Bath City drew 1-1 at Eastleigh (or 'Beastleigh' as everyone in non-league football appears to call them) on Saturday. On many counts, it was a frustrating draw. It did, though, keep City in the vital playoff zone in the standings. Considering that Eastleigh defeated City at Twerton Park earlier in the year, getting a point on the away leg isn't too bad a result I suppose. Eh!
Like many journeys, my trip to Eastleigh's football ground on Saturday began when I consulted a map. Getting to the general area was easy enough - the train times to Southampton Airport Parkway rail station were convenient and straightforward. It was the quarter-mile journey from the train station to the ground that was worrying me. The key to the problem can be found in the station's name. Anyone at all familiar with Britain soon learns that any station ending with the word 'parkway' is best avoided at all costs. In my decade of experience I have made the following observations about these stations: (1) they are always windswept (2) they are always surrounded by roundabouts, dual-carriageway 'A' roads, and motorways (3) other than the roundabouts, dual-carriage 'A' roads, and motorways there is very little else of any interest. You might think that Southampton Airport Parkway station is an exception on this last count, thanks to the presence of the airport and Eastleigh's football ground. You would be wrong. The airport only serves short, regional destinations. The football ground could easily be confused for an industrial business park. Clutching the map I had printed off the Internet, and with a strong wind blowing in my face and the roar of the zooming traffic in my ear, I emerged from the station's front door and.....got into a taxi. I was in no mood to traipse around on the labyrinthine, pedestrian-unfriendly highways and risk missing kick-off.
Eastleigh's ground is actually called 'Silverlake Stadium.' There is no lake, actually. It is a rare example of non-league corporate naming rights sponsorship, provided by Silverlake Garage Autoparts (We are able to supply almost any part for any vehicle!!). Nevertheless, the name is still somewhat descriptive. Much of the ground is made up of grey corrugated metal, which, at a stretch, could pass for silver. Kind of.
The first thing you notice upon entering the ground is the imposing Grand Stand. If this stand was extended and wrapped around the entire pitch then Silverlake Stadium would be an impressive structure indeed. Its 341 seats are pitched at an invitingly steep angle, and probably give an excellent view of the match. It does not continue around, though, and the Grand Stand looks out of place among the relatively spartan facilities on the rest of the ground. The result looks as if someone sliced up a league ground like a cake, and left a section standing in the middle of a cow pasture.
I'm not going to spend this whole blog post slating Eastleigh's ground. I realise how hard it is for any club to build a new ground these days, and the Eastleigh supporters I met were incredibly kind and gracious to me. So, I don't mean this in a personal or vicious way when I say that I found their ground decidedly odd. I couldn't escape the sensation that I was actually in an airport container-unit storage facility. It was therefore with mild surprise when I saw players appear on the pitch and prepare for a football match to kick off.
Oh, wait! Did someone say 'pitch?' Eastleigh's pitch was in atrocious state. I found out after the match that this was due to excessive rainfall overwhelming the drainage system. Part of the subterranean layer of gravel was washed into, and now blocks the drainage pipes. This has resulted in several boggy patches, liberally dosed by the hosts with layers of sand. According to the match program the pitch was recently responsible not only for two Eastleigh players getting injured, but also for allowing St Albans City to score in a tight 1-0 victory the previous week. Yikes!
Despite these hazards, the players from both teams managed to line up on the pitch and shake hands with each other without anyone falling over. After the coin toss, City ended up defending the goal on the M27 end (okay, I actually made that up. I can't find any reference to the names of the various parts of the ground other than the Grand Stand, and only a small field separates the goal from the M27). This was the end that the City ultras group, known as 'the Legion,' had set up camp. We had turned out in number for the match, and received a big thumbs up from City keeper Ryan Robinson as he approached us.
Actually, it wasn't just 'the Legion' that had shown up in force. An estimated 150 fellow City fans had shown up. Since very few had opted for the Grand Stand, we made up roughly half of the spectators standing along the pitch. It was a very good showing, and this only further encouraged the Legionnaires behind the 27 goal. As the players were lining up for kick-off we belted out a very loud rendition of 'We Love Jim Rollo!' When this was met with virtual silence from the home fans, we realised that no matter what happened on the pitch, the City fans were going to have some fun!