Tuesday, 25 April 2017

25/04/17 Review: Stourbridge vs Workington

Stourbridge 3-2 Workington [After Extra Time] (Evo-Stik Premier Division, Playoff Semi-Final)
War Memorial Athletic Ground

The sad thing about this time of the year is that the season is coming to an end, but the great thing is that before the end we are treated to some great penultimate football matches as clubs up and down the country look to rise to the top or avoid the drop. In preparation for next weekend's trip to Bristol to watch Manor Farm lift the Western League Premier title at The Creek before visiting Rovers at The Mem for the first time, I found myself driving over to Stourbridge last night for some Evo-Stik Premier Division Playoff action at the War Memorial Athletic Ground- my 70th Ground to date.
This one was always gonna be a busy one
With a place in the National League North at stake for the Playoff winners, and more importantly an addition to Football Manager 2018, the two sides in action yesterday were the 3rd and 4th placed sides from the league that Blyth Spartans ran away with this year. As Stourbridge finished highest, the Glassboys would have home-field advantage over their opponents who finished just two points below them. Meanwhile, 2nd placed Spennymoor Town will host Nantwich Town in the other Semi-Final tonight before the two winning sides will face-off at the weekend to see who can follow in the footsteps of last season's promoted side, Salford City. I was at that game last season and I watched the Ammies edge a highly-dramatic game 3-2 over last night's away side from the North West- and so I was very curious to find out if I would see Workington go one better and make it through the playoffs, or whether they would fall again. As I arrived in Stourbridge I realised that the blue and white scarf I was donning on behalf of my beloved Macclesfield Town would stand out like a sore thumb amongst both sets of fans who were dressed-up in their red and white stripes. Early-on I was asked by a bunch of lads why I was wearing a Barrow scarf, whilst one very observant middle-aged chap simply approached me and said "ooh, blue" as I stood in the queue to purchase my ticket.
Come on you blues reds
With an average attendance of 839, the highest in the Evo-Stik Premier by almost 200, the Glassboys have had a truly splendid season this time around and you could tell as soon as entering into the ground that there was a sense of optimism for the big game. For Workington, they were hoping it would be third time lucky as they entered yet another dreaded playoff situation. After beating this season's champs Blyth Spartans in the 2015/16 semi-final, they lost a last-gasped thriller at Moor Lane in very unfortunate circumstances. In the season prior to this, the side finished as runners-up in the League but couldn't make it past Ilkeston this time around. 4th placed Curzon Ashton went up that year.

The Stourbridge lads would be hoping to see Workington bow out again

As the last few fans crammed into the ground's three-sided viewing areas, we were almost ready to get underway. One lad, who I'm guessing is a regular, shouted out to his mate "I see that all the FA Cup fans are back" and a few others around me certainly looked like first-timers at the War Memorial. Whereas some will have been here for the disappointment of a 0-1 defeat against Sutton Coldfield Town on Monday night in October, others will only have happy memories of the season's FA Cup run which saw Stourbridge go all the way to the FA Cup Third Round, knocking out National South side Whitehawk and League One outfit Northampton Town in the process. An eventual Adebayo Akinfenwa goal ended their record-breaking run as Wycombe Wanderers just about took the spoils, but for me the Glassboys were the greatest story of this year's FA Cup. A bold claim I know, and I'm sure the footballing hipsters out there will be quick to remind me of Lincoln City's triumphs over Brighton and Burnley, or Sutton United's win against Leeds United, but people also forget that Stourbridge started their Cup run back in September in the First Qualifying Round and they had to fend-off three sides before even being considered for the stage in which the Imps enter from.
Anyway, enough about the past. Time to grab a beer
I grabbed myself a pre-match beer and pondered my prediction for the game today. In the end, I went for 2-1 to the Glassboys. The bar reminded me of the clubhouse over at fellow Evo-Stik side Mickleover Sports, but with more people, and overall I got a feel similar to that of when I made the long trek down to Dulwich Hamlet back in February to see Macc draw 2-2 in the FA Trophy. With a beer in my hand, high-hopes in my head and a chill on my face, it was kick-off time. The opening 15 minutes provided little in the way of opportunity and the tension was evident all around, from the players on the pitch to the fans in the stands, who kept up the noise in an effort to boost their side. With the away bunch spread out around the ground, we were treated to the first "there's only one ginger Messi" chorus of the night as Scott Allison whipped in the first dangerous cross from the right-wing on 20 minutes. Unfortunately for the marksman, who managed 32 goals last season, his cross was headed wide in what was the only notable half-chance in the opening exchanges. For the hosts, I only really saw a spark from 11-goal forward Jordan Archer as we entered the half-hour mark and his target man attributes were not going to be enough on their own. With Workington looking slightly better in open play, and the hosts seeming decent from set-pieces, the opening goal eventually came from a free-kick. As the ball was whipped in from the right, it was Stu Pierpoint who latched on to Tonk's cross and the roar from behind the goal was truly magnificent. Stourbridge 1-0 Workington. After a very tame start, I was so glad to see a goal before half-time and it seemed to ignite the game for the remainder. Just before the whistle, Archer had a chance to double the lead and after a great run from the left over to the right, he eventually shot at Aaran Taylor, but he saved well.

