Saturday, November 17, 2012

Town back on winning trail

Guisborough Town 3 – 0 Durham City

Last week, the mercurial West Indian batsman Chris Gayle made cricketing history when he blasted the first ball of a test match for six. This had never happened in the sport’s 145 year history and made headlines around the world. This morning, Ian Bell – a rather less imposing but nonetheless talented cricketer – made an ill conceived attempt to smash the first ball of his innings back over the bowler’s head and succeeded only in top edging it into a jubilant fielder’s hands. Whilst Gayle looked imperious, Bell’s effort was lambasted by commentators and former players. The margins between success and failure in sport can be incredibly slim. When things go badly wrong, it can be difficult to recover a situation.

Today’s football match between Guisborough and Durham may not make local sporting headlines, never mind being splattered across the broadsheets and red tops, but there was a moment in today’s game which arguably tipped it in the direction of Guisborough. An even first period had seen Guisborough lead through Austin Johnston’s bullet header, as he leapt like an Atlantic Salmon navigating Scotland’s River Blackwater to head home. Then Durham equalised. At least, they thought they had. But the goal was chalked off for an apparent tug on a Guisborough defender. This was Durham’s top edge moment. Their protests suggested that they felt more than a little hard done by and had the game been level at half-time the outcome could have been different.
Durham came out for the second half clearly pumped up and determined to put right their perceived sense of injustice. They looked to pass the ball and carved openings, but they couldn’t find the net, despite some near misses. What was warming up to be a close, fiery and competitive encounter was emphatically doused with two Guisborough goals in quick succession. Both oozed quality.  Lewis Wood turned his marker inside out before driving the ball across for the diminutive Michael Roberts to stroke the ball home.  Having been dealt a blow, Durham were undeterred and immediately sprung an attack. But as the attack broke down and Guisborough broke from defence, a long ball was played over the top for Roberts. Like a greyhound released from its traps, Roberts gained ground on the defender with every step. It only happened in a nano-second, but I knew that the defender was done for. Sensing Roberts’ breath on his neck, he made the cardinal error of taking half a glance back over his shoulder to see just close Roberts was. The moment could not be recovered. By the time the visiting defender had turned around again, Roberts was ahead of him and in on goal. Left with little option, Durham’s visiting keeper left his line to narrow the angle. But the Guisborough attacker had momentum and his minor and deliberate diversion to the goalkeeper’s left gave him an open goal into which to place his shot. Where Ian Bell had failed, Guisborough momentarily looked as though they had succeeding in hitting the opposition for six. From a position where Durham conceivably could have been level, they were now swaying on the ropes and threatening to hit the canvas.

But credit must go to the visitors, for they did not capitulate. They have had a turbulent time of late after voluntary demotion to the Northern League at the end of last season and a new manager in recent weeks in the form of Adam Furness. But things have been looking up, with four consecutive wins prior to today’s game. You could see why.  The three goal margin perhaps suggests that the game was won comfortably, but Durham more than played their part and on a different day the scoreline may have been a lot closer. They continued to press forward and home keeper Dixon had to be alert several times to ensure a clean sheet. For Guisborough manager Chris Hardy, the clinical manner in which the goals were taken will be of particular pleasure. There have been times this season where Guisborough have dominated possession but not taken their chances. The three goal cushion allowed him to use his full quota of substitutes, safe in the knowledge that the game was all but won.    
Durham is famed for its university – listed as one of the top 100 universities in the world – and in turning to Adam Furness the football club have turned to a leading light in Durham University sport, for Furness is the Head coach and First Team Coach as well as an FA tutor in charge of coach education. They play football and with a touch more finesse in front of goal, they will win a lot of games.

For Guisborough, this was three well-earned points. This week they have played two games in three days against university based Team Northumbria and today’s fixture against Durham.  A win was very welcome. Whilst the display was not quite of first class vintage, Guisborough more than passed with honours.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A rare draw as Town net late goal

Team Northumbria 1 – 1 Guisborough Town

It’s sometimes stressful, can be exciting, occasionally frustrating but never boring watching Guisborough. By 10th November you would expect that after twenty three games a side might have drawn a game. Not Guisborough. There have been many wins, several defeats and nothing at all in between. Breaking their acquired convention of all or nothing, today Guisborough snatched a late equalizer against Team Northumbria. It might have been a draw, but it was most definitely a point gained. Travelling up to Team Northumbria’s Coach Lane ground is never easy. It becomes a touch more difficult when you have to make a repeat journey for a League Cup game in two days time. The visitors will hope to finish where they left off. In a rousing final twenty minutes Guisborough snatched a goal from the spot and could have sneaked a winner. But a draw was as much as they deserved, for having dominated the beginning and end of the game, the home side controlled the middle stages and should have been more than a goal up before Town equalized.

Last season Chris Hardy listed Team Northumbria as one of his favourite grounds. Whilst the ground hardly bursts with atmosphere, it is modern, well kept and the pitch is perfect for passing. It is the latter characteristic which is most likely to appeal to Hardy, whose teams play football that is easy on the eye. As Brian Clough once noted, if God wanted football to be played in the sky he would have put goalposts in the clouds. On a clear day, there were few clouds and few balls lumped forward in an airborne fashion. Both sides looked to maintain possession and patient build up was the name of the game. For the first half an hour Guisborough controlled possession but moves frequently broke down in the final third and goalmouth action was as rare as a Neville Southall diet regime. As the half wore on, Team Northumbria began to look more threatening. In Peter Watling they have a centre forward that only needs the slightest sniff of goal to remain interested. A controversial free kick was awarded to the home side twenty five yards out. Watling – economical in his run up – clipped the ball into the top corner. The ball zipped in, kissing the back of the net and rippling in the corner. It was a moment of quality you might expect from a man that scored 39 league goals in last year’s promotion winning season.

Whilst Guisborough began the second half with positive intent, they struggled to break down the home defence. If anything, Team Northumbria looked the more likely to score again. A change was needed and Chris Hardy threw on Steel and McPhillips as a double substitution. After his midweek hat-trick, Steel was brimming with confidence. His physical presence up front caused panic in the home defence and as is so often the case when a side is defending a slender advantage, they fell into the trap of defending too deeply and inviting pressure. Another factor in Guisborough’s late showing was Lewis Wood. Despite playing for the whole game, Wood was starved of possession for much of the time. When he was finally given the chance to run with the ball, his quick feet and direct running caused problems. The late pressure eventually yielded a result. McPhillips calmly slotted home from the spot as a visiting attacker was scythed down. There were more shots wide, more scrambles and more hoofed clearances. But if Guisborough had half an eye on grabbing a winner, they were left relieved in the final seconds when the home side spurned a chance to win it as the ball slid narrowly wide of Ben Escritt’s goal. Sherlock’s hands went to his head as he watched his effort go wide. On a different day he may have passed the ball to his strike partner, for whom it would have been a lot easier - a genuine case of elementary, my dear Watling.  

Both sides trudged off, perhaps considering what might have been. As Guisborough headed down the A19 they may have been contemplating whether or not to even bother going home. With two games in three days at the same location, there was the threat of more repeats than Channel 4’s Come Dine with me. Both sides will reflect that with better service, they too may have been celebrating victory. There’s plenty to chew on before Monday’s next encounter. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Whitley edge close encounter

Guisborough Town 1 -3 Whitley Bay  

Whitley bay is famous for many things – its former status as a seaside resort and current tag as a Stag and Hen Party hotspot perhaps chief amongst them.  Less well established is Whitley Bay’s rather impressive record for producing footballers and bass guitarists. Current Newcastle United defender Steven Taylor heralds from the town and his namesake - Andy Taylor - was quite literally instrumental in Duran Duran’s 1980s dominance. It is rather apt that Duran Duran’s biggest international hit – The Reflex -  was exactly what turned the game in Whitley Bay’s favour today. Those reflexes belonged to visiting goalkeeper Kyle Hayes. With the game approaching half-time, Guisborough enjoyed a spell of dominance which saw them equalise and carve out a number of good chances. They looked to have taken a half-time lead, but for Hayes’ outstanding low stop. The ball was turned away and the game turned in the visitors’ favour. From this point onwards Whitley Bay never truly looked like surrendering their lead again. Or, as Duran Duran may have put it, they were not about to let themselves Come Undone for a second time.
Whitley Bay have some rather impressive pedigree, though last season (by their own exacting standards) represented a disappointment. Having won the FA Vase in three consecutive seasons, it must become rather difficult to fulfil expectations. Also, as with all great sides, key performers begin to age or players move on to pastures new. Manager Ian Chandler has been working hard to blend new talent with the old formula and in recent weeks Bay’s results suggest that he is nearing the perfect recipe. For the first twenty minutes today they looked slick. Movement was good from front to back and with Paul Chow spearheading the attack, they will always be dangerous. Chow did not have his most influential game today, but a measure of his worth was that when he was presented with a chance, he finished it with aplomb. It rather reminded me of Gary Lineker; not in looks – Chow is more reminiscent of Gary McAllister in this respect. Nor is he like Lineker in style. But he seemed to similarly come alive in the box and have the same predatory instinct. With the twenty minute mark approaching, Chow slipped free of his marker as the ball was played into the box. Home ‘keeper Escritt narrowed the angle as he left his line. Chow knew just how long to wait before dinking the ball over the onrushing keeper. It was a goal that smacked of quality and experience. Chow has scored hundreds of them and there is no reason to think that the tank has run dry yet.

