Friday 19th April 2019, 1500 Kick Off
Hungerford Town FC vs Bath City FC
The Build Up
With work having taken me overseas again, I’d struggled for matches recently. The only games I had managed to attend were Dunston UTS vs Ashington (I know the North isn’t overseas, but it felt like a different country to me…) and Al Sharjah vs Al Ain in the UAE Pro League. Both very different propositions to the National League South fare I sought out on Good Friday.
With the league title already secured by Torquay, attention in the southern Step Two division had turned to the Play Off and relegation races – and with both sides here featuring in those, a trip to Charlie Austin’s home town seemed the obvious choice. With Bath City starting the day in 5th, and Hungerford Town in 20th, both had a very real chance to depart the National League South come May, but in opposite directions.
The home side, managed by Ian Herring, have secured two promotions since he took over in 2012. Formed in 1886, the Crusaders had never played higher than Step Four before Herring was appointed manager, but within a year he had them promoted and playing Southern Premier League football. Two seasons later, a defeat to Truro City in the Play Off would prove only a temporary setback, as they dispatched Leamington at the same point in 2015/16. The following season saw Hungerford achieve their highest ever league finish of 6th in the National League South. Last year saw the three times FA Vase semi finalists run of improvement come to an end though, as they limped to survival on the last day, pipping Poole Town to 19th by only a point. Coming into this fixture, they were in a worse position still – mired in the relegation fight, seemingly only the unstoppably poor form of Truro City and Eastbourne Borough might save Hungerford. But, with two losses ending a recent good run (6th in the league across the last ten matches), the visit of Bath City would be a crucial time to start picking up points again.
Speaking of whom, the Romans had also seen their form tail off in recent weeks – a fine run of seven undefeated followed up by defeats to Play Off rivals Welling United and St Albans City. Formed in 1889 as Bath AFC, then Bath Railway, Jerry Gill’s side have earned plaudits from rival managers all season, including new league champion Gary Johnson, who said that the Somerset side were his toughest opponents all season. However, plaudits don’t earn promotion, and with Bath in 5th, but being chased hard by the likes of Dartford, St Albans, Billericay and Concord, they had no room for error. 5th represents a clear improvement on last season’s 9th placed finish, and much of that success has been built around a solid defence – varying between three man, four man and five man by the week – which has proven the most effective in the division.
After a torturous Bank Holiday drive around the M25, M3 and M4 (name a worse trio of motorways, I’ll wait…) I completed the forecast 75 minute drive in a tidy two hours thirty and pulled at the ground to glorious sunshine and a warm welcome from Hungerford’s Club Secretary, Mike Hall. In fact, the only tolerable part of the drive was actually going through Hungerford, which is a quaint, pretty town, tucked away in the Berkshire hills.. I chucked the soon-to-be-Mrs GRT out to go on a twenty mile run (glutton for punishment, that one) and had a look around Bulpit Lane.
A 2,500 capacity ground, Bulpit Lane has seen the lowest average attendance in the division this year with 303, which is still 13% higher than last season. With plans to do more work to get the community involved, I’ll be interested to see if Hungerford can raise this higher still, in what is quite a small town to support a football club at this level.
On the day, there was a bumper Bank Holiday crowd of 576 in attendance, thanks in no small part to the large numbers of travelling Bath City fans, who availed themselves of one of their shorter away trips of the season. It says something about this league that a one hundred mile round trip is considered a short away day…
Admission was £12, climbing to £14 with the programme. The Crusaders’ offering is one of the slimmer National League South programmes, but is worth the price for the front page graphic alone – the image of the armour-clad Crusader bursting from the flames, sword aloft, evoked powerful feelings. Of watching Game of Thrones before I left home in the morning. Another £5.50 was chucked into the coffers in return for a sausage roll, chips and Diet Coke, which was more than adequate.
The first half was a difficult watch. With hindsight, a cursory look into the stats should have given me a clue as to how the game would play out, with the best defence in the division visiting the third worst attack. When I looked at the teamsheet and saw the absence of Hungerford’s top scorer, Danilo Orsi-Dadomo, I suspected it could be an afternoon light of goals.
For the whole first period, Bath City dominated possession, and played the majority of the opening 45 in the Crusaders’ half. Despite that, they failed to really create any good chances, and didn’t test Michael Luyambula at all. In the 4th minute, a pair of Adam Mann corners resulted in an Andy Watkins shot being deflected over, and despite being around the Hungerford box almost permanently, that was the most Bath threatened to score in the first fifteen minutes.
It was around the quarter of an hour mark that Ryan Clarke was forced into making the first of three fine saves, when he tipped over a free kick. Lewis Leigh-Gilchrist, on loan from Bristol Rovers, curled a dipping shot from around 30 yards, and Clarke belied his 36 years to spring high to his left and push the ball to safety.
