Tranmere Rovers vs Aldershot Town

Saturday the 14th of April saw me travel north, towards Birkenhead and the home of Tranmere Rovers. Aldershot Town were the opposition, who, along with Tranmere, are in the mix for a playoff place and possible promotion to the Football League.

This was my third time watching the Rovers, and my second visit to Prenton Park (you can read about my first visit here). After having seen them lose at Wembley in the Playoff Final last May, and play out a scoreless draw against Chester in October, I was hoping I could complete the set and finally see them victorious.

The day began with a short dog walk along New Brighton beach, a very attractive stretch of the Wirral peninsula. The spring sunshine was glorious – it honestly felt like the first warm day of 2018, and my sun-deprived skin enjoyed absorbing that UV goodness. A short cab ride over to Prenton Park followed and myself and Matt, my lifelong-Tranmere-fan buddy, headed into the fan tent for a pre-match pint.

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Macclesfield, top of the National League and inches away from sealing the title, were playing Leyton Orient on the big screen when we arrived and the Tranmere faithful gathered inside were watching nervously, hoping Macclesfield would drop points. When I last visited Tranmere, the Rovers had begun their season poorly, languishing in the lower half of the table. A few months later and the atmosphere was remarkably different, positivity overflowing through the fanbase, as Tranmere sat comfortably in second place and still hot on the heels of Macclesfield. Leyton Orient were able to peg back Macclesfield for a 1-1 draw, denying the table-toppers from celebrating the league title at home. That is, provided Tranmere could continue their winning ways later that day.

Before the game, Matt had informed me this was not going to be an ordinary day at the football. He had a surprise in store: Matt had managed to secure us access to Tranmere’s Platinum Suite, complete with a three-course meal and fantastic seats on the halfway line.

This was football, but not as we knew it.

We were escorted into the Platinum lounge by a member of staff, given a complimentary match programme (yay free stuff) and fitted with a wristband pass, then seated at our table as we took in our surroundings. It was the most surreal feeling to begin with, almost as if I didn’t belong. The dress code wasn’t too formal, as you might expect in a VIP hospitality lounge, and looking around I saw plenty of other people wearing trainers, so we began to relax and ease into this unknown environment.

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Before long our starters arrived; I had the chilli con carne and Matt opted for the leek and potato soup. It was very good, and I shouldn’t have been so surprised at how much I enjoyed it. After our plates were collected, conservation turned to pre-match chat. Matt had recently attended Tuesday night’s match against Gateshead, when Tranmere striker Andy Cook single-handedly changed the game with a 4 goal performance, leading a Tranmere comeback for a 4-2 win. Momentum was with the Rovers and we were both optimistic about their chances against Aldershot.

With about 15 minutes before kickoff our mains arrived, and we devoured them as fast as we could to avoid missing the kickoff. I had the pork schnitzel and Matt chose the fillet of salmon, and just like the starters, I was seriously impressed with the quality of the food.

We made our way from the lounge to the main stand and emerged to see the gorgeous green of the Prenton Park pitch bathed in sunlight. I could not get over how good our seats were and must have remarked my astonishment to Matt more than a dozen times.

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The match itself turned out to be a scrappy affair. Aldershot were resolute in defence but had absolutely no cohesiveness in attack, and I only recall them having a couple of minor half-chances, giving Tranmere ‘keeper Scott Davies a relatively uneventful afternoon. Unfortunately Tranmere struggled in the first half as well, with only one chance of distinction occurring, when striker James Norwood forced Aldershot goalie Lewis Ward into a low save.

The half time whistle blew and an unsettling feeling began to creep in: was I seriously going to see two 0-0 draws in a row? Matt would never take me to another Tranmere game ever again.

When we got back to our table, our desserts were already waiting for us. Both of us selected the fresh cream choux buns with a toffee yoghurt. For you non-VIP folk, that’s profiteroles. They were amazing.

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Half time flew by and we were soon back in our seats. Early into the second half, a sliced clearance saw the ball head into the stands. I joked to Matt, “heads up, that’s yours,” not seriously thinking it would actually hit him. Before I had even finished my witty remark, Matt had taken control of the stray and instantly catapulted it back into play, a throw Rory Delap would have been proud of. Or he would have been, if Matt hadn’t nearly decapitated a woman in the front row with his effort. In his defence, I thought the wind was a factor.

As each frustrating minute passed, my fears of a 0-0 grew in intensity. Tranmere were pushing for a goal and dominated the second half, but the final ball and finish eluded them. Matt was surely cursing his decision to bring me along, again. I was bad luck personified.

