Northgate 2 – 1 Audacious
SMCCFL Division 3
They say three is the magic number. Three consecutive wins for the third time in Northgate’s history. Three wins out of three historically against Audacious. Three more players present than last week against People’s Church. Could it also mean three more points for Northgate?
In their penultimate home game of the season, the Tangerines welcomed Audacious from Manchester for a repeat of the fixture which saw Northgate’s first win after 5 straight defeats in December 2017. Despite the form book being with the hosts, Clark was under no illusion of how hard this could be. Falling short to a last minute Mainwaring winner in October, and beating promotion hopefuls Kay Street United 3-1 recently, Audacious were sure to be hard to beat and keen to turn the tables on their opponents in Chester.
Still suffering with the knee injury sustained in last week’s win, Clark was sidelined for managerial duty for the 3rd time this season, but had a familiar and experienced squad to choose from. A total of 288 appearances between the 13 man squad meant that the all-important game management that has improved in recent weeks should be able to continue. Holden dropped into Clark’s position in central defence alongside the same back line as the previous week in Scott, Hilsden and Harvey, but with Sharrock in goal. Pete Davies – the only man in single appearance figures, and playing for the first time since his heroic goal away at Westwood – sat in behind Slade and Campbell in central midfield, whilst Thomas and Heathcote – also returning for the first time since scoring January’s last minute winner against Macclesfield Parish – gave wide support for the in-form Alex Owen.
Previously when managing from the touchline, Clark has had to watch his team concede in the opening minute on both occasions. He was therefore extremely relieved as a corner was defended well in the first minute today. A cagey and messy start from both teams was in stark contrast to the warmth and colour of a beautiful sunny morning in Chester, giving the feel of a spring morning as the season approaches its business end – despite it only being mid-February.
It soon became clear that Audacious were playing an adventurous 3-5-2 formation, which was leading to the congestion in the centre of the pitch as the game struggled to gain any kind of momentum. Having toyed with the formation earlier in the season, it was obvious that any joy would have to come from the flanks with Heathcote and Thomas exploiting the gaps left by marauding wing backs. However, whilst Northgate were able to get the ball into those areas, it was rarely through controlled passing and all too often the ball was being lost. The aerial battle was being won by the midfield trio in the centre and any long balls pumped up were duly dealt with to push Audacious back, and in doing this the defence began to be exposed when dealing with the second ball. Apart from winning a couple of free-kicks that came to nothing though, the Tangerines were unable to exploit this weakness.
Persistence paid off though for the hosts, and it was the man in form Alex Owen who opened the scoring on 20 minutes, bursting into the box to fling himself towards a brilliant driven cross from Slade on the right following a good run. The striker kept his eye on the ball he whole way and met it with a perfect glancing header across goal and put his team in the ascendency. It was no less than Northgate deserved with their physical assertiveness on the early stages of the game, but it was the first real moment of quality.
The lead didn’t last long though, and after one scare down the wing resulted in Hilsden recovering well and being helped out by an excellent Steve Scott, Audacious eventually got things right. A bit of messy play in the centre led to a break away and an awkward clearance from defence, and it was a pink shirt of Audacious that was quickest to react to sidefoot a vicious strike into the side of the goal to level things up.
In an attempt to get control of the ball more and play it around more purposefully, Ben Jones was introduced to the midfield on 30 minutes. A change in wingers was also in store after energetic shifts from Heathcote and Thomas, with Campbell and Scott moving to the left and right respectively as Mark Broomhall came on at full back. Immediately Northgate began to use the ball better and strung a series of passes together, involving the entire defensive line in the build-up play. It didn’t last for long though as the Audacious pressing game caused mistakes, and Scott and Campbell didn’t have much to feed on out wide.
At half time, there were words of encouragement from Clark as he saw the potential for the win, but the message was clear about the need for greater off the ball work and defensive discipline. The pattern of play continued much in the same vain though after the break, as both teams battled for control in the busy central areas. Increased passing along the back 4 was helping to draw out the Audacious forwards, but moving through to the next phase of play to, and through, the midfield proved problematic.
