Welsh Premier League
Leckwith Athletics Stadium, Cardiff
For the first time, we have a contribution by a guest writer trying out the hobo lifestyle in their new environment. Thanks to Ben who, as you will know or become very aware in the first paragraph, is a Newcastle United follower. Usually found blogging about the Toon at Black and White and Read All Over, he's been tinkering with the Welsh Premier for the first time. Enjoy!
A long-relegated team who, after promotion last term, have been hopelessly out of their depth in the top flight all season, playing home games in a soulless near-empty stadium firmly in the shadow of their near neighbours. No, not Sunderland, but Cardiff Grange Harlequins.
In truth, Quins are an even more pitifully awful outfit than the Mackems – hard to believe, I know, but just look at the brass tacks. Prior to today’s match they’ve conceded a staggering 107 goals in 33 matches, and scored just 21, losing 7-0 no fewer than three times and 8-0 once. They could tell Jose Mourinho a thing or two about squad rotation, having used an incredible 58 players over the course of the season. The same principle seems to operate at a managerial level too, Steve May being their third gaffer of the season. The farcically parlous state of the club was highlighted shortly before Skif visited in December, when first manager Paul Giles and six players walked out following a dispute about contract payments. Leaving the city centre en route for the Leckwith Stadium, I note that the Samaritans centre is located in the same direction – a good thing, too.
Arriving at the ground for their final game of the season, against Bangor City, I part with a fiver (a decision I suspect I might come to regret) and take my seat in the one large stand. The stadium is rather shabby and faded, in need of a good lick of paint – appropriately enough, given the way Quins’ optimism at promotion last season has been tarnished. Hurdles are stacked up trackside – Quins fell long ago. The teams take to the beach of a pitch and I sit back in anticipation of the one-way goal avalanche.
And yet, incredibly, Quins draw first blood, just three minutes having elapsed. Unperturbed by the fact that every bounce of the ball raises a puff of sand, the red-shirted home side attack purposefully down the right edge of the area. The ball falls to the feet of 16-year-old striker Nathan White, who, having seen his first scuffed shot blocked, prods home to the equal delight and surprise of the home fans.
It’s very nearly two shortly afterwards, a 20 yard free-kick bouncing back off the face of the bar with Bangor ‘keeper Ian Havard a statuesque spectator, but the opposition are soon back into the game, missing a golden chance to level following a defensive mix-up, a lob curling inches wide as we collectively hold our breath. The equaliser duly arrives on 11 minutes, Paul Roberts tapping home from a low left-wing cross. Pacy danger-man Carl Jones nearly turns things on their head, latching onto a superb cross-field ball only to lift the ball over bar as well as ‘keeper, and a free header from a corner also sails over the top as the Quins defence reverts to form.
At right back for the visitors, lumping the ball forward in a fashion that couldn’t be more agricultural if it had a Norfolk accent and an ear of corn hanging out of the corner of its mouth, is a familiar face: former Man Utd, Middlesbrough and Wales defender Clayton Blackmore. Now 41, Bangor’s player-manager was never the most naturally gifted of players, and – how can I put this diplomatically? – age seems to have caught up with him. In fact, an arthritic snail could probably catch up with him. To say he’s stocky would be charitable in the extreme, and the less said about his tikka tan the better.
Meanwhile, one player catching the eye for Quins is 19-year-old Omar Abdillahi, one of five teenagers in the home side and a creative midfielder who shows some very neat touches but all too often tries to take on one man too many or allows himself to be muscled off the ball too easily. The pace has been furious and the tackling full-blooded, but over twenty minutes have passed before the first card is shown, to Bangor’s Kieran Killackey, who is substituted soon after.
When referee Phil Southall’s whistle blows for another offside decision against Bangor, a visiting fan voices his discontent with the linesman in the most polite terms possible: “Get away!” A few minutes later, his griping about the award of a free-kick inspires a rather less delicate response from a Quins supporter: “Shut up you old bastard!”
