Monday 2nd April 2018, 1500 KO
Bideford AFC vs Taunton Town FC
The Build Up
The third and final match of my whistle stop trip back to the South West is a Devon/Somerset clash in the Evo-Stik Southern League Division One West. Carefully selected as a chance to see a famous Devonian nonleague team against the divisional champions elect, whilst also breaking up the approximately five hour drive back to London on motorways full of bank holiday idiots that aren’t usually allowed on the road.
Originally formed in the 1890s, Bideford Town reimagined themselves as AFC Bideford in 1947, The Robins went on to achieve significant success in the regional leagues, most notably when they dominated the Western League throughout the noughties. Having repeatedly turned down promotion because of the increased travel costs (a recurring theme in the South West), Bideford were eventually promoted in 2010, and won the Division One South West two years later. Four seasons in the Southern League Premier followed, before they were relegated back to this division in 2016.
Having finished 10th last season, Bideford are nothing if not consistent, and lay 9th coming into today’s match. Bideford would need to arrest their current run of form though, having lost to Bristol Manor Farm and Evesham in their two matches, if they were to secure a Play Off finish. Although 6 points from the crucial 6th spot, they do have two matches in hand.
The visitors to North Devon today were Taunton Town, who in 1998/9 inflicted Bideford’s worst ever defeat. Managed by Leigh Robinson, Taunton had clinched promotion to the Southern League Premier just days earlier with a 3-2 victory over Kidlington. This will have been particularly sweet for the Peacocks who have been defeated in the Play Offs three seasons running. There has never been any danger of that this year though, as Taunton have been top almost all season, losing only once, and holding a surely unassailable 14 point lead over second placed Salisbury.
When I looked at Bideford’s twitter account around 1100 and saw that somehow they had managed to get the game on, I embarked on a ninety minute journey around the fringes of Dartmoor, and into Exmoor until eventually through the mist and rain I arrived in Bideford. My parents arrived shortly after, and having parked at the ground we headed to nearby Trawlers for some lunch. £7.80 was enough to get me a chicken pie, chips & gravy with obligatory Diet Coke.
With that inside me, I headed back to the The Sports Ground where my dad paid a concessions £6 and took up a grandstand seat whilst I picked up a programme (£2) and made myself comfortable behind the goal. My mum had made the sensible decision to find a café. You’ll be surprised to learn that two hours in the wind and rain watching football isn’t her idea of a good Bank Holiday Monday. I’d also note just how welcoming the Bideford staff and members were – very friendly and helpful throughout.
I have to say, it was an impressive shift from the Bideford fans and members to even get the game on today, with people turning out at 0700 to get the water off the pitch. With minutes to go, a chap with a bucket of paint completed the effort I’m contractually obliged to describe as Herculean, daubing fresh lines on the murkiest patches.
With the rain dying off, both teams came out onto the pitch and quickly sought to acclimatise to the boggy conditions. The main tactic for both sides in dealing with the dampness underfoot seemed to be to allow the ball as little contact with the floor as possible. Taunton did try to get the ball down on the odd occasion though, and it was one of these passages that brought the first chance. On six minutes, Pierce Mitchell dug out a fine cross to the back post where Nuno Felix looped a header over the ‘keeper but back off the crossbar. Dan Sullivan then had two bites of the goalscoring cherry in the ensuing scramble, but Steve Oliver stood up well to save.
Five minutes later Taunton threatened through Mitchell again, but this time his low pull back was blazed both high and wide by skipper Matt Wright. Then, with 19 played, Taunton created another half chance, when a deep cross was nudged back across goal, and one of the Peacocks strikers flicked it over from the middle of the six yard box.
It wasn’t all Taunton though, and on 23 minutes the Robins had a presentable chance of their own. Young Josh Key, one of three Exeter City loanees in the matchday squad sent Ryan Turner free on goal, he took a touch to settle himself and fired in left footed. His shot was firm across the ‘keeper, but Lloyd Irish got two strong hands to the ball to push it away.
On 27 minutes Dan Sullivan had another good chance, but the former Tavistock striker was unlucky. When sent through on goal, it looked as though he had taken it too far wide, but with Oliver rushing out, 18 goal Sullivan went for the chip, but it was just off target.
