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 Post subject: Courtesy of Pete Zemroch
PostPosted: Sat Jun 30, 2012 10:10 am 
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Joined: Thu Jul 15, 2010 10:56 pm
Posts: 335
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MEMOIRS OF AN OLD YARD DOG


THE 23rd ANNUAL REPORT OF THE BRADFORD SUPPORTERS CLUB (ELLESMERE PORT
BRANCH)

2011 was yet another summer of deep depression. Avenue had once again been
found wanting when it really mattered, losing 2-0 at home to archrivals FC
United of Manchester in the semi-finals of the play-offs. And with high
spenders Chester now in our division and no big money signings of our own, I
felt that the play-offs were the best we could hope for in the new season.

Opportunities to watch any sort of meaningful cricket in the interim were
very limited thanks to central contracts, the abolition of the Gillette Cup
and twenty-twenty rubbish. So I spent much of the summer building a website
dedicated to the long-forgotten Bradford FC side that played at Park Avenue
between 1895 and 1899. Tim Clapham meanwhile was writing a book about Avenue
at War. I wonder if anybody will ever catalogue the results of the Avenue
Sunday side?

Avenue started the 2011/12 season with new co-tenants in Albion Sports. It
was unclear whether the rationale behind this was (a) financial, (b) to use
Albion as a feeder club, (c) pressure from the council or (d) some
combination of (a), (b) and (c). Whatever the reason, supporters had major
concerns as to whether the Horsfall pitch would hold up to the extra wear.
The only mitigating factor was that Avenue had scrapped their reserve side.
This had been highly successful, but was run almost as a separate club with
little or no interchange of players with the first team. As such, it was a
luxury we could ill afford.

For various reasons, I couldn't build up any enthusiasm for the pre-season
friendlies and so missed a 3-2 victory against Manningham's finest and a 2-1
win against Leeds's second string. And big wins against the likes of
Tadcaster (6-2), Brighouse (4-1) and Bishop Auckland (4-1) gave increased
grounds for optimism. Only a late capitulation against Droylsden, when we
threw away a 3-0 lead, prevented a clean sweep.

My first game of the season was a trip to Kingston-on-Thames to see AFC
Wimbledon's first game back in the fourth division. I pumped into the Avenue
fan known as "Stockport" outside the ground. Kingsmeadow was packed and it
was difficult to see, even when you are my height. The game was an early
kick-off which gave me a rare opportunity to go to the last day of the Great
British Beer Festival at Earls Court afterwards. Sadly nearly all the beers
had sold out, and the organizers were too busy congratulating themselves
instead of worrying about the short changed punters. My local CAMRA branch
would manage the beers far more carefully and never allow such a limited
choice to be left on the last day.

Avenue started their NPL campaign at home to Hednesford Town and soon fell a
goal behind. The visitors then successfully shut up shop for next 87
minutes. The misery continued three days later at Whitby when Avenue found
themselves a goal behind and down to 10 men after just 19 minutes. Why James
Riley would consider it necessary to commit a professional foul on ex-Avenue
striker Andy Campbell I do not know, but I was not there. However Avenue
miraculously turned the game around in the second half and came away with a
4-1 win.

Nantwich is only about 20 miles from where I live but requires four trains,
so a cheap Arriva all-day bus ticket was used instead. After enjoying some
very good beers, I saw Avenue continue where they left off at Whitby,
rattling in three first half goals. 3-0 is how it finished. Two further home
victories followed against Worksop (1-0) and Burscough (3-0) with left
winger Nicky Boshell hitting a first-half hat-trick. If somebody had said
that Nicky would go on to make 45 appearances but only score one more goal,
nobody would have believed you.

Avenue's bank holiday game at FCUM was switched to Curzon Ashton, providing
the perfect excuse to change trains at Stalybridge and visit the wonderful
station buffet en route. We needed a few beers before the game as this
turned out to be an abomination. Avenue twice came back from behind to
equalize, despite the loss of right back Matt Plummer and striker Aiden
Savory to injury. But after conceding a penalty late in the game, we
collapsed in the last few minutes letting in two further goals, one a
long-range beauty.

After the game, there was traffic chaos due to road works in connection with
the Metrolink tram extension. The hourly 338 bus, which passes the ground,
blobbed as a result and so I faced a horrific walk into the town down a
dangerous half dug-up dual carriageway with no causeway. Avenue's newly
signed goalkeeper James Coates was sacked after the game, which at the time
I thought a tad harsh, and crowd favourite John Lamb returned. Our board has
a zero tolerance policy vis-à-vis goalkeeping errors.

