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Sunday, 28 February 2016 21:06

The Wonders of Wales

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SATURDAY 27th FEBRUARY. Clappers Lane, dry and cold.
After the driest week of the whole winter, at last a weekend when postponements shouldn't be a major concern. Having (mistakenly, as it turned out) abandoned a trip to north Wales last week, I'm keen to make amends this Saturday, with a Huws Gray Alliance fixture my first choice.

Taking advantage of the last chance to use the Arriva Trains Wales fare promotion this winter, I head up from Cardiff to Wrexham on a busy morning service, arriving on time in Wrexham at midday. From there, it's a simple bus journey northwards to Gresford, which lies on the old main road to Chester. I've been to here once before, but that must have been about 25 years ago, when the Clappers Lane ground was pretty much undeveloped. I also can't remember much of Gresford itself, so I use the spare hour to explore. The village has a more remote, rural feel than those to the south of Wrexham, although it shares their mining heritage. There's a small pond, the church - whose bells made it into the old "Seven Wonders of Wales" rhyme - and a handful of shops; also three pubs, none appealing enough to divert me from my stroll. In any case, it's a pleasant afternoon, nowhere near as chilly as the weathermen's warnings of a severe wind-chill suggested.

At half past one it's time to head back to Clappers Lane, and I assume the entrance is from the road of that name. There's a way in (two in fact) here, but it turns out there are two more, hidden in the back streets, and it's one of these that I eventually find manned, with programmes on sale. The football ground is part of a larger recreation area, with bowling greens close behind the goal at the town end, and a cricket square on one side. All this makes access and development a bit of a challenge for the football club, who will need to move the pitch if they are to meet the new level 2 ground criteria in the next couple of years. Unfortunately that will also increase the distance from the modern changing room /clubhouse block which overlooks the field.

Gresford are enjoying a successful first season back in the Huws Gray Alliance, lying seventh ahead of this game, three places and two points behind today's visitors Holywell. Both sides are technically on the fringes of the title race, although the leading pair of Caernarfon and Cefn Druids will take a lot of catching. As befits a game between two successful sides on a fine winter's afternoon, a healthy three-figure crowd has gathered, with plenty of visiting fans in evidence. I suspect they arrive in optimistic mood, their team having suffered only one league defeat since October.

However, the early exchanges are inconclusive: both sides look confident, but the lack of recent games shows with 'rustiness' to blame for some misplaced passes and challenges. Gresford's style of play is attack-minded, with a confident midfield section hitting balls forward for front-runner Alistair Gibson to chase. Nothing quite comes off, though one early Gibson volley is cleared off the line. At the other end, veteran keeper Jon Hill-Dunt has to be sharp to keep out a couple of dangerous Holywell attacks in the first half, though one of these wouldn't have counted anyway, the lineman's flag already up for offside. Half time arrives with no scoring, and the game still anybody's, though I feel Gresford have had slightly the better of the half.

The second period is just as open as the first. It's end-to-end stuff, both teams trying to prise an opening in well-marshalled defences. Holywell seem to be posing more of a threat, but Hill-Dunt is rarely under real pressure as the home side soak up the pressure and launch counter-attacks.

It's all beginning to look like a goal-less draw, though, with the defences on top and the teams cancelling each other out. And, while they're both still searching for a winner, the sides would probably settle for a hard-earned point apiece. Then, three minutes from the end of normal time, Holywell concede a dangerous free-kick just outside the box (by no means the first of the afternoon) and Mike Latham finds a way through the wall and into the bottom corner of Mike Platt's goal. 1-0 to Gresford and Holywell must now step up the pace in search of an equaliser. Despite a generous amount of stoppage time, they can't find it, so Gresford leap-frog them into fifth place in the league table.

What a relief to get back to a 'normal' Saturday! The wonder of Wales today is that it hasn't rained, most games have been played, and my travels not confined to matches on 3G pitches, or worse completely disrupted like last weekend. Is spring maybe just round the corner?

Sunday, 14 February 2016 09:14

Celtic spring a cup shock

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SATURDAY 13th FEBRUARY. Celtic Park, cold and drizzly.
Although I've missed the last two Saturdays while on holiday, nothing has changed on my return: football people are still avidly following every weather forecast, desperately hoping the end of the week will be dry enough to allow some games to be played. By all accounts, last Saturday was as wet as any this miserable winter, and it was stormy when I returned, but a dry interlude brings a little hope...

Actually, last weekend's bad weather worked to my advantage, as the postponement of the Cwmbran Celtic v Goytre tie in the Welsh Cup means it's been re-scheduled for today - an obvious choice of game - assuming it's on - with teams from levels 2 and 3 of the pyramid doing battle for the chance to host a Welsh Premier side in the quarter-finals. Overnight rain on Friday night/Saturday morning means a couple of pitch inspections, but positive reports mid-morning are enough for me to head east (there's an added bonus here - I can travel this way without touching Cardiff city centre, which is going to be its usual mess on a rugby Six Nations matchday).

