People’s Church 2 – 3 Northgate
SMCCFL Division 3
Freezing February temperatures meant this match had to be rescheduled for a week later than originally planned, giving Clark’s men their first weekend off in 2019. After a disappointing cup defeat to start the year off, Northgate have shown real character and grit since. A dramatic draw against Westwood, a last minute winner against Macc Parish, and a dominant display to humble Division 1 Bridge Bolton turned January around.
Now travelling to second placed People’s Church, the club who inflicted a frustrating loss at to Northgate earlier in the season having led 2-1 at the break, the Tangerines would face a tough test to see exactly what they were made off. Having only lost to runaway leaders St Kentigern’s all season, and demolishing promotion rivals Kay Street United 6-1 two weeks previously, the hosts were strong favourites and a win would all but secure promotion.
Initially with a squad of 13, illness took Davies out late in the week, and Stringer out on the morning of the game leaving Northgate with the unenviable task of approaching this game without any substitutes. Not only had they never got a result with just a bare 11, but the last time out with such a number resulted in a devastating 8-0 crushing away at the league leaders. Reserve goalkeeper Chris Luke came in for his second appearance for the club in behind a back four of Scott, Hilsden, Clark and Harvey. A return for captain Josh Slade saw him joined in the middle by James Holden and Lawrie Campbell, with Theo Thomas and Alex Clayton offering plenty of pace out wide. Talisman Alex Owen was the familiar lone striker.
The opening 5 minutes brought with them a very clear sense of how difficult a surface this was going to be to play passing football on; tufts of long grass and divots in the mud causing misplaced touches aplenty. However; Northgate adapted the better in these early stages and took to set-pieces to shock their hosts.
Owen, brought down 5 yards outside the edge of the box placed the ball down for a free kick himself. With a line-up eager to attack a dinked cross ready, Owen ignored them all and fired a superb curling cross into the top left corner of the goal leaving the keeper with no chance to put himself one goal better off than last season on his 30th appearance for the club. Minutes later, Clark – also on his 30th appearance – jogged up and delivered a trademark long throw into the box against the strong, swirling wind. The flick on came and it fell to the back post where Thomas was first to it, reacting well to knock it back in the direction of Slade who applied the finish for his 3rd goal of the season.
Shellshocked, People’s Church were arguing with themselves, the referee, the wind…they were struggling to know what to do. Thomas and Clayton were causing problems whenever the ball was played up into space behind the full backs and it was Clayton – the man who scored as the whistle blew for full time on his debut – who got the 3rd on just 15 minutes. Another neat break saw Owen this time become creator, from one Alex to another he fed his namesake in and Clayton applied a lovely finish in off the post. Northgate were in dreamland. 3-0 up in 15 minutes, away from home against a team cruising towards promotion in 2nd place, and all so comfortable.
The hosts began to galvanise as the half went on, with a few half chances all flying off target – most notably an audacious overhead kick by their giant of a striker. Luke in goal was looking calm in goal, and his first save came with his face as an incoming corner ricocheted off a Northgate defender onto the inside of the post and into the cheeks of the relieved goalkeeper. Just as the contest was evening out though, Northgate almost took it further away from their opponents. Great vision from Slade saw him slide through a delightful through ball to the onrushing Owen, but the striker’s first touch bobbled away from him on the poor surface and the keeper therefore had the time to close him down and block the effort that could have put the game out of reach within 30 minutes.
In keeping with recent fashion though, Northgate conceded whilst comfortably ahead. A controversial change of decision by the referee on the direction of the throw in whilst Clark was out collecting the ball to clear the defensive position meant he had to give the ball back to the opposition winger. Unwilling to return the sporting behaviour of fetching the ball, the People’s Church winger threw the ball in immediately on Clark’s stepping back into play and they took full advantage; outgunning the defence aerially and forcing confusion between Hilsden and Luke resulting in an own goal from the defender slipping a slight header past his goalkeeper behind him.
Aggrieved, Northgate pushed on and gained the ascendency once more. Holden and Slade were imperious in the middle, with Campbell popping up all over the pitch wherever supported was required. Disaster struck though with 12 minutes to go in the half as an awkward challenge on Clark saw him sent tumbling to the ground clutching his knee. A twist in the collision had left him badly hurt and he had to limp off the pitch leaving his team down to just 10 men due to the lack of substitutes available. Holden dropped into the back 4 and Owen into midfield to create a 4-5-0 formation in an attempt to get to half time without further damage. A courageous, hard-working and well-organised period ensued and as the player-manager looked on whilst trying to work out his options of returning to the action. Thankfully, Northgate held firm and got to the break still 2 goals to the good.
