Northgate 0 – 3 City Church
SMCCFL Charity Cup Group C
Earmarked as ‘Cup Round 1 day’ by the SMCCFL authorities, the 20th October had left Northgate and City Church with empty calendars due to both being awarded a ‘bye’ in the opening round. After mutual squad difficulties, the club management and competition officials agreed that this rare opportunity to postpone a Charity Cup match from 6th to the 20th October could be taken. And so, the day finally arrived for matchday 2 of the group stage. For the winners, guaranteed qualification into the quarter finals awaited. For the losers, a crunch match would be set up with Spacious Place to determine final positions.
Despite moving the game to this day because of lack of availability, it soon became apparent that this was also to be a difficult day for Northgate players. With five new players already signed this season, Clark took the opportunity for some more wheeling and dealing and secured the signatures of two Welshmen to bolster this already large squad. Dillon Garner and Eryl Hooson, the latest men to don the famous orange were joined by three of the other Summer signings, with Stringer making his second appearance, McNeil his 4th and looking to continue his 100% win rate, along with the ever-present Martin Harvey. James Sharrock returned in goal for the first time since the madness at Macclesfield behind a back four of Harvey, Clark, Garner and Broomhall. For the first time in Northgate’s 25 game history, the same central midfield trio was named for consecutive matches as Jones took position behind Campbell and Slade. Theo Thomas started on the right wing with Scott McNeill on the left, both looking to provide for talisman Owen up front.
Last season’s fixtures against City Church brought the highs and lows of the year. A memorable 3-1 win at home proving to be their only dropped points of the title-winning campaign included a goal-of-the-season contender from Russ Morgan, whilst the reverse game saw Northgate on the end of their heaviest ever defeat – a 4-0 drubbing in Manchester. Knowing they were in for a tough morning, Clark set his team out to be patient and hard working. Therefore the frustration was obvious as they conceded their first goal within 10 minutes. An inconspicuous looking attack saw a City Church man lining up a shot from the edge of the box, with Clark looking for all the world set to block it if on target. However, scuffing the shot, he dragged the ball across the box fooling everybody and it kindly fell to their own talisman Jay Jay Wray to tap in unmarked from the edge of the 6-yard box.
A hammer blow to early hopes and the target of keeping the striker off the scoresheet, Northgate needed to bounce back more than Alan Partridge. Needless to say, it was Owen who would be the man to do it. After a scrappy period where neither team created any real opportunities of meaning with both defences proving relatively solid, a set-piece broke the City line. Ben Jones delivered a tantalising diagonal free-kick from the halfway line towards the targets of Clark and Owen. On hearing a call from behind, the manager expertly dummied the ball by faking the volley, allowing it to bounce behind him to the onrushing striker. Owen met the rising ball with a delicious cushioned header that guided it across the despairing goalkeeper and into the far corner of the net to equalise. Both fans went wild in celebration, but as players ran forward to congratulate Owen it was all cut short. The referee had judged Owen to have been in an offside position and cruelly the hosts found themselves still behind.
City grew more into the game and alongside their obvious pace and power, they began to showcase their talent in the middle of the park. Stringing together good periods of possession together they wore down the Northgate midfield and backline through sheer doggedness in keeping the ball and trying to manufacture space. For the most part, the defensive organisation was good and Sharrock only had one actual save to make in the half as he comfortably took a weak header from a cross into his hands.
Déjà vu struck with 10 minutes of the half to play though, and for all the laughter since Macclesfield it all came rushing back for Harvey. The City right winger had found his way down the flank and delivered a teasing ball across the corridor of uncertainty with defenders running back facing their own goal and strikers hot on their heels. Martin Harvey was the man in the centre of the action as it came to him two yards out but facing Sharrock’s goal, and as he swung his right boot in the way in an attempt to deflect the ball away, he ended up knocking it slowly and agonisingly past the keeper in into his own net. It had none of the fizz and style of the similar unintentional finish in Macclesfield, but the result was the inconsolable same.