HT, 1-0 to the hosts
With a packed clubhouse, I took advantage of the quick service behind the bar and hastily pottered back out to pitch-side, knowing that I could get a space in and amongst the undercover terrace whilst the locals were still awaiting a frothy beverage. The second-half was soon underway and as the temperature plummeted towards zero, people started to huddle in and watch nervously to see how the remainder of the game would unfold. By this point we'd seen an hour pass and it would be through a defensive error that the away side almost drew level. Pierpoint, who'd been the hero at the attacking end, let the Workington striker in with an under-strength header which didn't quite reach Matt Gould in the Glassboys goal. Thankfully for Gould, he was quick to react and saved well to deny a goal, then Allison's rebound strike was deemed offside and therefore halted the premature pandemonium from the few dozen behind the goal who thought their Workington side had equalised. At the other end, Stour countered quickly and almost got a second goal. After initially winning a corner, a mess in the box saw one shot saved, another blocked off the line and then another blocked and cleared by the visiting defence. All of a sudden this game had turned from nervy and dull, to an absolute nail-biter.

Talk about end-to-end
On the 70th minute Workington were awarded a chance from 25-yards when a free-kick was given by referee Tom Kirk. As David Symington stepped-up the fans went silent, and on the ref's whistle Symington took a firm run-up before hitting his strike past the wall and into the left-side of the goal. Stourbridge 1-1 Workington.

Game on!
By this point the game really could have gone either way and with many a goal still to come, the momentum was shifting all of the time. Luke Benbow, the 38 goal striker who had been quiet so far on the night, tried his luck from range at one side, meanwhile a Workington player blazed a thunderbolt of a strike over Gould's bar on 75 minutes. With little time remaining it would prove to be top scorer Benbow who would break the deadlock, and as he twisted and turned around the box he eventually hit a left-footed cross-cum-shot into the mix. Despite Archer's efforts to get a touch on it, the ball clipped past him and the keeper too, before comfortably nestling into the bottom corner. Stourbridge 2-1 Workington. With that dreaded sense of another playoff defeat, Workington took a chance and went for an all out attack approach in the final 10 minutes. With only a couple of minutes left of normal time, Allison was given the best chance of the game after beating the offside trap and running in alongside the backtracking defence of the Glassboys. Allison lined-up and effort but screwed it wide in what I had thought would be the last chance for the visitors. However, their 440 mile round-trip was not to end just yet- and as the 4th official indicated a minimum of five minutes added time, there was chance yet to take this tie to extra-time. Deep into this added time, Workington earnt themselves a corner and it would be Dan Wordsworth who scored a massive goal for the away side. Stourbridge 2-2 Workington.

Next up, extra time
Not many people dared move from their place before extra time commenced, but I decided to move around to behind to goal again so that I could try to get a good view of the penalty shoot-out, if it went that far. With 97 minutes now on the clock, Jordan Archer, who had been solid all game, managed to produce the best moment of the game, and also one of the moments of the season for Stourbridge. He glided past his marker from outside the box and as the whole of the Workington side charged in on him he unleashed a quality strike which went into the underside of the roof of the net and gave his side the lead for a third and final time. Great goal- Stourbridge 3-2 Workington. I couldn't help but feel at this stage that there could be another goal to come and Workington certainly weren't giving this game up. Well into the second half of ET, a volley was hit nervously over the bar for the visitors and when the Glassboys conceded another late corner the fans started to murmur their concerns of another equaliser. "Oh, not again" is what the man next to me said as the corner was swung in, this time to be cleared well up to Benbow, who this time managed to have his strike saved on the break. And with that, the whistle blew and it was game over at the War Memorial Athletic Ground.

Queue pitch invasion
Stourbridge will have to wait until tonight to find out who they will face. They know that it will either be an away trip to Spennymoor Town or a home tie against the Dabbers, but either way I would like to wish them good luck in a massive tie. I would also like to make a promise to Workington that I won't come and watch them in the playoffs next season- having now seen them twice lose 3-2!

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