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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.