Sunday, 22 April 2018

21/04/18 Review: Stafford Rangers vs Shaw Lane

Stafford Rangers 1-2 Shaw Lane (Evo-Stik Premier Division)
Marston Road

When people ask what I was doing on the day that my beloved Silkmen won the 2017/18 National League, I will tell them the tale of how I worked until their 12:30 kick-off time, before running around Stafford looking for a place that would be willing to swap the West Brom vs Liverpool game over for me to watch our title-winning game at Eastleigh, then finally making my way over to Marston Road to celebrate in style by at least watching a live game at one of my old favourites. Here is that tale.
For the third time, welcome back to Marston Road
For the past couple of weeks it has been a waiting game to see when, or if, the Macc Town party would begin and we'd lift the trophy before the final day of the season. Although I've managed to get to quite a few Silkmen games lately, I knew that the 12:30 KO all the way down in Eastleigh would be a bridge too far for me to cross as a rare unavoidable Saturday shift at work arose, sweetened only by an early finish that at least gave me chance to try and find the game on the big screen somewhere. That somewhere happened to be Kenny's Sports Bar, not exactly the venue I'd hoped and prayed to see the victory take place. Surely enough, goals from Tyrone Marsh and Mitch Hancox did the trick and as I sat, alone, crying into my foot-long hot dog with delight, I knew that the day was not done yet and my eternal hunger for football meant that I'd have to get to a 3pm kick-off and so I made the short ride out of town to see how things were at Marston Road, home of Evo-Stik Premier side Stafford Rangers.

Today's visitors from South Yorkshire, Shaw Lane, are a side making their mark in the Evo-Stik Premier with a top six looking very likely from their first season at this level. Although they've had a controversial patch including a three point deduction for fielding an illegible player back in February, the campaign has been hugely successful for the Barnsley boys and with their first visit to Marston Road since the 2015/16 campaign in which Rangers and Shaw Lane fought to the death to decide the championship, the travelling away side would hope to take revenge against the eventual winners and the hosts for today's battle. Having already seen Shaw Lane sweep past one of the more established sides in Buxton back in August, I knew that their squad was physical and decent on the ball, so I decided to make my pre-match prediction a 2-2 draw- hoping that an up-and-down Rangers side would at least show up for this one. The mid-table side still have hopes of a top ten finish for the season but could equally finish as low as 19th, and with over 40 players used by Neil Kitching you can see why an ultimately frustrating season on all parts has seen the Rangers Manager decide to step down at the end of the season next weekend. As mentioned before, this would be third trip to Marston Road, having seen them romp to victory over Rugby Town at the end of 2015 and also lose by the odd goal to a youthful Bolton Wanderers side in the pre-season of 2016/17. I wouldn't say I've seen the best and the worst of Boro, but I've never come away feeling disappointed.

Always a decent crowd here, all ready for kick-off
As I appeared in the clubhouse for a swift pint, I got a good vibe from the home supporters and it is nice that despite their hopes in the league not being met that they have something to look forward to, with that something being a big game on Tuesday night at the Bet 365 Stadium. Yes, Rangers have made it to the Staffs Senior Cup Final and they will face local rivals Hednesford Town, also mid-table in the Evo-Stik Prem, in what is bound to be a nice way to finish the season for both clubs. Always nice for any player at this level to step out on a Premier League pitch (for now!) and it could be a trophy to end Kitching's spell with Boro too. For now though, it would be a tough fight against the blue and red kitted opposition in front of 560 fans. The game began with Shaw Lane in the ascendance and with just a few minutes gone you sensed that the side still chasing a play-off spot were more up for it than their hosting opponents. As the ball was aimed towards a couple of pacey attackers for the visitors, young Boro keeper Riley Stephenson charged out and took an opposition player down in the box, giving a spot-kick away in the process. The Shaw Lane number 10, Damian Reeves, stepped-up and dispatched the 6th minute penalty which was met by near-silence as the half a dozen away fans jumped in the air. Rangers 0-1 Shaw Lane.

Moments before the goal
The attendance for today's game was the second highest in the division on the day, with only the 689 at Grantham Town's 0-2 home defeat to champions Altrincham trumping Stafford's, but with the attendance seeming to be 99.9% Rangers fans it was only fair that the hosts helped their opponents out. Mocking the leading side, the Staffordians piped up with "shall we clap your goal for you?" as the home side got the ball rolling for the second time. The first-half proceeded to be far from eventful as Shaw Lane carved out the odd half-chance- Olly Dyson went close in the 38th minute and Alex Byrne had a shot brilliantly cleared off the line. At the other end, David Norris struck over the Shaw Lane bar and Boro's captain also saw a last-gasped header go just over from a well-delivered free-kick. That late flurry of shots wasn't enough to keep the score at 0-1 going into the break though, meaning it was time to pop back in for a beer.

To the bar!
Standing out like a proverbial sore thumb in my blue Macc top I was asked on at least a dozen occasions about why I was there, but when I was approached by a very congratulatory Lincoln fan I ended up having a good natter with the gent about their recent triumphs and a mutual respect for coming down to Marston Road to cheer on the local team. In and amongst this a couple of old geezers shook my hand and reminded me of the "ding-dong battles" we'd had with Rangers in the 70's in the Northern Premier League and FA Trophy. Ahh, the good old days. With 15 minutes soon passed by, I sauntered back out to the delightfully sunny pitch side hoping to see a more fierce and passionate display from the home side. The opening 15 minutes, unfortunately, were largely unexciting until the hour-mark when Massiah McDonald (what a great name, by the way!) went in on goal, only to be denied by the linesman. With the light shining off the balding lino's head, I admittedly didn't see the flag and almost got a little excited at the chance of a hosts goal. It was coming though and from an unlikely source as Levi Reid, brother of former Silkmen and current Boro player Izak, made a delightful run from right-back and literally forced the issue himself. After turning one Shaw Lane man and then another, he gave it to Tyrell Waite who was then bundled down in the box and the Ref instantly ran over to point to the spot for the second time. Robert Thompson-Brown was the number 10 to step up this time and he ensured the same result as the first-half penalty, levelling the score up in the 64th minute. Rangers 1-1 Shaw Lane. The game was now set, but not for very long.