Stringer and Hooson replaced Thomas and McNeil on the wings in the latter stages of the half to bring a fresh challenge to the full backs, and Stringer’s physical presence alone gave the City left-back problems and a couple of promising passing moves helped lift Northgate heads, but at the break City had well and truly been the better side – however fortunate their goals had been.
Encouragement was at the heart of the team talk at halftime, with Jones expressing how much the hosts were very much ‘in’ the game with lots to play for. A goal in the opening 10-15 minutes could open up doors for a panic-filled ending. But the basics had to be done right. Passing, communication, intensity, work rate off the ball…all were stressed on how they needed to improve to have any impact as a collective unit on the match.
As the teams came out, it seemed like the words were still ringing in the ears of the Tangerines, as the movement to allow passes to come began to appear. Harvey and Broomhall were offering themselves every time as options from goalkeeper and centre-backs to start building from the back as planned, whilst midfielders across the pitch then gave further options to progress. Joy continued to come down the City left and Stringer pressed him hard to force mistakes to create space for crosses, but the keeper was first to react and came to claim the ball each time it came in.
Half chances came and went for the Gators, the most notable as a little flick on from Owen found Campbell running clear into the box only for the keeper to just about beat him to the ball. In and around the box the ball just wasn’t bouncing kindly for any Northgate attackers. Owen found himself in space as a long throw from Clark fell to him but skipped up off the ground and he couldn’t make the required connection with the header and it sailed wide. Set pieces continued to look like the way a breakthrough might come, Garner, Slade and Owen again all having efforts blocked or firing off target from corners, free-kicks and throw-ins.
At the other end though, City knew just one more goal would surely kill off the game and sure enough, it came in a similar frustrating style to the first. A deep cross from the City left found the opposite winger who cut inside and found his initial effort blocked. Falling to a midfielder just inside the box, he shaped to shoot despite the large frame of Garner blocking his way. A mishit shot, an unmarked striker, and a composed finish into the side netting left Northgate wondering how it had come to this. Further rotation of wingers on 75 minutes saw Thomas and McNeil reintroduced as Stringer and Hooson were applauded from the pitch, and the fresh energy did provide some impact but the hosts still lacked real cutting edge to pick the final pass or produce the piece of quality required.
Time wore on, and despite having no substitutes, City Church looked fresher, quicker and more sharp in their thinking than their opponents. A few fortunate refereeing decisions kept the game at 0-3, as Broomhall was somehow adjudged to have played a City striker offside despite being at least three yards deeper and not even appealing for the decision. Slade received a free kick for falling over his own feet, and continued his run of luck of not receiving cards after nearly shoulder-barging somebody over the hedge. Whilst it was clear the result was never in doubt, character and work rate still shone out of each orange shirt. Still looking to pass the ball, still making the runs – albeit very tired overlaps demonstrated by a 50-yard sprint from Harvey only to slice his cross – and still fighting for every ball across the defence, this was a much improved second-half performance from Northgate who just found themselves outplayed by a better team. Being able to piece it together in patches may work some weeks, but City Church showed the ability to stay consistent over the 90 minutes and whilst the scoreline may flatter in terms of the chances created, it was clear they are a very talented bunch that will go far.
A return to league action next week against local rivals Warrington Ambassadors is just what the Gators require, but as for the Charity Cup it is now poised on a knife-edge. City Church lead the group on six points, but Northgate find themselves dead level with Spacious Place.
Played two, scored five, conceded six, points three.
On 10th November, the long trip to Burnley will decide who goes through to the quarterfinals.
1. James Sharrock (GK)
2. Martin Harvey (RB)
3. Mark Broomhall (LB)
4. Dillon Garner (CB)
5. Jonny Clark (CB)
6. Ben Jones (CDM)
7. Theo Thomas (RM)
8. Josh Slade (CM)
9. Alex Owen (ST)
10. Lawrie Campbell (CM)
11. Scott McNeil (LM)
12. Ryan Stringer (RM)
13. Eryl Hooson (LM)
Man of the Match – JOSH SLADE