Until, with twenty minutes left in the game, substitute Larnell Cole picked up the ball in his own half and charged towards the Aldershot goal. With the defence closing in on him, Cole threw in a couple of stepovers before playing the perfect through ball into the path of James Norwood, whose defence-splitting run put him one-on-one with the ‘keeper. Norwood calmly slotted the ball home to make it 1-0, and the relief and euphoria in the stadium hit me instantly. Cole had made such an impact since his introduction to the match, and his vision and awareness to create the goal drew plaudits from all those seated around me.

With the deadlock finally broken, Tranmere relaxed and their attacks on the Aldershot goal intensified as they looked to kill the game. And ten minutes later, in the 80th minute, they did just that.

Aldershot centre back Callum Reynolds couldn’t deal with an aerial ball and his headed clearance attempt invited the attention of Andy Cook. The Tranmere forward put Reynolds under enormous pressure and stole possession, and as Cook began to round the ‘keeper and try to get a shot on target, Norwood arrived in the box to pick the ball off Cook’s toe. Norwood capitalized on the confusion to slot home and pick up his second goal of the day, and his 20th of the season.

At 2-0, Tranmere could safely see out the game for three hard-fought points. Aldershot certainly made them work for it but Rovers had too much quality in the end.

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After giving the team a huge round of applause at the final whistle, we headed back to the comforts of the Platinum lounge. Matt and I sat down to enjoy a celebratory pint, when suddenly James Norwood appeared just metres away from us, still in full kit. Another perk of the hospitality experience meant seeing the man of the match stop by and say hello, as he conducted a quick interview and stopped for photos with kids.

It was a fantastic day out overall, an experience I will not forget. I must admit I’m relieved to have broken my curse and seen Tranmere win, but also thankful to Matt for sorting us out with such a stylish matchday adventure in the hospitality lounge. Tranmere still harbour hopes of catching Macclesfield for automatic promotion and this win keeps them in the hunt.

As a fully-fledged (perhaps honorary) Tranmere fan now, I sincerely hope they can get back into the Football League this season. They’ve got the squad, the stadium and facilities, and the support of an incredibly passionate fanbase. Time will tell if they can make it.

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Bath City FC vs Eastbourne Borough

I have lived in Bath for nearly 10 years now, but I am not from this part of the country. In that respect, I have never truly considered Bath City FC, of the Vanarama National League South, to be my local team.

However, I have made an effort over the past decade to see The Romans in person when I can. I have attended a fair amount of games, most of them during the 2009/10 season, when City made their playoff run and beat Woking 1-0 in the playoff final to seal promotion to the Conference. I got to go on the pitch and everything, a great day out.

Since then my attendance has been increasingly sporadic, often years between appearances. Twerton Park, the 8,840 capacity home of Bath City, is a little rough around the edges. It has a certain charm to it but the ground has seen better days. Having said that, attending a match there is like travelling back in time. No video replays, no scoreboard, not even a clock in sight. In a city that boasts such wealth and history, it is incredible that Bath isn’t home to a more established football team. Then again, the city has always been taken with that other sport, the one with the weird-shaped ball no one cares about for most of the year.

So it was that I decided to visit Twerton Park once more, to see Bath City take on Eastbourne Borough, who had travelled a fair way from Sussex. The match was originally scheduled for a Saturday kickoff in early March but the adverse weather that decommissioned the UK recently pushed it to a Tuesday night instead.

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My friend Caleb and his buddy Nick accompanied me for the evening under the lights. Prior to kickoff Bath City were comfortably mid table, with eyes on a potential playoff spot. A win over Eastbourne would definitely put them in contention. The visitors were a few places below Bath, treading water above the relegation zone.

What we witnessed on the pitch was… well, it was ugly.

This was football for the dark ages.

Perhaps the highlight of the match was a stray ball punted into the stands, and Nick, with a deft touch, volleyed it back onto the pitch. A small round of applause from the fans around us broke out. It might have been the best piece of skill witnessed all night.

In fairness, Bath created just enough that they probably deserved to win. In the early stages City got some joy down the flanks, and were unlucky not to connect properly on a couple of vicious crosses into the box, midfielder Opi Edwards blazing over City’s best chance.

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After that initial flurry of activity, the match descended into the worst kind of non-league football you could imagine. Scrappy is a nice word to describe it. It was low quality stuff across the board.

A goal finally came around the hour mark, when Bath defender Jack Batten misread a long ball over his head. Goalie Luke Southwood came rushing out, a collision of bodies occured, and Eastbourne striker Yemi Odubade emerged unscathed to poke the ball free and slotted home to make it 1-0 to the visitors. It was a really poor goal to concede, and entirely fitting with the nature of the game up to that point.

