Spacious Place 2 – 0 Northgate
SMCCFL Charity Cup Group C
Two games played. Three points. Five goals scored. Six goals conceded.
Despite being the most distant teams apart in the entire 26-team SMCCFL, Division 2 Spacious Place and Northgate were inseparable by the details above with one game remaining in Group C of the Charity Cup. The winner would progress to the Quarter Final, the loser becoming heavily reliant on results elsewhere to qualify via the backdoor of ‘best 3rd placed team’. An opportunity to make club history with progression in the competition was the perfect antidote to the destruction from the previous week at the hands of the Green Giants of Kentigern’s.
Five changes to the squad in the week meant a return for James Sharrock in goal, and in keeping with the 352 formation that served so successfully against Warrington 2 weeks previously, the same ‘back 5’ was named with Harvey, Clark and Holden flanked by Scott and Ward as wingbacks. The absence of Ben Jones meant that Josh Slade was charged with the defensive midfield role behind Mike Heathcote and Lawrie Campbell. Scott McNeil partnered Russ Morgan up front.
With the extraordinarily long journey to Burnley completed, Northgate needed to get their legs moving and their minds switched on with a good warm up. However, the home referee was not in the mood for any delays and by the time the squads were gathered for the minute’s silence for Remembrance Day and then Respect handshakes, there hadn’t been much time available for everyone to get the journey fully out of their legs.
Straight from the off, lining up in their royal blue attire the intensity from the hosts was high as they sought to press and exploit any weariness in the Northgate legs – and there was plenty. Pace was in abundance on the wings for Spacious Placers and they were keen to make the most of it. Whenever the ball was lost in the midfield, it immediately came back to the defenders in orange in the form of a chipped through ball. With attackers adept at holding the ball up and a slippery surface making it difficult to recover once committed in one direction, the home team played the conditions perfectly. Holden gave away a number of free kicks as he halted the quick breakaways by committing to go through the player, including one that Sharrock fortunately watched sail over the bar. The continued pressure and exploitation of gaps in the vacant full back positions eventually told though, as another diagonal ball came over the head of Harvey and towards an onrushing winger. With the defender and Sharrock both storming over to recover they looked for all the world like they would get there, but the pace and balance of the wide man took everyone by surprise as he not only got to the ball but delivered a deft chip into the empty box, to the delight of a gambling striker who had snuck past Clark in the centre and tapped into an empty net.
For the fourth game running, Northgate had now conceded the opening goal of the game and Clark hoped it would kick start them into action as it did against Warrington. Scott and Ward grew more into the game as the back 3 began to settle on the ball, and some joy then started to come down the flanks. On 30 minutes, Theo Thomas was introduced up front to bring a fresh burst of pace for McNeil who had worked hard but had little to feed off in the opening stages. The impact was instant as a lovely ball was played from the centre down the right to the pacey striker who struck a strong effort at the goalkeeper, forcing a corner. Campbell whipped one in and Morgan could only glance it of his head, pinballing off Clark’s chest and into a crowd of players on the line until it was eventually cleared. Ward recycled it with another good cross but the blues eventually got it clear. Pressure was building over a succession of corners and long throws into the box, with a couple more half chances coming as a result. However – the constant counter-attacking danger was a thorn in the side of the visitors, threatening to puncture Northgate hopes much like the actual thorns puncture many football’s back at their home ground. Sharrock’s fast reflexes saw him get down to a couple of decent efforts and sprint across to claim loose passes, whilst Clark’s organisation from the central defensive position enabled him to get others to hold up the play whilst getting headers and blocks away too.
One goal down at the break, Northgate had weathered a substantial storm but were still very much in the game. Having finally seemed to wake up and shake out the tiredness from the legs, some promising play had been created going forward but the defensive gaps needed plugging. Sticking to his guns on the 352 setup, Clark resisted the temptation to fall back to familiarity and simplicity of full backs and a 451. Explaining the movement necessary to get the best out of both full backs and centre backs covering space, the team were re-energised and encouraged to go out and play with freedom and attacking purpose.
A stronger second half for the Gaters was sensed within the opening 5 minutes when Thomas’ pace again saw him race past the Spacious defence, with an effort similar to that earlier in the game gaining a corner from a good save. Ward and Scott were being constant menaces up and down the wing, afforded more attacking licence by the now well-organised defensive line up. Slade continued to dominate the physical battle in the middle whilst Heathcote and Campbell chased down every loose ball they could in an attempt to create for the strikers.