Shaw Lane straight back on the attack
The Ducks knew that a win was crucial and within five minutes they got themselves back in front as a Byrne cross made its way to Reeves and the striker doubled his tally and the winner in the process. Rangers 1-2 Shaw Lane. The rest of the game was spent talking to another elder of the Rangers community and amongst debate about all things Boro, Silkmen and the Non-League, we watched as Daniel Vann almost headed an equaliser and as the game began to fall into the last five minutes there were to be a couple of final twists. In the 87th minute the Ref's whistle blew again as Osebi Abadaki, on as a Sub, went down in the box only to be given his second yellow card for simulation when he eventually got back to his feet. The ten men of Rangers saw six minutes added on and when a free-kick was given right at the death, the players squared up as tensions rose to a new high in what was now the 98th minute. The following kick led to a final strike on goal, but Eddie Wilczynski was equal to it and that was the final action.

It wasn't Eastleigh, but it'll do
As much as I'd have loved to have been at Ten Acres to see Macc seal the National League title, it was still nice to come out and support the Rangers in the sun. They didn't get the result they wanted, but with their Club Awards Night following this game and a Cup Final on Tuesday, it's not all bad being a Boro fan. For me, it'll be Friday when I'm back in action as I make my usual last-gasp efforts to seek out some new grounds. I'll be teaming up with Tom (Partizan Bristle) for a weekend of football, starting in Wrexham for Gresford Athletic against Caernarmon Town, before we see Macc lift the trophy at home to Dagenham and then we begin our CONIFA World Cup preparations as we head to Sandbach United's ground to see Ellan Vannin versus Panjab. We'll also be popping along to a Southern League West Play-Off game midweek too, so look out for that.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

31/03/18 Review: Walsall Phoenix vs Stone Dominoes

Walsall Phoenix 3-4 Stone Dominoes (Staffordshire County Senior League Premier)

Apologies in advance but this entry is likely to be a short one, despite the mass of goals and overall action throughout the game, as some of my regular followers may know I have taken on the role of Media Officer with the Dominoes and as I will be writing the Match Reports for them I shall be writing less for Pint of Football write-ups of games involving them. I've also decided not to write any sort of entries on my PoF Blog from home games, to resist things becoming very "samey" on my page.
Alas, a new ground is a new ground!
Even to this day my original trip to Wellbeing Park, the home of Stone Dominoes and Stone Old Alleynians amongst many of teams, is still my most viewed entry and it has been a pleasure to join them in 2018 for the remainder of their Staffs County League campaign in which they have sat in the lower realms of the table so far. Hopefully though with the restructuring of the Non-League pyramid in the Midlands and North West Counties, Stone Dominoes will be able to rejoin the NW Divisions as they have submitted a strong application to be accepted for promotion. In the meantime, both the Dominoes and today's Walsall based opposition had a battle on their hands and with the return fixture due this Wednesday it would be two groups of players who will become quite familiar with each other in a short space of time. Phoenix started the day in mid-table on 29 points whilst the League's lowest scoring Dominoes side were third bottom on 17 points, but that wouldn't necessarily mean anything at this level as half of the battle is whether the sides have all of their best players available to them. On this occasion, Dominoes had Ash Thompson available for the first time since a victory over Knypersley Victoria and that would be sure to be a big boost.

Pre-match game on Street Fighter, anyone?

Within the Staffs County League's Premier Division most of the 16 teams are located somewhere within Stoke-on-Trent or one of the surrounding towns, with most grounds sitting around 20 minutes away from each other. The two major exceptions are East Staffordshire's Ashbourne FC and Walsall Phoenix, meaning that today would see me making my longest journey with the Dominoes so far, but of course in comparison to a lot of my ventures it was still a virtual stone-throw away for me as I head down the M6 towards the Black Country. This would be my fourth ground inside of the Walsall district, having notched off Walsall's Bescot, Wood's Oak Park and Rushall's Dales Lane over the past couple of seasons and as I was representing the Dominoes on this occasion I held hope that we'd sneak at least a point in this outing- predicting a 2-2 draw beforehand. I arrived nice and early at the place simply labelled as "Stick" on the County League's site and after parking up I walked in to see that there would be a choice of two matches today. Whilst we would be on the main pitch this afternoon, there was also some Division One action taking place too and it would be between Phoenix's Reserve side and Shenstone Pathfinder over on the second pitch. There wasn't really much else to say about Stick- the pitch doesn't boast any sort of stands or seating area aside from a few benches behind the goal, but as the venue doubles up for Aldridge Cricket Club you can understand why. Darn Cricket, taking up valuable football field space!
At least the fans were up for it. Phoenix Ultras, assemble
Now, on to the football. The game started with Phoenix gaining an early penalty after the Dominoes keeper was judged to have clattered the attacker as he drove into the box. The dozen or so locals behind the Phoenix goal got to have the first big cheer of the day as the Walsall number 10 dusted himself down before slotting home the spot-kick and opened the goal-scoring within 5 minutes. Phoenix 1-0 Dominoes. From here on you could see the frustration on the visiting side's faces as they continued to make silly fouls and often looked like conceding again, but thankfully for them they were able to regroup and start to take the game to the hosts as the game settled down. On 22 minutes Dominoes won a free-kick just outside the box and it would be the left-footed Ash Thompson who took and scored the second set-piece goal of the game. Phoenix 1-1 Dominoes. Having now watched Stone Dominoes a total of five times, this was shaping up to be the best game I'd seen of there's and it would continue to flourish when a very eager Referee gave a penalty again, but this time to the visitors. Thompson was on hand to convert with ease and for the first time in the match it would be the Dominoes who took the lead. Phoenix 1-2 Dominoes. Astonishingly, this eventual goal-fest would not be the largest amount of goals I'd seen in a game this season and that title will perhaps forever remain with my most local ground in Stoke as I saw Redgate Clayton come down to Florence FC and give them a 3-9 hiding.

