13 April 2014

Saints slump

Saturday 12th April 2014
Calor League Premier Division 
St Albans City 0-1 Poole Town
Clarence Park
Attendance: 581
THIS was not an afternoon to remember at Clarence Park, as St Albans City fell to a 1-0 defeat against fellow play-off hopefuls Poole Town.

Expectations were high before kick-off.  The Saints had returned to form recently with four wins and two draws in their last six league games; goalkeeper Paul Bastock and top scorer John Frendo were both back in the side following suspension, and not one, but two, turnstiles were open at the York Road end of the ground when I arrived just after 2:30pm.

In the match programme, club chairman Nick Archer reported that the average attendance for a Calor League game here this season is up more than 33% on 2012/13, from 376 to 501.  It's an impressive increase, and just reward for a promotion-chasing team which had scored more than 100 goals in all competitions by January.

Today's visitors from the Dorset coast, Poole Town, still have hopes of reaching the play-offs themselves.  But in an otherwise commendable first season at Step 3, the Dolphins had faltered recently, losing four of their previous five games to drop to 7th in the table, as they make up a severe backlog of fixtures postponed during the wet winter.

Poole Town have certainly been a club on the rise over the past five seasons: three consecutive Wessex League titles from 2009 to 2011; beaten play-off finalists in their first season in the Southern League Division One South and West in 2012, followed by promotion to the Southern Premier League as champions at the end of the 2012/13 season.
The warm morning sun had disappeared as fans gathered on the terraces, leaving an overcast and slightly chilly afternoon at Clarence Park.

As at all English football in the top eight tiers this weekend, kick-off here was put back seven minutes to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, and the whole ground impeccably observed a minute's silence before the start of play.

Poole Town, "The Pride of Dorset", according to the flag which their loyal supporters pinned to the fence at the back of the terrace, were backed by an enthusiastic group of around 30 fans (my quick headcount of those who stood behind the goal).  During the afternoon they would frequently repeat an unusual song, "St Albans - what train is that?", every time an inter-city service whooshed past the back of Clarence Park's main stand on the East Midlands line.

Saints started the game brightly, but it was the visitors who came closest to scoring in the first half.  With 20 minutes played, John Davies smashed the ball against Bastock's right hand post from close range after Ekow Elliott's effort had been blocked.

Seven minutes later a swift break out of defence by the Saints ended with Lee Chappell hitting the side netting when cutting in from the left after receiving a pass from Frendo.

Fans swapped ends during the break, with St Albans set to play down the slope towards the Hatfield Road end in the second half.  But the change did not see the Saints rediscover the attacking fluency which had brought them so many goals earlier in the season.

The only goal of today's game arrived in the 57th minute.  Poole's number 9 Ekow Elliott drove the ball from the edge of the penalty area low into the bottom corner past Bastock's right hand after the ball landed at his feet following a headed clearance.

The home fans were muted as the clock ticked down.  Saints' substitutes David Keenleyside and Chris Henry caused the visitors some problems down the flanks, but the home team's day was summed up when Frendo just failed to get on the end of a floated cross in the first minute of stoppage time, as Dolphins' orange-clad keeper Nick Hutchings snatched the ball off the big striker's forehead and cleared the danger.

Some booing accompanied the final whistle, illustrating the disappointment and frustration of the Clarence Park crowd.

This was another Saturday where I had been undecided until a late stage where to spend the afternoon.  Eventually, it was the prospect of seeing two play-off candidates in action that had lured me across the M25 to St Albans.  As the old saying goes, "You pays your money and takes your choice".  In the the end though, this felt like an afternoon best forgotten.

30 March 2014

No spring cheer at the QEII

Saturday 29th March 2014
Ryman League Premier Division

Enfield Town 1-3 Leiston 
Queen Elizabeth II Stadium
Attendance: 379

"WE-are-stayin'-up", sang the irrepressible Enfield Town Ultras behind the goal, as the players applauded the fans after the final whistle on this warm and sunny afternoon at Donkey Lane.

As ever, that merry band of supporters had kept singing until the end, despite the Towners falling to their first home defeat since Boxing Day.

