Andy Butler describes life on the road as a travelling Pilgrims’ fan, witnessing that historic season unfurl, culminating in Boston’s…….. well, you don’t want me to spoil the ending for you…..
Being a Boston fan over the last 25 years has hardly been a bed of roses, in fact one could almost describe ones support for The Pilgrims’ as being akin to wearing porcupine skin underpants the wrong way round.
Mid table mediocrity, bad managers, a transfer budget that made a days takings in a quaker’s public house look lavish, Lincoln City cast off s going through the motions, relegation, Peter Morris and bi-annual cup failures all conspired to convince the average United supporter that the chips were not so much stacked against them as positively tipped out of your average dumper truck and piled into a mountain so steep that even an experienced mountaineer would rather tackle uncharted peaks in the Himalayas than don the black and amber of BUFC.
Nonetheless, a not unreasonably large (but dwindling by the season) group of people kept the faith long enough to see, what has been, in effect, the release from intensive care and rehabilitation of one of football’s more remarkable little clubs. When Richard asked me to come up with a resume of the season I thought ‘great, dead easy’, but when you sit down and assesses the events from August 18th through until April 28th you just realise what a season we have just endured.
A defeat at home to Margate on the opening day, the comeback v Donny, the loss of Marsh and Charlery, the mandatory cup humiliation, the Malkinsons putting the club up for sale, being top at Xmas, the chief Exec’s resignation, hardly playing for 2 months, losing twice to Dagenham, being on SKY 4 times, the see saw battle with the Daggers and the final emotional day at Hayes. How do you encapsulate that into one article? I’ll try, but if I miss out anything who can blame me in such a roller coaster 9 months…?
After a low key pre season with a game against a bunch of kids from Salford as the highlight, it was into league action against a Margate side fresh from their promotion from the DMPL. Sadly any attacking intentions they harboured were resolutely left on the train and the disappointing gate of 1909 were frustrated. A rare foray into the Utd half led to the games only goal, a penalty for the visitors that also saw the defensive colossus Mark Monington get first use of the showers in the refitted dressing rooms.
More worrying was the letters of complaint in the press the week after criticising the pricing policy for children and OAP’s, an issue that BUSA had brought to the club’s attention a while before, and an issue which the club stubbornly stuck to, much to their detriment. The following Tuesday saw Utd turn in what was to become a pleasantly regular feature of their season, a convincing away performance, this one coming at Woking.
The trip to Surrey was also a milestone in as much as the first BUSA coach ran to this game. After years of unreliable club run buses, the supporters association decided to organise travel to as many games as possible. Little were they to know just how many games they would travel to and how popular the service would become. Following the Woking game, Utd made the trip to Gloucestershire to face Forest Green Rovers, a side who we had played in farcical conditions at the end of 2000 in 3 inches of snow.
Today was a total contrast, with shirt sleeves being the order of the day on the hottest day of the season, and Utd sizzled in the conditions, wrapping up a 3-0 win that was every bit as convincing as it sounds. August finished with another convincing performance as Staylbridge Celtic were dismantled 4-1 in front of over 2000 on a balmy Wednesday night.
The month got off to a flyer as Utd hit the summit for the first time with a hard fought 2-1 success at Northwich Victoria in front of over 250 travelling supporters. The victory was made all the sweeter on the way home as a sizeable proportion of the support stopped at The Rose and Crown, Chellaston (off the A50) to watch England do to Germany what they usually do to Luxembourg and Malta.
Wednesday saw the arrival of Doncaster Rovers in a winner takes top spot game. With the clock at 90 minutes Utd found themselves 0-2 down to a well organised Rovers outfit when Daryl Clare showed the sort of predatory instinct that would be eventually rewarded with the Conference Golden Boot by hauling Utd level with 2 priceless injury time strikes. After all that emotion it was surely asking too much for a repeat performance the following Saturday when Yeovil Town rolled into town.
