Boreham Wood 1 Reading XI 2

Boreham Wood 1 Reading XI 2 (24th July 2012)

The weren’t many Reading fans making their way to Boreham Wood on a Tuesday night for a youth team friendly, particularly after their last outing had seem them look painfully inept in a 0-5 defeat at Basingstoke.

Boreham Wood doesn’t offer too many attractions of its own. It is perhaps known for being the real home Eastenders, with the Albert Square set being just a few hundred yards southwest of Boreham Wood’s Meadow Park in Elstree Studios. Hopes of seeing a few stars taking in the game, perhaps rehearsing saying “you’re doing me ‘ead in!” or “You’re nuffink but a slaaaag, aintcha!” at the game, sadly didn’t come to fruition. Martin Keown, at the match to watch his son play, would have to suffice as the celebrity for the evening.

As home to both Arsenal Ladies and Watford Reserves, as well as the home club, the place certainly gets a lot of use. The club bar, decorated in a style far in excess of the usual non-league social club, certainly hints at them doing all they can to make money through other sources. Home crowds aren’t great though, and they certainly weren’t on this night, with maybe 200 dotted about the stands.

Half of these were in the main stand, the only seated part of the ground. Unusually located on the East of the ground, all spectators had an evening trying to avoid retina-burn, staring into the sun for 90 minutes. The upturned roof on this smart but functional stand for 500 guaranteed no relief until the sun dipped below the stand opposite.

This took a while, as this stand is pretty low, with a cover looking more at home as a shelter at an urban train station. A closed-off tea bar in one corner, coupled with unnecessary segregation gates, shows they do at least plan for higher crowds now and then.

Both ends have decently raised terraces offering about a good a view as you are likely to get in a ground of this size. Both are uncovered though, although that was hardly a problem on this cheerfully sunny evening.

The top of northern end was a fine vantage point to see Readings’ 90th minute winner, having just moved there moments earlier. Not too much else in the game lingers in the memory. Reading took an early lead, with the home side replying about 10 minutes later from close range. They possibly had the better chances in the first half, before the 2nd half came and pretty much went without incident, before the late strike. The game was filmed by Reading, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to buy the DVD just yet.

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Didcot 2 Reading XI 3

Didcot Town 2 Reading XI 3 (10th July 2012)

A fine and mainly sunny drive to Didcot via a rush hour and Olympic Torch avoiding route via Henley, gave way to very wet and murky gloom just outside Didcot. I’ve been to the town many times before. Not only was I born there, and visited relatives there regularly into my teens, but a pre-season trip to Didcot has been a fairly regular early test for Reading in recent years.

The gulf in class has usually meant it’s been more of a fitness test than a competitive match. One meeting finished with the score only one goal away from double figures – not to Didcot I hasten to add.

This meeting promised to be closer, being effectively Reading’s 3rd and 4th choice teams under the modern name of the development squad. It was still 3-0 to Reading at half time though, although I missed one of the goals through trying to hold down an umbrella, which was threatening to go Mary Poppins on me in the gusting breeze. The other two were good efforts though – a powerful shot from an angle by Jordan Obita, and a fine chip over the keeper from Ryan Edwards.

With the sun setting through the mists from the Didcot power station’s cooling towers – a sight as close as large scale industrial concrete brutalism ever gets to beauty – Reading came out making multiple changes, and these changes were enough to change the game too.

In a much more even, and certainly much drier, second half, Didcot pulled one back midway through the half. That I completely missed this goal through chatting rather sums up the entertainment value on offer in what I’ll kindly term a “slower paced” second period. Reading missed a very good chance to add to their three goals when Tanner nicked the ball past the on-rushing keeper, only to see the ball drift just wide. Didcot made the score look very respectable with a one on one in injury time. Given the amount damage Reading have done to their goal nets in these previous encounters, you can hardly begrudge them a little bit of joy.

