In the entirety of 2013, I managed to visit two new football grounds. Two weeks into 2014 and I’ve already matched that total. Things are looking good for my goal of being at 20/92 by the end of the season. Despite initially waking up Saturday morning reluctant to leave the warmth and comfort of my bed, within an hour I was on the train pulling out of Manchester Oxford Road. I generally have a pretty appalling record with public transport and this rang true once again in Preston, as I somehow managed to miss my connecting train despite being sat right in front of it.. Yes, I don’t know either. It didn’t really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things anyway as I was making good time, and it just meant I had less time to kill once I arrived in Accrington.
Thankfully, The Crown Ground (or The Storefirst.com Stadium as it now appears to be known) is situated quite close to Accrington train station, meaning I avoided a repeat of last weekend’s mammoth three and a half mile trek to make it there. It’s a short enough distance to walk, but if it wasn’t for a helpful signpost on the street I probably never would have found it – the ground is nestled deep in the heart of a housing estate and isn’t particularly visible until you’re right outside it. I had initially pondered standing with the away fans as I felt that the atmosphere might be a little bit more enjoyable (Newport were sitting much higher up the table, and won the reverse fixture at Rodney Parade 4-1 on the opening day of the season), but ultimately decided against it. I paid a very easy-on-the-wallet £6 with a student card to enter the Sophia Khan Stand, opting to stand on the terrace for the truly authentic spectating experience – this was definitely the right choice, as the stand faces out into the surrounding hills giving you some terrific views.
The visitors started the game much brighter than the home side, and to be honest it was little surprise that it only took them 11 minutes to take the lead. Their calm passing football was proving too much for Stanley to deal with, resulting in a fairly cynical challenge on Ryan Burge by Luke Joyce. Robbie Willmott stepped up and rifled the ball home from 25 yards out, low to the left-hand side. It was then that I was taken by surprise by the sound of raucous cheering from nearby. There were two Newport fans who had, for whatever reason, opted to sit on the home terrace – they managed a quick rendition of “Sheep shagging bastards, we know what we are!” before they were shepherded (no pun intended) by a steward down to the away end. If Newport’s early goal was no surprise, what was surprising was the effect that this had on an Accrington Stanley side who have been miserably lacklustre so far this season. They were galvanised by going behind, and took all of 12 minutes to level the tie. Ex-Leeds United striker Danny Webber split the Newport defence with a wonderful pass that Peter Murphy was happy to run on to before lashing a right footed shot across Lenny Pidgeley and into the far corner.
The game settled down somewhat after a frenetic start, and frustratingly for me as a neutral (and also no doubt to both sets of supporters) was very stop-start thanks to an exceedingly whistle-happy referee. There was still time for another goal before the break, though – a promising Stanley attack was dealt with very poorly by the Newport rearguard, and David Pipe’s poor clearance led to a Peter Murphy cross from the right. Pidgeley came out to claim it but not very confidently at all, and Kal Naismith rose highest to head the ball home. Poor defending from the Welsh side, but take nothing away from the excellent leap and header from the young striker. At half-time I was once again pleased to see that the gates had been opened to allow smokers to step out (two grounds in a row now!), and then paid a very reasonable £1.50 for a cup of coffee.
I had sort of expected Accrington to come charging out of the gates for the second half having gone ahead just before the whistle, but I couldn’t have been further from the truth – instead they seemed content to sit back and invite Newport to attack. To be fair to them, they repelled the barrage of long balls for 26 minutes before their resistance was broken. Conor Washington hooked the ball on and into the box, where Ryan Burge had all the time in the world to bring the ball down and poke it beyond the advancing Marcus Bettinelli. Going 1-0 down might have fired up the home side, but being pegged back to 2-2 didn’t have the same effect – if anything, it only seemed to spur on Newport who were unable to carve out any clear-cut chances. With the home fans urging on the men in red, Stanley thought they’d pinched all 3 points with one minute left on the clock. The corner was delivered toward the near post by Laurence Wilson, and Peter Murphy (yes, that man again) leapt highest to loop his header over Pidgeley and into the far corner. Delirium. It wasn’t to be, though – a lengthy break in play earlier on in the half due to an injury to Washington meant that we were facing 4 minutes of stoppage time. As it happened, Newport only needed the first of those 4 minutes. Another long pass into the box picked out the unmarked Lee Minshull to tap the ball beyond Bettinelli, with Stanley’s defensive frailties exposed once again. The full-time whistle went shortly after, and although the home side will surely be disappointed not to take all three points in the fashion that they did, I think they did very well to earn a point against a side much higher in the table who (at least initially) also played much better football than they did.
So, another excellent game from a neutral standpoint, then – six goals (including a direct free kick) is certainly nothing to scoff at. It’s always a niggling worry when travelling to attend games that it’s going to end 0-0 and make the trip something of a waste of time, but luckily that wasn’t the case today. In fact, looking at the other scores from the division, I probably ended up at the best game of the lot (except, of course, for the mighty Spireites’ 4-0 dismantling of Bury at the Proact). It was a brisk walk back to Accrington station and I actually had 45 minutes to spare before the train back to Preston – 45 minutes which I spent, for the most part (and I take very little shame in admitting this), wandering absent-mindedly around the big Tesco to stay out of the cold.