This Is The Year – aftermath 2

And I am genuinely delighted to welcome Curzon Ashton, play-off winners by the only goal against Ilkeston, alongside FC United of Manchester in next season’s Vanarama National League North, even if it does mean having to undergo that bloody awful bus journey to the Tameside Stadium. Here’s hoping you get second place, guys, and you meet the ground gradings for level 5.

And I’m especially pleased after the terrible blow Curzon suffered back in 1997 when they were relegated from the Northern Premier League First Division. Under the rules of the Pyramid, Curzon should have dropped down into the North-West Counties League Division One, but by a quirk of ill-fate, all three bottom teams in the Unibond First came from the south eastern corner of Lancashire.

The relegated teams should normally have been divided, on geographic grounds, between the North-West Counties League (Cumbria, Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, West Derbyshire), the Northern Counties (East) League (Yorkshire, East Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire) and the Northern League (Northumberland, Durham). But all three relegated teams were prime North-West Counties candidates.

Give the North-West Counties credit, for they made room for two teams, but couldn’t take all three. The most ‘easterly’ team, Curzon Ashton, were forced into the Northern Counties (East). An entire season without local derbies, traditional clashes, and every single away game starting with a trip across the Pennines on the M62. Curzon were nearly destroyed financially, and did no better on the pitch, falling straight through. Fortunately the rules of the Pyramid did not require teams ‘stranded’ geographically to get lost in an alien strand, and further relegation saw Curzon shunted back to North-West Counties Two.

When I was first exposed to non-League Football, I learned about the Tameside Five: five senior, long-lasting non-League clubs in one small area: Ashton United, Droylsden, Hyde United, Mossley and Stalybridge Celtic. Mossley were the cock team then, doing well in the infant Northern Premier, the other four in the Cheshire League. Curzon were nothing then, not remotely considered to be a par with the Five, the Tameside Stadium non-existent, the ‘ground’, if you could call it that, little better for facilities than a park pitch.

But Curzon made it into a Tameside Six. And next season they go into a League where only Stalybridge Celtic of the old Five play: Curzon Ashton look down upon Ashton United, Droylsden, Hyde United and especially Mossley, who haven’t approached that cock team level in nearly forty years. Good luck to them, I say, except in two matches next season.

It Is The Year – aftermath 1

That victory a week ago Tuesday night has taken all the steam out of the football season for me. It’s not all wrapped up, but I can’t pretend to have much invested in the final few weeks. Chelsea are going to win the Premier League and Liverpool aren’t. That makes twenty-five years now, but Brendon Rodgers still believes he’s the man to bring an end to that twenty-five year doubt, without having the nous to understand for a second that, if he gets another chance next season, he’s going to be trying to break a twenty-six year drought.

That’s exactly equal to Manchester United’s drought from 1967 – 1993, and guarantees the fulfilment of a dream I’ve long held, and that I was seriously afraid, a year ago, of being denied, that Liverpool had to go at least twenty-seven years. That won’t be known until this time next year, but if the Universe really does intend to turn against me as it so often does, I know the scores will at least be equal.

And I do have a cause in the Cup Final, after expecting to have to boycott it this year: Arsenal v Liverpool? It’s not possible for both of them to lose. But I’ll be cheering on Aston Villa, not only out of principle, but because an Arsenal win takes away United’s record of FA Cup wins, currently shared. And I hate Arsene Wenger anyway.

But this is the year FC United got out of the Northern Premier League after so many attempts. But there’s one more team will go up with us into Conference-North-with-another-new-name next season, and last night the play-off semi-finals were held. The Ashton derby ended all-square, but Curzon Ashton won on penalties, but the big shock was in the other game. Workington had been going great guns towards the end of the season, whilst Ilkeston were starting to fall away, but the Derbyshire side scored the only goal up in Cumbria to go through to Saturday’s final: Curzon, as the highest placed finisher, have home advantage.

So who joins us? One last issue of interest, and then it will be over for the summer.

Is This The Year? – update 12

Last year, I watched my first actual FC United game of the season on Easter Monday as well, at home (Gigg Lane) to Ashton United. This year, it was at home (the Tameside Stadium) to the other Ashton side, Curzon, our gracious hosts for the back half of this season. It was a gorgeous day, the gate was over 3,000, but the game was crap. We did not show the form that’s made us top of the League. Despite taking the lead just before half-time, it ended 1-1 and Curzon could and should have won it. Workington managed an identical result but Ashton United and Ilkeston both secured single goal victories. So the lead is down to 5 points (plus two games in hand) over Ilkeston and 7 over Ashton and Workington, with a game in hand over the latter. Ashton are still the biggest threat. We started the day needing three wins and a draw: this was the draw.

