MEMOIRS OF AN OLD YARD DOG
THE 24th ANNUAL REPORT OF THE BRADFORD SUPPORTERS CLUB (ELLESMERE PORT BRANCH)
The 2011/12 season finally ended in joy for Park Avenue as archrivals FC United of Manchester were put to the sword when Tom Greaves snatched the only goal of the game in the 118th minute of the play-off final at Horsfall. But my mind was on other things and the cricket season passed me by without seeing a single day’s play.
As per usual, my season started watching Wales’s minnows pit their wits against Scandinavia’s finest in the qualifying rounds of the Europa and Champions Leagues. And they don’t come much smaller than beaten Welsh Cup finalists Cefn Druids from the Cymru Alliance, the second tier of non-league football in the principality. Their glamour tie against MyPa 47 from the Finnish industrial village of Myllykoski was switched to the Racecourse and the Druids came away with a very creditable 0-0 draw. Sadly the men from Cefn Mawr were beaten 5-0 in the return leg which was played in Lahti.
Incredibly Welsh double winners The New Saints were exempted from the first qualifying round of the Champions League and so faced a much sterner test in Helsingborgs IF, winners of the Swedish treble in 2011. TNS play at a strange little two-sided ground at Park Hall in rural Shropshire, with an artificial pitch and all sorts of parking problems. The hoards of Swedish fans could not believe where they were, but were soon in good voice singing “You’re not really Welsh, you’re not really Welsh, you’re ******* English, you’re not really Welsh”. TNS then proceeded to give the lofty Scandinavians a footballing lesson and it was only thanks to the woodwork that the Swedes came away with an undeserved 0-0 draw.
In the meantime, Avenue were embarking upon an arduous series of a dozen or so pre-season friendlies. Highlights were a 3-1 victory over our old Football league rivals from Manningham and a 3-3 draw against Doncaster Rovers, having led 3-1 until the final minutes. However the club failed to keep a clean sheet in any of those games, not even in a 12-1 stroll at Selby Town or a 6-2 win at little Bardsey.
Like most people, I was distracted by the Olympics but was only able to get tickets for the football and handball. Thus I headed for Old Trafford for a double header, starting with the United Arab Emirates U23 vs Uruguay U23 with a rather unpopular scouser in their ranks. I was enjoying this game until the last few minutes when those who were only interested in the later Great Britain U23 game started to pile in and yap and spoil everybody else’s enjoyment and view. Britain of course was obliged to field a combined team marketed under a pukey Americanized name and were held 1-1 by Senegal U23s. This was two days before the excellent Olympic opening ceremony, spoiled only by Paul McCartney, Britain’s pukiest singer.
The handball tickets gave me a chance to visit the Olympic park, a stone’s throw from Brisbane Road where I used to watch my football in the late 1970’s when Avenue were in their 14-year hibernation. The railways and London Transport did admirably with all Olympic ticket holders being given free tickets valid on all public transport across London. I thus sampled the Javelin service using HS1 from St Pancras to Stratford International. I ended up in the Copper Box watching Argentina play handball in their traditional light blue and white stripes, note the irony, while just outside Great Britain was enjoying its greatest ever day, Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and all. The Argies were well beaten 29-13 by the Swedes and I then saw Croatia beat Denmark 32-21 in a much better game. Croatia’s Igor Vori was my “Man of the Olympics”.
I was back at Old Trafford a week later to see Brazil, Neymar and all, see off South Korea in the semi-final before heading to Wembley for the final. The capital itself was almost deserted, as I had predicted, with all the usual summer tourists being frightened off by the rip-off reputation of London’s hoteliers. Outsiders Mexico stunned Brazil by scoring in the first minute, then added a second 15 minutes from time. Brazil’s only response was an injury time consolation goal.
The programmes for the Olympic football were very poor. Only two issues were sold – one for Great Britain’s games and one for the rest. There were no special issues for the semi-finals or final. Yet Avenue manage to do programmes for every game, including pre-season friendlies, and this season’s issues were so crammed with information that you needed a magnifying glass to read the small print. The programmes for other Olympic sports were even worse. There was just a £15 programme for the whole games and then a daily issue. So when you went to an event, you had no printed list of who was talking apart.