Two years ago Enfield Town and Leiston were duelling for the Ryman League Division One North title.  In a race which would run beyond the final weekend of the regular season, it was Leiston who secured top spot and automatic promotion, with the Towners soon to follow them up into the Ryman Premier via the play-offs.

Much has happened to Enfield Town since my last trip here back in September.  Georg Borg was appointed as the new manager last December following the dismissal of Steve Newing, and several changes to the playing staff have followed, reviving the fortunes of the club which will become a teenager this summer.

At the turn of the year, the Towners seemingly faced a huge task to avoid their first ever relegation since starting out in the Essex Senior League in 2001.  But a run of 19 points from the last 10 games, unbeaten in the previous seven, had lifted Borg's team out of the drop zone and put survival in their own hands.

Leiston arrived in north London in good form themselves, having lost only two of their last 14.  Also under new management since November, when Steve Ball took over, the Suffolk club started today's game in a comfortable 11th place.

Butler's Bar was buzzing before kick-off, as the sun streamed through the full-length windows on an afternoon where the temperature rose to 18 degrees Celsius.  Few fans up there seemed interested in the TV screen which was showing England's toils against South Africa in the World T20; a pre-match chat and football were the attractions.

Enfield Town were looking to avenge last November's 6-1 hiding against today's opponents, and their early promise was rewarded with the opening goal on 16 minutes.  Raheem Sterling-Parker, newly recruited on loan from Boreham Wood,  had already begun to look dangerous, and when he rolled the ball across the box from the right, the visitors' number 4 and skipper David Head, sliding in to clear the danger, succeeded only in turning ball into his own net.  Cue chants of "Number 4's a Towner", from the Ultras behind the goal at the Great Cambridge Road end.

Meanwhile some fans sipped their beer on the balcony of the clubhouse.  The strengthening south-easterly breeze may have taken the edge off the spring feeling a little, but at times during the first half, the occasion began to feel like a pre-season friendly.

With Leiston working their way back into the game, the Towners were to be jolted by a 37th minute equaliser, when Garreth Heath latched onto a long ball over the top before firing low across Noel Imber and into the corner.  It was just reward for the visitors, who had begun to enjoy their first spell of sustained pressure.

Half time brought the usual procession of fans from behind the net towards the burger van and the bar, before they migrated towards the western end of the ground which the Towners would attack after the break.

Manny Osei had been a transfer target for Enfield Town last summer, but he was to become a thorn in the Towners' side today after being introduced as a substitute at the start of the second half.  He was initially denied by a remarkable point-blank save from Imber in the 57th minute, as the home 'keeper had multiple successful attempts at keeping the ball out of the net while lying on the ground, much to Osei's exasperation, who also seemed to be claiming the ball had crossed the line.

But Leiston were looking increasingly dangerous on the break, with Osei seeing plenty of the ball as the visitors poured forward.  They were ahead on 65 minutes when Connor Hubble found space to fire across Imber and into the corner after receiving Osei's pass.  Heath's second of the game, as he turned in a cross from the left at close range with a quarter of an hour remaining, effectively killed off the Towners' challenge.

In the end, the Enfield Town players, semi-professionals with other other work commitments outside football, may well have felt the effects of playing two games in less than 48 hours. Striker Liam Hope had confessed on Twitter before the game to feeling "still stiff from Thursday", a reference to that evening's excellent 2-0 win at Billericay which lifted Georg Borg's team out of the bottom four.  But despite today's setback, the Towners remain 20th in the table, one place outside the relegation zone, thanks to their closest rivals East Thurrock United conceding a late equaliser at Maidstone.

So with the teams involved in the relegation scrap still having up to eight games to fit into the next four weeks, and East Thurrock due to visit the QEII Stadium on Easter Monday for what could yet be a decider, we are still no closer to knowing whether or not Enfield Town really will be staying up.

16 March 2014

Point Taken

Saturday 15th March 2014
Sky Bet League 2 
Northampton Town 1-1 Mansfield Town
Sixfields Stadium
Attendance: 5129 (away support 744)

IT felt like a potentially defining moment in the season for both teams, as Northampton's Darren Carter stepped up to take a 64th minute penalty, with Mansfield leading 1-0.  The Stags had just been reduced to ten men, Darryl Westlake having been shown a red card for handball in the six-yard box, the event which had brought us to this spot kick.

