Snow Way Back
Kay Street United 4 – 2 Northgate
Three weeks had passed since their previous meeting in Chester; a goalless draw played in gloriously sunny conditions. This match couldn’t have been more different. Six goals in horrible weather conditions certainly made for an eventful morning. What is already the longest journey of the season for Northgate became much harder with a combination of snow, high winds, and closed motorway junctions. Eventually the whole squad arrived in the Lancashire hometown of assistant manager Rob Elkington, and went out for what had to be a very rushed warm up; something far from ideal after a 70-80 minute journey into temperatures of -2°C with a wind chill causing it to feel like -8°C. Adding an extra layer of unfamiliarity to the occasion was the movement of both goals onto the six yard line due to a small sinkhole appearing underneath the 3G surface on the goaline at one side; thus reducing the penalty areas to just 12 yards long.
After a man-of-the-match performance last time out, James Sharrock (accompanied by a flask of hot chocolate) remained in goal on his birthday. Scott, Hilsden, Clark and Crank completed the unchanged defensive line up. The midfield saw James Holden occupying a free role ahead of Elkington and Ben Jones who took the captain’s armband for the day. Campbell and Heathcote provided the width whilst Owen was the figurehead looking to get back amongst the goals after a recent drought. Ali Kapasi was the lone substitute wrapped up and taking shelter against the elements.
With horizontal snow blowing across the pitch in the strong winds, Northgate were rueing their shortened warm up and needed to get themselves into action quickly. Luckily, neither team were able to take control of the match in the opening stages though as both sets of players tried to adjust to a shortened pitch and the crosswinds. And whilst orange and yellow shirts playing with a yellow ball truly made this a wintery event; you would never have believed that British Summer Time was to begin in eight days time. It was Kay Street who started to gain the upper hand though, with familiar forwards Kell and Beswick making themselves a nuisance and winger Wayne Archer looking confident again, no doubt with memories of his September hat-trick fresh in his mind. A couple of half chances came and went without trouble, but after about 20 minutes the breakthrough came from a free kick. With the foul committed just outside the box, the adjusted lines meant that this effort was from as far out as a penalty. It was Beswick who stepped up and confidently struck it low and hard into the bottom corner to ensure a repeat of the goalless encounter was definitely not on the cards. It wasn’t much later when, in the opposite trend to the Spice Girls, one became two. A defensive clearance appeared to be stopped by the raised hands of a Kay Street midfielder, with the ball then falling kindly to Beswick near the edge of the box again. A strong swing of the boot saw the shot going on target, but a ricochet off the leg of Hilsden took it out of the reach of the despairing Sharrock who could do nothing about it. The referee waved away the protests (from Northgate) claiming it (the ball) had struck him (the Kay Street man) in the face (eyes, nose, somewhere around there).
Like many frustrating times before, it seemed that it required conceding two quick goals to wake up Northgate and get them playing to their potential. Jones was vocal in the centre of the pitch demanding more play along the floor, and he and Elkington began to link up well to calm things down. Crank was forced off with a recurring ankle injury which allowed Ali Kapasi to return to the scene of his goalscoring debut. The best chance of the half came after a long period of keeping possession, passing from side to side across the pitch and drawing defenders out of position until finally Elkington found himself with time and space on the edge of the box, dreaming of a first goal for his new club against his old. It wasn’t to be however, as the shot was mistimed and it bobbled wide of the goal. Buoyed by this though, the Tangerines were visibly rallying and Owen began to get involved more in both dropping deeper to help the midfield and making clever runs into the box, only narrowly missing getting on the end of a good cross from Campbell.
The half drew to a close and Clark’s message was of encouragement and hard work. Movement and talking when attacking had been lacking and clearly be needed to be addressed if they were to avoid a third successive game without a goal. Fast forward to one minute into the second half and the frustration was palpable as losing the ball led to a throw in, which led to a communication error. Both Hilsden and Holden went up to head the ball clear, but in the mix up it bounced off the back of one of them and over the line seemingly in slow motion. Five minutes later, even more defensive mishaps proved costly. The ball was lost cheaply going forward, and then as a wonderful crossfield ball was delivered in to the back post the opposite winger was left unmarked. He latched onto the cross on the byline, volleyed it neatly across the box to another unmarked player to finish from two yards. After conceding just two goals in their previous four games, Northgate looked shellshocked at what was happening – seemingly having regressed six months to sloppy moments of switching off after what had otherwise been a relatively close matchup.