The summer threads on the two online forums for Avenue fans were very predictable. Dennis and a couple of cohorts were demanding a return to red, amber and black while others, like me, were saying this would be a marketing disaster as green and white was now the very distinctive Avenue brand. However there is no doubt that red, amber and black have a big part in our history and certainly should be used for our away kit instead of the horrible pink or yellow shirts we used the previous year. So I agreed to fork out £50 sponsorship to help the club pay for shirts to be made in our old colours which were not available off the shelf.
However I was gobsmacked when the club announced that these colours would actually be used for our new home strip. This in fact was to feature a Germanic white shirt with an effete red, amber and black diagonal sash. I suppose it was partly my fault for drawing the club’s attention to the 150th anniversary of the formation of the original Bradford FC in 1863 via my website. Fortunately the club did say that the change would be for one season only, which is as well as 2013/14 is the silver jubilee of the reformed club which has always played in green and white.
I looked forward to Avenue’s return to Conference North with a degree of trepidation. After playing against the likes of Mickleover Sports, Rushall Olympic and Frickley Athletic, the thought of playing teams such as Chester, Halifax, Boston United and Altrincham on a regular basis made me wonder whether we were up to it. However the protracted chase and successful signing of Worskop Town’s star forward Jamie Jackson made supporters think that the club was serious. But it would be Paul Walker, an unsung winger from Garforth Town, who would prove to be the signing of the summer. But on the down side, talented young midfielder Ross Daly would miss the first half of the season recovering from a hip operation.
Still recovering from the anaesthetic after a minor knee operation, I had to listen to the opening game against Worcester City on the Bradford Community Broadcasting webcast. After being outplayed for much of the game, two late strikes from Richard Marshall, the second a long range belter, would earn Avenue their first point. Three days later, I made the short two-mile drive to Vauxhall Motors to see Avenue totally outclass my local Cheshire side and come away with a 3-1 win.
Avenue faced two big local derbies over the Bank Holiday weekend. Armed with my Senior Citizens Railcard, I travelled to Harrogate the pretty way via York and had a couple of good beers in the Blues Bar, a twee little beer café below Betty’s Tea Rooms. Town took the lead in the heavy rain with a deflected goal before Richard Marshall equalized with another long-range effort. It would become a habit. Avenue held out in the second half for a point while Town would come to rue the day. Their pitch never recovered from the punishment it took and they had so many games called off later in the season that they had to switch home fixtures to places like York and Doncaster.
Two days later, Avenue faced the reformed FC Halifax Town at Horsfall in front of a crowd 1,614. I followed the Shaymen through some very grim seasons after moving back north in the 1980’s, so had mixed feelings about this fixture. A 1-1 draw meant honours were even. Later than night, I was quizzed about the game by Radio 5’s Adrian Goldberg on the wife’s mobile after I had phoned in about a meteor I had seen flashing across the M56.
Avenue’s trip to Corby gave me a chance to redo the Kettering to Corby line which had reopened in 1987 under the Speller amendment, but closed again in 1990 and passenger trains did not reappear until 2009. With Corby being a bit of a beer desert, pre-match drinks were enjoyed in Kettering after which a taxi was required from Corby station owing to the appalling bus service to the ground. This was miles out of town, like many in the midlands and the south.
Corby were bottom of the league and clueless, so much so that Avenue were 5-1 up shortly after half time. But we had lost our manager’s son Jordan Deacey, who was taken ill, and defenders James Riley and Adam Clayton who went off injured. Fortunately for us, Jordan had returned to Avenue after a pre-season trial with Burnley. Centre half Amjad Iqbal came on as a substitute after a long injury lay off, but looked short of match fitness and never played again. Corby’s forward line found an unexpected fizz late in the game in the summer sun and pulled the score back to 5-4 in injury time. They then had a strong shout for a penalty turned down. Sadly Adam Clayton’s injury turned out to be so serious that he missed half the season, seriously weakening our defence.
A taxi got us back to the station in time to catch the 1712 and I then had to run like the clappers across the footbridge at Kettering to make a 1-minute connection for Leicester (or was it Derby?). This meant charging down the stairs like a bull in a china shop, scattering the people who had just got off the train I was trying to get on. East Midlands trains are, in my experience, Britain’s most passenger unfriendly train operator.
