It’s an old football cliché to describe a match as a game of two halves, and this week’s encounter for the Ravens at Stockport Town certainly lived up to that billing.
However, it was not necessarily for the usual reasons why such a truism is used to tell the story of a match i.e., one team dominants in one half and the other …in the other.
This was a game of two halves of completely differing quality, tension and excitement. The first half, despite there being three goals, was as drab an affair that any of us able to witness most matches this season could recall. There was very little goal mouth action worth the name and the play mostly involved both the Ravens and Stockport invariably passing the ball back to each other, with the very odd flicker of quality lighting up in brief moments.
The second by contrast, was completely the opposite, being composed of pace, tension, bravery and no little skill.
The Ravens ultimately came out on top and while we’ve lost out on a few last minute nail biters of late, the large Ravens support (both the travelling contingent on the newly acquired ‘supporters mini-bus’, and the ever increasing number of ex-pat Manxies attending this ongoing sequence of away matches) were clinging to edge of their seats, stone walls, or whatever they could hang on to as the Ravens clinched their first back to back win of the season.
Manager, Chris Bass, yet again, was unable to pick a settled team, losing both Dan Simpson and Adam Mealin from the previous game, and although Ryan Burns was fit again after missing the Cammell Laird game, injuries still played a big part in selection strategy. Thus it was a young squad that travelled to Stockport Sports Village for a fixture played in very hot late summer conditions.
Ashley Higginbotham is slowly but surely becoming an unsung hero for the club with his ability to play in so many different positions, and this week he was entrusted with an attacking midfield role, and it was he who nearly broke the deadlock in the very first minute as he turned an opponent on the left hand side of the area and hit a powerful low shot just wide of the left hand post. After such a dynamic start we were lulled into a false sense of security and the game quickly turned into a midfield battle of, what must be said, little quality.
The lull was briefly broken in the 12th minute as Sean Doyle and Ste Whitely broke through the right side of the Town defence. Doyle wrong footed the Stockport defender and seemed sure to put Whitley in on goal only to under hit the pass. It was immediately intercepted by a Town defender who quickly transferred the ball to the left wing, unfortunately the covering defender Ryan Burns slipped as he went to engage, and the Stockport winger raced in on goal and finished with aplomb across Dean Kearns’ goal.
There followed another ten minutes of plenty of hard work and endeavour, but little in the way of football until Jack McVey invented something out of the blue, sending a sensational chipped pass into Doyle, just inside the Town penalty area. The big striker skilfully took the ball down in one touch and toe poked it past the Stockport ‘keeper with the second touch. Out of nowhere we were back in it. It didn’t last long.
Within two minutes Stockport were back in front. It was only a matter of time before the sloppiness of passing from both teams would result in a chance, and unfortunately for Burnsie it was his misplaced pass which was pounced on quickly by Stockport. The ball was quickly switched to the opposite right flank and the Town right winger subsequently raced in on goal to score.
So, while the first 20 minutes had been devoid of excitement, we had at least witnessed three goals. The ensuing 25 minutes entailed …. well not much.
Again, plenty of effort, but little in terms of quality from either side. Jack McVey hit a 30- yard free kick over the bar on the half hour, and in the last minute of the half Whitley came alive and went on a rampaging run down the right flank. His cross was pin perfect for the onrushing Higginbotham whose goal bound header was saved by the Town keeper. Then, right on half time, as if things couldn’t get any worse, Bass was forced into a substitution after Chris Cannell went down injured. He was replaced by Sean Quaye. Ultimately, the veteran defender would go on to play his part in the second half.
From the restart, the Ravens looked a different team and now passed the ball around with purpose, intensity and perhaps most importantly, with accuracy. We forced a flurry of corners, and from one such set piece, Sean Doyle was seemingly hauled to the ground, only for the referee to rule a foul against Sean. We remained undaunted at this point and Charlie Higgins speculative, but pacey cross forced the Town ‘Keeper into a sharp save. Minutes later, that man Higginbotham, again causing mayhem for Stockport’s defenders in their own box, had a powerful shot blocked on the six yard line.
During this time Stockport rarely got into the Ravens half, but just before the hour they broke with purpose and two powerful drives were blocked one after the other by the excellent throughout Alex Maitland and Burns respectively. But it was the Ravens who remained in the ascendency and on 62 minutes we equalised for a second time. Another corner from Whitley was whipped in, relatively low, towards the front post and that man Quaye stooped to skilfully guide the ball into the opposite corner.
Minutes later, Luke Murray, unusually quiet for much of this fixture, picked up the ball in midfield, powered past three Stockport players and hit a piledriver just wide. There only looked one team in it at this point, but Murray’s effort was seemingly the last straw for Matt Jansen’s team and his side slowly got themselves back into the game with some clever passing and movement of their own, especially down either flank. On 70 minutes, it looked as if they would surely retake the lead after the Ravens lost possession in the midfield and a Town midfielder raced through on goal, but blasted the ball way over Kearns’ head and the bar.
Both teams now sensed a win, and the pace was now frantic, which was a tribute to both sets of players considering the high temperatures with which they had to contend. As tiredness set in, so too did some of those mistakes which had been abundant in the first half and both sides were creating half chances off the back of them. Then with just under the quarter hour to play Ste Whitley raced clear one v one with his opposing full back. Surely, he would blast past him and race in on goal, but instead he slowed down, and two more Town players surrounded him. It seemed the chance had gone, but with a faint to the right and flick to the left Ste accelerated inside to his left and smashed an unstoppable drive into the bottom right-hand corner. Queue pandemonium from the Ravens faithful in the stands and the most nervous last ten minutes of the season to date.
Stockport effectively threw the kitchen sink into the Ravens penalty area during the closing minutes, but apart from one chance when their left winger was sent through alone on goal only to place his shot just wide of the right-hand post, the defence stood firm, and Kearns wasn’t really troubled.
There was a sense of massive relief at the final whistle. We’d been on the wrong side of some late dramas so far this season, so it seemed only right that we were rewarded for such a resilient and brave performance.
Manager, Chris Bass, was delighted at game’s end.
“I am over the moon to get the three points today”, he said, “It’s not easy to come over here every week and beat these teams on a regular basis. And while we didn’t play some of our best football today, we showed great character and had an excellent mental attitude throughout, especially coming from behind twice and ultimately winning. We’ve been on the wrong end of a couple of last-minute goals in recent games, but today we demonstrated great resilience and stood firm right to the end.”
“Everyone is still learning, and it will take some time. We can’t expect to just come into this league and smash it. Today our players displayed magnificent resilience and showed that they have the ability to manage close, tough, games such as today.”
Team: Kearns – Burns, Maitland, Cannell (Quaye) – Whitley, Baines, Higginbotham (Cooil), McVey, Higgins (Andrews) – Murray, Doyle
Unused Subs: Avery, Horne