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Enfield Town 3 Wrexham XI 1

Enfield Town 3 Wrexham XI 1 (7th July 2012)

Fisher Athletic 0 Lewes 1

For my second football match in a row, I found myself watching the action across an athletics track. It’s fair to say though that the differences between the Olympic Stadium, Kiev and Enfield’s QEII Stadium, are rather more marked than the similarities. The £400 million refit budget in Kiev was slightly larger than the one available for bringing the QEII Stadium up to scratch, but there are some similarities. For a start, both stadiums re-opened for football within two days of each other. Enfield pipped Kiev to the post on the 9th of November 2011,  even if Kiev did edge it on the gate, attracting a mere 69,500 more for their game.

With Kiev being a partial reconstruction, parts of the old ground still exist, and that is the case at the QEII Stadium too, which has one of the more unusual stands in the country. There aren’t many English stands with Grade II listed building status (in fact the only other one is at Great Yarmouth), and the feature that makes this one stand out is the glass-walled art-deco bar/cafe sat atop the changing rooms and offices beneath. With its curved walls and nostalgically dated styling, it looks like it’d be more at home on a seafront pier. The glass curves at one end towards a cylindrical atrium – a curved staircase, more glass walls, and a brick top, with the word “CAFE” picked out in white in large letters across the brick.

The spiral staircase had the look (and the slight whiff) of a municipal baths, and the list of regulations for spectators venturing out onto the seated area also had a whiff of public pool regulations about them too. “No running. No jumping. No skipping. No pushing. No climbing. No littering” implored the notice, as well as “no skateboards” – all for a stand where under 16s are not allowed.

To reach the seats you had to walk along a walkway on the outside cafe, with the metal railing on the other side giving it a slight feel of watching football from the deck of a ship. With skipping banned – who doesn’t enjoy a good skip at the football? – and not even thinking of bringing a skateboard , I walked down the side of the cafe to the seated area. Around 100 blue seats in three rows looked out across the track. Just as the art-deco era didn’t go in for plate glass, hence the small panes of glass in the cafe walls giving it its old time feel, the era didn’t do much cantilevering either. Even a roof covering just three rows required two thick pillars to hold it up. The stand would originally have had wooden seats, no doubt, which might not look so striking, would at least have stopped the old woman behind from jamming her feet into the back of my seat – a crime for which I’d bring back flogging.

The game today was actually a double-header run by Supporters Direct, for clubs owned by football trusts. The park across the road, beyond which lay the site of Enfield’s old stadium, was also hosting a supporters event. Here, amid wonky goalposts, scuffed goals and beer-bellies, teams of fans from across London competed for the honour of being the region’s best fan team.

For half of the first Fisher v Lewes match, I did wonder if staying and watching the football outside might have been a better option. Both teams looked like they’d started their pre-season training about 20 minutes prior to the match, and had forgotten what they were supposed to be doing on that big grassy area. I almost longed for the defensive ineptitude of the fans’ teams. Barnet conceded a goal from a mis-hit torpedo of a corner that scuffed along the ground and somehow bounced in, and Wimbledon scored a penalty past a keeper who seemed to just stand still and hope the ball hit him.

It did at least improve a bit in the 2nd half. An early thumping header from a corner proved to be the winner for Lewes, playing in a rather fetching racing green away strip, most appropriate for a match taking place at the same time as the British Grand Prix.

On a day when the weather could be most kindly described as variable, the gap between the first and second games was spent in the cosy cafe, watching Andy Murray take the first set in the Wimbledon final, with the Wimbledon sun contrasting somewhat to Enfield’s latest heavy shower.

I watched the second game from the other sides of the ground. There’s not a huge amount to say about the rest of the ground. There’s a running track. On the opposite side is a short stand for maybe another 100 seats, of the temporary “cheap by not very cheerful” variety found at many non-league grounds. These typically are so shallow that they offer a worse view than standing. Behind either goal, thankfully within the track, are similar temporary terracing units. More were located on the main stand size, in the strangely large gap between the stand and the track. At least some of these offered shelter from the rain that came down at the start of the second game.