But to be fair, this one had a few more goals left. HT, 1-2
I popped in to the Clubhouse during the break to watch a bit of the far less entertaining United vs Swansea game, noting that there were far more folk glued to that screen than outside watching the two County Level matches. Either they're mad or I am! The second-half soon came around and with it came the fourth goal, an equaliser and second goal was prodded in for the number 10 in red. Phoenix 2-2 Dominoes. The game continued to be end-to-end and despite Dominoes somehow not scoring from numerous attempts during a two minute goal-line scramble at one end and Phoenix nodding their own bullet header over Stone's crossbar at the other, it seemed to be likely to go down to the wire. Ash Thompson was still pursuing his hat-trick and in the 76th minute he eventually got it, striking a 25-yarder which flew past the Phoenix keeper and sent the Dominoes bench into delight. Phoenix 2-3 Dominoes. If the reverse fixture on Wednesday is anything like the game today, the people in attendance will be in for a treat and the roller-coaster continues its course with 5 minutes to go as Stone won another penalty- the third of the afternoon. Not happy with just the three goals, Thompson stood forward again and grabbed his fourth to seemingly end the competition. Phoenix 2-4 Dominoes. However, in an attempt to keep everyone on their toes Phoenix had one last card to play and the substitute left-winger took advantage of a missed clearance from Dominoes and he slotted home deep into stoppage-time. Phoenix 3-4 Dominoes.

Game over, and what a game it was
The match over on the other pitch finished with a 2-7 win for Pathfinder so overall it was a double blow for Walsall Phoenix's clubs today, but also a cracking afternoon of football featuring 16 goals across two pitches. Not bad at all for the neutrals!

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

27/03/18 Review: England U21 vs Ukraine U21

England U21 2-1 Ukraine U21 (EURO 2019 U21 Qualifier, Group 4)
Bramall Lane

It's always nice to be going back to Yorkshire and it is even better when the occasion is for footballing business and yesterday's outing was one that I'd highly anticipated as I took the Howden Brothers to their first ever international match for England Under 21's EURO Qualifier against Ukraine. With a 6pm kick-off, Sean, Chris and I agreed to meet in Uttoxeter and head on over to the city of steel. We arrived in good time and as I had a fairly long-standing history with visiting a friend over there, I was able to direct us to Champs sports bar- the home of monstrously filling food and many a cheap beer.

And a bike, apparently
Once the lads had fumbled their way through a helping of cheesy hot dog fries, we watched a bit of pre-match build up to the game until a change in bar staff meant that the channel hopped over on to a documentary about AIDS- yup, the not so perfect precursor to a game of football. With that, we left the bar and took the "brisk ten minute walk" from the bar to the ground that had been recommended by the barman we'd conversed with upon arrival. A good 25 minutes later we arrived at the big red wall that would prove to be the home of Championship side and the game's hosts, Sheffield United.

Briskly does it
The Blades, who were formed in 1889, have of course hosted international football at this level before but that didn't mean there would be any less hype for this EURO Qualifier and with England's Young Lions sitting top of the heap at the moment, owning a five point lead over today's visitors and the Dutch, this game would be crucial for England's youngsters if they wanted to keep a hold of the driving seat for the ride towards Italy's 2019 edition of the European Tournament. Having already seen England win 5-0 in a Qualifier for the 2017 competition at Walsall's Bescot Stadium, my expectations were sky-high, which is never a good thing for any person following any England side, and thus I had made a 2-0 prediction for the home side captained by Demarai Gray. Sean predicted and bet on a 4-1 win whilst Chris went for a 3-0.

This guy just happy to get a midweek run out
After circumnavigating the majority of the outside of the stadium, we eventually made our way into the world's poshest ticketing office to collect our tickets before making our around to watch a bit of the team warm-ups. Lots of kids and school groups were invited into the evening's game, so we thought it best to take advantage and accept a free England flag each to wave at our leisure as we witnessed the Young Lions score. We swiftly made our way around to the Kop End, which is where we'd be housing ourselves, and found ourselves to be within the first few to actually take our seats inside- one of the things not to be unexpected with a 6pm kick-off.

