Bath City FC vs Torquay United

City Fight Back In 3-2 Win Over League Leaders

Saturday the 19th of January saw me back at Twerton Park for a top of the table clash between Vanarama National League South leaders Torquay United and third-placed Bath City. Torquay, the only fully professional team in the division, entered the game in confident mood, riding a 10 game winning streak, but Bath had their own unbeaten run of 7 games to be proud of (including 5 straight clean sheets). With both teams in form and promotion hopes on the horizon, there was a great deal of anticipation and buzz ahead of the match.

Caleb and I had circled this one on the fixture list some time ago, and with the news that Torquay had sold out their allocation of 1,450 tickets, we expected an atmosphere at the ground like we’d never experienced before. I was present at the incredible 2010 Playoff Final against Woking, when 4,865 supporters packed onto the terraces for a famous City victory, but my knowledge and support for the team was in its infancy back then. This time I would be more appreciative of the occasion.

We begun the day with lunch at Smash Burger and already it was noticeable that Torquay were in town, as we saw a number of golden striped scarves strolling about. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an away supporter in Bath for the football, as many of the clubs at this level don’t often bring many away fans with them on their travels.

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Camila, a representative of Bath City’s Colombian fan club contingent, joined us again for her third City game of the season. We were also joined by Caleb’s better half Caitlyn, attending her first ever football match. The four of us met for burgers and shakes before embarking on the 25 minute walk towards the ground.

We decided to get there earlier than we usually do, given the expected rise in attendance. Upon arrival we were met by some of the club’s young volunteers, who wore those old fashioned usherette trays around their necks, with the tray full of Bath City goodies on sale. It was great the club had made the extra effort on what was set to be a big day for them. Caleb had been keen on picking up a City scarf for a while and couldn’t resist the classic striped edition, for just £9 as well. Pleased with his new purchase we moved on to the club shop, a part of Twerton Park I had somehow neglected to explore in all of my past visits. It was already busy when Camila and I entered, with a small family buying scarves and t-shirts over the counter. The club must have done very well financially with all of the extra attention the league leaders attracted. As has been my custom in the last year, I bought a long-overdue Bath City pin badge to add to my collection, and Camila bought one as well.

With time on our side and over half an hour still to go before kickoff, we passed through the turnstiles and set about finding our spot for the afternoon. In the past I have always stood on the same terrace, usually in the same spot, but Caleb and I had been deliberating about switching things up a bit. It was for the visit of the mighty Torquay that we we decided to stand on the opposite side of the pitch, in front of the main grandstand, bravely facing the elements without the safety of a roof above us. Thankfully it wasn’t set to rain and with the temperature hovering around 4°C we were at least prepared for the weather (except poor Caitlyn, whose trainer socks offered no protection for her ankles).

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Being in front of the grandstand, close to both dugouts and the player’s tunnel, was a different but enjoyable experience. You tend to find yourself pretty close to the pitch wherever you position yourself at non-league grounds, but I did remark that we felt particularly close on this afternoon, without compromising our view. We were also positioned near to the snack bar, so those familiar football smells of fried meat and onions made us feel right at home in our new digs. The Torquay fans had taken over one entire terrace behind the goal, as well as the Family Stand in the corner close to their end, and this was the first time I had ever recognised segregation between supporters at Twerton Park. As I said before, it’s not often visiting clubs bring a group numbering over 1,000.

Facing formidable opposition Bath manager Jerry Gill stuck to the 3-5-2 formation that has been so effective of late. The side included Leon Davies, a one month loanee fresh from Cambridge United, and the 19 year-old right back went straight into the starting eleven.

It was Bath who started the strongest and struck first thanks to Freddie Hinds’ inspired finish, crashing his shot in off the underside of the bar to give Bath a deserved 1-0 lead after just 9 minutes played. Joe Raynes was excellent in the build-up, when the versatile youngster stole possession before playing an excellent pass into the open Hinds. The energy and pressing from Gill’s men took Torquay by surprise, and even when they began to see more of the ball, they were still unable to really threaten Ryan Clarke in the City goal.