By the time I get to Cwmbran, the rain has stopped, though it's still very cold and dull as I walk down from the bus station to Celtic Park, via the busy Cwmbran Shopping Centre and the less busy Old Cwmbran high street - an incongruous street in the midst of the new-town estates, its run-down, old-fashioned shops presumably appealing to those who find the centre just a bit too exciting.
The pitch at Celtic Park is clearly playable: the goalmouths sanded, but the surface not holding water anywhere. A few early arrivals are here, and the small band of home officials is already busy with matchday duties. As kick off approaches, a reasonable crowd gathers, and would be counted at well over a hundred were it not for the thirty-odd who assemble on the bank outside the ground to watch for free - too mean to pay the very modest £3 entrance fee.

Sunday, 24 January 2016 09:16

Bun Fight is too much for Libs

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SATURDAY 23rd JANUARY. The Oval, Ynyshir - sunny, dry.
Once again, the weather causes uncertainty as we approach the weekend; now it's back to the risk of waterlogged pitches, following heavy overnight rain on Thursday. But a dry 36 hours helps, and despite a few postponements, most of the news on Saturday morning is positive. So it's a welcome return to choosing a game, rather than settling for whatever's left on.

After a long and only partially successful north Wales trip last week, I'm staying closer to home. There were plenty of options today, including FAW trophy games, but the W John Owen tie at Ynyshir has caught my eye, mostly because these two teams are in fine form in the South Wales Alliance's Second and First Divisions respectively. It's also a very long time since I've been to Ynyshir.

The bus takes well over an hour to make its way from Cardiff up the Taff, Rhonndda and Rhondda Fach valleys to Ynyshir, but it drops me close to the ground with ample time before the early 1.30 kick-off, time to enjoy the fine afternoon and potter in the streets and paths around - and above - the Oval. This is a narrow and steep valley, with the village mostly on the west bank of the river and the hillside rising steeply on the eastern side, just one or two terraces high on the slopes. The football ground nestles in the valley floor, between the river and the course of the railway - long gone, and replaced in recent times by the valley relief road. It's a good venue for this level, with one entrance gate, and wide terrace steps on the southern side, partially covered. It's a welcome surprise to find a smart programme on sale from the gateman: already this is looking like a good choice of match. As kick-off approaches, the crowd grows to around 60, almost all home supporters.

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SATURDAY 9th JANUARY: Cyncoed Campus, heavy rain.
CARDIFF MET UNI. 1 PONTYPRIDD TOWN 2 (Nathaniel Cars League Cup Round 3)
The weather dominates the week again: a brief respite from the rain gets me hopefully planning trips west or north this Saturday. Then things take a turn for the worse again, options start to narrow once again. By Friday I'm back to playing safe again - stay local, see what's left on in the morning - and by mid-morning almost everything on grass has been called off. 3G options remain, and Cardiff Met v Pontypridd looks the most interesting.

At 12.15 I set off to walk across north Cardiff to the campus, with just a spot of rain here and there; within fifteen minutes steady rain has set in again and the walk turns out to be wetter than expected. At least the Mets' ground isn't short on shelter.

Today's league cup tie is a meeting of two in-form sides, and although two divisions separate them, I'm not at all convinced that Ponty come here as outsiders, as their recent Division 3 form is very strong (particularly a midweek win over Abergavenny). On copying down the line-ups, this feeling is increased, since the University teamsheet contains ten names not even listed in the 22-strong first team squad in the programme! At first sight, that seems to be a difference between the sides - Ponty's starting line-up is made up entirely of players listed in the programme - but it turns out the they are changed too, after the exertions of their midweek league win, with a different back four and midfield, and a teenage debutant.

Saturday, 02 January 2016 20:31

3G Saves the Day - Again

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SATURDAY 2nd JANUARY: University Sports Ground. Bright, mild, drying up.
STM SPORTS 5 NEWPORT YMCA 0 (Nathaniel Cars Welsh League Division 3)
It's been raining pretty much all night and all morning, on top of weeks of rain. The grass pitches of south Wales are saturated, and the postponement announcements this morning are almost routine, confirming what we expected. Few games will survive, so the only safe approach again is "stay local, seek out 3G". In my case, that's simple - head to Llanrumney for STM Sports' home game on their artificial pitch.

Ironically, as I head to east Cardiff, the weather clears up - a hint of brightness, and the rain and wind abate. Too late to save the lost fixtures, but a bonus for those of us attending what's left. And there are quite a few who, like me, have headed here to the university playing fields in search of match action, groundhoppers from far and wide, and many local neutrals, all swelling the crowd to somewhere between 80 and 90. STM sell out of programmes, despite a decent print run, and the gate receipts must be a nice little windfall to help with match expenses.

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