Bath City FC vs Hemel Hempstead

City Hammer Hemel In 2-0 Victory

A brisk Saturday in mid-January saw us return to the fortress Twerton Park once again. Second placed Bath City were hosting Hemel Hempstead, ninth in the Vanarama National League South. The visitors from Hertfordshire were victorious in the reverse fixture, a 2-1 loss for the Romans in late September.

However, that result was firmly in the past. Unbeaten at home since August, Jerry Gill’s side began the day in confident style. With the winter sun on our backs as we entered the ground, our group were feeling similarly positive about Bath’s fortunes.

I took special care to stop by the programme hut for this game, as I had discovered earlier in the week I would be featured in this matchday’s edition. Adam Matravers, City’s programme editor, had kindly contacted me about my experience away at Chippenham and asked to include it in the programme for the visit of Hemel Hempstead. There was no hesitation on my part, and I was eager to pick up my copy once we arrived. Thanks again Adam!

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With my programme safely stored in my pocket (and one for Camila too, who couldn’t join us), we found our customary spot close to the halfway line. Caleb and I were in attendance as usual but we brought friends too; Caleb had his son and mate Jack with him, whereas I had Jamie with me. Jamie and I had been to watch City over a decade ago, when the Romans enjoyed their memorable promotion run.

Caleb’s son was excited for another afternoon watching his local side, and had brought his pocket money to buy a programme. He was chuffed to bits to be included inside. He had borrowed his Dad’s scarf for the afternoon as well, and looked like a true Roman. Add one more to the permanent fixtures at Twerton Park; we’ve created a new lifelong supporter.

Wrapped in our hats and scarves to fight the cold, we settled down for the first half. Ryan Clarke, in his short sleeved shirt, must have been feeling the winter chill though. The captain narrowly avoided disaster in the opening seconds, when he let a bouncing ball slip through his arms and out his backside. Clarke will be buying Alex Hartridge dinner all week thanks to the defender’s quick reactions. The centre back on loan from Exeter City saved his goalkeeper from humiliation, as Hartridge instinctively got to the ball just in time to clear the danger, with a Hemel Hempstead striker breathing down his neck.

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With that crisis averted, City began to assert themselves, and thought they were ahead after 25 minutes. A free kick to the far post was nodded back into the fray by Hartridge, and Frankie Artus was there to beat the keeper with a strong header. The referee (correctly) spotted Artus had pushed his defender in the back before scoring, and the goal was ruled out. It felt unjust at the time, as City have had a few goals ruled out by the officials recently, but it was right decision.

At half time Caleb and son took a quick stroll to check out some of the club’s merchandise. An upgrade was definitely in order and Caleb had been eyeing this season’s purple scarves for months. It was no surprise when the pair returned minutes later with a new scarf and new hat, with smiles as wide as Caleb’s overdraft balance.

100% worth it.

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In the second half Bath upped their efforts and really began to take control. In the 56th minute they thought they had the lead again, only for the referee to disagree once more. It was almost a carbon copy of the previously disallowed goal: another free kick into the box was nodded back to Artus who poked the ball into the back of the net. This time it was Ryan Brunt who was judged to have pushed his defender in the back, cancelling out Artus’ effort for the second time.

The chances for Bath kept coming, with midfielder Tom Smith pushing the attack in particular. An audacious effort from inside his own half flew harmlessly wide for a goal kick, but Hemel Hempstead goalie Sam Beasant tried to add to Smith’s embarassment with a comedy dive in the ball’s direction. It was a curious decision from the goalkeeper, and decidedly unfunny.

Beasant wasn’t laughing five minutes later.

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Substitute winger Ross Stearn made an instant impact when he was hauled down on the edge of the Hemel Hempstead box. As the Bath players convened over the set piece, our group reminisced over Smith’s unforgettable strike we’d recently witnessed on New Year’s Day in Chippenham. “Could he do it again?”

The answer was yes. Yes he fucking could.

Smith spied a gap in the opposition wall and blasted the ball through the hole, up into the roof of the net, past the helpless Beasant. Nothing could deny that ball. The power was too much, it was hit too sweet, and Smith knew it instantly. He wheeled away towards the home support and was mobbed by his jubilant teammates. Bath finally had their deserved 1-0 lead.

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The pain for Beasant wasn’t over yet. With just over five minutes remaining and Bath looking to kill the game, an attempted clearance from the visiting ‘keeper was sliced straight into the path of Stearn. With no defenders nearby and an open path to goal before him, Stearn set himself before curling a low effort past Beasant to secure the result and all three points. Cue more celebrations from us and the Bath faithful, safe in the knowledge that victory was ours.

