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Sunday, 15 February 2015 09:27

Excelsiors snatch Abertillery derby honours

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SATURDAY 14th FEBRUARY: Abertillery Leisure Centre, overcast.
A local derby on a ground I haven't visited before is appealing, and when south Wales suffers a spell of heavy rain on Friday and into Saturday, the fact that it's on a 3G surface is the clincher for this fixture. The only downside is that it means a less than straightforward journey, for the north Gwent town of Abertillery is poorly served by public transport - the railway is several miles away, there's no direct bus from Cardiff, and only a limited and slow one from Newport.

A combination of rail to Llanhilleth and a bus connection gets me there, and once in Abertillery Town centre it's a simple walk up to the Leisure Centre in Tillery Street. This is the Bluebirds' new home, after they left the delightful Cwmnantygroes ground in Six Bells in 2014, a year in which they also suffered relegation from the Welsh League to the Gwent County. There they've joined neighbours Excelsiors, who also had an extended spell in the Welsh League (under various names) before relegation a few years ago. So this season brings town derbies in league football for the first time in many years, and the first one up at Excelsiors' Woodland Field ended 2-2 earlier in the season. The Excelsiors are a little better placed in the table now than their hosts, but in a local derby that may not count for much.

Leisure Centre 3G pitches tend not to set the ground aficionado's pulse racing, but this is not just a bland caged facility. There's spectator standing room on all four sides, with a long 'bus shelter' type cover along the west side of the pitch. Behind this the ground rises to the road, and in addition to the hundred or so fans inside the ground, a handful watch from this elevated position - they aren't evading payment, as no gate was taken. Around the ground buildings and hillside views add further interest, not least the large blue and grey box of the Leisure Centre sitting at the south-east corner of the pitch.

Local rivalry has drawn a big crowd for this level and also means the action is full-blooded from the off. While I'm still noting down the line-ups there's a penalty shout by the visitors, and within a minute one at the other end - this one given as a home striker is felled in the box. Excelsiors' keeper Dan Parsons guesses correctly, leaping to his left to beat away the spot-kick.

No early goal then, but there is no let-up in the tempo or intensity, and the lone official has to deal with some pretty robust challenges. As the first half progresses, Excelsiors look the stronger side, and eventually go ahead on 27 minutes, a ball through the middle which Chris Penny tucks away. They double the lead with a close range goal by Shaun Smith, beating the keeper to a free-kick, and as half-time approaches the Bluebirds are reduced to ten men by a straight red card, presumably for a dangerous challenge.

If Excelsiors looked well on course at the break, five minutes into the second half they appear to be out of sight, when Matthew Lewis strikes a spectacular long-range goal to put them 0-3 up. Game over ? Well, for a while it seems just so, but in the 66th minute Bluebirds pull one back with a nicely angled shot by Russ Hancock, and this gives them enough belief to push on. Suddenly they are matching the visitors and when Matthew Burkitt hits a superb second goal for them, a comeback is well and truly underway.

The Excelsiors hold onto their lead until the 90 minutes have elapsed, but a variety of stoppages mean there's plenty of added time, and certainly enough for Bluebirds to save the game. Four minutes in, they get the equaliser, Hancock scoring off a post to make it 3-3, and while as a neutral I'm happy with this outcome, both sides immediately press for a winner. And it turns out to be the visitors who get one, a free-kick out on the left evading everyone except Curtis Pitt at the far post, his header making it 3-4 and ending our fine afternoon's entertainment.

Just the challenge of getting home remains, compounded by a lack of detailed research as I realise, after waiting at Foundry Bridge for a while, that I actually have no idea where the southbound buses go from. Indeed I still don't, as by this point only a short taxi ride down to Llanhilleth station will secure my connection and avoid an extra hour's wait.

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