Monthly Archives: December 2015

Baggies, Magpies and the Poshest Greggs in the World…

I must have been a very good boy this year because I got to go to two football matches over the Christmas period! I’ve already written about my visit to Haverfordwest County FC on Boxing Day. If that was cake and ale football, then the visit to The Hawthorns and West Bromwich Albion on 28th December was much more like champagne and caviar. And that must be the first time that West Bromwich Albion, champagne and caviar have all featured in the same sentence.

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The slightly faded club badge on the outside of The Hawthorns

Things returned more or less to normal for this trip. It was Dan and me. I drove. And the traffic around Newport on the way to the Midlands was awful. However, there were a couple of striking differences too. Dan – newly financially independent now that he’s working full time – had bought the tickets. And – following earlier Bank Holiday ground hops to Shrewsbury, Oxford, Wolves and Yeovil – this was our first sojourn to a Premiership match.

Newport notwithstanding (when will somebody finally approve the start of work on the new M4 to the south of the city?) the trip to West Bromwich was uneventful. The club’s website had helpfully stated that parking was plentiful and reasonably priced all around The Hawthorns, and that proved to be the case. We left Cardiff at 11.40am and parked within 10 minutes walk of the ground (¬£5) at 1.20pm. Thankfully, this was a dry day, and the temperature was a balmy 13 degrees C as we strolled towards the ground.

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Probably the poshest Greggs in the World – and the focal point of the WBA Fan Zone

We stopped off first in the WBA fan zone just outside the stadium, drawn mainly (to be honest) by the sight of the poshest-looking Greggs that we have ever seen! Eschewing the delights of that establishment’s chicken pasties, we instead plumped for an excellent burger from one of the outlets within the Fan Zone before leaving for a walk around the stadium.

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Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown – WBA legend

It’s fair to say that The Hawthorns is not the most picturesque ground in the world. There is little to whet the appetite of the amateur photographer in the stadium’s external architecture. Just outside what passes for the main entrance to the ground, there is a statue of Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown. Brown is a WBA legend having made over 550 senior appearances for the Baggies, scoring over 200 goals along the way. Another WBA hero was remembered more poignantly on the day that we were there. Don Howe had passed away on 23rd December. Howe played over 340 games for the Baggies between 1952 and 1964, before returning to manage the side between 1971 and 1975. There was a heartfelt minute’s applause to mark his passing before the kick-off, which was marked in equal measure by WBA and Newcastle fans.

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Players and fans joined in a minutes’ applause in memory of Don Howe before kick off

Having made our way into the ground, we were amazed to find that our seats were almost within touching distance of the playing surface. Normally, I like to watch the game from a slightly more elevated position, affording a degree of perspective over the whole match. However, it’s only when you’re down at pitch level that you get a true appreciation of the the speed of the game and the physical attributes of the players. Victor Anichebe and Jonas Olsson both started this game for WBA and they were by some margin the most intimidating players on the pitch. Anichebe bullied the Newcastle defence all afternoon, and Baggies boss Tony Pulis will be hoping that the injury that he picked up in the final few minutes is not as serious as it looked at the time.

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Anichebe (10) and Olsson (on stilts!) making life difficult for the Newcastle defence at a 1st half corner

The game itself was actually very entertaining. The Albion won it with the only goal coming from the head of Darren Fletcher with 14 minutes remaining. It was no more than the Baggies deserved, although Newcastle will be disappointed that a determined (not to say occasionally desperate) rearguard action did not bring them a  share of the points on the day. Stand-out players on the day were Anichebe, Sessegnon and Fletcher for the Baggies; and Coloccini for the Magpies.

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The mandatory kick-off pic – Fletcher was excellent for WBA

Mike Jones and his refereeing team had a generally good day, although there was a blatant pull back on Wijnaldum by Jonny Evans at the mid-point of the second half that should have resulted in a penalty kick to Newcastle and a red card for the WBA centre back. With the benefit of the replays on Match of the Day later in the evening, it seems likely that Jones was unsighted at the critical moment, but it was certainly a let-off for the Baggies. Unusually, Jones didn’t produce a card throughout the entire game; which is in part, testament to the spirit in which both teams approached the match.

In the car on the way home, the match summariser from Radio 5 Live suggested that Newcastle had shown enough in the game to suggest that they would avoid relegation this season, despite their precarious current position in the table. I’m not sure that I’d agree with that assessment, given their lack of any sustained attacking threat on this occasion. But I hope they do survive if only as a reward for the Geordie fans who filled the away seats at The Hawthorns and supported their team noisily and consistently throughout the entire 90 minutes.

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Newcastle players going through their pre-match warm-up routines – orange and fuschia bibs brightening a dull afternoon!

