Northgate 5 – 1 Warrington Ambassadors B
SMCCFL Division 3
This is the story of “the best performance in the club’s history” (Ken Owen, 2018).
Back in the sunny summer days, full of hype and cheer pre-season excitement, this fixture formed the 2nd and final friendly in Northgate’s short preparations for the September start. 1-0 up at half time, all appeared rosy and comfortable – only for Warrington to respond with a strong second half that couldn’t be answered and they ran out 3-1 winners despite going down to 10 men for an attack on Lawrie Campbell. Clark left the country hours later amongst rumours of squad unrest, unwilling to answer to the pressing media speculation of a management takeover. Steve Scott had won in charge the previous week, and Elkington the week after that defeat, leaving Clark under pressure without even a ball kicked in the league season. Fast forward 2 months to the start of November, and 4 league wins out of 6 and a healthy position of 3rd, not to mention the clear and passionate press conference given at the end of the Westwood victory, have silenced the critics and left Clark with a happy and united squad.
A large and strong squad was assembled for this rematch, with much emphasis placed on the importance of getting a result for the fans over their nearest geographical rivals in Warrington. Campbell in particular was in the mood for revenge in the first competitive fixture between the 2 clubs. In a classic ‘orange vs blue’ event, Clark decided to dispense with the regular 451 formation that has become engrained in the Northgate minds and opted for the 352 that has shown glimpses of promise in the past and worked to full effect in the Charity Cup win against Gatley St James. With a solid central spine and strong wide players able to rotate in the wing back positions it was a perfect opportunity to trial it again against opposition that had struggled in the early season with only 1 victory from their opening 5 matches. James Sharrock kept his place in goal behind a back 3 of Harvey, Clark and Holden. Steve Scott and Matt Ward started as right and left wing backs respectively, with the now-regular central trio of Jones, Slade and Campbell supporting Morgan and Owen up front.
The first half seemed to go by like a flash, with the hosts imposing themselves on Warrington with great efficiency. Patient, passing football was played supremely all across the pitch by the men in orange leaving their opponents wondering what they had to do to get on the ball. Marshalled by Clark and Jones from central positions, Harvey and Holden were in acres of space every time Northgate were in possession and made themselves available to receive and start the play from the back, utilising the sweeper-keeper role Sharrock seemed to adopt also. Scott and Ward worked tirelessly up and down the flanks, but despite all the dominance the chances were few and far between. Changes were made to swap Ward and Scott for Heathcote and Mainwaring to inject some fresh legs and give the full backs a new challenge and it nearly instantly paid off. Heathcote delivered a dangerous ball into the corridor of uncertainty but nobody could apply the finish. Similarly, another teasing ball came across in the air towards the far post and the onrushing large frame of Mainwaring, but he couldn’t quite make the required contact and it went out for a goal kick. The only other attempt of note in the first period was an ambitious effort from Martin Harvey around 30 yards out…and it flew about 30 yards above the crossbar.
Goalless at the break, Northgate were fully in control of the match but frustrated to have not yet got the breakthrough that their performance deserved. Every aspect of the game was there except the final touch of quality around the area. Clark encouraged patience whilst they tire chasing the ball, and to show the same awareness to pass to teammates in the box as elsewhere on the pitch. The short, passing game was working a treat on a delightful pitch, and it was only a matter of time…surely?
Warrington kicked off as the Gaters came out confident and hopeful for another big half, only to be immediately stunned. The kick off was passed backwards, then the ball sent out to the Warrington right winger, somehow in acres of space from the restart. With Holden then approaching, he had little opportunity to stop the cross that came in early, high over Clark’s head in the middle and was met with an accurate header from the Warrington striker low into the side of the goal. Neither team could believe it, but Northgate were behind.
Sparked into life with a sense of urgency and injustice, each pass and each tackle started moving a fraction quicker. Jones was commanding the midfield and orchestrating the play all around him, with Slade and Campbell throwing themselves into everything to unsettle the opponents. As a result of absolutely none of this – Northgate equalised. For all their excellent, intricate play, it was a route one long ball played from the goalkeeper that found Owen in space and able to finish assuredly into the bottom corner for his 10th goal of the season already. In many ways it was just as depressing for the men in orange as it was in blue, a slap in the face to all the calls for patient build up and pressure building. Regardless, it was a turning point that would prove crucial.
Just two minutes passed and Northgate had taken the lead, with Owen again showing his value with composure and precision when it matters most. Once more, it was a long ball that led to come confusion at the back (presumably at the change of tactic) and the ball found itself falling to Owen. He still had plenty to do but he finished with all the confidence of a man looking for his 3rd hat-trick in 8 games. Able to take a collective sigh of relief, the hosts then knew they had complete control of the game and began to turn the screw.
Warrington heads were down after the quickfire double and Northgate made them pay by chasing the ball around the pitch as the calm possession-based game returned, creating space with their movement and passing. The lead soon doubled as the pressure told, and this time Owen turned provider as he sent a lovely low ball across to Slade who was running forward and buried it perfectly into the bottom left. He could have had another couple as well, but the goalkeeper was equal to a very similar effort and turned it wide with his foot.
Josiah Mainwaring was terrorising the Warrington left back with his pace and power, delivering dangerous balls into the box, and almost had the assist for Owen’s hat-trick goal, but the keeper blocked the shot. Not one to be deterred though, and again in a position nobody could believe, Martin Harvey popped up 8 yards out to finish the rebounded effort into the same goal he scored his 2nd own goal of the season in just 7 days previous.
Stood in the 5 degree cold, Sharrock was glad of his flask of hot chocolate in the second half as his defensive trio ahead of him ensured there was very little to do in the second half other than joining in the passing play. The wingbacks rotated again with Ward and Scott reintroduced, with no momentum lost in the process and chances continued to come. Owen had a couple of half chances for his hat-trick, the best ending up blazed over the bar from the half-volley much to the relief of the goalkeeper. Scott had an effort just sail wide of the post and Heathcote – back on for the last 10 minutes for Morgan after struggling with a knock to the knee – had a header just fly over the bar from a delicate cross in from Jones on the second phase of a corner.
The icing on the cake however came towards the end and was arguably the goal of the game. Man-of-the-match Alex Owen, involved in each goal so far was again the creator here as he played a delicious chipped through ball – the likes of which can only be imagined when playing FIFA but rarely coming off – from the left of the pitch over the centre back’s head straight into the path of Campbell running on. He expertly brought the ball down from waist height with his first touch, set it in front of him, composed himself and slotted it into the bottom corner past the despairing keeper to the adulation of all of Chester.
Fans happy, squad happy, manager happy. A 5-1 demolition job of rivals in Warrington is about as good a Saturday morning anyone connected to Northgate could have hoped for. The blip on the scoresheet will be remembered as exactly that, a moment of switching off in an otherwise thoroughly professional performance that produced some of the best football seen from the Tangerine Army in all of their 26 match history. 4 wins from 6 now sees Northgate sit in 3rd place after 1/3 of the season, but with strong league leaders St Kentigern’s next up there is a very different challenge ahead.
1. James Sharrock (GK)
2. Martin Harvey (RCB)
3. Jonny Clark (CB)
4. James Holden (LCB)
5. Steve Scott (RWB)
6. Matt Ward (LWB)
7. Ben Jones (CDM)
8. Josh Slade (CM)
9. Alex Owen (ST)
10. Lawrie Campbell (CM)
11. Russ Morgan (ST)
12. Mike Heathcote (LWB / ST)
13. Josiah Mainwaring (RWB)
Man of the Match – ALEX OWEN