Is This The Year? – update 11

The first of two rounds of games for the Easter weekend, the other being Easter Monday, when I intend to be at the Tameside Stadium to see FC United take on our hosts and play-off candidates Curzon Ashton. FC, Ilkeston and Ashton all secured 2-0 wins (United keeper Dave Carnell’s 23rd clean sheet of the season) and Workington 1-0. No change to the set-up at the top, just one fewer game to play. And every win increases our chances that this is the year.

Is This The Year? – update 4

Ooh, tight, tight. The top three were all in action tonight, with FC United entertaining third place Ilkeston with the chance to really establish clear red water between us and them. Instead it finished 2-2, as did second place Ashton United’s home game with Frickley. So, one point each, one game more, the top three unchanged. FC move an additional point clear of Workington Town (who also visit us this month) but lose the game in hand, and additional point clear of Skelmersdale United, cutting the games in hand in that quarter down to four.

Incidentally, Curzon Ashton’s 3-0 win on Monday night take them to 64 points in sixth, enough to seriously threaten a play-off place but, barring unexpected reversals, probably not a run at the title, FC having the advantage of seven points AND a game in hand over one of their co-hosts for this season.

Next update: Saturday

The Worst Decision Ever

The Enemy

Try as we might, short of developing some kind of omni-scanner that can produce an instant, 3D hologram replay on any incident that takes place on a football field, we are never going to eliminate the shit refereeing decision.

I’ve been watching footbal for nearly fifty years, live or on TV. I’ve watched Manchester United in the League, the Cup and in Europe. I’ve watched World cups and European Championships. I’ve watched various levels of non-League football with Droylsden and with FC United. And I have seen right royal clangers galore, and more than a token few – especially at non-League level – where I remain convinced that the wrong decision did not come about due to honest human error.

You may call that last remark a vile calumny on an honourable body of men without whom the game of football could not exist, or dismiss it as the automatic response of every dedicated football fan whose default position is that the referee is biassed against his team, but when you’ve lost 4-0 away and the referee has sent off your makeshift goalkeeper for complaining about having the ball kicked out of his hands for a goal, and the word comes back that said referee was down the pub in Liverpool that Saturday night boasting about how he fucked Droylsden over…

Fans of teams in the Premier League complain about the refereeing at the top level, and a lot of it is chronically awful, even after you make every objective allowance you can make, but you haven’t seen poor refereeing until you’ve dropped down somewhere about level six, seven or eight. That was where I saw the worst refereeing decision I have seen in my life.

This took place in a game between Curzon Ashton and Droylsden, in the Unibond Northern Premier League First Division, in September 1996. I’d started watching Droylsden regularly again the previous season, anticipating (wrongly) that I wouldn’t be able to get into Old Trafford during the redevelopment of the North Stand. The Bloods had been relegated on the last day of the season, on goal difference, but I’d been hooked enough by the non-League experience to extend what had been intended to be only a one season experiment into a longer-term enthusiasm.

During the summer, a new interpretation of the Offside rule had been agreed by the Football Association, which went into operation at the start of the 1996/7 season. The Law itself was not changed: a player in the opposition half was in an offside position if there were fewer than two players between him and the opposition goal-line. But fans and clubs were long past tired of the innumerable interruptions to the game when, with the ball on one side of the pitch, a winger on the opposite side, over fifty yards from the ball, was running back but still flagged offside.

That summer, referees were instructed to focus on the line about ‘interfering with play’. With respect to the speakers of bullshit about ‘if he’s not interfering with play, what’s he doing on the pitch?’ (even Bill Shankley spoke a lot of crap from time to time), henceforth referees were instructed that a player running back from an offside position, who was not attempting to play the ball or interfere with players who were, would not be given offside. It was the beginning of the Offside Law as we know it today.

