Sunday, 18 January 2009

Game 7: Bitton AFC 2, Cogenhoe United 1

Fourth Round Proper ~ Saturday 17th January 2009
Venue: The Recreation Ground, Bitton, Gloucestershire
Attendance: 230

Distance travelled: 218 miles

I doubt if there are many match reports you will read that include the words “beetroot”, “purple” and “wee” in the first sentence, but did you know that if you eat lots of beetroot it turns your wee purple? This was one of several bizarre topics of conversation yesterday, as we sat in The Upton Inn at Upton Cheyney ahead of this game. POSH Mate was responsible for this trivial gem, and I still do not know if it is one of his wind-ups. PB and Mackem corroborated the story, so I guess it must hold some credence. This is part and parcel of what I have revelled in this season; travelling to places I’ve never been to before, new grounds to tick off, excellent company, entertaining football and quality, provocative conversation. A grand day out, Gromit.

We had travelled down the M4 early on Saturday to give us time to grab a leisurely bite to eat in preparation for this Fourth Round Proper tie. En route here had been some discussion about the weather. From Surrey to Gloucestershire it had been gloriously sunny. However, heavy rain and strong winds were forecast for the Bristol area, which had already seen some rain falling the previous day and night. The concern was at what point in the afternoon would the rain actually arrive and the prospect of abandonment was not far from my mind. I was later to hear, from the Cogenhoe United Chairman Derek Wright, that an FA Vase game only a few miles away (Larkhall Athletic v Dereham Town) had been postponed because of a flooded pitch. This didn’t bode well, and it felt as if we were enjoying a lull with an ugly storm hiding just around the corner.

Overall, the game was an entertaining one. It didn’t start too well, but like a good wine it improved with age. The sloping pitch had a huge part to play in the proceedings, and a combination of heavy frost followed by rain in recent weeks had taken its toll on The Recreation Ground’s surface. It reminded me somewhat of the infamously sandy pitch at Derby’s Baseball Ground back in the 70s. In the middle third, the pitch was heavy and shredded. The only decent patches of green were out wide on the flanks, and neither team made use of these areas in the first half. Play in the first 45 minutes was sucked into the boggy centre and the result was stodgy football. In the second half, both teams exploited the space (coincidently down their own right-hand sides) and the game improved significantly.

Both teams were certainly up for this game, and the opening exchanges were typified with some strong, uncompromising tackles. Here were two teams who were physical, tall and well matched. Even if the quality of football was at times lacking, it still provided an enthralling spectacle; the proximity of fans to players ensured that every crunch was felt, every curse heard and every nudge, hold and pull blindingly obvious. The reasonably sized crowd (230) had to wait almost 10 minutes for the first action of note when a Cogenhoe effort forced a blocked save from John Rendell in the Bitton goal.

Despite the conditions, both sides tried to move the ball around and credit should be given. On 13 minutes, a well-worked one-two on the edge of the visitor’s area resulted in a shot at goal from Bitton’s Mike Meaker and a minute later Cogenhoe’s Phil Cassidy sent in a dipping effort from range that kept Rendell on his toes. In the first half, with Bitton kicking down the slope but into the ever-increasing wind, Rendell struggled to get any distance on his kicks. Cogenhoe profited with a little more possession around their hosts area, but this came to little; two Cogenhoe free-kicks on 20 and 26 minutes were wasted.

Bitton slowly got into the game and used the slope to their advantage. The home side won three corners in quick succession, all resulting in half-chances that were headed over, twice for the tall Bitton centre-half Steve Jones who provided some danger at set pieces. On 40 minutes, Meaker had another chance when he turned his defender well only for Watts to smother. Right on the stroke of half-time, there were two great chances to open the scoring, both from Bitton. Mark Reynolds’ rising shot was wonderfully turned around by Watts and only moments later Guy Cocks pulled a shot wide when it seemed easier to hit the target. Half-time, 0-0.

If the first half was a rather heavy pudding of a game, the second half was the velvety chocolate sauce that makes the whole thing palatable. I’m sure both sides were briefed over their oranges to exploit the width of the pitch; both did, and we were treated to a good second period. Bitton were now attacking up the slope but with an increasingly cold wind at their backs and the red and white striped home side enjoyed more of the ball.

Bitton drew first blood on 53 minutes. The ball was worked out to the right at which point a local in the crowd, with his strong Bristol accent, implored a decent cross. On cue, an excellent ball was delivered in at pace and was met by Reynolds whose glanced header nestled into the bottom right-hand corner of the Cogenhoe goal.

Along with the change in tactics from both sides, a goal so early in the second half helped open the game. Cogenhoe United's response was pretty immediate and breaking downhill Cassidy once again shot from range and the follow-up was cleared as it arrowed goal bound. On 56 minutes, the visitors from Northamptonshire drew level when the home side failed to clear and Darren Frost prodded home from close range.

From then on, the tie was balanced on a knife-edge and could have gone either way. Bitton pressed the game more whereas Cogenhoe United resorted to hitting Bitton on the break. On 64 minutes Bitton missed what can only be described as a sitter; Matt Tilley found himself only yards out with the goal at his mercy but somehow construed to head the ball inches wide.

Bitton slowly turned the screw and managed to exploit space behind the Cogenhoe back four. A great free-kick from Bitton’s new signing, defender Rob Scott, flashed just wide after 69 minutes and seconds later Scott then saw his long range effort sail just over the crossbar. Cogenhoe chipped in with a couple of fruitless long range efforts but with the clock ticking down a draw and extra-time seemed the most likely option. The home team, although by now controlling the game, were getting visibly frustrated with the number of offside decisions against them and with Cogenhoe still prepared to break in numbers, Bitton were playing a precarious high line.

Bitton scored the winner on 82 minutes. Another good cross from the right paid dividends and the ball took a deflection to the far post where the young 18 year old substitute, Jack Welling, happily netted from a few yards out. The loud cheer from the home crowd could no doubt be heard as far as Bath, but evidently not as far as the clubhouse bathroom which is where POSH Mate was at the time; he was oblivious to events and returned to join us muttering something about extra-time and purple wee.

Within a minute of the goal, it seemed that the Cogenhoe goalkeeper Darren Watts would be sent off for handling outside the area, after he stumbled clumsily into a long ball. The referee showed a degree of leniency and brandished only a yellow card. From the free-kick, another cracking, thunderous strike from Scott drew yet another wonderful save from Watts.

Time was up for Cogenhoe United; as the dying minutes came and went, they had a couple of half-chances with their captain Neil Champleovier urging them on for a late equaliser. This never came and the final whistle was met with scenes of joy from one set of players and disappointment from the other.

Once again, a good FA Vase game to add to the memory bank. The Recreation Ground is situated at one end of the village of Bitton, and is set in a large amount of open space owned by the club and used as pitches for training and matches for other Bitton teams (including a ladies team). The game ended dry; the forecasted rain never materialised and as we left we were treated to a good view of the Cotswolds Escarpment to the east. As Bitton marched off the pitch and into the Fifth Round of the FA Vase for the first time in their history, Cogenhoe had only a depressingly long journey back home mindful of the fact that this is their fourth unsuccessful attempt to get beyond this stage of the competition. I wish Cogenhoe United all the best for the remainder of their season.

Now, it’s a case of waiting to see where Bitton AFC will be off to in the next round. In the meantime I have time to test out a theory which involves a bucket of beetroot, a colour chart and several trips to the loo.

For more of my photos from the game, please click [here].
Thanks to Sports Photographer Neil Brookman for his photos [here].

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