Swindon Town vs Tranmere Rovers

Robins victorious as Rovers see red at the County Ground

Saturday the 18th of August marked the third match I’ve attended this month, which is a remarkable statistic for me. For fans who can follow their team every weekend, home and away, three games in one month might not seem anything to write home about, but for me it’s significant, as unfortunately I’m not always available to travel to as many games as I’d perhaps like. As a non-London dwelling Arsenal fan, it’s not financially viable to watch them in the flesh very often.

Nevertheless, I found myself in Swindon for my first Tranmere Rovers game of the new season. Rovers, my adopted team from Birkenhead, have had a solid start to life back in the football league, and arrived at Swindon’s County Ground with 4 points from their first two games, including a home win against Cheltenham last week.

Matt, my life-long Tranmere-supporting friend and chief enabler of my Rovers fandom, had managed to get us a pair of tickets in the away end for the day, thus marking my first official game as a travelling member of the SWA (Super White Army for those not accustomed to the Tranmere faithful). It was my first time seeing Tranmere since their promotion to League Two, and I was excited to see the familiar faces in Micky Mellon’s squad, as well as some of the new additions.

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That fateful day the ten men of Tranmere were victorious at Wembley, two thoughts went through my mind; The first, I’m afraid to admit, was my excitement at getting to play with them on this year’s edition of FIFA. The second, and more important, was my newfound access to see the Rovers in person.

Their promotion to League Two has given me the opportunity to see them at Cheltenham, Newport, Exeter, and a few more grounds in the southwest this season. Unfortunately I’m only going to visit Prenton Park maybe once or twice a year, but now I have the chance to see the Rovers away from home on a more regular basis. Their game against Swindon was the first fixture I circled on my calendar, and I was glad it came so early on in the season.

I caught a midday London-bound train and met Matt at Swindon station. The walk to the County Ground was very short and simple, and upon arrival we bought lunch from one of the burger vans close to the Arkell’s Stand. As is my custom, I picked up a matchday programme from a lovely lady at her stand, and we had a brief chat about both team’s chances before kick-off. Every member of staff we met could not have been nicer, so credit to Swindon Town for being such great hosts.

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As we made our way toward the away supporter’s Bar 71, we spotted Dave, editor of Tranmere fanzine Give Us An R. Upon our approach he already had his arm outstretched holding the latest issue and was nice enough to give me a copy. Issue 119 features my matchday report from April’s home win against Aldershot, so if you’re at a Tranmere game this year make sure you pick it up and continue supporting fanzines like GUAR. Print is not dead and we should do everything we can to keep football fanzines alive.

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We entered the relatively small bar about an hour before kick-off and caught the end of Cardiff vs Newcastle, the day’s early game. Matt and I enjoyed a Peroni each (£10.40 for two pints though) whilst watching Newcastle’s Kenedy miss an abysmal last-minute penalty, and half an hour later we made the short climb up into the stands to find a perch for the match. Our £23 tickets gave us our choice of seats and since we’d arrived whilst the players were still going through warm-ups, we had the pick of vantage points. The Arkell’s Stand had a narrow stanchion slightly obstructing our sightline but we made sure to choose seats so it didn’t impact our view of the goals.

The match got underway and Tranmere instantly put down a marker that they would not be one of those newly-promoted sides who would merely lay down and roll over. Within ten minutes they had taken the lead.

On the edge of the Swindon penalty area, striker James Norwood split the defence with a ball into Connor Jennings, entering from the left wing. Jennings opened his body to play a pass across the box, that the outstretched forward Cole Stockton narrowly missed converting. Thankfully Jonny Smith, on loan from Bristol City, arrived from the opposite wing unmarked to tap the ball home at the back post to give Tranmere a deserved 1-0 lead. The SWA were in full voice for the celebrations and every fan around us was ecstatic.

