Bath were up against it on this glorious summer afternoon in September, hosting league leaders Dartford. The visitors arrived at Twerton Park in fine form, with four straight victories and already on track to fulfil their preseason promotion prediction.
Since my last trip to see City, a comprehensive 3-0 win over Billericay, the Romans have stumbled. A good win away at Tonbridge Angels was followed by a close loss at home to Chelmsford, then an unpleasant 5-1 thrashing away to Oxford City. Jerry Gill’s side were keen to put those losses behind them and a big crowd was on hand to push the home team forwards, with over 1,137 supporters packed into the ground.
I was joined on this day by a blog regular, Tranmere-supporting Matt, who was in town to accompany me for a trip to Twerton. Matt has been to see City a few times and we rarely need an excuse to watch a match together. With the weather so wonderful, we enjoyed pre-match ice creams, to really make the most of these dwindling summer days. Caleb was in attendance too, of course, and met us on the terrace as the game kicked off.
City had a couple of new faces in the squad since my last visit, with Bristol City loanees Josh Owers and Marlee Francois now donning the stripes. Dartford, in a luminous pink Puma kit, had one familiar name on their team sheet that jumped out at me instantly; Jack Jebb, formerly of Arsenal’s academy, was in the Darts’ midfield to pull their strings.
We had barely settled into our positions when the action got underway. Dartford got off to a fast start and came close to taking the lead within a couple of minutes. A cross from the right wing somehow found its way to Dartford striker and National League South veteran Jake Robinson. His point blank effort was superbly saved by Ryan Clarke but the ball still bounced goalwards. And yet, Robinson’s secondary prodded shot fell harmlessly wide. Our group let out an audible sigh of relief.
Five minutes later and it was City in the ascendancy, and they should have found themselves ahead. Midfielder Tom Smith saw the ball fall to him on the edge of the area and his attempt was cleared off the line by Dartford captain Tom Bonner. Bath continued to play well and had another great chance, when midfielder Omar Holness was put in the clear by an Alex Fletcher pass. Holness’ bursting run from deep found him with just the ‘keeper to beat but his shot crashed low off the outside of the post. The three of us in the stands put our hands to our heads in disbelief – the Romans should have been ahead twice already.
It was a wake up call for Dartford. After two near-misses they went up a gear, and soon established control of the game. With just under half an hour played an uncharacteristic mistake by Bath captain Ben Gerring allowed Robinson to cross to an unmarked Ade Azeez. The striker’s close range header hit Clarke on its way in and Dartford were 1-0 ahead.
The visitors continued to show their quality. With the end of the first half in sight, Dartford doubled their advantage. Jebb curled in a shot from outside the box that was destined for the top corner but Clarke’s acrobatic save denied him. Sadly, the ball was only cleared to Azeez at the back post, who instantly hooked the ball back into danger and Robinson was there to head home to make it 2-0.
It was a big blow for Bath, at the worst possible time. Jebb almost made it 3-0 with a shot that went narrowly over the bar in injury time. Thankfully the referee blew his whistle to bring an end to the suffering. During the break we discussed the early chances City had and how Dartford recovered well to take over the game.
We were in agreement about one thing – City needed a change, in personnel or approach.
It wasn’t all bad though, because Caleb knew I had enjoyed my birthday recently. He generously gifted me a copy of ‘Football in Sun and Shadow’ by Eduardo Galeano, a classic among football books that I cannot wait to dig into.
I didn’t have very long to browse my new book as the match soon got started again. City needed to mount a response to reduce their two-goal deficit and within seconds of the restart Fletcher and Cody Cooke combined to sting the gloves of the Dartford goalkeeper. A City corner then found the head of the young loanee Francois, who got free of his marker but saw his headed attempt blocked on the line by Jebb.
Francois was involved again just moments later when his cross found Fletcher fifteen yards from goal. Fletcher unleashed a vicious shot that was well saved but the rebound fell to Holness, whose diving header was chested off the line by Dartford captain Bonner. Protests for handball were quickly dismissed by the referee. The match had only gotten back underway for a handful of minutes but Bath had enjoyed multiple chances to get back into the tie.
City’s pressure continued to increase and with half an hour remaining they got the goal they so desperately needed. Cooke followed the flight of a long pass and out-jumped his defenders to win the header, nodding the ball into the path of Fletcher. City’s number 7 had the perfect first touch, twisted between two defenders with his fast feet, and shot past the ‘keeper to send the home fans into rapture. It was an outstanding goal, full of poise and composure. From my vantage I was pleading to Fletcher, “shoot, please SHOOT” during each turn and feint, but I needn’t have worried.
Dartford were on the ropes and the roar of the home crowd only helped cement City’s dominance. Moments later Fletcher should have levelled the score but saw his header wide. Dartford almost put the game beyond reach against the run of play but Azeez was stopped by the impressive Clarke.
With less than fifteen minutes remaining City had their best opportunity to bring the score level. Francois, my player of the game and a menace all afternoon, attacked the Dartford left back with a strong drive to the byline. With some cute stepovers and his deadly pace, Francois beat his man and crossed to Cooke. The City striker found himself unmarked with only the keeper to beat but Cooke couldn’t control the speed of the cross and turned the ball over the bar.
Cooke stayed down with his face in the grass for a few seconds, as the weight of the miss clearly dawned on him. We couldn’t believe it either. I looked at Matt and Caleb, and the fans around me, and I knew that was a huge game-changing moment.
Five minutes later Cooke had a chance to make amends, put in the clear by Smith, but his poked shot was well saved. It was not going to be Cooke’s day.
Nor was it going to be Bath’s. A City free kick with less than ten minutes remaining was cleared by the Dartford defence and a counter attack was initiated. Dartford raced the length of the pitch and substitute George Porter had an easy task to turn and shoot to put his team 3-1 ahead. Game over.
The final whistle followed soon after and despite the result, I felt no anger, no sadness, not even disappointment. I had witnessed a thoroughly entertaining contest between two excellent sides. Dartford took their chances and City were wasteful, but it was enjoyable viewing nonetheless.
We applauded the players and coaches, who’d worked so hard to get back into the game after a poor first half. Those final 45 minutes provided plenty of positives, enough for me not to worry about three consecutive losses.
They say form is temporary, class is permanent. In my opinion City showed enough class against a strong Dartford team to dispel any worries about where they’re headed this season.
We’ll be back at Twerton Park to follow them again, that’s for sure.