MEMOIRS OF AN OLD YARD DOG
THE 26th ANNUAL REPORT OF THE BRADFORD SUPPORTERS CLUB (ELLESMERE PORT BRANCH)
Avenue finally finished the 2013/14 season in a respectable 10th position in their second season back in Conference North, after a late season recovery had allayed any relegation fears.
Pre-season saw a fairly intensive set of fixtures against sides of varying strength from Doncaster Rovers, Hartlepool, Sheffield United and Manningham, plus several local sides from the lower leagues. Our results were generally poor although we won the only game that I saw, just down the road at Witton Albion. Before the game, I popped across the canal to the Victoria Stadium which was now a desolate site after Northwich's neighbours, the chemical company Thor Specialities Ltd, had bought the ground and evicted the club.
New signings included ex-Bantams Scott Kerr and Joe Colbeck from Grimsby Town, Nathan Turner from Leeds, Brad Barraclough from Gainsborough and Danny Frost from Shaw Lane. But by the time the season proper started, Nathan had joined Adam Clayton and Alex Davidson on our long-term injury list. A few other signings didn't survive pre-season, including a couple of goalkeepers, so the season proper started with stalwart and club favourite John Lamb back between the sticks.
Our first game saw Avenue visit a Gloucester City side now exiled in Cheltenham after their Meadow Park home was destroyed in a 2007 flood. The match was a thriller with Avenue having to equalize three times to get a hard-earned point. While the attack looked promising, our defending left a lot to be desired. Nevertheless two days later Avenue were top of the league after holding out for a 2-1 victory against a fancied Harrogate Town outfit. Three more points came at the end of the week when Leamington were beaten by the same score.
Stockport have a 10,000 seater stadium, the three biggest sides of which are covered. Nevertheless they force away fans to sit in the open end. Like many before them, Southport and Boston United in particular, they have yet to adjust to life in the lower leagues and need to show a little more courtesy and respect to fans of visiting clubs. Sadly the Avenue defence showed lots of courtesy on the pitch and County ran out easy 3-1 winners.
Hyde were relegated from Conference National at the end of the 2013/14 season having accrued just 10 points from 46 games. They started the new season where they left off and so were expected to be easy pickings. However they fought back from 1-0 down to lead 2-1 after Avenue had missed a host of chances. But a second goal from Chib Chilaka and one from Ryan Qualter saw us grab the three points.
The trip to Gainsborough again fell on a Saturday allowing me to catch one of the three trains per week to Gainsborough Central. Avenue set themselves up more defensively but it didn't seem to work. Scott Kerr in particular looked lost. Nevertheless we looked like getting a 0-0 draw from a drab encounter until the Trinity forwards finally found a gap and shot home a late winner. Sadly Martin Drury was injured during the game and decide to retire. Soon afterwards, Martin replaced Mark Hume as assistant manager, Mark leaving by mutual consent.
Despite Martin's injury, there was little time added which meant I got to Central just in time, and very out of breath, for the five o'clock train (or thereabouts) to Barnetby. This allowed me to redo 25 miles or so of rare single track, although I had to buy an extra cheap day return to Scunthorpe to get me back to Doncaster. Barnetby has a wonderful collection of old semaphore signals.
The decline continued with a 3-1 home defeat to Boston and a brave 2-1 defeat at AFC Fylde with Scott Kerr hitting a cracker. Formerly known as Kirkham & Wesham, Fylde are the classic "sugar daddy" club rising from nowhere like their neighbours in Fleetwood. They currently play on a ground in the absolute middle of nowhere, behind a pub. So a car was needed. I persuaded the missus to come on the promise of a visit to Blackpool Illuminations afterwards. This was done in indecent haste as the illuminations website said they were switched off at 10.30 pm on Tuesdays. They weren't, so we turned around and did them again the other way. The new trams, of course, are useless for viewing the illuminations as they are so brightly lit inside. But some vintage cars are brought out of storage in late summer to do tours of the lights.
The following Saturday saw Avenue visit Lowestoft which is equidistant between Bradford and Eindhoven so a wag on Avenue Chat christened them PSV Lowestoft. Amsterdam is even nearer. The Trawlerboys had asked to take over Salisbury's fixtures in Conference South when City dropped out of the league, but this sensible move was rejected by the jobsworths at the FA. Thus there would three relegation spots in Conference North as opposed to two in Conference South.
