Welcome to the latest official away days blog from our resident gonzo journo, James Beedie. He continues to take us on his travels to our away games this season, concentrating as much on the experience of the day as of the actual football itself.
This time out, it’s a midweek trip to Cheshire to face a dress rehearsal for the forthcoming FA Vase qurter-final…
I’m the first to admit this felt a little like after the Lord Mayors show. I was tired, I’m sure the players were even more tired and the prospect of another trip to the edge of the Cheshire Staffordshire border felt like a bridge too far. Congleton Town are one of the better sides in the division, have multiple ex-league players in their ranks and have the best home record in the North West Counties. Combine that with Bury’s record this season of struggling in the first league match after a big cup tie I just had a horrible feeling Bury AFC’s 14-match unbeaten run in the league might be coming to an end. I would definitely take a draw in the circumstances.
I set off a little late for one of the longer away matches in the league this season, even in regionalised football there are still midweek away matches that still clash with finishing time at work. Making my way with some urgency I suffered my way around the M60 before turning onto the M62 and M6. After whizzing down dark country roads in Cheshire I approached Congleton itself. No sooner had I seen signs for the football ground I began to see cars parked on every spare bit on pavement on every street on the approach to the ground. After a long detour I managed to find a spare patch of space to leave the Shark and headed back the way I came in the direction of The Cleric Stadium.
Walking through the turnstiles that appears alone on the side of the street and making my way up the few steps up to the ground I laid eyes on the toughest away pitch in the league. It was surprisingly quiet around the pitch for how busy the streets were. The ground is fairly small for a club like Congleton Town with aims to play at a much higher level. The ground sits inside an estate surrounded by houses on all sides. Hemmed in, the ground can only hold so many. The 1500 capacity was a hinderance for them last season when they played Macclesfield, due to crowd trouble in the away match and the large attendance expected Congleton had to shift their home tie to Crewe Alexandra’s Gresty Road. The capacity wouldn’t be challenged tonight but we all knew what lies in store for both clubs next month.
Of the eight remaining sides in the FA Vase this season, three of them are in the North West Counties so there was a 2 in 7 chance we’d be playing someone familiar and so it proved. The day before this match live on TalkSport 2 radio Bury AFC were drawn away against Congleton Town making this match tonight merely the dress rehearsal to the winner takes all contest in March.
This match still has a great deal riding on it. Congleton Town still has an outside chance at a late run at promotion while Bury benefit from a midweek match when the likes of Avro, Wythenshawe Town and Vauxhall Motors all had the night off, a positive result takes another match off the busy schedule and another step closer to the chasing pack.
I made my way round the the back of the main stand towards the clubhouse and discovered where all the fans had got to. With a refreshment hut out the front and a bar inside the clubhouse was buzzing with activity pre-match. Inside the hive long queues snaked to the bar while every table was filled with fans escaping the cold outside. The bar looked smart, bright and clean. Possibly recently refurbished its walls were filled with pictures of Congleton sides from long ago, framed shirts and multiple wide-screen TVs currently showing a BBC documentary on football and Pablo Escobar. The bar sold Madri which was a win for me plus a handful of other decent beers and ciders. sadly no programmes were available tonight but at least I managed to get a pin badge.
After catching up with a few of the usual suspects I met up with the uncle. This is his local side, having lived in neighbouring Biddulph for years whenever he wasn’t able to watch Bury play he would watch a local side round here. For a while there was Biddulph Victoria, best known for producing a young forward by the name of Tom Pope before the EFL beckoned. When they folded the uncle would watch Congleton Town. He was able to give me background on the club, from Richard Duffy the former Port Vale man was now the player/manager at Congleton to David Parton the former Whitchurch Alport keeper who was signed after playing a blinder against the hosts. The unique look to Congleton Town’s home shirt is a nod to two local sides. Congleton Town had always played in white and black in the past but after a merger with a local side Congleton Vale, who would become the junior set-up at Congleton Town a new kit was made up. Now the home kit had a black sash running diagonally across a white half of the shirt and a yellow half of the shirt that from the back looks all yellow. It must prove a nightmare for some clubs that play in either white or yellow.
For this match Bury would make what feels like a rare outing of the whole of their blue and brown away kit. Our own colour scheme has caused some issues whoever we have played away at a side that play in blue and our only kit options have been a home kit with blue shorts and socks or an away kit with a blue shirt. Compromise being the name of the game Bury AFC’s tireless kitman has on multiple occasions had the team out in white shirts and brown shorts. Hopefully, next season’s away kit causes fewer issues.
The teams were already coming out as we left the clubhouse and stood along the halfway line as the two sides came out. Bury were missing Jimmy Moore through suspension and Kris Holt through illness so Charlie Doyle was handed his first start and Sean Higgins was back in the starting eleven.
We could see that Bury would be shooting towards the top of the ground where a fully covered terrace hung over the goal at that end. We made our way back towards that end of the ground just as the match began. The score had changed before we even got there.
In only the first minute of the match with fans still entering the ground a smart flick on by Ben Wharton found Connor Comber, the flag stayed down and he was one-on-one with goalkeeper David Parton. He slotted the ball past the Bears keeper and with barely 45 seconds on the clock Bury had the lead. The uncle and I made our way round to an empty spot behind the goal with the team still celebrating their early goal.
