MEMOIRS OF AN OLD YARD DOG
THE 22nd ANNUAL REPORT OF THE BRADFORD SUPPORTERS CLUB (ELLESMERE PORT BRANCH)
2010 was a summer of deep depression. Avenue had agonizingly failed to win promotion at the last hurdle, losing at home 2-1 to Boston United in the play-off final after extra time. The title had been ours to lose, but lose it we did thanks to a series of injuries to key defenders and dubious penalty decisions going against us, most notably against eventual champions Guiseley. The club was then rocked by the shock resignation of manager John Deacey, and the departure of most of the squad, after the board announced their intention to slash the weekly budget from £5,000 plus to around £3,000. John was immediately replaced by former Avenue midfielder Simon Collins who had only limited managerial experience at Stocksbridge Park Steels.
The World Cup in South Africa should have brought joy but instead it brought misery for English supporters. The misery was started by Robert Green whose blunder in Rustenburg gifted the Yanks an equaliser and cost England their group. I was so confident that England would win group C that I had bought a ticket for the England v Australia ODI on the day the runners up were due to play in the round of 16. I was thus at Old Trafford when tears turned to cheers in two glorious minutes as England fought back from 2-0 down to level against the Germans. But the cheers turned back to tears when it transpired that the incompetent officials had failed to see that Frank Lampard's "equalizer" was two feet over the line and disallowed the goal.
Avenue fans had a scare when it was revealed that Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs were seeking a winding up order at the Companies Court in London for the non payment of taxes. Our board managed to settle the bill but still had to pay substantial legal costs for a hearing which probably lasted less than a minute. HMRC have a reputation for picking on the minnows while the big fish get away with millions in unpaid debts. No need to mention names.
My new season started as usual at the Racecourse in July watching local Welsh clubs in Europe. This time there was a shock victory for Bangor City who saw off Honka Espoo with two late goals. TNS also gave Anderlecht a very decent game.
The first pre-season friendly that I bothered with, there being far too many, was a visit to Brighouse. This coincided with Chester CAMRA's trip to hostelries along the Manchester Piccadilly – Leeds railway line. Thus the day started in the West Riding Refreshment Rooms at Dewsbury station, a favourite haunt from our days at Batley, followed by the Navigation at Mirfield. I then took my leave to do the Mirfield – Brighouse section, which has only recently acquired a full day service. This could have been problematical as there was no indication as to which platform the Brighouse train left from, but I guessed right. I then caught a bus to Hipperholme to enjoy the delights of the Halifax Steam brewery at the Cock of the North, before crossing several fields to find the ground. No programmes were on sale.
Our worst fears were realized as Avenue took the field. Only Martin Drury, James Knowles, Simon Baldry, Rob O'Brien and Luke Gibson remained from our promotion chasing squad and I can't remember if any of them played. Supporters were deeply depressed by the ordinariness of the players Simon Collins had signed. Most were fringe players who had failed to make an impact in previous spells with the club spanning many years. Only the return of former striker Tom Greaves was met with any enthusiasm. The club was hyping up David Heagney, a 19-year-old forward from St Johnstone, which was most unfair on the lad as he had little or no first team experience. A powder-puff performance ended in a humiliating 1-0 last minute defeat. Brighouse even had to lend us a substitute goalkeeper after ours got injured.
For some strange reason, our annual-ish fixture with Manningham was staged at Valley Parade and could not have come at a less opportune time. This was the worst Avenue side since the rump we were left with after our second successive relegation in 2006. We feared the worst but fortunately Manningham weren't all that clever either. After Tom Greaves missed an absolute sitter in the first minute, we did manage to match them for most of the game and our eventual 4-0 defeat was very harsh.
The Northern Premier League has a very curtailed season, starting later and finishing earlier than everybody else. This gave me the opportunity to cop the first Football League game at Stevenage which attracted a disappointing crowd of less than 4,000. It was there that I first came across that wretched Red Indian chant which would annoy me more and more as the season progressed. Fortunately it seems to be a southern thing. The expected scourge of vuvuzelas never materialized.
Avenue hosted a Leeds United XI and were flattered only to lose 3-1 after another lacklustre performance. A few days later Harrogate Town won 5-1 at Horsfall. The doom and gloom club, myself included, was already predicting relegation.
