Thursday, 18 March 2010

In the Belly of the Beastleigh - Part 2

In the Belly of the Beastleigh - Part 1 can be read here.

One of the nice things that has happened wtih the emergence of the new, extremely vocal Bath City supporters group ('the Legion') is that I don't get nearly as worked up as I used to in the minutes before the match begins. Instead of brooding about what a loss or draw would do to City's promotions prospects I'm usually distracted by how the flags are going up, or what new song we are going to try today. Before I know it the match has usually kicked off and I've joined in an off-key rendition of We Love Jim Rollo. I'm struggling to decide if this means I have matured as a football supporter, or suddenly become more juvenile. Perhaps both.

The match did in fact kick off before I knew it, and in fact the Legion did sing a decidedly off-tune rendition of We Love Jim Rollo. And we kept singing after that and did not stop for a good twenty minutes or so. Despite being at home, the Eastleigh fans were entirely quiet during this period. The bucolic setting of Eastleigh's ground (the surrounding motorways are not visible), and the genteel deportment of the Eastleigh fans made the tuneless shouting we were doing seem really out of place. It felt like we a band of drunken louts who had crashed someone's suburban garden party. Six months previously we might have felt too embarrassed to continue. As we have grown larger, though, the Legion has found it easier to do as we please when we are visiting teams with quiet fans. Basically, get enough of your mates together and it is possible to summon the nerve to crash any suburban garden party.

For the first ten minutes of the match the Legion's singing was just about the only notable thing on view. As they had against Thurrock and Welling previously, however, City followed a period of relative stalemate with thirty-five minutes of sustained pressure. This was fantastic to watch. Last year on my first visit to Silverlake Stadium I had watched City get out-muscled by an Eastleigh team that relied on height and....okay, mostly just height. City had battled bravely, but were never really in the game. Watching City stretch Eastleigh's defence with a passing game that made good use of width was just what I had hoped for.

To be honest, though, I couldn't see it terribly well. As an experiment the Legion had decided to chose a single place on the ground and stay there for the entirety of the match. This was the M27 side. In the first half this turned out to be the goal that City was defending. This gave us a chance to cheer on the ever-improving City keeper, Ryan Robinson, but it meant we were a long way from the goalmouth action at the other end. It also meant that we were eventually joined, after fifteen minutes or so, by a small band of Eastleigh fans who had come to stand behind the goal their team was attacking. They didn't make much noise (although, to give credit where it is due, they made more than the rest of the Eastleigh supporters combined), but they did engage in a bit of banter with us. When we sang of Silverlake Stadium the old classic My Garden Shed is Bigger Than This, a man stood next to me shouted, 'Yeah, yeah, we hear that every week!' From whom, I wondered. And if you do get it every week, surely you've come up with some sort of witty response? Something like, 'Your garden shed is way too big! Your garden shed is way too big! Save your money for a decent striker! Your garden shed is way too big!' There, that took five minutes, and can be sang to the same tune. Oh, but then you'd have to sing. Oh well.

City took the lead at the half hour mark with a penalty. Adam Connolly launched a corner kick into the penalty area, and Darren Edwards had his shirt pulled by an Eastleigh player as he went for the ball. This brought howls of protests from the Eastleigh players and management. So much so that the offender, Luke Wilkinson, was given an additional yellow card. To be fair to Eastleigh, you don't see penalties given for shirt-pulling much. Technically it is grounds for a foul, though, and referees are supposed to award penalties for fouls in the box. So, unsure of whether this was luck or a rare instance of justice, we watched from the opposite end as Kaid Mohamed lined up the kick. He struck the ball hard into the bottom right corner and City had a one goal lead.

This goal gave me the warm sensation that everything was going to plan. This was the thrid match in a row that after an indifferent start City had rallied and exerted increasing pressure, resulting in a first half goal. Second place in the standings appeared to be on offer.

Ten minutes later things began to deviate from the script slightly. A scuffle broke out on the pitch after an incident involving Sido Jombati and Eastleigh's Shaun McAuley. These incidents do not happen spontaneously - someone has to make the first move. Unfazed by this logic, however, the referee (Alex Neil) took the failsafe option and booked both players. These events are not uncommon in football, but the body posture of the players indicated that this fracas was more acrimonious than most. Word got round the ground (via the Eastleigh supporters) that Sido had spat on someone. Having met Sido and spoken to him several times, that seemed highly unlikely. He is perhaps the gentlest, most unassuming footballer I've ever encountered. Whatever the truth of the matter, things were still heated as the players entered the tunnel at half time.