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The pre-match ‘Respect’ handshakes – that’s Sessegnon behind Olsson, not one of the mascots!

Bluebirds, Black & Greens, and a Howling Gale

Saturday 26th December 2015. Boxing Day. Time for another odyssey to a previously unvisited ground to catch some seasonal football. Only this time it was different. My travelling companion was Charlotte, and we were off on the trip to Pembrokeshire to watch the Welsh Premier League fixture between Haverfordwest County and Aberystwyth Town. Before friends and family start to worry, let me put your minds at rest. We hadn’t completely taken leave of our senses. This was the first opportunity that we had had to go and see Dan on Assistant Refereeing duties following his promotion to the Welsh Premier assistants list at the start of the season.

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Dan looking focused at the kick off

Haverfordwest is the county town of Pembrokeshire and is dominated by the castle that towers above the town and the River Cleddau that runs through the centre of it. The original castle was established in 1120, but most of what now remains can be traced back to alteration works undertaken by successive Earls of Pembroke in the late 1200s. The town has long been an administrative and trading centre for south west Wales, and it boasted the second largest port in the country until the arrival of the railway in 1853.

To return to out trip. We left Cardiff at 12.15pm and made our way, under leaden skies, along the M4 and A40, the 100 miles to Haverfordwest’s Conygar Bridge Meadow Stadium. Pembrokeshire had seemingly escaped the heaviest of the rain that had affected so much of the rest of the UK over Christmas, and the pitch was heavy, but not nearly as wet as I’d imagined it might be. The wind, however – well, that was a different matter altogether.

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Checking the nets – they were a useful safety precaution to prevent players being blown to Carmarthen!

Whilst Haverfordwest might not be the most westerly point in mainland Wales, you can certainly see it from there. And when the weather aligns such that the wind comes in from the south west – well, let’s just say that it’s got a three thousand mile long ocean run up, and it tends to make full use of it! On this particular day, it was what my grandfather would have described as a particularly lazy wind – not bothering to take the time to go around you, it blew straight through you instead.

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The match day programme

The orientation of the pitch at Haverfordwest is such that the prevailing wind effectively blows in over the club house behind the goal at one end of the ground, sweeps the full length of the pitch, and then disappears off in the direction of Carmarthen beyond the other end. As Dan was the junior assistant (and therefore on the line opposite the main grandstand with its wind-protecting sides), we sat instead in the smaller and more open stand on the other side of the ground. We had hoped for some respite from the howling gale by sitting alongside the media box near the half way line, but this proved to be wishful thinking.

The match itself was very badly affected by the conditions. The pitch cut up quite badly from the outset, making it difficult to play any sort of passing game, and severely hampering attempts to get the ball down on the floor to counteract the wind. Haverfordwest played into the wind in the first forty-five minutes, and the ball spent long periods of time in their half. On the few occasions when the ball did make it into the hands of the Aberystwyth keeper at the other end, he was able to use the elements to send it 70 or 80 metres back down field with the easiest of swings of his right boot – a tactic that (in all honesty) neither side employed nearly enough in the circumstances. This was not a day for tiki-taka football.

Neither side was on the greatest run of form coming into the match, and this lack of confidence, coupled with the heavy pitch and strong wind, meant that this was never going to be a classic. Chances in the first half were restricted to a well-taken free kick by Aberystwyth’s Venables that cannoned back off the post; and a rasping drive from Haverfordwest’s Borrelli that was smartly tipped over the cross bar by the Aber keeper. There were a couple of half-hearted penalty appeals from Aber, but neither looked like they had much going for them from my viewpoint in the stand, and half-time arrived at nil-nil.

The second half followed a similar pattern to the first. Aberystwyth probably played the best football, and in Venables they certainly had the best player on the pitch. He looked calm and assured in possession and seemed to create time and space even when receiving the ball in what was often a congested midfield area. For all Aber’s possession though, they seemed unlikely to break down a resolute and determined Bluebirds defence until an attempted cross from young substitute Nicky Palmer swirled over the head of the Haverfordwest keeper and dipped dramatically in the face of the wind, to nestle in the far corner of the net. A total fluke, but ultimately the decisive moment in the match. Aber held on to win by the single goal, extending Haverfordwest’s winless streak to eleven games and leaving them rooted to the foot of the Welsh Premier League table.

This was a relatively easy game for the match officials, with very few flashpoints and no real controversy – just what you want on the day after Christmas. It was great seeing Dan in action on a Welsh Premier game for the first time, and both parents made the trip back to Cardiff feeling very proud!

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“Round you go, fellas” – the teams change ends following the coin toss at the start of the game