The season proper started in late August at Horsfall when newcomers Chasetown were the visitors. The pre-season jamboree had already taken its toll with midfield lynchpin Rob O'Brien picking up metatarsal injury which would keep him out for half the season. But Avenue stole all the points with a late Tom Greaves winner. I suspect our visitors showed us far too much respect.
Three days later, we paid our first visit to Northwich since 1974, the Vics being the latest club to be dumped into our league as punishment for some financial misdemeanour. With only two promotion spots available, it is iniquitous to have these big clubs imposed on us. They start as red-hot favourites but, on this occasion, the Vics were still in turmoil and fielded a team of youngsters. However they were still too good for the Avenue and the 2-1 scoreline did not reflect their superiority.
At Northwich, Avenue played in their new away kit of fluorescent yellow shirts, which had no connection whatsoever with the club's tradition or history. But it was our third choice pink shirt which raised the most eyebrows. Why do they let poncy designers design football kits? To be honest, I wasn't too impressed with our home strip either and I suspect the club shop had a poor year selling replica shirts. Why can't we have simple green and white stripes or hoops with white shorts at home and red, amber and black hoops with black shorts away? Is that too much to ask?
Bank Holiday weekend saw Avenue visit Colwyn Bay, who had been promoted via the play-offs despite finishing 21 points behind second placed Lancaster. Colwyn Bay were impressive but a header from a narrow angle from James Knowles and an excellent long range chip from Danny Facey saved us a point. It looked as if Avenue would not be struggling for goalkeepers this season with second choice stopper Steve Kerr playing a blinder in the absence of the impressive Ben Scott. This included a fantastic injury time save.
Titters were raised two minutes from time when an announcement was made for Maria Bruce to report to the club office in order to take Mr Morris's pigeon back to Halifax. I later found out from David that two sets of racing pigeons flying on different routes had come into contact and, being a flock animal, had decided to join forces and head off together for Wales. Hence the need for this errand of mercy.
Perennial strugglers Ossett Town had made a decent start to the season but Avenue's confidence was still reasonably high. However we put in a dreadful performance and eventually lost 1-0 to Phil Sharpe's team of old ex-Avenue players, with the winner coming from Mark Bett.
The club was saddened by the untimely death of former captain Gary Kershaw who was only a young man in his forties. Former club president Charlie Atkinson, a great stalwart who played a record 339 times for the old club, also passed away.
Worksop Town were now in exile in Retford which afforded me the opportunity to take a most unusual train trip. This started with the Merseyrail Electrics service from Little Sutton to Ellesmere Port in order to pick up the parliamentary shuttle to Helsby, which only runs at the crack of dawn and in the late afternoon. Loadings were as usual very light. I then made my way via Newton-le-Willows to Manchester Victoria and Bradford Interchange where I had an hour to kill. I could not believe how dead Bradford was at 9.30 am on a Saturday morning. Not a soul in sight as I wandered the streets and the so-called park which has replaced the city centre. Why can't our short-sighted council see that this is a wonderful opportunity to persuade Network Rail to link our two railway stations? Their lack of imagination beggars belief.
I then sampled the new Grand Central service from Bradford to Doncaster via Halifax, Wakefield Kirkgate and Pontefract. A wonderful train but disappointingly quiet. They need to speed up journey times me thinks.
Cannon Park is in an open field miles out of town, but can be reached from the train station by taking two buses, one a very infrequent service which I knew more about than the Worksop fans. Kevin Sanasy spoilt the day for his former club with a last minute penalty to grab Avenue a 3-3 draw.
FC United arrived at Horsfall in their usual numbers and their fans were soon gloating after ex-Avenue winger Chris Ovington gave them an early lead. But Avenue equalized shortly thereafter and a sensational hat-trick from Tom Greaves in the space of 13 minutes late in the game extended Avenue's unbeaten run against the rebels to nine matches.
The first qualifying round of the FA Cup saw Avenue drawn away to West Auckland Town. This brought back happy memories of a 5-0 pre-season victory in 1969 when I was the only Avenue supporter there and got falsely accused of firing at their goalie with a pea shooter. Our hosts had clearly forgotten this game as the match programme speculated that this was our first visit. Avenue started well with Tom Greaves's glancing header giving us an early lead. A couple of minutes later Danny Facey powered through the middle and was brought down by home keeper Mark Bell as he was being rounded in the box. Unbelievably referee Keogh failed to give a red card, perhaps out of sympathy for the underdogs. Bell then made a good save from Sanasy's weak spot kick.
