MEMOIRS OF AN OLD YARD DOG
THE 27th ANNUAL REPORT OF THE BRADFORD SUPPORTERS CLUB (ELLESMERE PORT BRANCH)
After spending much of the 2014/15 season near the bottom of the table, thanks to a huge number of home postponements, Avenue finally finished the season in a semi-respectable 14th position with 53 points, eight clear of the top. The sale of the club to Gareth Roberts halfway through the season and the signing of quality players such as Simon Ainge had boosted confidence and morale.
Optimism was thus quite high for the new season with several encouraging new signings. These included striker James Walshaw, who we had chased several times before, and goalkeeper Jon Stewart. Adam Clayton and Nathan Turner also returned from long term injuries. However popular manager John Deacey had finally retired and the board took the risky decision to appoint the well-liked but very inexperienced Martin Drury as our new manager, assisted by the equally inexperienced Jamie Price.
I couldn't build up the enthusiasm to drag myself over the M62 for our many home pre-season friendlies, not even the game against Derby County U21s to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Kevin Hector's 44 goals in division four in 1965/66. That total has not been bettered since. In honour of that achievement, Avenue would play the season in the same all white kit which we wore that season and for many before.
The season, as ever it seems, started for me watching Wales's finest compete in Europe. Bala Town were cruelly beaten by an away goal, deep into injury time, by FC Differdange 03 of Luxembourg at Rhyl. Differdange celebrated as if they had won the Europa League itself. This was followed by a visit to The New Saints where I bought an "executive" ticket. This entitled me to dry sandwiches upstairs before the game and meant wearing a wristband. Sadly TNS went down 1-0 on their plastic pitch to Videoton from Szekesfehevar, a place I visited on a scorching day in 2002 for a pre-season friendly against NK Varteks of Croatia.
I did catch the train to Barnsley to see Avenue take on Shaw Lane Aquaforce as I had never done the football ground. I had seen Yorkshire play on the adjacent cricket pitch however. It was a big uphill climb to the ground despite catching the bus as near as I could get. There were no programmes, but a couple of us did persuade the home secretary to print us off some extra team sheets. The game was very worrying. Avenue had all the possession and just played tippy-tappy for the whole 90 minutes. Shaw Lane won the game 1-0 thanks to an own goal by Ryan Qualter. It was a sign of things to come. My journey back was delayed due to trouble on a preceding Penistone line train between rival Barnsley and Huddersfield fans who had been to the counter attraction at Oakwell.
Avenue started the season in splendid fashion against relegated Alfreton Town, taking a two goal lead in the first half hour. Both were scored by new signing Michael Potts. Then it went pear shaped. Alfreton pulled one back in the second half but were reduced to nine men thanks to two red cards. Unbelievably we let them equalize deep into injury time when Alex Pursehouse conceded a needless penalty by fouling a player on the by-line, just inside the box. Our season would never recover from this blow.
Avenue visited Stalybridge midweek, forcing me to drive and miss out on the famous station buffet. Stalybridge were a long ball team and had a centre half who was very good at long throws. Eventually this paid off but Avenue fought back with another goal from Michael Potts. We thought we had a new hero, but Michael would never score for us again in the league. Avenue had signed a host of new players in the close season, most on contracts, but many would fall by the wayside. The decision to put so many unproven players on contracts was a rash one which would dig a huge hole in the clubs finances or, to be more precise, the directors' pockets.
Nuneaton had been made to change their name from Borough to Town since we last played them, as seems to be the requirement for phoenix clubs. They had also changed grounds making it necessary to research the bus routes to their new home in an out-of-town industrial estate which they share with the local rugby union club. Avenue again played tippy-tappy for most of the game, never looking like scoring and fell behind late in the first half. Fifteen minutes from time, Martin changed tactics and started playing direct football and it almost paid off. But to peddle the idea that we had outplayed Nuneaton was ludicrous. A couple of days later, I saw Halifax lose 1-0 in similar fashion at Tranmere. Things were soon to get worse for both Yorkshire clubs.
Supporters were mystified by selections in the middle of defence. With Adam Clayton in favour with the management, Billy Priestley and Ryan Qualter, two of our very best players, had been sent out on loan. When Adam got injured, instead of recalling Billy and Ryan, we ended up signing Tom Burgin and taking Danny Hall on loan, both of whom were only average. Sugar daddy club AFC Fylde came to Horsfall and were deserved 2-1 winners, despite a superbly volleyed goal by James Walshaw.