City going behind seemed to spark them into life, and they pushed for an equaliser right up to the end. The goal eluded them however, and it finished 1-0 to Eastbourne.

Overall, it was a disheartening evening for the Bath City faithful. The fans around us regularly lost their patience throughout the second half and their frustration boiled over with every heavy touch, and each long ball hit in hope and desperation.

It wasn’t to be their night.

Plymouth Argyle vs Oldham Athletic

An early Christmas present for the Green Army

There are an increasing number of supporters for a winter break being introduced to the British football calendar but I don’t count myself among them.

Football is an intrinsic part of my Christmas routine. It’s so ingrained in my festive pattern that a Christmas without football would be a sad time indeed. Apparently it’s a big reason why the Premier League gains such a global audience; when everyone else in Europe is taking a break, the world of football turns it’s gaze to the UK and it’s gluttonous football fixture list.

This Christmas I didn’t find myself at a Premier League game though. Instead, I found myself by the sea in Plymouth, home to my wife’s family and Plymouth Argyle, or The Pilgrims as they are affectionately known.

It wasn’t until a few hours before kickoff that I even considered watching Argyle on the 23rd of December. In fact it was sheer luck that when we arrived in Plymouth, the first sight I saw off the train was a chap in a bright blue Oldham shirt. He’s a long way from home I thought to myself, before realising it was a Saturday and football is played on Saturdays.

In the car on the way to the house I googled the Plymouth fixtures and would you believe it, they were hosting Oldham Athletic that very afternoon. An hour later I had impulse-purchased two tickets in the upper grandstand of Home Park, Plymouth’s 16,388 capacity stadium. My father-in-law, a Naval man who has called Plymouth home for decades, had never seen the Pilgrims in the flesh so he joined me for the afternoon.

Upon arrival at the ground my first mission, as is my usual custom, was to pick up a programme. And Plymouth Argyle boast one of the best designed programmes in the game, courtesy of the talented illustration team at The Graphic Bomb. See below for their effort from the Oldham match, with Pilgrims star Graham Carey gracing the cover.

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We then made our way to the bar, sank a pint of Tribute’s local Cornish Pale Ale, and began the climb upward to our seats in the old grandstand. Built in 1952, this part of Home Park is showing it’s age, especially in comparison to the rest of the modern stadium. Just take a look below at my seat for the afternoon.

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Having said that, there’s a definite charm to old football stadia like the grandstand at Home Park. As uncomfortable as my seat might appear it served it’s purpose, and part of me admires that little bit of history still remaining in the modern game.

By the time the last Christmas song had faded away over the PA system and the players emerged from the tunnel, I had decided to align myself with Argyle. They were the home side, my wife’s hometown team (even if she detests football), and they played in green (my favourite colour). I had purchased an Argyle pin badge to stick on my jacket prior to kickoff, firmly cementing my allegiance for the day. Strangely enough I have a soft spot for Oldham, thanks to some successful years on Football Manager with the Latics. But on the day I put that aside in favour of the Green Army, and cheered on the home side.

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Seated nearby were a small family of Plymouth fans, representing three generations of support for their local side. There was a grandfather accompanying his son, who also had his two children with him, the smallest still a toddler clutching her Pilgrim Pete teddy bear. Behind them were sat a couple of old timers, hard Devon accents making their conversation hard to decipher. It was a good bunch around us and we were all treated to a fine performance, one of the most enjoyable games I’ve been to in a while.

The Green Army didn’t have to wait long for an early Christmas present, as Argyle struck twice within the first 6 minutes to take a stunning 2-0 lead. Goals from Toumani Diagouraga and Graham Carey put the home side in front and Carey’s goal in particular was something special, a delightful chip over the keeper.

Despite Oldham looking composed in possession throughout most of the game, they struggled to break Plymouth down in the final third. The northern visitors were finally rewarded early in the second half when Anthony Gerrard headed home from a corner but the away fans’ jubilation was short-lived. Just a few minutes later Plymouth restored their two-goal lead with a set piece of their own, Carey putting the ball on Ryan Edwards’ head from a free kick to make it 3-1. Argyle put the contest to bed when substitute Jake Jervis scored with his first touch of the ball, rounding off a perfect afternoon as the Home Park faithful enjoyed their 4-1 victory.

It was Plymouth’s largest League One win this season and lifted them out of the relegation zone. I couldn’t have picked a better day to see them. For highlights of the game, see Argyle’s excellent Matchday Moments video package.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Home Park and will definitely be keen to see Argyle again next time I’m in town.

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