With the opportunity to take the game by the scruff of the neck, the visitors seemed to get sucked back towards their own goal, defending ever more deeply and surrendering midfield possession. Guisborough have an excellent balance in midfield at present. Adam Gell and Lewis Wood add subtlety and look to unlock defences, whilst the other Wood (Gary) and his fellow midfield general Austin Johnston are the engine of the midfield. Johnston undoubtedly benefits from Wood’s presence, being able to thunder forwards when given the opportunity, safe in the knowledge that Gary Wood will often do the less desirable but equally important task of snuffing out attacking threats and breaking up play. Yet Wood is more than that, as proven in recent weeks. His range of passing has widened, as has his ability to control the tempo of the game. What appeared to be a temporary move into midfield has proven to be a masterstroke.
As the half hour approached, the home side enjoyed a spell of dominance. They moved the ball at pace and every time the ball was played into wider areas, resultant crosses caused panic in the visiting defence. Guisborough eventually got the goal their play deserved when Luke Bythway picked up a loose ball in the penalty area, before turning and picking his spot in the bottom corner. Had Guisborough scored another goal at this point, the outcome of the game could have been very different. Hayes’ excellent stop put paid to that. His handling and general awareness were excellent throughout and it was not difficult to see why he had been chosen as the Northern League’s young player of the year last season.

Perhaps warmed by Ian Chandler’s words as well as their half time cuppa, Whitley Bay looked far more organised in the second half. They had strengthened their wider defensive areas and whilst the home side enjoyed spells of extended possession, they found it ever more difficult to unlock the visiting defence. This was a conundrum made all the more testing when Bay retained their lead from the penalty spot. Whilst the award of a spot kick was a touch dubious, the manner in which forward Ashley Davis dispatched the penalty could not have been more clinical. Guisborough continued to push hard for an equaliser, but were thwarted by an organised and committed visiting side, made all the more tenacious in midfield with the introduction of Lee Paul Scroggins. Whilst Scroggins helped to break up play, the introduction of Bay forward Denver Morris gave the home side a tremendous attacking option. Morris – who terrorised our defence whilst playing for South Shields last January with his pace and trickery – is a bigger outlet than the A19’s Dalton Retail Park. With twenty minutes remaining, Bay turned defence into attack in two passes. Morris surged forward at blistering pace and would have finished the game but for an excellent low save from Escritt in the Guisborough goal. When a side pushes hard to equalise, there is an obvious double edged sword. With bodies committed to attack, Bay finished the game when Robinson wriggled past his marker and shot low into the bottom corner. On balance, Whitley Bay probably merited their victory, but the two goal margin perhaps leant the score a sense of comfort which never truly existed.

Whitley Bay are closely associated with Wembley. But long before the club was even conceived, Whitley bay resident Captain Gladstone Adams travelled down to London to see Newcastle United take on Wolverhampton Wanderers in the 1908 FA Cup Final. A car in those days was something of a novelty, to the point where his 1904 Daracq-Caron motorcar was stored in the safety of a car showroom whilst he was at the game. On the way home, heavy snow resulted in Adams having to stop regularly to clear the screen so that he could see where he was going. His experience led to his subsequent invention  - the windscreen wiper.  Today’s game was terrific with some top quality passing football from both sides. Whilst this may well live on in the memory, Guisborough will be keen to wipe clear today’s result from their consciousness. They have a midweek trip to Carlisle to occupy their thoughts as they travel to Celtic Nation, formerly known as Gillford Park. Hopefully this all goes smoothly and windscreen wipers or not, let’s hope it doesn’t snow.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Extra time ecstasy for Morpeth

Morpeth 1 – 0 Guisborough Town (AET)

I’d tempted fate. By discussing Guisborough’s likely penalty takers with just minutes until the sudden death competition, it was almost inevitable that Morpeth would score a last minute winner. Cue mass celebrations from the home players and supporters and looks of collective dejection from the substantial Guisborough travelling support. Wembley will have to wait for another year.
Morpeth have undergone something of a resurgence in recent months. They are unbeaten in the second division this year and during the week travelled to First Division Team Northumbria in the Northumberland Cup and returned as 2-0 victors. The warnings were all in place and nobody from Guisborough was taking the game lightly. The recent floods to sweep the North East may have been erased from the landscape, but not from local memories. Morpeth was especially badly hit. Whilst the local football side have been rising, so were the local water tables. Heavy rain over the two days prior to this fixture put the tie in doubt. Whilst the pitch was clearly playable, the soft, greasy surface meant that flowing football was virtually impossible. Passes were overhit, passes were underhit and moves broke down more often than a 1973 Skoda.  “This looks like a game where the first goal will be the winner” said one Guisborough fan. Little did he know just how accurate this statement would prove to be.

Morpeth are very organised. The back four were well drilled, the full backs looked to support up and down the wings and the front men were energetic and pressed the visitors when they didn’t have the ball and threatened when they did. But as the first half wore on, Guisborough’s midfield began to enjoy superior spells of possession. The chance of the half fell to Liam McPhillips. He was played in smartly by Stewart from the left and with just the keeper to beat, he deliberated for a split second too long. By the time he struck the ball past the home goalkeeper, a defender had tracked back and cleared the ball off the line. The half time whistle blew with the tie deadlocked.
Half time discussions in both dressing rooms no doubt centred on how to open up the opposition. Whilst managers mused over set plays and potential changes in personnel, it was clear within moments of the second half that Morpeth had opted to change their formation. To counter the visitors’ superior possession , they had moved to three men at the back and added an extra man to midfield. For the initial stages this simply induced further midfield congestion and meant that attacking intent was stymied ever more quickly. But as the half wore on, the game became more stretched. In tight games, the decisions of officials are brought into greater focus and both sets of fans were left infuriated and amused in equal measure at some of the decisions. One Morpeth player appeared so far ahead of his marker when played in that he could have been assigned a different grid reference to the visiting defence. The chance came to nothing, but it invoked furious protests from the traveling fans. The same fans were relieved moments later when the flag was raised. In a neat move, Morpeth scored from close range. As they celebrated the goal, realisation slowly dawned that the goal had been chalked off. As ten different people had different perspectives on the decision, it demonstrated just how difficult an official’s job is.

At the other end, Guisborough had a series of corners and pressed hard, but could not find a route through, as Poole was denied from close range and McPhillips blasted over from the edge of the box.
Extra time arrived and substitute Nathan Evans wriggled free of his marker with minutes left. His right footed shot was crisp and low and looked likely to hit the bottom of the net. Agonisingly, the ball took a coat of paint off the post and the chance went begging.

In all honesty, Ben Escritt in the Guisborough goal was the busier of the two goalkeepers in extra time and in the dying minutes he parried brilliantly from close range. The ball ran free from his grasp, but Escritt was quickly back to his feet to throw himself forward and acrobatically deny the onrushing striker. Morpeth were not to be denied. With virtually the last kick of the game, Anderson lifted the ball over Escritt from close range. The ball seemed to travel in slow motion as it crept into the corner. This time, there was no referee’s whistle and no flag raised on the touchline.  There was no reprieve. Morpeth had scored the perfect goal. There was barely time for the game to restart before the end of the game was signalled by the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle and the resultant cheers from the home support.
Two seasons ago, I won the raffle prize at Morpeth. Today, I won it again. I would have gladly traded the prizes for a win. Instead, the whiskey’s best use would be to drown my sorrows. But I’d driven to the game, so I was not even afforded that luxury.

Well done to Morpeth. In their humbling season two years ago, it was difficult to see a way forward for them as they sank to their lowest ebb. Now, they appear a side rejuvenated. Unless a lengthy FA Vase run results in a fixture backlog, I fully anticipate that they will be in the promotion mix come the end of the season.