As leaky as the weather was the Wrexham XI defence. Three down after 20 minutes, they barely knew what hit them, especially as they hadn’t been that bad. Enfield just had a purple patch. The opener was bundled in from a corner after nine minutes, with good work down the left resulted in a perfect diving header at the near post for the second a few minutes later. The third was the result of a ball breaking perfectly for a player to hit a low shot across goal into the bottom corner.

Wrexham had already hit an upright, and missed a good one on one, before a powerful low drive put them back in the game at 3-1. After that bright start, the game sort of petered out though, and hopes of a thrilling final were dashed alongside, Andy Murray’s a few miles south. It would be a long drive home for the Wrexham youngsters, but for Enfield, who’ve had a rather longer “away journey” of late, it might just be a promising season.

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Harlequins 33 Wasps 17

Harlequins 33 London Wasps 17 (14/04/2012)

After surprising myself by enjoying a game of rugby for the first time in my life two weeks ago, I decided to give the game another go, at the much nearer home of Harlequins, The Stoop.

At just over half an hour to get there down the M3, it’s only a slight distance more than going to the Madejski. But while London Irish were also at home the same day, the lure of a sold out Stoop, plus the chance to have a peek at the nearby Twickenham, tempted me rather more easily than the prospect of a starkly two-thirds empty Madejski Stadium.

In contrast to Bath’s Rec, nestled in as an almost integral part of the historic city centre, The Stoop and Twickenham Stadium finds themselves encamped in leafy suburbia, with the incongruous sight of tiers of concrete and steel looming over Terry & June bay-windowed semis.

Unlike Bath’s Rec, The Stoop is also a modern ground, fully covered, looking somewhat larger than its 14,282 capacity. The stated capacity is listed at around 600 higher than that, but each of Harlequins’ four sell-outs this season has posted exactly 14,282 as the attendance. While not having Bath’s charm, happily each stand is different, avoiding the identikit look of many modern football grounds. The redevelopment history is somewhat sketchy, but it appears the first pro-era stand was the Etihad Stand, on the East side of the ground. This stand, for around 4000 people, is cranked into curve along one side. The roof above is oddly book-ended by angled roof sections at each end, folding downwards like flaps on a deer-stalker hat. The green, grey, sky blue, maroon and brown seated sections mimic the slightly eccentric colour scheme of the home club’s shirts.

To the south of this stand is a 4000 or so seater boxy goalpost beam covered stand, looking like an escapee from a northern football ground, with the repeated Harlequin colour scheme acting as a disguise. Behind here is the “Quins Head” beer tent and beer garden, with more food and drink options just around the corner.

They certainly have plenty of options too, with the hog roast stall, “luxury” (i.e. expensive) burger stalls, two more bars, coffee bar, Belgium waffle bar and an ice cream van all vying for trade in one the corner. All filling the air with aromas which while individually pleasant, amount to a slightly nauseating attack on the olfactory senses when combined together. At £6 for a cheeseburger, they seem to be targeting a more expensive clientele than the average football crowd too. With replica shirts in the club shop at £50, not to mention the silk ties at £65, my souvenirs of the day would be kept to a minimum. At least the beer was cheaper than what I was used to in the Madejski, but then again so is a time share in the Algarve (nearly) so that’s not saying much.

I said my souvenirs were kept to a minimum, but I did get one. Harlequins had decided to wedge thousands of free flags into the seats around the stadium. There was one for my seat – or at least there was after I nabbed one from a few seats away and put it there – so uncool or not, I was not missing out of a free flag.

My free flag, and seat obviously, were in the relatively new, even for The Stoop, LV stand. Unlike the cranked Etihad stand opposite, this stand was straight along the touchline, but was a similar size, with executive boxes lining the back. It could have done with those deer-stalker flaps too, to keep out the surprising cold wind whipping in from the north, although at least the norther corner did offer a good view of Twickenham, 400 yards to the north.

The LV stand is the new main stand, including the changing rooms. Unusually for football fans used to seeing grounds with a secure entrance for visiting teams, the arriving Wasps players just casually strolled in through the car park, through the fans, before going down the tunnel. Despite being a modern stand, the designers could have learned something from stands elsewhere about enabling a crowd – especially a crowd which is allowed to drink beer during the game – to get to the loo at half time. It was definitely something of a scrum to get in, although I guess if you are going to have a scrum anywhere, a rugby ground is as good as any.