When Avenue faced Chasetown five days later, we had five or six first team
regulars missing, owing to injuries and suspensions, and only two fit
players on the bench. Avenue would habitually name veteran assistant manager
Mark Hume as one of the substitutes when we were short, instead of naming a
substitute keeper. Clark Lydon turned up for the warm up for most matches
but hardly ever got a look in. Bizarre. Our ill-discipline continued as we
were reduced to ten men after 15 minutes when our hardworking midfielder
Nathan Hotte was sent off by the over-officious referee. Annoyed by the
officials, the sparse 338 crowd got behind the team like never before as the
cheered on our talented youngsters. These included winger Michael Duckworth,
Billy Law and our manager's son Jordan Deacey who were all just 17 or 18
years of age. A Rob O'Brien penalty helped ten-man Avenue to a well deserved
2-1 victory.

The club was able to field a much stronger side four days later for its
visit to Marine. The game had been in doubt due to floodlighting problems.
After visiting the excellent Edinburgh pub next door which, at long, long
last, now sells real ale, I saw Avenue give one of their best away
performances of the season, totally controlling the game from midfield. Left
back Martin Drury finished an excellent move in style to score a rare goal.
Marine then had a man sent off before Aiden Savory sealed the points on a
murky night in Merseyside.

Our visit to Matlock afforded me the opportunity to "do" the recent Peak
Rail extension into Matlock's national rail station. But sadly Peak Rail's
aspirations to reopen the line all the way to Buxton seem as far away as
ever. Causeway Lane is one of Avenue's lucky grounds where we are usually
put under intense pressure but manage to come away with a result. This was
the case yet again with a Nathan Hotte goal being enough to steal the three
points. Avenue were now top of the league. Aiden Savory's solitary goal beat
North Ferriby a couple of days later.

Work is sending me to Germany on a regular basis these days, but I'm not
having a great deal of luck taking in football matches. One of the most
annoying things about German (and Spanish) football is the presence of
reserve teams in the lower divisions. An enjoyable visit to the gloriously
named Offenbach Kickers would have been even more enjoyable had the
opposition been a proper team and not Stuttgart reserves. Offenbach of
course is the name of the composer who wrote the can-can. Rather
incongruously, the ground in a suburb called Bieber. The stadium resembled a
building site with new stands springing up on all four sides. Needless to
say, there were no Stuttgart reserves supporters there to see their side
lose 2-0.

Avenue's FA Cup adventure started with a home tie against Harrogate Railway
and their supporters were soon on our forum telling us what they were going
to do to us. John Deacey's side, however, had developed a rare ability to
deal with lesser opposition, an ability which would serve us well as the
season progressed. The Railwaymen were no match for a rampart Bradford side
which bagged eight unanswered goals with Tom Greaves and Aiden Savory
grabbing hat tricks. The result was not a club record in the FA Cup - our
second team beat Denby Dale 11-0 in October 1908 on the same day as the
first team were losing 2-0 to Grimsby Town in the second division.

In recent seasons, football's powers that be have started relegating big
clubs in financial difficulties to lower leagues like the NPL. Clubs like
Boston United, Halifax Town and Chester have often hogged the few promotion
spots, making it very difficult for smaller clubs like us to complete.
Northwich Victoria are another such club and were soon among the
pacesetters. The Vics visited Horsfall in late September for a real
six-pointer. Sadly we were undone by two excellent goals and went down 2-1
after Rob O'Brien missed a penalty. Avenue did not respond well to the
disappointment, going two goals down at lowly Stocksbridge before pulling it
back to 2-2.

Some silliness then ensued with the Horsfall clubhouse as the licensing
authorities clamped down on membership cards. We must have of the few
clubhouses which advertises itself as the perfect venue for funerals. For
busier games, the club started selling bottles of "real ale" from a table
beside the bar. While a vast improvement on Tetley's Smooth, most of these
beers were not bottled conditioned as so were not technically real. On the
other hand the chips in the tea-bar next door were generally superb - and it
is always a pleasure to visit Bradford's fish shops where they still fry in
beef dripping and sell haddock instead of cod. Incidentally Avenue once had
an Andy Haddock and a Trevor Codd.

In the next round of the FA Cup, NPL-1 side Warrington Town gave us a scare
by taking the lead at Horsfall. But a brace from Richard Marshall and a
third from Billy Law eventually saw us through.

I then went off to the USA for a long train-spotting trip and I managed to
get a ticket to see the New York Giants on the NFL ticket exchange. The
Giants and the Jets play at a new stadium built in the wastelands of New
Jersey and it took me four trains to get there. Many supporters arrive by
rail with a dozen or more special workings running down the branch to
Meadowlands station on match days.