Corby now has a railway station again, but it is not easy to get to as connections at Kettering are so badly timed by East Midlands Trains. I thus opted to go to Northampton and catch a long distance bus. This passed Kettering's old Rockingham Road ground which looked intact but forlorn. I also found a local bus which went somewhere near Corby's out-of-town ground so avoided having to use a taxi like last time. Avenue were simply abysmal and went down 2-0 thanks to a goal from a Franchise FC loanee Kabongo Tshimanga and another from our nemesis Spencer Weir-Daley. Corby supporters said we were very poor on the bus back into town where I had to run like the clappers for the Northampton connection. They were right.
Avenue's woes continued as surprise FA Trophy winners North Ferriby United visited Horsfall. The Villagers had been in danger of folding after their Wembley success but still had a very competitive eleven. With regular keeper Jon Stewart injured, Avenue had taken 18-year old youngster Myles Wright on loan from Chesterfield and sadly the lad looked overawed by senior football. Despite Chib Chilaka twice giving Avenue the lead, Bradford conceded four first half goals in one of the worst defensive displays of recent years. However hopes were raised after Richard Marshall scored with a 25-yard curler and former Avenue stalwart Nathan Hotte got himself sent off. Chib Chilaka then completed his hat trick to earn an unlikely point.
Scooby scored another excellent goal to give Avenue a half-time lead at moneybags Harrogate, but two equally good goals from Brendon Daniels secured the three points for the Sulphurites. Avenue were now bottom of the league with just three points from seven outings.
My summer holiday then intervened and the only sport I saw for a month was a sold-out non-league baseball game in Vancouver. I thus missed a 1-0 home win against surprise strugglers Telford, a 1-1 draw against surprise leaders Solihull, despite playing for 80 minutes with ten men after the returning Billy Priestley was sent off, and a creditable 0-0 draw at Tamworth. Surprisingly no midweek fixtures were arranged for September.
I came home really looking forward to a visit to Consett for the second qualifying round of the FA Cup. But sadly I was sick of the palsy and unfit to travel any further than Airbus UK Broughton, where I attempted to follow the game on the excellent social media feed that the club now gives. By all accounts Avenue were very lucky to come back from 1-0 down late in the game, winning with another Scooby special deep into injury time on Consett's plastic pitch.
After a fairly easy 1-0 win over Brackley, Avenue visited NPL Premier side Salford City in the next round of the cup, a club bankrolled by four former Manchester United players. Phil Neville was in the crowd signing autographs and is more fondly remembered, by me at least, for his eight years at Everton. A large Bradford following swelled the crowd to just over 500 but Salford took an early lead following a defensive mistake. Avenue then took control, totally dominating possession with a display of sideways tippy-tappy football. But we seldom looked like scoring and it took a Richard Marshall penalty to take the tie back to Bradford. Avenue used similar tactics in the replay and again were unable to break down a resolute Salford defence. Salford won 1-0 in extra time, and then beat Southport and Notts County before going down to Hartlepool United in a replay. With three TV appearances they pocketed almost a quarter of a million pounds as Avenue looked on with envious eyes, thinking of what might have been.
Just before Christmas 2014, ownership of the club had passed from Bob Blackburn and Kevin Hainsworth to Texas-based businessman Gareth Roberts, who originally hailed from Holme Wood. Sadly, little was to be seen of Bob and Kev after the takeover which I always think is rather sad after all their efforts in resuscitating the club. Day-to-day running of the club seemed to be in the hands of chairman John Dean. Gareth started the process of converting the club into a fan-owned "community" club along the lines of FC United. His thoughts apparently are that this will make the club more sustainable and give us access to various grants. So both Gareth and small shareholders like myself, who nevertheless have invested thousands into the club, would see their holdings diluted. I must admit I have my concerns but director Phil Lawler was kind enough to invite me into the board room and explain some of the thinking to me.
Avenue were held to a disappointing 1-1 draw at Horsfall by homeless Gloucester, both goals coming from the penalty spot, the visitors ending with ten men after a late dismissal. We then visited unwelcoming Edgeley Park where we feared being left out in the open again but, on this occasion, Stockport did at least let us have some covered seats in the corner. It was raining. Our poor record against the underachieving Hatters continued with a 2-0 defeat. Stockport substitute Lamin Colley received a warm welcome from the Bradford faithful which might have prompted his return to Horsfall later in the season.
