Saturday, November 26, 2011

Are you Bayern in disguise?

Billingham Town 3 – 3 Guisborough Town

Sympathising with a German football team’s plight is not an emotional response that sits too comfortably with most English football fans. The scars from two semi-final shootout disasters still runs deep within the national psyche and so it was not altogether surprising that there was no emotional outpouring of sympathy for Bayern Munich when twelve years ago they let the Champions League trophy be wrenched from their grasp in the dying seconds of the final as Manchester United somehow contrived to win (or should that be Bayern contrived to lose?)

Bayern Munich and Billingham Town have little in common, so you would be forgiven for wondering why on Earth this article begins in this manner. Put simply, Bayern Munich were the words that were spat from my mouth as the full-time whistle blew at Bedford Terrace last night. Guisborough were leading 3-1 as the game neared its conclusion. I even tempted fate and suggested to some of the nearby Guisborough supporters that we move closer to the main stand where the players would leave the field to applaud off a dominant performance and three well earned points.

Then the seemingly impossible happened. A stupid defensive error allowed a sniff on goal for the home side’s Jamie Owens and he finished well. A ripple of nerves spread amongst the travelling support, but in truth this ripple didn’t have the opportunity to travel very far. Virtually from the
restart, another ball played in from the right this time was met by Nicky Martin who headed – ala Teddy Sheringham – into the corner to turn the game on its head.

How cruel, how unkind of Billingham Town to spoil the start of my weekend. They didn’t even have the good grace to do this to us on a Saturday afternoon. At least then it would have been half-way through the two-day break. Instead, this act was perpetrated on a Friday night leaving me with two whole days to mull over what might have been.

Of course, I jest. Credit has to go to the home side who plugged away and never gave in. They were never short on commitment and the biggest cheers of the night from the home crowd actually came from some of the tough tackling they demonstrated.

My bias is undoubted, but even with my rose tinted spectacles taken off and parked to one side, it was clear that Guisborough should have won. The pace of Roberts, McPhillips, Johnson and Decosemo was combined with the poise of Henry and I’Anson and at times Guisborough’s movements forward were so slick and so fast that every time we poured up the field we looked like scoring. Alas, therein lay the problem. The game should have been put to bed, done and dusted – use whatever cliché you like. But if you allow a hungry side a sniff – and let’s face it, Billingham Town had an appetite for points – expect them to feast. A quick glance at
the home side’s forward line also hints at the everpresent danger. Michael Dunwell, Nicky Martin, Jamie Owens – all good players, all good goalscorers and all clinical if given half a chance.

Twenty –four hours later - and with the shock of an unexpected outcome now firmly sinking in – I find myself being a little more philosophical. The last five games have seen this Guisborough team arrive in the First Division. Bedlington expected to come and conquer and only left with
a share of the spoils. Birtley were brushed to one side in the League cup and Newton Aycliffe – by their own admission – were fortunate to take the points away back to County Durham. Spennymoor – League champions, no less – were beaten 2-1 and Jarrow soon followed by a two goal winning margin. In midweek we travelled to Bridlington to face Scarborough Athletic and pace again caused havoc, with a 5-1 victory making the journey home psychologically far shorter.

There is still work to be done and last night’s conclusion demonstrated that this side remains a work in progress. Anyone present at the game last night was royally entertained. Billingham Town afforded us a warm welcome, which acted as a perfect contrast to the decidedly cold November night.

Sir Ridley Scott – director of Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator, no less - was brought up on Teesside and apparently based his dystopian image of the future world on his memories of industry at Billingham. Even he would have been hard-pressed to devise a conclusion as unexpected as this. But that’s football for you. I just hope I don’t have to say the words Bayern Munich again at the end of a football match. Unless of course it’s Bayern Munich that are playing.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A seaside sojourn and a seadogs revival?

The date was 29th March 1988. It was the North Riding Senior Cup semi-final - Scarborough against Guisborough - and along with my Father and some family friends, we took our place in the stand at the McCain Stadium. There is a programme from the game on eBay and Northern League fans of the 80s may remember names such as Mark Lawrence and Trevor Smith, who had graced the professional game before plying their trade in the Northern League. Lining up for the opposition was the teenage Christian Short, who went on to play for Sheffield United. Short’s brother – Craig – was also on Scarborough’s books at the times before a successful playing career at Everton and Blackburn.

I remember virtually nothing about the game that day, other than the comfortable margin of victory for Scarborough and the fact that the game felt like a professional football encounter; proper stands, genuine cheers when a goalscorer was announced over the tannoy and substitutes for Scarborough that looked and acted like professionals as they warmed up.