This was a game of two keepers. Steve Kerr's horrendous sliced clearance gifted the home side an equaliser and two minutes later he conceded a penalty by bringing down a home forward. Avenue were shell shocked and spineless and eventually went down 3-1.
The journey back was eventful, starting with a bus ride to Bishop Auckland followed by a train down to Darlington where we found the East Coast mainline at a standstill due to a fatality at Durham. With the station staff having no information about when the line might reopen, I took a punt and caught the local train to Thornaby to connect with the Middlesbrough - Manchester Airport service. I could only get back as far as Chester and had to call out the missus.
A few hours later, I had to catch a plane to Belgium, forsaking the Eurostar in the hope of arriving in time to see Sporting Lokeren play Westerlo in the top division. Lokeren is a typical small town team playing on a two and a half sided ground. Ironically I had passed Bishop Auckland's new ground the previous day, Bishop having been kicked out of our league for having a ground with only two and a half sides. The game followed a similar pattern to our cup tie with the home side coming back from one down to win 3-1. There were no programmes as such, just a tiny number of team sheets and an undated magazine. A dispute about a penalty and red card late in the game caused a delay of several minutes which led me to miss two trains. It was almost midnight by the time I caught the last working to that funny woman from Belgium Ann Twerp. I couldn't believe how busy it was.
Avenue visited Chasetown on a Saturday in late September, but sadly the Chasewater Railway nearby was not running. I had to make do with the real ale pubs of Lichfield instead. Avenue had a weakened side out. James Knowles had dropped down two divisions to rejoin the reformed Farsley FC after an alleged bust up with Simon Collins and first choice keeper Ben Scott had left due to work problems. Their untried successors Jordan Yorath and Spencer Harris both had nightmares as the Staffordshire side romped to a 5-0 win. Club captain Martin Drury came on to the supporters coach after the game to apologize for the team's performance.
The club was by now in turmoil with disenchanted fans calling for Simon Collins's head. Little was expected at Stocksbridge so several excellent pints of real ale were consumed beforehand in the many splendid real ale pubs on the Sheffield – Middlewood tram route. There is a shuttle bus from the terminus straight to the ground. Against all expectations, Avenue won a dire match 1-0 with a penalty from new signing Steve Burton from Guiseley. Two days later, Avenue gave Ashton United a master class in possession football at Hurst Cross with defensive midfielder Adam Clayton bagging a brace. The pressure was off for a while. And last season's leading scorer Aiden Savory returned to the club.
Normally I have to book my summer holidays before the season starts. Little did I imagine that my October break would clash with our biggest derby for 40 years at the Shay. Everybody expected the Halifax games to be at Christmas and Easter. I was thus stuck on a boat somewhere near the Hellespont when we gallantly went down 1-0. To compound my misery, I had bought a ticket for Greece v Latvia on the internet before travelling, only to be told the next day that I couldn't have it as I wasn't a Greek or a Cypriot.
Before Halifax, Avenue had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with two very late goals against Marine. We had also lost 2-0 at a very early stage of the FA Trophy at Colwyn Bay – a competition which is so unfairly seeded that clubs at our level have no hope of reaching Wembley. A 4-1 stuffing at Kendal ensued, followed by an abysmal 3-2 defeat at home to Frickley. Avenue were going backwards again and our football was becoming awful to watch. The calls for Collins to go were becoming louder and louder and eventually Simon did the decent thing and fell on his sword. We are not sure whether he was pushed.
With speculation mounting as to who would take over, the appointment was speedy and surprising. John Deacey was back saying he had unfinished business to complete. Stephen Downes also rejoined the club for a short spell before emigrating to Australia. Confidence was thus reasonably high for our visit to lowly Retford who had lost their first eight home games. Avenue gave an improved performance but could only draw 0-0 after Steve Burton had failed from the spot. He ponced about with a short run, a bit like Ronaldo in Moscow, and Josh Mimms just stood his ground. Steve looked bewildered and blasted it over the bar.