I then headed off to Malaysia on a works trip with a couple of days holiday tagged on. I managed to find out that a Malaysian Cup group game was taking place one night in Selayang, which is 20 miles or so outside Kuala Lumpur in the large urban sprawl. But getting there and back was going to be difficult. Eventually I did a deal with a private taxi company who took me there, organized my ticket and picked me up afterwards (but worried me by being late). I didn’t expect the home team ATM (Angkatan Tentera Malaysia), aka Armed Forces, to have much support, likening them to Dukla Prague, Dinamo Berlin or Honved. But there was a noisy crowd of 2,000-3,000, many in replica shirts. The boys all stood at the back, and the girls at the front all wearing white headscarves, a truly wonderful sight. Premier League ATM gave their Super league rivals Kedah FA a real fright taking a deserved 2-0 lead, before throwing it away by conceding two late goals. A good night out. But Avenue suffered three straight defeats while I was away to Stalybridge and Brackley at home and Lee Sinnott’s Altrincham away.
Promotion to Conference North meant Avenue were exempted to the second qualifying round of the FA Cup where we enjoyed a comfortable 3-1 at Curzon Ashton. Another kind draw took Bradford to Carlton Town, a small club on the outskirts of Nottingham, accessed by a suburban railway station with a fairly modest service, a one mile walk from the ground. I failed to recognize a friend from the olden days on the platform as he was disguised by a beard and baseball cap. Another easy 3-1 win ensued.
In the meantime Boston United had been to Horsfall giving Avenue the opportunity to avenge their heartbreaking 2010 play-off final defeat. Avenue had their revenge thanks to a last minute penalty save by keeper Tim Deasy who had replaced John Lamb, who had retired. As an aside, trying to remember results when writing this article was unnecessarily difficult as our programme editor insists on publishing our scores the wrong way round when we lose. It would be a lot simpler if he followed convention and put Avenue’s score first.
Having already booked a late summer holiday in Devon, I was very miffed to find that our big away game at Chester, very near where I live, was rescheduled for the Wednesday I was away. After an early Danny Holland opener, Avenue put up a splendid rearguard defence until finally conceding two minutes from time. Our long sequence without a clean sheet thus continued. Meanwhile I had to make do with Torquay United vs Accrington Stanley.
Avenue had another slice of luck when the FA Cup fourth qualifying round draw gave the side a home tie against local minnows Ossett Albion. Albion took a shock lead thanks to a header from young centre forward Tom Corner, but Bradford fought back to win 4-1.
A midweek trip to Colwyn Bay ensued. Avenue outplayed their hosts but took 70 minutes for Matty James to break the deadlock. A Paul Walker second followed but a Welsh response meant a tense finish. The evening was then spoilt a little listening to commentary on the wireless of Manningham beating Wigan reserves on penalties in the League Cup. Things were to get worse as the season progressed.
The FA Cup first round saw Avenue drawn away to third Division champions elect Doncaster Rovers, a much kinder draw than the previous season when we were humiliated 8-1 at AFC Totton from Southampton. Doncaster were unusual opponents in the sense that we had very good links with that club and even had one of their young players Liam Wakefield on loan. This took away some of the edge. Avenue took about 500 supporters to the strangely named Keepmoat Stadium. The reduced prices swelled the crowd to 4,602 but there were still thousands of empty seats in the home areas so the atmosphere was fairly subdued.
Doncaster passed the ball about quite nicely but never looked likely to overrun the Avenue defence. Nevertheless they took their half chances to take a 2-0 lead. However Avenue fought back magnificently in the second half and a superb Richard Marshall shot from the edge of the box reduced the arrears and sparked wild celebrations. An equalizer looked possible until a late home goal settled the game. An injury to keeper Tim Deasy gave a rare opportunity to reserve keeper Ben Higginson. John Deacey seldom puts a keeper on the bench, but seven substitutes can be named in the Premier and Football leagues and the “proper” rounds of the FA Cup. Is it any wonder that England cannot produce international players any more when so many talented youngsters spend their Saturdays wasting their time sat on benches watching foreigners play when they should be on the pitch playing for smaller clubs? After the game, I returned to Doncaster station on a double-deck football special. When was the last time that special buses were laid on for an Avenue game I wonder?
Avenue have an abysmal record in the FA Trophy having only won a couple of games in the last 10 years. Conference North status meant we were exempted to the third qualifying round, that is the last 128, so there was now some incentive to try and take the thing seriously. But the side was muscled out of the game at NPL Premier side Stafford Rangers and lost 3-1. The only consolation was the pub crawl before and after the game.