For Guisborough, now exists an opportunity to climb the table with several fixtures in hand over all but one side in the league. Our tally of eighteen points from nine games is a tremendous start. Chris Hardy has built a talented, committed side. Being a Guisborough fan at the moment feels good, even if today did not quite go to plan. The club (and team) are moving forward. There was a significant travelling support here today, a sure reflection that people are enjoying the quality of the football being served up.
Next up is a trip to Billingham Synthonia on Wednesday night. The Synners earned an impressive 4-2 victory at West Auckland today and the game will provide another stiff challenge. Synner’s most famous player has to have been the late, great Brian Clough. Perhaps it should be left to the man himself to describe his own greatness. As he once noted, “I wouldn’t say I’m the best ever. But I’m definitely in the top one”.

As far as the Teesside clash on Wednesday goes, Guisborough will hope to be the number one side by the end of the ninety minutes. Either way, at least there can be no extra time.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sun shines on slick Priorymen

FA Vase 1st Qualifying Round

Stokesley 0 – 5 Guisborough
North Yorkshire could not have looked prettier as I drove through Hilton and Seamer from Stockton under clear blue skies and September sun to get to today’s game. The town of Stokesley bustled with life as I was held up on the high street outside Chapters, the town’s high class Bistro/restaurant. In the story of Stokesley Football Club, recent chapters have been ones to forget. After climbing up through local leagues and then the Wearside League, under the guidance of Ted Watts the club won the Northern League Second Division and held their own the following season in the First Division. Then problems arose. Watts left the club, many officials followed and not a single player from the previous season remained at the club. The task for new manager Monty Alexander was one of mammoth proportions. Reputedly operating on a budget slashed more savagely than the Amazon rainforest, Alexander and his side had to be commended for their enduring commitment. They went through the whole of last season without winning a league fixture. This season has started more promisingly. In the previous round of this competition they beat Thornaby 3-0 and in a landmark moment, travelled to Chester Le Street during the week and returned as 1-0 victors.

As a Guisborough fan, this appeared a touch ominous. Whilst the visitors had to be firm favourites, a cup competition often galvanises a side and the supposed gap in quality can be bridged. The early proceedings were even. The two teams both squandered possession at regular intervals. It was Stokesley that had the better of the early chances and with more composure and greater venom two opportunities to test visiting ‘keeper Escritt may have been better utilised.

The reality was that if Stokesley were to cause an upset, realistically they needed to score first. Guisborough began to exert more influence across the central areas of midfield and as the half wore on Gell, Johnson and Guy started to pull the strings. The opening goal was a well rehearsed routine as Johnson made a diagonal run across the defence to latch on to a well taken free-kick to pass the ball past the home goalkeeper. Stokesley had not tracked Johnson’s run. They had been caught napping. To make matters worse for the home team, the same player doubled the scoring before the interval. Incredibly, the same free-kick routine resulted in an identical outcome. If they had been guilty of being half asleep before, this time the home defence were virtually comatose. Manager Monty Alexander exercised his vocal chords and scratched his head in frustration. A third goal was scored on the stroke of half-time when McPhillips – who until this point had been relatively quiet – suddenly sprung to life. He ghosted past four players in a mazy dribble before taking the home keeper off guard with a low left footed shot into the corner.

Stokesley have a young side that are learning. To their credit, they didn’t give up the ghost. Two more goals were scored in the second period by Luke Bythway – the second a driven shot into the roof the net – and other Guisborough goals could have been scored. A combination of disallowed efforts and wayward shooting kept the scoreline respectable.

Stokesley have a pleasant ground, good facilities and a well tended playing surface. This was their first defeat in three games. Today's game aside, they appear to be moving in the right direction.
For Guisborough, our next stop in this competition is Morpeth. The conquerors of Marske United beat Whitehaven today and we travel to Northumberland in four week’s time. They are unbeaten at home and have only conceded seven goals in ten games at the time of writing. It promises to be tough and tight. Two hours on I drove back through Stokesley High Street. By now, the earlier buzz had given way to a low afternoon murmour, except outside of Chapters where early evening diners were heading out for the night. Today, Guisborough got their just desserts for a clinical performance. It is to be hoped that this win in the competition is just for starters.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A week to savour as Priorymen dig in for all three points

Guisborough Town 1 – 0 Newcastle Benfield

Normal service has resumed. I was able to park my car within 200 metres of the ground, the stewards in high-vis jackets were now gone and it was possible to see play over the barriers without having to crane your neck or having conducted a pre-match elbow sharpening exercise to jostle more effectively for position. After the midweek drama that saw Guisborough stroke four goals past Darlington, there was always the danger that this could be a case of after the Lord Mayor’s show.  The reality was that today’s game was just as important as the one on Wednesday evening. Three points were up for grabs and a win would take Chris Hardy’s men into the top half of the table with games in hand.
Whilst it could not be quite claimed that Guisborough carried on from where they left off, they certainly dictated the early tempo. Benfield manager Perry Briggs has been busy in the summer, bringing in experience in the form of FA Vase winning (Whitley Bay) centre half Darren Timmons and midfielders David Pounder and Ritchie Slaughter. With midfielders called Pounder and Slaughter, Benfield should be a physical side. Briggs himself was a no-nonsense centre half who took no prisoners and his committed side are almost cast in his image.

Luke Bythway quite possibly had his best game in a Guisborough shirt on Wednesday evening. His link up play was a central feature of Guisborough’s dominant performance. Today, he was equally as involved. Whereas two days ago Bythway was so often the provider, today he found himself on the end of a through ball with the half-hour mark approaching. With just visiting ‘keeper Grainger to beat, Bythway looked to have opened the scoring. His low shot hurtled past the goalkeeper but fell the wrong side of the post.

The day was arguably as warm as any this summer, but this must be tempered with the fact that the summer has been unseasonably cool and wet. The referee, evidently concerned about dehydration, ordered a drinks break half way through the half.
“Ridiculous!” shouted one home supporter. “Does that mean that in December they have a Bovril break as well?”

Perhaps the extra fluids did the trick. With half-time approaching, Austin Johnson latched onto a high ball from Luke Bythway. With evidently still plenty left in the tank, he brought the ball down with one foot prior to smashing the ball in with his other foot. A half-time lead felt about right; Guisborough had edged the game, but it would always the case that Benfield would come out for the second half fighting.
As the second period got underway, play became more stretched. Benfield played with a higher line and committed more bodies forward. On occasions they played some intricate balls into feet, but having failed to unlock the home defence, clearly decided a change of tack was required. They began to launch the ball forward. On Wednesday, the raffle prizes included wine, beer and a breakfast. Today, Benfield’s long ball tactic was meat and drink to Guisborough’s defence. They soaked up all that was thrown at them and I couldn’t help but think that with greater perseverance, Benfield’s tactic of playing the ball into feet may have yielded greater results. In particular, summer signing Craig Bishop again excelled. A growing understanding has developed with his central defensive partner Lee Bythway. Today's clean sheet was testimony to a settled back four.

In the final fifteen minutes, with visitors committing men forward, Guisborough looked as likely to score again. Lively second-half substitute Evans was a menace, closing down and worrying the opposition. He went close to opening his Guisborough account when he shot narrowly wide. In the final moments, Joel Guy burst forward and appeared to have scored as his well driven effort headed goal ward. Grainger flung himself to his left to pull off a smart save, pushing the ball past the post.
What a difference a week makes. Three wins, seven goals for, two goals against. When you’re playing like that, the next game can’t come soon enough. As for Darlington – well, they vanquished any lingering thoughts of disappointment by thumping five goals against Consett. The first goal was scored after fifteen seconds.  Martin Gray probably told his side that they needed to set the tone. He was given an emphatic response.

The sun continued to shine and Man of the Match Gary Wood’s grin was as wide as the sun drenched panoramic view of the Cleveland Hills that could be seen in the background.
On Tuesday, Town travel to Penrith – a club whose motto – ‘Res non verba’ – translates as ‘actions speak louder than words’. This seems a rather apt point for me to stop. Hopefully the Guisborough players will carry on from where they left off and let their feet do the talking.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Priorymen put four past shellshocked Darlington

Guisborough 4 – 1 Darlington

When riding the crest of a wave, it is inevitable that the wave will eventually break. So it was with Darlington’s impressive start to their Northern League campaign. On a perfect late summer evening with a terrific playing surface to match, Guisborough’s drive, determination and greater attacking edge secured an unlikely three points in front of the home side’s biggest ever Northern League crowd.

If my account of events is patchy, particularly regarding the first half, it is because I was occupied with selling raffle tickets around the ground. The visiting fans (as well as the large number of locals and neutrals who had turned up) willingly dipped their hands into their pockets to further swell the club’s coffers on a highly profitable evening. By non-league standards, Darlington are a big club. But none of their supporters carried this mentality with them to the game. I found them to be a credit to their club. They took the opportunity to have a prematch beer and some grub and to take in the atmosphere which quickly built up as more than 1300 supporters poured into the ground.