I had to take a torch with me as it was going to be dark after the game and flashing it was the only way of making sure the driver of the one bus back would see me on the unlit road. I then caught one of the rare express trains on the Lincoln – Sheffield line, but still worked by an old DMU. Sheffield station now has an excellent Thornbridge pub on platform 1.
The West Riding (or "Late Postponement") Cup saw Avenue drawn at near neighbours Eccleshill United. The game was finally played after two postponements and Avenue won 3-1. But we were kicked out of the competition for playing Manningham loanee Chib Chilaka who was ineligible. The club was quick to own up to the WRFA, just in case they didn't notice.
Games at Buxton are always the same. The home side play us off the park but fail to put away their chances. Then the Avenue player you least expect grabs a late equalizer. This time it was Brice Tiani, another returnee from last year. Who can forget Ged Murphy's thunderbolt a couple of years back?
The season had by now ground to a halt and I didn't see a game at Horsfall from the end of October till the middle of January. A severe winter caused Avenue to suffer postponement after postponement, despite the gallant efforts of the groundsman and Kev and his small band of volunteers. Fortunately the club introduced a very welcome text messaging service to advise spectators when matches were off. But even these missives were sometimes too late to save wasted trips. The Halifax home game was not called off by the referee until I was in the Odsal top chip shop. So I had to rush down to Huddersfield to see a very one sided FA Cup tie against Macclesfield.
Come December, I was watching league football most weeks but Avenue did manage to fulfil a fixture at Burscough just before Christmas. This part of the world does get it slightly milder. Avenue looked very rusty and were soon two goals down. However the side improved as time progressed and snatched victory with two goals in the last few minutes to maintain our long unbeaten record at Mart Lane. Chib Chilaka scored the winner in his last game for the club.
As I was staying in Bradford over Christmas, I bought expensive tickets for Bramall Lane on Boxing Day and that place 10 miles to the east on Dec 28th, with Avenue's game with Mickleover scheduled for the 27th. I was thus somewhat worried when we put our game back to the 28th at short notice as a thaw was expected. Fortunately I didn't have to make an agonizing choice as the thaw came too late, and I enjoyed seeing Leeds throw away a 3-1 lead against Pompey. But somebody should tell the NPL that Christmas games are meant to be derbies and not matches against teams from Derby.
The Christmas period saw two major transfers. Captain Simon Baldry left for Guiseley while James Knowles returned to Horsfall after his short spell at Farsley.
Unusually I was still up north at New Year when Avenue were due to visit lowly Ossett Town. Nobody expected the match to be played, least of all the home club. Thus the tea bars were closed which annoyed a lot of people as Ossett ban you from taking in your own food. And there was only a handful of programmes, but I knew from past experience that you have to arrive at Ingfield early. Once Avenue had taken an early lead and Town had missed a penalty, the unprepared home side simply capitulated. For the second time in a few months, Avenue hit six at Ossett, this time without reply. How could we have lost at home to such a hapless side? To crown a good day, Rob O'Brien returned from injury and made a cameo appearance from the bench.
Northwich were due at Horsfall on the bank holiday Monday and messages on the various forums confidently stated that the match was on. Then the match referee turns up at 1.45 and calls it off as one part of the pitch was frozen. Why can't these self-righteous officials have some consideration for the fans and get out of bed and turn up at a decent hour to inspect when a game is in doubt? Instead they swan in, collect their fee, and swan out again.
The lateness of the call left me with no alternative but to go to Manningham. Needless to say, I sat with the Bury supporters and was charged £20 for the "privilege". £20 for a ruddy fourth division game. Manningham's business plan is clear. Rip off visiting and occasional supporters in order to subsidise cheap season tickets for their own. I saw a few green and white shirts near me in the away section, but these were disillusioned Vics fans and not Avenue-ites.
Doubts about our visit to FC United forced me to drive so I would have other options if the game was called off. I thus missed out on my customary visit to the excellent bar on the East Lancs railway station. Avenue were short of fit defenders so returnee Matty James was forced into service at right back. He did an excellent job for 80 minutes by which time he was completely run off his feet. So Avenue brought on new signing Anthony Lloyd. Sadly Anthony had a nightmare 10 minutes. He was badly at fault on both occasions as the rebels scored twice to end their nine-match winless sequence against Park Avenue. He never played again.
