Too close to call

Conference South Semi Final 1st leg – Basingstoke Town FC v Dartford FC
Wednesday, 2nd May 2012, 7.45pm
Camrose Ground
Distance 41 miles, Attendance 1691
“Loads of roundabouts – very good food van in ground.” declared Mr Truro a couple of hours before I set off. I hadn’t sort help, but the thing about ground-hopping is, like back-packing, there’s always someone out there with advice; kind folks with suggestions of destinations, and sights, and experiences. As I stood open mouthed in the car park I began to wonder how many others he’d pointed this way for the night.
The roundabouts were easy (actually one wasn’t but having circumnavigated it three times I guessed right first time) and avoiding the car-dodging supporters on the ring road was ok, but finding the car park full… and the next three streets too… I was truly getting concerned I’d ever make kick off. Hand brake pulled I grabbed my things and hastily paced the footpaths back towards the ground, not knowing the way but looking for locals, following a dad and son down an over grown alley, climbing over the broken chain link fence, dodging potholes and there it was… Bar to the right, turnstiles to the left and long queues for both.

Squeezing through the turnstile hole in the wall I stepped, like Tom Petty, into the great wide open. To my right (the south) was a towering main stand, shallow covered terracing to the north, and ahead to the east. By passing another queue at the food van, with my mind drifting off to Vicarage Road’s dog track of the 70s, I strolled the sweeping concrete avenues encircling the pitch. Finding my spot I came to a stop, peep went the whistle, hoof went the ball, The Stoke went “steaming in”, The Darts marched in the opposite direct, “KEEP IT CLEAN!” screamed the ref.
Both sides were clearly up for it (not that I know exactly what that means) but Dartford always seemed to have the edge throughout the first half. Two early corners went the home side’s way without return, but their game struggled to find its shape. Darts attack got an early look at goal too. “Smarty shape! Matty strong!” yelled Ashley Bayes from the home goal. Abrupt challenges flew in from both sides, rearguard stalwarts held off the attacks, and on 15 minutes the first ball sailed high over the roof bringing the rain down on its return to earth. Shortly after, first blood was struck though only in a cut to Luke Wilkinson face. The stoppage bought time for reflection. It wasn’t pretty but it was engaging. Basingstoke’s Jide Ogunbote headed over whilst up the other end Elliott Bradbrook dived determinedly as the freekick came over, only to see it a slight deflection take the ball from his intended crash course. As the tight contest continued the ref again beckoned for fair play, the crowd on the other hand didn’t, and Delano Sam Yorke gave them what they craved putting in a crunching challenge on the halfway line. Once again any advantage afforded the teams was squandered.
As I photographed fans behind his goal, suddenly Louis Wells was forced into action; tipping the ball round his post. I’ve no idea who shot but the save was superb. With the game opening up, Wilkinson almost headed backwards into his own net, Bayes threw his body on the line with a last ditch block from Danny Harris, and appeals were going up for even the slightest contact as the teams searched for some advantage. With more light rain falling, it was clear that if the heavens really opened the available shelter wouldn’t keep us all dry. I made up my mind to find somewhere more sensible for the second period and drifted off for chips and a tea (only one of which I would recommend). Making my way back to the perimeter fence, fans had already begun to leave the ground in search of halftime beer at the bar I’d passed outside. My chance at finding a clear view of the pitch proved to be their misfortune. I glanced up from my tea to see Harris (I believe) win the ball on the edge of the Basingstoke box, and lay it off to the on rushing Lee Noble. There was only one thing on his mind. The very thing we’ve all rehearsed, in our daydreams, time, and time, again. SMACK! The ball sped low towards the far corner, past the outstretched arm of Bayes, and the away support danced in joy.
With Bowie’s “Heroes” blasting from the tannoy subs kept warm on the pitch. Dartford had just had the best of the half but I’m not sure a lead was deserved. Elsewhere word was arriving that Sutton were also behind at the interval. I wondered of Jason Bristow, below the stand, trying to lift his team again, urging the heroes from within them. Somehow it worked.
Kicking towards the Custom Card end and their noisy covered fans, everything about The Stoke’s demeanour was more determined. Five minutes from the restart, Matt Warner hit a long range effort just over the bar. A Dartford fan pushed through us on to the barrier to implore his side to hold fast (in four letter vernacular). In truth no one heard him; Basingstoke just fearlessly pushed on against a side that had finished the season above them. More and more chances were falling their way. Wes Daly’s corner tested Wells when his defence failed to react. Elliott Bradbrook drifted past two on the right and hammered a low hard cross which Wells parried through the six yard box, which James Rogers eventually got on the end of, but put his shot wide. On the odd occasion Darts got forward Bayes was imperious. “Too much pressure” yelled someone from behind, as Darts supporters around me started checking their watches whilst muttering obscenities. As rain came down, I moved to shelter just as the popular Darts’ winger Danny Harris wellied one over. The next miss was mine, a chance to touch the match ball, which bounced through the gap I’d just made (yes, this is important). Then an offside flag cut short a Basingstoke break and Dartford had a goal, against the run of play, ruled out for an Andy Gray style challenge on the keeper. Try as they might the away side could not get a second and Basingstoke could not pull level. Two bookings, and three minutes of injury time, and it was all over for the first leg.
I’d trekked to the edge of the wild South West, navigated the roundabouts, marvelled at the imposing main stand, and watched a good game of football. Dartford edged the first half and scored a goal; Basingstoke stormed back in the second but couldn’t get the ball in the net. The supporters cheered and complained like any others, but most remained there, absorbed and unmoved until the final whistle. I wish them both best wishes for the 2nd leg on Sunday but it’s really too close to call for the place in the play-off final.
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