I have watched Guisborough for more than a quarter of a century and only once can I recall a crowd bigger, when Leek Town arrived for an FA Cup Fourth Qualifying replay in front of the BBC’s Match of the Day cameras.  This is more than twenty years ago at a time where I could only just see over the barriers separating the pitch from supporters and struggled to even find a spot amongst the 2000 supporters that attended. On that night it took a volleyed Neil Hodgson goal to finally break more than four hours of stalemate and send Guisborough through to a First Round tie against Bury at Ayresome Park.

Whilst last night’s game did not carry the same importance as the Leek fixture, it was a big game for the home players. They looked confident from the word go. Buoyed by a last minute winner against Crook Town three days previously, Guisborough’s passing was slick and their movement off the ball was a constant threat. In the early exchanges, Bythway’s willingness to c ome short for the ball drew Darlington’s central defence out of position and allowed fellow striker McPhillips to run into the holes created. Allied with this, the tenacious Austin Johnson made runs from deep and the visitors were quickly on their heels. It was far from one way traffic. Purewal made dangerous runs forward, as did fellow winger Emms. From reading reports on Darlington this season, they have appeared at their most dangerous when utilising their pace and width on the flanks. But the two wide men were starved of service as Guisborough’s five men across the middle nullified any attempts to push forward.  Darlington looked vulnerable from set-plays and from a McPhillips cross Johnson headed the Priorymen into the lead. The visiting fans – some of whom were still arriving – may have been surprised but perhaps saw this as merely a bump in the road. But the bump quickly grew in size as McPhillips added a second having been denied minutes previously by a brilliant save from Norton.

“Anyone for the half-time draw?” I enquired. “Three prizes – a bottle of red wine...cans of stella and a meat draw”.

“I’ll take the draw” said one Darlington fan. “On the pitch that is”. It was another example of the visiting fans’ ability to take things in their stride. “The fans have turned up but the players haven’t” he added. He then bought some raffle tickets and politely informed me with a chuckle at the end of the game that he didn’t win that either.

Having squandered further chances, I wondered whether half-time would represent a watershed. Guisborough’s momentum could be abruptly halted by a half time interval. Darlington had the chance to regroup and to make changes. It could have been the proverbial game of two halves.

Yet the second half began almost where the first had left off. Naturally, the visitors did more of the pressing and Guisborough were more content to sit tight and to break at pace. But Darlington struggled to puncture the home defence. They pressed, they pushed and they passed with more intensity but when they finally eluded the home defence ‘keeper Ben Escritt was on hand to save smartly.

With twenty minutes remaining, a moment of brilliance from Luke Bythway almost sealed the game. As he ghosted past his marker, Bythway spotted visiting keeper Norton off his line. His effort from forty yards was creeping beneath the crossbar, but somehow Norton scrambled back to tip over the bar. No matter. Captain Lee Bythway clearly decided to put his younger brother right and from the resulting corner he rose highest to head home. Still Guisborough did not sit on their lead and in the closing stages the impressive Gell surged through on goal. Most players would have shot with just the goalkeeper to beat, but spotting Johnson’s run Gell unselfishly squared the ball to gift his fellow midfielder his second goal.

There was time for Darlington to score a late goal through a neat finish from Nicholls, but the goal came half an hour too late. It was a mere consolation and could do little to erase the dominance of the scoreline or of Guisborough’s performance.

As the shockwaves reverberated around the non-league community, there were more knee jerk reactions than in a Doctor’s surgery. But this was one game. Guisborough fully deserved the points, but two days ago Darlington had won every game. Whilst it was a sobering experience for the visiting fans, a win on Saturday against Consett will quickly erase memories of this defeat.

I don’t suppose many Darlington fans thought their campaign would be trouble-free. This acted as confirmation. But there is still every chance of the Quakers being in the mix at the end of the season. This shouldn’t do too much to shake this belief.

 For now, I’ll enjoy the win and allow my voice to recover after saying the words ‘meat draw’ at least three hundred times in the space of an hour. That – like the crowd – must be some sort of record.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Town arrest slide as Crook’s resolve is broken

FA Vase – Guisborough Town 2 – 1 Crook Town

One of the best things about competitive sport has to be that however bad it feels after a defeat – and two 6-0 reverses at home is pretty hard to swallow – another game is always around the corner and redemption only ninety minutes away. It is easy to forget that last Saturday Guisborough secured an FA Cup replay after showing tremendous battling qualities to pinch an injury time equaliser. In the aftermath of the subsequent replay drubbing, memories of the earlier draw were washed away like a child’s scrawled message in the sand, inundated by the approaching tide.
Like the tide ebbs and flows, so does confidence. When Guisborough went a goal down in today’s tie, it required them to dig deep into their reserves of self-belief. There were times where it seemed that despite their furious digging they might not claw the game back. But perseverance is so often rewarded and a last minute Austin Johnson winner was reward for a stirring second half performance.

Crook have a wonderful history, but however glorious their past it is an enduring mystery that they have not been in the top division of the Northern league for many years. They have had a number of false starts in recent years, where despite early promise their season has faded dramatically. There is a genuine feeling that this year things could be different and their eye-catching capture of forward Warren Byrne was a clear signal of intent. Byrne is a natural goalscorer and opposition defenders cannot rest until the final whistle blows. Byrne can have quiet games – and today was not his most eye-catching – but he is clinical in front of goal. Natural born goalscorers are a rarity and worth their weight in gold. Alongside Byrne was the seasoned striker Kevin Devine, hair now flecked grey and more travelled than Michael Palin. But Devine uses every ounce of his experience and was a good foil for Byrne. The half-time whistle blew with the tie scoreless, but with the visitors arguably having more goalscoring opportunities and the better of the play.

I was far from unhappy with 0-0 at half-time. An interval lead would evidently have been preferable, but it was easy to underestimate the importance of forty-five minutes without conceding. Guisborough began the second half with more attacking intent and Lewis Wood – fed regularly by Johnson and Wood in midfield – began to link up well with Bythway. As the home side looked to be taking the game by the scruff of the neck, it therefore came as a surprise and a kick in the teeth when Crook scored. Predictably, it was a moment of magic from Byrne. As he cut inside he surprised everyone by unleashing a curling left-footed shot into the bottom corner.

A weaker team’s resolve would have been broken. Gary Wood looked to rally the troops with words of encouragement, but sometimes actions speak louder than words. It was therefore appropriate that it was Wood who nodded an equaliser with twenty minutes remaining. Wood knew little about his goal, for having climbed higher than his marker to nod goalwards, he was subsequently squashed under a pile of players. The cheers of home fans and congratulations of team mates soon told Wood that he had hauled his side back into the game. Guisborough continued to press. Visiting ‘keeper Poskett made smart saves from Gary Wood and impressive substitute Nathan Evans, but as the clock ticked onwards extra-time seemed inevitable. Crook were dangerous on the break, but their moves broke down time and again through a failure to stay onside. One player – who shall remain nameless – was caught offside so many times that it may have prompted Alex Ferguson (as he did once about Philippe Inzhagi) to ask whether he was born offside.  Flags were raised more often than during the London Olympics.

In the closing stages of the game, play became stretched and so were tempers as the two teams sparred. It looked as though the battle would stretch into another thirty minutes.

Then came a moment of madness. As the ball rolled out of play, Crook left-back Davies flung the ball back to his goalkeeper. It was far from a ridiculous thing to do, but it did invite pressure. As Poskett hurried from his goal, his attention was taken by the onrushing, irrepressible Johnson who covered every blade of grass and chased every lost cause. In the microsecond that elapsed where Poskett took his eye off the ball, it rolled beneath his feet, allowing Johnson to stroll with the ball – almost apologetically – into an empty net.

For Crook and their fans it was the ultimate cruelty. To concede such a goal is galling. To concede it with just seconds remaining and with no time to put the error right is a bitter pill.

Crook look a handy side and should be in the promotion mix come the end of the season. The Guisborough side left the pitch to applause and every player appeared a foot taller than when they had gone a goal down. Deflation one week, elation the next. This is the fickle nature of football.  

