England U21 vs Poland U21

Young Lions Settle For 1-1 Draw

It’s coooooming home, it’s COMING! Football’s coming home!

A mild Thursday night in March saw Caleb and I catch a train headed to Bristol, a short ten minute journey from work. We had an evening at Ashton Gate ahead of us, home to Bristol City but playing host to the Young Lions, England’s immensely talented under-21 squad. They were facing off against Poland’s next golden generation, in what was set to be an exciting and memorable evening. I had never been to an international fixture before so was eager to get my ENG-GER-LAAAAND going.

Caleb had spotted the fixture, thanks to some targeted advertising from the FA on our social media accounts, and took advantage of an early-bird offer that resulted in his ticket costing just £10. I didn’t take much persuading to accompany him and he picked up a ticket for me as well. Good fella that Caleb.

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We stepped off the train at Temple Meads and made the short walk along the River Avon towards Ashton Gate. We had some time before kickoff so stopped into The Burger Joint on North Street to get some dinner. I enjoyed a strawberry shake and a burger of my own creation – you fill out a form for your order, marking off the type of bun you want, the fillings, the sauces, everything is customisable.

With our bellies full and our appetites satisfied, we turned the corner and were greeted by the floodlights of Ashton Gate, and some blazing pyrotechnics from the Poles. It was not a sight I expected to see at an under-21s fixture. At a full international of course, but I thought this was going to be a more relaxed and subdued affair. The Polish fans had other ideas though, and came armed with their loudest songs and brightest flares, and together they put on a fantastic show all night.

We scanned our tickets through the turnstiles and I was instantly struck by how impressive everything was. Only redeveloped a couple of years ago, Bristol City’s 27,000 capacity home is comfortably one of the nicest stadiums I’ve been to in a while, with first-class facilities and large open spaces for the masses to move around with ease. It’ll be a crying shame if Bristol City don’t get promoted to the Premier League in the near future, because their stadium is perfectly suited to host games of such importance.

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With the players completing their warm-ups we found our seats, but not before an errant shot nearly decapitated us. It was many years ago I last sat or stood so close behind goal (probably at Weymouth as a teenager actually) so I was a bit out of practice and naive in my efforts to dodge incoming thunderbastards. Thankfully we sat down with our heads intact and settled in for the game.

There were a number of notable players in the England squad we were excited to see, but Reiss Nelson was top of my list. When I saw before the game that manager Aidy Boothroyd had selected Nelson in the starting eleven, I almost spat my dinner out in celebration. The Arsenal youngster, who has taken the Bundesliga by storm this season whilst on loan at Hoffenheim, was the player I was most looking forward to seeing and he did not disappoint.

Positioned on the left wing as part of a three-man attack, Nelson repeatedly teased and twisted his Polish opposition and regularly got the better of them. He combined well with left-back Jay Dasilva all evening, and the duo made the visitors pay with just 13 minutes played.

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A clipped pass from Dasilva put Nelson clear of the defence and one-on-one with Polish keeper Kamil Grabara. As the English forward shaped his body to shoot, he used his first touch to deftly ghost past the stranded Grabara instead. Now close to the byline and running out of space, Nelson’s next touch was an expertly weighted pass to Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the centre of the goal, who had the easy task of tapping the ball home to give England the lead.

It was a wonderfully worked goal that pulled the Polish defence apart, but Caleb and I were off our feet in celebration for Nelson’s involvement alone. The poise and guile to take the ball around the outstretched goalkeeper was something special, and his ability to cut the ball back to the striker was sublime, a fabulous assist.

Five minutes later England almost made it 2-0 when a 25-yard half-volley from Everton defender Jonjoe Kenny nearly buried itself into the top corner. Grabara stretched every sinew in his body to tip Kenny’s shot over the bar and it has to be one of the most athletic saves I’ve ever witnessed in person. Caleb and I had such a perfect view of it too, I had to applaud the young Liverpool shotstopper.