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Frustratingly, it was a set piece that saw Torquay draw level just before the first half whistle, when an inswinging corner found midfielder Asa Hall, whose glanced header was enough to get past Raynes on the line to make it 1-1. In the celebrations, a minority of Torquay fans (matching bald heads) were a bit over enthusiastic and went through the whole “come on then” routine in the corner with some Bath supporters. The stewards had to get involved, and it was a sight I never expected to see at the quaint Twerton Park. Their yellow flares were a nice touch though, and added a bit of colour to their festivities.

The second half was a tight affair and Bath appeared to match Torquay in every department but it was another set piece that became the home side’s undoing. This time the corner escaped everybody, including the disappointed Clarke in goal, and forward Jamie Reid was on hand to tap home to give the visitors a 2-1 lead. Cue more antagonism from the away fans and more flares. They certainly were an exuberant bunch.

Bath rallied in response but Torquay were set to put the game to bed when they were awarded a penalty with just over 15 minutes left. City debutant right back Davies was adjudged to have tripped Jake Andrews in the box, and it was Andrews who took the ball and placed it on the spot. Caleb instantly said, “he’s going to miss this, it’s going right over the bar,” in a half-sarcastic manner. In front of the away fans and with the goal at his mercy, the 21 year-old Bath-born Andrews did as Caleb predicted, and smashed the ball high over the bar, much to our relief and to his dismay.

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The penalty miss was exactly the boost City needed; the fans knew it, and the increase in noise and support fuelled the team forwards as they searched for an equaliser. Shortly after Torquay’s missed penalty Ryan Brunt was introduced in exchange for Hinds, and the Bath striker made an instant impression, brought down in the penalty box with under 10 minutes to play.

Captain Anthony Straker made no mistake from the spot and sent the keeper the wrong way to bring Bath level, the crowd erupting when the ball hit the back of the net.

Straker and Brunt were not finished yet though, and with our quartet still basking in the joy of the equaliser, Straker was busy bursting down the left wing and his cross found Brunt free from his marker. The target man, and apple of Camila’s eye, deftly guided the ball across goal with his left boot, lifting it past the outstretched keeper to make it 3-2 and put the league leaders flat on their backs. I was so wrapped up in my celebration (a weird fist pump/giddy hop mix) that I missed Brunt getting tripped by Torquay’s flattened defender, then run back and get in his face about it, before finally remembering he’s scored the winner and enjoy the moment in front of the fans. It was absolute chaos all around us as the home fans broke into song, singing cheerio to the Torquay fans who decided they’d seen enough.

The final minutes saw the visitors push for the goal that would earn them a point, and even their goalkeeper had a shot towards goal, but Bath held on, marking a comeback win that will live long in every fan’s memory. It had the occasion and spectacle of a cup game, and the players and staff fed off that energy, thanks in large part to the 3,492 fans who packed into the ground. It makes such a difference to the atmosphere when Twerton Park can draw four-figure crowds.

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We stayed to applaud the players off the pitch as they rightly took in a lap of honour, and celebrated a performance they can all be proud of. My man of the match was Robbie Cundy, the young and unflappable centre back whose calmness in defence and quality in possession shone through all afternoon.

Bath now find themselves 4 points behind Torquay at the top of the division, although Torquay currently have a game in hand. With promotion a distinct possibility this year, Gill and his squad will want to stay focused and as the manager acknowledged after the game, the task isn’t over yet. Possessing one of the best defensive records in the league (only Torquay have conceded less), they have a solid foundation to continue building upon in this second half of the season.

I know I’ll be there to see how they fare. Come on you Romans!

 

Cheltenham Town vs Tranmere Rovers

New Year + New Players = New Results

My second game of 2019 took me to nearby Cheltenham Town, in the county of Gloucestershire. I was making the short journey to see my second Tranmere Rovers game of the season, my first since a mid-August trip to Swindon when the 2018/19 season was still in its infancy.

