MEMOIRS OF AN OLD YARD DOG
THE 25th ANNUAL REPORT OF THE BRADFORD SUPPORTERS CLUB (ELLESMERE PORT BRANCH)
The 2012/13 season ended in a damp squib with Avenue fading in the last few weeks and missing out on a play-off spot. Nevertheless the club finished in a very creditable seventh position in their first year back in Conference North.
The close season was quiet, dreadfully quiet in fact with very little news emanating from the club. Manager John Deacey had obvious split loyalties, on the one hand trying to find Football League moves for his son Jordan and full back Michael Duckworth, and on the other trying to strengthen the squad. The pre-season fixture list was uninspiring, the highlight being a game against a scratch team of ex-patriot Pakistanis who were marketed as something grander than they actually were. Avenue strolled into a 3-0 lead and then threw it away with the central defenders looking like carthorses. Two late goals saved our blushes. A similar second-half horror show against Halifax saw a 4-0 lead pegged back to 4-3.
As per usual, my season started watching Wales’s minnows pit their wits against Scandinavia's and Eastern Europe’s finest in the qualifying rounds of the Europa and Champions Leagues. I saw Bala Town, Airbus UK Broughton, TNS and Prestatyn Town give good accounts of themselves in July, even though none were able to play on their own grounds. Indeed TNS fans were outnumbered eight to one at Wrexham by the bare shirted hordes from Legia Warsaw.
The Football League started two weeks earlier than Conference North, so I headed to south Wales to see Newport County's return to Division 4, having seen their last game in 1988. Rodney Parade is a nice rugby union ground, far better than ramshackle Somerton Park. County hammered hapless Accrington 4-1, the latter becoming my hot tip for relegation. A week later I was down at Falmer to tick off Brighton's fine new stadium. This is in the middle of nowhere with virtually no parking so everybody goes by train and hopes it doesn't rain on the queue after the match.
Avenue faced two promoted sides in their first two matches which was less than ideal as they come full of confidence and enthusiasm. Like many sides from further south, Leamington had lost their former ground to developers and had now started up on a farmer's field many, many miles out of town. I opted for the only possible bus, which left well before 2 pm, rather than fork out £12 for a taxi. Sadly the home side prevailed by two goals to nil. The bus back to town was due at 5.45 pm and blobbed, which caused panic among the half dozen or so of us at the lonely bus stop. Eventually we returned to the ground and were offered a lift to the station in the Leamington FC minibus for a quid apiece. That's what I call a friendly club. The service bus had apparently been delayed by the re-enactment of some historical battle in a nearby village.
Pre-season fears about our defence really came to roost two days later when we were stuffed 4-0 at home by North Ferriby, despite the return of star central defender James Knowles from his sojourn in Halifax. 2-2 draws against struggling Barrow and away at Stalybridge did little to lift the doom and gloom. Five days later we were 3-0 down at home to lowly Oxford City at half time and reduced to ten men after Adam Clayton was red carded. It couldn't get any worse and it didn't. A miraculous recovery saw 10-man Avenue fight back to draw 3-3 thanks to a last gasp equalizer from Steve Mallory.
Like Leamington, Worcester City had also lost their ground and were now playing in exile in Kidderminster. This afforded me the chance to catch the train to Wolverhampton and a bus to Bridgnorth railway station in order to pay a brief visit to the Bridgnorth beer festival before the game. I then caught the Severn valley steam train to Kidderminster and even had a quick ride on
the miniature railway there before staggering along to Aggborough. A good day was rounded off with a late winner from that man again, Steve Mallory. A week later Avenue gave one of their best performances of the season, outplaying AFC Telford United at Horsfall and running out 3-1 winners.
Near neighbours Guiseley had made a surprisingly poor start to the season and resurgent Avenue went to Nethermoor full of confidence. Avenue were even awarded the penalty instead of their hosts which Richard Marshall duly tucked away. Manningham loanee Louis Swain added a second ten minutes from time as Avenue kept a rare clean sheet.
After a hard fought 2-2 draw at home to Solihull, Avenue made a midweek trip to Boston which was way too far from Ellesmere Port which is why the crowd was 999 and not 1,000. After taking a 2-0 lead in the first 10 minutes, it was backs-to-the-wall stuff, but Avenue hung on to win 3-2 on what is becoming a very lucky ground for us. In the meantime I managed to get a ticket for the Manchester derby and enjoyed seeing the light blues beat FCUM's first team 4-1.