Chances began to rain down on the hosts’ goal as a serious spell of pressure began. Morgan volleyed over from a Slade cross, Campbell struck straight at the goalkeeper, and Slade couldn’t quite get enough on his header from a corner, glancing it out for a goal keeper. Tails were up and the defence were soaking up the pressure at the other end. Clark was winning everything in the air as the long balls from the goalkeeper came hurtling down the pitch, whilst Harvey and Holden were offering their services to receive and play the ball; Sharrock also effectively joining in the link up play with the entire back line.
The counter-attack remained the only real option Spacious Place had to get forward, but their left winger was becoming predictable as he continued to cut inside every time, Harvey and Clark teaming up well to pick him off, and Sharrock always offering himself to play back to when facing their own goal. Steve Scott made way for his almost namesake Scott McNeil after a tireless performance keeping up with the fast winger, allowing himself a breather and McNeil a chance to show more of what he is about – quickly getting stuck in with some strong challenges.
As the half wore on, it looked all the more likely a Northgate goal was going to come. Morgan was weaving and winding around the defenders but unable to get the final shot off, Campbell and Ward were linking up down the left delivering good balls but to no avail, and Slade had a fantastic drilled effort from the edge of the box somehow blocked on the line by a defender throwing himself to the floor and stopping the ball from nestling into the bottom corner. Five minutes later and Holden saw an effort from a similar central position fly just over the cross bar much to the relief of the home supporters who had their hearts in their mouths. Somehow, Spacious Place still had the lead, and time was running out.
Ward took a breather as Scott was reintroduced on the left this time, slotting in perfectly to link up with Holden this time behind him. For all the attacking intent and pressure though, the deficit doubled in a heartbreaking instant. Picking up the ball from a loose Northgate pass, a Spacious Place midfielder was left with time to turn in the centre of the pitch. Miskicking his crossfield ball, the pass looped up and agonisingly flew just over the head of the leaping Clark in the centre who then couldn’t recover as the striker strode through the centre and slotted a neat finish into the corner in off the post. A sucker-punch to burst the Tangerine’s bubble of hope.
Fifteen minutes remained and two goals were required to claim a draw and force a penalty shoot-out to decide qualification. The remainder of the match did everything required to falsify the claims of a home player in the final minute that “We’ve battered them here lads!” The same never-say-die attitude that saw them claim a late 3 points at Audacious in October was on display, with all players giving everything to the cause. A few contentious refereeing decisions created a tense and tasty end to the game as through all the desperation there were fouls not given and non-fouls given. Heathcote bowed out for Ward again towards the end for another roll of the dice, but it was not to be. Bar an extremely hairy moment where Harvey missed the ball as the last man, allowing the striker through 1 on 1 with Sharrock (a moment in which the keeper stood tall and closed down the options expertly to stop the shot), the game continued to be played in the hosts’ half to no Northgate avail. Not even a Morgan special as he turned defenders inside out before curling an effort towards the corner could make a breakthrough. An excellent goalkeeping performance stopped that effort as well as tipping away a corner destined for a free Clark header at the back post, leading to another Slade effort blasted at goal and blocked away again.
Blowing the whistle, the referee called the match to an end and the home side were overjoyed with their win. Dejected, disconsolate and disappointed, the Northgate men trudged in exhausted at the effort put in with no reward. Their 4th game of the season in which they’ve failed to score was easily the one the hardest to fathom why that was the case. The absence of top goalscorer Owen is always likely to be felt given his 11 goals in 8 games so far this season, but with chances and good shots aplenty today it seems lady luck was with the Spacious Place goalkeeper.
Northgate once again exit the Charity Cup at the Group Stage, but this season do so with their heads held high. Experience against higher level opposition is the main objective of entering this competition, and with 1 win and 2 very close defeats in against 3 Division 2 sides, Northgate can look at it as well worthwhile, and finished a respectable 3rd in the group. A long drive home to reflect will do little to help ease the disappointment, but with 3 home league games remaining before Christmas, there is still much to play for.
1. James Sharrock (GK)
2. Martin Harvey (RCB)
3. Jonny Clark (CB)
4. James Holden (LCB)
5. Steve Scott (RWB / LWB)
6. Matt Ward (LWB)
7. Josh Slade (CDM)
8. Lawrie Campbell (CM)
9. Mike Heathcote (CM)
10. Russ Morgan (ST)
11. Scott McNeil (ST / RWB)
12. Theo Thomas (ST)
Man of the Match – JONNY CLARK