Solihull Moors were formed when Solihull Borough and Moor Green amalgamated in 2007 after a fire at the latter’s ground followed by a period of ground sharing. Solihull’s ground is miles out of town, half way to Birmingham airport. And annoyingly, one of the two bus routes that passes nearby doesn’t stop. The game had a festive atmosphere despite only 252 people being present. The Avenue forward line played well but the defence had a nightmare and the side fell 2-0 down. Tom Greaves pulled one back with seven minutes to go but then, in injury time, keeper Tim Deasy had a moment of madness and came charging upfield for a corner. Moors broke away and walked in an easy third goal.
Solihull Borough were, of course, our opponents when Neil Redfearn played his 1000th game in a long, long career. Neil became temporary manager at Leeds for the second time later in the season.
Sometimes football clubs in financial trouble simply give up the ghost and decide to field teams of youngsters rather than pay a competitive side. Hinckley United were one such team, and were propping up the league. The few points that they did win were taken away for administrative offences. So it was no surprise when Danny Holland scored for Avenue in the first minute and the side coasted to a 4-0 win. After a dozen or so pre-season friendlies and 20 league and cup games, this was Avenue’s first rather hollow clean sheet.
I always look forward to trips to Workington to grice the Cumberland coast line but, on this occasion, timings meant this had to be done from the Carlisle end in both directions. Workington itself is a beer desert with hardly any real ale except in Wetherspoons. So I ended up having eat-in fish and chips at the local chippy as it was freezing. The Reds were well on top in the first half and Avenue were lucky to come in at 1-1 at the interval thanks to a Jordan Deacey goal. But I don’t know what the manager said at half time but it worked wonders. Avenue simply tore Workington apart after the break and ended up astonishing 6-1 winners. The best was yet another long-range cracker from Richard Marshall, this time a volley and my goal of the season. Unfortunately I didn’t have a great view as I was walking round the other end to make sure I got the train home at 1715 or thereabouts, otherwise I would be faced with a two hour wait.
I made another train trip a week later, this time to Histon near Cambridge. This meant I had to travel via London to use the non-stop service from King’s Cross. There is something not quite right about travelling via London to a Conference North fixture, but regional imbalance is unavoidable when two of the three feeder leagues to Conference North and South are southern based.
Cambridgeshire County Council are regarded in a similar light to Richard Beeching by public transport enthusiasts. There was a perfectly good railway line from Cambridge to St Ives which was ripe for reopening to help alleviate the chronic traffic problems in the city. But misguided zealots on the council insisted on wasting millions by turning it into a guided busway. This starts a couple of miles out of town so the buses have to come off the busway and then fight their way through the traffic to get to the town centre. It is mad and I didn’t enjoy having to ride it to the old Histon & Impington station near the ground.
Histon is a very, very twee and upmarket suburb with two or three excellent pubs and a very good football ground with cover all the way around. However they had a big centre half who looked a million miles off match fit. His slowness was a major factor in Avenue taking a 3-0 lead in the first 18 minutes. Young Michael Duckworth, our player of the season, got the second when a very long range shot took a lucky deflection. The centre half was taken off and Histon improved, but not enough to prevent a 4-1 Avenue win in the autumn sun.
After a blank weekend, Avenue made their last visit to the doomed St George’s Lane ground in Worcester. The game was in doubt until the last minute with the Avenue coach breaking down en route to add to the uncertainty. Good connections meant I had time to get off at Stourbridge Junction and ride on the class 139 Parry People Mover down the very short branch to Stourbridge Town. That was as good as it got.
The game was ruined by the referee Mr Simon Bennett from Staffordshire who sent off Jordan Deacey for two minor yellow card offences in two minutes. His sheer delight in brandishing the red card reminded me of Parking Pataweyo and his black and white cat. I later discovered that he was the linesman who had pleased me at Goodison Park a few weeks earlier by disallowing Luis Suarez’s last minute winner. Suarez should never have been on the pitch at the time.
Two days later, John Deacey would come to rue his policy of not having a keeper on the bench. Avenue were well on top against Gainsborough until Tim Deasy suffered a serious injury and had to leave the field. Our best defender James Knowles took over between the sticks which was a bad choice. Not only did our defence fall apart, but James was badly at fault with both goals which any regular keeper would have saved. The game ended in turmoil with Tom Greaves being brought on as a substitute and then dragged off five minutes later for not playing as instructed. The Avenue favourite was soon on his way to FC United, the club whose hearts he had broken just six months earlier.