Eager was not the word
The 45 minutes of warm-ups and top quality tunes past us by soon enough and we were even treated to a blast of the Stranger Things theme tune which led me to believe that we were listening to somebody's i-pod on shuffle rather than a perfectly planned pre-match playlist. As the time approached the ground started to fill-up quickly as people rushed in just in time for kick-off, and before we knew it the two sides entered the field. Ukraine started the game on the strong foot and it was Shakhtar Donetsk's Oleksandr Pikhalyonok who hit towards Angus Gunn's goal in the 4th minute. The game continued to be fairly even in terms of possession, but an often disjointed style from England meant that the visitors remained on top as Artem Dovbyk, based in Denmark, headed on target and tested Gunn in the England goal. At the other end some of the fans thought the hosts had scored as Gray crossed in a teasing cross which was deflected into the side-netting by a defender in yellow. England's biggest threat so far, in an inconsistent fashion, had been James Maddison of Norwich City and the Jack Wilshire-esque attacking midfielder had certainly demonstrated good footwork and intent to get things going and after soaking up another few Ukrainian attacks it would be he who carved open the defence to assist the opening goal. Shortly after Aidy Boothroyd swapped the two England wingers around, the hosts started to make some great inside runs, but it was the aforementioned Maddison who picked out a nice pass in-between Zotko and Lukyanchuk to allow Dominic Calvert-Lewin to run in and just about beat an on-rushing Andriy Lunin to prod the ball into the net. England 1-0 Ukraine. In truth, the 41st minute goal had been perhaps a bit harsh on Ukraine and the Howden Brothers agreed that a better side would have punished England's dangerous methods of trying to play out from the back. I'm not a huge fan of this tactic anyway, also seen by the senior squad in the game at Wembley, but in particularly the way that England's young guns were trying to force-feed this method into their game-plan looked very dubious and left us exposed on more than one occasion. As the Ref blew for half-time, it was time to go for a wander around and stretch our legs in the cold Sheffield surrounds.

A decent, albeit unspectacular half. Classic England
Joking aside, at a tenner a ticket we'd already had our money's worth with getting the flag upon entry, but the fact the second-half was bound to be up for grabs for both sides meant that we'd been treated to some good competitive football too- which is always a bonus. The only downside to report really, as with any match of this nature, was the lack of atmosphere in the ground and also the constant getting up and down of kids for the toilet. Even with over 22,000 in attendance, the usual Blades ultras were nowhere to be seen in the Kop End and although it was nice to be watching international football in a great ground, I couldn't help but wish we were seated up in the opposite corner where the 20 or so away fans sat and jumped around on a near-permanent basis.
The closest we saw to a rowdy crowd was when they announced they'd sold out of pies
Back on the field, the second-half kicked off and with it came a tense opening 15. It wasn't until nearly the hour-mark when England carved their next chance, as Joe Worrall of Nottingham Forest vollied a close-range shot straight at Lunin. The Zorya Luhansk keeper stopped this particular effort with ease and set off a good counter for his side, whilst the stands started to fill with kids shining the torches of their i-Phones. That's the problem with kids these days, they can't just be happy to wave the free flags! In the 64th minute we were treated to save of the game and it came from the eventual Man of the Match performer Jonjoe Kenny. The Everton right-back came to his country's rescue as a Ukrainian bullet header passed Gunn, only to see Kenny on the line and leaping up to header the goal-bound effort over the bar- outstanding. From this moment on the visitors continued to attack and Mykola Shaparenko was introduced to try and help his side draw level. The long-haired menace looked very good in the midfield and the Dynamo Kiev number 10 looked well up for it- and when his chance eventually came in the 83rd minute he nodded home the late equaliser to the delight of the couple of dozen over yonder. England 1-1 Ukraine. By this point the England line-up had been changed, with Ademola Lookman and Dominic Solanke adding some new attacking dimensions, so it would be up to them to try and now break forward and regain the victory. Holland's win over Andorra had at this stage cut England's lead to just two points at the top of the group, so a win was all the more crucial now and for the England fans who stayed until the end it was well worth the wait. As a lot of people departed, presumably to see the senior fixture between England and Italy on TV, we watched on as a cross came in from the left-wing to be met by the head of Liverpool's Solanke and then in a moment which seemed to last forever we watched agonisingly as the ball bounced up and into the net to seal an 89th minute dramatic winner. England 2-1 Ukraine.

Last-minute winner's, are there anything better?
The game ran down and the game ended, meaning it was three more points for the Young Lions. Sean, Chris and I got our skates on and paced back to Champs to watch the less exciting Wembley encounter whilst chowing down on more finely fried food and then eventually heading back on the drive to Staffordshire. It's safe to say that we had a great time in Sheffield and it was nice for me to tick off my 19th Football League Ground and 107th overall.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

21/02/18 Review: Tranmere Rovers vs Macclesfield Town

Tranmere Rovers 1-4 Macclesfield Town (National League Premier)
Prenton Park

Last night's game between Tranmere Rovers and Macclesfield Town needed little introduction and would sit up there with Chelsea vs Barca and Dumbarton vs Greenock Morton as being one of the games of the evening- especially if you are a non-league fan! Yes, this 2nd vs 1st battle had been brewing for a while and although Macc had beaten previously 2nd place Aldershot Town at the weekend, Rovers had been on fine form themselves and with 15 points from a possible 21 it looked like tonight's game would be a true battle between the top team in the division and their in-form hosts. Both sides may have recently suffered a shock pummelling at Mill Farm, which incidentally is where my last write-up came from in the National League, but aside from that both clubs have been more than happy with progress of late and it was time for me to finish work early, jump in my little red car and make the near 70 mile ride up to Birkenhead. What more could you ask for on a chilly Tuesday night?

Top of the table clash, here we go

I arrived at Prenton Park feeling a mixed sense of optimism and excitement and with 30 minutes to spare before kick-off I headed for a walk around the stadium. From the outside, this 16 thousand capacity stadium looks the real deal and as the fans piled in I made my way around to the Cowshed stand and into the concourse for a pre-match can of Foster's with the Silkmen faithful. The innards of Prenton Park's bar area was decent for an away terrace and had similarities to that of Meadow Lane in Nottingham, meaning there was plenty of option for the travelling few hundred Macc fans. I didn't explore the food stand, but when I eventually headed to my seat I couldn't help but sniff out one chap to my right who was scoffing a tray of fish and chips- decent scran is that! Inside the ground I stepped out to the old floodlit green rectangle which was surrounded by Tranmere's mass of blue seating standing tall and a few thousand fans all ready to cheer on the home side. Tranmere Rovers are one of those clubs who have at some point been there and seen it all, from mid 90's success in the second tier of English football in which they almost made it to the Premier League, to winning the Lancashire Combination League in 1914 and 1919. More recently, Rovers made it all the way to the 2000 Football League Cup Final and were it not for Leicester City's Centre-Back double-scoring Captain on the day the Merseysiders could have overcome the likes of Muzzy Izzet, Robbie Savage and super Emile Heskey. Since falling out of the Football League in 2015 Prenton Park has still managed to draw in good crowds, drawing the highest averages in the division since joining it and finishing 6th and 2nd in the process. The Silkmen, on the other hand, would be looking to return to the Football League following 6 years of lurking in the National League Premier.