A half a very few chances seemed to fly by as neither team appeared prepared to gamble too much with the game poised so delicately. The home defence were scrambling well when under pressure to close down any potential shooting opportunities, whilst Sharrock was equal to everything that came his way in the way of long-range efforts and high balls through; collecting everything comfortably and not giving away any scraps to give the opposition hope.
Clark made more changes halfway through the half replacing Davies with Heathcote and, in a slightly attacking tactical tweak, instructed Campbell to move back into the centre in more of a ‘number 10’ role, to support the isolated Owen up front. Despite this, it was Audacious who began to get more on the front foot and put the Northgate back line under pressure. The pace of their right winger was giving Broomhall problems, who was always doing just enough to put him off but the Manchester man was looking problematic. Slade and Jones were chasing shadows around the middle as the ball was struggling to stick at the feet of anyone in orange, and the visitors began to excel in playing the ball around and toying with their hosts. Crucially though, the still failed to create any clear cut chance that would threaten the goal and the closest they came was an effort from range which struck the outside of the post before bouncing out for a throw in.
Struggling for service since moving up to the right wing, Clark rotated his wingers again, this time reintroducing Theo Thomas on the right for Steve Scott who had put in another strong shift. The pacey wideman pressed well and caused issues for the defenders trying to play things out, but it did little to change the direction of the game as Clark then toyed with the idea of moving to a 442 in an attempt to win the match. However, as plans began to formulate in his mind, Alex Owen stepped forward with a goal-of-the-season contender to put his team ahead once more.
Striding forward from the defence in typical bullish style, Holden saw the striker available just inside the box. Back to goal and closely man-marked, the talisman took one touch out of his feet to the side and struck a sweet curling effort around the keeper and into the top corner. Standing tall, arm raised to the sky, Owen was mobbed by his teammates celebrating his 20th goal of the season – and what a crucial one it would turn out to be.
With 10 minutes left to play, Northgate moved into the game-management mode they have developed in recent weeks and “shut up shop” to great effect. Full backs Harvey and Broomhall were replaced by Davies and Scott to give fresh legs to deal with the attacking Audacious onslaught, and with everybody digging deep across the defence and midfield they were able to keep the visitors at bay. Owen’s relentless pressure and work rate at the other end almost caused a 3rd as his sprinted around at the defenders and goalkeeper, and eventually the full time whistle blew to give Northgate another rather ugly 3 points.
Four wins in a row signals a new record win streak, and extends the unbeaten streak to 5 matches as well. Catching up with Clark after the game, he had this to say:
“We spoke before the game about the experience that is developing with this squad, and that now appears to be growing into maturity. We are winning games from positions where last season we would have lost, and that shows real character as well as an understanding of how to manage games.”
On end-of-season ambitions:
“Realistically it’s probably too much of a stretch to imagine promotion as a possibility still. The top 4 was my pre-season ambition given a large and unknown division, and we’ve shown we can challenge at the right end of the table. Kay Street are just 3 points ahead, and given that we play them in the last game of the season that has the potential to be a tight and entertaining game. Ultimately I’m just delighted at the progress we’ve made since last season, now with 10 wins this season compared to last year’s 6. We have 5 games to play including a quarter final, and we’re going to make sure we enjoy every one.”
Northgate now have a weekend off for some training abroad, before returning to action on 2nd March.
- James Sharrock (GK)
- Steve Scott (RB / RM)
- Martin Harvey (LB / RB)
- Matt Hilsden (CB)
- James Holden (CB)
- Pete Davies (CDM / CM)
- Theo Thomas (RM)
- Josh Slade (CM)
- Alex Owen (ST)
- Lawrie Campbell (CM / LM)
- Mike Heathcote (LM)
12. Mark Broomhall (LB)
13. Ben Jones (CM / CDM)
Man of the Match – ALEX OWEN