A new season. New faces. A level playing field, albeit for one day. Hope renewed and our Saturday routine restored.
It certainly feels good to have football back again.
My 2019/20 campaign begun in typical fashion, at the home of my local club Bath City FC, as they hosted Braintree Town to begin another season in the Vanarama National League South.
After making (and sadly exiting) the playoffs only a few months ago, City manager Jerry Gill will have set his sights on returning to the front of the pack this year, and hopefully going one better than last season – promotion is an expectation this time, not just a prayer.
It was a humid but slightly overcast Saturday to watch football, with the sun peeking out to grace us only occasionally. Caleb, my trusty Bath City companion, was on hand to accompany me for the afternoon and we began the day with a couple of drinks and a Twisted Chicken club sandwich at Moorland Road’s celebrated Velo Lounge. If I set myself the task of allocating a pre-match routine this season, a trip to the Velo would be top of my list.
We finished our meals and made the short walk to Twerton Park, and arrived with roughly 20 minutes to go before kickoff. I was instantly struck by the lack of people around us – I had expected a bumper crowd, especially considering last season’s success, the nice weather, and the fact it was the season opener. Perhaps the early August games are impacted by families being away on their summer holidays but I’ll admit I was disappointed at the turnout; just 784 made the effort, less than last year’s opening day defeat against Dartford (828).
Propped against the railing close to our customary spot on the halfway line, we settled in.
Jerry Gill was missing some of his regulars (both Frankie Artus and Jack Batten were injured) but you wouldn’t have known it from the early action. Despite fielding a starting eleven that included just four men from last season’s squad, the Romans looked the more assured side. The new guys appeared to be perfectly in sync with one another, a testament to Gill’s pre-season preparations.
A few chances came City’s way as they moved the ball nicely but Braintree had the first serious opportunity, seemingly out of nowhere.
From the halfway line, Braintree’s Josh Urquhart audaciously tried to beat City keeper Ryan Clarke with a quickly taken free kick that very nearly succeeded; Urquhart struck the ball cleanly and Clarke backpedalled just enough to keep the ball from arcing over his head, tipping it onto the crossbar. Little did Clarke know that Braintree forward Thomas Richardson was lying in wait to pounce on the loose ball, but his scuffed shot bounced harmlessly into Clarke’s grateful arms. Watching from the stands, it honestly appeared hard to miss than score. Disaster averted.
With the score level after 45 minutes, Caleb and I sensed a change was needed. Bath had played well but they were missing that cutting edge, and Gill sensed it too. The manager introduced Ross Stearn to open the second half and the tricky winger made an instant impact.
Stearn entering the fray brought a shift to a 4-3-3 formation that Braintree were unprepared for, and two minutes after the break Bath took advantage.
A cross from Stearn was deflected into the path of Tom Smith, who set himself before unleashing an absolute rocket. Caleb and I had the perfect angle on it, and watched like gleeful children as the ball buried itself into the net, past the outstretched palm of the Braintree keeper. Smith, now a permanent addition to Gill’s side, ended 2018/19 with an inspired playoff performance against Wealdstone, and the young midfielder looks to continue where he left off.
We had barely finished our applause for the first goal when Bath struck again.
A poor clearance from the Braintree defence was intercepted by Man-of-the-Match Joe Raynes, whose expertly timed tackle left the ball at the feet of Stearn. The winger wasn’t even facing goalwards but instinctively wrapped his right boot around the ball, curling an utterly glorious effort into the far corner. It took everyone in the ground by surprise. Supporters exploded in wild celebration all around us – it was Beckham-esque stuff from Stearn and an early goal-of-season contender. He couldn’t have struck it any better.
City had more chances to add to their lead as the half progressed but Braintree were completely stunned by the Bath’s second half salvo – those early goals took Braintree out of the game, and they never recovered the energy they displayed earlier in the contest.
When the referee blew the final whistle, Twerton Park filled with thunderous applause, and as the players walked over to show us their appreciation, we stayed a while longer to show ours in return.
It should be a fun season of football ahead.