Avenue now faced a daunting run of fixtures against all the top teams with half a dozen key players either injured or suspended.
John Lamb was persuaded to come out of retirement for our big Boxing Day derby at Guiseley but, unsurprisingly, did not look match fit. We lost by a solitary goal, thus maintaining our awful record against our bogey team. Avenue then lost 2-0 at Stalybridge but I missed the station buffet as I didn’t travel expect the game to happen due to the torrential rain. I needed to have a car to travel elsewhere if the game was off.
By the time Guiseley came to Horsfall on New Year's Day, Avenue could barely raise a team and had to draft in youngsters like Jordan Snodin and new signing Tom Corner from Ossett Albion. Needless to say Guiseley won 3-1. The decision to let players like James Riley leave earlier in the season was looking very short sighted.
The weather did not come to Avenue’s aid and a week later we hosted runway league leaders Chester, expecting a heavy defeat. But with a couple of players back, including Adam Clayton, Avenue made a good fist of it and came away with an excellent 1-1 draw thanks to a Danny Holland goal on the stroke of half time and an excellent penalty save by a rejuvenated John Lamb. Only one other team had taken points off Chester so to gain two draws against them was an excellent performance.
The trip to Brackley could have been more complicated than most, but the bus service from Banbury was surprisingly frequent and a good use of my OAP bus pass. After a bright start, Avenue found themselves on the back foot against the league’s surprise package. The pressure told in the second half and we tumbled to a 3-1 defeat in the freezing cold.
The winter had thus far been kind and clubs had done an excellent job in getting fixtures on. But that all changed in January as Avenue went three weeks without a game. This was lucky for me as the break clashed with my annual skiing trip. Solihull were dispatched 1-0 in early February before Avenue made the trip to Cheltenham Town’s Whaddon Road ground to face groundsharing Gloucester City. Before the game I had to explain the delights of Morris dancing to Bob Blackburn on Cheltenham High Street. The Morris dancing turned out to be more entertaining than the game. For some reason Gloucester wanted it more than us and a 1-0 defeat actually flattered Avenue.
Avenue completed the double over Vauxhall Motors giving me bragging rights in Ellesmere Port as well as Chester. We then faced Corby Town who turned out in the most girly pink shirts and socks imaginable. I assumed this might be for a breast cancer charity but it was not. I have a theory that when you put out a football team in an embarrassing kit they will play badly – and this turned out to be the case. We won 2-1.
Avenue sadly were now being overshadowed by our neighbours from Manningham who had somehow managed to reach the League Cup final at Wembley. The media lazily started referring to Manningham as Bradford, as much to the annoyance of older City supporters as to us. Daily Mail columnist Martin Samuel added fuel to the flames with an article which showed a complete ignorance of Bradford football history.
Only Swansea City stood between Manningham and glory, so I became an adopted Welshman for the month. I watched the game in a real ale pub in Chester where I seemed to be the only one interested. Fortunately the Swans gave City a footballing lesson. However with Manningham down to 10 men and 4-0 down, Spanish forward Michu disgracefully told their players that they would just keep the ball and not go for more goals “out of respect”. I call it match fixing and very unfair on the punters who had bet on 8 or 9 nil.
One of the highlights of the season was our trip to Droylsden which occurred a couple of weeks after the opening of new Manchester – Droylsden tram line. This will eventually extend to Ashton-under-Lyne. Fortunately the trams were quite quiet as Manchester City were not at home, the only disappointment being the fact that I could use neither my Cheshire bus pass nor my national railcard. On arrival in Droylsden on a warm sunny day, I sat outside the chippy eating my Holland’s steak pudding, chips, peas and gravy watching the trams running into the headshunt and then reversing. This was followed by a pint of Holts in the pub next to the ground. Magic.
Droylsden sadly were another team who had given up the ghost and Avenue were 5-0 up by half time. We then took the foot off the pedal before adding a couple more in the last ten minutes. You had to feel for Dave Pace.
The weather in March turned out to be terrible, the worst of the winter. After beating Workington 1-0 on the first Monday night, Horsfall was covered in deep snow and out of use for a month. But the side managed to fit in a good 1-1 draw at Gainsborough.
