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Sunday, 13 April 2014 08:20

A TALE OF VIKINGS AND WIZARDS

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SATURDAY 12TH APRIL: The Observatory - overcast.
HAKIN UNITED 4 MERLIN'S BRIDGE 0 (James Williams Pembrokeshire League Division One)


In the mood for a longer trip this week, and with the weather benign, the question is "which direction?". North is tempting (FAW Trophy final at Rhyl, TNS clinching the WPL title at Park Hall, Cefn Druids getting the Cymru Alliance trophy at their home game).... but it's a while since I visited Pembrokeshire, and with their local cup final falling on Easter Saturday this year, I'll regretfully be giving that a miss. The league title isn't yet decided, with Hakin United, Goodwick and Tenby all chasing it, though unbeaten Hakin United look firm favourites. Cup finalists Tenby have an interesting game at Neyland, but though that would be a new ground for me, in the end Hakin's home game with Merlin's Bridge has greater appeal.

Trains to Pembrokeshire are infrequent, but the two-hourly service to Milford Haven fits in well enough with match timings, so I'm on the 10.04 from Cardiff as it heads out on its rather fragmented journey west, with two changes of direction en route in the 'termini' stations at Swansea and Carmarthen. The journey between Swansea and Carmarthen is always a pleasure, even on a greyish morning, first skirting the Gower coast and then hugging the north bank of the Gwili estuary. The last hour, west of Carmarthen, is through gentle and less familiar countryside and things get more relaxed once we're deep into Pembrokeshire - even the automated train announcements cease after Whitland.

Before 1pm we slip into Milford Haven's platform (for it is no more than that, lacking any facilities that might make it a proper end-of-the-line station). There's a light, chilly breeze taking the edge off the mild temperature, and the sun still hasn't managed to penetrate the cloud cover. It's too soon to head up to Hakin, so instead I wander up the hill in the other direction, into the town centre: Charles Street is certainly not west Wales's prettiest row of shops, and there's nothing to detain me here, so out of curiosity I stroll up to Marble Hall Road, home of fallen local giants Milford United. Two sections of the rickety old covered stands are still there, but the Welsh League days are now a distant memory.

Back past the station, across the bridge and up the other side, with views down to the marina and docks, I head up into Hakin, passing the Hake-Inn (a fish and chip shop). Along Observatory Avenue, named for a listed ruin, all that remains of a grandiose and unfulfilled project to build a mathematics and navigation college up here, more than 200 years ago. The ruin sits, fenced off and neglected, by the lane that leads into the Observatory Sports Ground ('the Obs'), home of Milford rugby club and Hakin United FC, the Vikings. Both are home today, and the place is busy already. Up here on the high ground, overlooking Gelliswick Bay, the breeze is stiffer and colder than down at sea level, but both clubs have their clubhouses for shelter, Hakin's a fairly ancient green building by one corner flag, with a cosy bar hung with team photos and press cuttings, and whose overhang serves as a basic stand. Whilst pottering about here I'm greeted by local journalist Bill Carne, mainstay of www.pembrokeshiresport.co.uk. After a chat about our passions for grassroots sport, Bill whisks me off on the spur of the moment to record a five-minute interview for Radio Pembrokeshire.

And so to the game: Hakin, unbeaten all season, just need to keep winning to retain the Pembrokeshire League title. Three more wins will do it, fewer ‎if Goodwick and Tenby drop any points in their quests to catch up. Today, the visitors are Merlin's Bridge of Haverfordwest, often one of the county's top sides, and therefore rivals of Hakin. The Wizards lie a little off the pace in fifth position, and next Saturday's cup final date with Tenby at Bridge Meadow has more significance than today's fixture. Hakin dominate the early action, kicking away from the changing rooms and towards the goal that perches almost jauntily on the most uneven part of this multi-sloped pitch. But they can't find the finishing touch to any of their moves, and while the home side's frustration mounts, the visitors grow a little in confidence as they settle. Just when it looks as if they'll make it to half time without conceding, a through ball finds the tallest man on the pitch, Gareth Fawcett, and he steers his low shot past the advancing keeper Carl Woodhouse.

Hakin start the second half with more urgency and it seems certain they'll soon add to the single goal lead. The top end goal in front of the changing rooms comes under siege: Fawcett heads powerfully against the bar, then Ashley Bevan blasts a shot that too comes back off the woodwork. Woodhouse's goal survives all this - though he needs lengthy treatment after one mid-air collision - and on their occasional forays down the pitch, Merlin's Bridge are still in the game, seeking an equaliser. Then, on 74 minutes, Hakin's no. 8 Matthew Broome cuts in from the left, looks up and lets fly with a shot that eludes Woodhouse's dive and finds the top corner.

The second goal seems to affect both sides, and the game shifts into a final phase. Tempers are flaring, with no obvious trigger, and after yellow cards have been shown to both sides for rough challenges, a punch up breaks out in midfield. Hakin are now rampant, while the Wizards - reeling under the onslaught and the taunts of the home fans - need of some magic to get them through the last quarter of an hour without further punishment. But they're low on spells today, and when Woodhouse can only palm away a corner, Fawcett smashes in a third goal for Hakin. Minutes later substitute Marcus Allen pops up at the far post after a well-worked long throw and makes the margin of victory four goals, which in truth is a fair reflection of the gap between the sides today. Hakin are now one victory away from clinching the title (Tenby having drawn today), while Merlin's Bridge must put this heavy defeat out of their minds as they prepare to meet Tenby next weekend.

For me, it's three hours on the train again, but the long journey has been worthwhile for a great day out: Pembrokeshire has a unique and quite self-contained sporting life, with pride in local heroes and proper media coverage that put the rest of Wales to shame. Mental note: I should come west more often.

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