Isn’t that why we love it?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Last gasp equaliser earns Priorymen a replay

Shildon 1 – 1 Guisborough
It is a curiosity of modern Britain that however many shops are being boarded up or however light people’s pockets are in the financial crisis, two types of shop appear to be thriving – tanning studios and nail bars. Newton Aycliffe is home to Tanz in ere and as I drove through Shildon to take in yesterday’s FA Cup tie with Shildon, I was faced with Browned up. By the end of the ninety minutes, an apt description for Shildon manager Gary Forrest’s mood might have been browned off. Having failed to take their chances, Shildon were punished by a fighting Guisborough side who never gave in and were rewarded with an injury time goal to force a midweek replay.

I recently attended the Northern League Managers’ talk in at Bishop Auckland. Included on the panel was Gary Forrest and I have to say that I was impressed as he spoke eloquently and honestly about management and its’ challenges. Last season had been a disappointing one for Shildon, but he was at pains to point out that for two thirds of the season he was without a full strength squad due to injury. In the final ten games of last season, Shildon’s form was vastly improved and with summer signings added to boost an already good squad, Shildon have hit the ground running.  They thumped Whitehaven 6-0,  beat Dunston (away) 3-1 and followed this with a 2-0 win against Newcastle Benfield. Naturally, they will have been brimming with confidence going into this game.

Against Spennymoor on Wednesday, on several occasions Guisborough shot themselves in the foot. After ten minutes today the Priorymen once again gifted their opposition the initiative. A ball was played back to ‘keeper Ben Escritt, but the pass was underhit and left Escritt in no-man’s land. As the ball was taken around him, Escritt clipped the striker. There was no doubting the fact that it was a penalty. Collective Guisborough hearts were in mouths as the referee reached in his pocket. It could have been red. It was yellow. The referee’s rationale must have been that a covering defender may have got back with the striker taking the ball slightly wider. Escritt remained on the field, but could do nothing about Johnston’s well struck penalty. After a 6-0 drubbing against Spennymoor, to be a goal down in an important FA Cup tie was a true test of character and for fifteen minutes Guisborough had to pull together, batten down the hatches and weather a storm. At this point, Shildon’s Chris Hughes appeared to be everywhere on the pitch. He seemed to cover every blade of grass. He would skip past tackles, try his luck from distance, feed players into space and latch on to through balls himself. He must have touched the ball twice as much as any other player. For all this, Shildon could not score another goal. With half-time approaching, Johnston went though on goal. His goalbound shot was superbly deflected by Escritt, but the ball looped onwards. It was an agonising moment where I fully expected the ball to ripple against the back of the net and for the home side to celebrate. Miraculously, the ball bounced the other side of the upright. I hardly dared to think it, never mind articulate it, but I just started to sense that maybe this was our day.

The visitors came back in to the game in the closing stages of the half and whilst clear chances on goal were few and far between, Guisborough enjoyed a spell of possession which gave their defence some much needed respite. As ever, the bullish Austin Johnson was at the forefront of whatever was done well. He harried, pressed, pushed forward and played men into space. He and opposition player Hughes were the eyecatching players and it felt that whichever man won the battle would win the war.

The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tragore once noted that age considers, youth ventures. Perhaps this was the gist of Chris Hardy’s teamtalk, along with the important instruction to keep the ball and value it when they had it and to pressure Shildon into giving it back when possession had been surrendered. Guisborough’s young side, with an average age of not much more than twenty, came more and more into the game and looked to have equalised with twenty minutes left when McPhillips rose to head goalwards. Home keeper Finch threw out a hand to pull off a miraculous one-handed save. This came in a spell of Guisborough dominance and had they scored, the visitors might have gone on to win. But minutes later, Adam Johnston appeared to have sealed the game for Shildon when he finally beat keeper Escritt in open play but saw his driven shot strike the base of the post before being cleared to safety. As Guisborough manager Chris Hardy noted afterwards, had Shildon taken their chances they could have won by a two or three goal margin. They didn’t. With their never-say-die attitude, Guisborough threw all but the kitchen sink forward. A ball was whipped in by Blackford from the right and as Austin Johnson leapt to head goalwards, a home defender only succeeded in diverting the ball past his own goalkeeper.

It is a long time since I have been so pleased with a draw. A midweek replay now beckons and despite Shildon vastly outnumbering Guisborough in terms of efforts on goal, even one or two home fans admired Guisborough’s fighting spirit. “I couldn’t begrudge you that goal” said one. “Your lads never gave in. There’s a lot to admire in that”.

I wasn’t about to disagree. Wednesday’s replay will be just as tough, but who knows what will happen? That is the beauty of the FA Cup.  On this same day in 1768, Captain James Cook began his first voyage. Both sides will be hoping that their journey continues beyond Wednesday and that their respective ship does not suddenly and abruptly come in to land.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Spennymoor ease to an East Cleveland win

Guisborough Town 0 – 6 Spennymoor

In a Guisborough line up that featured two Woods – Gary and Lewis – Spennymoor can perhaps lay claim to a Wood of greater fame in Anne Wood. Whilst the name may not immediately ring any bells, we’ve all heard of the Teletubbies and anyone who is a parent of very young children will have heard of In the night garden. Spennymoor born Wood was the creative mind behind both international hits. Whilst it is claimed that Ridley Scott found inspiration in the Billingham skyline for his Bladerunner movie, we can only speculate over what Anne Wood found in Spennymoor to inspire her Teletubby creations.
After one minute of tonight’s match, it was Guisborough suppporters – not the Tellytubbies – that were emitting sounds of Ey oh as the visitors virtually walked the ball into the net from close range. It must have left Guisborough manager Chris Hardy clenching his fists in frustration as Anthony Peacock was given all the time in the world to stroke the ball home. You can ill afford to give a side of Spennymoor’s calibre a goal start. Last season the Priorymen were the only side in the division to take four points off Spennymoor. Yes, you did read that correctly. We were officially Spennymoor’s bogey side, a fact that was met with great hilarity from my three year old son as I readied myself to head to the match. In each of last year’s encounters Guisborough pressed the ball and tracked back wonderfully to limit Spennymoor’s chances on goal.  In turn, as Moors pressed forward themselves Guisborough, with several speedy players, were able to run from deep and exploit the gaps that developed over the course of ninety minutes. Perhaps this was intended to be Chris Hardy’s tactic tonight, but it was cut to shreds after barely a minute and totally changed the dynamic of the game before it had ever really begun.

Spennymoor are a class act. They move the ball around brilliantly and are totally committed to playing proper football. Lots of teams try to play football, but often cannot build up the pace and momentum required to open up sides. In Anthony Peacock, Spennymoor have a player that is perfectly suited to his side being a goal up. He was lethal on the break and at his wriggling, tricky best. With such a low centre of gravity, Peacock is able turn on a sixpence and switch play in an instant. This was the best I had seen him play tonight and it was easy to see why he had graced the professional game and difficult to understand why he is not still playing at a higher level.
Of course, Spennymoor have so many standout players and if some are below par, they have the wonderful luxury of bringing another one off the bench. Having had such a terrible start to the game, Guisborough did well to hold the score to 1-0 at half-time and there was a hope that perhaps with a more forceful second half showing they could pinch something from the game. These hopes were dashed immediately when substitute Cogden saw his speculative effort go low into the corner.

With Guisborough pressing forward and Spennymoor hungry for further goals, the Guisborough defence began to look more exposed than Prince Harry on a Las Vegas jaunt. Guisborough never expected to win, but the quantity of second half goals was a touch disappointing. The excellent Mark Davison bagged a second half hat-trick and I can foresee him scoring a lot of goals this term if he is given this level of service. In truth, with Spennymoor if you snuff out one threat another seems to pop up. It rather reminded me of playing Whack a mole.
If you had told me after three games that we would have won two of them and lost to Spennymoor, I would have taken that. Tomorrow sees us travel to Shildon – a side in red hot form. Victory will be difficult, but this is the FA Cup so let’s hope for a little magic. As for Spennymoor, well – they remain the side to beat.  As a final point it is perhaps worth noting that as well as the Teletubbies, Anne Wood also produced a programme called The blips. Guisborough fans will hope that this was all this was tonight after an otherwise encouraging start to the season.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Golden moments given a first class celebration

Golden moments given a first class celebration

The sight of somebody doing a spot of Sunday morning painting is hardly unusual in the British Isles and the average person would barely register a glance as they pass a fence being creosoted or a wall being given a second coat. Never before though have I been driving around my local estate to see a postbox being painted and certainly not painted gold. Yet that was the sight that met me this morning as bound for the local park we saw the early morning sun gleaming off the colour gold and not the usual Royal Mail Red. Yesterday Kat Copeland (of Ingleby Barwick, Stockton) and Sophie Hosking (of Wimbledon) paired up in the double sculls at Eton Dorney and clinched Olympic Gold. The look of astonishment and sheer unadulterated joy on the face of 21 year old Copeland epitomised everything that is great about the Olympic Games. I’m not someone who will claim that they know Kat Copeland, or that I’ve seen her walking her dog or glimpsed her powering down the Tees in early morning practice. I won’t even pretend that before the Olympics I was really fully aware of her, despite the fact that she lives but a stone’s throw away. Yet the early morning practice, attention to detail, technique and scrupulous attention to diet and nutrition will of course have gone on. Kat Copeland will have geared all of her attention towards the Olympic Games for four years, aware that the dream of an Olympic medal could be realised, but equally aware that the dream could be shattered in the mere blink of an eye. Of course, all that we see is the outcome of all of the practice and never the Winter Dawn starts when the rain lashes down and the wind chills to the bone.