The FA Cup saw Avenue drawn away to Guiseley who had now impatiently parted company with manager Steve Kittrick and replaced him with Mark Bower. Neither match attracted a huge crowd, even though the green and white army travelled in numbers, showing how fickle our neighbours' supporters are. I had a train ride down to Ilkley en route as the fare was the same. Louis Swain was now a Guiseley player but could not stop Avenue winning 2-1.
Despite a few foreign trips with work, I only managed one overseas game which was a German cup tie between second division 1.FC Kaiserslautern and first division Hertha Berlin. I was desperately hoping the game would not go to extra time as I had a couple of late trains to catch to get back to my hotel afterwards. In the event, *** fought back from 1-0 down to win 3-1 and I made my train despite going the wrong way down the big hill on which the ground is built. The atmosphere was great even though there were lots of empty seats in the 50,000 capacity arena. I later found out that Hertha had fielded a weakened side which took away some of the gloss. I now work in Manchester, so a week later I was back at Eastlands watching Bayern take Manchester City apart, any excuse to avoid the M56 rush hour traffic.
The club's penchant for late goals was maintained the next week at Solihull when Chris Howarth earned us a point three minutes from time. A well-known Avenue fan missed it so he didn't have to wait half an hour at the bus stop by the Rolls Royce factory and lose 30 minutes drinking time. Honestly the beer in Solihull is not that good. Chris did it again a week later at Horsfall to stop Northern League Penrith taking us to a deserved replay in the FA Cup.
Me and the missus then flew off to Sardinia for a train-spotting holiday but arrived in Cagliari three hours too late to see their 2-1 win against Catania. Fewer than 5,000 were present. This meant we missed Avenue's FA Cup fourth qualifying round tie against Kidderminster Harriers from the Conference Premier. By all accounts, we gave them a football lesson in the first game and almost won it in an almighty goal-line scramble in the last minute. The replay was goalless after 90 minutes but tiredness and injuries finally took their toll as we went down 2-1 in extra time. The Harriers went on to reach the fourth round proper before finally bowing out 1-0 at Sunderland.
We returned from holiday just in time for the Gloucester City game and the second Avenue beer festival. Avenue's home crowds are abysmal for a Conference North outfit and it is obvious that we cannot pay our way on gate receipts alone. The club relies on the largesse of its benefactors and desperately needs other sources of income. Sadly publicity wasn't great and so the turn out was poor. Indeed there were only 9 people left in the clubhouse when me and the missus departed at 9.30 pm. The event didn't lose money as a few of us, myself included, had sponsored barrels at £50 a time. But a lot of the beer went down the drain. Getting people to Horsfall for social events
is proving to be a real problem, with many fans living long distances from the ground and poor evening bus services.
The trip to Gainsborough is always a highlight as it affords gricers the chance to catch one of the three trains per week to Gainsborough Central. The beer is pretty good too. Avenue fought back from 2-0 down to 2-2 only to throw it away conceding twice late on. Despite this being early November, the weather turned nasty and I had to beg a lift to Lea Road station afterwards from our good friend in Lincoln in order to catch the rail replacement bus on the line to Sheffield from that city. By the time we arrived there were piles of hailstones on the ground.
In the FA Trophy, Avenue drew 1-1 at Harrogate Town, as we always seem to do, and then won the replay easily by four unanswered goals as, for some reason, Town no longer seemed interested. A week later I paid a midweek visit to Northampton to see Coventry in exile in front of less than 2,000 fans, half of whom were from Rotherham. It's a hard life keeping up your membership of the "92 club".
As luck would have it, Avenue were again drawn against Kidderminster in the FA Trophy and this time we got our just deserts coming out on top 2-1. A great win but there was some suspicion that Harriers' minds were on the FA Cup. Nevertheless this was the first time we had beaten a Conference Premier club since we were reformed in 1987.
Living where I do, you have to favour one Merseyside team or the other and it was an easy decision to become a token blue. So seeing the Toffees grab a late 1-0 win over those two turncoats Moyes and Rooney at Old Trafford was one of the highlights of the season. If there's one thing I hate about modern football, its disloyalty. It's a pity I had to watch the game in a home stand so had to keep quiet.
You would have thought that a 2-0 victory at my local side Vauxhall Motors would have meant I could show my face around Ellesmere Port. But the honest truth is I don't know a single Vauxhall supporter. So it came as little surprise when their side quit the league at the end of the season.
Having drawn Kidderminster and Harrogate in two cup competitions, I predicted on the "Guess the Gate" forum that we would get Guiseley in the Trophy. And so it came to pass, but Keith refused to give me any points. With Avenue down to ten men in a fearsome battle, the rejuvenated Lions just had the edge and led 1-0 going into injury time. Then Avenue threw caution to the wind and got caught twice on the break to give the hosts a flattering 3-0 scoreline.
