Not just another day – A review of our first ever league matchday

It has finally happened, we’re finally up and running and the Ravens first ever North West Counties Football League game is done and dusted. An eventful game at Brantingham Road resulted in a 1-1 draw with Maine Road FC, but the match itself was just a part (albeit a major one) of an incredible day. Hopefully what follows will try an encapsulate what wasn’t just another day.

The Morning

A few of us have made trips like this before with the national or local club teams. The routine is the same. Everyone gathers at the designated meeting point, at the designated time, and everyone’s keyed up, full of anticipation and expectation. When we congregated at the Douglas Sea Terminal on Saturday morning at 6.30am those familiar emotions were evident, but this time with something a little bit extra.

This felt different. The smiles, greetings, and fist pumps were just a little more pronounced and perhaps a little more nervously expressed. This was the occasion of FC Isle of Man’s first ever league game and the excitement was palpable.

Ste Whitely, Dan Simpson, Ashley Higginbotham, Ryan Burns

The travelling entourage seemed huge as we waited to board Mananan. As well as the 16 players, that Manager Chris Bass had selected for the opening fixture, were his staff of five, including Lee Dixon, Andy ‘Gozz’ Gosnell, Dan Wade and our incomparable physio Ian Kelly, whose first job was to get the coffees in (Kel literally cannot function in any capacity without that first coffee of the day).

The brainchild of the club, Paul Jones, wore his usual look of concern, just waiting for some non-existent catastrophe or other to crop up and nervously flipped through his itinerary of events for the umpteenth time.

This writer and the remainder of the intrepid media team, Tom, Ed (our Social Media whizz kids) and Gary (our legendary club photographer) hit the ground running and immediately began to annoy all by demanding the first photos and videos that would enable us to document the day.

Vice Chair, Les Nicol came suited and booted, looking resplendent in his new FC Isle of Man badged tie, while the club Operations Co-ordinator, Mark Potts, was looking forward to two things, firstly not having to go onto a football pitch, and more importantly, getting to the venue to witness how his Maine Road FC counterparts fulfil their role and to pick up some tips for when our home games finally kick off.

The local media were in attendance too, including IOM Newspapers’ sports correspondent and podcast supremo, Andy Dalrymple. Andy was accompanied by Manx Radio’s Chris Cave and our sister Cycling Club team’s media co-ordinator and renowned cycling journalist, Sadhbh O’Shea.

The team itself looked impressive in their new travelling gear and caught the eye of various fellow passengers who were inquisitive about who we were, what we were about and wished us all the best for the game (hopefully we’ve gained a few new supporters there).

Also travelling with us were our six competition winners (Martin, Lee, Manolo, Gunther, Jonathan and James), randomly drawn from our official supporters list to accompany the team on this historic day. Martin and Lee were particularly excited when we spoke to them on the outward journey, but even they couldn’t match Manolo’s passion for FC Isle of Man when we spoke to him, or I will say we tried to speak to him as he answered the opening question, and seemingly with some foresight, all our other questions in one go, with passion and enthusiasm.

As well as the competition winners we were delighted to see many other supporters from the island on the boat with us and we were just as thrilled to see many ‘expat’ Manxies at Brantingham Lane when we finally arrived after a smooth and uneventful journey to the ground. Amongst that throng of ‘expats’ was Patrick Manning (son of former Island Manager, Kevin) who had travelled up from Nottingham, and Luke Gibson (now Assistant Manager of Northern Premier League club Trafford FC). ‘Gibby’ had come to have a look at how some of his ex-Island teammates were getting on (of which non were there – sorry Luke) and to give his good mate Arigo Sacchi, aka Gozz, a bit of stick.

The Maine Road FC officials and team were very welcoming as the Ravens players took to their pre-match walk around the expansive pitch. Meanwhile, Manolo’s enthusiasm continued to know no bounds as he attempted to attach a sizeable Manx flag to one of the Brantingham Road stands. With a concerted effort and help from his fellow competition winners, the flag (along with many others) was finally in place as the players came out to warm up and they looked relaxed and confident as Gozz put them through their paces.

Away fans tie Manx flag to Maine Road stands

By now we had also been joined by our parent Sporting Club chairman, Tony Keating, who like our vice-Chair was suited to the hilt, but sans the new executive club tie. Les soon sorted him out.

Tony’s arrival had been quickly followed by our Finance Director, Raj Nandha’s whirlwind appearance at the ground. Raj matches up quite well to Manolo on the enthusiasm front and had broken off, at the last minute, from an extensive tour of the UK to attend the match.

