By Adam Shergold
The first two articles in this series featured Champions League ties but Adam’s opted for a game a lot closer to home. This game from last year was pivotal in Boston’s promotion back to the Conference North. Look out for the wonderful show of appreciation and respect between the two sets of fans after the final whistle. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamjshergold and read more from him at his excellent blog More in Hope than Expectation which describes the joy and anguish of following Boston United.
I fully expect my favourite match to look out of place on this page. There’s no delusions of grandeur here, no international superstars and it most definitely was not watched by millions. The attendance is only in four figures, the players involved all have tedious day jobs and the camera work in the video below is frankly awful. There was silverware at stake, yes, but it was arranged by Unibond, not UEFA.
It’s a selection which features my team, Boston United, at a crucial moment in last season’s (ultimately successful) promotion push. The team’s return to the Conference North, achieved through the play-offs, ran parallel to the last year of my undergraduate studies at York, so the joy of United’s success nicely counterbalanced the stress of finals.
I thought long and hard before choosing this particular game. My main criteria was that it must be a game I attended and there’s certainly been plenty to choose from, as I’ve followed the side home and away for quite a few years now. The 2-0 win at Hayes which secured promotion to the Football League in 2002 would have been the obvious choice. I was there, of course, but felt an imposter having not attended many matches that season.
There were five years in the Football League, when grounds were visited which actually had proper stands, seats and people to sit in them, but away days typically ended in defeat and demoralisation. More recently, I’ve gained great satisfaction from seeing an 89th minute winner at Buxton, a surging comeback at Guiseley or a scrambled equaliser at Telford but they all somehow seemed run-of-the-mill. This needed to be a game which was at the same time crucial, dramatic and glorious.
Boston were stalking Guiseley at the top of the Unibond Northern Premier and this penultimate game of the season, at a sun-bathed York Street, was must-win. Losing was unthinkable if automatic promotion was to be gained on the final day away at Marine, and the lottery of the play-offs avoided. The fact this was our biggest game of the season – FC United enjoyed far-and-away the biggest crowds in the division, as well they might – only added to the spectacular sense of occasion.
And come they did. With their red and black flags, their green and gold protest scarves, their awesome repertoire of songs and their smoke flares. But the Boston public came too – 2,500 to be precise, by far the largest attendance since the dizzy heights of League Two. The hardcore in the Spayne Road terrace were bouncing. I was in amongst them. The scene was set.
FCUM were playing only for pride but hadn’t read the script. Just four minutes in, Jerome Wright lined up a 30-yard free-kick. The ground held its breath. Wright dispatched the set-piece into the top corner with the technique of a son of Sao Paulo, not Wythenshawe.
The next 60-odd minutes were a kind of purgatory. We were playing the creative, passing football (by non-league standards) but the chances, for some reason, just weren’t coming. The players seemed shell-shocked, suddenly paralysed by fear with the finish line in sight. The travelling support delighted in our stasis. We tried to lift the players but FCUM held firm – Mark Ayres and David Chadwick at the back might as well have been Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Our energy ebbed away, the ground fell silent but for the sounds of nails being chewed. Time ticked down.
In a flash, the sterling work of our management duo of Rob Scott and Paul Hurst was becoming worthless, the freezing nights of winter stood on terraces at places like Stocksbridge Park Steels, Ashton United and Kendal Town seemed pointless. All that time and money.
But, suddenly, from the most unlikely source came salvation. Less than 20 minutes remained when Lee Canoville, our centre-back, ghosted to the edge of the penalty area as Jamie Yates flicked in a cross from the left. By his own admission, Canoville would clear the stand nine times out of ten but, with impeccable timing, he swivelled and lashed the ball into the net. And with his left foot. The relief which surged around the ground is indescribable.
Bodies recharged, United swarmed forward again and, seven minutes later, Anthony Church connected sweetly with Spencer Weir-Daley’s ball to find the roof of the net. The scenes of celebration at this invaluable goal will remain with me forever – I had the bruises on my hands for weeks afterwards from swinging on the rafters.
The noise was now deafening and as we finally found the courage to sing “We are going up,” Weir-Daley rolled in the third. Danny Davidson, who like Weir-Daley had been outstanding all season, added a fourth in stoppage time.
Hundreds spilled onto the pitch at the final whistle, the players were mobbed and there was a wonderful moment of mutual appreciation with the FCUM fans. Just two-and-a-half years after the club was rescued at the eleventh hour from extinction, this small, forgotten corner of Lincolnshire had experienced another finest hour.
