Warrington Ambassadors 6 – 1 Northgate
SMCCFL Division Trophy Quarter Final
Seven days after Northgate conceded eight goals in a humbling defeat at home to St Kentigern’s, they were left frustrated again as they were hit for six in Warrington. Making the short journey to Warrington for their first ever quarter-final, Northgate knew that a tough task lay ahead as their opponents sat comfortably in 4th in Division 1; 15 league places above Northgate in Division 3. Early morning doubts about the state of the pitch given overnight rain were met with the news that Kapasi was unavailable due to family illness, with Heathcote also becoming unavailable the evening before. Whilst the game was given the green light, Northgate would now travel with just 1 substitute.
Ben Davenport secured his thumbs in place with layers of strapping, hoping for another ‘Man of the Match’ performance like the one that saw his team win in the previous round of the Trophy. Ahead of him was a familiar Scott, Hilsden, Clark and Harvey. Jones, Holden and Davies made up the middle 3 whilst Mike Taylor and James Sharrock started on the wings; both of them looking to pick up where they left off in their last (outfield) man-of-the-match performances. Alex Owen led the line with Coleclough the lonely substitute.
Having tasted defeat on this pitch against Warrington Ambassadors B in the Cup 1st round at the start of January, Northgate were familiar with the significant slope it presented. Coupled with the poor pitch though was a strong wind blowing downhill, and the heavy conditions threatened to make this a really poor footballing occasion. Agreeing that, if level after 90 minutes, the game would go straight to penalties played somewhat into Northgate’s hands with their solitary sub but it was mainly for the benefit of the playing surface which looked unlikely to handle 90 minutes let alone 120.
Just 2 minutes into the game and Northgate were caught asleep still, with the ball given away and the Warrington winger driving into the box, turning dangerously before firing wide in what was no more than an early warning sign. Unfortunately for the Tangerines, the warnings weren’t heeded and the threats continued until the same winger weaved his way into the box and drew a contentious foul from Hilsden inside the box. Having saved a penalty in the previous round against Division 1 opponents, Davenport looked confident but the spot-kick was expertly dispatched into the bottom corner to put Ambassadors ahead.
This seemed to kick some life into the Tangerines however, who began to raise their game. Holden, Jones and Davies were putting themselves about in the centre to ruffle the feathers of their opponents, and the inspiration spread around the team. Sharrock and Taylor were getting on the ball more often and putting the Warrington full backs under pressure as Northgate started to take advantage of playing downhill and being able to turn the defenders around and catch them off balance. 20 minutes into the half, and sure enough they levelled up the scores. A trademark long punt from Davenport in goal was taken early, and Sharrock had the beating of his man down the left. Allowing the ball to bounce once, he watched the second loop onto his head, beating the onrushing goalkeeper and defender to it and squaring it neatly for the in-form Owen who tapped in from 6 yards. Now having scored in 8 consecutive games, Northgate’s talisman was in a buoyant mood and the wind was in his team’s sails.
Pushing forward more, the Tangerines began to create chances. Martin Harvey had 2 decent efforts just sail wide after the full back went adventuring forward, and set-pieces were causing issues also. The closest they came to a second was a neat bit of interplay moving forward between Sharrock, Owen and Holden resulting in the latter shooting against the crossbar in a moment which could have put the visitors ahead. The threat was never gone though at the other end, and Warrington were threatening on the break. A glorious chance put wide, and a shot striking the woodwork kept Northgate on their toes and aware of the fine margins in this game. Clark was making vital blocks and interceptions, ably supported by those around him and in keeping the score to 1-1 at half time was a huge encouragement for the visitors from Chester.
With a place in a semi-final at stake, Northgate knew they now had to contend with the hill, the wind and the deteriorating pitch. Coleclough came on for Taylor after a hard-working first half, and Clark hoped his creativity might spark the difference and breakthrough against the odds in the second period. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite go to plan. A soft free-kick given away seconds after kick off, and even softer marking from the dead ball allowed a looping cross to be freely headed back across goal from the byline and bundled in inside the 6 yard box. 2-1, barely a minute after the restart.
Determination and a tough character has been typical of Northgate this season, battling through in tough circumstances to get something out of the game. But as Warrington made it 3-1 just 5 minutes later after a miscued clearance fell straight to a striker in space, the atmosphere began to turn. Just standing in position ready to take the 3rd kick off in 6 minutes, looking up the hill with the wind blowing into orange faces and mud-sunken boots, morale was draining fast.
Clark and Jones were desperately trying to encourage those around them into staying organised and disciplined, and what ensued was a period off continued pressure from the hosts without a breakthrough. Having made 3 attacking substitutions at the break, Warrington were awash with fresh legs just as Northgate’s were beginning to fade and wave after wave of attacks bore down on Davenport’s goal. The keeper was in fine form however, pulling off save after save, bravely throwing himself towards the posts and opposition players that were sprinting in towards him. Unable to keep hold of the ball due a combination of poor conditions and poor decision making, the midfield were struggling to provide the support they were in the first half and the pacey wingers were giving Scott and Harvey a torrid time, with Clark and Hilsden pulled out of position too often also.
Eventually the pressure told and as through defensive disorganisation, Clark was deeper than the rest of his line trying to cover the extra runner, but some clever play took him out of the game and as the forwards ran through they buried a strike into the corner of the goal to effectively put the game to bed.
In a bid for some extra energy, Scott made way for Taylor at right back but the pattern of play couldn’t be altered. In a 45 minutes of almost total defensive work, a rare highlight came as Coleclough floated a lovely cross into the box towards Sharrock, who had continued to cause problems whenever involved with the play going forward. The goalkeeper enjoying himself outfield, he flung himself towards it with a fantastic diving header, only to connect with thin air and land depressingly in the wet, cold mud.
Despite being comfortably in charge, Warrington were becoming irate with the referee – their own manager given the unavailability of any regular officials – and nearly talked themselves into the book. Holden continued to work hard and dropped deeper to support the defence but the merciless attacking took it’s toll and Northgate couldn’t continue to hold out. Two more goals were scored late on, one after a fortunate rebound from Davenport’s derriere and one from a long-range lob after the midfielder controversially appeared to control the ball with his upper arm, and Northgate had had the stuffing knocked well and truly out of them.
The final whistle blew, and relief it was over was the overriding emotion from the Northgate players. Shaking hands it became apparent the Warrington goalkeeper had got quite cold in the second half, and this really was a game of two halves. Clark spoke of the positives to his team after the game. Holding – and for 30 minutes outplaying – a high-flying Division One outfit for half of a match in a quarter-final shows that Northgate have come a long way in the last 2 seasons. Although they have now been on the end of 2 consecutive heavy defeats, the context of the teams faced must be considered and the improvements in relation to last season remembered.
Two league games now remain, away at Timperley and Kay Street. Both home fixtures were lost in the Autumn of 2018, and Clark will be keen for revenge after what was widely felt like disappointing defeats against both.
- Ben Davenport (GK)
- Steve Scott (RB)
- Martin Harvey (LB)
- Matt Hilsden (CB)
- Jonny Clark (CB)
- Ben Jones (CDM)
- Mike Taylor (RM / RB)
- Pete Davies (CM)
- Alex Owen (ST)
- James Holden (CM)
- James Sharrock (LM )
- Josh Coleclough (RM)
Man of the Match – JAMES SHARROCK