Nobody could have predicted what would have happened to Scarborough over the two subsequent decades. After a high profile FA Cup tie at home against Chelsea in 2004 (which they lost narrowly 1-0), a spiral of decline resulted in the club being wound up in the High Court. Scarborough’s motto – No battle, no victory – was semi-appropriate for this semi-professional side. A battle ensued, but the club did not emerge victorious. The McCain stadium then proceeded to lie dormant for several years. But the ground was not so much sleeping as rotting. Finally the ground was laid to rest in September 2011 as the council cleared the site. The images of the ground in its final hours – the grass untamed and the stands looking worn and haggard – must have been hard to take for the seasoned supporters of one of England’s oldest clubs.

After any trauma, there is often a collective will to begin again. The club effectively splintered in two directions. Scarborough Athletic formed and found a place in the Northern Counties East League, their games being played at the home of Bridlington Town. Scarborough Town initially played in the Teesside League and have rapidly progressed into the Wearside League.
Twenty-three years on from our semi-final encounter, the two sides met again on Tuesday in a North Riding clash, played at Bridlington. There is clearly a continued thirst for football in Scarborough. Crowds often number over 400 (and all of the home fans are travelling fans as they have to make their way seventeen miles to a neighbouring town) and the side are making headway on the pitch, handily placed this season in third position with games in hand over the teams above them. By all accounts, Scarborough Athletic took a relaxed approach to the game on Tuesday and handed opportunities to fringe players. But whereas twenty years ago they could take these liberties and still overcome a Northern League side, these days it is different. Guisborough were the comfortable victors 5-1 and now go into the last eight in a competition where they look to defend their title.

It remains to be seen how life will pan out for Scarborough Athletic. There are questions unanswered, such as when will they secure a Scarborough based ground? and how far through the pyramid can they once again penetrate?

With a population of 50,000 and having secured the tag of Most enterprising town in Britain in 2008, you have to think it is possible. Let’s hope the seadogs bite back.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Back to back wins bring new sense of perspective

Guisborough Town 3 – 1 Jarrow Roofing

Three days, two wins, six points. What a difference a few days make. After edging past Spennymoor on Wednesday evening, it was crucial that this momentum was maintained today against a side in Jarrow that have won just once in their last nine games and were sitting just above Town in the table, but having played several games more.
The two sides are far from strangers to one another. This was the third occasion already this season that we had met. The FA Cup tie had ended with a 2-1 Guisborough win and the League fixture at the same ground had ended 3-3 after Guisborough had squandered their advantage three times.

Momentum is a popular buzzword in modern sport. Coaches talk about it, players capitalise upon it and supporters wish that when their team had it, it could be seized and bottled for release on matchday. Perhaps this is exactly what Chris Hardy had done. For the first twenty minutes of today’s encounter, it was as though Wednesday’s win had been minutes ago. The back four looked settled, McPhillips was at his tricky best on the left hand side and Decosomo’s penetrating runs from deep were forcing Jarrow onto the defensive.

A goal seemed likely and a goal duly arrived. Fresh from his thundering volleyed goal against Spennymoor, Shane Henry smashed a left footed shot on the turn which thundered against the underside of the bar and bounced down on the line. Roberts was quickest to respond and lashed the ball into the opposite corner to open the scoring. Having scored one, Guisborough looked as though they might score another. They did. As the ball was played across the penalty area from the right hand side, I’Anson swivelled and acrobatically diverted the ball into the far corner. With half-time still some way off, Austin Johnson broke through the home defence and looked to have secured a three goal advantage as he sidefooted the ball past the visiting keeper. The ball struck the inside of the post, but again it was a Guisborough player that was quickest to respond as Chris I’Anson doubled his own personal tally and afforded his side a three goal cushion.
Jarrow and shipbuilding were once synonymous, with more than 80% of the working population employed in the trade in the early years of the last century. The Jarrow of today, shorn of its shipbuilding and much of its manufacturing base, is a very different place. At 3-0 down and with Guisborough in search of more goals, Jarrow’s ship appeared to be sinking and there was a genuine danger that the home side’s lead would be unassailable by half-time. But sometimes when an opponent is on the ropes, the worst possible thing to do is to let your guard down. Casual defending allowed a Jarrow chance which was well taken and suddenly the visitors were handed a lifeline. In their nine previous away games, Jarrow had scored 23 goals. They were pacy up front and it was clear that they could cause problems, despite the absence of the muscular Aris Guerin-Lokongo. The twenty year old has just returned from a trial with Plymouth Argyle, where he reputedly impressed before being injured and forced to return home.