With just over half an hour played, referee Lee Roberts was in the thick of the action, when a big 50/50 tackle resulted in a classic bout of handbags. Although both players went in with some gusto, and I was surprised that neither was carded considering the tackle was clearly out of control, it was clear the Bideford player (Max Smallcombe I think, but not certain) came off worse. He was writhing on the floor clutching an area in which no ma wants to take a stud.
Then came the almost compulsory pushing and shoving, and when both captains were called over I wondered if I was going to see my eighth red card in two matches. However, it was a yellow card for each, and then a word of warning to Taunton manager Sean Joyce and play was restarted.
And that was about it for the first half. It had been pretty poor in all honesty, and although Taunton had showed more attacking intent, neither side had really played well. I’m really struggling for anything else to say about the first forty five, so I’ll just move on to the second half.
As the second half unfolded, Taunton striker Dan Sullivan came more to the fore, and his link up play with Ollie Chamberlain and Matt Wright impressed. The man who looks like he’s definitely accused you of spilling his pint in a Wetherspoons was unlucky to finish the match without a goal, but was denied by a mixture of some good goalkeeping and decent last ditch defending.
On 52 minutes he was set free in the left channel but had his shot blocked, and then two minutes later Pierce Mitchell broke well from right back before drilling in a shot which was well saved by Oliver. On 60 minutes Ryan Turner had a chance on the counter to snatch an opener for Bideford, but he dragged his shot wide when well placed.
Two minutes later, it was Sullivan’s turn again, as strong midfield play from former Bridgewater man Ollie Chamberlain turned over possession in midfield. He slipped a through ball in to Sullivan, and in his one v one battle against Oliver, the big goalie came out on top again, out quick to narrow the angle and save.
In the next five minutes, both Ben Seymour, Bideford’s top scorer with 19 in 21 prior to today, and Ben Wood had shots from the edge of the area but to no avail, and then on 73 minutes came the breakthrough. Again Sullivan was central to it, and when he got the ball on the left hand side of the box he turned his marker Josh Key inside out and made it to the byline to cross.
His cross was met by Ollie Chamberlain, and once again former Barnstaple Town ‘keeper Steve Oliver did brilliantly to save at point blank range. On this occasion though the rebound landed at the feet of Matt Wright, and with Oliver already grounded, the big No.9 just had to get his shot on target, which he did with no problem.
Wright headed straight behind the goal to celebrate with the vocal travelling fans, who had turned up in good numbers, contributing to a fine Bank Holiday crowd of 403 – the fifth highest in the whole of Step Four on the day.
Both sides created half chances in the following fifteen minutes, but as the rain restarted with a vengeance, opportunities for creativity became limited. A few hopeful balls were lofted in, a few long range efforts drilled into defenders legs, and Nuno Felix produced a lovely bit of skill down the left wing, but it felt as though Taunton would maintain the one goal lead.
With 90 minutes played, Bideford started to push forward in earnest, and I could sense the Taunton fans behind me getting nervous – particularly with the referee adding on a spuriously large amount of stoppage time. However, when the final whilst went it was 1-0 to Taunton final score.
The Wash Up
A deserved win for the visitors, who showed more attacking intent throughout. In front of a buoyant group of supporters who were revelling in the recently secured promotion, the Peacocks did just about enough to keep the party atmosphere going in the rain. 17 points clear, with Salisbury having only 21 to play for means that it’s only a matter of time until they can celebrate the title.
For Bideford this means it’s now three losses on the bounce, but anything from today’s match would have been a bonus. They’re now seven points adrift of the Play Offs, but still have two games in hand. Those games against rivals in and around the Play Offs will be much more indicative as to their final league position than a one goal loss against the runaway league leaders.
In terms of individual performances, I thought that both goalkeepers had good performances, but in particular Steve Oliver for Bideford. He kept his side in the match at points with a series of fine saves, and was on a personal mission to frustrate Dan Sullivan.
Speaking of whom, Sullivan also had a very impressive match, even if he was unable to get his name on the scoresheet, and linked up well with his attacking teammates. However, my man of the match goes to Taunton fullback Nuno Felix. Both Felix and right back Mitchell got forward well and defended solidly, but I thought that Felix’s output on the left wing probably just edged him ahead, and the fact that most of Taunton’s joy came down the left channel where he supplied Sullivan was telling.
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