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Other notables moments in the game included Sebastian Szymanski’s 35-yard free-kick that brought Poland level. The 19 year-old beat Angus Gunn in the England goal with a perfectly struck effort, right into the top corner, and it sent the Polish fans wild behind their goal.

Standout players for England included Phil Foden, Man City’s midfield prodigy, who appeared to glide across the pitch with the ball glued to his foot. He made it seem so easy, so effortless, I now see why there is so much buzz surrounding the youngster. Ademola Lookman was another player who impressed, as the Everton winger consistently attacked his full back and was often a source of inspiration on the right flank. Finally, man-of-the-match Fikayo Tomori, a Chelsea loanee currently at Derby, was a pillar of strength in the heart of defence. The 21 year-old was regularly on hand to snuff out Poland’s dangerous counter attacks, and saved England from being on the wrong side of the scoreline more than once.

With the score at 1-1 and time running out, England continued to pile on the pressure but struggled to break down Poland’s stubborn defence. With the result still in the balance, the tension was just too much to bear for many the youngsters sat in our row, who had seemingly reached the limit of their attention spans (it was probably past their bedtime in fairness). Tired and irritable, they resorted to throwing paper aeroplanes onto the pitch (when they weren’t calling the Polish players cunts at least). I can’t really complain when tickets for teenagers were just £1, as the vast majority in attendance were impeccably behaved and created a great atmosphere. Plus, I have seen and heard a lot worse at football grounds.

When the final whistle blew I felt I had definitely gotten good value for money from the evening’s entertainment, even if England couldn’t get that winning goal. The anticipation before kickoff and the prospect of seeing some of the country’s brightest stars in the making was worth admission alone.

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AFC Bournemouth vs Manchester City

Champs Defeat Cherries 1-0

Everything was set up for a perfect Saturday. In the morning I had planned to meet my friends in the pub and settle into a prime spot for the North London Derby. The afternoon would be spent at nearby Twerton Park, taking in Bath City’s promotion push against Truro City. I had it all mapped out, a great day of football.

Then an offer too good to refuse just dropped in my lap.

How would you like two tickets to go see Bournemouth take on Manchester City? For free?

I would have been mad to turn down such an opportunity, and so it was that I found myself on a train bound for sunny Bournemouth, and not in the cosy confines of the local pub.

Born and raised in the shires of south Dorset, a journey back to the county of my birth is always a trip I enjoy, and having only recently visited Bournemouth in the summer, I was excited to return and see Eddie Howe’s Cherries once again. The hosts had the unenviable task of facing Pep Guardiola’s squad of stars, the sky blue juggernaut that is Manchester City. A tiny part of me must admit how excited I was at the prospect of seeing those world class players in person.

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Before I delve too deep into the details of this trip, I should probably answer the question you’re surely asking:

How did you get these tickets for FREE?

Camila, our dearest friend and fellow Bath City supporter, was able to acquire the pair of tickets from a friend of hers but sadly for Camila, work commitments prevented her from attending, which is how they found their way into the grubby mitts of Caleb and I. Camila, being the best person in the world, offered them to us at no charge, purely out of kindness (and possibly blackmail… what does she have on me?) There are not enough thank yous in the world to bestow upon our favourite Colombian, but hopefully this little gift will show some of our appreciation.

Thanks to her incredible generosity, Caleb and I pulled into Bournemouth station at midday and met my uncle, a fan of the Cherries for over 60 years. A short drive to the ground followed and as it was Caleb’s first visit to the Vitality, a trip to the club store was a must. The club had their replica shirts reduced by 50%, down to the bargain price of £22.50, and it took all my willpower to resist purchasing one. I had already succumbed to temptation on my last visit, buying one of the navy Umbro training jackets (seen in this post’s pics), but the thought of adding another football shirt to my collection definitely crossed my mind.