Tranmere didn’t relent and were able to double their lead just three minutes later. A goal-kick from ‘keeper Scott Davies reached the head of Stockton, whose neat flick-on found Norwood. The Tranmere number ten got goalside of his defender and used the outside of his right boot to slide the ball beyond the Swindon goalie Lawrence Vigouroux to make it 2-0. We couldn’t believe our luck, to have such a commanding lead after less than quarter of an hour, away from home. Norwood already has 4 league goals this season, and has thoroughly embraced his status as Tranmere talisman.

Our jubilation wasn’t to last though. Just five minutes later Jay Harris, the tenacious Rovers midfielder, made a shocking “tackle” on Swindon’s Martin Smith and the referee pulled out his red card without any hesitation. From where I was sat, I could only see Harris’ back, and didn’t see at the time just how high he planted his foot on Smith’s leg. It was a reckless and needless challenge, and became the turning point in the game.

From that point on, Tranmere fell apart. The visitors had been in complete control and looked set to put more goals past Swindon, whose fans had grown more and more restless. Now with an extra man in midfield, the Robins began to impose themselves.

Just a couple of minutes after Harris was dismissed, Swindon struck. Striker Elijah Adebayo, on-loan from Fulham, got the better of Rovers right back Jake Caprice and poked home to get his side back in the game. Adebayo was a menace all afternoon and was Swindon’s best player by a country mile. His goal was well taken but his build-up play and ball retention impressed me even more. The youngster was almost unplayable once Tranmere were reduced to ten men.

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Rovers did well to make it to half time with their lead intact but could only stave off the Swindon pressure for so long. With an hour gone the hosts easily bypassed the Rovers’ defence and a simple ball across the box was swept home by Marc Richards for the Swindon equaliser. It felt inevitable to be honest, as Tranmere had spent so long doing their best to repel attack after attack.

The players were exhausted from the effort, and this was no more evident than when Jonny Smith, probably Tranmere’s most positive player of the day, burst onto a loose ball in the middle of the park and nearly had a one-on-one with the Swindon keeper, before kind of giving up on it. He was undoubtedly knackered and you could tell he could give no more. The impressive 21 year-old was substituted directly after, but the signs are there for him to be a big player for Tranmere this season.

In the 72nd minute the Swindon comeback was complete, but it was a catastrophic goal to concede. From a corner, Steven Alzate was afforded too much space on the left side of the penalty area and his low cross was met by Robins defender Joe Romanski. The 18 year-old centre back, in an attempt to control the ball, smashed it off both shins and the ball trickled past the wrong-footed Davies in goal, softly nestling in the back of the net. Even with a man down, it was an awful goal to give away and the Tranmere players were furious.

Sadly, so were a minority of the away fans behind us, who let the red mist get the better of them. It’s not the sort of behaviour you want to see at football, and it has no place in the game anymore. The Swindon fans we spoke to after the game could not have been nicer, and hopefully the little scuffle didn’t diminish their opinion of the majority of us.

Despite the result, I enjoyed my first away day with Tranmere and eagerly await my next trip to see them play. Before Harris received his marching orders, they had looked the superior team and if they can continue to display that sort of form, the Rovers should have no problem competing at this level. Centre back Mark Ellis was my standout player of the day, and looked exceptional in the heart of the Tranmere defence. He rarely looked overmatched and dealt with everything that came his way.

We applauded the team off the pitch and made our exit, managing to grab a train home that got us to the pub in time to see most of the Arsenal game away at Chelsea.

What are the odds that both of your teams lose 3-2 on the same day? Sometimes it’s just not meant to be.

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Bath City FC vs Gloucester City

Tuesday Night Lights at Twerton Park

A warm summer’s evening at the football isn’t a bad way to conclude your average Tuesday, and so it was that I found myself at Twerton Park, home of Bath City FC, for my first game there this season. The home side welcomed Gloucester City, their local rivals an hour north away, up the M5.

