West Leigh Park, Havant
A month of the regular Conference South season remains, and we appear in relatively decent form but, as with anything, no guarantees are being offered. Although our away day jinx was broken with wins at Sutton, Basingstoke and Thurrock, we appear to have fallen back into a score-draw pattern away from home that is distinctly reminiscent of last year’s campaign.
Six of our last ten away fixtures last season ended 1-1 and, as I write, our last two have finished that way, a one’ll at Bath City on Good Friday following similar at Hampton six days prior. The thing that buoyed us and carried us into the play-offs last year was combining those draws away with plenty of wins at home. This year, WLP has remained a fortress, by and large, but that didn’t prevent Bishops Stortford leaving it with all three points on March 8th, three points that shoulda, but didnae, temper their air of righteous indignation at our blanket banning of musical instruments from the ground.
The Bish boys are a noisy bunch, but seem to prefer drowning out their vocal support by having one bloke mimicking the apparently motivational sound of someone repeatedly hitting an empty water butt with a golf club. Personally, I can’t think of anything less inspiring to a group of players on a pitch than the continual slap of a snare skin but perhaps the Bish run their club as a sweat shop during the week, and their players earn their weekday money by stitching trainers in some dank cellar, kept up to speed by the pacemaking kettle drum in the corner. In which case, each to their own…in their own house. We expect shoes off in the porch at our place, a little decorum goes a long way one finds, and woe betides you if we see a hole in those socks of yours.
If I remember correctly, Newport County have been known to have percussion in the past. They might still hammer away elsewhere, but not in the draconian finishing school that is West Leigh Park today. They don’t really need it, being a set of supporters with Football League history. As such they tend to travel in numbers that no other Conference South side can match, certainly for the longer trips, about 150 or so turning up today. Newport have been known to have some lunatics attach themselves for their big days out, with the carpet in Bognor’s social club apparently having gained a distinct wee-wee tang during one particularly boisterous visit thanks to the eau-de-funpole flowing somewhat out of bounds. As a result, the last two seasons have seen us segregate for the visit of the Exiles.
It’s a bit of an inconvenience considering a load of us like to change ends at half-time. This year, to remain at the correct end, we mobbed up in the Don’s Doors Stand just to the side of the turnstiles. This usually less vocal section of the ground was christened by my chum Mr Ketchup some years ago, when it was still made of wood, as ‘zimmer-frame corner’. I’m not sure what the older boys will have made of their section being so cavalierly commandeered but it wasn’t the most uncomfortable sightline shift. When I’m scraping myself along behind a couple of walking sticks, perhaps I will come, on a permanent basis, to call the wrinkly box ‘home’. Excuse the existential angst, I am now only a month away from a milestone birthday. That’s if thirty counts as a milestone anyway. Certainly, in my head, I’m still a gawky teenager.
Perhaps being displaced to the granddad shed is an omen though, and not a good one, as for the first 45 minutes, while we were stationed there, there wasn’t much for us to get excited about. Newport County had much the better of the first half but neither side could really be happy with their doin’s, particularly when you consider the ‘Port are, like us, trying to make the best of a games-played deficit to claw themselves up into the play-offs before the season snaps its jaws shut on our spindly, dangling legs.
One thought doing the rounds amongst my associates during the half-time break was that we were allowing Newport County to come onto us, and launching long balls into the corners to tire them out. This tactic, if indeed it was one, may have been based on the fact that Newport had played not only on Saturday, whereas we were fresher from our Good Friday excursion, but also the previous Wednesday. Equally it may have been inspired by the fact that the collective age of Newport County’s back four and goalkeeper is such that, in any other circumstances, you would expect to find the five of them, squashed and skeletal, between two layers of igneous rock. “You got your 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 out the sheltered accommodation, you got your 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6…” we might have Guantanamera-ed, had it come anywhere close to scanning. “You’re elderly and you know you smell like the carpet in Bognor’s social” had similar problems.
As it was, tactic or not, this appeared to do the trick as, on the hour, only moments after Mr Ketchup and I agreed that “this game has 0-0 written all over it”, we opened the scoring. Rocky Baptiste, suddenly feeling uncommonly young amongst the clustered Newport defenders, threaded a ball to Jamie Collins who thrapped in a shot which Tony ‘Pension’ Pennock saved down at the post, however our pocket-sized dynamo Charlie Henry was on hand to tuck away the rebound and record his first goal for the Hawks.
Now being that this was Easter Monday, Charlie will have been probably hearing a lot about ‘The Passion’ over the prior weekend. However he appears to have taken this the wrong way, mistaking the commemoration of the sufferings of Jesus for a chance to be ridiculously fervent wherever possible. Charlie’s usually pretty vociferous in his applause towards the fans after most games anyway, on one occasion hammering the badge on his chest so hard that it appeared he was trying to brand it into his torso, possibly to save on the prohibitive costs of an actual tattoo. However, he upped the ante for his first goal, performing a double somersault (with pike, or something) as he peeled away. Given his fairly recent return from injury, our physio was probably quick to shield her eyes with a toothy wince.
Suitably buoyed, the Hawks scored again seven minutes later, this time from the penalty spot. Andy Gurney, who began the season with us, playing brilliantly in the cup games against Bognor and Leighton before quickly becoming a liability, had ended up at Newport via Weston-Super-Mare and had been dogged in his pursuit of Rocky all afternoon. This though was one shirt-pull too many, the Rock collapsing like he’d caught his leading foot on a stray brick. Being the last man, Gurney was shown a straight red, not responding to our request that he give us a wave as he ambled off. Only seconds after Mr Ketchup and I agreed that Rocky was “going to miss this penalty”, Rocky scored this penalty, sending Tony Pennock so far the wrong way he was last seen sliding along somewhere near Exeter.
It is to our own relief, and that of all Hawks, that myself and Mr K clearly have pig-all dexterity when it comes to predicting the outcome of football matches, as after that we held on fairly comfortably, and could have scored a load more. By this point, being a man light, and their legs now crumbling to a substance you could grit roads with, no-one would have batted an eyelid if we’d decided to soundtrack the Newport defensive performance by playing the theme to ‘Steptoe and Son’ over the tannoy. As it was though, rather than run them ragged, we brought ourselves down to their level, so much so that pace became much like an Italian league game. Specifically, an Italian over-70s five-a-side league game. On a full-size pitch. A snow-covered full-size pitch.
Despite the opportunity afforded by the Gurney tunnelling, and the collective dusty legs, we squandered several chances in the last twenty minutes; Jamie Slabber, Gavin McCallum and Craig Watkins all hitting high, wide and gert fugly, the latter on several occasions. We may not be able to rely on goal-difference at the end of the season, already being so far behind our rivals, but it couldn’t hurt to tuck a few more away.
Still, the most important thing is to keep winning, especially as our rivals keep doing the same. Realistically, we’re chasing fifth spot now, maybe fourth. Tuesday 1st April sees us at Eastleigh for one of our games in hand. Given the history, given their form, and given our need to take a point away at least, it’s going to be the pivotal hurdle. Barring train issues, next week’s bits will, of course, come from Ten Acres. Win or lose, I can guarantee there will be jokes about Gareth Howells’ eerie mush. Hopefully without the added bitterness that only a defeat can bring.
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