The second half incredibly saw no more goals. Jarrow had chances, Guisborough had chances and the game could have ended 6-3. As Jarrow pushed forward in an attempt to get back into the game, gaps appeared at the back and Roberts more than once could have added to his opening goal.

The win lifted Guisborough out of the bottom three, but it also took on greater significance when other results filtered through. Tow Law secured a point (having looked likely to take all three points against Newton Aycliffe), Marske beat Shildon 2-1 and South Shields overcame Bishop Auckland. At the moment, it seems as though anybody can beat anybody.

The fixtures at the moment come thick and fast. On Tuesday we travel to Bridlington to face Scarborough Athletic in the North Riding Senior Cup and on Friday night we face third bottom Billingham Town at Bedford Terrace. It’s perhaps a little early on in the season to describe it as a six pointer, but it’s pretty important. Hopefully an inflated Friday night crowd will be treated to a classic local clash.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

More for Priorymen, less for Moors

Guisborough Town 2 - 1 Spennymoor Town

There is a wonderful feeling about being the underdog and securing a triumph against all odds. Winning when you’re not meant to is one of the sweetest feelings, like proving a teacher wrong who said you’d never make the grade. Having lost to Newton Aycliffe (despite controlling possession for the bulk of the game) a win against reigning champions Spennymoor seemed as unlikely as a cold day in hell. Third bottom against fourth top seemed a mismatch.

The old saying – that the table doesn’t lie – is only a partial truth. With several games in hand on surrounding teams and with a young side gradually finding their feet in a faster and more demanding division, Guisborough are a better side than many would anticipate. With a new formation with I’Anson central and two runners in Roberts and McPhillips overlapping, the home side began brightly and Roberts’ effort forced visiting ‘keeper Turns to live up to his name and push the ball past the post. Not to be discouraged, Guisborough pressed forward again and Shane Henry managed to prod the ball in the bottom corner, despite pressure from several defenders.

It felt like a matter of time before Spennymoor got back into the game. They were quick and incisive and it was the movements of Ruddy which caught the eye. He was difficult to pin down as he came deep to collect possession before spreading play and spinning off his marker. Like many small players, Ruddy’s low centre of gravity afforded him a split second extra time on the turn and he looked Spennymoor’s most likely threat. Ruddy great, Ruddy brilliant. Or from a home perspective, get him Ruddy well marked.

The game remained 1-0 as the half time break arrived. The home optimists mused over the possibilities of hanging on for an unlikely win. Those holding a pint which was half-empty pointed out Spennymoor’s depth on the bench and that they would carve out second half chances to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Whilst in part it was true that the visitors controlled second-half possession, a Herculean effort from Guisborough saw Spennymoor players being harried, harassed on the ball and generally made to feel that they had no time to pull the strings and to pull home defenders out of position. When the Spennymoor equaliser arrived, it was Moore for the Moors as he flicked the ball past Jack Norton from a well directed free-kick.

If the script had returned to convention, Guisborough hadn’t read it. The goal to win the game was a beauty. McPhillips – fighting tiredness and defying the odds to keep the ball in and prevent a goal-kick – spotted Shane Henry’s run from deep. His cross to the edge of the box surprised the home defence, who perhaps expected the ball to be delivered into the six-yard box. The onrushing Henry barely broke stride in thumping the ball home to the delight of the home support. There were moments of stress and with minutes left the ball was fizzed across the home side’s box and was as close as wet is to water as the onrushing forwards strained to reach the cross. The home fans were more tense than a campsite and it was to great relief that the final whistle blew.

This was a win against all expectations. Equally pleasing was the good natured banter with Spennymoor’s excellent travelling support. Whilst they were disgruntled with the result, both the fans and manager Jason Aindsley were gracious in defeat. Perhaps with half an eye on Saturday’s FA Vase clash, Aindsley had rested several players. Saturday takes the Moors to Barnoldswick Town and their stadium – the Silentnight stadium. Ainsley was left with a number of things to sleep on in the days leading up to a Second Round FA Vase clash.
Barnoldswick is also home to the Rolls Royce. When at full speed and fully functioning, Spennymoor are more than capable of returning from Lancashire with their FA Vase on track. I for one very much hope they manage it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sabotage Times

The Sabotage Times - brainchild of the founder of Loaded magazine - has featured an aticle on my love for Northern League football, here:

The Irish site 'The Score' even features it in 'The week's best sportswriting':

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Aycliffe hold firm to take the points