After a 4-1 drubbing in the previous seasons game The Glovers’ proceeded to dominate the opening half, and many of the 2282 in the crowd were anticipating a 2nd home reversal. However, in the 2nd half Utd proceeded to rip Yeovil to pieces in a display of attacking prowess that we hadn’t seen for many seasons, and 4-0 was about as comprehensive a drubbing as you could ask for.
However, on the Monday night, an error riddled display saw Utd capitulate in the last minute at Dover Athletic who were propping up the table. While Utd had no trouble against the better sides, it was a trademark of their season that the struggling sides were frequently a banana skin.
Chester City away on the following Saturday was one of Utd’s more comfortable victories on the road; against a backdrop of protesting home fans and a ground devoid of atmosphere Utd won a lot more easily than the 2-1 scoreline would suggest. Mike Marsh, playing in his penultimate game, scored the goal of the season from 25 yards to send the supporters onto Blackpool in high spirits.
However, Dagenham & Redbridge gave us a lesson on the Wednesday evening in support play and how to break quickly. An early strike from Stein was cancelled out by Simon Weatherstone, but Bazza lost the flight of a header 10 minutes later and the points went south to Victoria Rd. Dagenham were now top of the pile and as a benchmark seemed light years in front of us.
To end the month Utd secured back to back victories over southern opposition in the guise of Hayes and Farnborough Town to the tune of 4-1 and 2-0. That pit bull of a player that goes by the name of Gary Brabin made an appearance in Utd colours in the Hayes game, and true to tradition and in keeping with his other appearances at York St he managed to fill a stretcher, this time the recipient being the Hayes no seven, who is probably still in plaster as I write.
The trip to Telford Utd was always a tricky one, but without Ken Charlery and Mike Marsh it looked a bit daunting. While Marsh had succumbed to a persistent knee injury and called time on his career, Charlery was rumoured to be heading to Dagenham, citing travelling problems as his reason to quit Utd. Nothing to do with an alleged hefty wage increase and Utd paying up the final instalment of his signing on fee though……!
A point was secured at Bucks Head but it could and should have been all three, a late Telford goal depriving us of the win. 2-2 was the score as it was on the Saturday at home to Scarborough, courtesy of two dreadful errors at the back after a quite superb Clare opener.
Dropping points at home was a bad habit, but the game against Morecambe saw us take an early two goal lead and never look in any danger, even after Phil Gray saw red on his debut. A late Shrimpers goal was never going to deny us the points and on the Saturday an even later goal by Jez Murphy saw us mug the points from Hereford Utd at Edgar St in a game so poor I swear I saw a dozen empty seats get up and leave with ten minutes left.
Nice to see a few Bulls fans carry out the 70’s tradition of waiting around the corner of the away end after the game to congratulate the visitors on their victory. The lads must have left so early they missed the Boston goal in the 90th minute and to compound a bad day for them no one seemed willing to take up their offer of a post match discussion. Good job the guys in the social club were of the non knuckledragging variety or we would have been in trouble. To round off a trio of narrow single goal victories, Simon Rusk, who had been criminally underused to date, came up with the goods at Barnet in front of almost 500 travelling supporters.
However, October was to end on a desperately low note for The Pilgrims’ as North West Counties East League side Brigg Town caused the upset we had all feared by winning 1-0 in the FA Cup 4th qualifying round. Not only was the defeat a hammer blow for the club, it seemed that it was the catalyst for the Malkinson family to call it a day as far as their 50 year involvement of the club was concerned. Later that week they released a statement confirming that their majority holding in the club was up for sale. On his way too was Alan Lewer, Evans’ no two who was never seen again at York Street.
In the aftermath of the Brigg debacle the home game with Southport was always going to be tense affair, and so it proved as a 0-0 draw about summed up the mood at York St. It took a late Dion Scott clearance to preserve a point and at the final whistle the boos that rang round the ground were a clear indication that all was not well at t’mill. But out of adversity often comes a performance of great character and to my great delight the team on the end of the backlash were our mates from Hertfordshire, Stevenage Borough.
