FC United of Manchester 0
Boston United 1
Where: Gigg Lane, Bury
When: Monday 25 August 2008
How many: 2825
Fists pumping, teeth bared in triumphant grimace and with a team-mate clinging to his back, Boston United’s young keeper Chris Wright raced over to the 175 noisy visitors at Gigg Lane on Monday as if his side had just clinched a dramatic passage through to the extra-preliminary round of the Unibond Presidents Cup or won the Lincolnshire Senior Trophy.
Punching thin air and bellowing at no-one in particular, his joy at sweeping aside an oddly lifeless FC side while somehow flapping his way to a rare clean sheet was obvious. Indeed, if he had whipped out a bottle of champagne (or Lambrini from Netto, we’re only just out of the CVA) and sprayed his colleagues before leading them on a triumphant lap of honour, it wouldn’t have been a major surprise.
FCUM fans can take Boston’s ebullient celebrations as a compliment, of course, for the game against FC United was the one that all Pilgrims fans – deprived of a genuine local derby this season – looked for when the fixtures were released. But another reason that United reacted as they did is simply that when it comes to playing away from home, the Pilgrims developed a chastening habit of spineless capitulation at the merest hint of home resistance during their less than illustrious five year sojourn in the Football League. And it’s not as if the resulting descent into the pyramid offered any respite. The away defeat in front of three Styrofoam cups and a pigeon at Vauxhall Motors last season plumbed depths few fans could bear without collapsing into a quivering mass of tears and undignified bubbles of nose juice.
So when Boston’s first away trip of the new Northern Premier League season was cancelled after the hapless league committee forgot that a usable pitch is generally considered a priority at football stadiums, fans looked towards the first journey of the season with a mixture of excitement, trepidation and plain old curiosity. Excitement, because there would actually be a crowd. Trepidation, because they knew how badly Boston travelled. And curiosity, because FC United are…. well, they’re not exactly Marine, let’s put it that way. FCUM are still something of an enigma, and their reputation precedes them. Like Chinese whispers, grumbles from Blackpool Mechanics fans about the partially cooked pies at Gigg Lane have, over time, somehow mutated into tall tales passed from one Altrincham fan to another – apocryphal tales of hardcore Manchester United hooligans, banned from some glass shack on Sir Matt Busby Way, torching orphanages, trashing hospitals and torturing adorable fluffy kittens with chainsaws while singing songs about Erik Nevland. Who wouldn’t be affronted by that?
In the end, the Boston fans need not have worried. The Pilgrims were in sparkling form from start to finish and FCUM fans turned out to be very normal indeed. Nice, even. Boston started the match on the back of a truly woeful performance against Ashton 48 hours earlier, a performance that had forced manager Tommy Taylor into a lip-trembling rant on the club’s official website. That in itself was telling, for Taylor is a master of the subtle rant. Where ex-manager and convicted felon Steve Evans would lose all self control, flailing like a crazed Krankie, peppering blame – not to mention spittle – haphazardly at anyone within striking range while embellishing stories to deflect criticism away from his own non-existent managerial abilities, Taylor employs infinitely more cutting and targeted criticisms. He delivers his off-the-cuff putdowns in the aloof manner of a man ordering a pizza he doesn’t actually want. It might be inviting fans into the dressing room to hurl cups of tea on his behalf, deriding the diets of certain squad members or flippantly declaring that a player is ‘fackin’ useless’, Taylor manages to lose his rag in the most understated of ways.
And so, in lieu of Nantwich, Taylor’s men made their trip to Bury in what is unquestionably the NPL’s most luxurious coach. Gigg Lane is a familiar ground in a familiar setting – but it looked very different this time. Only two of the stands were populated to any extent; the visiting Pilgrims were shunted around to the Main Stand having occupied the Cemetery End on previous visits. The remaining stands were adorned with a large variety of red and black flags – lots of ‘One Passion’ and ‘Two Souls’ or something. Our lot simply rolled up with that ‘Bostonshire’ thing and that drum I thought had been stolen at Hereford seven years ago.
Having been treated to the best selection of pre-match music since Hyde United blasted us with George Formby’s greatest hits last season, the match finally kicked off. Boston lined up with ex-Arsenal legend Chris Wright in goal, with our man Liam Parker, Ryan Clarke, Matt Bloomer and some lad from Busted strung out across the back. In midfield, Liam Beeson and David Farrell ignored the 856 year age gap to renew their relationship on the wings, while Wes Parker and Jon Rowan sharpened their blades to provide the muscle in the middle. Up front, Ollie Ryan partnered the Frog.