On the topic of paint, whilst not wishing to draw too close a comparison between an Olympic Gold Medal winner and a non-league football ground (as the two are not quite measurable on the same scale), the transformation of Guisborough Town’s football ground when I arrived there yesterday was marked and testimony to the countless hours people spend toiling – often in the dark and gloom at the end of a day, or even in occasional sunshine – all for the club they support. It didn’t even require entry into the ground to see a difference, as a new plush welcome sign adorned the front of the ground above the turnstiles. The pitch – which seems to get better every season – had been worked on tirelessly by our groundstaff and a new wall had been built on the far side of the ground, upon which were new sponsor boards. Paths were free of weeds and aside from the electrical storm which crackled across the ground in the second half, being in attendance was a genuine pleasure.

Guisborough will not be unique. At Marske United they have been beavering away to build a new stand and at other clubs wonderful servants will have been working countless hours to do their bit for their clubs.

All of the close season football talk is dominated with who will win the league, who patently won’t, who will be struggling at the foot of the table and which team is splashing the cash to mount a challenge. But for me, these are side issues. Of course we want our teams to do well, but surely our involvement is more than just that? We’re involved because we are part of a community. This is the very reason why Darlington fans become (perhaps understandably) prickly when their club’s predicament is joked about. It is the reason why people do spend countless hours doing what they can for something they genuinely care about and frequently with hardly any recognition.

The sense of community is also why I will feel proud every time I post a letter at my local post box; proud that Kat Copeland’s hard work and focus has been rewarded. What a first class idea by the Royal Mail to leave a lasting legacy of these games in the communities that helped to shape these athletes.

Whoever you support, I hope the season is kind to you. Above all though (and however cheesy this sounds), let’s all remember that our involvement and love of sport must surely transcend the results on the field, even in the dark moments when travelling back from West Auckland or Spennymoor in midwinter having been given a drubbing.  In the spine-tingling moment when Jessica Ennis won her gold medal, what struck me most was that the other athletes joined her in her lap of honour and were forthcoming in their praise and congratulations. I reckon football can learn a lot from this. I certainly know that I can.

For now, I’m looking for a good excuse to send somebody a letter.  

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Grounds for optimism for Quakers amongst Friends?

As Manchester City scored their dramatic, last gasp winner to conjure a remarkable victory from the jaws of defeat to steal the league title from under their biggest rivals noses, the cameras panned in on the contrasting emotions of United and City supporters. For City fans, forty four years of bottled up frustration were uncorked. United fans looked as though the errant cork had struck them in the midriff and collectively winded them. Heads shook from side to side and grown men cried. The old adage that there is always somebody worse off than yourself is perhaps true, but not necessarily a statement likely to offer comfort. Yet it is true. Manchester United had finished second and gone through the season trophy-less. A hundred or so miles away Darlington had gone into administration for a third time. League football had already disappeared from the town two years previously;  they were relegated from the conference and would not be playing at the vacuous Northern Echo. They were soon to find out that Northern League football would host their 2012/2013 activities. This represented a decline as sharp as Anne Robinson’s tongue. Under new management, there is always grounds for optimism. A fresh start, back to basics- you can use whatever rhetoric you want.

One thing is clear. Darlington FC, Darlington 1883, Quakers United – whatever they will be called – will have to arrest this alarming slide immediately. As things currently stand, Northern League football could represent an opportunity. In the weeks leading up to the season, curiosity and interest in the club’s activities will be heightened. Stay away fans may decide that a trip around Northern League grounds – especially at prices no more than £8 – represents an attractive proposition. So long as they are winning. The last sentence is the crux of the matter. If Darlington can get off to a winning start, interest and enthusiasm will be retained. It is not my intention for this to be a pointed comment, but more a statement of fact when I say that the winning bug is not something Darlington fans have recently been at risk of catching. But apathy and disinterest can soon evaporate when a side is winning. When you watch a winning team, each victory puts an extra spring in your step as you leave the ground and there is an odd, self-satisfied feeling at seeing your side perched at the top of a league table with every other name beneath you.

One irony is that had Darlington been placed in the Evostik League (as was their wish), they might have found life no more difficult than they are likely to in the Northern League. I would certainly make this argument for the Evostik First Division, where many Northern League teams would more than hold their own.  The Northern League, however, presents an awkward proposition. Where will Darlington source their players from? The best Northern League sides have their players tied to contracts and Darlington would have to find funds to release them. Darlington could bring in players from higher levels, but would they be motivated and up for midweek trips to tightly packed Northern League grounds in November when a sodden pitch where the ball refuses to run true is a great leveller? The third problem that Darlington have is the timescale they are operating in. Once their personnel is established, they have a small window of time for their side to gel and to build in the awareness and understanding between players that only comes from time in a competitive game environment.

Darlington should finish somewhere near to the top of the division, but how they start will mean everything. They need the revenue and they need to move upwards from the Northern League as quickly as possible. In the same way as Manchester United fans can no longer be sure of winning a trophy each year, Darlington cannot take promotion for granted. They are entering unknown seas, where competing vessels will always raise their game a notch or two when they play them. It promises to be exciting, unpredictable and high on drama. As a side so used to being in more hot water than a pot noodle, Darlington should perhaps feel well and truly at home.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Two blues, but not too blue in defeat.

Bishop Auckland 2 – 0 Guisborough Town

Bishop Auckland’s roots stem from a group of Theology students from Cambridge and Oxford University who were studying at nearby Auckland Castle in the 1880s and decided to set up a football team. Bishops’ Oxbridge connections may be a thing of the past, as is their old Kingsway Ground, but there is no doubting that (keeping to the University analogy) their new facilities are very much first class. They have a smart new stand which is like a larger version of Penrith’s new home. At the back of the main stand is the bar and function rooms and to satisfy the hardcore home support that insist upon standing behind the goal, a smart covered area at one end.

Degrees might occupy university students’ minds, but degrees of a different sort were present in the minds of many present at today’s game; it was distinctly chilly and with a strong wind blowing the length of the pitch, very much winter coats weather. I can hardly believe that the season is at an end. Perhaps one reason for this is the weather. This time last year, Guisborough were celebrating promotion in the bars of Penrith on route back from Gillford Park. There were lots of sore heads the next day through a combination of twelve hours of sun and the liquid refreshment that accompanied it. Today a brandy would have been more in order. It was so cold that I had my coffee on a stick.

Bishops have enjoyed a solid season. Their strides in recent seasons have been steady ones, with gradual improvement year on year. This was the third time I have seen them play this season and over the three games, two players have stood out. They have a man in goal in Peter Jeffries who pulls off at least one world class save per game and a centre forward in Andrew Johnson who scores almost every time he walks onto the pitch. As the game involves scoring goals when possible and working hard to prevent the opposition from achieving the same objective, these two players are rather handy and men to build a team around.

Guisborough play attractive football. I’m biased – of that there is little doubt – but their philosophy of playing the ball out from the back and finding feet has attracted several favourable comments from opposition teams this season. Today was no different. For a fifteen minute spell in the first half, the visitors carved out four good chances which could easily have seen them go into the interval a goal to the good as opposed to one behind. The impressive Joel Guy burst forward beyond the defence and lobbed Jeffreys, only to see his effort beat the goalkeeper but land on the roof of the net. Moments later, a terrific ball was whipped in from the by-line for McPhillips to thunder his header towards goal. I was behind the goal and celebrated. My celebrations were premature though, as from nowhere Jeffreys pulled off a tremendous reaction save to preserve his side’s slender lead. The ball was turned around the post and Guisborough were left to reflect that this was also perhaps the moment that Jeffreys turned the game in his side’s favour. Shorn of forward Luke Bythway (suspended), Guisborough’s main attacking threat came from runs from deep. A goal would have buoyed them going into half time and perhaps instilled them with the necessary self confidence to secure something from the game.