I must confess that, as I now work in Manchester, I went to see Manchester City vs Seville instead of our West Riding cup tie at our former tenants Albion Sports, who now play at Farsley. I thus missed a 7-0 win. Ten-man Lowestoft were dispatched 3-0 three days later lifting some of the gloom, and Tadcaster were beaten 4-2 away in a friendly nobody knew about.
In a surprise move, former Avenue centre-half and Bradford City manager Terry Dolan joined the Avenue board in early November. His arrival was welcomed as a provider of guidance for our inexperienced management team. Terry was a classmate of mine in the 1960's at the now defunct Cardinal Hinsley Grammar School near Tong Cemetery. He left the club for Huddersfield in 1970 as part of the panic cost-cutting exercise after the death of Herbert Metcalfe. He went on to become a first division player.
The club had invested a huge amount of money over the summer improving the pitch. This involved taking out half of the soil and replacing it with sand. The new surface was much flatter than the old, making it more amenable to good football. However we did not appear to have a professional groundsman and it was left to Neil Fawcett and his band of volunteers to look after the pitch. The first real test of the winter came in early November when heavy overnight rain was forecast before our rearranged game with Curzon Ashton. This duly arrived and our game was called off in good time for me to get a ticket to see Stoke beat hapless Chelsea 1-0 in the 5.30 kick off. The "Special one's" days were numbered.
It was still raining a week later when we visited Chorley, so much so that buses had to be taken the relatively short distance from the station to the ground. But the game was on and Avenue lost little time in gifting their hosts a 2-0 lead. Against all the odds, however, Avenue mounted a late rally and a late penalty from James Walshaw followed by his last minute header gave us an undeserved point.
The rains continued and it took many hours of hard graft from Neil's volunteers to get the game with Hednesford Town on, only for Avenue to fall behind in the third minute. A late goal from Jason "Satnav" St Juste rescued a point. This game marked the overdue return of central defender Ryan Qualter from his loan spell.
Satnav had just returned from international duty with St Kitts and Nevis, playing no. 2 in a 1-0 victory in Andorra and a 3-0 defeat to Estonia in Tallinn. Estonia celebrated victory as if they had won the World Cup, while the attendance in Andorra La Vella looked well short of that at Chorley.
Avenue have always been quite lucky in Conference/National League North, rarely having to travel to distant southern outposts midweek. Our luck finally ran out when we had to visit Cheltenham on a November Tuesday to play Gloucester City. I couldn't make it due to work commitments and thus missed an excellent 3-1 win, Avenue's first away victory of the season.
The third qualifying round of the FA Trophy saw Avenue drawn away to Buxton, a competition fans thought we ought to take seriously with our relegation fears easing as our league position improved. The rains were horrendous before the game as was the forecast, so I chose to drive so I would have a plan B. I arrived in a deluge and was astonished to find the game on and the pitch in near perfect condition. But even the best of pitches can only take so much and by half time lakes had appeared, giving the referee little choice but to abandon the game. It was postponed again three days later.
Before the game could finally be replayed, Stalybridge were defeated 3-1, Avenue's goals all coming in the second half playing into a strong wind. Avenue then struggled against a keen Buxton side who took a deserved lead just after half time when Billy Priestley deflected a cross into his own net. But two excellent goals in the last 10 minutes from Richard Marshall and Chib Chilaka duplicated the escape act performed at Consett .
Avenue were drawn against former National League National and Football League rivals Lincoln City in the next round of the Trophy and, for family reasons, I travelled to Bradford a day early. I thus spent an enjoyable evening listening to Peter Jackson in the Social Club. It isn't often that I get to Dave Stordy's events living, as I do, in Ellesmere Port. The rains, as expected, put paid to the game so I ended up at Huddersfield where the River Colne was a raging torrent outside the ground. Avenue were having dreadful luck with the weather with torrential downpours seemingly happening like clockwork in the 24 hours before every home match.
The weather finally relented in time for Avenue's visit to Alfreton to go ahead, a ground where I once saw Mansfield Marksman play Bramley at rugby league. This is one of the easiest grounds to get to by train for me, being a stop on the hourly Liverpool - Norwich route. Craig King gave Avenue an early lead placing the ball in the bottom corner from the edge of the box. Excellent play by both keepers then ensured that the game finished 1-0, making it four wins on the bounce and eight unbeaten in all competitions for Avenue. It would be the only league away win I would see all season.