Backed by almost 500 fans Utd fielded a side shorn of several regulars and in a back four was Neil Thompson, recently drafted in by Evans to help the coaching side and aged about 38. Dion Scott and Anthony Elding were both teenagers and the only recognised defender was Clifford. To come away with a 2-1 win was a magnificent effort, although the SBFC fans were quick to point out why we wouldn’t win the league and where we were going wrong.
November was rounded off with a routine win over Leigh RMI who, along with Southport had the ‘honour’ of bringing The Worst Support We’ve Ever Seen’, a grand total of eight supporters making the trip from the Lancashire mill town to watch Clare and Elding edge their side out.
A trip to the seaside beckoned at the start of the month with a trip to Margate, who had established themselves in a comfortable mid table spot. Taking in the town before the game one was hit by the fact that if this is the British seaside then there is little wonder that people opt for the Med in ever increasing numbers. It made Beirut look positively welcoming, unlike the guy who launched two footed into Boston’s very own Sex God, Mark Angel in the first half. As far as assassination attempts go I’ll give him 10/10 for effort and execution and 9/10 for end result. As for the game, a stunning 35 yard strike looked enough for the home side until Eldiniho hit a daisy cutter from 25 yards to ensure the ride home was bearable for us, unlike the trip faced by the Woking fans after another 4 goai second half show by The Pilgrims’ a week later.
In fairness Woking had looked a reasonable side until an Eldiniho header opened the floodgates. The festive season saw us hang on for a point at Nuneaton Borough in freezing conditions despite being second best all afternoon. Normal service was resumed at home 3 days later as Forest Green Rovers were put to the sword to the tune of 6-1. The FGR custodian wins first prize this season for his luminous top, surely a contender for loudest shirt ever seen at York St, and also roundest player ever to keep goal in the history of football. Ever. Post match saw Steve Evans riding up and down the pitch on a tractor doing what he could to ensure the New Year’s Day game against Nuneaton went ahead. Oh, and the Chief Executive resigned over the festive season, stating that his position had become ‘untenable’, whatever that means.
For 44 minutes Nuneaton Borough played us off the park and should have gone in at half time a couple of goals to the good. It was our extreme good fortune that the referee decided that, despite the best efforts of about 20 people all morning, the pitch was a danger to the players and abandoned the game with 44 minutes played. Utd offered a free entry game to placate the less than happy punters in a seasons best 3001 gate, but accusations abounded about Utd leaning on the officials to get the game on, knowing no home game was scheduled for several weeks and the lack of money that entails.
Luckily we beat the big freeze a few weeks later to host a Northwich Victoria side who a week earlier had ended any interest we harboured in the F.A Trophy with a 3-1 win at the Drill Field in a game that swung from end to end but probably finished up with the home side worthy winners. For the return at Boston, after conceding an early Blundell goal, Utd were soon 3-1 in front, and despite a late penalty for the visitors clung on to take three valuable points from a team who gave us more problems in 3 games than many clubs gave us all season.
The month ended with Utd stumbling on a bottom three banana skin in the shape of Stalybridge Celtic, the 1-2 reverse at Bower Fold came despite long periods of domination and the hosts being down to 10 men for the latter stages. Ross Weatherstone had one of those games which his feline companion (if he has one) must dread, being culpable for both goals.
Quite unbelievably we only played one game in the whole of February due to postponements (Scarborough at 2.10pm with 300 Utd fans at the ground) and other clubs cup commitments. However, the game at home to Hereford Utd was played, and if you believe all what Steve Evans says there were about 8 million people watching the game as Utd made their bow on SKY TV.
After storming into a 2-0 lead after 10 minutes United pressed the self destruct button at the back and eventually lost 3-4 in a game that will live long in the memory. As a clearly livid Evans made his way to the tunnel he was interviewed by SKY and came out with the now immortal soundbite: “I’m telling you Gary (Hill), it ‘aint all over yet!” before rearranging the dressing room decor in front of the nation. In the studio Gary Hill struggled to contain his amusement, next up was the Daggers.