At the northern end was the last temporary part of the stadium. This was a seated section for about 2500, with a rather flimsy looking roof supported by enough pillars to tempt me into buying a ticket in the more expensive LV stand, rather than slumming it in this section. This stand, like all the others, had the same colour scheme. There’s no way of forgetting who plays here.

With the teams coming out to the sound of Manfred Mann informing the Wasps players that they “ain’t seen nothin’ like the mighty Quin(n)” they might have had good reason to be nervous. Sucked deep into a relegation battle, with the prospect of administration hanging over them too, it wasn’t the ideal time to face the league leaders.

The excellent match programme had talk of showing no mercy to their struggling neighbours (and had also talked in-depth about the greatness of Rowntree’s producing the tube of all-blackcurrant fruit pastilles – a subject sorely overlooked by match programmes I feel) and set out to get business done as early as possible. After exchanging early penalties, another Harlequins penalty put them 6-3 ahead after just 10 minutes, and they never seriously looked threatened from that moment on. Harlequins just looked too strong.

Two tries, albeit both with failed conversion attempts, but Harlequins 16-3 ahead inside half an hour, and it was threatening to turn into a rout. Just before half time Wasps pulled a try back, when promising younger (so I read – I can’t claim to really know these things) Christian Wade somehow found a gap right through the middle of Harlequins’ defence to score under the posts. With this try converted, and the score back to 16-10, there was a bit of wonder if the two missed conversions, as well as the wasted first half pressure, might let Wasps back into the game.

Early in the second half though, Harlequins powered the ball over for their third try of the afternoon, and an error strewn passage of play from Wasps allowed Harlequins to add a fourth try just a few minutes later. With both of these tries converted, and a penalty added shortly after, the score was 33-10, and for the second time I was watching a rugby match effectively over with nearly 25 minutes left. Unlike Bath two weeks earlier, Wasps didn’t give up and did manage to force a try in the corner with 15 minutes left, but never looked likely to make up the 17 point deficit in the remaining time.

With Harlequins having already earned a bonus point for scoring four tries in the game, they seemed content to hold what they had. A flurry of late substitutions – my favourite being the addition of Harlequins’ Aston Croall, with his heavy build and thick black bushy beard making him look like an evil Santa – seemed to just break up the play, and 33-17 was indeed the final score.

The majority of those in the crowd, especially those with free flags, went home happy. The home fans will be dreaming of the 400 yard trip north to Twickenham for the Aviva Premiership Final – a game I’ll also be at thanks to snapping up a general sale ticket – while Wasps will be looking nervously at what looks a relegation showdown at home against Newcastle on the season’s last day.

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Brighton 0 Reading 1

Ian Harte’s free kick flashes past the keeper into the net to put Reading 1-0 up.

Brighton & Hove Albion 0 Reading 1 (10/04/2012)

There are some away wins, most in fact, that are a joy and pleasure to attend. There are others that are just 90 minutes of nail-biting tension. This game definitely fell into the second category.

My away attendance at Reading games has reduced significantly over the years, but Reading’s good form, not to mention the prospect of seeing a good new stadium, tempted me over to West Sussex on a Tuesday night.

Brighton have suffered more than most over the years with ground issues. The Goldstone Ground was sold by an unscrupulous owner, meaning exile at Gillingham for a couple of years, followed by over a decade at the dreadful Withdean Stadium, sapping support levels to a degree than even its tiny confines were usually not sold out.

All changed for the start of this season with the move to the 22000 seat Amex Stadium, meaning Brighton were at last “truly” back, rather than being back in Brighton, but having to play at a borrowed stadium that looked like it’d been built out of Lego.

All is not perfect though. The ground is in the fringes of Brighton, surrounded by countryside, which means pretty harsh restrictions on traffic to the area. This causes a reliance on public transport to get the bulk of the fans to and from the stadium. Falmer Station, next door, might have been expanded to cope with the larger crowds, but the local rail company doesn’t seem to have bothered laying on extra trains to cope with the crowds, resulting in journeys that claustrophobics and the impatient best avoid.