The Boston fans almost immediately sprang into action with their songs about Malcolm Glazer (our suggestion, a re-working of an old classic ‘…by far the most ill-judged and potentially catastrophic leveraged buy-out, the world has ever seen’ doesn’t flow, apparently) and Eagles chip butties, but it was Win Butler’s voice that was still ringing in our ears when Boston had their first genuine opportunity. David Farrell, impressively sprightly for a man who qualifies for a free bus pass, punted a devilish cross into the FCUM box where it was met by the head of young Beeson. He didn’t bother Sam Ashton, the FC keeper, but the instant attack was a portent of things to follow.
After dominating the first three and a bit minutes, Boston began ceding possession to FC United. FC immediately pinpointed Liam Parker as a possible weak point. Parker, who impsTALK is sponsoring and therefore cursing, seemed gripped by the sort of misguided confidence you normally encounter at Powerleague or on Pro Evolution Soccer. “Clear it!” we’d yell, as Parker tried to keep the ball in play and find an outlet instead of spanking it into the car park behind the Main Stand. Laudable dedication to the ethos of free-flowing football, perhaps. But this is the Northern Premier League, we’re not managed by Cloughie and Liam Parker is not Carlos Puyol.
Worryingly, long balls seemed to flummox him and at times he seemed unable to mentally calculate the trajectory of a ball lofted over his head, almost as though someone had unexpectedly changed the earth’s gravity setting. Parker’s indecision almost cost United dearly when Danny Williams shrugged off his ineffective challenge and set up Kyle Wilson to drive a shot at Wright. Wright tipped it over and started pumping his fists at Parker, but not in a good way. Wright should be careful. When he tried that trick with Tony Crane last season, Crane reacted by wobbling over and treating the ex-Arsenal benchwarmer to a hearty shove in the chest. Fight! Fight!
In the stands, the cavalry arrived. Having made his way down from the pre-match buffet, Boston’s chairman David Newton strategically positioned himself in front of the assembled fans and made a good job of acting embarrassed and delighted when the fans took the bait and inevitably burst into a rendition of ‘there’s only one David Newton’. Vice-chairman Neil Kempster, on the other hand, adopted the face used by actors who have just missed out at the Oscars when the fans skipped on to singing for the Boston kit-man.
On the pitch, something odd was happening. Boston actually looked good. They hassled and harried the sponsor-free shirts of FC United and were soon cutting up their host’s defence with startling regularity. First, with just over twenty minutes gone, Beeson managed to fluff a glorious square ball from Rowan, who had, to his evident shock, found himself all alone in the FCUM box. From where we were sitting, it was clear that had Sam Ashton not generously stuck out his hand and made a concessionary save, Beeson’s shot would probably have struck the corner flag, but we were out of our seats regardless.
Then, with half an hour gone, Ollie Ryan was set scampering free with the goal – and a lead away from home! – yawning. He had only the keeper to defeat and was probably past pondering which part of the goal to roll the ball into and on to thinking what he might have for tea later that evening when he was startled by Dave Chadwick straining back to nick the ball off him. Despite that heinous foul-up, Ryan more than made amends ten minutes later. Liam Parker moved up field to take a throw in and absolutely heaved the ball across the area. And he heaved it alright. It was flicked on by a stray foot and fell to Ryan who, in an instant and with one simple movement, spanked the ball past a static Ashton. Ever the optimist, I celebrated for three and a half seconds before turning to my neighbour and stating: “We’ll fucking blow this, you watch.” I desperately wanted to be proved wrong, which, if I’m being perfectly honest, is never normally a problem.
The sinking feeling was only amplified as Boston then contrived to miss yet more chances. First, Rowan was set free, but instead of drilling the ball past Ashton he turned around to ask Ryan what he’d decided to cook for tea before tamely hitting to ball straight into the advancing keeper. Ryan himself was again foiled in another one-on-one. Ashton was proving to be a formidable obstacle. As the half-time whistle blew, there were more than a few Pilgrims fans with their heads in their hands. “It’s got a fucking draw written all over it,” declared one fan in the concourse, his solemn gravitas somewhat spoiled by the flecks of chicken balti pie stuck to his chin. It looked like he’d stuck pastry on bloodied shaving nicks.
