By Joe Reid and Steve Burns
Well, what a humdinger of a game that was! The Ravens weren’t at their best last night, but they demonstrated all the fighting qualities of a side that is determined never to give in no matter the circumstances.
This match had everything, a strong quality opponent, two red cards, a late comeback and a sensational atmosphere in what was at times appalling weather.
Ravens manager, Chris Bass, was forced into a few changes following last week’s win over Rocester. Two of what was becoming a steady back three were absent, so Ash Higginbotham (again proving to be a man for all seasons), was reverted to defence alongside the returning, after a month’s injury, Alex Maitland. Ryan Burns was the only mainstay from the previous week’s defensive unit. In the midfield, Sam Baines returned to the side, in the absence of the unavailable Michael Williams, alongside Luke Murray and Chris Bass Jnr. Adam Mealin was preferred to Dan Simpson as the former complemented Ste Whitley on the wings. Furo Davies partnered Sean Doyle up front.
We’ve been used to eventful starts at the Bowl so far, but that wasn’t the case last night. Both teams struggled to keep hold of the ball in the early stages and it was mainly a sloppy first ten minutes. Kearns had to be on hand early on to act as a sweeper keeper as Maine Road often looked for balls in behind the Ravens backline.
The Ravens struggled for much of the first half and were unable to control possession of the ball as well as they had done in recent weeks. Creating chances on goal was also a problem as the hosts appeared to abandon their normal constructive build up play with a series of direct passes into Doyle and Davies. A tactic that was having little success against a solid and organised Sky Blues side.
Although they hadn’t really troubled Kearns’ goal themselves for much of the opening exchanges, Maine Road took the lead after 20 minutes. A corner from the right-hand side proceeded to thread its way through a melee of players to fall at the feet of the Sky Blues man in form, Louis Edwards, on the left-hand side of the penalty area. Edwards took one touch out of his feet and smashed the loose ball into the net to give his side the lead. The goal certainly gave the visitors a shot of confidence as they kept the pressure on and very nearly went two up moments later as another effort curled narrowly wide of Kearns’ left-hand post.
After riding that small wave of pressure, the Ravens started to come into the game a little. Davies (who was earlier booked for a high foot) forced Conrad Betton in the Maine Road goal, into a smart save at his near post. Minutes later, the Ravens would have their best chance of the half as Whitley floated a ball back into the opposition area, and it was Al Maitland who rose the highest, but the defender’s header drifted just wide of the post. Then, the Maine Road ‘keeper was nearly caught out again after he initially misjudged a Davies looping header and had to react appropriately to tip the ball around the post.
As the half was coming to an end, Maine Road doubled their advantage. A quick switch of play from left to right gave Youssef Bellatar the opportunity to race in one on one with Kearns. The winger proceeded to slot the ball past the Ravens ‘keeper to give the visitors a two-goal cushion. At this point Maine Road were good value for their 2-0 lead and as the teams went in to the dressing room at half time there was certainly going to be work for Bass, and Assistant Lee Dixon to do.
In the opening minute of the second period, the game could have been out of sight for the visitors but for a terrific save from Kearns down to his left. This prompted immediate personnel changes and the Ravens bench were quickly called into action as Bass made two quick substitutions, with Jacob Crook and Dan Simpson coming on for Higginbotham and Mealin respectively. Despite the changes, the Ravens still couldn’t get a foothold in the game, and the frustration amongst the team was illustrated as Ryan Burns found himself in the referee’s book following a strong challenge on the half way line. By now, the wind and rain, which had flared up briefly in the opening period, was full on and it looked as if this wasn’t to be the Ravens night. However, circumstances can change very quickly in football….
Doyle and Davies had battled hard all night long, and it would be these two players who would give the Ravens a route back into the game. With twenty minutes left to play, Davies’ spectacular headed effort cannoned back off the crossbar. The striker followed up with an equally impressive scissor kick, which Betton initially saved only for the ball to strike the hand of a team mate on the goal line. After a few direct discussions between the visiting players and the officials, the Ravens were awarded a spot kick and to rub salt into the Sky Blues wound, the offending player was duly given a red card.
With usual penalty taker Jack McVey absent, the pressure fell on the shoulders of Doyle to put his side back in the game. The ‘Man on Fire’ made no mistake as he neatly fired into the left-hand corner of the net.
The Ravens were now galvanised, while the opposition, being a man down, naturally became more cautious and for the first time in the game the hosts began to dominate possession of the ball. Doyle nearly grabbed a second after a good cross from Whitley and moments later Whitley himself, nearly drew his side level as his free kick forced Betton into an excellent save.
Then it was Chris Bass Jnr’s opportunity to try and equalise. Again Whitley, now seemingly unleashed down the right flank, crossed superbly to hit Bass’s head ten yards out. But the attempt went straight into Betton’s arms.
At this stage, the drenched crowd of 1,684 really came to the fore as they encouraged their Ravens on. The atmosphere was certainly being cranked up a few notches and there was still to more drama to come.
Maine Road’s dogged determination to hang on to their lead was further compounded with five minutes to go, as they were reduced to nine men following a strong challenge in the midfield on Luke Murray.
The Ravens’ play was now further intensified, but the ball seemingly wouldn’t fall into place and there were numerous restarts for throw ins here and free kicks there. Time was a wasting away.
Then, in the 94rd minute the Ravens forced one last corner kick. Time was up; this was the last chance. Even ‘keeper Kearns raced forward to add an extra body into an already crowded penalty area. Hitherto the Ravens corner delivery had been largely poor, but now Bass jr delivered a peach of a cross. Time seemed to stand still… then flashed into action again as Davies, arguably the Ravens man of the match, rose majestically to powerfully head past the helpless Betton. The crowd duly erupted into a cacophony of racket that threatened to lift the soaking wet roof off the Bowl stadium.
There was barely time left to kick off before the referee called time on a stirring encounter. Maine Road can count themselves unlucky not to have taken all three points on this occasion, but the character and resolve of the Ravens shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s true that they weren’t at their best on this night, but the desire and determination they demonstrated to salvage something from the game shows volumes for their spirit and collectiveness.
“There was always that belief that we would equalise,” said Ravens hero Davies. “We never give in ever. The crowd certainly helped enormously and the atmosphere during the last 20 minutes was rocking, they were awesome.”
They certainly were Furo, they certainly were.
Kearns – Higginbotham (Crook), Maitland, Burns – Whitley, Murray, Baines, Mealin (Simpson) – Bass jr- Murray, Doyle
Unused Subs: Quirk, Cardy, Andrews