Sadly I hadn’t managed to get to Twerton Park since March, when I shivered through ninety minutes of a 1-0 loss to Eastbourne Borough. The game was a rearranged fixture caused by the heavy snowfall we experienced earlier this year, yet I was still unprepared for just how cold it would be. Thankfully the weather this time was much more forgiving, and despite this summer’s heatwave having left our shores, it was still a really pleasant evening, and perfect conditions for the players.

Somehow I had managed to convince a small group of my work colleagues to attend the game, so we had a good mix of football veterans and virgins in attendance.

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Before arriving at the ground we stopped by Moorland Road, one of Bath’s hidden treasures on the outskirts of the city. If you ever get the chance to visit Bath, it is well worth taking the time to visit Moorland Road in the heart of Oldfield Park, host to a number of great places to grab some quality food. Our group were in the mood for burgers, and the recently opened Magu Burger Diner was our restaurant of choice. We washed down our excellent burgers with a pre-match pint in the Velo Lounge before walking the short distance to Twerton Park, just 10-15 minutes away.

Once we squeezed through the turnstiles and found our spot on the terrace, Caleb and I (the “regulars”) proceeded to introduce the first-timers in our group to the rustic charm of Bath City’s old fashioned ground. The 8,880 capacity stadium certainly has a lot of character to it, and is a world away from what many expect a football ground to be (if you’ve only ever watched the Premier League on television at least.) This is most definitely a good thing, as your access to the players and your proximity to the pitch is unparallelled.

With the 2018/19 Vanarama National League South season just three games old, Bath were playing at home for only the second time, so I was glad to catch them so early this year. After opening their campaign with tough (and undeserved) losses to Dartford and Torquay United, the Romans picked up their first points away to Hampton & Richmond Borough at the weekend, with a gritty 1-0 win. Gloucester began the evening with the same record as Bath, with two defeats and a win in their opening trio of games, but were coming off the back of a home loss to Slough Town. Last season Bath dispatched Gloucester 5-1 in the same fixture, so the omens were positive as the match got underway.

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The worst thing that can happen when you take fledgling football fans to a game is to witness a dour 0-0. If it rains as well, you are really in trouble. Thankfully, any fears I had of this happening were to put to rest by the home side, who ensured we got our money’s worth with a fast start.

Just three minutes into the game, City captain and left back Anthony Straker put a pinpoint cross on the head of Ryan Brunt to nod home and give Bath an early 1-0 lead. It was absolutely textbook and would be the most successful tactic Bath would use all night; get the ball on the head of the big fella.

Brunt didn’t have to wait long for his second, when he struck again in the twentieth minute to effectively put the game beyond Gloucester’s reach. Bristol-born midfielder James Morton played a perfectly weighted ball into Brunt’s path and the towering forward easily guided the ball past the Gloucester ‘keeper to make it 2-0.

Brunt is a recent addition to the Bath squad, having joined this summer. The 25 year-old was signed by manager Jerry Gill after his release from Exeter City, and has played for Bristol Rovers and Plymouth Argyle in the past. The eventual Man-of-the-Match was an absolute menace for the Gloucester defence and his movement, hold-up play, and ability to attack crosses really impressed me. If Bath can keep Brunt fit and firing, they stand to have a quality player this year.

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In the second half Bath continued their barrage and domination, and put the result beyond doubt with half an hour left in the game. Ross Stearn, City’s tricky winger and another local lad, had been pushing for a goal every chance he got and was finally rewarded when he fired a low shot past the ‘keeper to make it 3-0. Stearn really relished the goal, and celebrated right in front of us.

Gloucester were unable to match Bath’s intensity all night, and their midfield was entirely bypassed by Bath’s ability to exploit the wings. The home side were able to use their width to stretch Gloucester constantly, with Stearn and the young right back Joe Raynes able to get into great areas. Both men were particularly impressive throughout the entire game and really stood out for their work rate. Raynes and the rest of the defensive line were rarely troubled by the underwhelming Gloucester forwards.

