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?