Unable to get back from Lowestoft to Ellesmere Port by train, I had to make my first overnight stay after an Avenue game since the President's Cup final at Ilkeston in 2006. However I was confident enough in the weather to risk buying an Advance return ticket on my Senior Citizens card so the journey wasn't obscenely expensive. Having persuaded the missus to drive me to Lime Street at the crack of dawn to catch the first train to Norwich, there was time for a quick pint in that city before visiting the excellent Stanford Arms, one of the three pubs in Lowestoft owned by the Green Jack microbrewery. As soon as you arrived in the town, you knew there was a match on with posters and supporters in replica shirts abounding. So unlike Bradford.
On a scorching day and with John Lamb unavailable, Avenue had to borrow a young keeper called George Willis from Sheffield United. He looked competent until a mix up with one of our central defenders gifted the home side a lucky opener. Avenue fought back well and took the lead with two goals in three minutes from Brad Barraclough and a belter from Ryan Qualter. But our defensive failings were clear for all to see and six minutes later we were 3-2 down.
I had a dingy little single room at the hotel which was a rip off at £75 or so. And it was south of the swing bridge which could cut me off from the station if it opened for a boat the next day. I waited half an hour to get a bus back into town and another Green Jack pub on the Saturday night, then had to leave early to get the last bus back at 9.15. The next day, there were five Avenue fans on Lowestoft station awaiting the Sunday morning train to Norwich.
John Lamb returned two days later but by all accounts had a poor game as Avenue crashed 5-0 at home to Oxford City. Plagued by back problems, this was John's last league game and a sad end to a great career. John Deacey had coaxed him out of retirement a couple of times to help the club, but perhaps this was once too often
My retirement is also not long away, but I still get occasional visits to Europe. Meetings in Germany and Austria in successive weeks allowed me to spend the weekend on the continent and cop some new grounds. After a night enjoying the funicular railways and homebrew pubs of Stuttgart, I started on Friday with the Bundesliga 2 encounter between VfR Aalen and SV Sandhausen, who come from the Heidelberg area. These are two of the less fashionable clubs at this level. The old-fashioned and scenic ground was set in a wood about a mile and a half outside the centre. The bus service was very limited but got me somewhere near. I managed to lose a watch while being searched on my way in. The programme was a free 16-page newspaper which many people chose to sit on. Aalen dominated but couldn't find the net, in fact they even missed a penalty, most un-Germanic. They were punished by a late breakaway goal 10 minutes from time and would eventually finish bottom of the league. Despite a crowd of 5,000 there were no buses into town after the game, but at least the walk was downhill. The search for a decent pint proved fruitless.
On the Saturday morning, I caught the train to Augsburg for FCA's match with Werder Bremen and was eventually allowed to check into my hotel early. The home club had sold me a ticket online and posted it to England. Augsburg have a wonderful new 30,000 capacity stadium, but it is miles out of town. Fortunately, they have built a special spur off the nearest tram line and many additional workings are put on to ferry supporters to the game, free of charge. Exciting though this was, the trams stop half a mile from the ground. The programmes were good. Most German grounds don't take cash for food and drink and so you have to buy an electronic card before you go to the counter. The atmosphere was great with many supporters standing, chanting and signing on the kop, the game was an absolute classic and Augsburg came out on top 4-2.
On the Sunday, I had to take the train from Augsburg to Linz via Munich and Salzburg. I hoped to take in the Red Bull Salzburg vs Austria Vienna game, but would only be able to do so if I could find an empty luggage locker at Salzburg station to dump my large holdall. I was in luck. After a couple of hours mingling with the tourists in the historical centre, I caught the first trolley bus the four miles or so out to the modern stadium. Tickets were on sale at the ground but the paper work was incredible. They wanted to know everything. Again there were programmes and I felt I had to try the sponsors drink for the first time. But the atmosphere was strangely subdued as the away side grabbed an unexpected 3-2 win. After the game I had to rush like a lunatic to a local train station a mile or so away in order to connect with my train to Linz. No time to take the "Sound of Music" tour or go looking for goats or women dressed as nuns!