As it was, the second half started in a fashion that Guisborough could ill afford. A mistimed tackle inside the box resulted in a penalty for Bishops. The penalty looked a stone-waller and the referee was left with an easy decision. If the penalty was certain, I felt equally certain about the likely outcome as Andy Johnson stepped up to take it. He made no mistake. Now two goals down away from home, the wind continued to whip across the ground but it was partly taken out of Guisborough’s sails. Bishops began to exert themselves and as the visitors pushed harder to get themselves back into the game, the home side looked an increasing threat and just as likely to score again.

Three Guisborough players stood out today, but nobody had a poor game. Lee Bythway – as commanding as ever – marshalled his side from centre half, whilst just in front of him James Decosemo pulled the central midfield strings. He has quick feet and a good touch, but perhaps most impressively he glides across the surface of the pitch almost effortlessly as he surges forward. The third player was Michael Roberts, in what looks like being his last game for the club. Still only in his early twenties, Roberts has become something of a fans’ favourite with his jinking runs down the right. As they say in the trade, he puts in a good shift too and always tracks back to support his full-back. Roberts has signed for Australian side Swan United, based in Perth. I can only assume that his motives are purely football-based. Given the virtually sub-tropical climate in Bishop Auckland today, he surely can’t be going to Australia for the weather.

Bishops were extremely hospitable and it was impossible not to admire their set-up. After many previous years in the Northern Premier League, they certainly now have the facilities to climb back up the pyramid. If they can add players of the calibre of Jeffreys and Johnson to their squad, they well return there by rights. For Guisborough, their motto at the start of the season was “it’s good to be back” after a five year absence from the league’s top tier. It still feels good. The end of this season has passed without the hysteria or heights of the previous seasons. But our objective of First Division survival has been comfortably achieved. Let’s see how we build from here and what personnel we bring in over the summer. After all, it’s less than a hundred days until our first pre-season friendly.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Galbraith's goal seals a slender win

Guisborough Town 0 - 1 Dunston

Perhaps a true mark of fame is when you can refer to yourself by just one name and still be almost universally known. In the world of music we have Adele, Beyonce, Cher, Sting, Bono and Enya. In showbiz we have Oprah. In football, we have Gazza. Ten years on from Paul Gascoigne’s powers in the game had faded away, he is still remembered as a great English talent. His high points – FA Cup semi-final free-kicks and world cup man of the match performances – were also sprinkled with plenty of lows. The boy from Dunston made Wembley his second home. We can only wonder whether his thoughts will be with his home town club when Dunston themselves grace Wembley on the 13th May against their fellow Northern League rivals West Auckland. The final is unpredictable. So is Gazza. I wouldn’t even back against him turning up.

FA Vase fever is sweeping Dunston. But before Dunston can even think of Wembley, the league campaign has not finished and they were looking to add a League title to a memorable season. These hopes were becoming slimmer by the game, but the Tynesiders had to win this evening to maintain their challenge. By the time Dunston play Spennymoor on Monday 30th April, they will have played twelve times in a month. These are men who no doubt have jobs as plumbers, teachers, builders and lorry drivers and rush from one shift to another game and back to another shift again. There is nothing like winning though to ease the stiffness in your legs and to drive you on to make the last gasp tackle that a losing side never seem to reach.

The game tonight was not especially memorable. It won’t go down as a classic, despite spells where some good football was played. Whether Dunston remember it as a stepping stone on the pathway to a memorable league title remains to be seen. This was also a game of few chances, with Dunston’s winner coming on the half hour mark as the impressive Galbraith – a rangy player who looked to get forward from his left full-back position at every opportunity – lashed the ball home from close range. Aside from this, chances were few and far between. As the game wore on, the home side’s passing game began to stretch Dunston, but the two near misses for Guisborough were where players could not quite get on the end of good balls into the box. If Dunston’s Bulford could have been coerced into swapping the blue of Dunston for the red of Guisborough at half-time, a goal may have been conjured.

They say that the building blocks of a good side is the spine of the team. Dunston’s spine is titanium strength; two strong centre halves and a prolific centre forward in Bulford. Nicknamed ‘Bully’, he had a quiet night but was always full of running. When a chance did duly arrive, Bully turned in the box to meet a well directed flick on but saw his shot narrowly miss the target.

When Dunston do step out at Wembley, I’m sure that every player will feel a shiver reverberate down their spines as they soak in a Northern league atmosphere at the home of football. This is what boyhood dreams are made of. Walking across the hallowed turf can be second only to the elation of ascending the 107 steps to hold aloft the trophy. Of course, the day is not just for the players. The day is just as much for the marvellous people who beaver away behind the scenes to prepare the club for every game and to keep things ticking over on a daily basis. From what I saw tonight, Dunston have these people in abundance. It was a genuine pleasure to speak to them as I walked around the ground. They were good humoured, friendly and generous in their praise of the passing football that Guisborough always look to play. How I wish that this passing game could grace Wembley. Like millions of others, tonight’s dreams may be of just that.

The curtain is almost down now on a pleasing season back in the First Division for Guisborough Football Club. Saturday sees us travel to Bishop Auckland, a club steeped in history. Bishop Auckland know all about Wembley. They won the FA Amateur Cup 10 times. The old is fused with the new now that they occupy their new stadium – Heritage Park – on the edge of the town. Their new ground happens to hold Manchester United’s former floodlights. It’s a shame that we’re not there for a midweek fixture. It would have been the final bright spot in a season with plenty of highlights.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Visitors and April showers dampen Guisborough’s spirits.

Guisborough Town 0 – 2 Billingham Town Formed in 1967, Billingham Town Football Club’s rather regal looking club badge has the single word ‘ FAITH’ – at its base. Had they chosen a Latin phrase it might have read Numquam Reside! – translated as ‘never give in!’ It seems that despite their various trials and tribulations over the last eighteen months, the last thing Billingham Town appear likely to do is roll over and accept defeat. They certainly relish a local derby. Despite only recently securing enough points to ensure First Division survival, they are top of the Teesside table in terms of the points they have gained from clashes with their local rivals. In the ten local clashes they have played, Billingham Town have picked up 23 points. For a side that sits in the bottom third of the table, this is astonishing. Had they carried this record of 2.3 points per game across a forty two match season, Billingham Town would in all likelihood have been crowned Northern League champions. Of course, the fact that Spennymoor, West Auckland, Whitley Bay and Dunston are not in Teesside might somewhat weaken my argument. But Billingham Town’s record is still undeniably impressive. When we think of Battlefields, we so often think of mud and men sliding around. Twelve months ago the pitches were baked hard and the ball was more likely to bounce fifteen feet in the air than skip off a skiddy surface. But tonight the rain lashed down on the King George V ground and conditions were more akin to a late October evening, with players losing their footing and passes being overhit or underplayed. Shorn of Luke Bythway (suspended) and Austin Johnson (unavailable), it was always going to be difficult for the home side. In recent weeks Bythway has excelled in his role as lone striker. With good close control and awareness, he has dragged defenders out of position and his link up play has been particularly impressive. With no Austin Johnson, the bite that is required in a local derby in muddy conditions was somewhat lacking and it has to be said that Billingham Town appeared to have more attacking guile in the final third. The evergreen Michael Dunwell shot them into a first half lead with a sharp turn on the edge of the box and the impressive James Cronesbury doubled the visitors’ advantage on the stroke of half-time. The second goal deserves proper description, rather than merely a passing mention. Cronesbury received the ball on the edge of the box and turned inside on to his favoured left foot. There were plenty of options on – a ball across the six yard box for onrushing forwards or a driven shot across a skiddy surface, perhaps. Cronesbury chose neither option and in a moment of skill that perhaps underlined why Middlesbrough thought highly of him as a youngster, he dinked the ball perfectly over ‘keeper Dixon’s head and into the top corner. It was difficult to deny that Billingham Town deserved their second goal. Home fans still felt hopeful that there would be a second half revival and it was certainly the case that the Guisborough enjoyed the lion’s share of possession in the second period. But just as the Priorymen got into promising positions, their moves broke down more often than Michael Owen. It was an evening of frustration and there was a feeling that had Guisborough scored one goal, another may have followed. Unfortunately, the London bus theory never materialised. Twelve months ago, Newton Aycliffe, Guisborough and Marske were all (in that order) promoted. They have all survived (in that order) in the First Division. It seems that three Premier League sides (Swansea, Norwich and QPR) may follow suit and maintain their Premier League survival. Life may be tough at the top, but not impossible. In one week (barring further Monsoons), the Northern league season will be over for Guisborough. They have the small matter of entertaining FA Vase finalists Dunston, before a last-day trip to Bishop Auckland. Playing against sides of this calibre is what makes being in the top division of the Northern league so special. I can hardly believe that the season is almost at an end. It appears to have quickened at every step, like a mazy Gareth Bale run. Time flies, they say, when you’re having fun. Or to borrow another Latin phrase – Tempus Fugit.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Superstitions and a super Derby day win

Marske United 1 – 3 Guisborough Town

“We should win this today” said a fellow Guisborough fan as we walked through the turnstiles and into Marske’s GER stadium at 10.55. “I hope so - Touch wood” I replied. In the absence of any wood, I found myself patting my head. In hindsight, as I was holding a Marske programme, this may well have counted too, given the thickness of Moss Holtby’s excellent weekly offering.