Like most people, I couldn't be bothered with the "Floodlit Lager" league cup tie with Halifax on a cold January night. Fans who did attend were asking, only slightly jokingly, which team would play the ringer. In the end it was Halifax, so we had to stay in the competition despite being well beaten 3-0 on the night.
Avenue's long sequence of 77 days without a home game in the league, a club record, finally ended in mid January when Colwyn Bay made the journey over from North Wales. I remember when Bay used to play in exile at the old Ellesmere Port stadium rather than compete in the ill conceived League of Wales.
Such had been the litany of postponements that 14 of Avenue's remaining 21 games were at home. But it was a bad day at the office as Avenue defended abysmally allowing Bay to cruise to a 4-1 win. Avenue missed yet another penalty, Steve Burton the culprit. Tim Clapham reported that since the start of season 2009/10, Avenue had missed seven out of twenty penalties while our opponents had missed six out of twenty. 40 penalties in a season and a half is a hell of a lot. When I was a lad, you only saw two or three awarded per season. The referees of today are whistle mad.
The club bar at Horsfall is a welcome refuge in winter but I had never had a beer there as I refuse to drink keg. To its credit, the club did try to improve choice by offering "real ale in a bottle". While welcoming the initiative, the bottles they chose were not real ales, juts filtered imitations. I did try one but was unimpressed. Sadly bottled conditioned beers do take some searching out.
Unbelievably the home game with Halifax was rearranged for a Monday night in the middle of my winter holidays. I thus missed all three games against them, perhaps as well as I used to watch the Town in the 1980's when Avenue were in limbo. Champions elect Town won 3-1 with a few notes in the programme from yours sincerely about long forgotten prehistoric meetings between Bradford and Halifax. Under Tim Parker's editorship, the programme was a vast improvement on previous years (apart from the perverse habit of printing the scores back to front when we lose). Sadly the Halifax game was marred by a yob who attacked former Yorkshire and England star Geoff Cope, who is often seen at our games with vice president John Helm. This was a particularly despicable act as Geoff is nearly blind.
The following Saturday I forsook football to watch four chukkas of three-a-side ice polo, Chopin beating Castell by 6 goals to 4. Special buses were laid on, but there were no programmes.
An excellent 4-1 win at home to Buxton restored confidence at the start of February. Then Steve Burton rocked the club by following Stephen Downes to Australia. Can't think why – Aussie beer is awful. Northwich were gifted a 2-0 lead at Horsfall by some sloppy defending and it took a deflected Tom Greaves bicycle kick to get us level. We thus surrendered two points when we should have murdered them.
The trip to the North Ferriby away game started badly when my train was late and they didn't hold the connection at Brough. With well over an hour to wait and the risk of programmes running out or even missing the kick off, I spoke to the man in the ticket office about bus alternatives, but he was next to useless. Fortunately after some quick research and waddling half a mile, I picked up a late running 155. Avenue put in one of their best performances of the season to come back from 1-0 down, Gary Bradshaw as usual, to win 2-1 with well taken goals by Tom Greaves and Aiden Savory. As usual, I did the very sparsely served Goole – Leeds line after the game.
Every year, the club send me books of raffle tickets to sell at Christmas and Easter, as indeed do CAMRA, the Railway Development Society and a host of others. These are not the easiest things to sell in Ellesmere Port so I end up buying the lot myself. I had never won a thing in twenty-odd years till this year when I won the first and third prizes. Within seconds of the draw somebody was on the phone to the missus saying that I would be sponsoring a match ball, wouldn't I? I readily agreed. Park Avenue giveth and Park Avenue taketh away. This was to have been the Ferriby home game but had to be changed to Stocksbridge when this was postponed. I ended up doing the Stockport v Macclesfield derby instead.
Watching Stockport was a bit like watching Avenue in 1969. Lots of effort, a great goal, followed by some lousy defending and a 4-1 hammering. I remember watching a Stockport v Ipswich game in the real second division in 1998. There was an article in the programme going on about the bad old days in the fourth division when they use to visit places like Crewe and Wigan. I couldn't help but think at the time that this was somewhat presumptuous. Now, bled dry by Sale Sharks, they will be visiting Fleetwood and Braintree next season.
