Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Ee-ai-ee-ai-ee-ai-oh, Up the Conference South We Go! - Part 1

Bath City defeated Welling United 2-0 Saturday. It was a brilliant, and very important win for City. I have a feeling I'm going to struggle to write about it without gushing a lot. I apologise in advance. If any of my readers, especially the ones that are not Bath City supporters, bail out before they get to the end I understand.

But it was soooooo amazing! Really. Bear with me.

There were two big themes that made the day at Welling so special. One was that City finally cracked the top five in the league standings for the first time in two years. Considering that Saturday's victory was the eighth unbeaten match in a row, it seems to have taken forever for this to happen. That it did happen on a tough (so it seemed beforehand) away match is further testimony of just how much grit and determination Adie Britton's team have.

The other development that came to the fore was the emergence of the 'ultras' group of Bath City supporters. In a way this was nothing new, as it is a movement that has been gathering momentum for some time. The Welling match was perhaps our best performance yet, though, and there is a sense that we are getting loud enough, and organised enough, that we are beginning to have an impact on the matches themselves. There is now a formal name for the group, 'the Legion (after the inconsistently used club nickname, 'the Romans').' There is a logo. There are active discussions about how to develop our activities on a Facebook group. And, most excitingly, the Legion is becoming more and more inclusive as it becomes more prominent. Rather than it being a name for a rabble-rousing minority, almost every City fan I speak to seems to consider themselves to some degree part of the movement. Seeing how Bath City is known for having friendly and active supporters, this spirit of inclusiveness is not just desirable: it is appropriate. Way to go!

Heavily laden with flags, the Bath City supporters coach dropped several dozen of us off on Park View Road right in front of Welling's ground (which is unsurprisingly called 'Park View Road'). As there was nearly an hour and a half before kick-off, and (this is England) we headed for the pub. The lucky beneficiary of our custom was the Guy Earl of Warwick, mostly because it was very close by. Inside we found a couple Legionaires who had arrived by train, a handful of red-shirted Welling supporters, and (this being England) a German broadcast of the Chelsea v. Manchester City match on the overhead telly. We ordered our drinks and got down to the serious business of wasting an hour and a half doing hardly anything productive or memorable. We did take out our flags for a practice wave in the pub garden.

Once Manchester City had safely dispatched Terry & Co (much to the delight of the locals) it was time to head into the ground. This would be my first ever visit to Welling United's home ground, and I wanted some time to soak up the atmosphere.

Or I thought I did. I couldn't put my finger on the reason why at the time, but Park View Road just felt wrong to me. I feel bad saying this, because on paper it looked to be a very nice place to watch football. It benefits from a very old-fashioned location right on the main high street. Impressively, it has two 'main' stands (this is due to Welling's unusual ground sharing arrangement with Erith & Belvedere FC - each club has built and controls one side of the ground). There was a nice tea-bar, and old fashioned terraces on the ends. Everything was in place, but it still felt wrong. The best description I can give, I think, is to say it felt like a public park rather than a football ground. Perhaps it was the thick woods on the other side of the 'far end,' although that can't fully account for what I sensed. Somehow, though, Park View Lane is a ground that is less than the total of its parts.

But there wasn't time for such airy-fairy contemplation at the time. City had a football match to win, and the Legion had a lot of noise to make. At first we stood around in a rather purposeless way behind the 'High Street' goal. For reasons I did not understand, we then moved to the 'far end' goal. There we watched Lewis Hogg (suspended) and Dave Gilroy (on the bench) kick a ball around on one of the worst bit playing surface I've ever seen. If Park View Lane is like a public park, the area around this goal is the sandpit. It was laid on so thickly that City keeper Ryan Robinson might have been advised to use it to build a small wall in front of the goal mouth.

The City players came out onto the pitch to a great roar from the hundred or so travelling City supporters. The singing began immediately, with 'We Love Jim Rollo' (I hope Jim Rollo doesn't mind the line about him losing his hair, because he is going to hear this song a lot). We were still singing when the coin was tossed. City were selected to attack the goal on the other side of the pitch. This set off one of the most characteristic traditions in non-league football. Each side's supporters switched ends so that they could be on hand if their team scored. I don't mean the more sedate fans that had paid for seats along either side of the ground. I refer to the noisier supporters who had been standing in the terraces at each end. As we passed the Welling supporters along the narrow passage in front of the Erith stand I couldn't help but think how this would never be allowed at a League match. Let's hear it for non-league football!

Part 2 coming can be read here.

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