Superstitions are a funny thing. Touching wood might well be one of the most common, but some people in football take their superstitions to the extreme. Bobby Moore would insist on being the last player in the dressing room to put on his shorts and during pre-match warm ups Gary Lineker would not shoot at goal for fear of using up all of his good shots. Neither of these two players’ antics quite compares to the former Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea, though. Prior to a penalty shootout, Goyochea would urinate on the pitch. Now I’ve heard of superstitions, but that one really is called taking the...

Both Marske and their visitors entered the game in a position of safety and with First Division football secured for next season. But derby days – regardless of a team’s league standing – put an extra spring in players’ steps, bolster the crowd and add additional decibels to the noise emanating from the terraces.

After just a few minutes today, there was only one set of supporters celebrating. As Liam O’Sullivan speared his long throw towards the Marske penalty area, the ball broke kindly for Jamie Poole who prodded the ball past home keeper Willey. Buoyed by his goal, Poole looked energetic and dangerous each time he received the ball. Before the half hour was up, he had doubled his own tally and given Guisborough a cushion as he sidestepped his marker before placing the ball coolly into the corner. Jamie Poole has been an excellent acquisition. In many ways, he is a victim of his own success. Being a utility player, Poole can occupy the left flank, sit in a holding role and even play up front. For me, he is at his most impressive when afforded the opportunity to break from midfield. Gary Wood’s inclusion in midfield enabled Poole to break more freely and at 2-0, Marske had an uphill task.

There is something strange that seems to happen to sides when they go two goals down. They are often more obviously galvanised than when only a solitary goal behind. Perhaps implicitly they feel they have license to throw men forward and caution to the wind. Newton Aycliffe provided a comeback masterclass on Saturday and this thought lingered in my mind as Marske sought a goal to keep them in the game. They almost got one straight away as the impressive McGill squirmed his way past Roddam but saw his effort from an acute angle strike the upright. When a Marske goal did arrive, it did so in slightly unusual circumstances. Craig Skelton hit a low free-kick which deflected off the Guisborough wall, hit the post and ran along the goal-line before nestling in the corner.

On Saturday, Newton Aycliffe had gone in a the break 2-1 down and arrived in the second half galvanised from their team talk. When they equalised they carried their momentum forward to go on and win the game. Marske’s intentions were no doubt very similar, but they shot themselves in the foot when they were caught napping in the early stages of the second period as Guisborough took a quick free-kick to catch everyone out and restore the visitors’ two goal advantage. Whilst I was still touching wood superstitiously, Marske were left to curse the woodwork as substitute Owen Dixon rattled the crossbar from distance. Stand-in keeper Gill was called upon to make two saves – one a superb effort low down – to maintain Guisborough’s advantage. But had another goal been scored, it was just as likely that it would have gone Guisborough’s way. The pace and trickery of Stewart and Roberts on the flanks pinned the Marske fullbacks in their own half and several times excellent balls were played across the box that were not quite converted. Had Guisborough’s injured forward Chris I’Anson been watching, he would have salivated at the prospect of being on the end of some excellent deliveries.

This was a good game of football played on an impressive Marske surface. In all of the years I have been to Marske’s GER stadium, there is no doubt that the pitch this year looked at its finest. For the home side, Skelton and McGill stood out. McGill is a pacy, tricky player with good close control and a clear eye for goal. When he moved inside from his wide right position he was at his most threatening and at times he appeared isolated and wasted in a peripheral role on the right when he could have fed off the flick-ons from central positions.

Guisborough had the edge over their local rivals because of their extra energy, pace and vigour throughout the side. An away win at Marske has been a long time coming.
Marske had gone to a great effort to make the day a success; an Easter egg hunt for children, a half-time penalty shoot-out between the two sides’ Junior sections and a bouncy castle behind one goal. Whilst some of the home supporters left the ground feeling a touch deflated, this was impressive stuff. Even more so when you consider that Under 16s were admitted for free. I’ll look forward to visiting the GER stadium again next season when both sides will be looking to build on a solid campaign.

Driving home from a game is always more pleasant with a win under your belt. I’m thankful that on our journey home we didn’t encounter Neil Warnock. Apparently, when his side have won a game he stops at every traffic light on his way home, even if the lights are on green. Warnock has endured a pretty miserable start to his reign as Leeds manager. At least residents of the city can console themselves that the roads are safer as a consequence. At least, I hope they are. Touch wood.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Guisborough scorched by red hot Byrne

Newton Aycliffe 4 - 2 Guisborough Town

Had the full-time whistle blown after thirty minutes, Guisborough fans would have gone home happy. Two goals to the good and tormenting their disjointed opposition, visiting fans quite rightly thought that their team would go on to win the game. Newton Aycliffe came into this game on the back of a poor run of results and in their early play they looked sapped of confidence and vulnerable to diagonal balls over the top for Stewart and Roberts to run onto. The home side struggled to cope with Luke Bythway’s close control and Guisborough’s midfield looked compact and creative.

If only this pattern of play had been maintained. The notion of a game of two halves is perhaps football’s biggest cliché, but never has it rung more true than here. A big factor in Ayclliffe’s second half showing was Warren Byrne. As I read the (excellent) programme notes prior to the game, I was unsure as to which statistic to be most startled by - the fact that Byrne netted 45 times last season, or that he had failed to score at all since his return to Aycliffe in November. Had Warren Byrne really lost his touch? It seemed unlikely. Most goalscorers feed on confidence. Byrne’s confidence must have been limbo-dancer low, but flooded back in waves once he had reduced the arrears prior to half time as he finished with aplomb.

Quite what Aycliffe manager Alan Oliver said at half time is unlikely to be revealed. It is fairly easy to guess, though. Guisborough had been afforded too much time on the ball and too much space in midfield. Oliver’s solution was to pack the midfield and effectively narrow the game. Aycliffe emerged from their dressing room after what seemed like an eternity, but Oliver’s words clearly hit the mark. Aycliffe looked hungrier, more purposeful and the gaps which had opened up for Guisborough in the first half were emphatically closed off.

Perhaps it was a figment of my imagination, but after his first half strike Warren Byrne looked like a man relieved of a burden. He appeared a yard quicker and likely to add to his goal. When Dixon hauled down an Aycliffe forward for a penalty, Byrne still appeared a touch tentative as he stepped forward to take the spot kick. It was well saved low to his left by Dixon, but the ball came straight back to Byrne who tucked away his second attempt. Byrne’s smile was one of relief, but also one of suggestion that he knew that today was his day. Having broken his duck, he was going to make the most of it. The penalty was the turning point in the game. Had Byrne not finished the follow up, the outcome could well have been different.

By this point, Aycliffe’s self belief returned and they seized the initiative. Byrne duly completed his hat-trick as he slammed the ball home from the edge of the area and Mellanby then completed the scoring as he arrived off the bench and within minutes turned, swivelled and finished in customary fashion. You had to admire Aycliffe for their fightback and it was difficult to deny that they deserved their victory. Games between Guisborough and Aycliffe are always hard battles that are difficult to call and there was no end-of-season feel about this one.

Having been promoted last season from Division 2, both sides have achieved their main objectives of remaining in the First Division. Aycliffe are a well run club and it was a pleasure to see just how much off-field progress they have made in the last two years. They have two smart new stands that have added character to the ground and a superb tea hut, which offers a fantastic range of delicious hot foods but poses a serious risk to the metabolically challenged. In addition, their programme is more than just a labour of love and is supreme value at just a pound.

The American historian Paul Fussell once said that he found ‘nothing more depressing than optimism’. After twenty minutes I had every reason to feel optimistic. But over the course of the game this slowly receded, like Wayne Rooney’s hairline. But like Rooney’s hairline, my sense of optimism will return as I head to Marske tomorrow for our derby match. I don’t agree with Fussell; optimism is what keeps us football fans going. Without it, we’d all just pack in and support Man Utd.

We’ve had a very good season at Guisborough. The squad has evolved and strengthened as the year has progressed and Chris Hardy is doing a terrific job. A derby win at Marske would be the icing on the cake.

Oh, and you can add a cherry to that too.