The Bowl played host to its final game of 2021 on Saturday night and despite the slightly misty conditions, with a undoubted chill in the air, the Ravens fans again turned out in their numbers yet again, perhaps expecting a nice three point Christmas present for the hosts. It was not to be however, and it was the visitors who made the most of their gifts and took the points back to Cheshire.
Manager, Chris Bass picked a strong side, showcasing the quality he has within his squad. Dean Kearns started again in goal, while in front of him was a back three of Alex Maitland, returning from suspension, Jack McVey and Ryan Burns.
Youngsters Sam Baines and Jack Camarda were tasked with the duty of marshalling the midfield. This was to be Camarda’s first start since the injury he sustained at the end of August. Dan Simpson would occupy the left flank with the right being covered by Ste Whitley. Michael Williams was pushed further forward to support the two strikers Lee Gale, he too returning from suspension, and Sean Doyle.
The game started fairly evenly with both sides showing signs of what they were capable of in the first ten minutes. Kearns had to be alert on a few occasions to sweep up Sandbach’s attempts at playing through the Ravens midfield and back line. While, the hosts looked dangerous from set pieces and Williams fired a shot just over the bar after the original free kick was cleared.
On the quarter hour the mood of what had been a rather tepid opening period changed as Sandbach scored the opening goal in the most bizarre of circumstances. With the visitors largely camped inside their own half they broke out quickly following a home team corner, and the last covering Raven, Burns took too much time in playing a forward pass and was closed down quicky by United striker, Brian Barton. The defender was lucky as the rebound off the Sandbach player bounced through to the goalkeeper. Kearns however, had a moment to forget, as he sliced his subsequent clearance which fell neatly at Barton’s feet who proceeded to lift the ball over Kearns and then tap into an empty net.
That goal seemed to knock the Ravens out of their rhythm, and it took a little while for them to gain some composure, and it wasn’t until another set piece that they were able to trouble the Sandbach backline. An initial corner was cleared but the ball dropped to Whitley who was able to swing it back into the danger area to be met by the head of Doyle. Normally the big striker gobbles up these chances for breakfast, but it wasn’t to be this time as his header dropped wide of the post.
While the Ravens pushed and puffed somewhat, the visitors looked menacing on the break and Kearns, recovering well from the earlier mishap, made an inch perfect tackle when rushing out of his penalty box which was met by loud cheers from the home fans. Sandbach had proved in the first half an hour that this was going to be a tricky night for the Ravens and so that proved ten minutes before half time. A drive into the box drew a foul and all eyes went to the referee who pointed to the spot and awarded Sandbach a penalty. Robbie Hatton made no mistake and the visitors led 2-0.
The Ravens needed a big reaction and five minutes later that’s exactly what they got. Williams, who was the standout performer on the night for the home side, saw his constant pressing pay off as he put the Sandbach defender under pressure forcing him play back to the goalkeeper. The defender under hit the pass and Williams nicked in to round the goalkeeper to finish coolly to put the Ravens back in the game.
This was the start of a crazy five minutes before half time. First the handbags came out after the Sandbach players reaction angrily to a Ravens challenge. Once the commotion had calmed down, the hosts had a great chance to level things up following a fantastic run and trick from Lee Gale as he flicked the ball past his marker and sent a superb ball through to the onrushing Doyle whose left footed effort was dragged wide of the post.
The second half started how the first half finished. Straight from kick off the Ravens nearly found themselves level as Camarda blasted the ball back into the area to be met by Williams who saw his effort spectacularly saved by the goalkeeper. The Ravens have looked dangerous from Simpson’s long throw ins all season and it was to be no different tonight. Firstly, there was a mix up between the Sandbach defenders, who eventually scrambled the ball away and then Williams rose highest and saw his header fly just wide. Set pieces looked by far the Ravens best way of getting back into the match, as they were far from cohesive in open play and were struggling to string and phases of play together which, more often than not, resorted in more direct balls into Doyle and Gale which Sandbach dealt with well with all night.
Just as the Ravens looked to be getting into their stride again, there came a sucker punch ten minutes into the half. A quick corner routine saw the usually dependable Burns mistime a tackle on the edge of the box and yet again the referee pointed to the spot. Hatton stepped up again and tucked his effort into the bottom right corner.
The hosts responded quickly from yet another set piece as Jack McVey’s header was cleared off the line with the referee waving away very loud appeals for a handball.
Sandbach’s confidence was flowing as they could sense the home team were having somewhat of an off night and just after the hour, they created the best move of the game. The Ravens lost possession cheaply on the half way line, and Sandbach punished them with a series of neat quick exchanges from left to right and the ball fell nicely for Stanley Tatters to finish with some authority from the edge of the box.
This fourth goal signalled some changes. Both wing backs were replaced by Nathan Cardy and Charlie Higgins. The latter would have a lively 25 minutes and with fifteen minutes remaining his driving run and subsequent low pacey cross forced an own goal. Back to 4-2, was the scene set for another dramatic Ravens comeback?
The answer was an emphatic NO! Within a minute the visitors took a speculative free kick ten yards inside their own half. Kearns was slightly off his line, and the ball sailed over his head and into the back of the net to put the visitors 5-2 up.
The 1,298 fans that turned up weren’t to see an end to the goalscoring yet though. Williams was announced over the PA, as the Man of the Match in the closing moments of the game and it was he who would give the Ravens faithful one last cheer. From yet another set piece, McVey had yet another header cleared off the line, but Williams was on hand to poke home the rebound and double his tally for the evening.
And so Sandbach United ran out relatively comfortable winners on the night. They had come with a deliberate game plan, and it worked to a tee, with a little help from the home team along the way.
For sure, it was definitely not a good night at the office for the Ravens but considering this was their first defeat in ten games and only their second reverse in the last 17, it has still been a fantastic effort and the players will regroup and be back to their best for the visit of New Mills on January 3.