Ten minutes later, the visitors had a chance through Watkins again, when Charlie ten-Grotenhuis gave the ball away just outside his own area. Bizarrely, as the ball had been half cleared by his teammates, ten-Grotenhuis decided to attempt a mid-air backheel to complete the job, but instead bounced the ball straight to Andy Watkins. The Cornish forward struck a half-volleyed effort, but the ball sailed over.
On 31 minutes, Conor Lynch had a good chance to open the scoring, but again was denied by Ryan Clarke. Lynch received the ball with back to goal around thirty yards out, and used his body to turn the defender who had come too tight – past his man, Clarke bore down on goal and struck a low shot, which Clarke turned away. This was Lynch’s best opportunity of the match to add to his three goals for the season, and despite not getting much change out of Jack Batten and Robbie Cundy, Lynch worked hard throughout.
Tom Smith, on loan from Cheltenham Town had looked sharp in the first half, and with a minute left until the break he cut across midfield and took a shot from 25 yards. It zipped wide, but was close enough to have Luyambula worried. As Referee Staynings blew the whistle it was to close out a half of much bluster but no end product. Hungerford had produced the best chances, but Bath had enjoyed the lion’s share of possession. Neither side had been able to get the ball on the deck (a pitch so hard it may well have been made of concrete probably didn’t help) and my feeling was that if either side did manage to put some passing moves together, they would probably go on to secure the three points.
As the second half got underway, it was apparent that Ian Herring had given some choice words to his side, because they were on the front foot from the off, and the second half was a reverse of the first in terms of possession. On 54 minutes, another Bristol Rovers loannee, Cameron Hargreaves, reacted fastest to a bouncing ball near the edge of the Bath box, and flashed a snapshot wide.
Four minutes later, and Ryan Clarke was again called into action to stop Lewis Leigh-Gilchrist. A looping ball was nudged over the Bath defence by ten-Grotenhuis, and Leigh-Gilchrist saw the opportunity to lob the oncoming Clarke. Probably the best opportunity of the match, it drew definitely the best save, as Clarke palmed it wide at full stretch.
As the game wound on, the pace subsided in the heat, with players staying down longer than usual and the referee allowing regular water breaks. On 74 minutes, Bath City substitute Freddie Hinds produced the worst shot of the match, possibly the season, when he cut onto his left and shanked an effort out for a throw in. His two goals for the season started to make more sense.
As if to test just how accommodating the pace had become, around 80 minutes in, with the scoreline still deadlocked, Ryan Clarke managed to saunter to the halfway line in possession, without so much as an ugly look for the opposition. I began to think that both sides were looking at the match as a point gained as opposed to two lost, and were playing to protect the draw.
Tom Smith showed great technique when connected with substitute Frankie Artus’s left wing cross, but his volley was deflected over. From the subsequent corner, one of Bath’s two giant defenders, Robbie Cundy, went up, but his header sailed over. Speaking of Bath’s giant centre backs, Hungerford had by this time brought on Danilo Orsi-Dadomo and Darren Foxley, which meant that their forward line combined was roughly the same height and weight as Jack Batten.
On 86 minutes Foxley was given the opportunity to hit a free kick, when the impressive Anthony Straker made a foul outside the area. Foxley’s free kick was close, whistling past the post whilst Clarke flung himself to his left.
A chance came and went for Noah Chesmain when he cut between two players and curled a shot towards goal, but it was straight at Clarke. On 91 minutes Smith shot wide from range for Bath, and it felt like that was the last of it. However, with 93 minutes played, Hargreaves was afforded one last opportunity, when good link up play between Orsi-Dadomo and Alfy Whittingham sent the winger free to cross. He found Hargreaves, but Hargreaves put his shot as far over as over goes – his effort more likely to threaten low flying aircraft than the scoreboard.
The Wash Up
A no score draw as the pools would call it, and in honesty it hadn’t been a thriller. As both Ian Herring and Anthony Straker said to me afterwards, it was definitely a point gained, as opposed to two lost, for each side.
For Bath City, the weekend also saw defeats for Chelmsford, Wealdstone and Dartford, meaning that their draw keeps them well and truly in the Play Off hunt. Jerry Gill’s side ended the weekend in 5th place, a point clear of the chasing pack, and with a home tie against Oxford City to come. After that, it’s Billericay Town – a clash with huge implications for the Play Off positions. At the other end, the point for Hungerford moves them out of the relegation zone, on a weekend where Truro City, East Thurrock United and Weston-super-Mare all lost. Torquay are next in line for the Crusaders, and will potentially have taken their foot off the gas having already secured the title. However, it could all come down to the final day – when Hungerford host survival rivals East Thurrock.
The best performances of the day were in the defensive positions, with the exception of Hungerford’s Alfy Whittingham, who worked his socks off on the right flank. The reason he had to work so hard, was that he was up against Anthony Straker, who may well be the fittest footballer in non-league. He was utterly tireless in his forays up and down the left wing, and would have been man of the match, but for his ‘keeper’s performance. Ryan Clarke made three crucial saves, and although a draw was probably the fair result, if it wasn’t for Clarke, Hungerford would have taken all three points.