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.

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