As a train fanatic, I caught the train back to Munich to get a direct flight home instead of taking two flights from Linz, and arrived in the middle of the Oktoberfest. I hadn't planned on going, but I had four and a half hours before my flight and was surprised to find an empty luggage locker at the Munich Hbf. The festival site was only one stop away on the metro and entrance was free so I paid a quick visit. Unfortunately the beer wasn't very good. All you could get was strong lager from Munich's big breweries. The smallest glass was one litre and cost 10 euros. You have to book benches in the giant tents years in advance, so I started with a litre and a sandwich in a small outside area. After wandering around for a bit, I then did find a bench inside as it was dinner time midweek. So I had another litre. What a mistake. I had forgotten that there were no toilets on the S-Bahn to Munich airport. So despite spending 50 eurocents at the Hbf, I was in absolute agony by the time I got to the airport. Incidentally I read in the Guardian last week that the Danes are now recycling urine to make lager. Say no more.
While I was away, a 0-0 draw at home to Brackley ended a run of five successive defeats. The FA Cup draw was very unkind, pitching Avenue against league leaders AFC Fylde and, in my opinion, the best team in the division. Avenue put up a good fight in the first game at Horsfall, coming back from behind twice with goals from Chib Chilaka and then Richard Marshall two minutes from time to force a replay. With new keeper Jon Danby between the sticks, our defence held out for 93 minutes in the replay before we lost 2-1 in extra time.
As Solihull is a beer desert with very little real ale, I chose to travel to Damson Park via Birmingham International instead. This at least allowed me a free ride to the airport and back on the little unmanned electric train which used to be a maglev, before catching the 966. Avenue were dreadful and were deservedly thrashed 4-1. Morale was now very low and nobody gave us a chance against high-flying Barrow with their huge budget. However a late Richard Marshall goal gave Avenue a 2-1 victory and a welcome three points.
I then took off for a so-called railway holiday in the USA. But it is so difficult getting to Heathrow by rail with heavy luggage in tow, and domestic flights from Manchester are so unreliable, that I was forced on to National Express for the first time in 30-40 years. Ironically the driver ran out of hours on the way back due to congestion on the M6 and so we were unceremoniously dumped at Stafford station and told to get home by train! And in America our only long distance train from Boston to Portland was replaced by bus and the tour company didn't
arrange for us to come back my train instead when it could have. But there were consolations as I got to see the Boston Bruins ice hockey and Boston Celtics basketball teams on successive nights at the same venue. And there was a real ale pub nearby. I was getting really bored with craft keg.
Avenue grabbed a creditable 1-1 draw at Hednesford but our next game with North Ferriby was postponed as they were still in the cup. So I trundled off to Vale Park to see one of my old teams Leyton Orient thrashed 3-0, having made the mistake of sacking Russell Slade, the manager who had taken the O's to Wembley just five months earlier.
I have to do home games by car as I visit relatives and the trains from Ellesmere Port are incredibly slow. So I usually tune in to Radio Leeds. But this season, something was clearly very wrong as Avenue never even got a mention while the station was clearly in love with our neighbours in Halifax and Guiseley. Halifax was "fair do's" as they are a division above us, but Guiseley and Avenue should have had the same treatment. Several of us complained both to Radio Leeds and the BBC itself, but were fobbed off with platitudes. Eventually it emerged that our owners had asked both Radio Leeds and Bradford Community Broadcasting not to cover our matches and the former had retaliated by not even giving out our results.
Manager's son Jordan Deacey returned from Telford on a one month loan but couldn't stop Avenue losing 4-2 at home to an impressive Tamworth side. For once the score was given on Radio Leeds where the presenter couldn't hide his glee as he announced that Avenue had been thrashed. The Late Postponement (WR) Cup lived up to its name as our game at Goole was controversially fogged off just before kick off. Long-term injury Nathan Turner finally made his league debut at right back at Colwyn Bay and strengthened the defence to such an extent that we kept our first away clean sheet. A Ryan Qualter header hit the inside of the post in the last minute denying us the three points. Nathan did well to last the 90 minutes but his problems returned and he never played again.
The FA Cup first round saw my other old team Halifax drawn against Manningham at the Shay. The game was switched to Sunday for TV, a fact that the City chairman later seemed to forget, so I made the journey over. It was the first time I had seen the rebuilt ground full and, to my delight, Town shot into a second minute lead. Sadly they failed to hold on and that had consequences as the season progressed.