Brunt had a last minute opportunity to make it 3-0 after some fine link-up play with Joe Raynes but was unlucky to see his shot wide of the mark.

The referee brought the game to a close and Bath could be satisfied with another stellar performance. Two goals and a clean sheet continue City’s upward trajectory, in what’s shaping up to be another impressive season. Their next game is a visit to league leaders Wealdstone, and City will be looking to close the gap at the top of the table.

Watford FC vs Tranmere Rovers

The Miracle of Vicarage Road

The FA Cup has a habit of bringing people together from every rung of the football ladder. Part-timers and plumbers can face off against the pampered professionals of the Premier League, men who play for their nations in global competitions. It’s the magic of the cup.

When the draw for the third round was made in early December 2019, I kept a keen eye on Tranmere Rovers, my adopted team from Birkenhead (see my previous trips for a history lesson). As the draw progressed I kept hoping Rovers would receive an away tie to a southern team, so I could get there with relative ease. Finally, their ball was drawn and Tranmere were rewarded with an away visit to Watford, of the Premier League. I was overjoyed and knew I had to be there.

And with that the date was set, Saturday 4th January 2020, and my ticket was sorted thanks to my pal Matt (who was never going to miss this one). I boarded my train in the morning, transferred through London and arrived into Watford shortly after 1pm. I met Matt and a couple of his mates in a local pub for some pre-match drinks. The place had been descended upon by hundreds of travelling Tranmere supporters. There was white and blue everywhere.

A short walk from the town centre saw us arrive at the home of the Hornets, Vicarage Road. The 22,000 capacity ground has played host to Watford for close to a hundred years and is a very sleek and impressive stadium, with a gorgeous pitch. We quickly found our seats and began singing along with the 2,500 plus from Tranmere. The SWA were in fine voice and the Vicarage Road faithful were drowned out by the cacophony of noise from our stand.

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For 10 minutes it was going so well and Micky Mellon’s side had acquitted themselves against their Premier League opposition.

Then disaster struck.

Within a four-minute period Tranmere found themselves 2-0 down thanks to a combination of awful defending from the visitors and clinical finishing from the home team. The goals came as a shock and were largely of Tranmere’s making. Watford were making it look easy and Rovers just couldn’t get a foothold in the game.

In the 34th minute Watford extended the lead to 3-0, and you felt the game was dead and buried. The poor chap stood behind us had seen enough. Head in hands, now slumped in his seat, he was in the midst of an existential crisis. “They’re a disgrace,” he said, over and over. Watford’s third goal was all he could stomach, and he was gone soon afterwards, to the pub he said.

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The referee brought the first half to a close and we were understandably shell-shocked. Tranmere are just trying to survive in League One this season; what did we expect from a trip to a Premier League team? At 3-0 down, I honestly just wanted to see Tranmere avoid further humiliation and maybe get a consolation goal to restore some pride.

Micky Mellon and his team hadn’t given up hope. The manager made wholesale changes at half time, scrapping his five at the back formation as he restored the defence to a back four. Corey Blackett-Taylor was introduced to take his place on the left wing and instantly made an impact, terrorising the Watford right back with driving runs and fancy tricks. He looked dangerous every time he touched the ball, and Watford knew it.

Suddenly the hosts looked disjointed, a team of teenagers and reserves caught completely off-guard. Had complacency set in? Watford looked like they had already booked their passage through to the next round. Tranmere had other plans.

In the 65th minute, we were given a flash of hope. Blackett-Taylor took a corner only to see it cleared back to him for a second attempt, and his cross found an unmarked Connor Jennings for an easy header to make it 3-1.

Matt and I were in full celebration but I felt a hand on my arm. The woman next to me said, “no, look at the linesman!” I looked to the pitch and she was right, the flag was up. Goal disallowed. I threw my hands in the air at the injustice, our sole moment of joy stolen away.

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But this was the FA Cup, at a Premier League stadium, with all it’s bells and whistles. Which meant VAR, that scourge of modern football, had to be consulted. With the possibility of VAR restoring the goal, we began to chant for the technology gods to look upon us favourably.

“V A R! V A R! V A R!

The referee had his hand to his earpiece. Then he made the square shape in the air in front of him and pointed towards the half way line. The goal was given! We celebrated again, this time safe in the knowledge justice had been served, and the SWA burst into song once more, louder than ever.

I looked to Matt and said, “if we can just get one more, there could actually be a game here.” It was wishful thinking from me at the time.

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Watford still had a two-goal lead but they were definitely rattled. Tranmere kept coming at them, with Blackett-Taylor leading the charge.