The ground itself is impressive from the outside. The curves of the roofs and the stone cladding on the outside avoids the “Matalan Superstore” look which blights most new stadiums, although the place could certainly do with a bit more signage to promote it as the home of Brighton & Hove Albion. A large logo on the floor to roof glass wall of the West Stand would look stunning, but instead a tiny board high up is all there is.

Once inside, it’s impossible not to be drawn immediately to the huge main stand on the West side. It is vast, holding around 12000 in three tiers, and looks like a stand of a ground fit to host World Cup matches, not games in England’s second tier. The lower tier alone is larger than many sides at newer grounds. It also seems to be the most popular part of the ground for the “hard-core” fans, as it’s the first time I’ve ever heard a main stand being the focus for the singing in a ground. Above the seats, a high arched roof hovers overhead, with translucent sheeting letting in light from the blue spring sky above.

Opposite, with a similar high roof, but with a much smaller capacity, is the East Stand. This is one tier of seats holding about 5000, but with provision to add a second tier behind. The large and high roof rather masks the obvious disappointing comparisons with the stand opposite, making it look larger than it really is.

At both ends are the most disappointing parts of the ground. Two shallow stands of around 2500 seats don’t even stretch the full width of the pitch, and almost look like afterthoughts. It’s almost as if the architects were trying to pay homage to the Withdean Stadium, by adding temporary looking stands behind each goal. Had these ends been allowed to go full width, filling in the corners, it would have looked so much better.

The small size of these ends isn’t helped by the high roof above, and in particular the plain back wall behind. An asymmetrically placed scoreboard, and a police box tagged onto the wall like a hanging ornament, don’t really help either. The ends just look incomplete.

The interesting but slightly awkward link between the West and East stand roofs, with them being of differing heights, means the end roofs slope from West to East at a diagonal angle. This gives rise to something of an optical illusion, making it look like the pitch slopes downwards from East to West, like they borrowed the pitch from Wycombe’s old Loakes Park.

Overall though, mainly because of the West Stand and the quality of the finish around the stadium, it’s certainly one of the best new stadiums in the country.

I got to see it nearly full too, which is so much more important in a seated stadium than one with terraces. The Brighton fans were in good voice early on as the home team took advantage of the patched-up Reading midfield to look really threatening. It was Reading who struck first though, with an Ian Harte free kick deflecting into the far corner past a helpless keeper.

It took Reading a long time to settle, although it was still Brighton who had the best chances, including hitting the crossbar from close in, and there’s no doubt Reading would have gone in at half-time much the happier team.

At half time I felt Reading would need to score at least one more to win the game, as we’d be very lucky to survive another 45 minutes of the same without conceding. Clock-watching for 45 minutes is agonising, so I just went back to my seat taking each five minutes in turn, get through this five minutes, then the next one.

Reading didn’t even manage one five minute chunk though. A loud penalty appeal was waved away, only for another, just a few seconds later, to be awarded. With the way Brighton were playing, I couldn’t help but feel we’d be very lucky to escape with a 1-1 if Brighton scored from the spot. We don’t save many penalties, and Brighton’s Ashley Barnes doesn’t miss many, but on this occasion Federici dived low to his right to palm away Barnes’ effort.

It was a key turning point in the game. Not only because it kept the score at 1-0, but because it seemed to signal the moment when Brighton lost a big chunk of belief, as if they felt in their hearts that it was just going to be “one of those nights”. Sure, Brighton had loads of possession still, and probably had the most shots after that, but most seemed to be shots without conviction, as if the strikers themselves didn’t believe they’d score.

Reading were having breakaways, plenty of them, but it wasn’t quite clicking up front, and many good opportunities went begging.