Avenue struggled to get out of Bradford for their away game at Boston, one of the very few to survive. The supporters coach was cancelled. I decided not to risk a cross country train journey and headed instead to Deepdale. The snow miraculously disappeared between Wigan North Western and Preston, but there was still a bitingly cold wind and I had to choose my stand with care to make sure I was sheltered. My old team Leyton Orient earned a battling 0-0 draw, effectively ending both sides’ play-off hopes. I missed a great 4-0 win at York Street with Alex Davidson netting a hat trick, but at least I saw the highlights online. On his day, Alex was unstoppable. Avenue were awarded their only penalty of the season in the 85th minute. Conference North defenders showed commendable restraint in their attempts to stifle Alex and Paul Walker over the course of the season.
Avenue’s late season break also allowed me to cop new grounds at Rotherham and Crawley, leaving me with just Brighton to do to regain the full 92. I was pleasantly surprised to find a high frequency bus service running to the Broadfield Stadium on Good Friday, perhaps because of its proximity to Gatwick Airport. Unfortunately I never saw the new Aldershot Town play a league game at the Recreation Ground before their relegation back to the Conference.
The most important date in Avenue’s calendar was the 31st March 2013. The club had to make specified ground improvements by that date in order to achieve a “B” grading, otherwise we would be relegated. Nothing had happened by the start of March apart from an appeal to supporters to buy shares, which I duly did. When the blizzards came, I feared the worst. The club and council could not agree on contractors and major work had to be done to the dressing rooms and floodlights. Furthermore new terracing had to be installed on the pavilion side.
Avenue did manage to do the work so sincerest congratulations to everybody involved. The graders were actually quite kind by allowing us to get away with a couple of rows of low patio steps – any more and spectators would have risked falling into Harold Park. And while the new lights were expensive, they did not look strong enough to achieve the “A” grading required for any subsequent promotion to Conference national. Money doesn’t go very far these days.
There was still snow around the Shay on Easter Monday when Avenue arrived for the local derby. Star defender and captain James Knowles had stunned Avenue supporters by accepting Halifax’s thirty pieces of silver the week before, even though we still had a chance of making the play-offs. I don’t like disloyalty. However we had the last laugh when another Richard Marshall special earned Avenue a superb 1-0 win. With a pitch problems as bad as Harrogate’s and worse than Horsfall, Halifax were miles behind with their fixtures and looked a tired lot. Unfortunately however, Avenue’s Mr Reliable, left back Martin Drury sustained a serious injury which would keep him out for the rest of the season. This also weakened our forward line as it disrupted the excellent attacking partnership that left winger Paul Walker had built up with him. Two days later, a last gasp Danny Holland goal gave Avenue a 1-0 win over 10-man rivals Harrogate Town on a Horsfall glue pot, strengthening Avenue’s play-off hopes.
While checking out pubs on Huddersfield Road for real ale, I discovered an excellent chip shop next to the Drop Kick which is sadly only keg. This was a relief as previous favourites were either closed on Mondays (or completely) or had started frying in vegetable oil instead of beef dripping. Having said that, the chips in the tea room at Horsfall are magnificent.
The trip to Hinckley’s new stadium was not the formality we expected it to be. It took two late goals to give Avenue a flattering 4-1 scoreline and move us to eight wins and a draw in nine outings.
But the unexpectedly bad March weather had suddenly left Avenue with a fixture pile up in April and we faced Oxford City home and away on the following Monday and Wednesday. Sadly we were beaten 2-1 at home and only managed a 1-1 draw away. I could not get to the away game so had to listen again on the online wireless, with fundraiser Trevor Heylings proving to be an excellent co-commentator.
The home game against hapless Droylsden was sponsored by the Guess the Gate participants, entitling us to hobnob in the directors’ portacabin at half-time. We were treated to the most magnificent lamb curry and chapattis I have tasted in decades, but I have still no idea where they came from. It was a wrench to leave mine unfinished when the second half started. Now I understand why there are sometimes empty seats in corporate areas after the break.
A 5-0 win left Avenue six points behind fifth-placed Altrincham with two games in hand. The two clubs met at Horsfall four days later, so victory against Lee Sinnott’s men was essential. The scores were level at 1-1 with seven minutes to go, thanks to yet another penalty save by John Lamb. Then Jordan Deacey went on a superb mazy dribble from the half-way line through the middle of the Altrincham defence, before slotting the ball into the net to give Avenue a 2-1 lead. But a minute later we conceded an equalizer and our promotion hopes were over.