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Bath were able to continue creating chances until the final whistle blew, and the locals applauded their team off the field after a comprehensive 3-0 display. The fans around us in the second half were in great voice, and it made for a brilliant atmosphere.

The football-aesthetic obsessive in me must make a quick comment about Bath’s kit this season, a bespoke effort from Errea that I am a massive fan of. The red trim on the collar, sleeves and shorts really makes it, a top effort this year. City look the business in them.

Altogether it was a thoroughly enjoyable time had by all, and my group came away with the most positive Bath City experience possible. As we departed Twerton Park, I’m certain we left with at least one more die-hard City fan than we’d arrived with. A successful night all in all.

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AFC Bournemouth vs Olympique de Marseille

Pre-season delight for the Cherries

With this summer’s World Cup now firmly in the rear-view mirror, Premier League teams across the country were busy fine-tuning their squads this weekend. With the pre-season coming to a close, I had the opportunity to visit the south coast and see Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth match up against last season’s Europa League finalists Marseille.

I’m a Dorset lad, born and bred, and if I knew AFC Bournemouth existed when I was seven years-old they likely would have been my team. By all rights, they should be my team, as they are the Football League club closest to wear I was born and raised. Alas, Arsenal got to me first when I was young and impressionable, and the Gunners dug their hooks in. By the time I discovered the Cherries, it was too late.

However, since my early days of playing FIFA on the Playstation, I have had a soft spot for Bournemouth. I regularly chose them to play with on the game, and enjoyed an especially productive career on FIFA 2004, taking them from the old division two to the Premier League. James Hayter, I owe all my success to you.

Little did I know that a decade later, the real AFC Bournemouth would match my virtual achievements, and then some.

From facing insolvency to facing the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United on a weekly basis, it’s a truly remarkable story. Tiny AFC Bournemouth have now been a fixture in England’s top division for the past three seasons (now entering their fourth), despite being one of the smallest towns (population: 187,000) to feature at the highest level.

And so it was that I found myself in Bournemouth on Saturday the 4th of August thanks to my uncle, who had secured us tickets for the visit of Olympique de Marseille, one of French football’s largest and most successful clubs.

My uncle has been a Bournemouth fan since the mid-fifties, and has fond memories of the club’s epic 1956/7 FA Cup run. He travelled as a youngster to Molineux to see the Cherries beat Wolves 1-0, back when Wolverhampton were a major force, lead by England captain Billy Wright. The famous victory is hailed as one of the greatest FA Cup giant-killings.

We had a pleasant walk along the tree-lined King’s Park Drive, arriving early at the Vitality Stadium (cosy capacity: 11,464), or Dean Court as it should be known, and did a lap of the ground before heading to the bar. We then stopped into the club super store, and I did my best to resist buying a jacket. I have jacket fever and the Umbro range was particularly tempting. As always, I did pick up a programme, and also a pin badge for my jacket. It’s something I’ve started doing with each new ground and team I visit.

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Together we had seats in the East Stand, not usually my uncle’s preferred position but a perfect view and very close to the players. The ground was bathed in glorious sunshine, and the temperature was pushing 29 degrees. Unfortunately we were in the direct sunlight all afternoon, and it must have been the hottest I’ve ever been at a football match. I’m just thankful I wore a white t-shirt; I felt sorry for the Bournemouth faithful decked out in their red and black striped replica kits – they must have been melting!

Only a handful of key players were missing from Bournemouth’s squad, since the Cherries had played Real Betis the Friday night before, so it was a completely changed eleven for Saturday’s game. Sadly there was no Lewis Cook, Jordon Ibe, Jermain Defoe or new signing Diego Rico, since they had all featured in the 2-0 loss to Betis. There was still a lot of quality on offer however, including young David Brooks, acquired from Sheffield United this summer.