P.S. Boston blew their chance at automatic promotion the following weekend. In a cruel but accurate reflection of the team’s last few years, they produced a flat, nervy performance in a 0-0 at Marine. It was another seven days before the champagne could be uncorked, with a 2-1 play-off final win at Bradford Park Avenue.
If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more.
Much of it was made up of home grown players who are now household names such as: Danny Blind, Frank & Ronald de Boer, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars, Clarence Seedorf, Edwin van der Sar etc there were also players acquired from abroad like Jari Litmanen, Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu.
After seeing that a number of other blogs have thrown their pages open to contributions from others, I’ve decided to do something similar. A number of fantastic series have been posted including My Favourite Footballer by The Equaliser, Sporting Heroes by Talking Sports and My Favourite Goal by GhostGoal. I’ve really enjoyed reading and contributing to these features and thought it would be intriguing to host one of my own. ‘My Favourite Match’ seemed the most logical idea.
It can be any game from any era and it can be your favourite game for any reason. Perhaps it was a high-scoring thriller with both sides racking up the goals. Maybe it was a cup shock where a team defied all the odds in a once in a lifetime result. It could even be a one-sided affair where the victorious side simply demolished the opposition. It doesn’t have to be the team you support and it can be a national side or a club team.
I will (presuming I can find highlights of the game) post a video of the highlights under the article and links to people’s Twitter and blogs so I can promote your own work too.
There’s no time limit on contributing to the series and no restrictions on word length. It can be a short description of why that game was your favourite or it can be a detailed tactical breakdown of the game’s key moments.
The response on Twitter has been great so far so I’ll try to leave it open for a few months and try to put a couple up each week.
You can get in touch with me via the comments section, via Twitter @liamblackburn or via email firstname.lastname@example.org . If you send me a comment, tweet or email with your idea first I can get an idea of which matches people want to cover and hopefully avoid duplicates.
To get the ball rolling I’ve done a piece on My Favourite Match – Juventus 2 v 3 Manchester United 1999
Comebacks have become a trademark of Manchester United in the Sir Alex Ferguson era and never were they more prevalent than this historic season. But this was perhaps the most improbable of them all.
Their domination on the domestic stage was already well established but Europe remained a very different proposition. There was a mystical element around Europe. The Champions League remained a holy grail that just seemed out of Ferguson and United’s reach.
The night itself had all the trimmings of a majestic European night from the misty backdrop to the glorious roars of the Bianconeri’s fans. The rest of Europe seemed considerably more intimidating for English sides in this era.
The mission statement was clear for United. After conceding at Old Trafford the tie was level at 1-1 but Juve’s vital away goal meant United had to at least score. United were well versed in the art of uphill battles, even so, falling behind to two Filippo Inzaghi goals inside eleven minutes appeared catastrophic.
Juventus’ team had an unmistakable aura around them. At the time, there wasn’t that sort of invincibility around United or other English sides in Europe that was to be ushered in during the next decade. When it came to proficient, effective European displays, English sides seemed to be tactically naïve. In stark contrast, Juventus were masters on the European stage. Under Marcelo Lippi they had made the previous three Champions League finals. Furthermore they’d bossed United for large periods at Old Trafford and there was little to suggest that proceedings would be different on Italian soil.
At 2-0 down the outcome should have been obvious. But as we’d seen time and time again and would continue to see, United’s resolve was unbreakable. Nobody typified this more than Roy Keane and this night proved to be his finest in a red shirt.
Keane was booked in the first half and so would miss the final but he remained undeterred. Ferguson would later lavish praise on his captain:
“It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass competing if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player”.
It was Keane whose header got United back in the game and when Dwight Yorke got an equaliser shortly afterwards, United were suddenly in pole position to advance on away goals.
This game adopted a precarious nature with it tentatively poised at 2-2 until late on but both sides had excellent chances. United hit the post twice and the offside flag denied Inzaghi a hat-trick. There was never a question of United sitting back and trying to hold out. It was both a reflection of their attacking prowess and their culpability to concede. They’d scored twenty goals in the group stages that year but had also conceded eleven. At 2-2, United were going through on away goals, yet both Yorke and Cole remained on the pitch. Such a move may be considered bold now but it paid dividends when they combined for a third. Yorke bundled through into the area only to be scythed down by goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi before Cole slotted home. They were on their way to Barcelona which turned out to be an even more memorable and dramatic evening.
