Bath City defeated lowly Weymouth 2-0 on Saturday. It was not the one-sided goalfest City supporters had been hoping for. In fact, for a while it looked like there would be no goals scored at all by either team. Weymouth gambled on a 0-0 draw, hoping to take at least a single point home with them. They played a scrappy game, mostly with all eleven players behind the ball. I suppose City should take this as a sort of compliment, but it was a compliment that failed to make the match any more pleasant to watch.
Unaware of what a tense, frustrating spectacle I was in store for later on, I set out for Twerton Park about an hour earlier than necessary. I had the two Nedved Juniors with me, and they enjoy going into the club bar (Charlie's), getting a Coke, and watching the last part of whatever Premiership match is on Sky before City's 3 o'clock kickoff. Actually, Big Nedved Junior enjoys watching the Premiership match. Little Nedved Junior enjoys slurping the Coke to see how big a burp he can manage.
As we stood queueing, and waiting for our carbonated, caramel-coloured joy in bottles, I noticed that at the other end of the bar stood City player Lewis Hogg nursing a pint. Having been injured in a vicious tackle by Weston player Josh Klein-Davies, and suspended for a straight red card for the fracas that followed the tackle, Hogg would only be watching the afternoon's match from the stands. His absence was a blow for the City team, of which he is an integral part, but a boon for us. I had in my pocket Big Nedved Junior's Lewis Hogg trading card, and here was my chance to get it autographed (for Big Nedved Junior, of course). I approached him with a pen in my extended hand, and he duly obliged. We chatted briefly about his injury (prospects look good for him being back on the squad for the Thurrock match), and whether or not he would immediately rejoin the starting lineup (I expressed my absolute conviction that he would). Despite my best efforts, neither Nedved Junior would come into the line of sight of their hero, preferring the safety of standing behind my legs.
After profuse thankyous to Lewis Hogg, we found seats and watched Everton score their second and third goals to defeat Manchester United. And Little Nedved Junior managed some spectacular belches. We drank up and headed for the turnstiles.
The boys and I headed over to what has become our normal spot on the terraces - near the giant white ensign where the burgeoning Bath City 'Ultras' gather. Some of the most vocal singers were already present, and it looked like we would be able to create a good atmosphere in Twerton Park. After the Havant match, where there had not been very many of us, and the Dover match, when the Dover fans stood right next to us and banged drums in our faces, everyone was hoping for a relaxed but spirited afternoon.
And then, much to my astonishment, a rowdy band of Weymouth supporters wandered over and began setting out their flags right next to us. And, they had a drum. I couldn't believe it. The coin-toss had not even taken place yet, so there was no way the Weymouth fans were positioning themselves to watch the Weymouth attack (assuming that there would be one). Being American, and therefore mercifully free of most social inhibitions, I decided to approach one of the Weymouth supporters and ask him, 'Just what the heck do you think you are doing?'
Actually, I said it much less confrontationally. I guess I do have some social inhibitions after all. I asked why they had chosen, of all the places in the ground, to come and stand right next to the noisiest group of City supporters. He said that they had originally gathered at the Bath End goal, and that a steward had told them to move here. This made no sense. Either the steward was totally ignorant of the makeup of the City crowd, or the Weymouth supporter had completely misunderstood what he had been told. The manner of the Weymouth supporter, which appeared to have been augmented by several adult beverages on the train ride north, made me think it was the latter. There was no aggression in his unfocused expression, though. I tried explaining, as he stood tying Weymouth banners in front of City's most hardcore support, why this didn't seem like a good idea to me. He shrugged his shoulders, either in indifference or incomprehension, and continued setting out his blue and terracotta flags.
The Weymouth crowd were unruly, crude, and hostile. Well....sort of. They swore a blue streak throughout the match, and they took long sips from the cans of lager they had brought into the ground. They were, however, in all honesty, pretty good fun. Their club has been the laughing stock of non-league football for over a year, and their team is almost certain to face a second successive relegation. Their prospects for victory against Bath, or against anyone really, were low. And still they came, and still they were determined to be noisy and support 'the lads.' You had to admire them, even if you didn't want to get too close. Their single drum didn't even bother me so much.
And then came a moment, unexpectedly, when both sets of 'ultras' found something in common to support. As I wrote about previously, former Bath City manager Brian Godfrey passed away on 11 February. After leading City to the Southern League Championship in 1977 he left for Exeter City and then spent four years managing Weymouth. A minute's applause was held before kickoff to celebrate his life, and remember his time leading both clubs.Unexpectedly, someone behind me started up 'There's Only One Brian Godfrey!' This was immediately taken up by the Weymouth fans as well. And then it was sung again, and again by all of us until the ref blew the whistle for the game to start. It was remarkable not only for the unified display by rival supporters, but also because very few of the people singing would have been old enough to remember Brian Godfrey as a manager. Hardly any of the Bath City Ultras were even born before 1977. To me it was testimony to the strong sense of community that exists among football supporters - so much so that there appears to be a sort of communal memory. And, I'll admit, it brought a big lump to my throat.
The match kicked off to a terrific roar from the whole ground. A victory, which seemed likely at the outset, could potentially put City among the playoff spots. Weymouth had lost their previous match by six goals. Surely this was the moment with City finally crashed the top places in the table and took their rightful (so we think, anyway) place among the top teams in the league.
