Roy of the Rovers
Banbury United 1-0 Bradford Park Avenue (National League North)
So not without controversy the World Cup is underway in Qatar. I didn’t watch the opening game as was out for a family meal on Sunday at the Lord Nelson in Burton Joyce but enjoyed England thumping Iran for six on Monday before casting eye over the Dutch and of course USA v Wales and that spine-tingling rendition of the Cymru national anthem… If it were a singing contest, there would be only one winner.
On Tuesday morning I’m up with a coffee, laptop over the knees, TV on as I tweet ‘about to watch the Messi show’ it’s business as usual thanks to an early penalty for Argentina but somehow, Saudi Arabia claw themselves back in the game and take the lead, somehow, they hang on, and create history with an unbelievable performance, as big as any shock I’ve seen in the World Cup, reminiscent in my lifetime of the Friday afternoon I raced home from school to see Cameroon beat Argentina in 1990, when all I was expecting on that day in Milan was a Maradona Masterclass.
After a quick spot of lunch, I take a passive interest in Denmark v Tunisia before setting off roughly after 4pm, by now Mexico v Poland is on my car radio as I’m out the door, heading for Oxfordshire and another new football venture, a sixth tier National League North Game between Banbury United and Bradford Park Avenue, about as south as you can get for a northern league fixture.
I’m down the M1 in the rain looking for signs for Daventry and junction 18, passing the International Rail Freight Terminal I’m heading south down the A361 in pitch darkness and through Byfield and Chipping Warden before crossing the M40 as the traffic builds. Guillermo Ochoa has saved a penalty for Mexico which is great news for my fantasy team, a clean sheet too, as I pull into the rather busy looking Banbury Railway Station car park, I realise I’ve gone wrong, head for the exit and continue down a single-track road behind a number of factories before finally pulling into the dimly lit car park of the Spencer Stadium, where a steward leads me in.
I’ve got time so sit in the car as some of the players start to arrive, from the outside it’s pretty bleak, it feels very non-league, very isolated and very industrial as a train rushes by on the Paddington to Manchester West Coast line, the Spencer Stadium has been forever home to Banbury United, who originated as Spencer Sports Club in 1931.
By now the build up of metal in the car park has left me blocked in, I wonder how I’m expected to get out at full time, luckily, I don’t have to rush back, but anyone wanting an early exit would be pretty screwed, as each motor is packed in tightly to ensure no space goes unturned.
After ten or fifteen minutes in the warmth whilst scrolling on my phone I decide it’s time to enter fort, out of my car, on with the hat, the coat zipped up, laptop bag over my shoulder I head for the turnstile where I take out my phone, zapped in thanks to a mobile ticket I was provided on Sunday night, “Complimentary” says the turnstile operator… “I am today” I explain myself with a feeling of guilt.
Upon entry I take a walk around where I get a real feel for the place, walls painted in predominantly red and yellow with quirky dated stands, pitch flat, wide, a number three all over, immaculately green considering the earlier downpour, it feels like I’m at the home of Melchester Rovers, surely this place had an influence on the great Roy of the Rovers comic of years gone by? A single old red seated stand on the halfway line with pillars in view obstructing anyone who’s sitting at the back. To the right a low roofed terrace behind the goal backing on to a WW apexed style roofed factory behind, giving the ground a real distinct and classic Subbuteo style look, to the right of that, a colourful looking tea bar which is where I’m heading next, a cuppa and a hot dog with onions, paid via contactless, I park up behind the goal and start to eat and drink my nights fuel.
“Have you driven here” some old chap says to me… He thinks I’m a Bradford fan as I’m wearing a green bobble hat. “I was trying to find if the club were running a bus but nothing, they were going to segregate the away support tonight but apparently there’s only going to be fifteen away fans”.
He’s retired, now a groundhopper living in West Yorkshire who was at Heybridge Swifts on Saturday, originally from Chester we get talking about some Welsh grounds and he recommends “one the side of a mountain” at Blandy Park, home of Garw SBGC, although he’s not yet been himself.
I’m by now sitting at the top of the John Nicholls Stand, the match being broadcast on Puritans Radio as the venue starts to fill nicely, I’m next to a guy from BBC Radio Oxford who’s having a night off. His only job is to do a 30 second recorded report after the match.
He tells me Banbury were promoted last season losing just two games in the Southern League Central, gaining 102 points it’s their first ever season in the National League North, I ask is their rise down to the manager, the players, or if they have a decent budget, “definitely the manager” he says, “the club’s budget is pretty low compared to some in this league” he continues “they started really well this season, lost a couple of games and squad depth has been tested recently”. Banbury beat Stowmarket Town 6-0 in the FA Trophy on Saturday to set up a third-round home tie with Bognor Regis. Bradford were knocked out against local rivals Farsley Celtic and are struggling in the league, near the foot of the table. Gut feeling is home banker.
As the teams appear and the game gets into its stride it’s soon noticeable that Banbury are a really nice pleasing on the eye footballing team, they play simple short stuff on the ground, and knock it about really well without the intention or need to panic and rush, watching them play almost feels like watching a good football league team in action, playing at a canter they start slowly, happy to give the opposition time to play themselves, and when they get the ball, they have eleven competent footballers, who like to knock it across their backline, through their midfield and out wide to their pacey wingers (Acquaye & Babos) who on each side are a real direct threat.