Two days later, Neil's band of volunteers finally beat the rain allowing the game with Lincoln to go ahead at the third time of asking. The Imps arrived with a weakened team and only one coach load of supporters, restricting the gate to 360. They paid the price for underestimating Avenue as goals by Nathan Turner and Craig King seemed to have won the game. However keeper Jon Stewart was red carded for kicking out at Lincoln sub and star striker Matt Rhead five minutes from time. With no goalie on the bench, Paul Marshall took the gloves and was deemed by the linesman to have caught the ball behind the line after a long corner rebounded off the post. However Bradford held out for a famous win and the highlight of the season.
The rains continued over Christmas putting paid to our Boxing day fixture with FC United and necessitating another visit to Huddersfield. However our visit to North Ferriby did take place two days later, although I had to forsake the delights of the Goole - Leeds line. Avenue battled bravely against the surprise promotion contenders but eventually went behind to a headed goal from giant striker Tom Denton. Bradford never looked like equalizing, even when Ferriby were reduced to ten men, and thus we fell to our first defeat in 10 games.
The visit to FC United's new Broadhurst Park ground in Moston was one we all looked forward to, this being the first meeting of the clubs since the 2012 play-off final. A huge crowd of over 3,000 turned up. Broadhurst Park is an excellent ground by non-league standards with a large stand and cover on all four sides. The game started badly with FCUM scoring in the first three minutes, then adding another in an excellent break. Lamin Colley pulled one back from a tight angle late in the game and then an excellent save from Carnell denied Craig King when he was clean through on goal. After the game, two double deckers were provided to transport fans back into the centre of Manchester, believed to be the first football specials at an Avenue game since the FA Cup tie at Doncaster. But they wouldn't let me use my bus pass.
This would turn out to be James Walshaw's last game for the club. Martin Drury seemed reluctant to play James and Chib Chilaka as twin strikers, meaning that the former often found himself on the bench. He was thus sent to Frickley on a month's loan, where the goals began to flow. He eventually stayed for the rest of the season without ever really being given a chance at Bradford.
The rains continued and the Nuneaton home game was called off in time for me to dive on to a London train and be at Barnet's new ground in Edgware by 1.30 to recomplete my 92 league grounds for the umpteenth time. I got drenched walking back to Canons Park underground station afterwards.
Avenue had a favourable home draw against NPL Nantwich in the second round of the FA Trophy, but the match referee called the game off as a small portion of the pitch was frozen. The game was played four days later and hopes of a quarter final place were high with a very winnable tie with Stourbridge awaiting the winners. However, despite its importance, the game was poorly publicised and only 207 turned up.
With Jon Stewart suspended, Avenue had young Conor Mitchell, on loan from Burnley, between the sticks. Callum Chippendale also made his debut. Nantwich fought hard and took a second half lead. This was cancelled out by Michael Potts.
The signings continued including Elliot Kebbie from Salford, who had conceded the penalty against us in the FA Cup, and Callum Terrell from Wrexham. They would only manage two or three appearances between them. It seemed that Martin was simply signing players for the sake of it who were no better than those we already had.
Hopes nevertheless were high when Avenue visited surprise strugglers Telford United, based in a real ale paradise where several enjoyable pints were enjoyed before and after the game. However Bradford slipped to a 3-1 defeat despite Simon Ainge almost taking the net off with a close range volley.
I then made my shortest trip of the season down to Nantwich for the replay and was disgusted by what I saw. Nantwich were excellent in the first half and deservedly led 1-0 at the interval. Avenue then conceded a second shortly after the break and simply gave up. It was embarrassing but several players were apparently carrying injuries. We ended up losing 5-0, the second time this season we had lost a major cup tie to a team in a lower league. With the players we had, we should have reached the last eight and possibly beyond.
For the first time in my life, I put trainspotting ahead of football, forsaking Avenue's trip to Gainsborough in favour of an enthusiasts' special halfway down the Manisty Wharf freight branch in Ellesmere Port. It was possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the only disappointment being that the train could not go further down the line as the curves were too tight. I was punished for my disloyalty by missing a 1-0 win, a good reaction to the Nantwich debacle. Chib scored the winner with a close range bicycle kick.