A day later I was back in Munich, just in time to see 1860 take on Fortuna Düsseldorf in Bundesliga 2. 1860 share the Allianz Arena with Bayern and it is much easier to get tickets for their games. There is a good U-Bahn link and great views from the station of the outside of stadium, which is lit up in either pale blue or red depending on who is at home. There were good programmes but half the refreshment stalls were closed, meaning there was no coffee - just glühwein or lager. I chose the former. Düsseldorf scored in the fourth minute and then gave an excellent exhibition of how to put ten men behind the ball to hold on for a 1-0 victory.
Two further defeats followed, 3-2 at home to in-form Solihull and 2-1 away to out-of-form Brackley. Avenue really seemed to have the knack of being one goal worse than our opponents. We were particularly bad at setting up walls against free kicks. Our keeper would often stand far too close to one post leaving a huge gap for the opposition to aim at, often successfully.
In between, on the 17th November, 10-man Avenue were unlucky only to draw 1-1 with North Ferriby, in a game that I missed. This was also the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Albania from the Germans. This led to SK Tirana being renamed 17 Nentori before reverting to KF Tirana after the fall of the Enver Hoxha regime. This date became the answer to a quiz question on the forum. And it soon became etched in Bradfordian memory as three long months slowly dragged by before we played another home game in Conference North.
The club was then hit by a bombshell when director Kevin Hainsworth, who did a huge amount of work at the club, and I think was the majority share holder, announced his intention to stand down. People immediately feared the worst. However I was taken aside by somebody close to the club and told that something big and not necessarily bad might be happening in the background (but to keep it to myself which I did).
Bradford did progress in the FA Trophy beating a poor Leamington side 3-1 at the Horsfall. The improvement continued a week later with, by all accounts, a splendid 2-0 win at Harrogate, another game I sadly had to miss. Energetic midfielder Danny Frost scored a screamer.
The first round proper of the FA Trophy saw Avenue drawn at home to Conference National side Kidderminster Harriers. This had people asking "what were the odds" as we had drawn Kidderminster at home in both the FA Cup and FA Trophy the previous year. In the end the tie turned out to be an embarrassment. The game was called off by the match referee at 2 pm who thought a small patch of the pitch was frozen, having been passed fit by a local official at 8 am. I had to drive like the clappers to get to Guiseley to see them well beaten 2-0 by Chorley. The Kidderminster game was played two days later but only 159 diehards bothered to turn up on a cold Monday night to see Avenue crash 4-1.
Five days later, the same thing happened again when the Gloucester home game was called off at 2 pm having passed an early morning inspection. This time I made it to the Shay in time for kick off, but the club was becoming a laughing stock and haemorrhaging both support and good will.
In a surprisingly low-key announcement just before Christmas, Chief Executive Bob Blackburn announced that he was also leaving the club and handing over the reins to Gareth Roberts who was based in Texas. Bob had rescued the club early in 2007 when it was struggling in the lower tier of the NPL after two successive relegations. Bob and John Dean and Kevin Hainsworth formed a strong new board which steered the club back to Conference North. Sadly the recession meant that plans for a new stadium in Thornbury never came to pass but, nevertheless, we are eternally grateful for what they did. Rome wasn't built in a day (and that is very hard for me to say as a closet Lazio fan).
Boxing Day saw Bradford visit Chorley with snow in the air. There were no trains as per usual. Chib Chilaka gave Avenue the lead with a strange goal from a sort of weak overhead kick. But it was not enough as Chorley equalized with a deflected shot and then a winner similar to Chib's earlier effort. The heavens opened after the game and I had to drive home in the worst blizzard I have even encountered on the M6 and M56. Needless to say the home game against Stockport did not take place two days later, but at least it was called off in good time.
I ended up watching my local side Tranmere a couple of times over the festive period. They did not impress in a 6-2 defeat against Swansea reserves in the FA Cup when it was becoming clear that things were not quite right at the club. My area has now lost Wrexham, Chester, Tranmere, Southport and New Brighton, which is worse than West Yorkshire. The falls from grace of Runcorn, Northwich, Knowsley United, South Liverpool, Ellesmere Port Town and Vauxhall Motors just add to the depression.
Avenue were now in the relegation zone but the new board stated that relegation was not an option. Morale and eyebrows were both raised when the club re-signed centre half Simon Ainge from Halifax to strengthen our beleaguered defence. On the down side, we lost influential midfielder Jack Rea who rejoined his old Guiseley boss Steve Kittrick at Telford.