Can we do it? This lot are certainly hoping so
Up until now my greatest away day as a Macc Town fan was probably a League Cup game in which we shocked Championship side Hull City with a 0-2 win at the KC Stadium, thanks to an Emile Sinclair double, and although I've seen us take wins from North Ferriby, Chester and even Winsford United, I also have sour memories from travelling with the Silkmen too. As previously mentioned, I saw our 6-0 pasting at the hands of AFC Fylde, but that was nothing compared to seeing my beloved Silkmen have the FA Trophy taken away in the Final against York City, or even worse than that the trip to Roots Hall to see our final League Two game following relegation. That 0-2 defeat from a gutless Macc side against Southend United will now sit at the opposite end of the spectrum to what would turn out to be an awesome away victory on this evening in the North-West.

Even Dulwich have made the trip up
I'd predicted a 1-1 draw today and that would have been a nice return of 4 points from 2 top of the table clashes within 4 days, but Askey and the lads had other ideas. "He's one of our own, he's one of our ooooown. Sir John Askey, he's one of our own" was the chant shouted loudest and proudest from the away contingency as we looked to show support for the Manager who has been heavily linked with a move to Grimsby Town in the past week or so. The Ref got the game started on time and as the crowd sounded from the Tranmere Kop we were all set for an exciting night. To say that we made a poor start is an understatement and when former Silkmen forward Connor Jennings hit the first strike over the bar in the 5th minute a few of us started to look at each other nervously, with that sense of "here we go again" brewing. Next up Andy Cook went through on goal and he forced a great one-on-one save from Shwan Jalal, at the cost of a Tranmere corner. Just before the half-hour mark Cook had the ball in the Silkmen net but his mockery towards the away fans soon turned into a glare at the lino, who had raised the flag to deny the big man. Speaking of big men, I found myself drifting towards a conversation in which an elderly couple had obviously made the discovery of footballing anomaly Steve McNulty. I love it when people first see the grey-haired, beer-bellied monster defender- who is notorious at this level for being a tough cookie for opposing attackers to break down.

0-0 as we approached the break
I remember clock-watching from the 30th minute or so and hoping that if we made it to half-time alive we could regroup and come out to try and take the game to them in the second-half. That could have worked out well for us, but Danny Whitaker clearly hadn't been following the script- the 37-year old midfielder took down an injury time pass into the Tranmere box before tapping home the game's opener in practically the last kick of the half. Tranmere 0-1 Macc. The next 15 minutes were spent back in the concourse singing "Oh, Danny, Danny!" and other chants, whilst feasting on canned lager. I got chatting to a few lads I'd seen at a couple of previous outings and before I knew it it was time to sup and get back out to see how the rest of the game would pan out. Tranmere started the second-half strongly again and with the added bonus of kicking towards their Kop, which appeared to be a big, albeit temporary, boost for Cook in particular. Having missed several chances during the first 45, the ex-Barrow man took his chance off of a right-wing delivery and he added a deft header which sank into the net to level things. Tranmere 1-1 Macc.

The half-time beer was gone and so was the lead
With the scales tipping yet again, this time back toward the hosts, the game was poised and with McNulty now pulling out 360 spins on the ball I thought anything could be possible. Elliott Durrell had been inconstant until now and although he looked threatening with the ball at his feet, he'd often been left alone out on the right in the first-half and it would be Macc's decision to bring him into the game that ultimately made the difference. In the 55th minute he was given the ball and allowed to burst towards Davies's net, which he did so to devastating effect before shooting into the net and restoring the Cheshire side's lead. Tranmere 1-2 Macc. Having now pulled ahead for the second time, Macc began what was a huge effort in 11 minutes of top quality football that culminated in 3 goals and of course a massive three points. Macc continued to go forward and when Liam Ridehalgh hand-balled in the box, we couldn't believe our eyes as Peter Wright pointed to the spot. Bald-headed beauty Danny Whitaker stepped-up and slotted the penalty home, meaning that the match (and League) was now ours to lose. Tranmere 1-3 Macc. Riding on a wave of mass confidence, the Silkmen continued to dominate and when Durrell got his chance to run at the Rovers defence he again punished them with a brilliant strike which showed many similarities to his first, apart from Davies couldn't even get a tip on this one as it flew past him to seal the game. Tranmere 1-4 Macc. In truth, Macc could have scored more and as "Norburn, what's the score? Norburn, Norburn, what's the score?" chants reached another former Silkmen player, Tranmere's only response was to have a shot from range which went out for a Macc throw-in. With no subs or tactical changes for the hosts, the visitors saw the game out with ease.

FT, 1-4. We're going up with a tenner in the bank!
With Aldershot and Wrexham drawing, Sutton's 3-2 win at Torquay meant that they hop into 2nd place and sit 5 points behind Macc at the summit. For Tranmere, the next outing will be a trip to 17th place Maidstone United, meanwhile the Moss Rose will host Macc vs Maidenhead United on Saturday. As I'll be working, my next Silkmen game will be away at Boreham Wood at the start of March, who may well be in 2nd place by then! See you there Silkmen Army!