As fate would have it, Avenue’s last three fixtures were against the three clubs fighting to avoid the third relegation spot, Hinckley and Droylsden having succumbed a long time before. Our trip to Bishop’s Stortford involved another train trip via London and a chance to grice the Stratford – Tottenham Hale link. The ground was half way to Stansted Airport, airport proximity being a theme this season, and was serviced by a rather unpunctual bus service. The huge queues on the approach road were actually going to the municipal dump, not the football ground.
But there was still a good crowd who soon started singing about what a c**p league this was and how they wanted to go home. If the league was so bad, why were they in relegation trouble I wonder? Nevertheless Stortford wanted the game more than Avenue in the second half and fought back from 1-0 down to win 2-1 and assure their safety.
At this point, me and the missus absconded to Malta for a holiday we had booked when Avenue were in the bottom half of the table. Malta has lots of football teams but very few grounds. Most Premier league games are played as double headers at either the National stadium or the Hibernians ground. The Hibernians ground in Paola is in an old industrial area and rather difficult to find from the nearest bus stop. When I arrived there late on Friday afternoon, there was hardly anybody around apart from a couple of police vans. With the league split into two, I saw two games in the relegation group and it only cost six euros for the pair. There were no programmes and even the more attractive second game only attracted 300-400 spectators. Rabat Ajax avoided relegation be beating Melita 4-1.
I missed a couple of big games at the National stadium on the Saturday, preferring to wait for the Sunday double header. The ground is in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the island but, after days of research, I discovered it could be reached by an obscure bus service from the local hospital. On arrival, I found the same clerk on duty in the ticket office so we had a chat. Lower league games were also taking place at the Centenary Stadium next door.
The first game saw Jonathan Holland’s old side Floriana, playing in a green-and-white striped kit which would work very well for us, beat Hamrun Spartans 3-1 and condemn their opponents to the drop. In the second game, Hibernians, who seldom play at home, hammered Mosta 6-0. I thought I had plenty time to catch the hourly bus back to the hospital afterwards, but the devious driver left 10 minutes early. Malta’s bus services have recently been taken over by Arriva but are still a shambles.
In the meantime, Avenue’s season was ending in a damp squib. Colwyn Bay won 2-1 and Histon drew 0-0 at Horsfall to save both from the drop and send Corby down. Avenue thus finished in seventh place, well off the play-offs. And talented midfielder Nathan Hotte was red carded for throwing the ball at the referee late in our last game, so starts next season with a four match ban.
On the other side of town, Manningham also finished seventh, but were rewarded with a second trip to Wembley and promotion to the third division. Guiseley must have been particularly miffed, having finished second two seasons on the trot without going up. Halifax won the play-offs and the second promotion spot.
Avenue’s season, as ever, finished long before the bigger leagues, offering opportunities to go to some vital games at the season’s end. This year I was lucky enough to qualify for an FA Cup final ticket from Wigan Athletic, having attended a handful of games at the DW Stadium over the last few years. Games there seldom sell out as they are so precious about away fans infiltrating home areas that it is quite hard to get on their approved list. Unfortunately the FA set the kick off time at 5.15 pm and Virgin refused to put on any late trains, so everybody had to go by coach.
I ended up having to leave home at the crack of dawn to drive to Wigan to catch a bus which got me to Wembley three hours before kick-off in the pouring rain without a real ale pub in sight. But as everybody knows, the day ended in joy for the Latics thanks to an injury time header from Ben Watson. Travelling on somebody else’s supporters’ bus was a surreal experience and I expected wild celebrations on the way back. But the bus was totally subdued with no singing or chanting, just people purring with contentment. I got home sober at 1.15 am and thus my season ended.
At this point, I usually make predictions about how Avenue might fare in the coming season. Often I have vibes about this which sometimes turn out to be correct. On this occasion, I am worried. The club seems to have gone into hibernation over the close season with no news or signings, leaving fundraising stalwart Maria Bruce apparently running the show. Basically we only have about eight players of genuine Conference North class and league clubs have offered trials to two of these in Michael Duckworth and Jordan Deacey. Wondering where our manager is going to find replacements for those who have been let go, and fearing complacency and second season blues, I see a relegation battle ahead. Needless to say, I hope I am wrong. I was last year.