Now deep into mid-season and with the new year upon us, my adopted Rovers have found themselves in contention for a playoff spot. However, their performances away from home have been shaky, and their last win on the road was a 4-3 win at Morecambe in early October. Since then Micky Mellon’s side have struggled to keep the ball out of the net, often conceding multiple goals on their travels. As I boarded my train towards Cheltenham, I did so with some trepidation, and hoped maybe Tranmere could cause a surprise and buck their recent trend.

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Father Christmas was especially generous this year and bestowed upon me not one but two new Tranmere scarves, so I was spoilt for choice to keep me warm on what turned out to be a pretty mild Saturday in January. Decked out in the white and blue of Tranmere nonetheless, I departed my train to meet Matt, the man responsible for making Tranmere part of my football life, and his girlfriend’s older brother Edd, a Bristol City fan who I think Matt is secretly trying to convert. Matt was successful with me so I can only presume Edd will be a season ticket holder at Prenton Park before the end of the year.

We made the short trip across town and parked in a residential area surrounding Cheltenham’s ground. The Jonny-Rocks Stadium, capacity of 7,200, is an attractive ground with views of the rolling Gloucestershire hills all around, a very charming home for a football club, very quaint. Our residence for the afternoon was to be the Hazelwoods stand at one end of the pitch, behind the goal.

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Outside the entrance for away supporters I picked up my match day programme, The Robin, from a young chap manning his stall. Cheltenham’s programme is a well designed publication altogether and not chock full of adverts like many you find, with some interesting pieces and a detailed write-up on their guests for the day from Birkenhead.

We also stopped to say hello to Dave from Give Us An R, selling the latest issue of the Rovers fanzine, and I purchased a copy as I always do (keep print alive folks). Dave very helpfully suggested a small social club just behind the ground where we could get a drink and mix with some of the travelling SWA who had made the considerable 100+ mile journey to attend. We found the bar easily enough and the three of us shared a drink among a decent mix of home and away fans, all in good spirits prior to kick off.

Before long we had squeezed through the turnstiles and chosen our spot in the stands, a perfect vantage point with no obstructions. Cheltenham reported there was an overall attendance of 3,104, with 471 of us in the Hazelwoods stand, but it did feel like a larger group. Perhaps it was the ever impressive noise from the Tranmere faithful, bellowing out song after song for their team, that made us feel like a bigger bunch than we were. We were stood just to the right of the most passionate from the pack, complete with a drum to keep us all in rhythm.

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The game got underway and for the majority of the first half Cheltenham were on top, dominating possession and targeting the left flank, isolating Rovers fullback Liam Ridehalgh and providing him with all sorts of problems. Tranmere grew into the game though and went close through new signing Ishmael Miller, who had two fantastic chances. Unfortunately it was Cheltenham who took their chance just before half time, when their veteran striker Luke Varney struck to give the hosts the lead. From where we were situated Varney looked suspiciously offside and the linesman received a decent amount of protest from the Tranmere players and fans alike.

At half time Tranmere could feel aggrieved to be behind but we were in agreement the team had been second best for most of the opening 45 minutes. Thankfully they came out for the second half absolutely flying and looked like an entirely different team. Cheltenham were stunned when James Norwood, League Two’s leading scorer, linked up with right back Jake Caprice, whose fancy footwork and cutback pass found Norwood in space. The striker’s first effort was blocked but his second attempt made no mistake, and crashed past the helpless Cheltenham keeper to bring the score level, 1-1. The three of us went ballistic and I had plenty room to my left to run up and down the row in celebration.

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And so began the Tranmere onslaught that Cheltenham could not withstand. Caprice and Norwood combined again, when a gorgeous curled effort from the striker was saved superbly by Scott Flinders in the Cheltenham goal, a highlight save for sure. Norwood was on the attack once more just minutes later, when he saw his shot saved by the legs of Flinders but Miller anticipated the ricochet and was on hand to tap home for a goal on his Rovers debut. The experienced forward really impressed us all afternoon with his movement and hold-up play, and thoroughly deserved the goal for his efforts. Miller’s connection with Norwood had us speculating what their partnership could bring for the rest of the season and his substitution for Paul Mullin saw him receive a standing ovation from the SWA.