The fixture compilers had given Avenue two mouthwatering games against relegated Stockport County, at Horsfall on Boxing day and Edgeley Park on New Year's Day. But like mugs, we switched the fixtures around, scared of clashing with Manningham. Police advice was the excuse. If that was true then County were being rewarded for their hooligan behaviour at Kidderminster last season. I was fuming as I spend Christmas in Bradford and so had to drive back over the Pennines as there are no trains. The Boxing day game was a mare as we conceded two early gaols and went on to lose 4-1. Then, predictably, the New Year's Day game was postponed so we lost out on a bumper crowd.
Despite all our pleas to the council, the Horsfall pitch continues to be a disgrace and it is a wonder that anybody wants to play on it. It is also freezing cold for the players thanks to the exposed location. Thankfully spectators are well protected in a south facing stand. But a big thank you as ever to Kev and Maria and Dave and the two Johns and all the others who do such a great job getting games on and putting out a competitive team, despite all the odds. Rumour has it that our manager works for next to nothing.
Avenue put their troubles behind them and ended a six game losing streak with an unexpected 6-1 thrashing of Worcester City. A nervous 3-2 win at Gloucester's home in exile at Cheltenham
ensued after we had led 3-0. New signing Ross Gardner arrived from Swedish level 6 side Ytterhogdal IK and scored a simple tap in on his debut against Worcester. Two weeks later he equalized in injury time against Hednesford only for the Avenue defence to go to sleep and let visiting midfielder Elliott Durrell walk through the entire team and slot home the winner for a goal which became a major hit on YouTube. The game also saw star forward Alex Davidson suffer a serious injury which would keep him out for the rest of the season. This was a serious blow to our hopes.
Yet again, Avenue drew 1-1 at Harrogate, this time in the league before finally facing Stockport on a miserable Monday night in February, Less than 600 turned up and saw the visitors complete a double with two late goals. And as one whose sympathies are on the green side of Glasgow, it was to irritating to hear County's take on "The Sash" echoing around the ground.
Avenue's defence struggled in the first half of the season but was strengthened by the arrival of Ryan Qualter and Grant Black. James Knowles was a rock, as usual, but missed around ten games due to suspension. Nevertheless I often tore my hair out as John Deacey and Mark Hume played with just three at the back.
Avenue have never been very good at celebrating anniversaries. But the board had at least recognized the 150th anniversary of the formation of the original Bradford Football Club in 1863 by changing to a nominal red, amber and black kit for 2012/13, even if it did look mainly white and a tad sunbeamy. My fault to some extent for setting up a historical website www.bradfordfc.org.uk
to remind people that there was life, and football, at Park Avenue before 1907. But thankfully the club reverted to our normal green and white colours for 2013/14. To many people's disbelief, the board chose lilac shirts for our away kit rather than some combination of our vintage colours. 2013/14 was of course the 25th anniversary of the reformation of the club, but this went by unmarked except for the production of the odd badge.
Telford is an excellent beer drinking town and imbibers have been boosted by an increase in the number of trains stopping at Oakengates where there are three Good Beer Guide pubs on the same street. The new Bucks Head is now a fine stadium. Avenue gave a performance worthy of their surroundings and were unfortunate to lose 2-1 to the eventual Conference North champions.
With the side struggling, supporters were surprised to read in the press that Avenue had mounted a take-over bid for rugby league giants Bradford Northern/Bulls. Fans of the two clubs didn't know quite what to make of it. Rumour had it that we might have a secret benefactor based over the pond.
With the sides near the bottom improving, supporters started to cast their eyes downwards instead of upwards. However the club had five home games in a row to look forward to and it was critical that points be accrued. The run started badly with a 0-0 draw against Vauxhall, just before they announced their withdrawal from the league, followed by a 2-1 defeat to Colwyn Bay. The home game against bottom club Workington was suddenly looking like a six pointer after the Cumbrians had strung together a couple of wins. A 1-0 win thanks to a well-taken Chib Chilaka goal eased the tension. Harrogate got a 0-0 draw in the fifth meeting between the clubs before Avenue stuffed Gainsborough 4-0 in a game I listened to on my mobile phone at Heathrow Airport, thanks to the excellent support given to us by BCB radio.
A back-to-the walls defensive display at promotion contenders Brackley was rewarded when player of the season Paul Walker fired home an unstoppable shot just before the end. We realized just how good this win was a week later when Brackley won 5-0 at Bradford.