Despite Brighton having the better of things, it was actually Reading who came closest to adding the game’s second goal. A thundering header from Alex Pearce rocked the underside of the crossbar, before somehow bouncing to safety. It would have settled the jangling nerves in the subdued Reading end, not to mention the match, but Reading held out anyway, to the relief of the players and the travelling fans. Now it was a case of trying to get a train back from Falmer Station. With the long snaking queues outside, the away win started to look like the easy part.

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Marlow 0 St Neots 0

Marlow 0 St Neots Town 0 (07/04/2012)

Having seen fourteen goals in the previous two St Neots Town games I’d been to, this wasn’t the most obvious candidate for a 0-0 draw. St Neots were still top, three points clear and pushing for promotion. Marlow were rock bottom, fourteen points adrift of safety and facing the impossible task of winning their last five games to have any chance of staying up.

With two coaches of fans and probably two-thirds of the crowd, everything looked to be in the away side’s favour. Truth be told, despite Marlow being quite local, I was sneakily hoping to see the league leaders add a few goals while putting their hosts out of their misery.

If Marlow were to go down today, at least their highest crowd of the season, 274, would be there to see the off. If they drop to the Hellenic League, they’ll certainly have one of the better grounds. The focus of the place is the very old-looking wooden main stand. Seating 250 atop the club bar, this offers a great view of the pitch, and the dog-toothed wooden fascia and white wooden walls offers a view of what all small stands were like 80 years ago. The small glass windows of the screen ends do mean the view isn’t perhaps so great from some of the seats – which look to be backless cast-offs from the old Wembley – but with current crowd levels, it’s not a problem.

Opposite is a terrace cover about 40 yards long. The terracing at Marlow, quite deep for this level, hints at the better times of the past, although rather over-zealous health & safety measure bar people from using the grass banking behind. Stern warnings about standing on the grass banking being against ground regulations abound on all sides. Maybe people live in mortal fear of the dangers of standing on gentle grass inclines in these parts, but it seemed a tad over the top.

To the right is another covered terrace, about the width of the penalty box, with a solid-looking roof covering the four steps of terrace behind this goal. On the fascia of this roof, an advert which once read “For the best report on this match read the Maidenhead Advertiser on Friday” had the “on Friday” part removed. Whether the paper is no longer produced on a Friday, or they wish to encourage people to purchase it on other days of the week, is unclear.

The other end is a narrow open terrace, with all-weather pitch-cum-car park behind. The changing rooms are in the corner between that end and the main stand, as is the turnstile. A few late-arriving St Neots fans ingratiated themselves with the home support by sneaking past this turnstile to get in without paying. They did bring a lot of fans, but that extra £50 or so counts at this level.

It has to be said that while the size of the St Neots turnout was impressive, the attitude of some of their fans – and it was only some – left something to be desired. One of the pleasures of non-league football is the relaxed atmosphere, well away from the antagonism of league football. It’s not hugely edifying at league grounds, but when you have fans at this level singing “Your support is fucking shit” and other such “banter”, it comes across as about as crass as belching along to abide with me at a funeral. Because of that I changed my stance. Rather than hoping for a goal glut, I wanted Marlow to win.

Despite the obvious gulf in finances, not ot mention abilities if the league table is to be believed, then Marlow should really have got that win. On a pitch that was more like solidified porridge than a bowling green, passing football was never going to be easy, but at no stage did St Neots look the better side. Perhaps early on they had a slight edge, but they had very few clear chances all game, and if one team was going to nick it, Marlow actually looked the more likely. They should definitely have scored in the first half, when a cut back from the byline found a target on the edge of the six yard box. A lack of composure, and balance for that matter, saw him slip like Bambi on ice while attempting an unnecessarily acrobatic looking tap-in.

Marlow should probably have had a penalty too, with a fouls that looked well inside the box being leniently awarded right on the edge. St Neots’ shots might have been more numerous, but all presented a danger only to cars parked behind the goal.

The second half was much the same. St Neots had plenty of wasted corners and shots that would have shown up on the Heathrow control Tower radar, while Marlow seemed to be getting nearer and nearer that breakthrough.