Since the autumnal run of defeats though, Clark’s men have grown a resilience and belief that they are capable of more. So, whilst the goals conceded may have looked like those from the early days, there was then the opportunity to shine and show what has been birthed since then – and boy did it come out. Just like in the first half, after going another two goals down Northgate began to play. Heathcote and Kapasi were linking up nicely down the left, and Scott and Campbell on the right started to dominate play after Scott had done a tremendous job in keeping Archer so quiet he had retreated to full back. It wasn’t too long before the stirrings of a comeback could be felt. Another wonderful passage of a passing play led to Campbell receiving the ball, beating his man and finding Owen in the box who gladly applied a neat finish into the bottom corner. Soon after it was Campbell again in the thick of it, this time intercepting a pass and going alone to bury it and make it 4-2. 20 minutes still remained on the clock, belief and momentum were there and Northgate were pushing.
A few more chances began to appear as the attacks continued to come, the best of which saw the ball bounce agonisingly across the box as Owen just couldn’t connect with a beautiful Heathcote cross. Then, to top off several questionable decisions from the referee of varying degrees of importance, Owen had been sent through on goal following a perfectly weighted midfield pass. About 20 yards from the target with no defenders in sight, the goalkeeper rushed out to pressurise him. A little flick to the side saw him set to go round with ease to apply the finish, until the keeper reached out both hands onto Owen’s side and pushed him. Northgate knew this was their chance, a red card to the goalkeeper with 15 minutes to play would surely buoy them enough to find two more goals. Astonishingly though, the referee pointed for a goal kick. Judging Owen’s unbalanced swing of his boot moments after the push as him deciding to play advantage, the referee appeared to see nothing wrong with the keeper’s actions. Incensed, almost every man in orange appealed the decision in pure disbelief – a feeling shared around the ground by most.
Fuelled by the injustice felt, Northgate began to throw everything they could at the home side. Free kicks and corners were delivered deep into the danger area but were eventually cleared, and Campbell continued a fantastic second half performance with several dangerous runs that earned him the man-of-the-match award if not any free-kicks. A couple of breakaway chances were inevitable as goals were being chased, but Sharrock held well onto anything that came his way and quickly recycled the play with good distribution out wide. Late half chances came from Owen, Campbell and Crank as he was reintroduced for Steve Scott who went off with an injured foot, but agonisingly – the goalkeeper was then claiming everything that came anywhere near him.
The final whistle blew and an icy cold but fiery affair came to an end, Kay Street advanced to the semi-finals of the Trophy. Handshakes all round showed great character after the circumstances of the game, before both teams got back inside as quickly as they could. This was an extremely frustrating morning for Clark’s men on many levels, but their conduct remained admirable throughout. Defensive mistakes have been very rare since the turn of the year, and the hope will be that the conditions were a factor in making this a one-off. To return to scoring goals will be a big positive though, especially for top scorer Alex Owen, ahead of the final run in of the league season. With just five games remaining, Clark has his sights set on holding onto 4th spot for a top half finish. Next week sees the most crucial game in that respect, as a return to Chester sees Northgate host old foes Oasis for their 4th meeting (including one friendly) of the season.
1. James Sharrock (GK)
2. Steve Scott (RB)
3. Wade Crank (LB)
4. Matt Hilsden (CB)
5. Jonny Clark (CB)
6. Ben Jones (CDM)
7. Lawrie Campbell (RM)
8. Rob Elkington (CDM)
9. Alex Owen (ST)
10. James Holden (CM)
11. Mike Heathcote (LM / LB)
12. Ali Kapasi (LB / LM)
MAN OF THE MATCH – Lawrie Campbell