The lead should have been doubled straight from the restart. Lewis Gilboy unnoticed and unmarked on the left-hand side was fed the ball and had only Parton to beat but lifted his effort over the bar. We could barely believe what we were seeing. I had fully expected a hard and long drawn-out battle. Both sides had tough away fixtures in the Vase, both would have probably wanted this fixture to be played at a less hectic time in the season yet Bury who had completed the longest journey out of anyone still in the FA Vase on the weekend came out of the blocks flying and should really have been 2-0 up.
Bury would go close a few more times in the opening half with Joe Denman heading over and Harry Brazel shooting wide of goal while Congleton were largely restricted to chances from set pieces. Neither side however could find a way past either goalkeeper for the rest of the half.
At the break I made my way back to the clubhouse where most of the other fans had also gathered. I was pleased with how Bury had played but I was conscious of the narrow lead. Despite the great early chances it was only the opening minute goal by Connor Comber that separated the two sides, and while the home side hadn’t yet really challenged Jack Atkinson the team had gradually tired in the last ten minutes or so of the half with more and more of the possession going Congleton’s way. In the home match it had been a closely contested match where Bury hung on for a 2-1 win after a siege on goal in the last ten minutes of the match. I worried that this match might end up being a similar story.
The second half was a far more physical spectacle, barely seconds into the action and as I made my way round to the other goalmouth I heard a loud collision, the smacking sound of a high speed coming together of shinpad on shinpad as Connor Comber and Jordi Nsaka collided and sent both men to the ground.
This was then matched by a coming together between Harry Brazel and Congleton player/manager Richard Duffy. The referee blew his whistle and appeared to award a free kick to Bury. Brazel picked the ball up and was immediately tackled round the waist and thrown to the ground by Duffy in something that would get him cautioned in rugby let alone football. After the resulting melee filled with pushing and shoving on all sides the referee booked Duffy, then booked Brazel ostensibly for being fouled, or perhaps for his incredulousness about how Duffy was still somehow on the field of play. To add insult to injury the referee had forgotten which way he was awarded the free kick and allowed Congleton to restart play.
Duffy was at the centre of things again, lashing out at Connor Comber off the ball ahead of a Bury free kick. No sanction was levied against Duffy who otherwise would surely have been dismissed. The referee appeared to be ready to take action on Comber before his assistant intervened, though again he didn’t intervene enough to do anything about the source of these issues.
On the attacking front while Bury did have chances in the second half, it was clear that the home side were growing into the match. Ben Wharton during one attack was fouled in the box and denied a second stonewall penalty in as many league matches. While Wharton does have a reputation in this league I found it incredible that he got nothing for that. At this rate Wharton isn’t going to earn a free kick from these refs unless an opponent shoots him, the only way one of his markers are ever going to get a booking is if his marker is Jack the Ripper. Wharton’s substitute Niall Cummins saw his header from a Higgins cross saved and late on Gilboy curled a shot just wide of Parton’s cross to complete Bury’s attacking output in the second half.
At the other end Peter Williams and Daniel Needham both had chances that required good saves from Jack Atkinson while former Bury AFC man Leon Arnasalam came on and caused trouble down Bury’s left wing.
In the dying minutes with Bury’s goal under siege and keeper Parton going up for a corner Bury had the chance for a breakaway. Comber had the ball on the left wing but lost the ball on the halfway line. The quickly taken throw-in caused another scramble in the Bury box and Jonathan Beaumont broke through and fired past Atkinson in the 94th minute.
In his exuberant celebrations, in which he removed his shirt, he forgot he had earlier been booked and so the referee finally sent a Bears player packing. The goal was devastating in its lateness but in all honesty was coming. Congleton deserved something from this match and while the Bury defence held out manfully it couldn’t last forever especially away at a side like this. As one fan would say post-match “Had the equaliser been in the 63rd minute we wouldn’t feel like this.”
I was a little disappointed in Comber in those last few seconds. Hindsight is 20:20 and all that but his losing the ball on the halfway line spelled disaster for the team in the dying seconds. With no Congleton player in their half, not even the goalkeeper, Comber was the most advanced player on the pitch closely followed by his marker. He wanted to keep the ball in play and run it closer so he could have a good chance at scoring again or maybe he planned to run the ball into the corner. I think if he could have had the moment back again he should have just booted the ball up field. Try a goal from the halfway line, if it goes in Bury have won, if it goes anywhere else a Congleton player would have to sprint half the length of the pitch to retrieve the ball and then either boot it long and hope or cover half the length of the pitch to bring it back again. There really wasn’t time for them to do that so any punt forward was likely to win the match for Bury. In the end the loss of possession for a throw-in meant the ball being flung back into a disorganised and still resetting Bury backline that needed just a few seconds more to prepare. Such are the margins in football, those seconds never came and Bury missed out on two hard-earned points.
Bury had one last chance from a free kick but Parton easily claimed it and both sides settled for a point. With Congleton having the best home record in the division a point here was well-earned but due to the late goal conceded, it felt like two points dropped.
I slowly trudged my way back to the exit. Bury would have to come back and do this all over again in a winner takes all battle in the FA Vase. The unbeaten run continues but the recent record of seven wins in a row in all competitions had come to an end. Fighting a war on two fronts I hard especially with so many battles coming in thick and fast but with the long exile from the Neuven over at least it will be a little easier to get to the matches. I made my way back to the Silver Shark and quietly headed for home.
To catch up with any of James’ blogs from last season’s championship-winning run and away games so far from this season, you can head to the ‘Fear and Loathing’ website HERE.