The manager has picked a largely youthful team for the NWCFL First Division Challenge Cup campaign. Steve Burns looks back on an arguably unexpected, but pleasantly surprising cup run.
Just when we thought it was all over, they pulled us back in. After the euphoria of the Play Off final win and the prize of promotion that came with it, we now find ourselves back at the Bowl on Saturday afternoon with an opportunity to win our first trophy as a club. Yes, we were presented with a cup after the Play Off final, but ultimately that was for second place; Saturday is all about winning a competition outright!
It’s fair to say that back in March when the First Division Challenge Cup started and we travelled to Cheadle Town for our first game in the competition our focus at the time was very much on reaching the play off places, and Manager, Chris Bass, deliberately took the opportunity to take a young and inexperienced side to Cheshire.
It was a chance for Chris and Lee to give some playing time to those lads who had not played as much as they would have liked during the league season and to provide some valuable experience to our exciting youngsters who have been training hard with the squad all season. In that opening second round tie (we’d been given a bye in the first), something must have rubbed off from the form of the ‘league’ team, and ‘the kids’ took their opportunity with both hands, as goals from Nathan Cardy and new signing Ronan McDonnell put us into the next round.
By the time we played Sandbach United in round three, just two days after that fantastic Play Off final win, many of us in the club were probably of the opinion that it would be the team’s last game of the season. We were wrong, very wrong. Yet again our young players (now complemented by the veteran magician that is Ste Whitley) showed great character, this time coming from behind to win 2-1 with goals from another new signing Jamie Corlett and a left foot rasper from that man McDonnell to set up a quarter final with Division One (North) Darwen.
The trip to North Lancashire was a little bit of a journey into the unknown for the young Ravens, as well as the club as a whole. Darwen, while being our NWCFL Division One counterparts, played in the Northern division, thus we had no pregame intel’ and had no idea what we would be up against. By the end of the game, any concerns were totally forgotten as the youngsters romped through with an emphatic 4-1 win with goals from Cardy, Adam ‘the Headband’ Cooil, and a brace from the magician.
Following the play off final, we had literally shut ourselves out of the Bowl, thinking it would be pre-season before we stepped out onto the hallowed (astro) turf again. However, the semi-final draw was favourable, and we were thrilled to be able to welcome back the hordes of Ravens fans for a last four tie against Holker Old Boys. This would prove to be a tough encounter. The Cumbrians had finished second in Division One (North) but had lost in the playoffs on penalties (to a team that they had finished 12 points ahead of during the regular season), and they were desperately looking to end their season on a high.
In the build up to that semi-final local media pundits were asking the question, with a trophy so close, whether the Ravens Manager would bring back the ‘big guns’ for this one? Bass however, stuck to his guns, kept the faith and indeed it was the youngsters (and Whitley) who paraded on to the Bowl at 6.25pm two weeks ago. By now, the kids (and Whitley) were a fully united group and did not let their manager down. After being largely outplayed in the first half, and again going behind, this time to a trick corner, the young Ravens bounced back in the second half. Man of the Match Jamie Corlett smashed home the equaliser just after the restart, before Nathan Cardy tapped in the winner with just two minutes to go to send the Bowl into the raptures we thought we’d seen the last of this season.
So here we are taking on Cammell Laird 1907 in tomorrow afternoon’s final. Laird’s have been on three fantastic cup runs themselves recently. Last month they won the Wirral Senior Cup, and as well as reaching today’s First Division Challenge Cup Final, they also reached the final of the Macron Cup (before succumbing last Saturday to Charnock Richard FC).
Laird’s run to this weekend’s final has seen it’s fair amount of drama too. In the second round, two penalties from Kieran Hamm and Joe Downey overcame Barnton 2-1 at Laird’s Prabhu Ventures Ltd Arena
As they prepared for a third-round tie at home to Stafford Town, they were awarded a walk over as the opponent withdrew from the competition. Thus, this ultimately progressed the Merseysiders to the quarter final at fellow ‘south’ league rivals Wythenshawe Amateurs. It was a dramatic game in which the hosts raced into 2-0 lead within the opening 12 minutes. Laird’s Jay Harvey steadied the ship just prior to the break, before the same player equalised from the spot on the hour. The game looked to be heading to extra time, before Harvey completed a ‘man of the match’ performance by clinching his hat trick. Substitute Kieron Frost applied the coup de grace in the last-minute seal an exciting 4-2 victory.
If the quarter final for Laird’s was dramatic, it had nothing on the semi-final. Drawn at home against ‘North’ Division Ilkley Town, Laird’s yet again had to come from behind. Their league top scorer Kieran Hamm equalised an early Ilkley goal on half time before the visitors retook the lead just after the break. Ryan Smith then restored parity for Laird’s to send the semi-final tie into a dreaded penalty competition. There were no complaints from Cammell Laird however as they triumphed 5-4 in the subsequent shoot out to reach the final.
Without a doubt, both teams have certainly had their fair share of drama on the road to Saturday’s final and it should make for a fantastic match. Remember too, that back in February the Merseysiders were one of only four teams to come away from the Bowl unbeaten so Chris and his young side will know that they will have a real challenge on their hands if they are to get their hands on that trophy come 4.45pm on Saturday afternoon.