We dispatched our bogey team this morning for the first time (at our sixth attempt) since we returned to Division One and following a run in which they had in each of the previous three games scored last minute goals. The game was not without irony. Last season we made a similarly ‘good’ start (21 points in 13 games) and faced a struggling Halesowen Zion in our 14th fixture. On that occasion, with bad weather upon us, we were desperate to get the game on and worked hard on a Lion Farm pitch to render it just about playable. Result: Halesowen beat us and we only secured two further points and escaped relegation by ‘tooth-skin’. On that occasion Dave admitted they were short and would have been happy for it to have been off. I can admit the same today: we have struggled all week to assemble a fit (and almost fir) eleven and were hoping that an atrocious weather forecast would help us out. By the time we arrived at Swinford Common to a perfect pitch and blue skies, the football ‘forecast’ had clouded over as Nathan Hylton had been misled by an errant satnav and would not be there for kick off and our only sub had succumbed to a hangover. This meant Mark who hadn’t intended even to get changed because of a shoulder injury had to get kitted out to hold the fort until Nathan arrived. Add to this the fact that Tom Doran was returning to a Halesowen short only of goals according to recent reports and I sensed a threat to my mood over the festive period!
In fact Mark’s performance laid a foundation for a hard-earned but well-deserved victory. He sat in midfield as we withstood an early onslaught from our hosts who were playing down the slope and with a sharp breeze behind them. He kept us resolute and got us playing and even against the wind we created the better chances first half. Much of our best work went through our man of the match today Max Tully, a class act and invaluable acquisition and ably supported in midfield by Lee and Ben. Defensively also we gave them little with Olly excellent filling in at full back and Matty Stanton having yet another terrific game at centre back alongside our most consistent performers, Chris and Clive. Let’s be under no illusion, Halesowen still have good players who want to play football: I think they’ll be OK across the season. They were very much in the game first half though they were shaken when we took a 1-0 lead late in the half when Ben Fowler converted a one-on-one: he missed a similar one minutes later and Christie also had an effort saved. Lee also made a good save from their right winger.
Second half down the hill we had the momentum and piled on the pressure. Mark had a goal-bound header cleared off the line and from a subsequent corner and scramble, Christie back-heeled a second (the vital insurance goal given Halesowen’s recent record against us). I finally got Mark off and Nathan on and the game became more open. We had chances (Ben went around the keeper but could only find the side-netting), an appeal for a penalty and also a couple of warnings as Cocky started to put us under pressure and young Tom dropped into midfield to have more influence. Cue the best goal of the game. A long clearance/ brilliant lofted through ball* (*delete as applicable) caught out our centre backs but this only became a problem because Tom took it perfectly out of the air as it came over his shoulder, killing it dead and then slipping it past an advancing Lee: a brilliant goal.
The various horrors of last minute equalisers (and winners) came flooding back as they took the game briefly by the scruff of the neck and Mark and I (forcefully) urged our lads back to a kind of composure. We were still causing them problems but needed another goal. Thankfully (and unluckily for their keeper who’d had a good game) they presented us with a great chance when their keeper miscued to Christie who strode on and demonstrated how to take it round the keeper and roll it in. Good job too because Halesowen were certainly not finished (and this must be the best sign that better times will return) and both a brilliant stop from Matt Stanton and a brilliant save from Lee (not to mention a convincing shout for a penalty) meant we were relieved to hear the final whistle and celebrate a satisfying victory and 22 points.
May I wish everyone at WMCFL a very merry Christmas from all of us here at Rowley. This morning was the epitome of what our league is about: two teams intent on playing football in the right way with the right attitude, a confident referee, Carl Clinton, allowing the game to flow, two good natured assistant referees enjoying the unexpectedly mild morning: long may it continue. All the best to Dave and his lads.