Hartley Wintney 0 Shrivenham 3 (1st September 2012)
Two weekends off for Reading, coupled with a sunny afternoon, were enough to tempt me 1/2 an hour down the road to Hartley Wintney, to see their FA Vase clash with Shrivenham.
I’d originally pencilled the game in as possible when looking for photos of the ground on google. The search piqued my interest by showing quite decent stand at the ground, but this picture seems to be completely wrong, as the only stand at the ground it a character-challenged basic tin shed of seats straddling the halfway line.
I did, however, also see a shot of a Tudor building across from a pond on a village green, so I took a detour there pre-match. The idyllic scene was tarnished somewhat by a parked car and a “To Let” sign on a half-timbered outbuilding, but added to by a cricket match taking place on the green. With a pub next door, the thought of settling down for some cricket was tempting, but I’d left it too late to avoid looking like a drink-driving alky, chucking a beer down in 10 minutes before shooting off to the match.
Reading the programme, it turns out that this area was the original home of the football club until the 1950s, but unless they actually played on the cricket pitch, it’s hard to see where they played.
Typically, despite being only about half a mile away, the football ground finds itself in a rather less picturesque location, seemingly tacked onto the side of a modern junior school, with the two sharing the same car park. Beyond a clubhouse (with patio and hanging baskets of flowers) and the previously mentioned flat-pack style stand, there wasn’t a great deal to the ground. It was surrounded on three sides by hedges though, giving it a very rustic character. There can’t be many places that have a fire exit marked as a gap in the hedge, although this gate was mainly used for the retrieval of wayward footballs, of which there were plenty.
Such is the in-at-the-deep-end world of non-league football, this was Hartley Wintney’s 8th match of the season (15th if you count friendlies). Strangely, 7 or those 8 have been at home, as were 6 of their 7 friendlies. The previous seven first team games had yielded no fewer than 39 goals, although unfortunately for Hartley Wintney 24 of them had been into their net. When a programme printed on the 1st of September is warning of low expectations, and urging fans to be supportive rather than critical, the signs are not good.
It wasn’t just the fear of the unknown after a step up from a division below either. Ex-Manager Neville Roach and his team had done such a good job that he, and most of his team as well, decamped up the road to Thatcham in the summer, when the manager’s job there became vacant. In had come David Tuttle, who hasn’t had the happiest managerial career. His first job was caretaker-boss of relegation-bound Millwall in 2006. His second was taking over at hapless Bracknell Town, where they notched up a Barnstoneworth United-like set of results, nailed to the bottom of the Southern League South West Division. Things seemed better at Henley Town, until they were forcibly relegated at the end of last season due to ground grading issues. And now he’s at Hartley Wintney, trying to avoid a reputation of being the football equivalent of Red Adair’s arsonist brother.
Things didn’t get any easier in this game. In fact, after going three goals down with a quarter of the game on, the final score will probably have been a relief. Shrivenham started as if they intended to kill the game as soon as possible, camped in the Hartley Wintney half, scoring after just six minutes. I’d love to give a beautiful description of this goal, making anyone reading this easily able to imagine being there, but sadly I got distracted and only saw the ball hitting the net.
I was marginally better with the second goal, just before 20 minutes. This was a good through ball in the right of the penalty box, slipped past the on-rushing keeper. My camera though captured little more than a ball rolling into an empty net, with not a player to be seen.
The third came shortly later, and was the chance for the ref to introduce himself to the stage. An attempted cut back from the byline was blocked by a Hartley Wintney defender, but before the ball rolled out for the corner, the keeper dived on it to keep it in play.
The ref, a bit of Jake Humphrey look-a-like, who also had Jake’s ability to think he’s the star of the show, somehow decided that this block and scrambled save amounted to a backpass, awarding a free-kick on the end of the six yard box. The free-kick resulted in the ball bouncing up high in the six yard box. The keeper and defenders seemed to collectively have the thought of “gosh, that ball really needs to be cleared by someone” but nobody went for it themselves, allowing the ball to be nodded in simply from almost on the line.
Shrivenham eased up after that, and the most notable thing in the rest of the half was one of the Shrivenham management team “checking out” the female assistant ref as she ran past his dug-out. Not that I blame him, to be honest.
The second half had barely started before “Jake” got another chance to prove his star quality, sending off a Hartley Wintney player for a daft kick out at a Shrivenham player after a Shrivenham attack had broken down. This was also a penalty as it happened in the area, but the Hartely Wintney keeper was able to drop on the ball and stop it become 4-0.
With Jake in the groove now, more bookings followed at every opportunity, the result being that both teams seemed to just settle for the 3-0, and not having any more sent off – important when you felt that “looking at me in a funny way” would be a bookable offence.
So, just 3 goals for a team whose games were averaging 5.5 a game before. Still, it was a nice day, and the sloping pitch and hedges gave the ground a bit of character than even the tin bus shelter couldn’t ruin. It might be a bit different in November though.