The book of laughter and forgetting: Chester (a)

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Pat Bell

1 January 2008

Chester City 0 Grimsby Town 2

First half
After nineteen minutes, Atkinson headed a pass back to Barnes, 35 yards out from goal. We applauded; it had been that sort of game. Chester had threatened from a couple of free kicks: one from the right corner of the penalty area curled four yards high and wide of the goal; after another, taken quickly from just inside their half, Chris Holroyd was allowed to run and shoot from 25 yards, Phil Barnes catching the ball low in front of him. Other than that, action bumbled and bounced around midfield, seldom moving within 30 yards of either goal.

Twice, from an identical spot two yards in from touch just inside his own half, a Chester player passed directly into touch when trying to find a player ten yards away. That was as close as we got to a passing game. A woman in a blue anorak was reading a novel. A rumour went round my head that Buckley had been replaced by Nicky Law, as Tom Newey punted downfield and the Chester right-back laid the ball off for Gary Jones, who was standing offside. Newey, whose turn it was to be captain, was almost caught unawares when Barnes threw him a pass.

"Watch the game," someone bellowed.

"Do we have to?" came the plea.

It was curiously enjoyable, if you didn't take the non-event unfolding on the pitch too seriously. The Town support, rather than treating every misplaced pass as a personal insult, was happy to laugh at and with the players for their shortcomings.

Town occasionally suggested that on another day there was a decent team with decent players to be found among the garbage. Twenty-five yards out on the left, Nick Hegarty, playing as a left wing-back in what was a 3-5-2 rather than a 5-3-2, twisted past one challenge and another and delivered a deep cross direct to Jones, who was offside. Danny Boshell took control of a bouncing ball, flicked it over the head of a Chester forward and fed Hegarty, who lost control. With a shake of his right leg, Martin Butler, back to goal, diverted a ball into the path of Hegarty, but nothing came of it. Boshell and Jones linked to put through Butler, who was offside.

Odd moments, but the moment you started to clap, you found the player you were applauding hoofing aimlessly or passing to a blue shirt. When a Town move did break down, which they did, frequently, Chester players streamed through gaps in the midfield. Sam Hird, Ryan Bennett and in particular Rob Atkinson took turns to adroitly stifle attacks, then took turns to gift possession. Hird, for instance, after pickpocketing Kevin Ellison a few yards from the corner, ambled forward and allowed himself to be tackled back, for a low cross into the Town area which Barnes caught.

After half an hour, the game didn't improve but at least became more eventful. The linesman, ten yards too far upfield, missed a clear offside against Ellison, who crossed low and hard into the Town area. Barnes cut the ball out and Bennett completed the clearance. Butler had a shot hit the side netting and John Welsh hit a free kick from 25 yards out a foot over the bar after Bennett was penalised for climbing. Back at the other end, one Newey free kick was headed by Bennett onto the roof of the net, and another ricocheted off the Chester wall. Chester were not looking more threatening, but defensively we were becoming less organised. Gaps were appearing to the sides of the three centre-backs, and when they closed, gaps appeared between them. Chester sprayed balls through the gaps, but never near enough to a forward for them to become a danger.

Five minutes before half time, the match reached its defining moment. A Town move, as so many had before them, failed with a misplaced pass, and Chester broke down their left. Just inside the Town half, Hird and Newey tackled the potential danger with aplomb, Newey snicking the ball to Hird. They exchanged short passes, then one went astray and Paul McManus was left alone with the ball at his feet and nothing but grass between him and Barnes in the Grimsby goal. A couple of touches took him into the penalty area. Barnes did what he could, advancing off his line, but essentially he was a bystander: this was between McManus, the ball and the several yards of Grimsby goal that Barnes could not cover. From just inside the area, almost directly in front of goal, he side-footed the ball to the left - left of Barnes and left of the post.

At that moment, league officials pencilled "Chester nil" in their log books. It was just a question of whether Town could summon up a few chances of their own.

Second half
Grimsby started the second half with a new defensive solidity. The midfield began to operate as a unit, the maligned James Hunt shepherding rare Chester attacks to safety, Bolland bursting forward beyond Butler and Jones, and Boshell probing. Town dominated. In the first minute of the second half, Hegarty's knack for retrieving apparently lost balls won a corner, which curled through the goal area, evading the Chester goalie's dive and two Grimsby heads. Hunt finished off a period of Town pressure with a shot from 20 yards which deflected for what would have been a corner had two Chester defenders not collided with each other, and the referee stopped play for a drop ball.

On 55 minutes, Butler walked off to a smattering of applause and was replaced by Danny North. Now we started getting behind the Chester defence. North got on the end of a through ball and rushed a cross-shot across goal from wide on the right. Bolland forced a corner, after having to run the long way around a prostrate Gary Jones and two defenders, which Atkinson headed wide. A minute later, Bolland's persistence allowed him to pass back from the goal line to Hird, 20 yards out. His cross picked out Boshell rising six yards out, unmarked, the goalkeeper advancing but too slowly. Boshell's head sent the ball over the keeper and a few inches over the bar.

It might have been the moment the league officials pencilled in the rest of the scoreline, slammed the log book shut and went to find something a bit more entertaining, but now Town had added a bit of forward pace to go with the organisation that had already shut Chester out of the game. Just after the hour, North followed through on a shot that had deflected, but the ball seemed to be running beyond him when Danby in the Chester goal caught his ankle and North went down. The referee hesitated a moment before awarding a penalty. Boshell, off a short run, placed the ball powerfully, quite low to the left, beating Danby's dive, and ran off to celebrate with the Town bench.

Before play restarted, Fenton replaced Hegarty, who had been limping a few minutes earlier, with Newey moving to left wing-back. It only strengthened the Town defence, and although Chester enjoyed a bit more possession, the only threat came from a couple of heading duels in the Town area and a shot from outside the area which Barnes saved well, low to his left. With eight minutes to play, North was fouled near the right corner of the penalty area. Newey directed the free kick to the edge of the goal area, where Atkinson diverted the ball low into the corner of the net.

With that, we could see the home supporters sneaking out. Town played out the last minutes with composure and assurance against a Chester side who had given up. The referee found four minutes of injury time, which merely prolonged the wait. There was no prospect of a goal, but it did give him time to wave a yellow card in the general direction of a bemused-looking Gary Jones. Only Paul Butler's half-hearted dissent made it clear that it was the Chester player being booked for a nondescript challenge.

Some matches stay with you, in detail, whenever you allow yourself a few moments to reflect on them. Others will live with you forever, not for any particular incident but for the haze of emotion that surrounds them. Others are lit up and written in the memory by solitary moments of excellence. For many, you need to look at old fixture lists to even remember you were there. Where was I on New Year's Day in 2008? I've forgotten already, but I've a vague idea it had a happy ending.