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Friday 23rd August 2019 ko 19.30

Gwent County League Division 2

OAK 2 (Mantle 16 Watkins 80)

USK TOWN 2 (Rodden 25 Cullinane 31)

R Hancock sent off 88 (2nd booking)

Att 178

Entry £3

Programme £1

This Welsh Hop should have been so easy to organise. We’d got the accommodation, the coach company and the league all sorted, and we’d even given the league a day’s preview last year. Even the Otley Arms in Treforest were holding a beer festival! So at the end of last season GroundhopUK owner Chris Berezai had sent the Gwent League a wish-list of clubs we wanted to visit, and we waited, and when that didn’t work, we coaxed and cajoled. In the end we got the fixtures 3 weeks before the event.

Eventually we got a list of 10 fixtures, 3 for each day of the bank holiday weekend plus Oak in the Friday. It meant we had nowhere near enough time to sell tickets, coach places, and accommodation, but in the end that side of things added up to one less coach and the opportunity for hoppers to easily miss out the New Inn game on the Saturday afternoon. Chris and I regretted that, not least for New Inn who were superb hosts.

Another issue was that the league, newly rebadged the Gwent Premier League, and now independent from the Gwent FA, had us down to visit Ynysddu Welfare at Nine Mile Point on Sunday morning. The problem with that was the Welsh Hop had already been there, back in 2009 when Welfare were Ynysddu Crusaders playing in the South West Amateur League. From speaking to Ben at Ynysddu I knew that their former home at Pontllanfraith Leisure Centre was still open, due mainly to a court order so with his help we got the game switched to there as a “last chance to see” game.

Then a week before the event their opponents Pilcs decided that they wouldn’t or couldn’t play in the Sunday. On one level their reasons are not my concern or my business, but the fixture had been known for 2 weeks at that point so why they chose to wait until a week before the hop will remain a mystery. It let Ynysddu down in every way possible and we ended up with another visit to the Bridgend & District Sunday League. In the end Ynsyddu beat Pilcs on Saturday afternoon at Nine Mile Point in front of an attendance far fewer than they deserved. It goes without saying that these events are built on co-operation so I can’t see us visiting Pilcs any time soon.

The opening fixture was interesting, and one we’d considered for the Friday evening slot when we’d put together that wish list, and even more so now that Ebbw Vale are not going to be using Eugene Cross Park for the foreseable future. But Ebbw Vale was to be our destination, but when Chris described the place as a caged 3G behind the leisure centre, I didn’t recognise it as the place I’d seen Nantyglo at 2 years ago!

A lot of the reason why is that its a lot better than your average 3G cage. Other than the ability to see from all 4 sides the backdrop of the valleys and the gothic-style Christ Church, Ebbw Vale, described as “The cathedral of the valleys, ” on the other gives you an interesting backdrop wherever you stand. Add to that you are watching a game on a piece of history, this is the site of the old Richard Thomas & Baldwin Steelworks, so those who travelled to the hop by train probably rode on rails made here. The ground is many things, but dull it is not!

Other than being the club with the shortest name we’ll ever visit, Oak do come with the distinction of not actually coming from Ebbw Vale, the club takes its name from the Oak pub in Tredegar and moved here when their Ty-Tryst ground was deemed unsuitable for elevation to the Gwent County League.

Now groundhops and leisure centres can have uneasy relationships, who could forget Kinmel Bay? Here we arrived to a club that had been told they could only set up their catering outside the leisure centre itself, then inside the cage, and then the leisure centre! Eventually common sense prevailed and they were allowed to set up inside the cage, where the customers were! The corned beef pie sold quickly!

It was lovely to see local MP Chris Bryant come along to support one of his local teams, and I did allow myself a smile when one hopper asked what party he represented. You’re in the Rhondda constituency, what do you think?

We watched an entertaining opening to the weekend where the draw was probably the right result. It did feature one of the lowest key dismissals you’ll ever see, Ryan Hancock picking up his second yellow without any complaint and very quietly departing the area to watch what little was left from near the coach.

It had been an enjoyable start to the weekend and after the trials and tribulations it was a relief to simply take people to watch football matches. Oak had been excellent, and what I didn’t know at the time is that they were going to start a thread of excellence that ran through the entire weekend.