Avenue ended the season like the previous one with a string of fixtures against sides threatened with relegation. I was up at the crack of dawn to catch the early morning train to Helsby, in order to travel to Workington via the scenic Cumbrian coast line via Barrow and Windscale. I even
managed to find some half decent beer in Workington for once, thanks to the CAMRA WhatPub mobile phone application. Avenue are Workington's bogey team and we cantered to an fourth successive double against the Reds. Histon were our next visitors but had given up the ghost in their relegation battle and their youthful squad was swept aside 3-0. This really was boys against men.
A week later, it was back to Cumbria where I stayed on the train beyond Barrow to go to the homebrew pub at Foxfield. This is exciting as Foxfield is a request stop and passengers wishing to alight must give notice to the guard. This was only the second time I had done this, the first being at Godley East, now closed, where only one train a week used to stop if anybody asked. This came as a surprise to the driver. The game at Holker Street was a low key end of season affair won by a single goal from Paul Beasley.
Stalybridge arrived at Horsfall on Easter Monday needing a point for safety and Avenue seemed more than happy to give it to them. The game ended 1-1. Having missed the midweek game at Oxford City the previous year, I was pleased to be able to do Marsh Lane on the final day of Avenue's season. City were hounded out of their city centre ground by the university on a legal technicality many years ago and had almost disappeared. But they are now alive and kicking on a nice complex on the edge of town which even had real ale on.
Strangely not a single penalty had been missed by either side all season in any of Avenue's league matches. Nicky Boshell and Richard Marshall were lethal from 12 yards while keeper John Lamb had lost his knack of saving spot kicks although, to be fair, I don't remember him having a chance with any of them. This all changed when John finally made a penalty save, only for Oxford to score from the resulting corner. Avenue kept up their 100% record when Richard Marshall scored a late equalizer from the spot to earn us a point. Nicky Boshell in the meantime was yet again sat in the stand, despite the side being very short of players, having apparently had a disagreement with the management team. We finished a creditable 10th.
A division higher, the reborn Shaymen reached the Conference National play-offs and faced our old nemesis Cambridge United in the semi-finals. Sadly I was unable to attend either leg and so had to watch both on the telly. Prolific goalscorer Lee Gregory gave the Town a 1-0 lead after the first leg but sadly this proved to be insufficient as the parvenus won the second leg 2-0. Steam was coming of my ears when Cambridge won the final to retake Avenue's rightful place in Division Four.
As ever, I then spent May big occasion chasing. I had very mixed feelings when Everton played Manchester City as the last thing I wanted was for Liverpool to win the league. Not too many tears were shed when City won 3-2. My attentions then turned to Leyton Orient who I supported in the late 1970's when Avenue were out of business. I managed to get a ticket in the Peterborough end for the first leg of the play-off at London Road and had to get a very early train to make the 12.15 kick off. I was rewarded with a 1-1 draw and the chance to redo the Nene Valley railway, the last return working leaving Peterborough at 14.30. I was almost knocked down by a car load of Orient fans as I rushed across the car park. I couldn't get down to London for the second leg which Orient won 2-1.
The ticketing arrangements for the final were a joke. These were entrusted to the company doing the Leeds and Reading pop festivals and they clearly couldn't cope with the workload. I ordered mine the Monday before the game, as early as was allowed, but it wasn't posted until the Friday before the game, probably because my name begins with a Z. So I demanded that they print a duplicate for collection at Wembley. This meant that I had to get there early forcing me to drive to Stockport to get a train because of all the Bank Holiday Sunday engineering works. I parked in the same spot as when Avenue were at Edgeley Park.
Orient scored a great goal and stormed to a 2-0 half time lead. I thought that after Hull's disappointing capitulation against Arsenal in the FA Cup final and Atleticos's late gut wrenching concession against Real in the Champions League, that lightning couldn't strike three times in the same season. But it did. A goalkeeping mistake and another wonder goal saw Rotherham draw level and take the game to extra time and penalties. Rotherham missed one early doors but the O's then missed two and so a great season ended in heartbreak. This was the first time I had seen any of my "other" teams at Wembley.
England were pathetic in the World Cup and for the second time in 16 years I saw them go out when watching on a TV in Paris. It had been a bad omen. As soon as I got back, I booked a holiday to the Outer Hebrides to get away from it all.
I am writing this slightly later than usual and, for once, the club has been more forthcoming about comings and goings. We have lost Jordan Deacey to Telford and James Knowles to FCUM, but have kept the rest of our better players and added a few new signings. I predict another mid-table finish.