotous goal celebration that was happening along the fence.

Halftime arrived and found the hundred or so Bath City supporters in fine mood. No one thought a single goal lead was sufficient, but it had been encouraging to see how well Welling United's attack had been contained. Needing to prepare for the second half, the Legion packed up and headed back to the 'far goal' side.

Halfway around the pitch, as we walked in front of the Erith stand, I was struck by a very strange sensation. The oddness of Park View Road felt even odder, but I was struggling to identify it. Then I realised what the problem was: total silence. There was no music coming of the sound system, no hustle-and-bustle-of crowds, no banter among groups of supporters. The smattering of Welling supporters seated in the Erith stand were sat quietly with their hands folded in their laps. Any noise the City supporters made was met with total silence. I would not have been totally surprised if a librarian had marched up to us, put a finger on her lips, and said, 'Shhhhhh!'

The major challenge that the Legion faced during the interval was how to hang our white ensign. It was too large to drape from the fence that skirted the pitch. The corrugated fence behind us did not offer anything to loop the ties through. Or so we thought, until one ingenious legionairre climbed up on top of it and somehow managed to fasten the flag in place. This took several minutes, and I wondered if any Welling club officials would come and try and stop us. To their credit they left us alone, although it may have just been due to a reluctance to disrupt the dreamy silence of the halftime interval.

The second half began, and much to our delight, City began where they had left off: threatening the Welling goal. Much more apparent to me this half was how valuable Adam Connolly was to City's efforts. He has a blistering shot from twenty yards or so (as Weymouth had learned the previous week), but he must be a very frustrating player to defend against even when he isn't shooting. He manages to completely control the top of the penalty box by, as far as I can tell, being everywhere at once. Or so it seems to me, anyway. He nearly had more dead-ball success as well, when two of his kicks reached the normally-lethal forehead of Chris Holland.

At about an hour into the match Welling finally began to rouse themselves back into a half-decent attack. They did in fact manage to hit the crossbar on a couple of occasions. I began to get worried because City appeared to be sitting very deep. Although before the match every City fan I spoke to said they would be happy with a draw, after an hour of watching City run Welling ragged we all felt differently. We would now all be crushed if City came away with less than three points. Crushed, I say, but not surprised. Football is notoriously unpredictable. The only predicable thing is that you will regularly get your heart broken.

Except not this time! Rather than just sit back and try to soak up the pressure for the last half hour, City still kept attacking when given the opportunity. For a split second it looked like City had succeeded with an attack: Adam Connolly's free kick bounced around for a bit before landing right in front of Darren Edwards a yard from the goal line. Under pressure, Edwards headed it forcefully, but it struck the post. This was only feet away from where we stood behind the goal. I don't think any of the City fans felt the disappointment any less than Edwards did.

Speaking of the City fans, the second half of the match was an important performance for us as well. Although we had been vocal throughout the first half, we sang almost without a pausing after the interval. Unlike most behind-the-goal terraces, the 'far end' goal at Park View Road is raised above the pitch. Standing all together in a group, shouting almost from on top of the Welling keeper, it felt like we were calling the City players forward into the goal. And I am sure with our flags waving and our non-stop chanting we probably annoyed the heck out of the somulent Welling supporters. Oh well.

In the closing minutes of the match Adie Britton made two substitutions. On came the newly signed Hector 'Yellow Shoes' Mackie, and the new loanee Dave Gilroy. Last season when Gilroy was a signed City player he was sometimes accused of complacency. Whether that was fair or not, you could not say that about him now. He strides around the pitch now like he is going to pop if he doesn't score a goal. In the closing moments of the match he earned a good reason not to pop for a while.

Welling won a corner and keeper Charlie Mitten decided to give up defending for a moment and have a go at scoring. Thankfully it came to nothing, but gave him a lot of acreage to cover when City cleared the ball. The ball was collected by a Welling defender, but Gilroy managed to pry it loose and pass the ball forward to Mackie.

Mackie now had the ball just over the halfway line, with only a quickly retreating keeper between him and the goal. It is one of those moments when you know your team should score, but as this is non-league football, you know it is far from guaranteed. Besides, Mitten had shown throughout the match that he is a cool-headed keeper who would not panic. And as Mackie was a new signing, no one really knew if he was a quality finisher or not. He wasn't billed as a striker, so it didn't seem like a sure thing. I thought to myself, as Mackie advance towards us, that at least this would take some time off the clock.

From just inside the penalty box Mackie executed a superb, unselfish cross past the flailing Mitten to Gilroy. Where had Gilroy come from? I had been too intent watching Mackie to notice him. He slotted the ball into the goal and made the whole thing look easy.

Forty-five minutes of cheering in hope consumated into thirty seconds of wild screaming in celebration. For the first time we broke into our new song:
Up the Conference South we go!
When we get promoted,
This is what we'll sing,
We are City! We are City!
Britton is our king!
Sure, it's a variation of a song league supporters sing all the time, but for us, working out the lyrics of a song in advance and then singing it all together at the right time was a real accomplishment. The Legion are getting more and more organised.

The match ended moments later. We stayed in place until we had sung our new song several more times, and until we had had a chance to show our appreciation to the team. As it turned out, they came out onto the field to show their appreciation to us. Led by Adie Britton they all came out onto the pitch and clapped us until they reached the edge of the penalty box (and then they wisely stopped - we were all in a bit of a frenzy!).

Welling, who had been on an eight match unbeaten run beforehand, had been made to look ordinary. City's victory would surely, for the first time, lift the team into the playoff spots (third place as it turned out). It was also City's first victory at Park View Road since promotion to the Blue Square South two seasons previously. There were so many things to be excited about, it was hard to realise that we had to go home now.