With St Neots pushing up for the winner they needed, Marlow exploited the big gaps at the back time and time again. Each time though, the finish wasn’t quite there. A header was easy for the keeper. Another shot was scuffed, allowing the keeper to get across to save. In the last-minute a shot on the turn was struck hard and low, but the St Neots keeper got down well to parry the goal-bound ball away, and the last chance had gone.

So no goals, and no win for Marlow. The result might have confirmed relegation for the club, but despite not getting the win they probably deserved, they can at least hold their heads up high. Keep up the same level of performance next season, and their stay at the lower level should be a short one.

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Bath 6 Northampton 26

Bath Rugby 6 Northampton Saints 26 (31/03/2012)

I’ve never been a fan of rugby. I think it dates back to my schooldays, associating the sport with cold and wet Monday mornings, wishing I could be anywhere but on that miserable muddy school playing field, doing my best to fake participation in a sport I had no interest in.

Things didn’t improve as I got older. To many football fans, rugby suffers from an image problem, with the typical fan being portrayed as a plummy-voiced public schoolboy type, who’d grate within seconds of hearing their received pronunciation vowels.

Despite that, here in Bath, I was not only about to go to a rugby match, I was really looking forward to it.

There were two reasons for this. One was that I wanted to have a look round the city of Bath, one of the best preserved Georgian cities in the country. I’d been to Bath before, to see Reading play at Bath City’s Twerton Park many times, when the Bristol club were exiled there not so long ago. Twerton Park is well away from the centre though, and while the surrounding area is hardly the ugliest location for a football ground, it’s not exactly the area that brings thousands of tourists to the city.

The other reason is Bath’s ground, “The Rec”. It’s no amazing stadium, but if any ground in the country has a more attractive location, I can’t think of it. Just across the river from Bath Abbey, reached by crossing the 18th Century Pulteney Bridge, it’s surrounded either by parks or historic buildings, creating an ambience as far removed from a modern identikit stadium as you could get. If you placed the same ground in some edge-of-town retail park, it’d be pretty dispiriting, just as it is for football, and would get slated as a cheap temporary ground. Where it is though, it just works.

The oldest part of the ground, currently renamed the Wadworth 6X Stand, runs alongside the River Avon, spanning around two-thirds of one side. Originally having just eight rows of seats, this stand has been extended forward with another ten or so rows, only a few of which are covered by the flat propped roof. A tv gantry and press box slung below the roof probably do little to aid the view of those at the back.

Alongside this stand, to the right as seen from inside, is a covered temporary seated stand, going by the name “Ringside 2″. To the left is a small open terrace, with some open seats in front of it.

To the right, behind the goal, is a stand like petite posh version of the old Clock End at Highbury. Two stories of hospitality boxes, shielded from the elements by white tent style roofs, sit above a few rows of shallow seats. The more affluent nature of rugby supposed clientele might explain why the relative poor view these offer can still command prices up to £46 a go.

Opposite is a large temporary stand, with around 6000 dark green seats. This structure, only allowed to be erected during the rugby season due to The Rec being a public recreation ground, is uncovered, but offers the best view of the city centre beyond the main stand.

To the left is an open terrace holding perhaps 1500. This is another temporary structure, and does really look like it in parts, although the view from the back is decent enough. Behind here is the large clubhouse and bar, where fans mill about pre-match. Loads wore fancy dress, but doing so elicited no response from most people, as if having fans watching the game in laurel wreaths dressed as Romans is the most natural thing in the world.

To be honest I didn’t totally believe the “rugby fan” stereotype, although going to rugby did feel slightly like being tempted over to the dark side. It evoked visions of entering the rugby-watching world, where I become someone who spent Sundays playing golf with a guy called Gerald and have a glass of wine at half time.

Of course it wasn’t like that at all. I didn’t go up to the tea bar and find the prices were listed in guineas. I don’t think I even heard a single “posh” accent. What I did notice was just how much more relaxed everything was. I’d seen Northampton fans (and even a  couple of players) on the Bath tourist trail earlier in the day. I’d seen many fans drinking in bars, both in the city and around The Rec. But there was no sense of fans getting tanked up or confrontational. I don’t think there was any police presence at the game or in the area, and just no sense that one could possibly be needed. It was just very relaxed, with everyone there to have a good time, whatever the result.

