Is This The Year? – update 9

A cracking night for FC United last night, and they weren’t even playing. All three rivals were in action, with Ashton United drawing 1-1 away to Blyth Spartans and Ilkeston going down 2-0 away to Workington Town. This put Workington level on 74 points with Ilkeston, with Ashton United two points behind. But the main point is that FC United, who play tonight at Whitby Town (lovely place to visit), now have games in hand again over all three – one over Ashton, two over Workington and three over Ilkeston. Five wins and a draw from the remaining eight games secures the title: here’s to victory over Whitby being the morale-boosting start of those!

Is This The Year? – update 7

Bit of a setback today, FC United only able to draw 1-1 away to Stamford, but not too damaging a result as second place Ilkeston could only draw as well, maintaining that seven point gap and with a game in hand still. Ashton United and Workington were the day’s big winners, both recording 2-0 wins at home, putting them both level with points on Ilkeston, and on the same number of games as FC. Skelmersdale lost again, and between the collapse of their mid-season form and the number of games they’ve played, they are no longer credible challengers. Barring a turnaround that Roy of the Rovers would reject as implausible. Thus, with eight games left and a seven point lead over all three challengers, FC United of Manchester need six wins to secure the Northern Premier League Premier Division title. No midweek games featuring any of the Top 4: tune in next Saturday.

Is This The Year? – update 6

Woo-hoo! A nervously narrow margins game  but FC United beat promotion rivals Workington Town 1-0 tonight, and if that wasn’t enough, second place Ilkeston dropped two more points in a 3-3 draw at Stourbridge that could have been even better for the Red Rebels, seeing that at one point Ilkeston were 3-1 down and reduced to ten men. The outcome is that FC have now stretched their lead to seven points over Ilkeston at the top of the table, with Ashton United and Workington both nine points in arrear. Games in hand are no longer such a factor: FC have one in hand on Ilkeston and three on Skelmersdale who, barring any sudden reversals in form (ours and theirs), can be considered out of it. What this means is that seven wins and a draw in the remaining nine games will be enough. Looking good. Looking very good.

Is This The Year? – update 5

By a trick of the fixture list, the top 5 teams were all playing away today, and it was a bit of a mixed bag for results. Most important result, of course, was FC United away at Halesowen Town. Worryingly, this first came up in the Score Centre as 0-0, but a couple of minutes later there was an update to another 1-0 win for the Red Rebels. Ashton United, leading at half-time, shipped an equaliser and lost their grip on second place to the ever-dangerous Ilkeston Town, who won 2-1 at Marine, all the goals coming after half-time. Skelmersdale United, leading at half-time, had to make do with a share of the points, and dropped below Workington Town – FC’s visitors on Tuesday night – after the latter produced a win courtesy of a first-half goal. FC’s lead at the top now extends to five points, with only two points separating the chasing four, and FC still have a game in hand over Ilkeston and Ashton, and four in hand over Skem. Nine more games to go: is this 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

Is This The Year? – update 3

Back to winning ways for FC United (3-1 at home to King’s Lynn Town) and right until the very end it looked as if it was going to be the same with the rest of the top 5 in the Northern Premier League Premier Division. But Grantham Town sneaked in a late equaliser at Ilkeston, enabling FC to reclaim the two points lost in midweek. That means that Ashton and Ilkeston change places, with the latter once again 5 points behind but otherwise there’s no changes in position, and no changes in the relationships of points won and games played. Just one more weekend ticked off the road to the end of the season, which for FC is another 12 league games. The next one’s a biggie, on Tuesday night, as FC are at home to Ilkeston in a traditional six-pointer, whilst Ashton United entertain Frickley Athletic…

Is This The Year? – Update 2

Bit of a setback tonight. The 100% streak came to an end with a draw at Rushall Olympic, after leading at half-time, whilst Aston United and Ilkeston both won after being held to level pegging. So both clubs gain two points, though the game in hand situation is preserved in respect of both clubs. With neither Skelmersdale nor Workington playing, we are still 3 points clear at the top but Ilkeston move into seond place and Ashton third, a point behind.

Roll on the weekend.

Is This The Year? Update 1

At half-time, it looked absolutely bloody brilliant. FC United a goal up at Grantham Town, Skelmersdale (2nd) and Aston (5th) a goal down, Ilkeston (3rd) drawing and only Workington (4th) in the lead.

