The first day of May saw Twerton Park play host to Bath City and Wealdstone FC in the National League South Play-Off eliminator, with the winner progressing in their bid for promotion to the top tier of non league football.
Whatever the result, it was to be the final home game of the season at Twerton Park, Bath’s rustic and charming non league ground, and it could not have been a more pleasant Wednesday evening for a night at the football.
Bath had secured 5th place in the league thanks to a comprehensive 2-0 victory away to Billericay Town (which incidentally caused the Essex side to miss the play-offs), and Wealdstone finished the season in 7th position, pitting the two sides against each other in this special winner-takes-all event. Nothing separated these teams in their regular season games, both of which ended in draws, so we were in store for a closely fought contest.
I began my pre-match preparations with a delicious Chinese takeaway from Magic Wok, located right next to the stadium. I quickly stuffed my face with some ribs, roast pork fried rice and lemon chicken, because I was already running late to meet Caleb (regular visitors to this blog will already be familiar with Caleb, my ever-present Bath City running mate).
I met him in the ground, at our usual spot on the terrace close to the halfway line. A big crowd was on hand to support their local side – I could tell that when I was waiting for my Chinese. Once in the stadium the gaps around us began to fill in and the teams soon completed their warm-ups.
Bath fielded their strongest possible side, with talismanic target man Ryan Brunt leading the attack. In support of Brunt was Ross Stearn, Bath’s nippy goalscoring winger, and Freddie Hinds, a Bristol City loanee who never stops running. In midfield the veteran Frankie Artus was joined by another Bristol City loanee, the young James Morton, with Tom Smith, City’s diminutive ginger Iniesta, rounding out the trio. The defence were led by captain Anthony Straker and Joe Raynes on the flanks, with Jack Batten and the Supporters’ Club Player of the Season Robbie Cundy at the heart of the backline. Ryan Clarke, the man responsible for marshalling the league’s best defence (just 36 goals conceded with 19 clean sheets), took his customary place in goal.
With the game underway it was clear both sides were feeling the effects of the occasion, and some sloppy play indicated it would take time for the nerves to settle.
Sadly, it was Wealdstone who were first to adjust, and they scored after 11 minutes, a fine strike from Jake Sheppard, low into the bottom corner and beyond Clarke’s reach. Sheppard would be forced to leave the game through injury after 25 minutes and Bath upped the ante in response, as they desperately worked for an equaliser.
A handful of good opportunities came their way during this time: Tom Smith controlled a seemingly wayward high ball before playing a defence-splitting pass to Stearn, bursting down the left wing. Stearn’s angle was acute but he forced a strong save from Wealdstone ‘keeper Jonathan North. A pair of set pieces caused goalmouth scrambles, the ball somehow eluding the back of the Wealdstone net each time. It was chaos.
Despite the pressure, Bath headed down the tunnel at half time still trailing but only by the single goal. Momentum appeared to be on their side though and Wealdstone had looked rudderless in the final third without their goalscorer Sheppard.
After the restart the home side looked to reassert themselves and largely succeeded, but that final piece of quality and important goal were still missing.
Then disaster struck, when seemingly out of nowhere Wealdstone doubled their lead. In the 63rd minute the ball evaded every Bath defender in the box and found Jeffrey Monakana unmarked at the back post to tap home the easiest goal he’ll ever score. Monakana was a constant threat all night with his pace and trickery and deserved his goal, but City manager Jerry Gill would have been thoroughly disappointed at the manner of it’s creation.
At 2-0 the situation was starting to look dire for us but credit must go to the City squad – they did not give up.
Ten minutes later Joe Raynes picked up the ball from right back and slalomed through the Wealdstone defence. His mazy run took him to the edge of the opposition penalty area and he just managed to squeeze a pass to Brunt, bearing down on goal. Goalkeeper North rushed out from his position, as he had all night, but Brunt was there to meet him. The big Bath striker was beaten to the ball but couldn’t avoid contact with North, and the pair clashed in an ugly tangle.
Brunt was immediately given his marching orders and could have no complaints, whilst North was treated on the floor for his injuries, and was eventually stretchered to a nearby ambulance, applauded from the pitch by all supporters. Reports indicate he was later released from hospital so hopefully his injuries were minor and he’ll be alright; it looked very serious at the time.
Trailing by two goals and reduced to ten men, I think the fans would have forgiven the City players for giving up.
And yet, they persevered, and minutes later found themselves back in the game.
With under ten minutes to go it was substitute Adam Mann who created a chance out of thin air (when he entered play I remarked, “he’s got a goal in him”). With his back to goal Mann turned on the ball, battling defenders for position, before turning and shooting. It was a very ambitious attempt and didn’t look immediately dangerous. But the shot hit a defender and looped high into the air, too high for the newly introduced goalkeeper Dylan Paterson to track, and the ball nestled over his head and into the net.
The fans around us burst into rapture, a flare hit the turf, and belief surged through the Bath faithful for the first time all night. There were 2,201 souls packed into Twerton Park this night and you could hear every single one of them (well, perhaps not the Wealdstone supporters).
With faith restored in the stands, the Bath squad embraced the energy and continued their attack, surging forward for an equaliser that would force extra time and complete the most unlikeliest of comebacks.
Some desperation defending from the visitors kept City at bay. Even Tom Smith, who had an inspired game in the Bath midfield and received the Man of the Match award, couldn’t weave his way through the Wealdstone wall. There were nine minutes of stoppage time to play and we could sense Bath were just inches away from getting that vital goal.
But disaster struck when a mistake by Clarke in the City goal saw the ball land at the feet of veteran forward David Pratt, and the Wealdstone man made no mistake with the simple tap-in to give Wealdstone a 3-1 lead they would not relinquish.
It was a devastating blow that silenced the home support instantly, who knew their dreams of promotion were over.
Wealdstone were good value for their victory, even if two of their goals were somewhat fortuitous. Bath will be disappointed to have conceded such needless goals but could not have given more effort and endeavour. The players left it all on the field, and were rightly applauded as they circled the pitch at full time.
Under Gill’s leadership a feel-good factor has returned to the club that should carry them into the 2019/20 campaign. With crowds averaging into four digits for the first time in my memory, there is a distinctly positive vibe at Twerton Park, a feeling of what could be.
Jerry Gill and his squad can feel immensely proud of what they have achieved this season. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed following the Romans this year and that’s solely down to them.