Having had around 20 minutes to rest before the start of the second half, Clark declared himself fit to return to the action despite a much weakened knee. The message to the team was one of needing grit and determination to see this result through. If the pattern of the first half was anything to go by, it was only going to get harder as People’s Church could utilise their substitutes to keep fresh legs on the pitch as Northgate’s would undoubtedly begin to wane.
A tight and uneventful opening 15 minutes ensued in the second half, much to Northgate’s relief as they felt the eased pressure thanks to returning to 11 men, and the nervousness of Clark’s early movement also disappeared after his first tackle. In a similar pattern to earlier, there was plenty of space to exploit for Thomas and Clayton out wide and as the hosts pushed on they found themselves through multiple times but unable to find the final piece of quality and link up play to put the game to bed.
With the wind now blowing across to Northgate’s right, it was Steve Scott’s turn to deal with the high swirling balls in the air after Martin Harvey had done a splendid job in the first half. Ably assisted by Hilsden looking back to his best after a run of games to get back to match fitness, Scott was on top of the action on his side and making vital tackles to stop the wingers getting in behind. Luke was called into action a few times though and made fine saves as a striker got a shot away from the edge of the box, and he made a terrific parry from a strong effort towards the top corner, tipping it onto / over the bar in what had the potential to be a nervous “Jordan Pickford moment”. Hilsden also show incredible composure to see out the bouncing ball for a goal kick after a People’s Church free-kick made time stand still as it bounced off the inside of the post and across the goal mouth, somehow evading any other players.
Pressure built and as tired tackles began to give away free kicks, and blocks forced corners, set-pieces looked again the most likely way People’s Church would break through. The defence stood tall however, with Holden providing superb cover as well in a dominant aerial display. A deep free-kick into the ball however was met with a sharp shot and, despite Luke’s quick reaction save, confusion was rife in the penalty area. Both teams were desperate to get to the ball first and as one People’s Church attacker dramatically threw himself to the floor, the ball bounced off him to another man standing offside who then also went down all too easily when tackled. It was a classic case of desperate penalty claims from one side and laughing off the pettiness from another. Unfortunately for Northgate, the referee saw things from the host’s perspective and gave the penalty for which nobody really knew why. The big striker in blue put his left boot firmly through the ball and it flew past Luke despite him getting fingertips to it. With 10 minutes to play, it was squeaky bum time.
A constant threat from Clayton, Thomas and Owen, supplied by the never-ending runs from Campbell through the middle meant that the home team could never fully relax, and a couple of half chances to put the game to bed came and went. The play was all coming in one direction towards the end of the game and the 11 men of Northgate were beginning to feel every minute of play on the heavy pitch without the ability to change things up. The heart, belief and confidence that has been developed over recent results though was fully evident as the battle never let up. Slade led by example as his London marathon training paid off for his teammates as he proved even more of a machine than normal, with everyone else digging in for a dogged defensive display. Other than a last second desperate appeal for another penalty though, there was nothing clear cut to trouble Luke in goal and Northgate held on for another excellent win.
Three wins in a row for their third time in their history, and a new unbeaten streak of 4 games shows how important this little run of form is for Northgate, especially given the quality of opposition beaten in the previous 2 matches. Clark was full of praise for his 11 warriors in Manchester, inflicting only the 3rd defeat of the season on People’s Church – and the first by anyone other than hotshots St Kentigern’s. Promotion is still more than likely to belong to the Manchester outfit come the end of the season, but now just 3 points behind Kay Street United, Northgate can dream of chasing them down for a 3rd place finish with just 5 games to go and the long trip to Rossendale to come on the final day of the season. Regardless of final league position, this victory allows for a positive outlook on progress since last season. 18 games played in both campaigns, but as for this year the Tangerines have turned 3 defeats into 3 wins to display a promising trajectory for the future.
- Chris Luke (GK)
- Steve Scott (RB)
- Martin Harvey (LB)
- Matt Hilsden (CB)
- Jonny Clark (CB)
- James Holden (CDM)
- Theo Thomas (RM / LM)
- Lawrie Campbell (CM)
- Alex Owen (ST)
- Josh Slade (CM)
- Alex Clayton (LM / RM)
Man of the Match – JAMES HOLDEN