He was involved once again in the 78th minute. Blackett-Taylor sent a free kick from close to the corner flag into the Watford box and goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann looked set to pluck it safely from the air. But Bachmann dropped the ball at the feet of Morgan Ferrier, whose first-time shot could only hit Watford bodies in defence. The rebound fell kindly to Tranmere centre back Manny Monthe, who turned on the ball to fire into the back of the net to make it 3-2.

We couldn’t believe it. The comeback was well and truly on. Belief that a result could be salvaged was coursing through the players and fans, and our stand was physically bouncing in euphoria.

With time running out, Tranmere pressed for the equaliser. A perfectly timed tackle from Kieron Morris won back possession for Jennings who crossed instantly to Blackett-Taylor (him again.) The winger’s touch took him and the defending fullback to the byline, a race for the ball. As both men entered the penalty box, Blackett-Taylor was hauled down by a sliding challenge.

“Penalty!” we pleaded at the top of our lungs, but the referee was adamant there was no foul. He even (hilariously) made the ball shaped gesture to the enquiring Tranmere players.

Ah, but remember. It’s the FA Cup and VAR needs to be checked, again.

We started up the chant once more: “V A R! V A R! V A R!” 

The tension was building with every passing second and I have to admit, the excitement of waiting for the VAR decision only added to the drama and enjoyment. I never expected to say that. The referee soon received news of the decision, he took his hand off his ear, and pointed directly to the penalty spot. The SWA and I screamed in delight: this is it!

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Striker Paul Mullin, on as a substitute for the terrific Ferrier, had the ball firmly gripped in his hands the entire time VAR was consulted. Somehow, he just knew the ball belonged to him for this moment. Mullin calmly placed the ball on the spot and prepared himself. His run-up was short and there was no hesitation. Mullin absolutely smashed the ball, put his laces right through it, and crashed past the helpless keeper. The score was 3-3 and somehow, Tranmere had done it. The League One side from the Wirral had completed the most unexpected of comebacks.

Everywhere I looked was pure chaos. Shirts were off, limbs were everywhere, people bouncing and singing in unison and celebrating the moment.

There were still a few minutes left to close out the result. I had the shaky knees by this point. Whenever I get shaky knees in the final stages of a football match, I know it’s a sign the game has been quality.

The Tranmere fans had one more moment to enjoy when pantomime villain Roberto Pereyra (who had been a dick all afternoon) was shown a straight red card for a putting Morris on his back illegally. It was a lot of fun waving Pereyra off the pitch.

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Shortly afterwards the referee blew his whistle for the final time and I punched the air in relief and delight, along with the thousands in white and blue around me. We applauded the players and manager as they came forward in appreciation of our support. A replay back to Prenton Park secured!

As we walked back into Watford I was still stunned, struggling to grasp what I’d seen. Together we had witnessed a little piece of FA Cup history, one of the most unlikely comebacks you’ll ever see. We couldn’t merely part ways and go straight home; we had far too much energy to release and so much to discuss. Back to the pub we journeyed for a debrief.

After a few drinks and obligatory tequila, I said my goodbyes to Matt and the boys to catch my train back to London and home. At half time it looked to be one of those forgettable days at the football, one you’d prefer to forget anyway. In the end, it was arguably the best experience I’ve had watching Tranmere Rovers, and one that’ll live long in the memory.

They say football is a game of two halves. Tranmere proved that is still very much the case.

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Chippenham Town vs Bath City FC

Away Day Victory For City Boys

We were walking away from Hardenhuish Park, home to Chippenham Town, and Caleb’s 6-year-old son looked to me and said, “Ash, how many football games have you seen?”

I paused and realised, I am finally reaching the stage where I’m losing count. Not that I keep count, not really. But I’ve seen so many football matches in recent years that I couldn’t provide an acceptable answer.

Despite seeing so many games, this visit to Chippenham Town was a first. As a group, we had yet to venture away from the comfy confines of Twerton Park to follow the Romans on the road. This New Year’s Day trip to Chippenham was a perfect opportunity to make amends. What better way to ring in the new year than a day at the football?

I had a horrid cold as we boarded the train but was determined to put it behind me. Camila made the trip immediately better when she presented Caleb and I with our Christmas gifts: for the two Gooners, she baked us Arsenal gingerbread men. Vintage 03/04 Ljungberg for me please.

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The train journey from Bath to Chippenham is short, roughly 10 minutes, and we quickly found ourselves walking the path towards the ground of City’s local rivals. A charming little ground that celebrated it’s 100th anniversary last year, the 3,000 capacity home to the Bluebirds can be found in a leafy and welcoming part of the town.

