Tales from the precipice: Accrington (a)

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Pat Bell

5 April 2010

Accrington Stanley 2 Grimsby Town 3

The man smiling apologetically behind the counter at the newsagent; the young man walking up from the Accrington Superbowl; the Asian who was a stranger here himself, the woman smoking outside the pub: none of them knew the way from the station to Accrington's Crown Ground. Luckily, the woman knew a man who did, who gave very clear instructions, belying the impression I'd been left with that only a mad dog, Welshman, or Grimbarian would be so rash as to walk. The Crown Ground is cut into a slope, the away support perched at the open end, a wind swirling around us on an open terrace. There is a cutting along one side of the pitch, whether for a canal or railway I could not see, but on a little summit on the far side, a group of four small children stood to watch, now and again running after one of the balls that were punted over the low stand at frequent intervals. They must have had a good view of the goal we were stood behind, but none of the far end, so they would see most of the goalmouth action, but none of the goals.

The players marched on to the theme used for The War of the Worlds, but lets keep a sense of perspective: this was A game between towns. Our representatives were Oxley; Bore, Lancashire, Atkinson, who was captain, Widdowson; Coulson, Sinclair, Hudson, Devitt, Wright, Akpa Akpro. Grimsby played in blue, avoiding a clash with Accrington's red.

First half
Town began nervously, kicking off towards us and getting the ball out with a rapidity suggesting they had a bet on the time of the first throw-in. A punt had Atkinson struggling to get back ahead of an Accrington forward, and Oxley came out of his area to slice clear uppishly. Widdowson was caught in possession, and saved by the offside flag. A ball half cleared reached Accrington's James Ryan who shot low through a thicket of legs, Oxley diving to his right to push the ball aside for a corner.

After six minutes, Bore found space on the right and was allowed to cross low to the near post, meeting Sinclair's perfectly timed run, at the edge of the six yard box. The net billowed. We cheered, then stopped. The linesman's flag was raised. Pause: "How can anyone be offside from a ball from the byline?". Ah, corner. Somehow, Bouzanis in the Accrington goal had deflected the ball into the side netting.

Town had found a method. Coulson, with the ball at his feet, anywhere near Accrington's increasingly ineffectual left back. Sinclair and Hudson were making sure Coulson saw lots of the ball. Akpa Akpro and Wright would now and again both jump for the same ball, but now and again Wright would flick on and find his partner, and either way, Akpa Akpro was making a nuisance of himself. He barged his way into the Accrington area, but wide on the right with no one else in the box, and he could only manage a bouncing shot cum cross that Bouzanis flopped down on. Things were nearly happening- a free kick running loose and not quite to a Town foot- but they were happening in the Accrington area, while they were reduced to snatching at half chances from distance- a shot over the bar from outside the area and a comical attempt to clear Oxley from just inside the Town half, the ball skewing left for a throw-in.

Town started turning the mights into oughts. Wright was set free about 40 yards from goal, but never had the pace to get properly clear of the defence to straighten up on goal. He finally shot low from wide on the right and Bouzanis blocked with his legs. Twice in a minute, Coulson beat his man on the outside and cut back from the byline: the first time, the ball was bundled towards goal before it was cleared and the second time Wright stood waiting before McCracken nipped in ahead of him to clear. A punt caused confusion and a loose ball lobbed towards the penalty spot, Bouzanis and Sinclair both closing on it. Sinclair leapt as high as his body would allow, and his header floated over the goalkeeper towards the empty goal, bouncing on the roof of the net. Akpa Akpro was set half clear down the left, but an Accrington defender recovered to tackle on the corner of the area. Devitt took a quick throw, finding Sinclair's run into space near the byline. He cut the ball back for Akpa Akpro and for once there was a bit of space in the six yard box, but somehow Akpa Akpro seemed to have advanced his foot too far, so the ball ricocheted back off his calf away from goal. Devitt took a corner on our right, and Lancashire met it powerfully with his head. Cheers rose, and died as Bouzanis parried it, chest high, then rose again as the ball bounced down for Akpa Akpro, who connected, but not quite well enough- a defender was able to hack the ball clear.

Accrington had been snuffed out, Town dominant in midfield and carving out chance after chance. Fleetingly, we thought, "How on earth are these higher in the league than we are?". Fleetingly the reply began, "Because we still haven't scored".

And then the rest of the reply. For once, Accrington found a position of some promise on our left touchline. Chris Turner sent over a deep cross to an almost empty area. The miniature Billy Kee backed into space while the much taller Lancashire had just drifted forward off his man. The ball beat him and Kee was left alone to head past Oxley's left. We had pulverised Accrington but they had defended with resolution. They advanced tentatively once, and found us napping.