Avenue were drawn away to Halifax in the quarter final of the West Riding cup. Such is the Shaymen's contempt for this competition that they switched the game to Horsfall and never listed it in the results in their programme or website. When this was called off, the game was switched to Storthes Hall in Huddersfield, a totally unsuitable amateur ground with no cover. Fortunately this also fell foul of the weather and the match was eventually played at Garforth. After a 3-3 draw, Bradford won 5-4 on penalties after Halifax had missed a kick to win it.
Come the end of January, Avenue still had 11 home games to fit in inside three months, more than half a season's worth. But the rains the returned. In early February our pitch sort of passed a 9.15 pitch inspection and visitors Corby agreed to set off north, more in hope than expectation. But, as forecast, the rain continued and the game was called off at 12.30 causing many to make a wasted journey.
A week later we finally managed to play a league game at home for the first time in 10 weeks when the frost held off sufficiently for our match with Stockport to go ahead. Ironically I missed the 0-0 draw as I was away on a skiing holiday spoiled by blizzards. Four days later, Avenue gave one of their best displays of the season coming from a goal down to beat FC United 3-1. The game saw the debut of Darren Thornton, the third player of recent times sharing a name with a former Bradford trolleybus route (7). The others were Adam Clayton (37) and Michael Duckworth (Lane) (8). Will we ever sign a Bingley (26) or a Holmewood (17), I wonder? Despite being just 5 points clear of the relegation zone, Avenue had now seemingly recovered from their bad start and had chalked up as many wins (8) as losses.
2015-16 was a particularly poor season for foreign games with few of my work trips to Europe coinciding with football matches. However I did manage to get a ticket for Feyenoord the day after our visit to PSV Lowestoft, as our Odsal end raffle ticket seller John Thornton loves to call them. Lowestoft is as near to Eindhoven as it is to Bradford. I did toy with the idea of catching the Harwich - Hook of Holland ferry, but the logistics didn't quite work. Thus I ended up at Bolton while Avenue crashed to an embarrassing 3-0 defeat against the struggling Trawlerboys.
Feyenoord has its own railway station on the old main line south, which is only used on match days. I arrived to find a noisy march circling the ground in the biting wind, protesting at the home club's dismal form. Wisely I kept my distance as there were over 200 arrests, the Dutch police getting the dog on as they hadn't been given notice. Visitors Roda JC Kerkrade extended the gloom by earning a 1-1 draw after Dirk Kuyt had opened the scoring for the hosts. The game was nevertheless sold out at the very interesting De Kuip stadium which, surprisingly, dates back to 1937. I did not get back in time for a midweek 2-1 defeat to Boston, only our second home reverse of the season.
Our visit to Curzon Ashton afforded me a first opportunity to grice the new Metrolink branch to Ashton-under-Lyne, the construction of which had caused traffic chaos when, a few years ago, we played FC United at the Tameside stadium. Avenue gave debuts to two young players we had taken on loan from our friends from Manningham, both with double-barrelled surnames, which I believe was a first for the club. But it was a bad day with Curzon coming back from 1-0 to win 2-1, helped by a number of controversial decisions. A day later, I was at the first Chester vs Tranmere derby for many years, spoiled by a completely over-the-top police presence.
Avenue's bad luck with the weather continued as heavy snow fell before our rearranged game with Corby. This then melted and waterlogged the pitch. Fortunately the game was called off in time for me to get a ticket for Stoke vs Newcastle. But then I had to-do when the father of a family of season ticket holders started getting funny when I sat in the spare seat he had sold for the night. I had to go out of the ground with a steward so he could check the facts at the ticket office, before he managed to tactfully resolve matters.
Avenue finally played Curzon at home a week after the away game, which was the date in the original fixture list. As usual, Neil had put out a call for volunteers to come down to the ground from 8.30 am to help clear snow and water. There had been several attempts to play the game earlier in the winter, some foolhardy, but these were all failures. The game started disastrously with Curzon taking a 2-0 lead in the first 15 minutes, the second a very soft penalty. After such an abject display, few could have anticipated the second half comeback which saw three goals in 10 minutes, two from Chib Chilaka bracketing a Richard Marshall penalty. A fourth from Jason St Juste put the icing on the cake and ended a three-game losing run.
Avenue now faced a very difficult run of matches, playing seven of the top eight over the next few weeks. But the weather jinx continued and 12 hours of incessant heavy rain spared Nuneaton a trip to Bradford.
