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Sunday, 20 March 2016 09:26

A Day of Contrasts

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SATURDAY 19th MARCH - Mathern Athletic Ground, dry & cold.
MATHERN FC 2 RTB EBBW VALE 0 (Autocentres Gwent County League Division 2)
A week without rain means I can choose from a full football programme this week, but it has to be somewhere that doesn't involve travelling through the horrors of Cardiff on a Six Nations matchday. The solution is to go east via Newport and the Gwent County League game at Mathern appeals - visitors RTB are way out in front in Division Two and Mathern is a ground I haven't visited before.

Mathern lies a mile or two west of Chepstow, just off the old A48 Newport to Chepstow road, so a straightforward bus journey from Newport to Pwllmeyric, then a leisurely stroll south from the main road. Bus times mean I'm in the village an hour before kick off, so I while away some time with a pint in the pleasant Millers Arms - all is going well, a lively, warm pub with Butcombe bitter and Bath Ales on tap - but as 2.30 approaches a big screen goes up, chairs, tables and customers are required to move, and the pub readies itself to watch the rugby that I've spent two hours travelling to get away from. Time to move on.

The Athletic Ground sits just round the corner, at the edge of the village. It's a delightful rural setting, even though the proximity of the M48 motorway is given away by the big blue sign poking up above the hedge on the far side. The railed, level playing surface is overlooked from the east end by a clubhouse / pavilion, elevated on a bank with a small flight of steps down to pitch level. On the hill behind it, the whole scene is in turn overlooked by the listed, neo-classical mansion Wyelands House. It occurs to me what a varied county Gwent is - today's visitors, whose name carries the initials of the old Ebbw Vale steelworks, have travelled down from scarred, post-industrial Blaenau Gwent to this peaceful rural Monmouthshire setting. [Follow "Read More" below for full article]

There's just time to read the informative programme before the match gets underway. What to expect today ? Runaway leaders RTB are averaging over four goals per game and haven't lost since early September, so with Mathern in mid-table, the most likely outcome must be the visitors picking up three more of the points that will bring mathematic certainty to their promotion back to Division One. Another contrast strikes me: RTB's history includes a spell in the Welsh League and several in the Gwent County First Division, whereas Mathern have never been higher than this level, and only joined the County League two seasons ago. Intriguing to me, but I must be in a minority, for the spectators outside on this (admittedly chilly) spring afternoon are far fewer in number than are watching a rugby union 'dead rubber' in the pub. They think they're supporting sport too, I suppose, but it's another contrast.

But the visitors, in all green, do not immediately dominate. It's an even game of few clear chances, and Mathern are certainly giving as good as they get. The early possession and corner count seems to be in their favour, so they probably deserve their opening goal after 20 minutes. A corner is partially cleared but runs free to Ieuan Diaylou, whose fierce shot flies through the crowded box and ripples the net.

Then the first half returns to its previous pattern: little to choose, honest endeavour occasionally interrupted by a clumsy challenge, which the lone official responds to with a mixture of firm words and yellow cards. At half time Mathern's 1-0 lead is intact.

The second half settles into a new pattern: RTB trying to force the equaliser, but nothing coming off - they seem a little flat for such a prolific side. Mathern on the other hand are growing in confidence, fighting to hold onto a lead they now believe can become a victory. Both sides have scoring chances and both are pulled back once by the referee for offside when, if he'd had the benefit of linesmen, the well-timed runs might have been allowed to continue. In the closing stages RTB throw more men forward, leaving gaps, and Mathern's tactics centre on big clearances, finding touch or heading for the corners. In stoppage time, one foray to the corner flag invites an impatient foul, and from the resulting free-kick Matty Board curls his shot over the defence and inside the far post. The reds celebrate the goal, and moments later celebrate the win, for there's barely time to kick off.

A satisfying afternoon, and Mathern FC would surely concur. From Ebbw Vale's perspective, it's a performance to forget, but it's unlikely to do more than delay their progress to the divisional title. I may not have seen them at their best on the field, but it's pleasing to see later on social media that they were gracious in defeat. These things are as important as results, although for the armchair rugby fans now drifting away from the pub, the huge score-line from the irrelevant game in Cardiff is probably all that matters.

Read 3532 times Last modified on Sunday, 20 March 2016 09:31

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