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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.