Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sunderland R. C. Ace

Guisborough Town 0 – 7 Sunderland RCA

They say that it’s not over until the fat lady sings. In which case, she was heard belting out a resounding tune after just fifteen minutes of today’s game when the visitors – fast up front and quick out of the blocks – had taken a two goal lead and the game by the scruff of the neck.

When you’re top of the league and feeling the warmth of competing sides’ breath on your neck, every game is a big one. What RCA don’t lack is intent; they are quick to move the ball, quick to break and soon feel the wrath of their management team when sloppy passes go astray or when chances go begging.

The fact that the visitors were four goals up by the interval had much to do with giant forward Andy Jennings. There is a natural presumption when a beanpole striker lines up in attack that every ball must be thumped in an airbourne fashion towards the giant target. Jennings is good in the air – of that there is little doubt. But this ignores the fact that for a big player he is remarkably adept at intricate touches and fleet-footed movements which cause just as many problems. This was not lost on RCA. Having gone two goals up, Jennings effectively sealed the game mid-way through the first half when he raced onto a long ball having lost his marker. Despite being well in advance of the Guisborough defence, there was still an awful lot for Jennings to do. His mind was made up; as the ball arrived in front of him he lashed an unstoppable left-footed drive into the roof of the net from twenty yards to send the visiting bench into raptures.

Seven days ago Guisborough had played a perfect hand against Spennymoor. A couple of early Spennymoor chances had been well defended and as time wore on, the hosts were forced into mistakes. Opportunities then opened up for Guisborough. The 1-1 draw last week, given the quality of the opposition, was a tremendous effort and one of the best team performances I have seen in years. So why was today so different? The composition of Guisborough‘s side was broadly the same and there was certainly no denying that the effort and intent was there. But the two early goals put Guisborough in a very tough predicament. No pattern had been established in play and already they were two goals down. A Guisborough goal was needed to wrestle back some initiative and momentum, but perhaps Chris Hardy’s men were guilty of pushing too hard, too soon. By half-time, a 4-0 scoreline no doubt prompted talk of damage limitation.

The second half was an oddity. Much of the play was conducted in the visitors’ half. In part, this was due to RCA being able to sit on their lead and try to preserve their clean sheet. It was also due to a far more incisive Guisborough display. Yet despite their superior second half possession, there was not the same cut and thrust of RCA’s front men. When the visitors surged into Guisborough’s half they looked as though they could create chances at will.

It is tough when your side loses by such a heavy margin. It is even tougher when it happens twice in ten days. But this year is a learning curve for Chris Hardy’s men. There have been several highs this season and preservation of first division status is and always was the first priority, to then build further in the second season.

Yet even in defeat, Northern League football can conjure some great moments. As the result became a certainty, I found my attention turning to the mercurial brilliance of RCA’s coach, George Herd. Now in his mid-seventies, Herd leapt around on the far touchline with the energy and effervescence of a nuclear fission. His distinctive, Lanarkshire tones could be heard above all other noise. Herd epitomises all that is good about football. Despite having been a Scottish international and playing more than two hundred games for Sunderland as a goal scoring midfielder, Herd’s enthusiasm remains undimmed. I was fascinated to establish his secret. As I strolled past him, I sensed a possible answer as by his feet was a can of energy drink. At one point in the second half, the play fell eerily silent. It became apparent that Herd had stopped barking orders. Instead, the energy drink was being poured down his
throat as he rapidly refuelled. As if instantly revived, Herd then fired further instructions at his side. You would think that at 7-0 even his thirst (for success, as well as for the caffeine laden drink) would be quelled. Alas, no. As a pass went astray Herd threw his energy drink to the floor in frustration and leapt in the air, as though a Hornet’s nest had worked its way up his trouser leg.

Herd’s mentality, as well as that of manager Hixon and his assistants, has clearly spread to the whole side. They were incredibly well drilled, but also constantly looking to improve further. They have now thumped 88 league goals this season, more than half of which have been away from home. They are top of the Northern League tree at the time of writing and should anyone else displace them they will deserve to win the league. Jennings’ strike partner Davison bagged a hat-trick to go with Jennings’ brace. They have now beaten Whitley Bay, Dunston and Guisborough in a week. If nothing else, at least we are keeping illustrious company.