Brackley is the National League North ground furthest from a railway station, requiring a 40 minute run on the fast 500 bus from Banbury. Our goalless game there was one of the dourest of the season with very little to excite supporters. But this would prove to be a precious point as the season progressed, keeping a buffer between ourselves and the bottom three. Brackley would eventually avoid the drop by the skins of their teeth, thanks to a long sequence of 0-0 and 1-1 draws. This would be Billy Priestley's last game before his sale to Salford City. Selling one of our best players to a team in a lower league was a worrying sign.
In the league, Bradford had a 100% record from the penalty spot with Richard Marshall and James Walshaw both lethal from 12 yards. But neither was on the field when Avenue were awarded a spot kick when 1-0 down at home to Tamworth. Chib Chilaka stepped up but his sidefooted effort was well saved by James Belshaw. Tamworth's Durrell then sealed the points with a cracking half volley.
Avenue, once more, were perilously close to the relegation zone albeit with games in hand. Supporters were getting more and more discontented with the style of football and the incessant merry-go-round of players. Nevertheless it came as a bit of a surprise when the board bit the bullet, forcing Martin and Jamie Price to leave "by mutual consent".
Former Barrow manager Darren Edmondson was appointed as caretaker manager until the end of season, but there were complications as he was involved in a contractual dispute with his former employers. As a result, his assistant Alex Meechan took control for the home game against Chorley. Avenue looked much livelier than of late and a well taken goal by Chib Chilaka was enough to secure the three points.
Jason St Juste was called away again on international duty in late March to play for St Kitts and Nevis in second stage of the Scotiabank CFU Men's Caribbean Cup. The Kittians beat Antigua & Barbuda 1-0 at home and Aruba 2-0 away to qualify for the third stage in the autumn. The competition also serves as a qualifier for the CONCACAF Gold cup to be held in the USA in 2017.
Despite all the postponements, the work done on the playing field over the summer had improved drainage and a number of games were played which would have been called off last season. And the supporters' club had bought the club a new "blotter" which could be used to mop up water from bad areas of the pitch.
The rains and poor weather forecasts continued, putting Avenue's Easter Saturday visit to AFC Fylde in doubt so I drove, passing their mightily impressive new stadium en route which will be ready next season. Fylde took a 1-0 lead with a disputed penalty before a torrential localized downpour late in the first half caused the game to be abandoned. So I drove into Blackpool for my first ride on the trams since modernization. A bit of advice - don't use the modern trams to view the illuminations. They are far too bright on the inside and even if they weren't, you wouldn't be able to see very well out of many of the windows, as these are covered in dark dots at the back of adverts on the outside of the vehicle. With Avenue now in the West Riding Cup final, the club would face a punishing 10 games in April.
Darren Edmondson brought in four or five new players of varying ability before the transfer deadline to further enlarge Avenue's large playing squad. These included Abu Dhabi born Luke Woodland, who was signed while away on international duty with the Philippines. Luke originally represented England, playing 11 games for the U-16, U-17 & U-18 representative teams between 2010 and 2012. Luke played for the Azkals in Uzbekistan on the 24th March in a World Cup Group H qualifier, playing for the full 90 minutes before being substituted in injury time. Uzbekistan won 1-0 in front of 15,000 spectators. Five days later, he played for the Philippines against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in another World Cup qualifier at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila. Unfortunately he was yellow carded in the 11th minute and substituted at half time. The Philippines won 3-2 and the crowd was 6,478. Luke made his international debut against Yemen on 16th June 2015 and now has 5 caps.
Despite their large budgets, Harrogate Town have never done well at Horsfall. They were totally outclassed again on Easter Monday as Ryan Qualter and City loanee Dylan Mottley-Henry got their first goals of the season for the club after a well-hit volley from Chib Chilaka had given us an early lead. Town pulled one back in injury time.
Avenue put in a spirited performance at runway leaders Solihull Moors, but it was not enough to stop a 2-1 defeat, our first under Darren Edmonson. I then made the midweek drive to Kidderminster down quiet roads along the Welsh border. With Jon Stewart injured, Avenue gave debuts to young goalkeeper Ryan Jones, who we had signed as cover from Bootle on dual registration, and full back Joe Wilkinson. Both struggled and made errors against the experienced Lee Hughes in the Worcester City attack. Our defensive mistakes proved decisive as we went down 3-1. The Avenue forward line played quite well, with Chib scoring with another spectacular bicycle kick, but it was not enough.