Monday, 29 January 2018

28/01/18 Review: Yorkshire vs Ellan Vannin

Yorkshire 1-1 Ellan Vannin (CONIFA International Friendly)
Yorkshire NuBuilds Stadium

It's not every day that your home county forms its own National Football Team and with CONIFA's decision to add Yorkshire as the newest member of the independent football associations group, which includes the likes of Africa's Matabeleland, the French-Canadians of Québéc and even Northern Cyprus, it was finally the day of their first ever fixture and they would welcome nearby Isle of Man based side Ellan Vannin over to God's own county for some international football at Hemsworth Miners Welfare's ground, the Yorkshire NuBuilds Stadium.

Home of a Step 5 Non-League side and, for today, an international side too
For the side travelling over to mainland England today, this friendly match was an important piece of preparation for the squad as they prepare for the upcoming CONIFA World Cup, in which the Celtic nation outfit will come across Barawa, from Southwestern Somalia, Tamil Eelam, another island side based in Asia, and Cascadia, one of the small villages from Game of Thrones. Although this was Yorkshire's debut on the world stage, the aim for the newbies will of course to be a successful qualifier for the next World Cup and in playing the 4th ranked side it would be a good gauge on how they are likely to get on in their future endeavours. So far the game had been given plenty of pre-match build-up within the local and global news channels, with radio interest coming alongside many clips on ITV Calendar and the likes to try and get people to come out in their droves to cheer the team on. The average attendance for one of the Hemsworth League games is just 127 so when I arrived at the ground to see lots of people flocking towards the turnstile I was pretty excited to see the turn out. Coming over from Stoke-on-Trent myself, this would have been a bit of a damp squib in front of just a couple of the old regulars in 1990's Leeds United tops.
A rammed bar is a promising start to any afternoon of football
Proudly donning my national shirt, cheers again to my Nan for this particular crimbo present, I entered the ground with my not-so-Yorkshire girlfriend Sophie and we were instantly approached by a BBC Sport Radio team who were after a chat with me about what it's like to be a Yorkshireman. I give a couple of minutes of fairly awkward interview chat, nothing to rival my 45 minute encounter with "The Rev" at Park Hall, before heading into the smart little clubhouse bar for an early pint and a chance to have a bit of a natter with a few lads who'd come from Beverley and other parts of the county for the game- one lad also told me he'd drove 3 hours to be here, but didn't specify where from exactly. We then wedged ourselves back outside for a bit of fresh air and a chance to walk around the pitch to see what both the ground and two sides had to offer us on this mild but drizzly afternoon in Fitzwilliam. The ground was fairly identical to the Lancer Scott Stadium in South West Bristol, and with just a hundred or so seats on location the ground mainly relied, for today at least, on fans being able to lean upon the white metal surrounding the pitch. One side of the pitch housed the bar, the other was the location of the seating, and there was nothing aside from a few overlooking conifers behind one of the goals. Basic, but it does the job. As for the pitch, I think it would be fair and not too unkind to say that it was in a "mid-season" state that would see the surface looking okay and the goal-areas seemingly more muddy from the efforts of Northern Counties East Premier sides over the season.

There was also a chap with his own beer garden brolly and wooden desk
With the ground given the old once over, we started to observe the two sides warming-up and both seemed in fine fettle before the game. In the Yorkshire starting XI we would be treated to the likes of a National League North man between the sticks, in the form of Ed Hall of Bradford Park Avenue, and routing through the team there were many Evo-Stik Northern standard players from Ossett Town and Ossett Albion in the Northern division and then from the Southern division Frickley Athletic and Stocksbridge Park Steels lads lined up- Jamie Vardy, Danny Rose and James Milner were all snubbed on this occasion. For Ellan Vannin, the manager Chris Bass had made his squad from the top five teams in the current Isle of Man Senior League season and although I knew of none of their players, I picked out Sean Doyle as my pre-match danger man for the island side- mainly because he was the only lad there who was representing the side who sat top of the league. The number 16 forward from Corinthians AFC was to partner the IOM League's top scorer Ciaran McNulty and incredibly the two combined have 45 league goals with only 14 league games played so far over there. Kick-off loomed by this point and as Sophie and I took our seat in the busy, albeit limited, seating area we were soon ready to be joined by the 22 players and over 600 fans for the moment we've all waited for.

"YORKSHIRE! YORKSHIRE! YORKSHIRE!" chants echoed around the NuBuilds Stadium 
As the match got cracking, Yorkshire started on the front-foot and with some good attacking movements forming amongst the side who'd only trained together once before today, the only thing missing was the killer ball. With 10 minutes played the first big call of the day was made and after consultation with his linesman, Steve Lynch awarded the home side a penalty and it would be Sean Ripley who stepped up to take it. With the weight of the world on his shoulders and the chance to write his name into the history books, the number 9 placed a poor penalty into the corner and on this occasion part-time giant goalie Dean Kearns got across to save it. Yorkshire continued to play well though and after a couple of set-pieces went close, Andy McManus headed just wide and Richard Collier shot across goal from out wide. Over by the sideline, the raffle tickets were being sold and despite the prizes including a pack of John Smith's and a box of Yorkshire Tea, I resisted the temptation and firmly kept my attention on the field as Ellan Vannin went close on the 20th minute. Shortly after this a resurgent Isle of Man side came very close and when a 35-yard bullet strike from midfield whistled towards goal, it took a great stop from Hall to keep the game level for now. Just before the break we edged our way around to the bar in preparation for a thirsty half-time and at this point we saw McNulty go through for the visiting side in red only to see his lob effort caught out by Hall again as Yorkshire rode their luck a little bit in defence. The Ref called for the end of the first half and on reflection everyone seemed pretty happy with the game so far- for us the best play was being made from the wings and as the full-backs supported with pacey attacks we looked likely to grab a goal at some point. In the centre we seemed a bit disjointed but captain Pat McGuire and Adam Hayton both had potential to pull the strings if the mood was right. There had been some tasty tackles too and despite lacking in size against a very tall Ellan Vannin squad, we certainly weren't being out-muscled.