Simon's second spell at the club did not start well. For some reason or other, Avenue had to visit Leamington on a Sunday making train travel infeasible as there would be no buses out to the remote New Windmill. Appalling defence soon gifted the home side a 2-0 lead but two goals in four minutes from Chib saw us level at half time. One was a quite superb quick passing move
worthy of the Champions League and a goal of the season contender. But it was back to normal in the second half as the Brakes went on to win 4-3. Another poor wall was to blame for one of the goals. For a while it looked like the descending fog might save us, but it didn't. It just made the drive home scary.
Manager John Deacey hadn't appeared particularly well for some time and seemed to be taking more and more of a back seat letting Martin Drury and Jamie Price organize tactics on the pitch.
Avenue faced a third successive Sunday fixture as our scheduled visit to Worcester clashed with their landlords Kidderminster. This game was to be the turning point of our season. The Avenue side had a strange look with loanees Johnny Lynch, Benny Igiehon and Steve Boothman in the squad alongside recent signings little Fernando Moke from Droylsden and full back Sam Patterson. Avenue were very defensive and well under the cosh for the first 60 minutes. Then John Deacey came out of the stand and gave some fatherly advice to Martin who then changed the formation. Suddenly it was a different game and Avenue got on top. Ten minutes from time, Boothman delivered a delicious cross for Chib to head home and the team and supporters went delirious. An away win at last!
Avenue supporters had a long time to savour this victory as the side did not play again for over a month. But fortunately all postponements were made in good time and trips were made to such varied places as Tottenham, Shrewsbury, Preston, Crewe and Stoke. I saw former Avenue starlet Michael Duckworth have an average game for seemingly doomed Hartlepool at the Greenhous Meadow, although he almost scored with an effort from 40 yards reminiscent of the goal he once scored for us at Histon.
Boston is a harder place to get to since they split the Crewe - Skegness service into three and a broken down freight train at the east end of Nottingham station caused some worries. In the end, my delayed train was excitingly diverted via the Grantham avoiding line meaning I did it in both directions. Avenue were now boosted by the signings of full back Alex Pursehouse and winger Craig King but still looked very rusty. The early exchanges were quite even until a defensive blunder and a refereeing blunder gifted Boston two goals just before half time. From then it was all downhill and three further goals followed including yet another free kick into the empty corner.
Bogey-team Stockport came to Horsfall the following Wednesday but only swelled the gate to 553. This was our first home game in the league for over three months, in fact we still had eleven home games left to play, more than half a season's worth. After a promising first half capped off by a Richard Marshall penalty, Avenue were struggling to hold on to their lead when, five minutes from time, Luke Dean went in hard for a 50-50 ball forty or more yards from goal and saw the ball cannon high into the air and, aided by the wind, fly into the net over the head of the stranded County keeper. Three days later our bad luck returned. Steve Patterson gave Bradford the lead against Lowestoft after two minutes but Jamie Price was sent off twenty minutes later after picking up two soft yellow cards. Avenue still dominated before Town stole a most undeserved point with a last gasp equalizer.
Hopes were not particularly high for our midweek visit to neighbours Guiseley and it was business as usual when the home side was awarded its statutory penalty in the seventh minute. Former Avenue spot kick specialist Nicky Boshell slotted home. The defence soaked up a good bit of pressure thereafter and our efforts were rewarded when Simon Ainge headed home an equalizer just before half time. Bradford improved in the second half and sent our fans delirious when Richard Marshall fired home a last minute winner from close range. This win finally took us out of the bottom three with games in hand on those below us. A 1-0 home win against Hednesford a few days later further eased the pressure.
Colwyn Bay came to Horsfall the following Wednesday on a dreadful run of form which had seen them drop like a stone into the relegation zone. Avenue should have taken the lead when they were awarded a penalty for deliberate handball and Bay were reduced to ten men. Paul Walker took the kick as Richard Marshall was on the bench and could only hit the woodwork. Simon Ainge eventually gave Avenue the lead but this was cancelled out by yet another free kick from outside the box. Heads dropped when the Welshmen scored a soft goal 15 minutes from time but blushes were spared when Simon Ainge hit a 35-yard belter with virtually the last kick of the game.