Guisborough Town 0 – 1 Newton Aycliffe

In their Promotion winning campaign of last year, Newton Aycliffe became renowned for their brand of attacking football which focused so heavily on the prolific Warren Byrne. After netting more than forty times during the last campaign, more than a few eyebrows were raised when Byrne upped and left for his old side Shildon. Of the new additions that Aycliffe brought in, it was defender Darren Craddock that was the most notable; an experienced and no-nonsense centre half around which the team could build a strong defensive base. In today’s game, Aycliffe carved out just one clear cut chance which was clinically taken. For the rest of the game they defended deep, defended well and did just enough to take the three points. It was easy to see how Aycliffe had restricted the free-scoring West Auckland and Whitley Bay to just a goal each in recent weeks.

For Guisborough, the day was far from perfect. They had a goal disallowed and far more importantly lost not only the game but midfielder Joel Guy to an unpleasant injury. An ambulance was called for Guy as an initially diagnosed broken leg turned out to be ruptured ligaments and a long spell on the sidelines.

An even first half produced few chances. Aycliffe looked dangerous on the flanks and it was their left-sided player Owens who scored the only goal of the game. The energetic Gardner struck a seemingly harmless effort towards goal which was far more accurate than first appeared. The ball squirmed past keeper Jack Norton and struck the inside of the post. The onrushing Owens was left with a lot to do but made it all look easy as he clipped the ball perfectly into the bottom corner from an acute angle.

Guisborough began the second half reinvigorated and for the first fifteen minutes of the second period, Aycliffe struggled to get out of their own half. As Guisborough pushed for an equaliser, Johnson surged from a deep position and found himself with just the keeper to beat from close to range. With several in the crowd putting their house on him scoring, Johnson screwed the ball high and wide from close range. This chance almost marked a watershed in the game and Aycliffe began to exert more pressure and looked dangerous on the break. Tom Portas – far from a stranger to the home fans after three years of success in a Guisborough shirt – became more involved and his surging runs both forward and across the pitch posed an increased threat. Despite this, there was the feeling that if Guisborough scored they could go on to win the game. The goal duly came as the ball was swung in from the right and was forced home from close range. The home players and supporters celebrated, but the joy was short lived as the dreaded sight of a raised lineman’s flag saw the goal chalked off for offside.

Prior to this game, Aycliffe had never beaten Guisborough before in the Northern league. They had been left to kick themselves twice last season as Guisborough rescued points from seemingly impossible situations. Today there was perhaps less flair about Aycliffe’s performance, but certainly more steel. They were organised, committed and stuck firmly to their game plan in the second half. Without a doubt, they are club on the up. They have a healthy travelling contingent, are well run and clearly aspire to greater things.

Games between these two sides are always close and Aycliffe will have been both pleased and relieved to have taken all three points back along the A66 to County Durham.

The First Division offers no let up; we entertain reigning League Champions Spennymoor on Wednesday. But in case you didn’t notice, England beat Spain today. Over ninety minutes, anything can happen. Which I suppose is why we all come back week after week. Hope springs eternal…

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ferguson endures in an age of change

There is a picture of Sir Alex Ferguson in his first day in the Old Trafford hotseat, with a ball under one arm and his other arm around the shoulders of his then assistant Archie Knox. So much in the world has changed. Margaret Thatcher was at the helm of British politics, Ronald Reagan was mid-way through his eight years of US presidency and Liverpool had dominated the top flight of British football for more than a decade. This was pre-Hillsborough, pre-Premiership and for those brought up on a diet of continuous live football, seemingly pre-historic. The one enduring feature of the photograph is Ferguson’s grin. Who can blame him after lifting twenty seven trophies in twenty five years?

Of course, it was not always destined to be this way. If rumours are to be believed, Ferguson was a hare’s breadth away from the chop in his early tenure when Manchester United supporters were hungry for success after an extended famine at the hands of their Merseyside rivals. If you discount Arsene Wenger from the equation, it would be interesting to establish whether the rest of the top division’s managers have this length of service at their current clubs between them. Answers on a postcard…
In a media driven society where information is at our finger tips and instant gratification is expected, managers have barely got their feet under a table before the furniture is rearranged and a new man is at the helm. Surely it takes time for a manager to cultivate his own style and to embed his vision throughout a football club? A ready meal might take minutes to prepare – ping, there we go, out it pops from its plastic tray and hey presto, dinner is served. But the end result is usually less satisfying. Keeping in line with the Food Industry analogy, as Guinness would tell you – good things come to those who wait.