With just under twenty minutes remaining Tranmere put the result beyond doubt. Mullin had only just got on the pitch when he intercepted a loose pass deep in the Cheltenham half and played a low cross to midfielder Ollie Banks on the edge of the penalty area. Banks took a touch to set himself before firing home into the bottom corner to make it 3-1. The three points were secured and heading back to Birkenhead.

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To elaborate, Ollie Banks is my favourite Tranmere player. Even though I am almost certainly too old to still have “favourite” players, Banks is unanimously my favourite. As manager of Oldham Athletic on Football Manager in recent years, Banks became my Pirlo in a team I guided to moderate/respectable success. When the classy midfield maestro signed for Tranmere in real life on a short term loan I was overjoyed, and his permanent addition to the squad in the summer of 2018 was validation that I had made the right choice to entrust the status of “favourite” upon him. Banks’ well-taken goal at Cheltenham put the icing on the cake of a great day – it’s always nice when your favourites score, something I must have repeated more than once to Matt and Edd (much to their joy, I’m sure).

When the final whistle brought an end to Cheltenham’s suffering we barely noticed, as the drum was still pounding, the SWA were still singing and the three of us were basking in the celebrations. It was by far the best 45 minutes I have seen Tranmere play in my brief time following them since I signed the adoption papers (Matt insisted my devotion became legal).

The combination of the new year and the new acquisitions of Miller and midfielder David Perkins (energetic throughout and never put a foot wrong) brought new life to Tranmere on this Saturday in Cheltenham. It had us all hoping that this performance could be a significant turning point in their season and Tranmere’s ultimate bid for promotion.

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Bath City FC vs Chippenham Town

Romans Rampant in 5-0 Rout of Local Rivals

In 2018 I attended more football games in a calendar year than I ever had before. Between January and December I saw 12 matches across multiple levels of the football ladder, including 3 games in a different country.

If I’m cheeky I can count 13 games in total, if I decide to include the late December 2017 clash between Plymouth and Oldham that I typed up in January to kick start this blog.

I am that cheeky, so I’m counting it.

So with 2019 now upon us, what better way to start the new year than with a football match. Start as you mean to go on is the saying, right?

Bath City FC were hosting local rivals Chippenham Town in a New Year’s Day derby in the Vanarama National League South. The visitors only had a short trip along the A4 to attend this game and had faced Bath just a few days before, in a tightly contested 2-2 draw on Boxing Day.

I met up with Caleb before the game for a quick drink and a post-Christmas catch up, before we set off for Twerton Park. We arrived with half an hour to spare, which is pretty early for us, and there were already decent queues forming at the turnstiles. Looking around the ground as we found our spot on the terrace, we knew straight away a very large Bank Holiday crowd was in attendance.

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We could tell the attendance was far higher than normal for one reason in particular: Caleb pointed out there were people sat in the “weird” stand. This small seated and roof-covered stand we refer to as being “weird” is named so because we never, ever, see people sat there. It’s like the little brother in comparison to the main grandstand that resides next to it, and perhaps unfairly designated as “weird.” Yet, on this day with a higher than normal crowd in attendance, the stand was home to a great number of fans. In fact, it turned out that City had actually set a new record, with 1,727 fans deciding to celebrate the new year watching their local side.

One fan at the game had made a special effort to be there, travelling over 4,000 miles to visit Bath and watch his adopted team for the first time at Twerton Park. Jesse Stollings, a teacher from North Carolina, fell in love with the club through Football Manager and a Christmas trip devised by his wife found them both at the game to see City in person. Manager Jerry Gill even invited them to meet the squad and share a pre-match meal, as the club rolled out the red carpet for their visit.

And what a game they witnessed.