Marseille featured some star power of their own, namely captain Dimitri Payet, but Kostas Mitroglu, Luiz Gustavo, Jordan Amavi, and Hiroki Sakai all started for the French side, with Remy Cabella and Clinton N’Jie making impressive cameos off the bench later in the day.

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The game got off to a fast start and before many fans had even found their seats, the home side were ahead. With just 13 seconds on the clock, a Ryan Fraser cross drifted into the path of Cherries right back Adam Smith, arriving on the edge of the box. Smith connected sweetly with a half-volley that arrowed right into the top corner. It’s easily the fastest goal I’ve seen in person and probably one of the best, a superb strike.

Bournemouth never let their foot off the pedal and proceeded to overwhelm a shell-shocked Marseille. In the 25th minute Fraser was the creator again, feeding a ball into Joshua King who managed to direct the ball past ‘keeper Yohan Pele with his first touch to make it 2-0. King doubled his tally ten minutes later when Brooks, who was able to find space all afternoon, turned to thread a perfect pass into King, who clipped the ball in delightful style to make it 3-0. Smith’s drive to open the scoring was impressive, but King’s little chip for his second was probably my favourite goal of the day.

Marseille were struggling to get a foothold in the game until Payet, the only player of note in the first half for the visitors, forced Cherries goalie Asmir Begovic into a fine save in the 36th minute. Begovic made a leaping dive to his right to palm away Payet’s curled effort, a great stop.

Bournemouth started the second half exactly the way they did the first. The youngster Brooks, again finding space, this time with a delightful turn away from his defender, played a ball down the right flank to King, whose pace was too much for the recovering Luiz Gustavo. King pulled the ball back for Fraser, who tapped home for Bournemouth’s fourth to cap off a sweeping move that had the crowd on their feet in appreciation. It was thoroughly deserved for the Scottish international, who had been at the heart of everything positive.

A four goal lead against one of Ligue 1’s top teams seemed inconceivable before kickoff but Bournemouth were not finished yet. Just minutes later the home side added their fifth, when a perfectly weighted ball over the top found Callum Wilson in space and the goal at his mercy. Wilson used his agility to knock the ball around OM defender Boubacar Kamara, before sliding the ball into the corner. Wilson had played well in the first half, linking with his midfield nicely thanks to his excellent hold-up play, and his well-taken goal was a just reward.

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With such a large lead it was natural for the Bournemouth players to ease off a bit, especially in the heat. Nathan Ake was replaced soon after the fifth goal, and other key players later made way for a host of prospects to get some playing time, with the American Emerson Hyndman impressing.

With half an hour to go Marseille started to impose themselves, and they grabbed a consolation when Frenchman Valere Germain swept home from a tight angle. Finally, with just a minute to go the visitors were able to add one more, when Remy Cabella struck a beauty from outside the box that was too much for Begovic. I remember Cabella looking completely lost when he was at Newcastle years ago, but he was dangerous for every minute of his appearance at Bournemouth, and his goal was sublime.

When the final whistle blew, my knees were pink from the sun and I was in desperate need of a drink, but had thoroughly enjoyed watching a rampant Bournemouth dismantle a Marseille team that possessed some real quality (even if they didn’t show it on the day.)

Multiple players stood out, including Fraser, Wilson and man-of-the-match King, but it was the new lad Brooks that shone brightest for me. Maybe Marseille were too ignorant of his ability and didn’t pay him enough attention, as the 21 year-old constantly found himself the freedom to operate and dictate play. I like to think the young midfielder created his own space, as he regularly unpicked the lock and displayed the mature decision-making abilities of a veteran. The lad looks to have a bright future ahead of him on the south coast.

My uncle told me before kickoff not to get my hopes up too much but after seeing Eddie Howe’s ruthless Bournemouth team stick five past Marseille, I don’t think I have much choice but to get carried away.

Look out Premier League, the Cherries are coming for you.

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