26 November 2015

Raising The Standard

Wednesday 25th November 2015
Vanarama National League
Boreham Wood 1-1 Lincoln City
Meadow Park
Attendance: 661 (away support 364)

WHEN the National League fixtures were published last summer, this was one of the first I looked for.

Three members of last season's Mansfield Town squad - Lee Beevers, Matt Rhead and Liam Hearn - made the move east to Lincoln City during the close season.  Also now with the Imps are two players who appeared on loan at the Stags during the 2014/15 campaign - Luke Waterfall and Terry Hawkridge.

All five of those ex-Stags were in the Lincoln starting line-up at Meadow Park this evening.

It was a big night at the Wood.  The Imps' 364 travelling fans outnumbered the home support;  the two rows of media seats at the back of the main stand were full, leaving at least one local journalist and Wood's Press Officer needing to find a seat elsewhere; team sheets were like gold dust too - not even a spare one for England C manager Paul Fairclough, a frequent visitor to Meadow Park this season.

In a pre-match chat with one of the Lincoln match commentators sitting just behind me, I was reminded of Matt Rhead's last-minute equaliser at Sincil Bank in December 2012, when an FA Cup 2nd Round tie between the Imps and Mansfield Town had ended in a 3-3 draw.

It was Mansfield who went on to win the replay, setting up a lucrative 3rd Round home tie against Liverpool, where the Stags, despite losing narrowly, put in a performance which seemed to inspire them for the rest of the season.  They would soon embark on a run of 20 wins in 23 games, charging up the Conference table and securing promotion back to the Football League.

After scoring 14 goals already this season, Rhead has - so I was told - now almost been forgiven for that last-gasp goal against his current club three seasons ago.

The pros and cons of Matt Rhead's three-and-a-half seasons with Mansfield are still an occasional topic of debate among Stags fans.  Often used as an impact player during the club's Conference years, the big striker found himself starting more games after Stags' promotion and the departure of top-scorer Matt Green in 2013.

The fiercest critics of Mansfield's then-manager Paul Cox still bemoan too many long balls lumped forward to Rhead, who would find himself tightly marked by League Two defenders, wise to the tactic.

But it was with classic 'route one' football that Lincoln took an 18th-minute lead at Meadow Park this evening.  Another of the former Stags, full-back Lee Beevers, sent a 50-yard punt straight onto the head of Rhead, who directed a downward header beyond Wood keeper James Russell.

Reacting positively, Wood drew level within seven minutes, also with a header.  Anthony Jeffrey sent a high cross into the box from the left, and Clovis Kamdjo rose to direct the ball over Imps' keeper Paul Farman.

Rhead's strike partner Liam Hearn was also a Mansfield player last season, but sadly missed most of it through injury.  Now at last enjoying a spell of injury-free football, Hearn came within a whisker of putting the Imps back in front less than a minute into the second half, as Jack Muldoon's ball across the Wood box passed just in front of the in-rushing number 9.

Wood then went on to enjoy a dominant spell of play, with the speedy Anthony Jeffrey becoming a particular thorn in Lincoln's side down the left flank.

Sadly for Luke Garrard's team, a second goal remained elusive, and during the last 15 minutes it was the visitors who came closest to snatching a late winner.  Had the Imps succeeded, it would have been cruel on Wood, given the part they had played in what had become an absorbing contest.

This was a much-improved performance from Boreham Wood, unrecognisable from last week's hugely disappointing FA Cup exit here against Northwich Victoria.  But Wood may still feel frustrated that they couldn't convert any of that second half pressure into a goal and a vital third home win of the season.

On the plus side, Wood gained a point - one more point towards securing a second season at this level.

And the performance has raised fans' spirits in advance of Saturday's home game against Tranmere Rovers - another game Wood fans will have had their eyes on since the fixtures were published some five months ago.

My report for Real Footy Talk is here.

17 November 2015

No Cup of Cheer

Monday 16th November 2015
Emirates FA Cup 1st Round Replay
Boreham Wood 1-2 Northwich Victoria
Meadow Park
Attendance: 512

IT'S Northwich Victoria - not Boreham Wood - who are looking forward to an FA Cup 2nd Round tie at League Two Northampton Town after a well-deserved win at Meadow Park.

Seven seasons ago Northwich Victoria were - like Boreham Wood today - playing in the top tier of non-league football.

Three relegations and numerous financial problems later, the Vics are regrouping in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League Division One North - Step 4 of the pyramid.  Managed by ex-Stockport County boss Jim Gannon, the team sit top of the table.

After a spell of groundsharing at Stafford, the Vics are also now back in their home town, playing home fixtures at neighbours Witton Albion since the start of this season.

It was at Wincham Park nine days ago that the Vics and Wood drew 1-1, setting up tonight's replay.

Despite the three-division gap between the two teams, this tie was never going to be foregone conclusion, especially given Wood's poor home form in 2015.

My report for Real Footy Talk is here.

15 November 2015

Dark Clouds Over Sixfields

Saturday 14th November 2015
Sky Bet League 2
Northampton Town 1-0 Mansfield Town
Sixfields Stadium
Attendance: 5454 (away support 892)

THE goalscoring started and ended with only four minutes played on this wet afternoon in Northamptonshire.

Alfie Potter skipped too easily past Stags' Nicky Hunt and Adam Chapman to get in a cross from the Cobblers' left; Marc Richards rose above Blair Adams to send a powerful header into the top corner of Brian Jensen's net, in front of the 892 Stags fans in the packed South Stand.