My hobnobbing day was interesting and, contrary to popular belief, the canapés didn't include prawn sandwiches. And me, the missus and Boring Stan Park Ave fan did make it out in time for the second half. The hardest part was nominating the Stocksbridge man of the match, they were so poor.
For once, we got to visit Whitby on a Saturday but sadly it was too early. Had the game been played two weeks later, I could have caught a North Yorks Moors steam train from Pickering through to Whitby. As it was, I elected to get the Coastliner bus from Malton station which turned out to be an Avenue supporters' special. Only two more years to my bus pass. Several good pints of Double Chance were downed at Suddaby's both coming and going, although this is now brewed at Brown Cow and not on the premises. Avenue won 2-1.
This was followed by home victories against the vastly improved Mickleover Sports and a dangerous Matlock side with goal machine Ross Hannah in the squad. He gave Town an early lead with an opportunist goal before going off injured. Ross has now signed for Manningham. Nine points in a week had suddenly given us an outside chance of a play-off place.
The missus had to take some holiday by the end of March. However as I hate paying rip off exchange rates for the wretched euro, which has a buying power of 70p but costs almost a quid to buy, we ended up on the Birkenhead – Belfast ferry. Countries like Greece and Ireland are been thrown to the wolves just so the French and Germans can go on an ego trip and flash their wealth around rather than devalue.
I had planned to do Coleraine (Rory's old club) v Crusaders and so booked a hotel in nearby Portrush. Then the game was called off and then it was put on again after Maik Taylor got injured playing for Birmingham. It could only happen in Ireland. The ground was similar to an old fashioned Scottish second division arena and the atmosphere was friendly despite the strict segregation. "Tea and biscuits" were served at half time. Crusaders won a good game 3-1 to qualify for Europe. The scenic Portrush – Coleraine – Derry line was griced a couple of days later. Meanwhile a 1-0 defeat at rivals Marine put a huge dent in Avenue's play-off hopes.
Luckily I had picked the week when Northern Ireland were playing Slovenia. So I caught the local train from Bangor, where we now were staying, to Adelaide, stopping off en route at the splendidly ornate Crown Liquor Saloon by Great Victoria Street station for some local Hilden ales. Windsor Park on a murky night is strangely atmospheric. I was in the old stand near the Slovenian fans, but luckily my seat was not behind one of the many pillars. Sadly the game was a rather predictable 0-0 draw.
My final game in Northern Ireland was the Glenavon – Dungannon Swifts derby which was rendered meaningless after both teams found themselves marooned in the bottom six in the late season league split. Having first visited the surprisingly well hidden Lough Neagh, I finally found the ground in a mean-looking suburb of Lurgan. There were no programmes and the snack bar was shut till almost kick off. But I managed to pick up a team sheet in the bar. Mourneview Park is a nice modern all-seater stadium with religious (but not sectarian) slogans painted behind the goal. Dungannon stole the game 2-1 with two late goals.
The next day, the crossing back to Birkenhead was so rough that I had to leave my most of my dinner, including the mushy peas. And your car is on an open deck on this particular ferry, so it was covered in salt by the time we got back to Merseyside.
April started with Avenue in tenth spot, five places below the play-offs with only seven games to go. But manager John Deacey had recruited well. James Riley and Matty Plummer were poached from Halifax where they couldn't get a game. They gave the defence some much needed solidarity, playing alongside James Knowles and my player of the season Martin Drury. And John Lamb came back to replace the excellent Mike Hale in goal and looked a more solid keeper than last year. Left winger Nicky Boshell from Brighouse also looked a good signing.
A big 5-2 win at home to Kendal and a 1-0 win at Matlock raised hopes, but Rob O'brien picked up another serious injury to end his season. I had great plans to do the reopening of Duffield – Idridgehay section of the Ecclesbourne Valley line en route to Causeway Lane but, for various reasons, I never got out of the house. I also missed our Floodlit Lager semi-final at Northwich where John Deacey decided the league was our priority and fielded a very weakened side. Avenue are more cynical than most.
After a short trip to Germany watching a dire game in the Hamburger Oberliga, I returned to Blighty to see Avenue win three home games in eight days without conceding a goal. A place in the play-offs was now assured.