What they lack in height, they have in quality, their centre halves Williams and Radcliffe are very comfortable in possession. Josh Smile in midfield is a delicate footballer looking to pick the ball up off his defence, captain, Giorgio Rasulo beside him, looking to drive from midfield with the ball often glued to his feet.
Rasulo even has his own song, to the tune of the recently viral Charlie Patino effort created by Blackpool fans, which ends in “f*cking hate Brackerrrrley”
I get the feeling Banbury is a real cult club. The fans are young, boisterous, there’s been a bit of trouble recently hence the requirements for segregation, one of the ends is sponsored by The Terrace, a clothing website which sells retro football gear, and is based in the town, the music played pre-game and at half time includes New Order and Duran Duran.
It’s at half time where the game is goalless and with chances few and far between, I feel the away side is probably the happier, having contained Banbury to a couple of half efforts without looking any danger themselves. I say “the more this game stays at nil nil the better chance Bradford have”.
A young Banbury official walks back to his seat having heard the half time team talk, he says “the manager isn’t happy” Andy Whing is the Banbury gaffer and was a blood and guts full back in his day playing for the likes of Coventry, Brighton & Oxford United. He won’t like the lack of intensity shown by his side in that opening forty-five.
You can tell the Managers choice words have had an effect, as Banbury start the second half well, a little more fire in the belly, they press harder, run that little bit more, do things that bit quicker, but Bradford by now are up for the fight. Sam Fielding is very good at centre half before an injury see’s him replaced, I’m most impressed with right back Lucas Odunston who looks competent and confident in and out of possession, they’re game and work tirelessly, but in Jacob Blyth and Jordan Preston up top, they never really look like scoring, the side has a severe lack of pace and creativity.
Despite this, the later the game goes I say “Banbury might be happy with just not losing here” signifying “It’s one of those nights, you’ve not played well, but you still don’t want to lose” but as some folk head for the exits to sit in the car park and wait for others to move their motors to eventually leave, a last corner for Banbury offers feint hope of a late winner, and an unlikely hero is that Jay Williams, who I’ve been most impressed with at centre half, pops up to volley an all important decider, as the Park Avenue players sink to the ground, Williams and his team-mates are jumping into the crowd who celebrate their victory goal like mad.
Man of the Match Williams still only 22, has football league experience with Northampton and Harrogate, and whilst looks stereotypically too small to be a centre half, has a calming presence and reads the game so well, he is very comfortable on the ball, perhaps too comfortable, but aside a big defender, would easily play at a higher level.
A small team, Banbury don’t seem to have anyone bigger than Williams, I struggle to search a six footer, they have diminutive attacking options, neat footballers who will win more games than they lose, but I would like to see how they fear on the slope at North Street, against a tall nasty long ball team like Alfreton Town.
Slavi Spasov went off injured, a player who I was most looking forward to seeing play, but Giorgio Rasulo and in particular Josh Smile gave me nice moments, the simplicity of Smile’s play not to be underestimated against his constant off-ball movement.
For Bradford, it looks like a long tough season for them, whilst right back Lucas Odunston perhaps looked their best player on the night, they were gutsy, hard-working, but lacked quality in going forward, maybe Jamie Spencer offering their best hope of attacking threat on the wing.
The non-league St Pauli? I certainly feel a cult element to Banbury United, like that of Clapton FC or Dulwich Hamlet, a trendy team with a traditional but imposing old ground, inspired by a classic and colourful kit, one who’s fans are vocal, one who’s players plays good football, I think it’s a pretty cool time to be a Banbury fan. Or a Puritan, as they are affectionately and equally as coolly known.
Whether they’ll have what it takes to make the next step? The National League as Kings Lynn recently found out, is a tough step up in quality when you have limitations in finance, but Banbury play good enough football to beat anyone on their day, and if they make the playoffs this season, it would surprise no-one who’s seen them play.
For Bradford, five of the thirteen fans predicted never even made it to Banbury, just eight, in the end, in total, showing up, all welcomed by the bloke on the tannoy, after the match for a drink in the clubhouse, I feel a long painful season ahead for them, if they can avoid relegation, it won’t be done without change.
Banbury United: Jack Harding, Connor Roberts, Sam Brown, Ben Radcliffe, Jay Williams, Josh Smile, Giorgio Rasulo, Slavi Spasov (Callum Reilly 17), Ben Acquaye (Josh Dugmore 90), Jak Hickman (Jack Stevens 72), Alex Babos.
Bradford Park Avenue: George Sykes-Kenworthy, Lucas Odunston, Reece Staunton, Luca Havern, Sam Fielding (Harrison Hopper 51), Jamie Spencer, Will Lancaster, Simon Richman, Thomas Angell, Jordan Preston (Will Longbottom 79), Jacob Blyth.
7:45pm Kick Off. Tuesday 22nd November 2022, Spencer Stadium, Banbury (att 501)