It possibly helped that these were real rugby people, not just types that latched onto England during moments of glory, singing “Swing Low” with all the hand gestures, which typically merit hand gestures of a different kind from anyone else who can see them. These were just ordinary people in a town where the rugby club’s success far outstripped the football team.

And having only heard tv pundits’ polite platitudes before concerning rugby, it was interesting to hear a few more “honest” opinions. The matchday programme was liberally sprinkled with references to bad luck, nearlies, and oh-so-closes. The terrace comments told a different tale, of sloppy play, poor organisation, and the resigned dissatisfaction in a disappointing season coming to an end. That this game would be Bath’s heaviest league defeat of the season hardly helped matters.

In fact moans started direct from the kick off. I’ve known a few “glass half empty” fans in my time watching football, but I’ve never seen anyone moan about the very first kick of the game before. This one though saw Bath concede possession poorly, and it really set the tone for the game.

I can’t really talk about the match in detail. Most of the points in any rugby match seem to be scored from penalties, and I’ve never been able to fathom the infringements which lead to a penalty. Every so often bodies from both teams collapse in a heap on the ball, and sometimes this is fine, and other times it’s a penalty. Even from the replays on the giant screen to my left, I was none the wiser.

Mind you, as much of a rugby novice that I was, it wasn’t hard to see that Northampton passed the ball far better than Bath did. and when the ball was kicked long for territory, Northampton kicked into a space that allowed a chase, while Bath seem to just kick it anywhere, resulting normally in an easy take for Northampton.

The game started with the home side under serious pressure, forced back to near their own try line. A long series of scrums eventually resulted in some Bath infringement which allowed the referee to award a penalty try. With that converted, and a penalty also kicked over soon after, Bath were 0-10 down without even threatening to score themselves.

Bath managed to pull back to 6-10 with two penalties of their own, after getting back into the game, but other was missed. It would have made it just a 1 point deficit shortly before half-time, but Northampton made them pay, with another penalty and a drop goal before the break, to make it 6-16.

Early in the second half, another Bath penalty miss, and two more “nearlies”, with one attempted try being ruled out for not making the line, and another disallowed for an earlier infringement, meant that the gap stayed at 10 points.

Yet another missed penalty seemed to break the back of the home resistance, and Northampton took the ball to the other end and got one of their own. If the fat lady was starting to sing with the score at 6-19, she was doing an encore medley with 15 minutes left, when Northampton powered over the line to record their second try. 6-26. It really was game over, and just a case of seeing what the final margin would be.

However disgruntled fans may have been from this very disappointing game, there was no booing or anger that you might get at football. The Northampton renditions of “when the saints go marching in” provoked no response bar one fan who’d had a little too much to drink. He did get gently reminded that he “wasn’t at the football” and it has to be said he didn’t really look angry at all. In any case, it’s hard to really envisage anyone causing crowd trouble while dressed in a toga.

While some fans did leave early, many others saw this premature end of the game as a chance to head for the bar rather than the car. With them returning to the terraces with pints, or sometimes double-sized pints of beer, they were clearly happy to stay and enjoy the evening.

Even a few pitch invaders were regarded with a “grr….you little scalliwag” kind of approach from the stewards. One other toga-clad fan, who decided to join the Northampton players on the pitch in their post-match warm-down, was only removed with polite persuading, rather than the headlock he’d have got at a football ground.

Having never been anywhere else it’s hard to tell if the Bath experience is normal or unique. What does seem clear is that rugby at Bath isn’t just about the game. It’s the stroll through the historic centre, having a beer and a meal in the city pubs and bars, the walk to the ground beside the river or over Pulteney Bridge, meeting up with friends in the bar, before settling back to watch the game, surrounded on all sides by handsome Georgian limestone buildings. I may not be a rugby fan, and I can’t imagine watching the Irish at the Madejski being in any way similar, but for a social and sporting occasion, a game at The Rec is hard to beat.

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