There are few better footballing feelings than seeing your side win away from home, particularly on cold midweek nights such as Tuesday. Conversely, there are few worse footballing feelings than seeing your side lose away from home, particularly on cold midweek nights such as Tuesday. My visit to North Leigh comfortably falls into the latter category, and as I was stood on the solitary platform at Hanborough station, freezing and needing a piss, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d made the right choice in heading to a village in Oxfordshire that makes Puddletown look like a thriving metropolis, having witnessed us losing away at a rock bottom North Leigh side who claimed only their fourth win of the season.
As is usually the case with days like this, the trip out and the pre-match was the best part of the day. Having taken a few, what I thought were, wisely timed hours leave to enable me to get away from work early, I headed over to Paddington for the 1550 to Hanborough. It was only an hour long journey, which may seem like a very early departure for a 1945 kick-off. The reason for this wasn’t as I really wanted to spend more time there, but simply as our god awful train operating companies charge a fucking offensive amount for tickets. So I saved myself £20 by getting the 1550 rather than the one an hour later, and took a pleasant stroll to the nearest pub for a beer and some dinner. Another thing worth noting is that Hanborough was the station I got the train into as North Leigh does not have, and never has had, a train station. With the ground some two and a half miles away, this was as close as I could get without a lift to the ground, but the George and Dragon provided a very pleasant pitstop.
In contrast to many of the awful pubs we’ve found ourselves in on away days, the G&D was bloody lovely. A couple of pints of Tribute followed by steak and chips were much better matchday fare than the usual flat lager and roadkill in a bun that we tend to end up having, and given the benefit of hindsight, I should have remained in the pub for the remainder of the evening. But, I had high hopes of seeing us bounce back from a disappointing performance and result on Saturday, and as Ellie, George and Man Who I Did Not Catch The Name Of picked me up, we all fancied we could stop our losing streak at two after a spirited loss to Swindon preceded the capitulation at Tivvy in the Hedley Steele derby.
Our first challenges were off pitch though as the turning for the ground was not where the sat nav took us, and we ended up in Blair Witch country as we took a turning in on a parallel road that gave no access to the ground. A quick U-turn and we were eventually able to find the actual entrance to the ground which felt like something from a low budget horror film. This was somewhat ironic given the 90 minutes of football we’d soon be enduring. After entering via the gazebo, not the usual turnstile you’d expect, two things struck me about the ground; firstly, that the pitch was in much better nick than I’d expected, and secondly, that the slope was possibly the biggest I’d seen since I last played at Chickerell. If it was a road, you’d have expected a warning sign about the gradient.
The team had been announced and after XI had filtered to the WhatsApp group, there were a couple of guesses as to how we’d line up given that with the personnel in the side, we could have been playing a flat back six. Thinking this seemed unnecessarily defensive, I asked Kieran Douglas what the setup was, and I was slightly disappointed to hear he wasn’t starting up top. It was in fact the same formation just with different players, Sa and Bertrand as the more advanced players in the wide areas being the more surprising inclusions, both Alfie and Matty Neale being on the bench. Shaq would be leading the line on this particular evening, and after Kieran had to cut off our chat as he had to actually participate in the warm up rather than chat to me, I had a natter to the man who would have ideally been on the pitch rather than watching from the sides, namely Harvey Bradbury.
Bradders was serving the second of his four match ban following his red card against Swindon, his second red in the league of the season following one for Gosport in his time there. A player who obviously enjoys the physical aspect of the game, and having seen his Dad at Pompey I can confirm this is a hereditary trait, his disciplinary record is starting to precede him slightly. Having scored three in three to start the year, he’s now got two reds in two after another straight red this week, albeit this one for the under 23’s. Hopefully this ban is the last one he serves this season as he’s far more use to us on the pitch than in the stands, and the other players will probably be annoyed if he keeps using all the hot water if he’s in the shower for an hour before the game actually finishes.
With my first hand team news, I now headed up the hill to the bar and met with other exiles who had made the trip. Ollie and Evo had a short trip by their standards, Dev and his luckless accomplice also enjoyed shorter commutes here than many, and the usual smattering of boardroom faces were in the tidy, if not a little small, clubhouse. Cup of tea acquired and team news passed, we headed out to the terrace and just before the players were due to emerge, we did the usual score predictions. Between Evo, Ollie and I, we all predicted wins of varying margins and all proved to be wildly off the mark. Evo predicting a win was a particularly bold move from him given the last time he saw a win, Theresa May was Prime Minister, Obama had just left the White House, Craig Laird was Dorch manager, and Cam quite possibly still had a head of hair.
The only thing worse than our predictions was the fucking awful kit combination we had to wear. Our usual shorts and socks would have clashed with the home side’s, so we ended up with our blue shorts and socks from the away kit, and our usual black and white striped home shirt. It looked like a barcode with some blue pen scribbled beneath it and was as uneasy on the eye as the following 90 minutes would be. This was only Evo’s second game of the season and when he asked who one of our subs was, saying they looked Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, I had to Google who the leader of Chechnya was. I can now confirm that a thinner Ramzan Kadyrov might actually be Matty Neale.
