Willand vs Westbury
I like to tell a story from time to time about how I discovered Peter Crouch. Now admittedly, the word ‘discovered’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence, but, in lieu of much else to write this week, it’s still a story worth telling.
This was back in the early noughties, a time before I’d discovered the allure of non-league football, and I was getting my football fix in the form of midweek cup fixtures at Villa Park. I had a limited affinity with the claret and blues, my father being a life-long fan, but the real reason for my excursions was that they only charged £10 for such games, and at the time my arms were short and my pockets deep.
At the same time that I was savouring the allure of the Doug Ellis stand, the Villains had acquired Peter Crouch for £5 million. He was still relatively unknown to the football fraternity, and those who were aware of him were more likely to mention his height than the 18 goals he had scored for Portsmouth (at a rate of a goal every other game, no less).
Indeed, even the Villa faithful struggled to see past his gangly frame, but as soon as our paths crossed during these midweek excursions against such luminaries as Luton, Oxford, and Lille, we could see that he was something special.
It certainly wasn’t his scoring prowess that convinced us; he managed six goals in 43 games during his time at Villa Park, only worsened by his four assists. It can’t have been his longevity either; he only managed the full 90 minutes seven times and the starting 11 on twenty occasions.
But each time we left the ground, we became increasingly confident in our assessment, albeit not so confident that we could share it with anyone for fear of ridicule.
The culmination of our endeavours was a mid-week quarterfinal match against Chelsea.
We’d travelled to the game with my brother, an ardent Manchester United fan (from Cornwall, of course), who was passing through the second city. Crouch hadn’t made the starting line-up for the game, being ousted by Vassell and Angel, but came on in the 83rd minute, with the game poised at the final score of 2-1. For most of those 7 minutes on the pitch, he achieved nothing of note and quite probably didn’t touch the ball. Then, for one glorious moment, he shone.
The ball was cleared from somewhere under the Holt End and careered towards the halfway line, the crowd collectively inhaling as the scenario played out in front of them. Vassell, anticipating the flick from his newly acquired strike partner, had started his run early and was already in his favoured offside position by the time the ball had reached a leaping Crouch. But instead of the obvious, Crouch instead killed the ball on his chest and deftly flicked it towards a teammate, creating pandemonium amongst the partisan crowd who were willing to ignore the obvious offside, but only increasing our adulation.
In unison, we turned to my brother and noted that, one day, Peter Crouch would play for England.
I was reminded of my Peter Crouch story recently when I saw that Aldershot had signed Willand’s own Ollie Bray. Ollie had been with Willand, on and off, for a few seasons, and during that time, his ambition and talent were obvious to anyone who watched him play. His time at Silver Street was punctuated by trials at clubs plying their trade on a much grander scale, but although unsuccessful, it was still obvious to me that his future at a higher level was assured.
Granted, he had a few flaws in his game, notably that for a lot of the time he was so fast and direct that he almost outsmarted himself along with the unfortunate defender he was facing, but his speed, power, and combative nature, coupled with the environment in which he found himself at Willand, meant that his move to a higher standard was inevitable.
It was with a sense of free-floating and entirely undeserved pride that I watched him score against West Brom, and I’m sure all at Willand will follow his progress with interest.
The opponents for today’s game, Westbury United, came into the match having already achieved a full house in 2024, with a league win and defeat and a semi-final cup draw under their belts, and were looking to solidify their position in the league.
Willand started the game with new signings Ford and Edwards taking up central defensive duties, with Baker preferred to Duff-Dick to partner Howe up front, but it was the visitors who were the first to threaten, with Burton making himself big to stop a one-on-one in the opening gambits.
The game, however, failed to ignite after the fiery start as both teams quickly began to cancel each other out in the Baltic conditions.
With neither team able to create any chances of note, the game saw both sets of players and benches vent their frustrations, becoming increasingly irate with the officials for no apparent reason.
Willand’s first chance of the game, and only real chance of the half, came as late as the 32nd minute. Following a foul that stopped Baker’s good work down the Willand right, Moulden sent a beautiful free kick into the box, where Guppy met it well but was unable to keep his header down.
The half finished with Willand arguably in the ascendancy, but with Howe spending much of the first half drooping back to find the ball, he found himself playing as the link man when really he needed to be at the point of the needle, and without his presence up front, Willand looked rather toothless.
Halftime: Willand 0 – Westbury 0
After what seemed like the longest halftime in history, both teams eventually returned to the field of play, allowing fans to finally warm their hands with some cordial clapping.
What followed for the next 35 minutes could best be described as an end-to-end affair, but not in a good way. With neither team able to bypass the opposition defence, the stalemate endured until the last 10 minutes, when the game, if not coming to life, certainly showed some signs of recovery.
Westbury were the first to come close to stealing a late victory when Burton gratefully blocked a scuffed shot from 8 yards that really ought to have roused the announcer from his hibernation.
To bookend the match, the last minute saw another excellent save, this time from Hill in the Westbury goal, to deny Howe a winner, and somewhere past both 5 p.m. and -5c the referee finally blew his whistle to end an altogether not very entertaining encounter.
So far as David Steele will be concerned, though, it was a point earned and a clean sheet kept, and we march on, thermals at the ready, to Wednesday’s game against Plymouth Parkway.
Full time: Willand 0 – Westbury 0