Our regular season ended with a trip to Mickleover Sports on Easter Monday. The Ecclesbourne Valley extension was finally griced before the game, leaving just enough time to visit Mr Grundy's home brew pub in Derby. On arrival at the ground, I was delighted to find a handpulled Derby brewery beer in the clubhouse. Mickleover thus win the best clubhouse beer award whilst Lichfield/Chasetown wins the best drinking town as I'm fed up of giving it to Sheffield. South Elmsall as ever takes the wooden spoon.
John Deacey faced a selection dilemma at Mickleover. Should he field a strong side and try for a top three finish and a home semi final? Or should he rest players for the big game just three days later? He chose the former and Avenue edged a hard fought match 3-1 in the scorching heat. Several players picked up knocks.
As ever, the NPL playoffs were played in indecent haste. Avenue had earned a home tie, but had to play it on the Thursday or lose home advantage. Fortunately the Bradford Airedale Athletics Club very graciously gave up their home night. Avenue could have been a bit more grateful and rather less churlish about this than we seemed to be. FC United were the visitors but there was no prospect of arranging an all-ticket affair at such short notice. It was thus pay on the gate.
I arrived over an hour early to be sure of my place and avoid the queues. And Radio Leeds covered the entire match live on one of their quieter frequencies, which was a novelty. In the event, kick off was delayed due to the queues and a record crowd of over 2,700 squeezed into Horsfall. Despite my "doom and gloom" tendencies, I was quietly confident of promotion as Avenue were on a roll. But it started badly when some awful defending allowed FCUM to take an early lead.
Things went from bad to worse at the start of the second half when more bad defending gave our visitors a second goal. The officious referee then ended the game as a contest by giving James Riley a second yellow card for something he had said. Avenue then threw caution to the wind and missed two absolute sitters late on, but it was not to be. The FCUM players went mad and acted as if they had won the FA Cup as they posed and pranced in from of their delirious supporters. I knew then that they would not be in the right frame of mind for the final and so it proved. Second placed Colwyn Bay took the second promotion spot four days later.
The season went on for another month. There was lots of league football to watch and three of the big play-off games were in Manchester as Wembley had been commandeered by UEFA. I even had the misfortune, for the second time in four seasons, to be present when FCUM's first team clinched the first division title, this time at Blackburn. I also saw AFC Wimbledon get back into the fourth division by beating Luton on penalties, which is an absolutely ridiculous way to decide a Football League place. The play-offs are fine when there are several promotion spots to play for. However in pyramid football, a team can finish second with almost 100 points and still not go up. This year it was Skelmersdale's turn. It is most unfair.
All genuine football supporters are of course delighted that Wimbledon have got back into the league after having their team stolen from them by the Football League, the Football Association and Pete Winkelman. Having said that, they would never have been elected in place of Workington in 1977 had the members suspected they would one day move out of Plough Lane to ground share with Crystal Palace.
My season dragged on into June, finally ending at Wembley watching England struggle against Switzerland. Sadly Fabio Capello hasn't got much to pick from these days and the thirty years of hurt will soon be fifty. Come to think of it, Avenue have now been out of the league for 41 years.
Changes are afoot for next season. Our reserve team won its league under Mick Couzens but has now been disbanded. Our under 19's were disbanded before the season even started. They couldn't get back into their league, having failed to fulfil fixtures the season before.
Instead we are having to ground share with Albion Sports, who have been elected to the Northern Counties East League. I do not like this one little bit. We had an incredible twelve first team home matches postponed in 2010/11. The pitch simply cannot take any more punishment. We will also have to make way for any cup ties that Albion might play in FA competitions. It is fortunate for Avenue, in fact nigh on miraculous, that not a single one of our away NPL fixtures was called off.
It is being said that Albion will be a feeder club to Avenue, but I do not see this working. In all honesty, Avenue reserves was almost being run as a separate club. Indeed Mick went ballistic when John decided to field the entire first team against Thackley reserves. The first team then only drew 0-0.
So what of next season? At the time of writing, the club is wisely keeping stumm about new signings. Too many have slipped away in the past. Big spenders Chester will obviously be a threat while FCUM made a fortune from TV fees in last season's FA Cup run. I think we will be competitive but the title will probably be beyond us. We will need a good start to keep up the interest. Last season, crowds were low as we were never anywhere near the play offs until April. Somewhere in the top eight is my prediction.