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.
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.
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.
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!