It was certainly not the start of a new season we were hoping for. A 1-0 defeat to Lower Breck, who played with just nine men from the 24th minute at the Bowl on Saturday was a disappointing way to commence the new NWCFL Premier Division campaign.
Despite the result, manager Chris Bass was at pains to point out that it was only game number one, and the team will have an immediate opportunity this coming Wednesday to get their season on track.
After a hard but promising pre-season, The Ravens were ebullient before the game and while they knew that the upcoming challenge against the Merseysiders would be a tough encounter, they were confident they had the team capable of winning the fixture. Adding to that confidence was the return of goal-scoring talisman, Sean Doyle. The Man on Fire had missed every pre-season match, but was back on the team sheet for this opening day clash. One drawback for Bass, however, was that he was unable to pick the seriously in form, Jacob Crook. An administrative error at the league meant that Crook wasn’t registered to play. Those changes apart, the Ravens first line up of the season was the same that won last weekend’s Skipton Cup against Guernsey FC.
The opening half was as feisty and competitive as anything the Ravens experienced last season. The hosts took the game to Lower Breck from the off and a cheeky chip pass from Doyle, in miles of space, on the edge of the box, somehow found Lee Gale advancing inside from the right flank. Gale’s subsequent shot however flew across the face of goal. Within a minute later, the visitors were down to ten men, when midfielder Thomas Williams was red carded after an off the ball incident.
There was more drama a couple of moments later when Breck’s busy striker Ryan Beigan chased a high through ball on goal. Raven’s keeper Dean Kearns raced out of his area and both players clashed heads as they challenged for the ball. After a bit of treatment both players were back on their feet, just in time to witness the first, and what turned out to be the only goal of the game. And it was a brilliant individual effort from Michael Monagan on 12 minutes. The tricky winger cleverly drove into the left-hand side of the Ravens penalty area. Twice he sat down a home defender and Kearns with clever feints before calmly lifting the ball over the prone defenders and ‘keeper into the right-hand corner of the net.
The hosts nearly equalised immediately however from a trademark set piece. A great near post delivery from Dan Simpson was nudged on by Doyle, but Josh Molloy in the Breck goal reacted brilliantly to keep his side ahead. Beigan was proving to be a thorn in the Ravens back line side and on 20 minutes he nearly doubled the visitors’ lead after cleverly evading Sean Quaye before shooting quickly on the turn, only for his effort to be deflected onto the post. Within minutes Beigan’s influence on the game was at an end however, following a heavy challenge on Chris Cannell, the referee adjudged the tackle to be a red card offence. Breck were now down to nine men, with three quarters of the game still to play.
Another Simpson corner then caused GK to make another good block, only to see the ball rebound to Karl Clark. The Ravens defender is not used to being in such attacking positions, but nevertheless his well hit shot was cleared off the line. The visitors were now being forced to defend resiliently and had no forward outlet to ease the incessant Ravens pressure on their goal, yet with five minutes to go before the break, they demonstrated that they were still a dangerous side and after some patient possession play Jawad Jebrin was played through one-v-one with Chris Cannell. The Ravens left back remained calm and got a vital foot in to rob the ball back.
In the final minutes of the half, Gale’s brilliantly whipped in cross just evaded the incoming head of Chris Bass jr and the half ended with one of Jack Camarda’s trademark piledriver 25-yard efforts which brought a spectacular save from Molloy. Despite their stern defensive display, most of the 800 crowd were thinking that the visitors couldn’t hold out in the second half.
That thought wasn’t necessarily on Lower Breck’s mind however and they started the second half on the offensive. Again, the tricky Monagan dribbled past two Ravens defenders inside the host’s penalty area only for his sneaky right foot effort to come back off the post. This was the catalyst for the Ravens to galvanise themselves and make the most of their numerical advantage… or try too at least. The visitors knew they had to take the sting out of any momentum the home team built up and throughout the remainder of the game they were adept at slowing tings down and it was difficult for the hosts to get any tempo into their game.
On the hour, Ste Whitley (another who had missed all the pre-season games) came on to replace Furo Davies. Whitley’s ability to drop off into the midfield and pick through balls from deeper positions initially seemed to be key to opening the Lower Breck block. Twice he fed fantastic balls down the flanks to Simpson and Gale respectively, only for some desperate last gasp defending from Breck eventually led to the ball being cleared.
With 20 minutes remaining, the Ravens created their first clear cut chance of the half. Whitley now dropping even deeper, expertly found Simpson down the left. Simpson’s excellent cross found Gale at the back post, only for the winger’s header to sail over the bar. Two minutes later, a massive blow struck the Ravens front line. Trying valiantly to reach a Gale cross, Man on Fire Doyle was challenged in the six-yard box by a visiting defender. The Ravens striker was crumpled up in pain, and it took physio Ian Kelly only a few seconds to assess the injury and signal for a substitution.
Jack McVey now entered the fray as Whitely was pushed up top to take Doyle’s place as the spearhead of the attack. Immediately the Magician Whitley forced Molloy into a save following a low snapshot. The last tactical throw of the dice came with ten minutes to go as Bass withdrew Quaye and reverted to a back three, replacing the defender with the dynamic Sid Batty to bolster the midfield. It was all hands to the pump now, and the Ravens attack became somewhat frantic. Camarda had a goal bound shot blocked heroically by a Breck defender. Then McVey let fly with an absolutely thunderblaster from 20 yards which beat Molloy all hands up only for ball to smash against the left-hand post. There was almighty scramble in the aftermath, but the home team could only force what was becoming a record number of corners. To add to what was the now increasing Ravens’ pain, was a red card for Clark. To most observers, the right back seemed to have won the ball in a 50/50 challenge, but the referee decided it was dangerous play and sent Clark to the dressing room.
As the officials signalled seven additional minutes of play, Lower Breck sensationally broke through on goal, only for Batty to win the ball back with a fantastic last gasp sliding tackle. Up the other end, McVey had another fierce driver blocked in the six-yard box, but despite their desperate efforts it was to be the last real opportunity that the hosts could manage. On the final whistle the Lower Breck players celebrated as if they’d won a cup final, and it was hard not to blame them. They had showed great determination to keep their lead and they deserved their victory.
Manager, Bass was obviously disappointed at game’s end. “Its very frustrating,” he said. “We had enough chances but it’s a learning curve and we know we can and must play better.”
Despite the disappointing result, the beauty of this early stage of the season is that the fixture list is packed, and Chris and his players will have an opportunity to get back to winning ways with Wednesday’s trip to Litherland REMYCA.
Team: Kearns – Clark, Maitland, Quaye (Batty), Cannell – Gale, Camarda, Bass, Simpson – Doyle (McVey), Davies (Whitley). Subs not used: Higginbotham, Baines