Four days later, Avenue visited Boston and all was not well. A virus had decimated the squad and Ryan Jones was away on a prebooked holiday to Blackpool. This meant that tall striker Liam Dickinson, on loan from Guiseley, had to take the gloves. Indeed had we not made multitudinous signings before the deadline, we would not have been able to field a team. Liam did OK for half an hour then was beaten to the ball at a corner that a regular keeper would have taken. After that it was all downhill and Bradford lost 3-0. The only excitement was the traditional traversal of the Grantham avoiding line after the game.
Two days later, Avenue revisited AFC Fylde and I got in for nothing as Neil had given me a spare voucher which many had missed out on when leaving the ground in the earlier deluge. Fortunately Kellamergh Park is near Blackpool so Ryan Jones could appear. A day later he would turn out for Bootle at Squires Gate while I was watching Manchester City beat Paris St Germain. Another day later and we were all back at Horsfall to see Avenue grab a priceless 1-0 win over struggling Corby thanks to a late calmly-taken goal by Dylan Mottley-Henry. This condemned Town to relegation.
Three days later against Worcester, it was the turn of Reece Webb-Foster to shine for the first time, scoring an excellent hat trick in a 3-1 win. Worcester had had a man sent off when 2-0 down. To allay fears, I posted a detailed analysis online showing that while mathematically Avenue still needed one more point to stay up, we were effectively safe. It would take an exceedingly unlikely combination of results to relegate Bradford, with the many teams just below us in the table still having to play one another. We could thus enjoy the West Riding Cup final.
Thus it was that Avenue travelled to Manningham for the final with less on our minds than opponents Harrogate Town, who fielded a weakened team. Avenue were all over Town in the first half, but failed to take the lead when Richard Marshall missed his first penalty of the season. However Lamin Colley soon made amends. Reece Webb-Foster doubled the lead in the second half with an excellent free kick into the bottom corner. He was promptly recalled by City, but never made their first team which was beaten by Millwall in the play-off semi finals. Avenue's set pieces had been abysmal all season. I don't recall us ever scoring before directly from a free kick, yet we were clueless at setting up walls and frequently conceded. Harrogate caused Avenue a few late scares after Day netted five minutes from time, heading home a good cross from ex-Avenue winger Joe Colbeck. Then Richard Marshall bravely stepped up to net an injury time penalty for Bradford, but there was still time for Joe Colbeck to do likewise at the other end. Having been in Paris last season, the last time I saw Avenue win the WR Cup was in 1991 when I stayed overnight so I could join in the big celebrations at the old Rafters pub on Little Horton Lane. This time it was just a quiet drive home over the M62 and M56.
Just as the season looked like ending on a positive note, it turned into a damp squib in the last few days. A dour 0-0 draw in the cold wind at relegated Hednesford was the only score I predicted correctly all season on Keith Denison's "Guess the gate" competition. A final work trip to France, disrupted by the French rail strike, meant I missed a seemingly entertaining 3-2 home defeat to Nuneaton Town.
In the autumn the club had obtained planning permission for a tiny temporary (standing) stand behind the goal at the cemetery end and another on the Harold Park side, but the first of these did not appear until the last day of the season. Then an atrocious 4-1 home defeat to Gainsborough Trinity was the prelude to a summer of despair as budgets were cut, all our better players left and it took six weeks to promote temporary assistant manager Alex Meechan to head coach. Terry Dolan had previously been promoted to Director of Football and had started an academy. Instead of consolidating, we have gone back to square one.
The Gainsborough game was followed by the Player of the Season presentation award in the social club which was won by Craig King. But I rushed off to the Shay instead for their vital 5.30 kick off against Macclesfield. Halifax simply had to equal or better Guiseley's result against Torquay to avoid the drop. All looked well when Scott McManus gave Town the lead on the stroke of half time. But it all turned pear shaped when Macclesfield equalized with a deflected goal. Halifax could not find a winner, hitting the post in injury time, and were relegated when Guiseley held out for a nervy 4-3 victory. Guiseley's escape was helped by an undeserved point they had obtained against Braintree earlier in the year. The Lions accidentally scored when giving the ball back to the opposing keeper after an injury stoppage and then refused the referee's suggestion that they "gift" Braintree a goal to make amends.