My only previous visits to Tamworth had been to practice skiing in the SnowDome, Avenue having never previously been in the same league as the Lambs. But it's an easy place to get to on the West Coast main line. Tamworth were much too good on this occasion, running out easy 2-0 winners in the early spring sunshine.
Bradford took a slightly fortuitous 2-0 half time lead at home to promotion chasing Chorley, but were pegged back to 2-2 seven minutes from time. However Chib Chilaka then capitalized on a defensive mistake and dribbled through for an excellent individual winner. And a Ryan Qualter goal was enough to send relegation threatened Stalybridge home pointless. This result was mistakenly given as 3-1 in subsequent programmes instead of 1-0. These were usually excellent apart from the annoying and unconventional habit of putting the winning team's score first instead of Avenue's. And, of course, the many postponements meant that many issues had supplements as it was unfair to expect our sponsors Bakes & Lord to reprint unsold copies.
This had been a good season for overseas trips and this continued with a visit to Amsterdam. Ajax now sell "packages" to foreign tourists, mine consisting of a ticket, a programme and a half-and-half scarf. Last time I went, I had to buy my ticket from a record shop at Schiphol airport. Visitors Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk held a 1-0 lead from the first leg which had been switched to Kiev due to the troubles in the Ukraine. This Europa league game was, perhaps surprisingly, a 50,000 plus sell out despite the 9.05 pm kick off. When it went to extra time, I was worried whether there would still be trains to get me back into the city centre, but the system coped exceedingly well. Dnipro eventually won on away goals and went on to reach the final. Ajax are a pale shadow of the side they had in the Johann Cruyff era. They were of course managed by Jack Rowley in 1963/64 before his disastrous 1967/68 spell at Park Avenue.
Avenue's fixture backlog was not helped by a farcical West Riding Cup semi final which was switched to Tadcaster as we had no confidence in the Horsfall pitch. The first attempt to play the game saw yet another late postponement due to fog. A few days later we won 3-2, conceding two very late goals. Then the West Riding FA, in its wisdom, ordered the game to be replayed as they decided that Alex Pursehouse had been ineligible after all, despite the club being told the opposite by a WRFA official. The normal punishment for such offences is expulsion, which we might have preferred. In the end, we won the replay 4-0 to reach the cup final at Manningham. It is not clear whether the first game "counts" in the record books.
Fourteen years of non-existence (1974-1988) meant that Avenue skipped a generation and most supporters are either too old or too young to indulge in singing and chanting. The openness of Horsfall doesn't help. So it was quite a surprise when a group of teenagers suddenly appeared and started making some noise. They call themselves the Basement Boys, I know not why. With the new owners kindly subsidizing coaches to distant Oxford, and later to the Conference play-off final at Wembley, the lads arrived en masse at Marsh Lane. Hopes dipped when high-scoring Oxford took an early lead but Avenue were not to be outdone and goals from Craig King and Richard Marshall gave us a famous victory and sweet revenge for our 5-0 thrashing at Horsfall.
Homeless Gloucester were battling well against relegation and grabbed a 1-1 draw on a dour Monday night which was perhaps a kind of justice after their wasted trip earlier in the season. Barrow is not the greatest drinking town, so I jumped off the train at Ulverston for pre-match
beers. But I seemed to spend more time dashing between pubs than actually drinking. Ulverston is bigger than I thought. So I got lazy and caught the number 3 to Holker Street instead of walking. Barrow were by now in a two-horse race with Fylde for the title but could not break down a resolute Avenue defence in which Simon Ainge was ably assisted by the admirable Billy Priestley, Ryan Qualter and Alex Pursehouse. A 0-0 draw at Barrow showed just how far the team had come. Sadly a dreadful 2-1 home defeat to Gainsborough shortly afterwards showed that we still had a bit to learn going forward against packed defences. Indeed by the season's end, Avenue had scored 13 of their 52 goals in their first five matches and only 39 goals in the next 37.
The pitch, as per usual, had been a disgrace all season. Maintenance was clearly minimal with the many bumps suggesting it had never seen a roller. It was impossible to play good football on it and there were scores of complaints from opposing teams, especially those who had lost. The postponements continued into April when the Easter Saturday home game with Fylde was called off due to a waterlogged pitch. At least this gave me time to do the Welsh Cup semi final between Newtown and Rhyl on Cefn Druids' scenic new ground at the bottom of a cliff.