Finally, it came to the business end of the day and the nerves, amongst the officials and fans anyway, began to show as the two teams emerged from the dressing room. Ironically, as Tom and Ed tried to capture Paul’s thoughts at this historic moment, he broke into the biggest beaming smile we’ve seen from him over the last two years (don’t ever get too carried away Paul).

The Match

We started the game quite well and were on the front foot creating two decent half chances before Frank Jones (who else) scored FC Isle of Man’s first ever competitive goal after a lovely through ball from Ste Whitley, which split open the Sky Blues defence to allow Frank to slot home.

Frank Jones scores FC Isle of Man’s goal in 8th minute

However, the goal seemed to galvanise the Manchester based side and while they didn’t really trouble Dean Kearns’ goal, we were now being forced to defend much deeper. The Raven’s plight wasn’t helped at this juncture, as inspirational captain Jones had to be replaced on 20 minutes because of a knee injury.

Lee Gale replaced the skipper and nearly extended the lead when his side foot volley, from a Whitley cross, hit the cross bar, but despite this chance to extend our lead we were still having to defend more than we would like and seven minutes prior to half time Maine Road equalised with a sweet volley from 30 yards. Within minutes a speculative shot hammered back off the frame of Kearns’ goal and to add to the tension we lost a second player to injury right on half time as full back Sam Caine was injured in a tackle with the very tricky Sky Blues left winger. It would be fair to say there was an element of relief when the referee blew for half time.

Relief turned to calm (sort of) at the break as Raj enthusiastically (how else) scoured the ground for Steve Lamb who was in attendance representing our away kit sponsors. Raj quickly located Steve and we were able to unveil our new away kit and present replica versions of the shirt to our competition winners, who all subsequently wore them with pride for the remainder of the day.

During the break, Bass and Dixon had obviously calmed and re-organised the troops somewhat and we were back on the front foot from the restart. We were unlucky not to be given a penalty after Dan Simpson was clattered by the Sky Blues goalkeeper. Within minutes, midfield dynamo Sid Batty, hit a right foot thunderbolt just inches over the bar.

Then, just after the hour, we were awarded a penalty after Gale slipped in Simpson after lovely through ball from Ryan Burns which ended in Simpson being dragged down in the box. Sadly, Ste Whitley’s penalty was saved by the Maine Road ‘keeper. Despite this setback, the Ravens continued to pour forward, and a superb Luke Murray cross flashed across the face of the goal, only for the Sky-Blue right back to poke it away from the onrushing Michael Williams (who had just replaced Simpson) who seemed certain to tap in.

Ste Whitley’s penalty is saved by Maine Road goalkeeper

At this stage we were well on top, but the momentum was broken with 20 mins to go when a clash between Williams and the home team’s ‘keeper resulted in an eight minute stoppage to attend to what turned out to be a bad injury to the Maine Road player. The pause in the game gave the Sky Blues some respite from the constant pressure and when play resumed the game went into a form of stalemate. As the match entered the final eight added on minutes, the game reignited as the contest morphed into something which was more akin to basketball rather than football.

Each team now suddenly took turns to attack each other and the game became extremely stretched. In those mad eight minutes either team could easily have scored and even Paul expressed some ‘nervous’ emotion. Ultimately the game concluded all square, which was probably a fair result.

It says a lot about our players that to a man they were initially disappointed to have ‘only drawn’ their first ever league game at this level, until some wag reminded everyone, “hang on there’s another 37 of these.” At which point, spirits were raised again, and everyone’s thoughts began to look forward to the next game.

Manager Bass was pragmatic at the end. He’s a winner and is used to winning so there was a touch of that same disappointment as the players in not actually winning the match, but as he said in the aftermath, there was a lot to take from this game. “I said before we came here that we have no divine right to come over here and just start winning games straight off. We certainly had them on the back foot for the first ten minutes and we could have been out of sight if we had a bit more composure and made some better decisions. I thought we bossed the second half to be fair and we just needed to be a little more ruthless. I am happy with a point and happy that we’ve all had a great experience here today. Now we look forward to planning for next week’s game. That’s the beauty of playing in this league there’s a bunch of games to look forward to.”

The Trip Home

And so, we bid farewell and wished our hosts good luck for the remainder of the season and began the journey home (and Raj, returned to his UK tour in the same whirlwind fashion as he’d arrived). The mood on the coach back to Liverpool was upbeat as players, coaches, officials, and supporters reviewed the day’s events, there were smiles, giggles, outright laugher (probably Manolo), and just a generally good feeling.

The mood quietened as we boarded the Manannan for the final leg back to the Isle of Man and a long, emotional, enjoyable and historic day drew to a close.

We can’t wait for the next one and guess what? It’s only five days away!

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