The chances continue to flow thick and fast. Quins, more than holding their own against all the odds, strike the post when scoring looks easier and another shot drifts just wide, while at the other end Jones is unlucky not to find the net having rounded Quins ‘keeper Gareth Williams and Blackmore waddles forward only to punt his shot into orbit. A wonderfully flowing move from Quins with Abdillahi at its heart ends with a splendid Havard save, but the home defence continues to look frighteningly brittle when confronted with the simple tactic of long balls over the top for strikers Roberts and Michael Linnecar to chase, and Williams is called into urgent action on more than a couple of occasions.
Then, with a minute to go before the break and the game tantalisingly balanced at 1-1, some brilliant skill creates an opportunity for White which the striker coolly converts, rousing me to my feet with a punch of the air (much to my surprise) and restoring Quins’ unlikely advantage. There’s still time for his strike partner Tomas Lubusky to shoot wastefully straight at Havard and then find himself in the referee’s book for a cynical shirt-pull having surrendered possession in a dangerous area.
Aware that Hobo Tread match reports extend to catering facilities (and beyond), I feel duty-bound to report on the poor quality of the half-time refreshments on offer at the Leckwith. Prawn sandwiches? If you bring your own, yes. As I queue for a scummy synthetic machine coffee (for the princely sum of 50p), I find myself stood next to the referee, who is busy availing himself of a chocolate bar from the neighbouring vending machine while chatting to a Bangor fan. What would Jose say? You don’t even have to go into the ref’s dressing room to influence him…
Any thoughts of the second period being an anti-climax after the breathless and hugely enjoyable first are banished in a frantic opening quarter of an hour. First White is cruelly denied his hat-trick by a bizarre offside flag within a couple of minutes of the restart, having dribbled his way solo through the Bangor back line. Fired up and aggrieved, Quins attack again with menace and are desperately unlucky to see a shot cleared off the line with Havard, out of his goal, well beaten.
Then it’s Bangor’s turn to curse the officials, a headed equaliser rightly chalked off for offside. But that leveller isn’t long in coming, a catastrophic cock-up in the Quins defence giving Roberts a clear run on goal. Despite getting a hand to the subsequent shot, Williams can’t keep the ball out.
Then, with passions running high, Abdillahi is fouled on the near touchline, responds by shoving the perpetrator and then collapses theatrically in a heap clutching his face. It’s like Arjen Robben and Jose Reina all over again. Incensed players from both sides leap in and suddenly it’s a free-for-all with nearly everyone on the pitch involved. Arms are raised, though there don’t seem to be any haymakers thrown. Once the officials have regained control of the situation, three bookings are handed out. Needless to say, there would have been several reds if this was the Premiership and not the Welsh Premier.
When play resumes, Lubusky opts to blast across the face of goal wildly and selfishly when White is well-placed to score, and at the other end Williams twice comes to Quins’ rescue. Deciding to replace Havard with Andrew Price, the Bangor staff need access to the locked dressing room, and someone has to come up into the stand to find the chap with the keys – who, like the rest of us, is engrossed in the game. One mouthy Bangor fan turns round to address the whole stand calling Quins a two-bit outfit (or slightly less civil words to that effect). Cue a volley of abuse.
The second half gradually begins to tail off, the calm after the storm, both sides seemingly content with a point. But then, three minutes from time, the real kick in the bollocks for Quins. Blackmore heads off the line and Bangor break swiftly down the other end for Roberts to complete his hat-trick with ease. In the aftermath Abdillahi is shown a second yellow card for dissent, and before the final whistle sounds both Ben Tingley and a frustrated White are also given their marching orders as Quins stupidly lose their heads. Snatching a thoroughly undeserved defeat from the jaws of a draw, and finishing with eight men – it’s a suitably farcical end to a farcical season.
So, Bangor can look forward to Sunday’s FAW Welsh Cup Final against Rhyl with a measure of confidence. No doubt Blackmore will reflect on the fact that he’s enjoyed a happier weekend than two of his former Man Utd colleagues, Steve Bruce and Bryan Robson… As for Quins, they return from whence they came, having amassed just 15 points during their solitary season in the top flight (one point was deducted for fielding an ineligible player, as if they needed that) – but if they can bring on young talents like Abdillahi and White, and work on curbing their temperaments, then the future could yet be bright. And given the entertainment served up this afternoon, I may well be back to witness it. Ben B&W&RAO.