I'd never seen Hartpury play before but I have seen Malmesbury's first team play twice before at Calne Town in October 2016 (Webb Double Sinks Vics) and at home to Chippenham Park August 2017 (Flying Visit). I also saw their Development team play at Wickwar Wanderers in June 2021 (The End Of The War) and in the Cricklade Cup Final versus Chesterton (Fitting Final Finale).
Hartpury University FC somewhat unsurprisingly play within the grounds of the Hartpury College campus, just outside the village of Hartpury to the North West of Gloucester. This is the club's first season at this level and, indeed was their first home game. There are building works happening in the campus which means that what is normally a one-way system around the college is currently two-way. Cars entering the ground were met by a university staff member who guided us to the main car park and pointed out where the pitch was by highlighting the floodlights to the right of the car park. Beware for now, there aren't any signs directing supporters from car park to pitch and many did the same as me, walked across an adjoining rugby pitch. However, the actual route should have been down the hill past the Alpas Arena (which is where the spectator toilets are located). Not that it caused any great problem (although, the other route did bypass the turnstile. Note: I walked back to the turnstile, paid my entrance and picked up a programme). There is a small covered stand on one side of the ground but no other spectator shelter. Dugouts are on the opposite side to the covered stand as are the refreshment stands one of which is something that I have not seen at a football ground before, a mobile pizza truck complete with a pizza oven. The pitch was absolutely immaculate which, as we were to witness later, is exactly how this team would like it given their style of play.
I'm guessing that Hartpury will be a popular ground for hoppers this season given it is their first season at Step 6. They have a decent setup and a very good pitch. The pizza oven may well prove to be a popular attraction too. If I had to make any critical observations it would be the lack of signage from car park to pitch and the fact that team sheets are not displayed anywhere (this is always a popular feature with groundhoppers). However, this was their first ever home game at this level, so plenty of time to improve.
Hartpury's football club was only founded in 2020. They played in the Herefordshire County League for their first season, and what a season it was! Over a 20 game season they finished with a 100% record, 19 points ahead of second placed Ledbury Town and with a goal difference of +107, scoring 117 and conceding just 10. They also won the Herefordshire County Cup beating Hereford 2-1 in the final. By my reckoning this means that they have yet to lose (or even draw) a single competitive match (of course, someone may well tell me otherwise).
Vics are something of a fixture in the Hellenic League Division One. Aside from a one season venture into the Premier League (2009-10), two season's back in the Wiltshire League and two seasons in the Western league system (2016-18), they have been a Division 1 stalwart since joining the league at the turn of the century. This followed a successful, championship winning season in the Wiltshire League, something they replicated in the 2015-15 season. Last season's top scorer, Harrison Archer who scored 16 goals, won't be lining up alongside former Torquay and Wycombe (amongst others) striker Chris Zebroski, who turned out for the Vics last season.
This would be the second league game of the season for both sides. They opened up with contrasting results. Hartpury made the trip to Newent Town last Saturday and, after leading by a goal to nil at half-time, they went on to clock up a resounding 6-1 victory in a game that saw Newent's Jordan Cooper see red. Meanwhile Malmesbury were on the wrong end of a 1-0 score line at Moreton Rangers
As with most games, there was an initial opening period of settling in for both teams but it was the home team who hit their passing stride first. Five minutes in they broke quickly down the right flank before forcing the visitor's goalkeeper to make the first real stop of the game. A the game settled into a pattern of play it became very clear that Vics had come here with a game plan to sit deep and frustrate The Acorns. The Malmesbury back four, marshalled by Paul Carson, held a firm formation, never even pushing up to halfway even when the ball was cleared. They were quite happy to sit back and soak up the Hartpury pressure with a view to breaking out and hoping to get the chance of a set piece up the other end. With 30 minutes gone, it looked as it the visitor's plan was working well. Carson was having his own private contest to see how far out of the ground he could launch clearances and goalkeeper Adam Clatworthy had not been stretched. Hartpury had retained the ball for long periods but had only got in behind the Vics defensive line twice. On both occasions the ball had been fizzed across the 6 yard box without a home player being ale to get on the end of it.
That was as good as it got for Malmesbury in the first half as the home side began to wind up the pressure on their visitors. On 34 minutes Zac Berry decided to take matters into his own hands, starting a run towards the Vics goal from way inside his own half. A couple of exchanged passes and a few skips past defenders saw him break through onto the edge of the area. Unfortunately for the left-back his finish lacked some of the power and accuracy of his run, skidding just wide of the Vics upright. It was a warning though. Hartpury were back on the offence just a few minutes later. This time Justin Hall beat his man out on the left before sending a low cross in towards the penalty spot. It was met by Tobey Soule but his slightly scuffed effort did not have the power to beat the Clatworthy who saved low to his left. That was on 38 minutes but Malmesbury could not hang on for the remaining seven minutes to the break. The next Acorns attack led to the opening goal. Malmesbury conceded a needless free-kick just outside the box but way out on the left. Luke Salter took the kick, delivering a perfect ball for Alexandre Hainault to rise above everyone and glance a header into the net. 1-0. It was no more than the home side deserved on the balance of play but a kick in the teeth for Malmesbury who had executed their game plan almost perfectly up to that point.
Nine minutes into the second period Hartpury doubled their lead. Once again it came from a free kick, this time conceded just outside the box and to the right of goal from Hartpury's perspective. Luca Robinson curled an absolute beauty around the wall and in off the lower part of the keeper's left-hand post. 2-0. Quite ironic that Vics, who had come to the game with a plan to defend and rely on set pieces, had been twice undone by set pieces themselves.
At this point it seemed that the three points were in the bag. Hartpury's keeper, Stephen Sarkodie, had not really had a save to make and was playing more as a sweeper than a goalkeeper. Malmesbury, who to be fair had defended pretty well all game, didn't appear to be able to make a dent in the Hartpury backline. It looked as if it was just a matter of time before the home side increased their advantage.
And this they did, but it took until the 76th minute. Josh Radford, who had buzzed around the Vics defence all game, was brought down in the box. Penalty to the Acorns. Captain Kian Kang stepped up and made no mistake from the spot. 3-0.
The match is listed as abandoned in Full-Time and, as of the time of writing, the match does not feature in the league table statistics for either side. When the league decides the outcome, whether that be a home win or that the match should be replayed, I'll update the blog accordingly.
Regardless of what happens, it's hard not to be impressed with Hartpury on the pitch. They play a thoroughly entertaining and very effective brand of football. Their players are energetic and skilful. Every player on the pitch, even their goalkeeper, looked very comfortable on the ball and always willing to make themselves available for a pass. Having said that, Malmesbury coped with the pressure exceedingly well for 40 minutes. Their defence is well organised and their midfielders tracked back to make life very difficult for the Hartpury players. It will be interesting to see how both of these teams fair as the season progresses. It's way too early for predictions but, if I was pressed, I'd have a few quid on Hartpury being there or thereabouts come May.
Hartpury University: Sarkodie, Kang(c), Berry, Giles, Fairnie, Hainault, Robinson, Soule, Radford, Salter, Hall. Subs: Taylor, McGregor, Holland, Mahoney, Iley
Malmesbury Victoria: Clatworthy, Fusco, Baker, Toop, Wych, Carson, Jones, Pring, H.Archer, Phin, Witt(c). Subs: Walsh, Crosbee-Clark, J.Archer
Ground Number: 320
Entrance: £5.00 (£4.00 if purchased online in advance)
Programme: Included in admission