City lined up against Chippenham in a 3-5-2 formation I hadn’t seen them adopt before, but had worked wonders just three days prior in a 2-0 win at Weston-super-Mare. A back three of Kevin Amankwaah, Robbie Cundy and Jack Batten were flanked by the dynamic loanee Michee Efete on the right and captain Anthony Straker on the left. A midfield trio of longtime City lad Frankie Artus, local youngster Joe Raynes, and Bristol City-loanee James Morton provided a base to support the attack of Adam Mann and Ross Stearn. Traditionally wide men, Mann and Stearn would both come in off the flanks to attack the Chippenham defence more centrally than Caleb and I were used to seeing in the past.

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To say Jerry Gill’s plan worked to perfection would be an understatement. The performance we enjoyed was like the non-league equivalent of 2011 Barcelona at the peak of their powers.

Right from the first whistle Bath harried and pressed the Chippenham players into a frenzy, and played at such a speed that the visitors found it impossible to settle. It was like they were moving in slow motion, and maybe a few of them had celebrated New Year’s Eve with more enthusiasm than their Bath counterparts.

After 18 minutes City’s pressure was rewarded. Efete, who was enjoying massive amounts of space down the right wing, took the ball on a mazy run into the penalty area that saw him brought down. The referee didn’t hesitate and blew his whistle to signal for the spot kick. Bath skipper Straker, cool as could be, stepped up to put the hosts 1-0 ahead.

Just four minutes later Efete was on the attack again and saw a blocked shot fall into the path of Stearn, who had slipped behind his marker to lash the ball home and give Bath an early 2-0 lead.

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Bath’s domination was now getting out of hand, and Stearn was quick to collect his brace in the 28th minute. After some neat build-up in attack, Raynes decided to have a shot from distance that swerved into more of a pass, and found an unmarked Stearn free from his defender yet again. The winger masquerading as a striker for the day had the easy task of tapping the ball in to put City up 3-0. Stearn was consistently finding himself in the right place at the right time and the Chippenham defenders couldn’t live with him.

Five minutes later Robbie Cundy decided to join in on the fun, and left his position at centre back to move forward in attack. Cundy collected a pass from his captain Straker and hit a sweet shot just inside the penalty area to send the fans delirious. It was certainly not the sort of strike you expect from a defender, and Caleb and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing, with the score at 4-0 and with ten minutes still left to play in the first half.

City almost made it 5-0 before the break when Mann collected a beautiful pass from Artus down the left wing, rounded the onrushing keeper, but put his shot just inches wide of the post. It was a swift move that deserved a goal, and earned our applause.

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When the referee blew his whistle for half time, the City players were sent down the tunnel by the most immense roar from the crowd, in appreciation of what we had all just seen and the precious three points already secured. The Chippenham players on the other hand looked like they were ready to call it quits then and there, and not be subjected to another 45 minutes of torture.

The second half began with the visitors making two substitutions to try and stop the flood and avoid being continuously overrun but it was to no avail, and Bath soon struck for the fifth and final time.

In the 54th minute Mann, cruelly denied a goal earlier, linked up with his fellow forward Stearn and was put through on goal. Mann cut across his defender to put him one-on-one with the goalkeeper, and as he rushed out to meet Mann the Bath forward calmly chipped the ball with a delightful dink over the keeper and into the empty net. Mann never stopped pressing and harassing Chippenham players all afternoon and the goal was his reward for a tireless performance.

The 5-0 scoreline reflected the five star show City had put on for us. Chippenham stopped the bleeding after the fifth goal and even went close to a consolation once or twice, but when the referee ended the game it felt like mercy for the visitors. They had been thoroughly demolished and stretched all over the wide turf of Twerton Park.

It was quite convincingly the best game I’ve ever witnessed Bath City play, and the most amazing way to begin 2019. With the victory, Bath shot up the table into 5th place, right into the thick of the playoff race, a position they will hope to still possess in a few month’s time I’m sure.

Jerry Gill and his squad will look to build on this performance and maintain their recent run of form long into 2019. I’m certain I will be back again soon, and I hope more of the 1,727 in attendance feel the same way.

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