Carter duly levelled the score at 1-1, the ball just beating the left hand of the diving Alan Marriott, and Mansfield were left to face 30 minutes with a one-man disadvantage against a now galvanised Northampton side.

There was much at stake on this bright and breezy afternoon, as the compact Sixfields Stadium, overlooked on its eastern side by the well-known local landmark the 'Northampton Lighthouse', welcomed its biggest crowd of the season.  The Cobblers, rejuvenated since January by the new management duo of Chris Wilder and Alan Knill, still occupied the last relegation place, but were just five points behind the Stags, with a game in hand.  For Mansfield, unbeaten away from home in 2013/14 against teams outside the top seven, this was a "must not lose" game.  There was tension in the air.

Stags were backed by a vocal following of 744 fans in the South Stand, with the middle section allowed to stand and sing throughout the 90 minutes by the amenable stewards.  The traditional anti-Chesterfield songs suggested that some Staggies already had their sights set on next Saturday's local derby at One Call Stadium.  As London Sue and I took our seats near the back corner of the stand, I was the one confidently predicting that our team would at least avoid a damaging defeat today.

Mansfield survived early scares, not least with barely a minute on the clock.  Brennon Dickenson found acres of space on the Northampton left, before cutting inside and bearing down on goal one-on-one with Marrott, but the Stags 'keeper did well to get down and block the shot.

It was Ollie Palmer, recalled to the side as a late replacement for the ill Sam Clucas, who put the Stags ahead on 32 minutes.  The young striker, still adjusting to the demands of the Football League after stepping up from the Conference South, latched on to Adam Murray's through ball and took advantage of hesitancy from goalkeeper and defender, to slot the ball home from eight yards.

There were more nervous moments for the 744 in the ten minutes before the break.  Ryan Tafazolli sent a header narrowly past his own post as Marriott came to collect a through ball; Marriott himself raced yards outside his penalty area to collect a ball he was unlikely to reach, but Cobblers' Chris Hackett was also unable to control the ball and keep it in play.

Home fans bayed for a red card when Martin Riley brought down the advancing Dickenson 25 yards from goal on 42 minutes, but referee Andy Haines correctly showed a yellow.

The 64th-minute equaliser could have proved a game-changer, with the Stags exposed on their right flank following the dismissal of Westlake.  Although Mansfield regrouped with a double substitution five minutes later, Lindon Meikle and Colin Daniel joining the action, it was from a swift break down that exposed flank that Northampton almost snatched victory in the 88th minute.  Alan Connell's far post cross was inch-perfect, but Hackett volleyed high over the crossbar from a great position, much to the relief of the 744.

As the game headed into five minutes of stoppage time, there was late appearance as a substitute by Northampton's new loan signing Christian Lopez, once part of Real Madrid's and Valencia's B teams.  His arrival is another perplexing example of a club in the relegation battle being able to add to its squad at this critical time of the season, something which Mansfield, for well-publicised reasons, have not done.

At the final whistle, this was a result which felt more satisfying for Mansfield than Northampton, as the Stags maintained a five-point cushion between themselves and the trapdoor.  It was an away draw which most, if not all, of the travelling support would have taken at the start.

Heading back down the M1 with the golden sunset and BBC Radio Northampton for company, I sensed frustration from the home manager, players and supporters that their team had not been able to push on and win the game in those final 30 minutes.  But on recent form, six games unbeaten, the Cobblers still have every chance of climbing out of the bottom two.

On this tense afternoon, the Stags had managed to wind up the home crowd at times.  Alan Marriott was twice spoken to by the referee for taking too long over a goal-kick, and in his post-match interview, Chris Wilder also bemoaned "Mansfield's six footers going down at the drop of a hat and taking 20 minutes to get up".

But it had been an even contest with a fair result at Sixfields, a ground Mansfield, and this author, last visited in 2005.  Thanks to today's draw, the Stags have moved one game and one point closer to ensuring that they do not become the first team promoted from the Conference to be relegated one year later.

Yet with the bottom half of the League Two table still so volatile, there could well be further events in the remaining games which we come to look back on as defining moments in the season.