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Friday, 05 September 2014 18:54

Half a Hop is better than...

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Sunday 24th / Saturday 25th August - NORTH WALES GROUNDHOP

For several days I didn't expect to be making the trip north this weekend, expecting to be needed as nurse, cook, shopper etc at home. But I've been persuaded to travel up on Saturday night - with cover in place at home - and I'll get to join the Welsh Groundhop for days 3 and 4 after all. Half a hop is better than no hop, even though my record of attending every single Welsh Groundhop game ever staged is now gone. I catch the train to Chester, rendezvous with two coaches of very weary hoppers at 10.45 (they look as tired as I feel), and look forward to Sunday morning.

Sunday 24th August:
Cae Clyd, sunshine followed by cloud and rain.
After an unsocially early start, and a long coach journey from Chester to Snowdonia, we arrive in Blaenau for breakfast. At least they say it's Blaenau, but the sun is shining, and on all my previous visits to the slate capital it's been raining. The sun is still out when we arrive on the road outside the Amateurs' remarkably scenic Cae Clyd ground for the fifth match of the Groundhop. The coach party swells the crowd, but there are plenty of locals here too - and the official attendance turns out to be 320 - not bad for a Sunday morning in remote Snowdonia. The game proves entertaining and eventful (if not quite as full of goals as the hoppers' Saturday games) but here it wouldn't matter if the match had been dull - there's so much scenery to look at.

By half time Blaenau are 2-1 up with more goals likely, but there's weather on the way - rain is never far away here and the low clouds roll in and force everyone into the small stand. So unfortunately for some of the second half many of us are neither watching the game, nor admiring the scenery, just trying to see over the heads of those in front. Eventually the rain abates and we get to see the closing stages, as the home side score two late goals to register a 4-2 win.

A quick coach ride, then a non-football interlude as we catch the Ffestiniog Railway to our next game at Penrhyndeudraeth - a splendid scenic journey, dropping down all the time from the mountains to the coast. Predictably, we leave the rain and cloud behind in Blaenau.

Somewhat surprisingly, as they've been promoted to the First Division, Penrhyn's Maes y Parc ground lacks even the facilities of Blaenau's, but the host club has turned it into a welcoming hive of activity for their big day, and thankfully locals and visitors reward them with a Welsh Groundhop record attendance of 395. There's a real buzz here before the game, with marquees selling refreshments and merchandise, and Purple Moose real ale on tap in the portakabin clubhouse. We settle down to watch the game and spot the steam trains as they pass by high up on the hillside above the ground. The game is less eventful, and quite even, with Penrhyn taking the lead slightly against the run of play but conceding a headed goal from a corner.

NANTLLE VALE 3 AMLWCH TOWN 0 (Welsh Alliance Div 2)
A short journey north west takes us to Maes Dulyn in the Nantlle valley, the home of CPD Nantlle Vale. The ground is just about recognisable from a previous visit, 25 years ago, but it's much smarter now with pitchside work still ongoing. It's a fine, but slightly chilly, evening and although we were well refreshed at Penrhyndeudraeth, it's dinner time now... there are several food options here, and queues form at various points - some of them forming with little real idea what will be on sale. A German hopper remarks that it reminds her of the DDR. At one point I, and others, join the queue for baked potatoes but 20 minutes later the game kicks off with not a single potato having changed hands.

Nantlle Vale are expected to win and they take only 12 minutes to go ahead, a quickly taken free kick catching out the Amlwch keeper. But he redeems himself five minutes later when Town concede a penalty and he leaps to his right to make a fine save to keep his side in the game. It's only temporary though, as on the stroke of half time the ball is adjudged to have crossed the line after another good save. A third goal on 60 minutes seals the win and is more or less the last notable action of the day, before the long coach journey back across north Wales to Chester.

Monday 25th August
Bank Holiday Monday dawns wet and grey, just as forecast. With two grounds today without any form of cover, is clear we are going to get wet. If the weathermen are right, that's especially the case later this afternoon.