Easter Monday saw a relatively rare visit to bottom of the league and already doomed Hyde who had had their recent derby with Stockport abandoned with three minutes to go due to a sudden downpour of biblical proportions. I bought a Cheshire Day Rover and had rides to New Mills Central and Rose Hill Marple before struggling to find the way into the ground among the maze of houses. Hyde created some good chances early on but were undone by their failings at the back. Avenue eventually won 3-1.
The home derby with Guiseley was an anti-climax as our play-off chasing neighbours took a surprisingly defensive approach. The game ended goalless. Guiseley would eventually gain promotion via the playoffs despite finishing 15 points behind second placed club AFC Fylde and only 17 points ahead of Avenue. Still it was their fifth successive season in the play-offs so we cannot begrudge them their success.
More worryingly, our rivals in Manningham were having a surprisingly good FA Cup run, having scraped past the Shaymen in the first round. This was making it hard for us to "sell" Conference North football. Indeed their season tickets were cheaper than ours on a match-for-match basis, prompting the chant "You only watch the City coz its cheap". Reading finally put paid to their dreams in a quarter final replay.
Annoyingly the West Riding Cup final at their ground clashed with another work trip abroad, so I ended up watching Barcelona in Paris instead of Garforth in Manningham. I was surprised to be able to buy tickets on viagogo, although they were not cheap. Getting into the ground was a tedious exercise with security checks all around the Parc de Princes. And you then had to go to a machine to exchange your print-at-home tickets for proper ones. Frustratingly for my biggest game of the season, there were no programmes. I tried to take my assigned and empty seat 45 minutes before kick off, only to be told by a local that I couldn't as he was saving it for his friend. He said that that was the way it had always been in that stand and it wasn't for me to tell him otherwise. In the end everybody stood so it hardly mattered. Indeed the French were probably perplexed at me trying to get a signal on my mobile to get the latest score from Manningham instead of concentrating on Messi, Neymar & co. I eventually saw highlights of the WR final on the Garforth website. Chib Chilaka's late winner came from a superb passing move which would have been worthy of Barcelona.
The last home game of the season saw an anti-climatic 1-0 defeat to Worcester City. A 1-0 victory at Stalybridge followed but, being an evening game, I had to drive and thus miss my visit to the famous Stalybridge station buffet. I sampled the new Liverpool - Newcastle express service via Manchester Victoria en route to North Ferriby, but poor connections at Leeds negated the time saved. Ferriby had just won the FA Trophy at Wembley, beating Wrexham 5-4 on
penalties after a 3-3 thriller. However rumours abounded that the owners were about to pull the plug and the club would be asking to be relegated. In the end, they didn't. The game was another 0-0 anticlimax. After the game I returned, as usual, via the very infrequent Goole - Leeds service. It was a rarity to do this line in daylight.
Conference North finished in April, with Avenue in 14th place on 53 points, just eight clear of the drop. I was unable to do much post season glory hunting due to difficulties getting tickets and ended up watching a sequence of drab affairs with the home side failing to score in eight successive games. This included Tranmere's last game in the Football League. The sequence ended when Qatar equalized against Northern Ireland in a game switched to Crewe as even they can't play at home in the summer heat. There were no programmes as neither side nor the Alex seemed to be bothered, but I did luckily get a team sheet.
At the end of the season, it was announced on the club website that Horsfall had passed an emergency pitch and ground inspection. The reasons for this were never stated but clearly the league were losing patience after all the postponements and complaints. Serious remedial work started as soon as the season ended with strips of soil taken out and replaced with tons of sand. If this does improve the pitch, I hope they look after it.
Sadly supporters club secretary Maria Bruce passed away in the close season. Maria was a wonderful lady and the heart and soul of the club. She extracted so much money out of me, I even had address labels printed to make sending the cheques easier. I hope she can still watch the Avenue from that place in the sky.
John Deacey finally retired at the season's end, leaving Martin Drury and Jamie Price in charge. They have made several new signings already and let several of our more injury prone players go. These included skipper Nathan Hotte and tricky inside forward Alex Davidson who missed the entire season. Both will be missed. Next season promises an improvement and I don't foresee any relegation worries. Time will tell whether we are good enough for the play-offs. There are some very big teams in this league.