Unbelievably the New Yorkers have built a brand new stadium with no cover at
all for spectators. These are teams playing a winter sport in an area with a
very cold climate. On this occasion however, it was scorching hot and I
really needed my cricket hat. The presence of a Mario Manningham in the
Giants team endeared me to the opposition, the Seattle Seahawks, who
snatched victory with a 97-yard interception try with 90 seconds to go, when
they had looked on the verge of conceding on their own line. Unusually the
game featured every kind of score like safeties ("own tries") and two point
conversions. Voluminous programmes were on sale but much of the material
looked like it didn't change very much from match to match and not many
people bought them.

A day later I was in Washington and went to see the Capitals ice hockey team
beat Tampa Bay Lightning on penalties (after extra time), even though it was
a league game. Still the visitors still got a point for the 5-5 draw. Tampa
Bay seems a very strange place to have an ice hockey team. The free team
sheets were very poor. The missus wouldn't let me go to any more games and I
was thus deprived of the chance of seeing struggling Chivas USA in the NSL,
who ground share with Los Angeles Galaxy.

While I was away, Avenue crashed 4-0 at lowly Mickleover Sports, a truly
dreadful performance by all accounts. But this was followed by a shock 1-0
win away to runaway Conference North leaders Hyde in the FA Cup, with Tom
Greaves scoring in the last minute. Avenue entered the FA Trophy a week
later at the last 512 stage, like all NPL-P clubs, a ludicrously unfair
seeding policy which gives clubs at our level virtually no chance of ever
reaching Wembley. After a home draw with Worksop, we crashed out 4-1 away
thus reducing the risk of fixture congestion. As far as I can recall, Avenue
have only won about two games in this completion in the last 10 years.

The fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup saw Avenue drawn away to old
rivals Kidsgrove Athletic, now in NPL Divsion One South. This gave the side
an excellent chance of progression to the First Round proper for only the
second time since the club was reformed. But this was also a massive game
for our hosts and a four figure crowd duly assembled at Clough Hall. This
was preceded by an interesting walk from the station down the canal towpath
to the excellent Blue Bell. Avenue controlled the game well and finally
prevailed with a fine header and a superb overhead kick from Whitby returnee
Jimmy Beadle.

Arguably this was already the best cup run in the club's history. Since
Bradford first entered the FA Cup in 1897, the 1895, 1907 and 1987
incarnations of the club had only won through four rounds on two previous
occasions. In season 1908/09, the club progressed through the first four
qualifying rounds before going down to Croydon Common in the fifth. However
we were helped by a walk-over in the third round when Heckmondwike withdrew
from the competition so, in fact, we only won three games. And then in
season 1995/96, Avenue started two weeks earlier in the preliminary round
and fought their way to the 4th qualifying round where we lost 2-0 at
Marine.

Hopes were high when the draw for the first round proper was made on ITV. We
were named as one of the clubs to watch out for and there seemed every
chance of a lucrative TV appearance if the balls were kind. However the draw
could not have been worse. We were sent to Southern League high flyers AFC
Totton, a club based just outside Southampton.

But a more immediate attraction was the Wednesday night visit of promotion
rivals Chester FC to Horsfall. A slightly disappointing crowd of 604 saw
Richard Marshall give Avenue the lead just before half time. Chester
equalised with a good long range shot but this was eclipsed by a superb last
minute winner from new signing Adnan Ahmed, who curled the ball beautifully
into the top corner. This wins my "goal of the season" award. I know a lot
of Chester supporters and enjoyed the bragging rights for many months
afterwards.

The Totton cup tie made me really glad I had just qualified for my Senior
Citizen's Railcard, otherwise the trip would have been prohibitively
expensive. Totton station was closed on the day for engineering works so the
onward journey from Southampton had to be made by bus. The ground has very
little cover and I could see from outside that the small stand was filling
up by 1 pm. So I had no choice but to go in and warn others, via the
walkie-talkie, to get there soon as the gates could be locked. In the event
they weren't.

Avenue, playing in their dreadful Crystal Palace away kit, started well but
were left gobsmacked after just 10 minutes. The fussy southern referee sent
off Richard Marshall for weakly pushing over the home centre half as he
tried to get up after a tackle from behind. Definitely not a red card up
north, but arguably Richard committed two yellow card offences. We were soon
a goal down and the referee then gave Totton a very dubious penalty. Adam
Clayton scrambled a goal back put poor defending let Totton go to the other
end and add a third. I feared the worst.

As so many times before, the Avenue defence went AWOL in the second half as
we chased the game. Even Amjad Iqbal looked out of sorts. At 5-1, Martin
Drury got sent off for mouthing and a last minute goal made the final score
8-1, the first time that any Avenue side had let in eight since the
prehistoric days of late 1890's.