And there's more. Akpa Akpro was stopped for a foul, near the right touchline, halfway inside the Accrington half. The ball had run infield between the incident and the whistle. Akpa Akpro gathered the ball, and rolled it to Bouzanis. So far, so good. A professional football team doing what a professional football team does to stop the opposition from taking a free kick before they were ready. Everyone trotted back to the Town half, and somehow Bouzanis had moved the ball maybe fifteen yards infield from where Akpa Akpro had been penalised. Still some 75 yards from the Town goal, nothing a professional football team shouldn't be able to defend, but enough to allow Bouzanis to punt the ball to the far corner of the Town penalty area. Still nothing that competent defending should not cope with, but Kee was allowed to lay the ball off to Symes who had lost his marker to pass it into the bottom right corner of the goal.

In the last seven minutes of the half, the match had come to be a microcosm of why we are where we are. We should have been two or three goals up. We might even have been three goals down - between the two they did score, Ryan had crashed a shot from outside the area against the right hand stanchion of the goal.

Second half The Accrington players ambled out for the second half, and stood about. Town joined them, and the match, the season, prepared to die. Through the first half, Accrington and their drummer had kept up a barrage of noise, maintaining a defiantly out of tune rendition of Anarchy in the UK, but now they seemed happy to let Sid Vicious, and us, rest in peace. We became aware that Mark Oxley has one of the attributes of a good goalkeeper in the making- he shouts, a lot. His was the only voice raised, but my word was it raised.

And then a funny thing happened on our way to the Conference. Bore and Sinclair made space for Coulson, near the corner flag on our right. He crossed deep and true to the far post where Hudson was running in to head the ball back across goal. We had to start hoping again.

Akpa Akpro chased down a through ball, catching up with it just near the byline, and he, ball and Bouzanis collided. A first corner whistled from Devitt's foot, and was headed gratefully over by Turner. A second, this time from the left whistled over and was touched wide by Bouzanis. The third delivery disappointed, and was cleared for a throw. From the throw, we worked back to the corner of the penalty area and won a free kick. Coulson eschewed subtlety. He hammered the ball against the edge of the wall sending it spinning into the far side of the goal, Bouzanis moving his neck to follow the path of the ball, but otherwise motionless.

Akpa Akpro took a hand. He ran for a pass, collided with an Accrington defender and both fell. On the floor, Akpa Akpro tried to hook the ball forward, but it bounced off the defender into the path of Devitt whose first touch took him to the penalty area, and whose second curled the ball into the far corner of the goal.

Hysteria from Devitt - he sprinted back to his position, and thrust his fist high to the Town support, encouraging us to make more noise, but we needed no encouragement. Hysteria behind the Grimsby goal. As it seems, calm among the rest of the side, settling composedly back into their roles. It was as though some Alf Ramsey had wandered among them, saying "You've lost this match once. Now don't lose it again", or perhaps the whole match had turned around just too quickly for anyone to take in.

The defence grasped the chance of redemption: Atkinson tracking across to tackle when it seemed as though an Accrington player must be clear on the edge of the area, Lancashire getting his head to anything in the air, Bore quietly covering the ground behind Atkinson and Lancashire when the ball was on the far side, and once getting in an important block as a deep cross found an Accrington player at the far post. The midfield, it is true, had lost their dominance - perhaps the temptation to hold what we had was too great, or perhaps they could be forgiven for tiring. Leary ans Sweeney replaced Sinclair and Coulson as we continued to stifle the Accrington attack. If the match was now largely being played in the Town half, there were no serious scares and the Mariners had the two best chances, first when Coulson or Devitt found space on the left, shot and forced Bouzanis to parry - the rebound went just over the bar. In the final minute, Town worked down the right and passed the ball across the penalty area for Devitt to shoot. The ball was deflected off the line for a corner, Devitt protesting vehemently that a hand had been used. The rest was blessed anti-climax. Maybe it will be too little, too late, but years ago, we watched Cunnington and Cockerill clamp down on the middle of the pitch, and provide a regular supply of ball for Childs and Gilbert to run onto and terrorise fourth division full backs, aided and abetted by McDermott and Jobling. In defence, there was an awkward looking Lever and a more assured Tillson, who did most of what was asked of them. In Sinclair and Hudson, Coulson and Devitt, Bore and Widdowson, Lancashire and Atkinson, I saw a pale shadow of an organisation that brings success, even joy.