By the time Droylsden went to Curzon Ashton, that interpretation had been in effect for a month, about six matches. I was interested in the visit to Curzon: it was one of the very few away grounds I’d visited with Droylsden when I’d been a regular in the Seventies. In 1979, it had been little more than a park pitch with railings around it, but in 1996 there were stands, seats and floodlights, a sign that Curzon had climbed the ladder far enough to be expand the traditional ‘Tameside Five’ to Six.

Though Curzon opened the scoring, it was mainly a comfortable night for Droylsden, who took a 3-1 lead just after the hour, though Curzon reduced the deficit to one goal with five minutes left to play. That’s when it all kicked off.

A long back pass was played to the Curzon keeper in his area. Striker Billy O’Callaghan chased it back, not letting the keeper settle on the ball. The keeper kicked it deep into the Droylsden half, at which point O’Callaghan, in the centre of the field, turned and started jogging back towards his own lines.

The ball was met by Droylsden centreback Dave Ashton, who headed it into Curzon’s half, and over to the Droylsden right wing. In the centre, O’Callaghan was about 10 – 15 yards behind the last Curzon defender, still jogging back with his head down. The defence appealed, the linesman (directly in front of me) raised his flag, the referee considered the situation and waved play on.

A year before, he’d have whistled for an infringement. But O’Callaghan’s position was exactly what the new interpretation had been designed to cover. He was in the centre, the ball on the wing. He had neither moved, nor even looked, towards the ball. He was not interfering with play and the referee’s decision not to stop the game was completely correct.

Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. A Curzon defender dropped back to collect the loose ball, but midfielder Ray Wyse, who’d been in his own half when the ball was headed forward, had gone in pursuit and, before the defender had settled on the ball, tackled him and went away, bearing down on the goal with no-one between him and the keeper.

Instead of dropping back, the Curzon defence kicked off at the referee. In the meantime, Wyse closed in on the keeper, who advanced to the edge of his area to narrow the angle. On the other flank, midfielder Walter Nesbitt had raced forward in support of Wyse, twenty yards or more to his left. Wyse waited for the keeper to commit himself before passing the ball sideways for Nesbitt to plant in an empty net.

4-2, game secured, three points! Not so. The referee disallowed the goal and awarded an indirect free kick to Curzon for offside, against Nesbitt.

The first consideration is whether Nesbitt actually was offside. I’ll be straight with you: I have no idea. It was a Tuesday night, under non-League floodlights, they were roughly level with each other, and I was sat on the sidelines at an angle of roughly forty-five degrees to the play. Wyse and Nesbitt were at least twenty yards apart and it was impossible to tell which of the two was ahead of the other.

But that wasn’t really the issue. I was at forty five degrees to the action: the referee, who was level with me, was directly behind it. Yes: at least twenty yards behind the play, equidistant between two players themselves at least twenty yards apart. It was physically impossible for him to tell if Nesbitt was offside or not. Try it in the Park sometime, with a couple of mates: it’s the equivalent of pronouncing on a Leg Before Wicket appeal from Square Leg: it just can’t be done.

The outcome was inevitable: Curzon scored an equaliser in injury time to secure a 3-3 draw and deprive Droylsden of two points.

What made the decision so appalling was the referee making a deliberately bad call, because he didn’t have the courage to stand behind a correct decision. He was absolutely right not to penalise O’Callaghan for offside, but when Curzon’s own inattention cost them a goal, he lacked the bottle stand behind the right call and made a deliberately wrong one to ‘even things out’.

It didn’t make any long-term difference. Droylsden ended up in mid-table, a long way from anything two points would have affected. Curzon were relegated, and suffered the appalling bad luck of an enforced relegation into the Northern Counties (East) League (all three relegated teams should, geographically, have gone into the North-West Counties League, who would normally have accepted one: they agreed to take two but Curzon, as the most ‘easterly’ of the three teams, had to be shunted into a League where every away game started with crossing the Pennines: unsurprisingly, they fell straight through).

We often see suspicious decisions by referees, particularly with regard to bookings, where a player on one team gets an unjustified yellow or red card because the referee considers that he’s made a mistake in issuing a earlier sanction to the other side. These are still wrong, but are understandable in human terms: a second wrong to balance out the first.

This stands out in my memory for the burning sense of injustice that it created, which is higher than with any other decision I’ve seen, because it did not even have the feeble excuse of redressing some kind of perceived balance: a deliberately wrong decision was taken to ‘rectify’ a 100% correct one. It was disgraceful, and I am well aware of it because I was there.