How does this apply to non-league football? Perhaps fans even at this level need to be more patient and not expect instant success. There are times when a manager’s time is clearly up. But how often do we move one man on to find that the club is in no better shape a year on? Ferguson has enjoyed 1409 games thus far as Old Trafford supremo – significantly more than my own side Guisborough have even played in the Northern League since their admission in the mid-eighties. How many of the current Northern League managers have been in post for less than two years? New blood and fresh ideas are obviously welcome, but so often the same managers are merely recycled on the football merry go round.

Perhaps I’m just being naïve. Football and sport generally are perhaps just a reflection of modern life. According to government estimates, young people just finishing their education will have done 10-14 different jobs by the time they reach the age of 38 and a week’s worth of New York Times newspapers contains more information than a person was likely to come across in their whole lifetime in the 18th Century. To borrow a phrase – shift happens.

Yet there is Fergie; enduring, entrenched and excelling just as much as ever. Love him or loathe him, there may never be another like him. Next stop, 1500 games.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Town leave Terriers with plenty to chew on

Guisborough Town 1 Bedlington Terriers 1

As the old saying goes, if we played like that every week we wouldn’t be so inconsistent. Faced with the tough task of securing points from a clash with Bedlington Terriers, Guisborough deserved their point against a side with good credentials and the ever present threat of Shandran and Richardson in attack.
Mention the name Bedlington to anyone and there is a strong chance that they will associate the place with the famed Bedlington Terrier, a dog with a woollen coat which strongly resembles a sheep. The dog features on the club crest, but for the first forty five minutes the Terriers were seriously lacking bite. Guisborough controlled possession, with the evergreen Willie Boland revelling in his role playing in front of the back four. He took every opportunity to spread the play and with Bedlington playing very narrow and with a lack of width, Guisborough’s forays down the flanks looked most likely to break the deadlock. Despite the home side’s superior first-half possession, chances were few and far between and with the game deadlocked at half-time, Bedlington were given the opportunity to regroup and reassess their tactics.

Rather than introduce more width, the visitors evidently sensed that their biggest threat was the Little and Large combination of Richardson and Shandran, with the former player’s pace complementing Shandran’s physicality, good close control and ability to shield the ball. They played the ball long to Shandran, who looked menacing with his aerial presence and ability to turn the defence. Having looked fairly comfortable – if at times slightly stretched – an aberration in the home defence allowed Richardson to give the visitors the lead. As Town were forced to push forward in search of an equaliser, more gaps appeared and Richardson’s pace took him through on goal. A poor first touch saw the forward overrun the ball. He then went to ground, claiming a penalty. Optimists may say that he merely lost his balance; others suggested that Richardson was disingenuous in his claims. A similar incident ten minutes later towards the home side’s own corner flag did nothing to appease those home fans that felt that the forward went to ground too easily. Shortly afterwards, Shandran twisted and turned on the edge of the box before curling a left footed shot which struck the base of the post and bounced straight back into keeper Norton’s arms. It was a moment of sublime skill and indicative of why Shandran already has thirteen goals to his name this season.

Having weathered this storm, the home side gradually began to assert themselves. With the added pace of Decosomo and Roberts introduced, Bedlington began to look stretched. Boland dinked the ball into Shane Henry’s path and as he surged past two players, Henry shot on the run into the bottom corner to round off an excellent team move. By now, both teams looked stretched and Guisborough were forced to reshuffle when Casey was withdrawn from action with what looked like a pulled groin muscle. I’Anson went close and on several occasions, the ball was flashed across the box without anyone getting on the end of it. Yet the visitors could have left with all three points, but for a stunning one handed save from Jack Norton as he flung himself to his right and prevented a certain goal.

Guisborough have now only lost three times in the last eleven games and this was an assured performance against a strong side. Bedlington have some fine players and their two previous games had yielded strong victories against League leaders Sunderland RCA and one of last season’s front runners, Newcastle Benfield. Last season, Shandran and Richardson (then of Spennymoor) bagged 38 league goals between them. To keep them relatively quiet was significant and the defence looked settled with the return of Lee Bythway, partnering Mark Casey in defence. Shane Henry is coming into form and looking increasingly comfortable with the added pace and vigour of the First Division. Every game in the first division is tough; but we have games in hand and a couple of wins will lift us towards the middle of the table.
The Bedlington supporters were pleasant; in good voice and in good numbers. They even won the raffle prize, despite their consternation at having to take a share of the points. I will look forward to our visit to Northumberland later in the season. Between now and then there are twenty games; a lot of water is to pass under the bridge – be it the Tees or the Wansbeck. How the teams will line up in the league table by that point will be very interesting.