Last season's keeper John Danby played for Airbus against TNS in the Welsh Cup final at Wrexham but ended up on the losing side. The powers that be closed the nice new stand and made everybody sit at the front of the old one so it would seem like there was a big crowd for the S4C cameras. As a result, many got wet.
The season still wasn't over for me so I made my first visit to Meadow Lane since 1977, primarily as an excuse to do the two new NET tram lines to Toton Lane and Clifton South. Carlisle ran riot winning 5-0. This was followed by a meaningless game at Everton, who had had a similar season of underachievement to Avenue.
Halifax's season, however, had a silver lining. The Shaymen had reached the final of the FA Trophy at Wembley, defeating our conquerors Nantwich Town over two legs in the semis. If only. Dave Stordy organized a coach from Bradford to support the Shaymen and he also organized tickets.
Thanks to a remarkable bit of luck, a Manchester United season ticket holder that my wife knows managed to get me a ticket for the FA Cup final at Wembley as the chap she sits next to couldn't go due to work commitments. So this was the perfect curtain raiser for the Halifax game the next day. It was hard sitting in the United end wanting Palace to win, as I had at Old Trafford a month earlier watching a dour encounter after work between the same two teams. I even bumped into two of my former bosses. It looked good ten minutes from time when Palace scored but it wasn't to be. The game finished so late and the queues at the three stations were so long that I ended up having a kebab and then taking a couple of buses back to my hotel near Paddington, only leaving time for a couple of quick pints.
The FA Trophy final at 4.15 pm was preceded by the FA Vase final at 12.15 pm which was most unfair on people travelling from Morpeth. I also had to arrive early to sort out ticketing problems. The two matches were watched by over 46,000 which means that the experiment will probably be repeated. But it did help having three ex-Football League teams taking part.
The Sunday was a far more civilized affair, helped no doubt by having Club Wembley seats. Real ale was on sale, straight from the barrel, and there was quality food on sale. The toilets in the United end had been three inches deep in water. For some strange reason, most of the Bradford coachload went to the pub instead of enjoying probably better beer inside Wembley. Thus they missed a superb FA Vase final. Indeed I was one of the very few to watch both games.
Hereford took the lead after 2 minutes with a great shot from outside the box and took total control for the first 25 minutes. Then Morpeth came back into it, equalizing from a corner after a goalkeeping error. This started a spirited comeback and they went on to win 4-1. I thought it only right and fitting that a little club should win their Vase rather than a big phoenix side. Newcastle United had helped Morpeth with their preparations, thus avenging Ronnie Radford.
The FA Trophy final was tighter with Halifax clearly wanting it more than Grimsby. The Mariners had won promotion back to the Football League by beating Forest Green Rovers on the same ground a week earlier. The vital moment came just after half time when Scott McManus sent a delicious lob from outside the box into the top corner. I was able to sneak round almost to the back of the royal box after the final whistle, but still couldn't see much of the presentation.
After the game, with three quarters of the crowd long gone, it was easy to get a tube into Bloomsbury to enjoy some good beer, before taking the train to Germany the next day for what was likely to be my last work trip before retirement.
This victory will change the whole perception of the Shaymen in Halifax. They have a fine new stadium and are no longer a set of losers. I expect them to win National League North next season, even after sacking the manager Jim Harvey who took them to Wembley and almost kept them up against all the odds.
I wish I could say the same about Avenue, who again finished the season in 14th position, but this time on 50 points, just four clear of the drop. I can't say I'm looking forward to next season as our league is going to be the toughest ever with Darlington, Salford, Kidderminster, Altrincham and Halifax replacing Solihull, North Ferriby, Lowestoft, Hednesford and Corby. Unless something positive happens in the next few weeks, I predict a poor start to the season followed by panic and eventual relegation. Nevertheless I wish our new manager well. He is in the same position that Tony Leighton was in 1970, with a thankless task now we have "cut our cloth". We desperately need a good FA Cup or FA Trophy run to raise our profile.
The highlight of pre season promises to be a friendly against a Newcastle United XI to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Second Lieutenant Donald Simpson Bell in the battle of the Somme. Donald was the only professional footballer ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry. We will also revert to playing in the green-and-white hooped jersey that Donald proudly wore for us in the first division. I did post a message on Avenue chat earlier in the year to make sure this important anniversary was not forgotten.