Our FA Cup run wasn't meant to end like this. We were supposed to draw a
third or fourth division side, lose two or three nil, and be applauded off
the park. Instead it ended in disgrace and humiliation. Supporters
immediately rushed to YouTube to see clips of Golden Gordon Ottershaw,
supporter of fictional Barnstoneworth United of the Yorkshire Premier
League. Gordon (aka Michael Palin) famously came home after yet another
defeat, demolished his front room and shouted "Eight-one . eight bloody one
. eight-one! To Brighouse! They're a team of old-aged pensioners. The centre
forward wears glasses . during the match! Eight goals . four of them from
back passes to the goalkeeper. Oh . they were the worst .Oh, oh .". His wife
then gives him the clock on the mantelpiece to smash through the window.

Three days later just 76 diehards turned up at Stocksbridge to see Avenue
win a league cup tie on penalties, a rare event indeed.

Stocksbridge is of course where the Bob Blackburn era began and, for two or
three years we were perceived as the Manchester City of the NPL. Big name
signings like Rory Patterson and Damien Reeves were brought in to try and
buy success. But with only one automatic promotion place to play for,
progress up the leagues has not been as rapid as we might have hoped. While
we still rely to a huge extent on the largesse of Bob, John Dean, Kevin
Hainsworth and the rest of the board, the big name signings are now a thing
of the past, and manager John Deacey has had to wheel and deal a little bit
more and bring in talented youngsters from local clubs.

The club has also gone back to its roots in the sense that it could not run
without a lot of unpaid effort from a number of hardworking volunteers. Tim
Parker does an excellent job with the programme, even if he does drive me
mad by breaking convention and publishing away results back to front. Dave
Stordy does a great job in the club shop as does Dave Rawlings with the
legends draw. Maria works her socks off as do the raffle ticket sellers,
turnstile operators, stewards, kitmen, etc.

Whichever league Avenue play in, we always seem to come up against Ashton
United. Our visit to Hurst Cross provided yet another opportunity to sample
the delights of Stalybridge station buffet and then travel up to the game on
the 408. This is usually a lucky ground for us and when Aiden Savory
squeezed home the only goal of the game in the 88th minute, everything
seemed hunky dory. But our joy turned to sorrow as Amjad Iqbal had to be
carried off with a horrific injury in the last minute. Ammers had only been
back with us for a month after recovering from an earlier injury and this
brought his season to a premature end. Our misery continued two days later
when the tables were turned and Marine grabbed a late winner at Horsfall.

Avenue visited Chasetown in late November determined to avenge our 5-0
thrashing last season. Avenue made the perfect start to the game. Unmarked
Rob O'Brien headed home a Michael Duckworth cross in the first minute. Then
home centre half Richard Teesdale was sent off for bringing down Matty James
and Rob O'Brien netted from the spot via the post. Avenue cruised to a 4-0
win. Supporters travelling from Yorkshire could avail themselves of an
exciting diversion of Leeds - Birmingham trains via Lichfield City where
they made an extra stop. But this delayed local trains meaning I had take a
taxi to Lichfield Trent Valley to catch my connection back to the north
west.

A couple of days later, I happened to be in Cambridge so indulged in some
schadenfreude and went to watch Cambridge United back where they belong in
non-league football. Bottom of the league Bath City held them to a 1-1 draw
and I left confident that the home side would not make the play-offs. I was
right.

Adnan Ahmed was a Pakistani international who we had signed from Iranian
club FC Aboomoslem, having previously played for Huddersfield, Tranmere and
Ferencváros. Adnan was called away to play in the 9th SAFF cup in the huge
Jawaharlal Lal Nehru Stadium in Delhi. Match coverage was found on the
internet and there we saw Pakistan eke out three draws in five days against
Bangladesh (0-0), the Maldives (0-0) and Nepal (1-1). The crowds were very,
very poor. Sadly three points were not enough to see Pakistan through to the
semi-finals and so Adnan faced a trip to Frickley instead. But he was never
seen in an Avenue shirt again, in fact he only made four appearances for the
club, three of those from the bench.

Avenue had to come from 2-0 behind to draw at home to Matlock but just
managed to hold on to a 2-1 win at Frickley after the home side had scored a
few minutes from time. And Gary Bradshaw yet again did for Avenue at North
Ferriby, scoring both goals as we lost 2-1. Ferriby post excellent videos of
their matches on their website.

Normally the league try and arrange derbies at Christmas and Easter, so it
came as a bit of a surprise to find our boxing day fixture was Rushall
Olympic away. As I was staying in Bradford, and as there were no trains and
very few buses, I took a rare trip on the team coach. I was reliably
informed that some buses were running in the Walsall area including the 997
which passes the ground. This is probably the highest numbered bus ever to
service an Avenue game. The game was a very tight and dour 0-0 draw.