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As kickoff to the North London derby approached, the three of us made our way to the 1910 club bar so we could watch the game on their big screens. My uncle was very patient indulging two Arsenal fans for 90 minutes and a late penalty miss. He was even kind enough not to pile on our misery at dropping two points. Despite the result, the bar was a great place to enjoy the game, a very relaxed atmosphere and it was quick and easy to get drinks.

When the final whistle blew at Wembley we left the bar and went straight into the ground, just as the teams were completing their warm-ups. Being in the southern stand we had the Man City players in front of us and for about 5-10 minutes we geeked out. “Oh my god that’s Aguero! There’s Sterling! Look how close we are to Ederson, I can see his shit neck tattoo!” I must admit I was a little giddy to see Mikel Arteta just a few feet away as well, one of my favourite Arsenal midfielders in recent years and Pep’s right-hand man.

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The sunshine in the morning had disappeared by this stage and the sea breeze off the coast brought it’s distinctive winter chill. It finally felt like attending a game in early March. We found our seats (with generous legroom) and settled in for the show.

The game was a tightly contested affair, albeit dominated entirely by the team in blue. That sentence may seem contradictory but Bournemouth were impressive in their organisation and resilience, and did a fantastic job containing the City threat. Bournemouth’s Dutch centre back Nathan Ake stood out in particular, and shepherded his defensive line to repel the City attacks again and again.

With the visitors enjoying 82% of possession, Bournemouth were so busy defending that whenever they did win the ball, they couldn’t do anything with it. Even young playmaker David Brooks, a revelation since signing last summer, was unable to get the Bournemouth attack going. The hosts were simply missing too many key players to give City a real test, as Callum Wilson, Lewis Cook, Jefferson Lerma, and a host of others missed out due to injury or suspension. Bournemouth ended the game with nothing to show in terms of attacking purpose: no shots, no shots on target, not even a lousy corner.

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City on the other hand were essentially flawless, with Guardiola classing this as one of their best ever performances in his post-match interview. At times it was like watching a training ground exercise, the players were so at ease keeping the ball, moving it around to tease the Bournemouth players out of position. Defensively, they never let Bournemouth enjoy a moment on the ball without pressure from every angle.

Even when Kevin De Bruyne and John Stones were forced into substitution through injury, City’s rhythm and playing style was not effected in the slightest.

In fact, it was substitute Riyad Mahrez who got the goal to secure the result for his Manchester brethren. Ten minutes into the second half and with City’s pressure starting to mount, young Ukrainian left back Oleksandr Zinchenko (who was immense all day) worked well down the flank to get the ball to David Silva. The Spaniard brought the ball under control and fed it out wide to Mahrez, whose first time strike seemed a little scruffy, but had enough zip to beat Artur Boruc at his near post. On the replay, Boruc will be devastated he let the relatively tame effort get by him without more resistance.

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After the restart Boruc did everything in his power to redeem himself, as he single-handedly kept the scoreline respectable for the rest of the afternoon. City’s hold on the game only intensified when they took the lead and multiple efforts from Aguero, Sterling and Mahrez were all beaten away by the big Pole in goal. He deserved the man of the match award for keeping the result from getting out of hand.

Sadly his teammates were unable to muster any sort of response in the face of such overwhelming superiority. City simply had a better player in every position, and that’s to be expected given the financial gap between the two clubs (which I hate and disagree with immensely, but that’s a topic for another time). Even with the disappointing result, Bournemouth can take solace they weren’t on the end of a hammering like so many experience against Guardiola sides.

Eventually the referee brought an end to proceedings and we made our way out of the ground to the sight of the City players celebrating in front of their travelling support.

Despite wanting to see Bournemouth win (if I had such a thing as a second team, they would probably be it), I have to admit that seeing players like Aguero and Sterling at the peak of their powers, and just metres away from me, was a sight to behold.

That aspect of the football experience, seeing the best players in the world, is still a novelty to me, and one I treasure at that. I hope that feeling never wears off.

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