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?