The fixture list was kinder to Avenue for the New Year bank holiday when FC
United were the visitors to Horsfall. The visitors, as ever, brought lots of
away fans and the game went ahead thanks to the usual sterling efforts of
Kev and his volunteers with their pitchforks. This fortunately was a fairly
dry winter compared with previous years. Throughout the season, Kev and
Maria provided a great service to regular supporters by sending us text
messages telling us whether games were on or off. This was much appreciated
by those of us who live some distance from Bradford.

Avenue started well and for thirty minutes made FCUM look like a load of
clueless clodhoppers, particularly their back four. It was no surprise when
returnee Curtis Bernard gave us the lead. Then out of nowhere they scored
two quite excellent goals after which, as usual, our defence went to pieces.
The all-important third goal was a shambles as little Norton was allowed to
muscle his way past two or three defenders who should have done better. The
fourth was an uncharacteristic mistake by our keeper. The fifth was another
shambles from the right wing immediately after we took our left back off. A
late consolation goal consigned us to our second 5-2 defeat of the season
against FCUM.

Morale was low for the visit to freezing Hednesford but, with James Knowles
back from injury, the defence improved and we came away with a good 1-1
draw. The train trip required a change at Rugeley Trent Valley, a desolate
station in the middle of nowhere with one redeeming grace. It is adjacent to
the Yorkshireman, one of the best outlets for beers from the Blythe
microbrewery. The highlight of the return journey was arrival at the rarely
used platform 2 at Crewe, which is a long walk from any of the others. I now
only need the even rarer platform 8 for the full set. This was followed a
day later by a depressing trip to the Manchester derby, tickets for this FA
Cup tie being surprisingly easy to get.

Desperate to see a game on a visit to Hamburg a couple of days later, I
forked out a goodly sum of money to catch the train to Bremen to see Werder
reserves, in fact their under 23's, face SV Wehen of Wiesbaden in the third
division. SVW's Stadion an der Berlinerstra?e was the first German ground I
ever did in 1976. Werder II's Platz 11 ground is a tiny little place in the
car park in the shadow of the main Weserstadion and, on a murky night, the
game attracted just 397 spectators, a complete and utter joke. The game
ended 1-1 after SVW were gifted the lead by a goalkeeping howler and the
home side had a penalty saved. The free programme covered a number of games
including some women's matches.

Our reward for our victory at Stocksbridge in the League Cup was a home tie
with little known midlanders Loughborough Dymano. Only 91 hard core fans
bothered to turn up. Avenue fielded a strange line up but still coasted to a
4-0 win after a poor first half. Mark Hume actually came off the bench for
once and even scored a goal. This turned out to be striker Aiden Savory's
last game for the club. It is believed he went to seek his fortune in
Australia like James Knowles and Stephen Downes before him. This left the
side very short of strikers. Three weeks later the crowd was down to 73 for
the visit of Armthorpe in the County Cup. Horsfall is not the most
attractive of places on Monday nights in January.

In the meantime, Avenue's form in the league began to improve with a 3-1 win
at home to Nantwich. This was followed by a visit to Worksop, who were now
back in their home town at Sandy Lane. Facing dangerous opposition, James
Knowles kicked everything that moved in the first half and was lucky to stay
on the pitch, escaping with a final warning. Meanwhile Matty James gave
Avenue the lead with a close range header. Knowlesy showed a lot of
discipline in the second half as he steered the side to victory, which was
cemented by an excellent 18-yard effort from substitute Nicky Matthews.

Avenue then faced yet another visit to Staffordshire, this time to the
county town, but the match was postponed due to a frozen pitch. This was
Avenue's first away postponement in the NPL since the floodlight failure at
Nantwich almost a year and a half earlier. This ended a long unbroken
sequence of over a dozen postponements which were all at home. Is this
sequence worthy of a place in the record books perhaps?

Struggling Mickleover and Whitby were dispatched at Horsfall before Avenue
faced the trip to Kendal. I booked a ticket to the end of the line at
Windermere, but was unable to ride down the branch as TransPennine Express
refused to hold their train at Oxenholme for four minutes so people could
connect from the late running CrossCountry service. I thus had to catch a
bus into Kendal and almost missed that as the right stop was hidden behind a
minibus for the blind. As it turned out, I was in luck as I had to change my
drinking plans and so ended up revisiting Burgundy's wine bar in search of
the new Kendal's brewery beers. As they weren't on, I enquired where their
other outlet was - and was told it was in the other pub downstairs.

In the olden days, we used to enjoy going to Netherfield to see the sheep.
But in recent years these have been driven away by new housing development.
So it was a delight to see three of the beauties on the adjacent hill early
in the game.