750 supporters made the Monday evening trip to East London for the potential title decider against Dagenham & Redbridge. By now SKY were hooked and 3800 punters packed Victoria Rd for the latest instalment in the race for the league. Predictably the game was a cagey affair, settled by Ashley Vickers’ first half strike after Utd failed to clear a free kick. After the game Evans made more allegations about Dagenhams post match behaviour than a drunk in a Police Station on a Saturday night, citing a ‘lap of honour’ and banging on the dressing room door as ‘marks of disrespect’. Oh, and Chartery was constantly abused by the Utd fans until his substitution.
With the Daggers seven points clear the visit of bottom markers Dover Athletic was a must win game, and thanks to quadruple Clare strikes the points helped narrow the gap. Travelling to Belle Vue is never a pleasant experience, but again Clare was the Utd hero with a second half penalty to silence 3800 Yorkshiremen in a gate of over 4000 as Doncaster Rover’s title ambitions were consigned to the deleted file. The next 2 home games saw comfortable victories over mid table sides Telford Utd & Nuneaton Borough, the latter saw Utd demolish the Warwickshire side 4-1 in front of 4200 non paying guests.
However, a Gary Brabin inspired Chester City took the points the following Saturday when Utd gave possibly their worst home display of the season. The following Tuesday 120ish Utd supporters made the six hour Tuesday night jaunt to Yeovil Town and were rewarded by Clare scoring the games only goal on a night when Ellender and Rodwell looked like giants at the back and a late Morecambe goal against the Daggers gave us genuine hope at the top of the table.
Mind you, Barnet were no longer the soft touch they were earlier in the season and they arrived at Boston on Good Friday with their own agenda, a top six finish. With the game in injury time and Utd a goal behind the Sex God put over a corner as Jim Rodwell was given the freedom of the Borough to plant a header in the net for a potentially massive point. Again SKY were present and again Utd had failed to perform to their true potential.
Bank Holiday Monday saw Utd embark on a potentially tricky trip to Southport in the knowledge that Dagenham had beaten Morecambe earlier in the day and had cut their lead at the top to two points with a game in hand. For a long time the pendulum swung in the Daggers favour with ‘the Port1 taking a 2-0 lead into the last 10 minutes. But then Utd found something extra and two Clare strikes took them into injury time level. Incredibly a Shaun Teale (ex-Aston Villa) own goal then settled the game in Boston’s favour and suddenly the title was back in our own hands. When Stevenage Borough visited York St it was on the back of a 2-1 first leg Trophy semi final win at Morecambe, and wholesale changes saw them adopt a defensive policy that paid dividends in a 0-0 draw that frustrated most of the 3841 present.
At Leigh RMI 3053 less people saw Utd dominate the home side but have to rely on a slice of luck at the end to hold onto a priceless 2-1 win after Clare and Brown had put them in the driving seat. At Scarboro, urged on by almost 500 supporters Utd suffered an attack of the jitters, beaten 2-0 on the night and lucky to get away with that. But crucially, at Hereford, the home side scored a late winner to blow the Daggers title ambitions apart. Never have Utd played so badly yet received such an ovation at the end of the game. The next morning’s TV pictures showed a broken Dagenham side troop off at Hereford while a jubilant Steve Evans was pictured in the surreal pose of congratulating the players after such a woeful effort.
No doubt words were exchanged in private, because the following Saturday a woeful Farnborough Town side were put to the sword in a 4-0 rout that was every bit as convincing as it sounds. It was the perfect send off for the season at home, and if we took four points in our last two games the title was ours. Morecambe are tricky opponents at the best of times, and we can count ourselves very lucky to come away from Christie Park with a point after playing second fiddle to the home side for long periods. So onto Hayes, and you don’t need me to tell you the rest do you…?
So that’s the season we’ll never forget, as long as we don’t suffer from amnesia at any stage. Breathless would be a good word to sum things up from a supporters point of view, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the word. Even now, weeks after the Hayes game, I don’t think what’s happened has sunk in yet despite attending two parties in the social club and buying my season ticket for Boston United as a Third Division club.
As a footnote, BUSA managed to run a bus to every Championship winning game last season (well, except Birmingham in July – sardonic Ed), and took two or more to ten games.