“We should be eight nil up,” another asserted in the queue for the toilets, prompting murmured agreement and a general consensus that it would only be a matter of time before Boston conceded a dozen own goals and Ollie Ryan snapped his arterial ligaments. Boston fans, you understand, have developed a morbid tendency to fear the absolute worst: had an FA official strode onto the pitch to announce the Pilgrims’ immediate demotion to the Central Midlands League for financial irregularities you’d have struggled to find a single arched eyebrow.
After some half-time entertainment that, to the eternal credit of the hosts, eschewed crossbar challenges and sullen teenage girls dancing gauchely to Justin Timberlake, the teams emerged to kick a ball around for another 45 minutes. Liam Parker looked instantly better as Boston sought to do what they’ve been so bad at for the best part of this millennium and actually try and defend a lead away from home. But FC United also looked better, quicker, sharper and with barely ten minutes of the second period gone, I had already consumed five of my fingernails. It’s never too early for nerves. With United having to play catch up after the Nantwich fiasco, we were all too aware of just how important a good result at Gigg Lane would be. The last time Boston United won their first away game in a season was 2001/2002. Boston won 2-0 at Woking and went on to win the league.*
Ominously, the spiky Carlos Roca was seeing more and more of the ball, as were FC United. Boston, in their inglorious tradition, sat deeper and the hosts needed no further invitation to raid forward. “We need a second,” I said, showing the kind of cutting-edge insight that would surely land me a plum role on Match of the Day if Alan Shearer were to ever drown in a vat of creosote. Boston held firm and weathered the storm. On the hour, Rowan again found himself running alone with just Ashton to beat for the critical second. But again Ashton saved – “FUCK!” – and Beeson’s follow up shot was cleared from the line – “FUCKING FUCK!” – by Dave Chadwick. Cheeks puffed, watches were checked. The nervous tics started. It’s never too early for nerves.
Ten minutes left and Carlos Roca – that damn Roca – was seeing more of the ball, and again he dribbled his way past the tiring Boston defence. His shot was blocked by Chris Wright. More chances fell for Boston: Wes Parker’s shot with five minutes to go was a better opportunity than it looked and Farrell’s surging, darting run was brought to a shuddering halt when it seemed the old-timer might make it all the way. But FC were fighting, and it was they who provided the final, nerve jangling, flourish, Roca, again, forcing Chris Wright to parry the ball back into danger. For a horrible moment, it seemed FC were certain to equalise (“It’s in!” one horrified fan yelled, prematurely) but the linesman’s raised flag relieved the pressure while Tommy Taylor sauntered around on the touchline like an American tourist.
Finally, the whistle blew. The United players, bursting with relief, raced over to lap up the reception, fists pumping. And with good cause. This was the benchmark away day: the crowd, the atmosphere will not be seen again this season, unless we embark on a cup run (stop laughing at the back). And Boston, so accustomed to flunking the big occasion, for once passed the test.
Hell. An away win. Fancy that.
All we need to do now is implode spectacularly at Prescot and normal service will be resumed.
‘Fat’ was a word we kept hearing bandied about, and for once the word wasn’t aimed solely at the visiting Boston fans. Some players certainly appeared a little on the chunky side, but as Tony Crane and Paul Ellender proved so aptly last season it isn’t a terminal hindrance to be carrying a few too many Chinese takeaways at this level, just so long as there is sufficient pace elsewhere to compensate. And that’s probably the issue: FCUM basically lack a striker and a little pace in defence – they were caught out far too often and might easily have shipped another couple of goals. That said, FC will have absolutely no difficulty staying up this season and matched United for long durations. And for predicting that so confidently, I can only apologise to FC for their imminent relegation.
Their infamous fans
Preening, arrogant, multi-club fuckwits apparently. Except it’s not actually true. The FC fans turned out in numbers and were, by all accounts, welcoming and friendly. Granted, there’s absolutely no history at all between the two clubs (we won’t be expecting the red carpet treatment at Ilkeston) but even so, they seemed a very likeable bunch.
Boston’s man of the match
David Farrell. An exceptional performance for a man who fought in both world wars and dodged the draft for the Crimean conflict. It’s sickening to see a man so many centuries my senior running faster than I have ever run.
FCUM’s man of the match
FC fans appear to be erring towards Dave Chadwick, but I’m taking Sam Ashton. What an utter bastard. Isn’t this league supposed to be full of terrible keepers?
* Boston ‘won’ the Conference if your definition of the word ‘won’ is ‘cheated’