Stuck in the Mud
Northgate 0 – 1 Poynton Connect
For the first time ever, Northgate had three matches in successive weekends go ahead with the visit of Poynton following wins at SA Central North and most impressively at home to table toppers City Church. With nine points from their previous available nine, momentum was running strong for the Gaters who had yet to drop a point at home in the league. Confidence was justifiably running high, and a win here against a team that had already defeated them twice in agonising fashion this season could see them leapfrog into 3rd position and potentially launch an unlikely promotion push.
With unusually high availability for the match, squad rotation was the order of the weekend. The few changes from the win last week included absences Heathcote and Roberts, whilst Davenport, Jones and Ward all came back into the fold. It was Davenport who took hold of the gloves for the first time since a disappointing away defeat at Oasis Reds in November, and for the 3rd game in a row the back four remained Scott, Hilsden, Clark and Broomhall. Ben Jones started as the holding midfielder behind Holden and Morgan with Campbell and Ward, making his first league appearance of the season, out wide. Alex Owen kept his place as the lone striker. Slade, Sharrock and Crank were all prepped for a 30 minute introduction to keep legs fresh all over what was a very quickly diminishing pitch.
The early stages of the game went without much drama as both sides quite literally struggled to find their feet. A surface that has held up remarkably well with the amount of recent rain was finally beginning to show signs of overuse, with one wing particularly soggy and devoid of grass. Poynton were the first to Connect their passes together though, realising that patience would be the order of the day. A few technically gifted midfield players made life difficult for the chasing pack, as it didn’t take long to discover that once wrong-footed there was to be no recovery. Chances however were few and far between as Clark and company managed to get a head, foot or even a knee on everything to block the route through.
A couple of half chances came and went for the home side, with Owen and Campbell seeing shots blocked or sail wide of the mark as they realised how tricky it would be to keep their footing at the crucial moments. Apart from these the only threat from Northgate came from the long throws of Clark as flick-ons fell into dangerous places but never to an orange shirt. Eventually on about the 30 minute mark Poynton found the breakthrough that would ultimately prove the difference, arriving after a loose pass and missed tackle allowed a searching ball through the defence to find the Connect striker who poked it home to the joyous celebrations of his teammates. Having gone a goal down seven days previously however, Clark was keen to ensure heads did not drop and to see a strong end to the half. A minute or two later saw the introduction of Slade into the middle for Holden, Sharrock replace Ward and Crank coming on for Broomhall in a new-look left flank.
With instructions to impact the game with energy and aggression, they substitutes did not disappoint. Crank provided superb cover to recover against a quick winger, Sharrock was making positive runs down the wing and Slade was utilising his strength and energy to win back the battle in the midfield. The best chance of the half soon came from a counter attack as Owen was found with space to run into who then selflessly squared it across to the supporting Sharrock who was so unfortunate to lose his footing in the mud as he shaped to shoot from the edge of the box.
As half time arrived there was promise and everything to play for in the second period, but it would require full concentration and effort on increasingly heavy ground. Crank had exacerbated a niggling injury in his short display so Broomhall returned earlier than billed in a bid to continue after a hard-working 30 minutes. Communication and movement for each other were the orders from Clark going into a potentially season-defining 45 minutes, as well as seeing out the historically cagey first 10 minutes back out. Both of these were carried out with great aplomb.
Campbell was working hard down the wing, Slade was having the desired impact with pressure, and Jones was attempting to piece the game together and start the flow of Northgate attacks, but after a while the relentlessness of Poynton’s attacking force won through and saw a period of dominance. Davenport was forced into a couple of excellent saves, and was holding on to any high balls with great confidence, whilst all across the back four they were learning just how difficult it was to turn to track the opposition forwards. Were it not for the huge efforts of the defence in this period, the game could have easily been put to bed on around the hour mark but Clark continued to demand more from his teammates and would not let them through. Arguably Northgate’s best chance of the match soon came after another long throw somehow found its way through to Jones and the back post who was unable to adapt his body position and played the ball just wide of the post.
Rotations continued to come as Campbell was replaced by Ward and Jones by Holden; both of whom managed to inject a new sense of energy and pace back into the game. Holden was throwing himself into every challenge, some textbook…others less so, but this inspired others to continue working hard to put in the difficult yards. A change in wings saw Sharrock on the right who delivered a lovely whipped ball across the six yard box, only for Owen to just glance the header wide of the post when a more certain connection would have really given the goalkeeper some trouble. With Morgan now pushed up into a 4-4-2, Slade and Holden had their work cut out in the middle but Northgate had to keep putting the ball in the box.
The final 15 minutes were frantic and end to end as tiredness and desperation came. With the Tangerine Fortress under threat, there were times when only one defender remained at the back as balls were pumped in to cause problems. It looked as though it would be all over as a Poynton counter following a throw in saw their striker in on goal only for his shot to strike the arm of the chasing Broomhall, but the referee waved play on. Broomhall soon succumbed to injury which was not helped by the swamp he was forced to run in during the second half, which saw the reintroduction of Campbell in an unfamiliar full back role to provide some energy in the closing stages. A couple of snap shots were flashed wide, and in the dying minutes a handball appeal this time came from Northgate as a Poynton defender appeared to have punched the ball clear from a cross but again nothing was given. In the end, it was not to be.
The final whistle was blown and it all came to an end: the three game winning streak, the 100% home league record, and the 10 game scoring streak. Northgate had thrown everything at Poynton but hadn’t been able to put enough shots on target to worry the goalkeeper. One clinical moment in the first half proved the difference between two sides that have improved each time they have met this season. 4-5, 2-4 and now 0-1, it is to be hoped that in the 2018/19 season the Gaters will have better luck against this talented outfit if indeed they are in the same division. In his post-match press conference Clark was quick to state the positives: “Previously we have conceded nine goals in two games against them, and now we have conceded two goals in our last three games in total. Defensively we are looking much more solid as of late, and whilst we could have done with a bit more cutting edge going forward ourselves, we have come up against a very well drilled and organised unit that are now right in with a chance of promotion.” Two weeks of reflection and training are now the focus for Northgate ahead of an away trip to Macclesfield where Clark will fancy taking another three points.
Ben Davenport (GK)
Steve Scott (RB)
Mark Broomhall (LB)
Matt Hilsden (CB)
Jonny Clark (CB)
Ben Jones (CDM)
Lawrie Campbell (RM / LB)
James Holden (CM / CDM)
Alex Owen (ST)
Russ Morgan (CM / ST)
Matt Ward (LM)
Josh Slade (CM)
James Sharrock (LM / RM)
Wade Crank (LB)
MAN OF THE MATCH – Jonny Clark