FC Isle of Man crest

Match Report: FC Isle of Man (2) vs (1) Abbey Hulton Utd

The Ravens secured second spot in the North West Counties Football League Division One (South) and home advantage in the promotion playoffs with a 2-1 win over Abbey Hulton on Saturday evening.

With several key starters unavailable this weekend, manager Chris Bass had to use the full depth of his squad when choosing his players for the crucial final league game of the season.

While the back five of goalkeeper Matt Quirk, centre-backs Sean Quaye and Alex Maitland and full-backs Ryan Burns and Adam Cooil remained from last week’s last gasp win over Stockport Town, the line up further forward looked a little different. Jack McVey and Jack Camarda occupied the central midfield positions and while Adam Mealin maintained his usual right sided midfield role, Jacob Crook made a rare start on the left. Sam Baines made a welcome return to the team and supplemented lone striker Furo Davies up front.

Due to the NWCFL integrity rules all fixtures on the final day of the season kicked off simultaneously so the 1,847 expectant Ravens fans were treated to a rare 3pm kick off knowing that the Ravens had to at least match New Mills and Abbey Hey’s results to  secure second place in the league.

The game began at pace, with the Ravens the team enjoying early ascendancy and possession. A series of probing attacks originating largely from Crook and Baines nearly saw the latter open the scoring in the third minute with a lovely turn inside the box only for his shot to go just over the bar. This was almost immediately followed by an audacious lob by Furo Davies from just inside the Abbey Hulton half that had the goalkeeper scrambling but the ball agonizingly dropped onto the top of the bar.

Unfortunately, this early impetus faded and the visitors begun to get a foothold in the game, beginning to control possession, win second balls and generally look dangerous.

Despite the occasional foray towards the Abbey Hulton box, the Ravens continued to struggle to find their rhythm. Matters weren’t helped when the only recognised striker on the field Furo Davies needed treatment for a thigh injury that had been obviously hampering him all half.

Abbey Hulton pressure ultimately told on 39 minutes when Cooil was penalised for shrugging his man off the ball giving the visitors a free-kick outside the left corner of the FC IOM box. Daniel Cope struck a perfectly aimed shot directly into Quirk’s top right corner to put the visitors ahead.

The feeling around the Bowl was definitely muted for the rest of the half, as the Ravens huffed and puffed but couldn’t find their range. So, it was something of a relief when the referee blew for half-time, as it would give Chris Bass and Lee Dixon a chance to reset their chargers.

With playoff rivals New Mills and Abbey Hey both winning their respective games, FC IOM had actually dropped to fourth in the virtual league standings at this time. Changes were needed and changes were made. Aside from Furo Davies having to be withdrawn for Charlie Higgins, the Ravens tempo was higher and the players seemed sharper.

With Crook moving inside to become a withdrawn striker, Higgins’ pace and trickery on the wing was causing immediate concerns for his opposite number, as he got to the byline time and time again to cross. It was from one such cross that the equalizer would arrive.

Receiving the ball on the left, Higgins ran at his man, twisted him inside and out and fired in a wicked low ball across goal, which was met by the onrushing Adam Mealin to tap home at the far post on 58 minutes and make the level the score line at 1-1.

Spirits were well and truly up, on both sides, as moments later Abbey Hulton’s Jamie Turner was sinbinned for dissent towards the referee. The Ravens now had a chance to push on against ten men.

The pace and skills of Higgins, Crook and Mealin up top was now starting to cause the visitor’s backline considerable headaches, which was then supplemented with the introduction of Taylor Andrews for Sam Baines on 65 minutes.

FC Isle of Man had now found their rhythm. And as the shot count began to rise for the Ravens they had the ball in the back of the net following a corner, but unfortunately the referee had spotted a foul in the box and ruled it out.

As much as the home side pressed for the winner, they always seemed vulnerable to Abbey Hey’s counter attacks, with right-back Cooil in particular having his hands full on many occasions. The visitors created a guilt-edged opportunity to take the lead with just over ten minutes remaining but a brave double save from goalkeeper Matt Quirk down at the forwards’ feet kept the scores level.

With time ebbing away, and news of New Mills scoring freely in their game filtering through the crowd, nerves were jangling.

The Ravens faithful needn’t have worried though, as on 83 minutes a rejuvenated Adam Mealin would be the hero they were looking for. Receiving the ball over his left shoulder inside the box, Mealin turned inside his man and, with fistfuls of his shirt being pulled off his back, he riffled a left-foot shot into the net off the right-hand post to make it 2-1.

Peeling away to celebrate he was mobbed by his teammates and the entire FC Isle of Man bench. Everyone knew that this would be enough to retain second place in the league if they could hold on for the remaining minutes.

Despite a valiant effort to fight back by Abbey Hulton, the Ravens stood firm and when the referee blew for full time the entire stadium erupted with noise – a mixture of relief and joy in the knowledge that the Ravens secured home advantage in the promotion play-offs.

After the game, it was confirmed that the Ravens will play fifth placed Wythenshawe Amateurs in the play-off semi final at home on Saturday 9th April.