As Camila and I strolled through the main stand I noticed Simon Howe on the pitch, Bath City’s club photographer. Just as I caught sight of him, he was aiming his lens right at us. I wasn’t sure at the time but had a feeling we’d been given the celebrity treatment.

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Camila and I caught on camera

We completed our lap before finding our spot for the first half and overall it was a relaxed atmosphere as we settled in. The first thing I noticed was the incline of the pitch – Bath faced an uphill battle in more ways than one. The visitors were wise to choose the difficult option for the first half and could attack downhill for the final 45 minutes.

The match soon got underway and City instantly established control of the game and kept possession well. Within 10 minutes the visitors should have gone ahead when Ryan Brunt headed home at the back post. The veteran striker wheeled away in celebration but the referee adjudged there to be foul play and unfairly ruled the goal out.

Brunt had the opportunity thanks to an excellent cross from Joe Raynes, and the young right back was everywhere in the opening half. We had a front row seat on the right wing to witness his marauding runs and he was unlucky not to open the scoring himself shortly after half an hour of play. Tom Smith found Raynes in the box and he put his defender on the ground with a neat Ronaldo-chop, shifting the ball onto his left foot in the process. With a chance to shoot at goal, sadly his shot curled just over the bar.

Half time was almost upon us but Chippenham were starting to find their feet. A clearance was headed back towards the Bath goal and managed to evade everyone to find Chippenham striker Chris Zebroski. The forward kept his composure and made no mistake putting the ball past Ryan Clarke to give the hosts a 1-0 lead.

The goal came as a shock, totally against the run of play, but to our relief Bath replied instantly. With injury time about to expire, a cross from the right (again) found the head of Adam Mann, whose neat flick behind him met the patient Brunt. The big man simply had to tap into an empty net. This time there was no referee interference, it counted, and the score was tied at 1-1. The travelling support behind the goal were singing Brunt’s praises and City deserved to be back in the game.

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For the second half we moved downfield to be closer to the goal Bath would be attacking. It proved to be the right decision as City were utterly relentless from the moment the game got back underway.

We were stationed close to the away bench and could hear Jerry Gill and Jim Rollo barking their instructions to their team with perfect clarity. It was fascinating to listen to their reactions and feedback as the the match wore on.

It was amazing we could hear anything they were saying, such was the level of noise coming from the away support. I had never heard the City faithful in such high spirits, with song after song being bellowed from behind the goal. The poor Chippenham keeper had a rough time of it all afternoon, tormented by the travelling fans for the smallest of things. The man couldn’t even drink from his water bottle without being heckled.

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City’s dominance on the pitch soon paid off. With just over 20 minutes left in the game Mann collected the ball in his half and took off, running at the retreating Chippenham defenders. They had to haul him down to avert the danger but the free kick opportunity from 30 yards was too tantalising for Tom Smith to turn down.

As Smith and Noah Chilvers stood over the ball, I addressed the group. “Guys,” I said, “this one is going in, top corner.” No one was listening, all eyes glued to the ball as the set piece began. Chilvers rolled the ball to the side ever so slightly and Smith connected perfectly. The Chippenham keeper stood no chance and the ball flew past him into the top right corner, just as I’d proclaimed moments before. We celebrated wildly, Caleb’s son just about staying on his Dad’s shoulders. It has to be one of the best goals I’ve ever seen a Bath City player score, a real peach.

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Still in shock from the goal (and my newfound psychic abilities), it wasn’t long before City had the chance to put the result beyond doubt, when they were awarded a penalty after some nifty footwork from Ross Stearn. Smith put the ball down on the spot to add to his tally but was unfortunate to see his effort saved. To his credit, the Chippenham keeper did really well to palm Smith’s effort away. Despite the penalty miss, Smith still deserved my Man of the Match award for his overall performance. He ran the show and everything positive went through him.

With the final whistle approaching, Chippenham were dead on their feet and Bath finally put them out of their misery. Once again the neat play came down the right flank and Smith crossed a dangerous ball into Bristol City loanee Louis Britton. The young striker controlled the bouncing ball on his chest in the six-yard box, before connecting on a vicious volley to make it 3-1. It was an acrobatic finish for Britton, a memorable goal to open his account for his new club.

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Gill and Rollo raced past us on the touchline when the ball crashed into the net, with Rollo rolling back the years with an acrobatic move of his own in celebration. The two then embraced, safe in the knowledge that their team had secured all the points, lifting Bath up to second in the league.

We stayed a while to celebrate at the final whistle, applauding the team off the pitch. We all agreed it had been one of the best City games we’d experienced, and well worth the 10 minute journey east of Bath.

Here’s to more away days with the Romans in 2020 and beyond!

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