Kicking up the hill first half, we started brightly enough. Tiago Sa hit an effort wide inside the first minute from Charlie Gunson’s pass, and we enjoyed a good amount of possession in the opening stages as neither team was really able to muster anything of particular note. That all changed 14 minutes in as Jordan Thomas was able to comfortably weave his way past four defenders and strike the ball low past Ryan Hall’s outstretched glove. As good as the run and finish was, it seemed all too easy and he was afforded a lot of space. Maybe this was a side who has conceded far too many bloody penalties being slightly reluctant to make a challenge, or maybe I’m underselling the quality of the goal. Either way, it was not a great start and we never really looked like getting back into the game from this point on.
We seemed to have a lot of the ball without really creating much as we either got bogged down in the middle, or went too frequently to diagonal balls that either didn’t find their intended target, or merely resulted in the attack breaking down in a wide area rather than in the middle. Down the other end, Hall had to be alert twice to keep the score at 1-0, but he was caught a bit flat footed as North Leigh doubled their lead. An uncharacteristic error from Kieran Douglas saw his poor control break favourably for the hosts, but from there it was again too easy as Lance Williams wiggled his way into the box to cross for Levi Steele, who rudely ignored Hall’s very loud call of “keeper’s” as he beat him to the ball quite comfortably to make it 2-0. With our pre-match predictions in tatters, an odd feeling of déjà vu that covers almost a decade set in. We’d all seen these type of performances before, and we all knew how they ended up.
A Charlie Gunson freekick would bring our first effort on target, with home keeper Adam North parrying the ball away for a corner, but as with most things we tried that evening, the corner came to nothing. North was a spectator for almost all the game, his most notable contribution being the turtle neck he appeared to have on making him look like a cross between Captain Birdseye and a Poundland James Bond. Mercifully, the halftime whistle soon sounded and it was off to the warmth of the bar and to the toilets, where I was greeted by the odd sight of a Poole Town sticker in the urinal. After doing the necessary over said sticker, not due to any particular dislike of Poole as I couldn’t care less about them, but more due to the fact there was nowhere else to piss, it was back to the bar which seemed to have filled quite nicely. However, this was not for the football, but the local women’s darts league, one lady nailing double 17 at the first go to win the leg. How and why she’d ended up on the lesser spotted D17 I don’t know, but I can categorically say it was the best bit of finishing I saw all night.
With us kicking down the slope second half, we headed out and passed a somewhat haunted scene of stacked patio chairs and a folding table propped up against a wall, before assuming residence behind a very cold and frosty goal. North Leigh had said earlier in the day there was to be no pitch inspection, but as the temperature hit 0 degrees it didn’t look especially player friendly. Luckily for Captain Birdseye in goal, he had next to nothing to do that involved diving on the rock hard turf as more huff and puff from us resulted in much the same as the first half. Jordi Foot was replaced by Ramzan Kadyrov in an effort to spark us into life, but even his introduction could not Chech our slide to a third successive defeat. Keith Emmerson and Alfie Stanley also came on for Slough and Shaq respectively, but the fact our first effort on target in open play was from Alfie in the 85th minute really tells you all you need to know. In truth, North Leigh could have had three or four, with only some good keeping from Hall and some wayward finishing denying the hosts more in what was a deserved win.
The walk back up the slope after that was a killer, and it was 90 minutes we were all glad to see the back of as we all made our separate ways home. The group chat wasn’t as drastically reactive as it would have been twelve months ago as this side has shown it has a great deal more about it than other recent versions of DTFC, but the loss and the manner of it were tough to take having seen us play so much better this season as well as coming off the back of another poor performance at Tivvy only days prior. Glenn’s comments in the Echo spoke of how he was pleased with the reaction from the players after the Tivvy loss, but any reaction that results in a 2-0 loss to bottom of the league doesn’t pass muster with fans. Hopefully we get a proper reaction on Saturday as we host Hanwell, a return to home at the Avenue will be most welcome after two losses on the road in which we’ve rarely threatened.
That said, we’re still seventh and only two points off the playoffs. Three losses in a row doesn’t end our season anymore than the three games we won on the bounce before that made us dead certs for the top five. Our home form is markedly better than our away form, and hopefully we can make that count on Saturday. There is a case to be made that our nice and flat 3G pitch is part of the reason our form on the road is noticeably poorer than at home, but that argument doesn’t really hold water for me given how we have been crap on all surfaces in previous seasons. That and I’m sure that our players haven’t forgotten what grass pitches are like. Come five o’clock on Saturday, we could be back in the playoffs, although stopping this mini rut and scoring a goal are more pressing priorities.
My next one is likely Weston-super-Mare away, a place I’ve not been to since Danny Ings and Ryan Moss tore them apart in a 3-1 win in the Trophy many moons ago. Bradders and Shaq doing something similar in a couple of weeks would be a welcome sight, but then again so will a ground that has a train station a walkable distance away and doesn’t take me to a place that looks like it might be haunted by an orphaned Victorian child. SV