City Church 4 – 0 Northgate
Back in January, Northgate pulled off their result of the season with a much-deserved home win against the eventual league Champions. With City Church claiming the title in early April, this return match was their final game of season and a chance to take revenge on the only team to have taken any points off them since they first kicked off in September. Clark was keen to remind his squad that those memories would be in the minds of the opponents, and they possessed all the abilities necessary to pull off another shock against the team with the most wins in all the SMCCFL.
A strong squad was available, with returns for Slade, Sharrock, Tonks and Kapasi, as Davenport, Crank, Heathcote and Ward were unavailable. Josiah Mainwaring was a late inclusion and was available to make his debut, made all the more important as club captain Russ Morgan was made unavailable after an ankle injury on the morning…due to his wife. Setting up with the familiar 451, Kapasi took up position at right back alongside a regular defense of Hilsden, Clark and Broomhall all in front of Sharrock making his first appearance in goal since the snowy (and sleepy) performance away at Kay Street in the Trophy. Jones, Elkington and Slade made up the middle three inside of Mainwaring on the right and Owen starting on the left whilst Dave Tonks led the line up front.
A lack of changing room and visibility of lines on the pitch did little to dampen spirits and Northgate looked sharp right from the warm up, with almost everyone burying goals into the corners when shooting. As the game began, the same level of alertness was evident. Hounding down the midfield, Slade made his presence felt immediately and as Tonks was able to pounce on the loose ball, he held off his man and played a crossfield ball over to the advancing Owen. Taking it on the run on the edge of the box, he turned inside with great composure and as the opening appeared he couldn’t quite make a true enough contact and the shot ended up easily in the keepers arms. Further pressure grew in the opening 5-10 minutes, and there was a feeling around that perhaps the visitors would be able to upset the champions again.
Unable to take advantage of the strong start, the hosts built their way back into the game. With pace to burn on the wings and up front, their relentless high-pressing tactic was beginning to force mistakes from even the smallest of hesitations. After withholding the pressure well, Sharrock hadn’t been forced into much more than catching practice from deep crosses. However on the 20 minute mark whilst the defence were holding shape well, a potshot from over 20 yards out somehow found its way through a gap and into the corner to break the deadlock.
Drawing on the comfort of knowing they went behind in the 3-1 victory, Clark rallied the troops and hoped for a reaction. A succession of throw-ins came and the defender was creating chances from each one. Tonks put one just wide of the post on the turn, Slade slammed one over the bar, and others just bounced agonisingly out of reach of the orange shirts before a final touch could put it home. Despite the pressure, the game began to run away and not taking chances proved costly. The famed Danny Maung was causing all sorts of problems on the wing and even though Broomhall was doing a good job of keeping him at bay, his recurring knee problem was causing issues. Mainwaring was brought to left back with the assignment of quietening Maung, whilst Theo Thomas was introduced on the right wing. Not long later, the hosts doubled their lead after a midfielder running through wasn’t closed down quick enough and he found an onrushing support player who smashed into the roof of the net leaving Sharrock with no chance. Soon after, Hilsden followed up a good interception and turn with a loose pass straight to a black and red shirt and with confidence typical of a team winning every game there was no stopping the attackers from taking advantage. A simple pick up and pass through made for an easy finish and the half finished 3-0.
The second half task was then made even more difficult as Kapasi had to leave, meaning no substitutes available for the remaining 45 minutes. Clark made subtle changes to the middle three to give more stability and shape, whilst keeping an emphasis on positivity, work rate and communication. It was inevitably going to be another tough half, but the promise of the opening stages did enough to give some hope of at least winning the second half.
Following the same trend as earlier, it was Northgate that appeared the stronger after the restart. Alex Owen, now on the right after a switch with Thomas after Broomhall was reintroduced at right back, was seeing more of the ball and running at the City Church full back who was being ridiculed by his own team for some of the mistakes he was making. Perhaps the biggest chance of the half came by statistically the most likely source: Clark to Owen. Another long throw was flicked on by Tonks and fell straight to the top-goalscorer six yards out, only it appeared to arrive too quick for him to react and the header sailed agonisingly over the bar.
More chances began to develop as Tonks made his physicality known to the defence. Owen delivered a wonderful ball from the wing but in sticking his foot out Tonks could only make contact with the advancing keeper in the first of a few fouls that signified the desire to get stuck into the game from the striker. Slade saw a little run open up a chance to shoot, but possibly with the high effort from the first half in his mind he opted to pass and the ball was cut out. A through ball from the midfield for Tonks was almost pounced upon but again the flush contact was found wanting at the final moment, and a Clark header flew just past the post from a Jones corner.
As frustration at a lack of finishing grew, the pattern of play became all too familiar and City Church turned on the style. For what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was about 30-35 minutes, Northgate were forced to defend their lines from an onslaught of pacey attackers running at them and playing the ball about with great ease and attraction. Sharrock was called into action after a counter attack and parried the ball superbly well around the post for a corner, and was brave with punches and rushing out to claim loose balls often. Visibly tiring, the men in orange continued to battle and keep their shape in defence. Mainwaring was using his physicality well to track Maung up and down the wing, whilst Broomhall kept things simple whilst restricted in his movement. Slade was also working relentlessly to close down the man on the ball and won the ball back many a time just out a of sheer persistence. Eventually though, a superb breakaway run from a City Church substitute midfielder took the entire midfield out of the game. Approaching the 18 yard box, he slowed and played a neat pass to the striker who had been kept quiet for the entire match until this point. Despite a slip, he was still able to place the ball into the corner and at 4-0, the Northgate men looked spent.
Time ticked on, and as wave after wave of attacking energy came at the visitors, the work became harder and harder. Clark was racking up the miles continuing to go up to take more dangerous throws, another second phase of which saw Elkington just glance wide. Showing off their talent, City Church were playing some wonderful stuff; spreading the ball about quickly from side to side and showing patience when in and around the box. Sharrock continued to stop anything that did make its way through though as tiredness became endemic throughout the squad. Thomas almost got himself on the scoresheet after a run – in which he confesses he never truly had control of the ball – took him past five different players, only to fluff his lines at the crucial moment and hand the ball back to the keeper. A couple of other half-chances came and went, most notably from set pieces as the height advantage was pushed, but ultimately the game finished at 4-0 with the champions well and truly showing why they’ve done what they’ve done this season.
Pace, precision and patience were all in abundance from the City Church squad, and whilst 4-0 doesn’t quite reflect the number of chances Northgate had, they were clear and deserved winners of not just this game but the league as a whole. In a joint press conference after the match, Maung praised the Northgate outfit for giving them the best games of the season and being the only team to take points off them. Referring to his own club finally seeing success three years after inception, he encouraged the continuation of the only Chester-based team and even hinted at a potential move there within the next year. Clark will certainly be keeping an eye on the release clause in the winger’s contract, but could only give encouragement to his own team after they battled right until the last minute in what was a very tough encounter. A big defeat on paper, but the context brings heart. With one match left this season – the long trip to Macclesfield – he will be keen to avenge that recent defeat and end this debut SMCCFL season on a high.
1. James Sharrock (GK)
2. Ali Kapasi (RB)
3. Mark Broomhall (LB / RB)
4. Matt Hilsden (CB)
5. Jonny Clark (CB)
6. Ben Jones (CDM)
7. Josiah Mainwaring (RM / LB)
8. Rob Elkington (CDM)
9. Dave Tonks (ST)
10. Josh Slade (CAM)
11. Alex Owen (LM / RM)
12. Theo Thomas (RM / LM)
MAN OF THE MATCH – Josh Slade