Over the course of the season, John Deacey signed a good number of players
in an attempt to strengthen the team. Most of these, however, were unable to
break into the side and left after a couple of appearances. Curtis Bernard,
Adnan Ahmed, Mark Hudson, Jimmy Beadle, David McNiven and Dempsey Smith all
spring to mind. But one success was tricky left winger Alex Davidson who was
signed from North Ferriby, who had knocked us out of the league cup at the
quarter final stage. Alex gave Avenue the lead against the run of play at
Kendal but we were pegged back by a late penalty when a free kick was
hammered into the wall and hit James Knowles' hand. The game finished late,
so I had to catch the bus back to Oxenholme instead of rushing back to
Kendal station to get the 1720 or thereabouts.

Avenue reached the West Riding Cup final by beating Conference North side
Harrogate Town 3-1 away after extra time, ex-City and Avenue player Chib
Chilaka scoring for the home side from the spot. Avenue had now given away
five penalties in their last three away games, four of which had been
scored. Harrogate had kindly agreed to switch this match from Tuesday to
Wednesday so a couple of Avenue players could use up part of their
suspensions by missing a low profile match. The final against Guiseley was
fixed for the last week of the season at Manningham, despite protestations
from both clubs that this could interfere with their play-off preparations.
The WRFA are not known for helping their local clubs.

Avenue faced a decent Stafford side twice in two weeks. Despite giving away
free online tickets for the home leg, only 532 spectators turned up. Those
who stayed away missed an excellent Avenue performance with Richard Marshall
netting a brace in a 3-1 win. The trip to Stafford a week later started with
disappointment as the Pie & Ale House in the town centre had just gone bust.
But Joxer Bradys nearby was an excellent and totally unspoilt second stop,
even if it did only sell the Marstons beer range.

After taking a very circuitous bus route to get to the ground, I soon
realized that Stafford were going to be a different proposition on their own
patch. Their players were a lot bigger than ours, in fact it was like boys
against men. Stafford took the lead at the start of the second half and the
Avenue defence yet again capitulated, letting in two more in the next
quarter of an hour. A scrambled goal by Matty James in the 86th minute might
have been interesting had Jordan Deacey not missed a penalty a minute later.
Jordan is a very talented youngster who took a lot of very unfair stick from
certain sections of our crowd just because he is the manager's son.

Living in Ellesmere Port, one of the highlights of the season was always
going to be our visit to Chester. Before the game, Chester's many real ale
pubs were awash with Avenue supporters. I was worried some might ban
football shirts but this did not turn out to be the case. The Deva stadium
is in an industrial estate down a dead-end road miles out of town, so far in
fact that the away end is in Wales. As I know the Chester chairman, we are
in the same CAMRA branch, I was also treated to some good beer from Chester
Ales in their clubhouse before the game.

The match was preceded by a moving tribute to the late Trevor Storton who
was Chester's longest serving player and the new Avenue's longest serving
manager. Among the guests was Derek Draper who had done wonders for Chester
but very little for Avenue, apart from a last minute wonder goal when we
were 6-1 down at York. The Storton family came across to applaud the Avenue
fans, which was touching.

Avenue held out for half an hour or so, then fell into their usual habits.
Once Chester took the lead, two further goals followed in the next eight
minutes. The second half was a quieter affair and, somewhat against the run
of play, Avenue pulled two goals back. But it was too little, too late. I
met up with some Chester fans in the Brewery Tap after the game and several
more excellent pints were consumed. Chester wins my "Best drinking town"
award. I won't give Frickley its annual award for the worst, as I did have a
decent pint in the Barnsley Oak.

Avenue recovered well from the Chester set back which had cost us any
lingering hopes of automatic promotion and the title. Ashton United were
brushed aside 4-0 with embarrassing ease. I then listened to commentary of
the Kendal home game on Bradford Community Radio's website. I clearly missed
a classic as Avenue fought back from 1-0 down to win 4-1.

I had to drive to Buxton via the notorious Cat & Fiddle road and then wait
for ages in the comfy chairs of the Buckingham Hotel for Ramsay's bar to
open late. I waited for so long, I had to rush my pint down in 5 minutes
flat before my parking ticket expired. I then went to do the miniature
railway in the park. The train was in the station but there was no driver
and no passengers. So I went off for a butty and then in the distance saw
the driver return and put the train in the shed. He told me there had been
no call that day.

Silverlands is not a lucky ground for Avenue so I feared the worst. The game
looked like it had all the makings of a 0-0 draw until Tom Greaves unleashed
a superb long distance shot into the top corner after 20 minutes. Two
minutes later, Richard Marshall scrambled a second. Buxton troubled our
defence and pulled one back, but an excellently worked goal by Ross Daly in
the last minute sealed the points.