No Yorkshire ground is complete without a Leeds United flag

Back outside with a fresh pint, the match soon restarted and as the cold settled in I was forced to pull out a jacket as the darkness grew around us. Ellan Vannin had made a half-time change and 17 goal striker Furo Davies, club partner of McNulty, joined the game as an additional man-mountain target man to try and rattle the defence. Just two minutes into the half and the plan of Chris Bass had worked, as a cross came in from the left to Davies, who used his forceful way to shrug off the opposition, control the ball and then half-volley a well hit drive onto the underside of the bar and into the net for the game's opening goal. Yorkshire 0-1 Ellan Vannin. This wake-up call seemed to be just what we'd needed after a slackening off in pressure and we soon found ourselves going forward for the first time in a while. With 53 minutes now gone the ball was at McGuire's feet and the skipper looked up before clipping over an excellent defence-beating pass to a pacey run from Jordan Coduri. The Penistone Church striker managed to get on to the ball well before applying a perfectly placed left-footed strike which beat Kearns and went into the net- a moment that the Halifax lad will never forget for the rest of his life.
Yorkshire 1-1 Ellan Vannin. From then on the game would remain a stalemate and despite Furo Davies looking very threatening for Ellan Vannin, he could not double his tally and ruin the big day for Yorkshire. Joey Quayle also went close at the death fro the visitors but ultimately the game ended all-square and on the basis of both sides having prolonged spells of dominance I'd say it was a fair result.

Close, but not close enough for the away side
As far as I'm aware there are no firm fixtures booked in for the Yorkshire boys going forward, so it is probably more likely that my next CONIFA match will in fact be when I travel down to London for the World Cup in June. After today's bout I'll definitely be supporting Ellan Vannin and after they brought a true battle of the vikings to Yorkshire, all that's left to say is that I am proud of both sides for putting on an entertaining and historic game of football. Cheers lads!

Monday, 22 January 2018

20/01/18 Review: AFC Fylde vs Macclesfield Town

AFC Fylde 6-0 Macclesfield Town (National League Premier)
Mill Farm

You know how the top team isn't necessarily always the best team in a division? Well, today was certainly one of those days. Following on from my morning match in Stoke, I had high expectations of continuing my Saturday by seeing one of the National League's candidates for the title and current leaders, Macclesfield Town, pick up an away victory on their first visit to Mill Farm in Wesham, a small village just a stone throw in-land from Blackpool. AFC Fylde are of course the recently famed side whom the Silkmen were visiting today and with big dreams of reaching the Football League by 2022, the Coasters side, including the league's top-scorer Danny Rowe, are on a rise that has rivalled and surpassed the likes of fellow North-Westerners FC United and Salford City, seeing them go from playing the likes of Atherton Laburnum Rovers and Squires Gate in the 2008-09 edition of the North West Counties League to being drawn against local big boys and former Premier League outfit Wigan Athletic in this year's FA Cup proper.

I couldn't imagine Runcorn Linnets showing up here these days
True enough that there have been some very charitable donations along the way and the investment in this club has been staggering, but nevertheless AFC Fylde have done very well and have made a sound structural progression that doesn't involve having your own TV series and using the names of Paul Scholes and Gary Neville to try and bring new fans in. Since opening Mill Farm a couple of seasons ago, the Coasters have continued their rise and last season their 109 haul- including an outstanding 47 in 42 for Rowe- saw them win the National League North by 6 points and secure them a debut season in the Non-League's highest division. The debut season has been decent too and although the first-timers have lingered in mid-table for the majority, they have pulled out some cracking results including a 5-2 victory over Tranmere Rovers on New Years Day.

And today's visitors could prove to be another big scalp 
As a Macc fan I have been enjoying a thrilling season so far and with Cheshire's finest being at the top of the pile since Christmas, having not lost a league game since the end of October, and with new recruits in the form of Adam Dugdale, Callum Evans and League One striker Nate Blissett surely the sky was the limit for the rest of the campaign- and with confidence high, I predicted a 3-1 away win. So with the scene set, I arrived at Mill Farm with 30 minutes to spare and headed straight into the away area to see where I'd be basing myself for the match- it is rare for me to choose to stand behind the goal, but I thought I'd give it a go and live out the real "away fan experience" as opposed to sitting near the corner flag with the older fans like I usually do. As I entered the ground from said corner, I was impressed by the fancy main stand directly to my left but my first thoughts when I stood admiring the West Stand was if we'd see the modern seating area filled- the average attendance this season has been a couple of hundred higher than the Silkmen's and I expected the home fans to bring vast support today against the leaders. Amongst the 200 or so travelling fans I made my way into the food and drink area under the main stand and I thought I'd sample an infamously fair priced Non-League pre-match beer as I awaited the sides entering the field... or not! In what was the most disgusting part of the trip, even more so than the result, I was absolutely flabbergasted by the near £5 a pint price placed on the pint of lager I was served- thankfully I'd brought a packed lunch, or I'd have had to take out a loan for lunch. In fairness, I suppose the extortionate prices may well be for visiting fans to stop them getting too drunk and when one fan smacked a burger out of his mate's hand and on to the floor I could kind of understand why this may be the case. As some of our fans became more animalistic, the security team became more annoyed- with the events culminating in the world's most angry looking steward standing away from the incident and solidly scowling at everybody whilst muttering under her breath.