Of course, it was too good to be true, with Ilkeston and Aston coming through to win, but FC did make it eleven straight League wins and Skem lost 2-0, so FC’s lead at the top of the table is now three clear points over them, and no change to the rest of the chasers, all games in hand maintained.

We’re in action again on Tuesday night (when aren’t we?) away to Rushall Olympic. Ashton and Ilkeston also have games that night but it’s a chance to distance ourselves even further from Skem and Workington – and who knows, maybe we’ll get some help from Kings Lynn Town and/or Blyth Spartans? But the all-important thing is that twelfth straight win.

Expect these updates on a regular basis unil the end of the season, and expect one bloody big ballyhoo if we pull this off…

Is This The Year?

Last year, I wrote a series of posts about my interests in non-League football, in the twin forms of FC United of Manchester (who I support) and Droylsden FC (who I used to support).

This time last year, Droylsden (aka the Bloods) were in horrendous freefall: a goal difference of more than minus 100 before New Year, confirmed relegation in February. It looked so bad, coming off the back of a similar freefall season in the Conference North the year before, that I seriously feared that they would continue to fall disastrously.

Well, that hasn’t happened. The Bloods have rallied in the Northern Premier League First Division North (I don’t do sponsors unless they sponsor me), and there’s no risk of the plummet continuing. Indeed, for much of the season, Droylsden have been in or about the play-off places and contenders for an immediate return. They are comfortably the highest scorers in the whole Northern Premier League and they are the kings of results, with only one draw in 32 League games.

Promotion looks unlikely, however. Droylsden lie 7th, two places and two points out of the play-offs, but the biggest factor weighted against them is that their 32 games is the highest number played among the promotion contenders. All six teams above them have one to three games in hand (and the next two teams below them have even more games in hand). The odds that at least half of these eight rivals will jointly collapse and let the Bloods overtake them are highly unlikely.

It’s a totally different story for FC United. Last year was the fourth in succession that FC had challenged for the Premier Division title and promotion to Conference North. It was the fourth season in succession that FC got into the play-offs, this time with home advantage in both semi-final and final guaranteed by virtue of finishing second.

It was also the fourth year in succession that they blew it, although disappointment this time came not in the Final but the semi-final: beaten 2-1 by Ashton United with literally the last kick of extra-time: I know, ‘cos I was there.

This season, FC’s progress has been held up by an extraordinarily successful run in the FA Trophy. The club got through to the quarter-finals, the last eight, the only non-Conference team left in the competition, before going out 1-0 at Torquay United, who, last season, were still Football League (I listened to radio commentary from BBC Devon, who were good enough to say that FC didn’t look out of place at Torquay’s level).

The consequence of that run has been that FC now has games in hand over practically everybody else in the Premier Division, and especially over all the viable promotion candidates.

It’s an old saying, but still true, that it’s better to have the points in the bank than games in hand. But as of Tuesday night this week, FC United of Manchester have both. As of Tuesday, we are top of the Northern Premier League Premier Division, for the first time this season, borne there on the stength of ten successive League wins.

FC are top on goal difference (plus 29) from long-term leaders Skelmersdale United (plus 13), but FC have SIX games in hand. They are four points clear of third place Ilkeston, with two games in hand, five points above Workington Town with one game in hand and six points clear of Ashton United, again with one game in hand. And that’s just the current play-off zone.

It’s in our hands, people, in our hands and nobody else’s. They can win all their games from now to the end of the season, but if we win, we are Champions and there’ll be none of this play-offs nonsense.

Promotion would be doubly appropriate, not only to celebrate FC United’s tenth year since formation, but also the long-anticipated move into our own ground. From 2005 to 2014, FC rented Bury’s Gigg Lane as their home ground, whilst this season home matches have been divided between Stalybridge Celtic’s Bower Fold and Curzon Ashton’s Manchester Park. But Broadhurst Park in New Moston, taking the club back to Manchester United’s roots, holds its inaugural game in May, hosting none other than Benfica. How better than to start our new home’s life in a new division!

So you can expect a few more posts between now and May, as the season progresses and the title race gets more and more… what?

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.