Except...the match didn't start like it was going end with a thumping victory for the men in stripes. Oh sure, City had the vast majority of possession. I would describe the Weymouth attach as 'toothless,' except there wasn't really an attack to describe at all. On the rare occasions when Weymouth did move the ball forward they did it as if they were just trying to buy time for their defensive line to have a breather and regroup. And yet, despite all of this, City failed miserably to make any significant attack on goal for the first twenty minutes. The Weymouth players crowded their penalty box like tourists outside the Pump Rooms in the city centre, reducing City to halting and unsuccessful attempts to dribble through to a good position. Crosses were ineffective as well. The City strike pair, Darren Edwards and Dave Gilroy, were constantly outnumbered whenever they tried to reach any incoming ball. A rare, but unsuccessful attack on goal by City captain Jim Rollo was the highlight of the first half for me. The Weymouth supporters, surprised to be approaching the interval without conceding, sang 'You Haven't Scored, You Must Be Sh**!'
A bit of good fortune appeared to have swung City's way in injury time, however. Gethin Jones earned a penalty, and Darren Edwards strode confidently forward, ball in hand, to try and give City the lead they needed so badly. Although Edwards has missed some important penalties this season, he is the fourth highest scorer in the league this season. Unfortunately, he missed this penalty too. Considering how few chances City had produced so far, it appeared to be a disaster. A sinking feeling that another draw was on the cards descended on me as I lined up for a cup of tea during the break.
Although I did not want to abandon my 'Ultras' comrades, the banter between the two sets of supporters had gotten pretty crude by the end of the first half (especially the singing by the Weymouth supporters). I decided it was time for me and the Nedved Juniors to move on, so we moved towards the Bath End as the second half kicked off. Being a bit quieter, this gave Little Nedved Junior the opportunity to ask me some questions. About lava. Little Nedved Junior is fascinated by natural disasters, and volcanos in particular. The post about the Woking match would have been twice as long if I had included all the questions he asked me about lava that day.
'Can lava go uphill?' he asked me in the first few minutes after play had resumed. As the second half began much the same as the first half, I decided talking about lava was as good a way to pass the time as anything else on offer. 'Can lava go through doors? If lava is coming towards you will it come so fast you can't run away? What would win: lava or a hurricane?'
I would have gladly continued our discussion of lava for the rest of the match, doubtlessly covering the respective merits of lightning, tornadoes, and earthquakes as well, if we had not then been joined by my friend Dave and his son. It was their first match (although they had tried unsuccessfully to attend the New Year's Day match against Weston-super-Mare before it was called off). I dreaded to think what Dave thought of the standard of play that Bath City had to offer.
Dave, it turned out, was having a great time. He loved how close you could get to the action (or lack of it) and how he was free to wander around wherever he wanted. This led Little Nedved Junior to start begging to go to the other side of the ground. I said no, I wanted to stay where we were, but that we could move if City scored.
I don't know why I wanted to make that particular bargain, but I might have to start doing it regularly. Up to this point there had been little hope City would score from open play. Within minutes of uttering those words, Adam Connolly finally got City a goal with a fantastic free kick from the edge of the penalty box. I had expected him to cross it to an unmarked Sekani Simpson, but seeing how fruitless crosses had been thus far I should have figured he would just go for it. It was a fantastic strike, and I had no regrets when I kept up my end of the bargain and we began to wander around the Bath end to the Main Stand.
This turned out to be an absolutely brilliant thing to do. Within a minute, City's new signing, Hector Mackie, made a fantastic cross to Darren Edwards. For once, Weymouth's defenders were AWOL, and Edwards was able to tap the ball past the startled keeper with ease. This happened just as we were passing behind the goal, so we stood only feet away as it happened. Now the City fans could celebrate a chance to crack the top five places in the standings, even if it wasn't on the back of the six goal victory we'd hoped for.
After continuing our walk, Dave and I settled against the wall in front of the Family Stand. Our three children played an impromptu version of hide-and-seek behind us. It had not been the best advertisement for non-league football, so Dave surprised me when he said he wanted to come to the Thurrock match in two weeks time. A bit of digging turned up the reason: the game may have lacked the flow and spark of a timeless classic, but it was still a good day out with his son. The atmosphere of historic Twerton Park, with it's old fashioned terraces and lively crowd was a great draw. Would Dave had been impressed in the same way a year ago, when Twerton Park's atmosphere had more in common with the Bath Public Library? It's hard to know for sure, but there is no doubt the flags and the singing encouraging the first-time fans to become second-time fans.
The final whistle sounded and we clapped the City Boys off the pitch. Struggling against weak teams has been an ongoing problem in recent seasons. Last year I had seen City lose when faced by a similar tactic against Aylesbury United. Likewise, City's playoff hopes had suffered a knock-out blow when the hapless Fisher Athletic stole a single goal against the run of play to win 1-0. A season later, struggling but winning 2-0, is a huge improvement. Because of the way the other league matches played out, City only moved up to sixth. A loss could have been another Fisher Athletic moment, though. The tough-fought victory gave City another chance to break into the playoffs against Welling United on Saturday. This time, it has to happen!