After the scenic glories of Snowdonia yesterday, we're back in the more prosaic surroundings of Flintshire and Denbighsire for the final three games of the Hop. First up is a visit to the very well appointed Halkyn Road ground for...
With the Wellmen hot favourites for the league this season, and Llandyrnog having been reprieved from relegation after finishing bottom of the table, a goal feast is expected. In the event, Llandyrnog put up a good rearguard action and Holywell prove careless, and the game never threatens to become a rout. Two first half goals (the second a spectacular diving header) and a third midway through the second period enable Holywell to record a comfortable win.

Off the field, the hoppers are grateful for the extensive cover - all along one side of the pitch - and the excellent catering (special mention here for the local sausages, of which several different flavours are on offer). The steady light rain drives most of us under shelter, if only to take advantage of it while we can: we know the worst is yet to come.

ST. ASAPH CITY 3 MOCHDRE SPORTS 1 (Welsh Alliance Div 2). The coaches roll into the tiny city of St Asaph at lunchtime, past the cathedral and with the signs on lamp-posts still proudly proclaiming that this is a "Diamond Jubilee City". After being dropped at the town bridge, and with time to spare, I stroll up the hill searching for a nice pub with real ale, but it turns out there isn't one. Back down the hill, along a path just the 'city' side of the bridge, the football club's basic Roe Plas ground has been supplemented with marquees and a brisk trade is done in refreshments, including a wide selection of cake, always a guaranteed seller. The home club's efforts show you can put on an impressive welcome for a three-figure crowd (254) even without much more than a railed pitch to start with.

The only form of 'cover' at this ground is the trees lining the far side and town end, but fortunately the rain is still only light (a friendly local official tells me St Asaph sits between two lines of hills and often escapes the worst weather). So despite the drizzle, watching this second division encounter is still a pleasant experience, as the home side face league newcomers Mochdre 3-1. A solitary first half goal is supplemented by a quick brace just after the hour mark, and for a moment, on 64 minutes, weak sunshine breaks through in celebration. But while I debate whether it's now 3-0 or 4-0 with a couple of other hoppers, it disappears again, never to return. Mochdre get a late consolation after a defensive error, but never look like getting on level terms.

KINMEL BAY SPORTS 2 GLAN CONWY 2 (Welsh Alliance Div 1)
By the time we arrive at the Morfa leisure centre in Rhyl, heavier rain is setting in. First priority is to take a look at the main pitch, where the Hop game should have been staged, but which has been declared unsafe by the council due to some soil put down by the club over the summer. On inspection, some sharp bits of aggregate are clearly coming to the surface.

This game nearly didn't happen amidst the dispute over the pitch, and the lack of an alternative meeting Welsh Alliance criteria. Groundhop UK supremo Chris Berezai succeeded a couple of days earlier in negotiating a solution, using a second pitch, some tape and some improvised gazebo style dugouts, and is now free to turn his attention to the apparently less complex problem of securing peace in the Middle East.

This cannot be said to be one of north Wales's finest venues. Yes, it's the seaside, but even in better weather it's not going to be pretty. The best thing that can be said for the bulk of the Morfa Leisure Centre is that it has plenty of room for sheltering from the increasingly heavy rain. By kick-off time, it has become a downpour and the club's limited attempts at outdoor hop activity have been abandoned - the trestle table selling raffle tickets has gone (and indeed no word is ever heard again of the alleged raffle or the prizes).

The hardier amongst the 221 attendance (or rather those of us with the foresight to bring umbrellas and waterproofs) assemble along the one roped off side to watch the last 90 minutes action of the weekend. It proves to be a cracking game, which would have been really enjoyable of watching it were less of an ordeal. After Glan Conwy appear to be taking control in the first half, Kinmel Bay fight back into it and make the score 2-2 very early in the second half, while many are still reluctantly forsaking the sanctuary of the leisure centre and wading out to the pitch. It stays 2-2 to the end, in torrential rain and gloom. When the final whistle goes, I doubt anyone, local or visitor, is anything but relieved. The convoy of coaches and cars disperses for another year, but we'll be back.

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