By the end of the game, the Fat Lady’s throat must have been pretty sore. George Herd’s must have been sorer. They say that Red Bull gives you wings. I’ll say that RCA are flying.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Terrific Town share the spoils

Spennymoor Town 1 - 1 Guisborough Town

On paper, Spennymoor should beat most (if not all teams) at this level. Of course, football is played on grass, not paper. But the other place it is most definitely played is in the mind. Both teams came into this game on the back of two contrasting mid-week experiences. Buoyed by their deserved derby win against Bishop Auckland, Spennymoor will have fully expected to have beaten a Guisborough side that had the chastening experience of a 7-0 home drubbing against West Auckland. In many ways, the midweek results may have had a lot to do with today’s game ending in a draw. Guisborough needed to bounce back after Wednesday’s bump in the road. Such a comprehensive scoreline is eyecatching, but beneath the surface lay a series of sub-plots. Guisborough had matched West over the first forty minutes, before two dismissals saw a nine man Guisborough side succumb to the attacking flair of their high flying visitors. I was not at the Guisborough game on Wednesday. In fact, I was at Spennymoor watching them host their local rivals Bishop Auckland. An electric atmosphere was not matched by the first-half football, which felt disjointed and scrappy. The second half was a different proposition and Spennymoor fully merited their win as they carved out numerous openings in the second period.

Naturally, Spennymoor fans will have thought that whatever West can do, we can do better having digested the news of Guisborough’s thrashing. But this defeat had been an anomaly within recent months; prior to Wednesday’s game, Guisborough were second in the form table. The midweek scores only served to heighten Spennymoor’s expectations and lower those of any travelling Guisborough fans.

The first half began evenly, but it was Spennymoor who did the early pressing. Against Bishop Auckland, Moors’ midfielder Keith Graydon had stood out. In appearance he is a blend of Paul Scholes and Gary McAllister; in his movements and general play this forging of footballers is not a bad comparison either. The ball would arrive at Graydon’s feet and he would dink it over the full back for wingers to run on to, play it into forward Sonny Andrews’ feet or would merely drop the ball off into former Middlesbrough midfielder Anthony Peacock’s path for him to make darting runs. Whilst the play was attractive and easy on the eye, it lacked punch. Twice these neat interchanges nearly conjured a goal. Richardson raced clear and had his shot blocked, before Andrews shrugged off a defensive challenge only to see his goal-bound effort brilliantly tipped around the post. Aside from this, Spennymoor found the visitors difficult to break down. Another feature of their midweek play had been the marauding runs of full back Jamie Harwood. Blessed with a good engine and no little skill, Harwood overlapped on several occasions against Bishop Auckland and was a constant threat. Today, a feature of Guisborough’s play was their willingness to defend from the front. Blackford on the left and Roberts on the right offered superb protection to their fullbacks as they closed down, harried and restricted Harwood in particular to his own half.

To go in level at half-time would have been a terrific effort by Guisborough, so to lead at the interval was beyond all expectations. From their first attacking move of note, the ball broke to Jamie Poole thirty yards out. His first touch took the ball away from him, but as the home defence backed off, Poole thundered a left-footed thunderbolt against the underside of
the bar and into the net.

It was fully expected that Spennymoor would regroup and rethink at half-time. Yet the first ten minutes of the second half saw the visitors have their best spell. Had it not been for a brilliant one-handed save from home keeper Robert Dean, Guisborough’s lead would have been extended as Wood shot from distance.

As the hour mark passed, some initial disgruntlement from Spennymoor fans turned to genuine irritation. This was mirrored in the home players; passes went astray, moves broke down and players tried things that were never likely to come off. All footballer supporters are in part guilty of only seeing the game through the eyes of their own team, but it is particularly the case when they support a side so talented and used to winning. It is easy for us all to fall into the trap of recognising our own team’s faults and shortcomings. ‘Why are we not beating this
lot?’ becomes the mindset. ‘We must be playing poorly’ is inevitably the response. But teams can often only play as well as they are allowed to play. An international batsmen who is starved of hittable deliveries to score from often then resorts to rash, illogical shots that precipitate his downfall. When the dismissal occurs, it looks horrible and blame falls on the batsman. This ignores the hard work done in the balls and overs beforehand as the player is gradually ground down and coerced into making an error. So it was with Spennymoor’s players. They were pressed, harried and closed down and despite their total dominance in possession, they struggled to fashion many clear cut opportunities. Despite this, an equaliser still felt somewhat inevitable and when it arrived, the build up reminded me of everything that Spennymoor had done well in their midweek win. Harwood finally broke free of his marker down the right and he squared the ball for Richardson to tap into an empty net. It was made to look simple. It was simple. Football generally is and so often we're guilty of overcomplicating it.

There was every chance that the momentum of a goal might have sparked Spennymoor into life. But like a gas hob struggling to ignite, they flickered momentarily before the same pattern of play resumed. Weaker minds and teams with lesser spirit may have crumbled against such formidable opposition after the midweek debacle. Quite rightly, the visiting supporters celebrated the sound of the final whistle as though greeting a victory. Context is everything in sport. For Spennymoor, this was points lost in their quest for a hat-trick of League titles. For Guisborough, incredibly they have now taken more points from Spennymoor (four) than any
other side so far this season. Whilst the league formalities between the two sides are now at a close, Wednesday evening brings the two teams together again in the League cup at Guisborough’s King George V ground. For Jason Ainsley’s side, they will feel that it is an opportunity to reassert themselves and a case of third time lucky. As a Guisborough fan, I barely dare to hope that these things come in threes.