Avenue faced two critical matches against promotion rivals Chorley in the
month of April. The first was at Horsfall where the green and whites put in
a solid performance and triumphed 1-0, thanks to a well-taken penalty by
Richard Marshall. The following Saturday, the club visited bottom of the
table Burscough, now back at their Victoria Park home after spending most of
the season in exile at Skelmersdale. I travelled the long way round to
Burscough Bridge via Kirkby and Wigan Wallgate instead of the short route to
Burscough Junction via Ormskirk. Burscough Junction is adjacent to the
ground and the Hop Vine, the home of the excellent Burscough microbrewery.

Hopes were high as Burscough had only won one home game all season and
Avenue had never lost at Victoria Park in 14 visits. In front of a sparse
crowd, the home side took an early lead with a well-worked goal, but this
was cancelled out by an Adam Clayton header. Avenue should then have taken
the lead from the penalty spot, but Richard Marshall fell for an old trick
perfected by Ipswich Town's former keeper Paul Cooper. Paul used to stand a
little off centre, nearer to one goal post than the other. This would tempt
the penalty taker to aim for the wide open side. But it was a double bluff.
Most strikers thought Cooper would dive that way and so hit the
ball towards the narrow side. But Cooper would second guess them and dive
that way and would have an easy save as he didn't have that far to jump.
That's what the Burscough keeper did.

Two days later, on a rainy Easter Monday, a weakened Avenue were stunned by
Rushall Olympic who grabbed two headed goals in two first-half minutes and
then defended in depth. Our promotion push was coming off the rails.

The West Riding cup final at Manningham was an unwelcome distraction for
both Avenue and Guiseley. A surprisingly large crowd of 1,222 turned up with
our opponents bringing an unusually large following for them, perhaps on the
electric train to Forster Square. They also fielded their strongest eleven
while John Deacey was taking no chances with injuries. Avenue shaded the
first half but were relieved to scramble a ball off the line after a
defensive howler. Guiseley might have had a goal had there been goal line
technology. But Avenue tired in the second half and were beaten when old boy
Simon Baldry headed the winner in injury time. With critical games ahead,
both teams would have been glad that the game did not go to extra time and
penalties.

The NPL play-off race was thrown into turmoil a couple of days later when it
was announced that second placed Northwich Victoria would not be allowed to
participate. Chester had all but sewn up the league some time previously.
The Vics did not own the Victoria Stadium, which was in the hands of
administrators who rented it to the club while they built up the funds to
buy it back. However when a neighbouring chemical company put in a surprise
bid, the administrators were legally obliged to sell, and the side found
itself homeless. Home matches, including games in the latter stages of the
FA Trophy, were played at grounds such as Nantwich, Macclesfield and Leek.

Midway through a key top-six game at Leek, the NPL announced that they had
found Northwich guilty of financial irregularities and that the club would
be thrown out of the NPL. But they had leave to appeal. As the appeal would
not be heard until the week of the play-off semi-finals, these would be
delayed until the following Saturday.

By dispatching struggling Frickley 3-0 with abject ease, Avenue made sure of
a play-off place, but there were no celebrations. We then visited the Vics
at Nantwich, not knowing what to expect. We found a highly motivated side
who beat us 1-0 with a header from an excellent diagonal cross. The score
flattered us. If their appeal succeeded, Northwich would be a side to fear
in the play-offs.

The season proper ended with a visit to Chorley. The winners were guaranteed
third place and a home semi-final. The journey involved a change of trains
at Leyland, a town with a forgotten place in Avenue's history. Leyland
DAF-SGL FC resigned from the first division of the North West Counties
League in 1991, which allowed Avenue to gain an unexpected promotion having
finished in third in the second division.

Several excellent pints were enjoyed in Chorley before the game, a fine
drinking town. But we were gobsmacked when the home side took an early lead
with a quite superb goal. From a long through ball down the middle, Adam
Roscoe produced a stunning bicycle kick on the edge of the box and the ball
rocketed into the net. Probably the best goal I have ever seen Avenue
concede, certainly in recent years.

After weathering a first-half blitz, Richard Marshall equalized just after
half time with a well placed shot from the edge of the box. But we conceded
shortly afterwards when a defensive mistake gave Roscoe the chance to rifle
in another long-range rocket. A last minute breakaway completed our misery.
Avenue had finished fourth behind Chester, Northwich and Chorley and ahead
of Hednesford and FC United. This meant we would face Chorley away or
Hednesford at home depending on Northwich's appeal.

After two years of play-off failures, and last match heartache at Bury the
year before, optimism was not particularly high. Avenue's young side had
arguably over-achieved and had taken a few tonkings along the way. However
the FA gave the club a boost when it rejected Northwich's appeal. The appeal
also gave teams time to prepare for the all-important play-offs, instead of
holding these in indecent haste in midweek, just a couple of days after the
season's end.

