We were on holiday in North Devon for the week, so I made the visit Ilfracombe Town for their FA Vase game with Portishead Town.
When Ilfracombe picked out a plot of land for their ground in the 1920s, they picked out the flattest bit of land they could find, which still wasn’t very flat, it turns out. The pitch managed to slope in about six different directions, and the height difference in some places must be close to the allowed limit. But the ground is charming, with a cemetery chapel at one end, and lovely views of the Bristol Channel and Ilfracombe Torrs along the far side. The slope of the land was such that the two-tier clubhouse, which would not have looked out of place in a marina, had both floors at “ground” levels.
At 400ft above sea level, I suspect it has caught a few of the more portly of the groundhopping fraternity out. The half-hour walk from Ilfracombe harbour is not for the faint-hearted, but the ground is well worth the hike, as was the very warm welcome I was given by the home committee.
Both teams had good starts to the season, Combe winning all three of their league games, and Portishead two out of three. The visitors from Bristol looked noticeably younger, and there was a stark difference in the warm-ups, with the Portishead manager telling his players to “save their laughter for after the game” and “football starts now” at 2.10 pm. Ilfracombe, on the other hand, were all smiles and laughter.
Both warm-ups ended with the obligatory shooting drill, which did little to inspire confidence.
The home side started the brighter, and when Portishead – wearing a rugby league style kit – lost the services of their big lad up front due to a muscle injury, Combe must have fancied their chances. But Portishead grew into the game and looked far the fitter of the two sides, their relative youth giving them an extra half-yard of pace. They took the lead mid-way through the half with a spectacular long-range effort which hit the underside of the bar and bounced on the line. While players on both sides were pleading their case to the linesman, Alex O’Keefe strolled in and popped the loose ball home.
Portishead soon added a second with a tidy one-on-one finish from Josh Honey, and a third just after half time from Luke Coulghan after a bit of pinball in the box, which seemingly all but ended Combe’s hopes.
But at 3-0 up, Portishead completely switched off, and a minute or two later, Ollie Stevens (who had missed a sitter in the first half) gave the home side hope with a powerful back post header.
3-1 quickly became 3-2 when CJ Roberts was left unmarked for another easy header, this time at the opposite post. By now, Portishead were completely shot, and Combe had a third somewhat harshly ruled out for offside. A quick chat with the Portishead right back later in the game shared the home fans’ opinion that it should have been 3-3, and the officials didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory for much of the game.
The officiating trio was that staple non-league combination of two kids far too young to be refereeing and one as old as the hills on which the ground was built. Their decision making for fouls was pretty spot on, making it very odd that they made a number of absolute howlers for throw-ins and offsides.
A strong wind blowing across the ground picked up again after a quiet period around half time, and the game descended into chaos, with neither side able to put their feet on the ball for long. It seemed that Portishead had weathered the storm, and when Combe player/coach Kev Squire missed a golden chance to make it level, most thought the game was done.
But in the 90th minute, Combe’s CJ Roberts made a mess of a cross, which caught everyone out including the Portishead keeper, and squirmed in at the near post.
As is the case for this season’s Vase, we went straight to penalties. Both teams scored their first, but then came the moment which threatened to define the shootout. Steve Oliver saved Portishead’s second penalty only for the linesman to raise his flag, stating that Oliver had moved off his line. Photo evidence suggests this was something of a howler from the linesman, with Oliver still having one foot on the chalk. The retaken penalty was sent the other way, only for Oliver to save again… But for a second time he was told that he moved from his line! He earned a booking for his protests, and the Portishead player finally found the net at the third attempt, but with Oliver now starting about two feet behind the line, the odds were always in his favour.
Oliver saved his third penalty (but the only one which counted), and Combe scored all five of theirs to send them laughing into the next round.
This was the first game I’ve been to as a neutral this season, and it was probably the one I’ve enjoyed the most, though that may not have been the case if it was a dour 0-0. Having just had a week off work probably had something to do with it too.
Ilfracombe was busy, and seemed to be doing OK despite the pressures of COVID. Like most British seaside towns, there was a lot of old run-down hotels and restaurants whos customer base is getting smaller and smaller. It was a lovely place though, and far less tacky than most other coastal resorts.
However, today I found out today that Braunton, where we were staying, has an equally picturesque ground. Now I’m going to have to go back.