On a final note, it has to be said what a hospitable, friendly club Spennymoor are. They play football in the right way, there are no histrionics from their players or manager and they are extremely well run. Several home supporters were friendly and balanced at the end of the game as they chatted about the result. This approach was mirrored on the pitch as neither side picked up a single yellow card during the course of the game.

Like the result, I wouldn’t have predicted that at the start of the game either, had you asked me.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Three wins in three as Lawyers are sent down

Guisborough Town 3 – 1 Tow Law

A number of years back, Tow Law Town had the unusual but not totally unique experience of arriving at their ground to find that the pitch had sunk in the middle, rather like a Victoria sponge prematurely removed from the oven. Old mine workings were discovered beneath the pitch and a more than liberal supply of cement was needed to fill it in. Similar holes are appearing in Tow Law’s season and their remarkable record of never having been relegated from the First Division of the Northern League is looking far from impregnable. After a 3-1 defeat today, they are seriously at risk of being cast adrift from the rest of the pack in their second-bottom position. Unfortunately, not everything can be solved by concrete.

Tow Law began the game exactly as I had expected; they were hungry, keen and committed and arguably had the better of the play in the opening fifteen minutes. One moment characterised their performance today and possibly their season, though there will be better placed people than me to judge. The ‘one moment’ occurred as a chance was conjured from nothing by the visitors. They pressed and harried the home defence and their persistence paid off. Their centre forward unselfishly squared the ball on the edge of the box but the onrushing midfielder, who had made good ground, dithered over his shot and allowed the home defence to recover and block his effort.

Guisborough promptly went up to the other end of the field and within minutes were ahead as Austin Johnson, similarly placed to his Tow Law counterpart, lashed the ball in from close range as the ball bobbled around on the edge of the box. Tow law heads refused to drop and player manager Davidson, rallying his troops from left full back position, was central to much of their continued efforts. They were unlucky not
to equalise as a shot cannoned off a post and despite entering the dressing room a goal behind, they will have felt very much in the game.

When your side is pushing for a goal, there is the dangerous balance to strike of pushing enough to score, but not pushing so hard that your side concedes again. On the occasions when Tow Law looked at their most dangerous in the second period, they also appeared at their most vulnerable. The pace of Roberts and second-half substitute Blackford was a growing threat for Guisborough as they looked to break. Allied with this, Luke Bythway was difficult to track and impossible to pin down in his role running from deep. A second Guisborough goal arrived when good work from Poole and Bythway put Steel in the clear and he beat the keeper at the second attempt. At 2-0 the game should really have been sewn up. The fact that Tow Law pulled a goal back and gave themselves a chance is to their credit. A deflected corner from Turbull was well met by Thompson at the far post, to potentially set up a nervous finale. As it happened, Tow Law’s goal was a false dawn. Roberts, at his most slippery and evasive on the right hand side, finally carried out what he had threatened to do all afternoon when he lashed home from the right hand side of the box having been put in the clear. Up until this point, Tow Law had coped well with all that was thrown at them. This third goal was a killer blow and like a fighter that has soaked up several punches, this one took the wind out of them. Had Guisborough been more decisive in front of goal in three one-one-one situations, the margin of the scoreline could have been greater. In truth, this would have been tough on Tow Law who had contributed to a good game of football on a greasy surface after early morning rain.

Tow Law will not give in and it was easy to see why seven days ago they had almost matched Whitley Bay, narrowly losing 1-0. Their lead up play today was good, but they are desperately short of goals and a record of only 28 goals scored in 31 games puts enormous pressure on their defence to be watertight.

Football pundits often cite the forty-point barrier as being the figure required to ensure safety within a division. This differs from year to year, but as Guisborough pass this figure with twelve games left, they must now be looking to consolidate a mid-table position. The Priorymen sit second in the form table on the basis of the last six games having taken fifteen of a possible eighteen points.

West Auckland, having progressed to the next round of the FA vase having impressively beaten Bournemouth away this afternoon, arrive at the KGV on Wednesday. Let’s just hope that their celebrations tonight go on and on....and on. I’ve no problem with them suffering a hangover on Wednesday. Something tells me that they will be just as focused as ever when they arrive with a potential league title to also play for. They are a terrific team with a tremendous opportunity this season to capture two significant honours. Guisborough will enter the game
with confidence, hoping to upset the applecart. It is a tantalising prospect.