Genuine hatred, the staple diet for any away steward
Pre-match nonsense taken in, it was kick-off time and so I made my way over to the terracing ready to welcome the Silkmen boys. We'd decided to line-up with just one up front today and this had come as a bit of a surprise, with Nate Blissett's addition seemingly made to bolster our attacking options even though he started on the bench today. Perhaps he wasn't ready to play 90 minutes yet. Additionally, with the absence of an injured Jared Hodgkiss, we were playing our oldest defender, George Pilkington, at right-back and this also seemed to be a slightly tenuous decision by John Askey. Having said that, he's so often got our tactics spot on this season so I resisting questioning the choice until the game had started to play out. The 90's dance tracks died down on the tannoy system and the sides were read out, with the Fylde announcer calling out left-back David Fitzpatrick as the goalkeeper, and shortly after that we were up and running with the hosts kicking towards the South Terrace in the first-half. Both sides forged an early chance as Elliott Durrell hit well wide in the 2nd minute for Macc, before Jonny Smith tested Sam Ramsbottom right in front of me. This early chance for Fylde wasn't the last though and when the Coasters won a corner in the 6th minute they would soon see themselves celebrating the first of many goals as Lewis Montrose jumped highest in the 6-yard box and glanced the ball into the net ahead of a flailing Silkmen keeper. Fylde 1-0 Macc. Once the goal celebrations died down the Silkmen fans decided to get the noise levels going around the ground and in doing so they sparked a fairly lenghty exchange of humorous chants between the two sets of fans. Opening with "you're just a pub team with money, pub team with monnnney", we were then met by a response of "you're getting beat by a pub team, beat by a pubbbbb team", which raised a round of applause from the travelling brigade. Shortly after, we chimed in with "you know what you are, you know what you areeee. Pub team with money, you know what you are" which instantly turned into a home chorus of "top of the league, you're having a laugh!"

With an early goal, it was the hosts that were having a laugh though
The match continued with Macc looking poor in every department. The passing from usually capable Danny Whitehead was being cut out on a too familiar basis, Tyrone Marsh looked lonely up front on his own and AFC Fylde continued to play some good football of their own to really take the game to Macc and when Jack Muldoon cut in from the left-hand side to unleash a near 30-yard curler towards goal, all that could be done was watch and admire as the ball rippled the back of the net from a brilliant goal. Fylde 2-0 Macc. Somehow the Silkmen looked shell-shocked and with less than a third of the game gone I started to wonder how many we'd concede, rather than if we could get back into it. Coasters captain Sam Finley was next to try a long-range drive and as he hit a pretty straight forward 20-yarder towards Ramsbottom, who'd been playing in place of a recently returned from suspension Shwan Jalal, the ball unfortunately bobbled out of the keeper's arms and desperately into the net in one of those moments where you wish for the ground to open up. Fylde 3-0 Macc. With 10 minutes to go until half-time, the Macc fans kept up the spirit by chanting "we're gonna win 4-3" as Fylde kept up their dominance and looked to grab yet another before the break. Even the introduction of a second forward in the shape of Scott Wilson for Macc didn't really alter things and just before half-time Smith would go through on goal, round a down and out Ramsbottom, before tapping home another goal in what had been the perfect half for the Lancashire side. Fylde 4-0 Macc. From my humble opinion, it seemed as though the Macc players had been too focused on keeping usual threat Danny Rowe out of the game, but in doing so had completely lost focus on the other attacking players in the side and at half-time I hoped that a change of tactic (and goalkeeper!) would spark some sort of second-half revival. If we could leave with a 4-2 defeat at this point I'd have been happy on my drive home to Staffordshire.

Away days, who'd bother?
At 0-4 down, there's not much you can say positively about your team's display and after maintaining such a good run for the past few months I was one of many who was taking the opinion that it was always bound to happen at some point. When City lost to Liverpool the other weekend, I said the same thing. Regardless of this, I still couldn't hide my depressed face and feel of concern with still another 45 minutes left and so I popped back into the servery to grab another pint, which seemed to go down oh too well. Shortly after this I returned back out to the pitch and as I did so I noticed us making our second change of the day and as if to compound his day any more, it was the leaky keeper Ramsbottom who would be replaced by Iraqi veteran stopper Jalal. As the match kicked off for the sixth time already, the unusually noisy away support began the "we're gonna win 5-4" chants and I settled down in hope of a couple of goals for our troubles. With not a huge amount going on near our end, I started to think about the way clubs like Forest Green Rovers had developed and whether AFC Fylde would eclipse their efforts to become a League Two club. The clubs have a lot of similarities, with the main difference being the lack of vegan options here at Mill Farm. Back on the pitch and Jalal had already saved a couple of decent strikes and as Fylde continued to pepper the goal, it would eventually be down to cap'n Finley to add his side's fifth goal on the hour-mark. Fylde 5-0 Macc. The hosts just weren't letting up and even when the Silkmen had possession it didn't last for long, so it was understandable that when 36-year old temporary right-back had our first shot on goal, in the 68th minute, we got a little too excited that Jay Lynch had actually had his palms stung. The main bit of encouragement for me was in the last 20 minutes when new boy Nate Blissett took to the field and the 6 foot 5 inch target man seemed to at least show a bit of a change in the tone of the game as he gave Macc a bit of hope for things to come during his spell for the rest of the season. Unfortunately his efforts didn't help with the goals at the away end though, and AFC Fylde weren't done with scoring them neither as Andy Bond helped himself to a volley in the box in the final 10 minutes. Fylde 6-0 Macc. At the Ref's final blow of the whistle, Silkmen captain Danny Whitaker ran straight over to us in the away end to give a heartfelt apology and following that it was home time.

Still top of the league, but it didn't feel like it on the drive home!