Heavy rain greeted fans arriving at Sixfields.  Mansfield, sixth in the League Two table, had already won five times away from home this season, and were unbeaten on their travels since the narrow loss at Luton on 19th September.

The hosts sat proudly in fifth place, and were doubtless buoyed by last weekend's 2-1 win at League One Coventry City in the FA Cup 1st Round.

Northampton's good form contrasts sharply with the desperate situation off the pitch.  The club faces a winding-up petition from Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs on Monday over an unpaid tax bill; the Professional Footballers' Association has had to step in to pay the players' October wages, and fans have also been left wondering what has happened to much of a £10.25 million loan for stadium improvements.

Fifteen months after Mansfield last visited this ground, Sixfields remains a three-sided venue, its East Stand still looking a long way from completion.

A decade since David Conn of the Guardian sought answers from a former Mansfield Town chairman over money which had been transferred out the club, the well-respected investigative journalist has been busy delving into the goings-on at Northampton, his report appearing here last weekend.

Playing with a stiff breeze on their backs, Mansfield would enjoy much the better of the possession for the remainder of the first half following the early setback.  Home keeper Adam Smith, who spent the first month of this year on loan to the Stags, struggled to get any distance on his clearances in the tricky conditions, but was not forced into making a difficult save.

Five minutes before the break, it was Stags keeper Jensen who was called into action, palming away a rising shot from Nicky Adams two-handed.

Encouragingly, Mansfield went in at half-time having just come close to an equaliser.  In stoppage time, Matt Green's header clipped the top of the crossbar after Blair Adams had curled in a 20-yard free-kick.

Seven minutes after the restart, it was the hosts' turn to hit the bar.  Dominic Calvert-Lewis' near-post shot was just too high after he arrived at the near post to meet Nicky Adams' dipping cross from the left.

Boosted by the appearance of Matty Blair - on as a half-time substitute for Craig Westcarr - on the right flank, Mansfield forced series of corners, raising the spirits of the 892 behind the goal which the Stags were now attacking.

It was from one of those corners, taken by Chris Clements on the Stags' right, that Ryan Tafazolli appeared to be impeded as he jumped.  The referee was unmoved however.

Adi Yussuf was introduced in place of Mitch Rose with 20 minutes remaining, as Adam Murray switched to a 4-4-2 formation.

Within five minutes, the former Oxford City striker was almost clean through on goal, but a challenge from a defender was enough to force Yussuf off balance and he shot wide.

At the other end, Jensen had to be alert again, palming away Joel Byrom's fierce shot as the Cobblers broke down the middle.

Agony for Mansfield in the fourth and final minute of stoppage time, as Yussuf slid in just ahead of a home defender to meet a Blair Adams cross, directing the ball narrowly past Smith's right-hand post.

It was the final action of the contest.

Stags are on their travels again on Tuesday, heading to Oldham Athletic for an FA Cup 1st Round replay.

Before then, Northampton Town have their date in court.  Credit to the club's players and management for putting those concerns to one side today, as the Cobblers climbed into the top three.

The full match report from Sixfields is here.

1 November 2015

Haunted By A Poor Start

Saturday 31st October 2015
Vanarama National League
Boreham Wood 2-3 Gateshead
Meadow Park
Attendance: 344(away support 70)
IT was an unhappy Halloween for Boreham Wood, haunted by two early goals for Gateshead, who eventually held on to win 3-2 on an unseasonably warm afternoon at Meadow Park.

A seventh defeat in 10 home league games makes for a disturbing statistic, and leaves Wood still hovering just above the National League's bottom four.

Next weekend Luke Garrard's team can - temporarily - put their league concerns aside.  Wood travel to Step 4 outfit Northwich Victoria, where they will aim to reach the 2nd Round Proper of the FA Cup for only the second time in the club's 68-year history.

My report for Real Footy Talk is here...

14 October 2015

Charlie Returns To Shoot Down Wood

Tuesday 13th October 2015
Vanarama National League
Boreham Wood 0-1 Aldershot Town
Meadow Park
Attendance: 581 (away support 248)
THE commentary duo from BBC Radio Surrey, sitting directly behind me, were counting down the minutes to the end of this contest as Aldershot Town held on to a one-goal lead on a chilly autumn evening at Meadow Park.

Shots' top-scorer Charlie Walker, part of Wood's promotion-winning squad, having spent the final three months of last season on loan here, had struck early to put his new employers ahead.

When Aldershot substitute Jake Gallagher headed Billy Clifford's corner to safety and the referee blew the final whistle, the visitors were more than happy to take three points from a game in which they had had to do most of the defending.

The previous day, Wood fans had been rocked by the sudden resignation of Ian Allinson after over seven years as team manager.  The former Arsenal player led Wood to two against-the-odds promotions, lifting the Meadow Park side from the wrong end of the Ryman Premier league to non-league football's top flight.

But Allinson found the club's recent transition to a daytime training routine incompatible with his outside work commitments, and announced his departure less than 48 hours after Saturday's welcome home win against Welling United.

With Assistant Manager Luke Garrard and recently-appointed First Team Coach Junior Lewis taking temporary charge, a new era now begins for Wood.

Despite creating the vast majority of the scoring chances last night, Wood will not be satisfied to have gone down narrowly to a sixth home defeat of the season.

Based on my scribbled notes from the game, my match report is here.