The break was observed in total silence by the Eastleigh faithful. Like Welling, there was no music, or anything else to disturb the rural calm. I decided to pass a few minutes reading through the matchday program. It was when I happened upon the 'honours list' page that I began to understand Eastleigh FC finally. Nestled in at the bottom of the first team honours was listed, 'Wessex League Champions 2003.' Wessex League? I didn't even know what that was. I've since looked it up, and this is step five of the non-league pyramid. That's three divisions below Easleigh's current position. This means that as little as five years ago Eastleigh were at the same level as Willand Rovers, City's Western League opposition from the second qualifying round of the FA Cup. I had been thinking of Eastleigh as a club with few supporters, a funny location, and an out-of-proportion grandstand. They are in fact a small club that has done extremely well to get where they are (especially when you consider how close they were to promotion last season). Compared to most step five grounds, Silverlake Stadium is a palace. I began to feel somewhat curlish, especially considering how Bath City are a club that has probably underacheived for the last two decades.

When the second half resumed the Legion were already in place behind City's attacking goal. This gave us the chance to get acquainted with Eastleigh's new keeper, Billy Lumley. As soon as he took his position in front of the net it was obvious why he had been signed. Considering how highly the Eastleigh coaching staff appear to value height, Lumley's 6 foot 5 inch stature probably got him a job before they even watched him play. Unfortunately, as we were to learn, he was also reasonably good at goalkeeping.

On the hour mark City appeared certain to take the lead. Adam Connolly's free kick was headed goalwards by City defender Chris Holland. Usually contact with 'Dutch's' forehead is enough to secure a goal, but it was struck with too much downward force to go in. Instead the ball fell to Darren Edwards who struck the ball sharply from short range. Lumley blocked it, but the ball went back towards Edwards. You'd think that letting the ball rebound to a striker in position would mean allowing a goal, but Lumley somehow recovered and blocked Edwards a second time.

Shortly after this, the City defence allowed its first goal in over 330 minutes of play. It came as a bit of a shock, to be honest. Clean sheets had begun to seem pretty routine. It resulted from a pass travelling the length of the goal before being struck by Eastleigh's Ross Bottomley. Ryan Robinson had to allow a goal at some point, I suppose. It didn't feel too depressing, though, because City clearly had the ability to fight back.

Things change quickly in football, though. Before that goal the City supporters had been hoping for another 'routine' victory. Fifteen minutes later and we were desperate for City just to hang onto the point. Jombati, already on a yellow, got booked again after a strong challenge outside the penalty box. It didn't look like a particularly vicious tackle to me - Sido tends to wrap his long legs around his opponents rather than come in full force. The Eastleigh supporters were roused enough by this second booking, and the subsequent sending off, to actually make a bit of noise. They were that angry!

Despite City being a man down, Eastleigh never looked like they were going to score again. Unfortunately, City didn't much either (although substitute Dave Gilroy managed a decent shot towards the end). When the final whistle blew I wasn't sure whether to be pleased that a draw had been salvaged, or disappointed that a dominant position in the first half had been squandered. The City players wandered in our direction and clapped us for our singing. After packing up our flags, it was time to head homewards.

Like several other City supporters, the prospect of finding my way back to Southampton Airport Parkway station was daunting. I found another fellow train traveller and asked him if he knew the way. 'No, I took a taxi,' he said. I confessed I did the same. The warren of roundabouts and dual-carriageways was too tricky to try anything but the same on the way back, but finding a taxi was going to be much harder in this direction. Facing the inevitable, we asked a safety-yellow clad steward for directions.

'I'll drive you,' he said. 'I'm headed that way. It's no bother.'

We didn't know what to say. Dressed in black and white stripes, we were obviously supporters of the opposition.

'We're all football supporters, aren't we?' he explained. He was so nice, and so matter-of-fact about it, we accepted his offer.

Mr. Sheridan, I learned, had become a club steward and all-around volunteer after he retired. He tuned in a local radio station that reported non-league football scores, and chatted away about how Eastleigh had nearly won promotion the previous season, their terrible run of injuries, and about the problems they had with the pitch's drainage system. After the necessarily circuitous journey he dropped us off in front of the station and wished us well for the rest of the season. 'Maybe we'll meet up again in the playoffs,' he said.

Non-league football is supposed to be full of heart-warming moments like this, but we couldn't help but be surprised by Mr. Sheridan's generosity. I can't remember the last time I asked a complete stranger for directions and ended up getting into their car. It is a testimony to the non-league game, though, that he felt comfortable enough to offer to drive us, and we felt comfortable enough to take up his offer.

As we waved Mr. Sheridan goodbye, I couldn't help but think that his kindness was going to ruin my blog post. Eastleigh are a club that I've always disliked. How can you dislike a club where this sort of thing happens? Where's a pantomime villain when you need one? Oh, okay Eastleigh! As long as you are not playing City, I hope the rest of the season goes well for you. And if we do meet in the playoffs, well, that wouldn't be so bad. Just don't win them.

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