Saturday the 19th of January saw me back at Twerton Park for a top of the table clash between Vanarama National League South leaders Torquay United and third-placed Bath City. Torquay, the only fully professional team in the division, entered the game in confident mood, riding a 10 game winning streak, but Bath had their own unbeaten run of 7 games to be proud of (including 5 straight clean sheets). With both teams in form and promotion hopes on the horizon, there was a great deal of anticipation and buzz ahead of the match.
Caleb and I had circled this one on the fixture list some time ago, and with the news that Torquay had sold out their allocation of 1,450 tickets, we expected an atmosphere at the ground like we’d never experienced before. I was present at the incredible 2010 Playoff Final against Woking, when 4,865 supporters packed onto the terraces for a famous City victory, but my knowledge and support for the team was in its infancy back then. This time I would be more appreciative of the occasion.
We begun the day with lunch at Smash Burger and already it was noticeable that Torquay were in town, as we saw a number of golden striped scarves strolling about. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an away supporter in Bath for the football, as many of the clubs at this level don’t often bring many away fans with them on their travels.
Camila, a representative of Bath City’s Colombian fan club contingent, joined us again for her third City game of the season. We were also joined by Caleb’s better half Caitlyn, attending her first ever football match. The four of us met for burgers and shakes before embarking on the 25 minute walk towards the ground.
We decided to get there earlier than we usually do, given the expected rise in attendance. Upon arrival we were met by some of the club’s young volunteers, who wore those old fashioned usherette trays around their necks, with the tray full of Bath City goodies on sale. It was great the club had made the extra effort on what was set to be a big day for them. Caleb had been keen on picking up a City scarf for a while and couldn’t resist the classic striped edition, for just £9 as well. Pleased with his new purchase we moved on to the club shop, a part of Twerton Park I had somehow neglected to explore in all of my past visits. It was already busy when Camila and I entered, with a small family buying scarves and t-shirts over the counter. The club must have done very well financially with all of the extra attention the league leaders attracted. As has been my custom in the last year, I bought a long-overdue Bath City pin badge to add to my collection, and Camila bought one as well.
With time on our side and over half an hour still to go before kickoff, we passed through the turnstiles and set about finding our spot for the afternoon. In the past I have always stood on the same terrace, usually in the same spot, but Caleb and I had been deliberating about switching things up a bit. It was for the visit of the mighty Torquay that we we decided to stand on the opposite side of the pitch, in front of the main grandstand, bravely facing the elements without the safety of a roof above us. Thankfully it wasn’t set to rain and with the temperature hovering around 4°C we were at least prepared for the weather (except poor Caitlyn, whose trainer socks offered no protection for her ankles).
Being in front of the grandstand, close to both dugouts and the player’s tunnel, was a different but enjoyable experience. You tend to find yourself pretty close to the pitch wherever you position yourself at non-league grounds, but I did remark that we felt particularly close on this afternoon, without compromising our view. We were also positioned near to the snack bar, so those familiar football smells of fried meat and onions made us feel right at home in our new digs. The Torquay fans had taken over one entire terrace behind the goal, as well as the Family Stand in the corner close to their end, and this was the first time I had ever recognised segregation between supporters at Twerton Park. As I said before, it’s not often visiting clubs bring a group numbering over 1,000.
Facing formidable opposition Bath manager Jerry Gill stuck to the 3-5-2 formation that has been so effective of late. The side included Leon Davies, a one month loanee fresh from Cambridge United, and the 19 year-old right back went straight into the starting eleven.
It was Bath who started the strongest and struck first thanks to Freddie Hinds’ inspired finish, crashing his shot in off the underside of the bar to give Bath a deserved 1-0 lead after just 9 minutes played. Joe Raynes was excellent in the build-up, when the versatile youngster stole possession before playing an excellent pass into the open Hinds. The energy and pressing from Gill’s men took Torquay by surprise, and even when they began to see more of the ball, they were still unable to really threaten Ryan Clarke in the City goal.
Frustratingly, it was a set piece that saw Torquay draw level just before the first half whistle, when an inswinging corner found midfielder Asa Hall, whose glanced header was enough to get past Raynes on the line to make it 1-1. In the celebrations, a minority of Torquay fans (matching bald heads) were a bit over enthusiastic and went through the whole “come on then” routine in the corner with some Bath supporters. The stewards had to get involved, and it was a sight I never expected to see at the quaint Twerton Park. Their yellow flares were a nice touch though, and added a bit of colour to their festivities.
The second half was a tight affair and Bath appeared to match Torquay in every department but it was another set piece that became the home side’s undoing. This time the corner escaped everybody, including the disappointed Clarke in goal, and forward Jamie Reid was on hand to tap home to give the visitors a 2-1 lead. Cue more antagonism from the away fans and more flares. They certainly were an exuberant bunch.
Bath rallied in response but Torquay were set to put the game to bed when they were awarded a penalty with just over 15 minutes left. City debutant right back Davies was adjudged to have tripped Jake Andrews in the box, and it was Andrews who took the ball and placed it on the spot. Caleb instantly said, “he’s going to miss this, it’s going right over the bar,” in a half-sarcastic manner. In front of the away fans and with the goal at his mercy, the 21 year-old Bath-born Andrews did as Caleb predicted, and smashed the ball high over the bar, much to our relief and to his dismay.
The penalty miss was exactly the boost City needed; the fans knew it, and the increase in noise and support fuelled the team forwards as they searched for an equaliser. Shortly after Torquay’s missed penalty Ryan Brunt was introduced in exchange for Hinds, and the Bath striker made an instant impression, brought down in the penalty box with under 10 minutes to play.
Captain Anthony Straker made no mistake from the spot and sent the keeper the wrong way to bring Bath level, the crowd erupting when the ball hit the back of the net.
Straker and Brunt were not finished yet though, and with our quartet still basking in the joy of the equaliser, Straker was busy bursting down the left wing and his cross found Brunt free from his marker. The target man, and apple of Camila’s eye, deftly guided the ball across goal with his left boot, lifting it past the outstretched keeper to make it 3-2 and put the league leaders flat on their backs. I was so wrapped up in my celebration (a weird fist pump/giddy hop mix) that I missed Brunt getting tripped by Torquay’s flattened defender, then run back and get in his face about it, before finally remembering he’s scored the winner and enjoy the moment in front of the fans. It was absolute chaos all around us as the home fans broke into song, singing cheerio to the Torquay fans who decided they’d seen enough.
The final minutes saw the visitors push for the goal that would earn them a point, and even their goalkeeper had a shot towards goal, but Bath held on, marking a comeback win that will live long in every fan’s memory. It had the occasion and spectacle of a cup game, and the players and staff fed off that energy, thanks in large part to the 3,492 fans who packed into the ground. It makes such a difference to the atmosphere when Twerton Park can draw four-figure crowds.
We stayed to applaud the players off the pitch as they rightly took in a lap of honour, and celebrated a performance they can all be proud of. My man of the match was Robbie Cundy, the young and unflappable centre back whose calmness in defence and quality in possession shone through all afternoon.
Bath now find themselves 4 points behind Torquay at the top of the division, although Torquay currently have a game in hand. With promotion a distinct possibility this year, Gill and his squad will want to stay focused and as the manager acknowledged after the game, the task isn’t over yet. Possessing one of the best defensive records in the league (only Torquay have conceded less), they have a solid foundation to continue building upon in this second half of the season.
I know I’ll be there to see how they fare. Come on you Romans!