Hednesford brought a reasonable following to Horsfall, most well behaved but
a few not. The early stages of the game were very even before Avenue were
lifted by the award of disputed penalty which Richard Marshall tucked away.
Our luck continued as the visitors hit the post and then the side netting.
Adam Clayton headed home a corner and then John Lamb superbly saved a Pitmen
penalty on the stroke of half time. It was all going Avenue's way.

The game was effectively sealed on 64 minutes when long-serving full back
Martin Drury dribbled the ball from the halfway line past several defenders
before slotting it into the bottom corner. Soon afterwards the visitors were
reduced to ten men. Two further goals from Knowles and Marshall put the game
out of sight.

With sixth-placed FC United winning the other semi-final at Chorley, Avenue
had home advantage again in the final, a rare piece of good fortune for a
side finishing fourth. And with a week to prepare, and remembering last
season, the authorities had time to insist on an all-ticket game with no
sales on the day of the match. The club, Maria Bruce and Kevin Hainsworth in
particular, looked after long-distance supporters very well and allowed
pre-ordered tickets to be collected on the gate. Sadly some people abused
this service by failing to show up.

With the crowd restricted to a maximum of 2,000, and tickets shared equally
between the two clubs, Avenue supporters were not going to be hugely
outnumbered and this made the atmosphere less intimidating for our young
players. But in a surreal scene captured on YouTube, a lone piper in a red
shirt and black kilt slow-marched a small group of FCUM supporters through
North Bierley cemetery and into the ground. That was class.

Avenue started the game well with Alex Davidson causing havoc down the wing,
but he soon had to leave the field due to injury. The game then became more
even with half chances at both ends and occasional flare ups between the
nervous players. Avenue dominated possession in the second half but couldn't
make their advantage tell. We tired a little in extra time but saved the
best till last. With just over a minute to go, substitute Tom Greaves poked
home a low Adam Clayton cross to send the home crowd delirious. It was only
fitting that Tom should score the winner. He was the last survivor from our
single ill-fated 2004/05 season in Conference North.

The FC United fans, to their eternal credit, took the disappointment of
defeat extremely well, applauding the Avenue contingent as they left. I
don't think we would have been as sporting. And we don't do success all that
well either. The final celebrations were rather muted. In fact I went on to
the pitch for the presentation a couple of minutes after the final whistle
only to discover that I had missed it.

I normally end most seasons by going to big Premier and Football League
games, doing a bit of glory hunting. This season I didn't, nor did I get to
Crawley or the new Brighton ground at Falmer. So my membership of the 92
club has temporarily lapsed.

Promotion had finally been achieved and in many ways it had been last-chance
saloon. Rumours had been abounding that various players and officials would
be leaving if we didn't make it this time. We may have been back to square
one had we stayed down.

Having gained promotion to Conference North, the biggest challenge now is to
stay there. There are two aspects to this. We have to finish outside the
bottom three and we have to make a whole raft of stadium improvements by
next March to meet ground grading requirements. These apparently include a
new stand on the park side (or behind the goal), improvements to the
floodlights, and possibly also to the fencing. These will cost a lot of
money and need planning permission, so timing will be critical. The local
authority was not happy with our portacabins when it renewed their temporary
permission earlier in the year. The club has some difficult decisions to
make as our lease does not allow Conference National football, even if the
ground could be got up to standard.

The other fear of course is relegation on the field. If people start coming
out with clichés like "There is not much difference between the two leagues"
then we will be in trouble. There is a huge difference in the standard of
football. This season the old cliché "There are no easy games in this league
- anybody can beat anybody on the day" was proved to be absolute nonsense.
All five of our home defeats came against teams in the top eight. And at
Horsfall, we beat 13 of the bottom 14, only Matlock (14th) managing to
salvage a draw. Away from home, the pattern was pretty similar. We only lost
two matches to sides outside the top 9 - at Stafford (16th) and Mickleover
(21st). The league table doesn't lie.

The team has many young players which augurs well for the future. There are
no overpaid prima donna's. The winner of all three player-of-the-year awards
was Nathan Hotte, a tireless worker in midfield. However the squad does need
strengthening if we are to survive and some interesting names have been
mentioned as possible additions. We will have to wait and see.

Last season, Solihull Moors needed 49 points from 42 games to avoid the drop
from Conference North. So I predict a season of consolidation in the bottom
half of the table, looking rather worryingly over our shoulders. Let's hope
it is consolidation and not panic. After six successive top seven finishes,
the club and its supporters have probably forgotten how to cope with
struggle. Do things right and we can stay up. The "Doom and Gloom" club has
spoken.


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