United have had more resounding victories but not many more important. Back in 1999, a victory in Italy was a collector’s item for English teams whereas today they are almost common place. This was a breakthrough moment for Ferguson and his men. By beating Juventus in their own backyard, after falling two goals behind, nothing looked beyond that United team. Of course that year, it wasn’t.
“I have been wounded but not yet slain. I shall lie here and bleed awhile. Then I shall rise and fight again. The title of champion may from time to time fall to others more than ourselves. But the heart, the spirit and the soul of champions remains in Green Bay”
There’s something very enchanting about the Green Bay Packers. Perhaps it is their first two Super Bowl wins. Perhaps it is their association with Vince Lombardi, a pioneer and an inspiration, his name now adorns the trophy that the Super Bowl winners are awarded. Perhaps it is Lambeau Field, a stadium with a rich heritage, always packed to the rafters.
But rather than harking back to the glory days, the current crop of Packers have much to celebrate after overcoming the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV.
What was most remarkable about the Packers winning it all this year was the sheer number of injuries they incurred. In total, 15 players were placed on the injured reserve list, a staggering figure.
Injuries are a part of the NFL, there’s no getting away from that. But the Packers more than most suffered this season and it’s what makes their accomplishment even more remarkable.
The Packers roster revelled in the next man up principle, meaning injuries were rarely felt in the way they could easily have been. Michael Lombardi said on NFL Network that (with the exception of Jermichael Finley):
“The one thing about this Packer team every injury they had, the player that stepped up actually might have played better than the one who got injured”.
The loss of Finley and running back Ryan Grant early on threatened to derail the Packers’ post-season aspirations. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers stated after the Super Bowl victory that this team would be considerably stronger when Finley returned. Finley is widely respected throughout the league and considered by many to be the best tight end out there.
Taking away two of the biggest offensive weapons had limited impact on the Packers. Although Aaron Rodgers missed a small part of the season he was to remain fit when it mattered and with the wealth of talent at his disposal, Green Bay never faltered.
Crucially they also kept a steady offensive line to protect their most valuable asset. The bookends of Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga were particularly important. Bulaga had a terrific rookie season and Clifton, who was sorely missed last year, earned a Pro Bowl call up.
On defense too the whole roster got a work out with a number of injuries hampering the Packers. Aaron Kampman departed this off-season and so the Packers won’t have been pleased that the linebacking core was depleted further with Nick Barnett, Brady Poppinga, Brandon Chillar and Spencer Havner all ending the season on IR.
In the Super Bowl, the Steelers’ experience far outweighed the Packers’, so to lose a veteran of the calibre of Charles Woodson was devastating to Green Bay. But just like they had done all year, they persevered.
The truth strength of the Packers cannot be attributed to a single player on that roster. In every part of the game, the Packers excelled and with a depleted roster, there can be little doubt that the thing which set them apart from every other team was their strength in depth.
Their defense was the second best in overall points conceded (interestingly enough, the Steelers were the best) and fifth in yards per game. They were second in sacks, interceptions and touchdowns.
On offense, they ranked ninth in total yards, fifth in passing yards, fourth in passing touchdowns and eighth in third down conversions. They were continually lauded through the off-season for their red-zone conversion percentage, even more impressive considering their first choice running back and tight end were sidelined.
And little was made of the fact that they did it all on the road. They demolished the Falcons who have been virtually untouchable at the Georgia Dome under Matt Ryan’s stewardship. They ran all over the Eagles with an unknown rookie running back and they held on against a resolute Bears defense.
So if we take into account their strengths across the board, if we consider the multitude of injuries they’ve had to contend with and if we acknowledge that their on-field chief and current Super Bowl MVP may be the most in-form player in the league right now, the future looks very bright for the Packers.
The average age of their roster (25.88 years) is below the league’s average (26.04) and it speaks volumes that their better performers this post-season Clay Matthews (24), B.J. Raji (24), Tramon Williams (27), James Starks (24) and Aaron Rodgers (27) have plenty more years left in the tank.
Don’t bet against the Packers repeating.
“Effort without talent is depressing but talent without effort is a tragedy”
I remember watching an America’s Game recently (which chronicles the season of the Super Bowl winning teams or the best teams never to win the trophy) which featured the 1981 San Diego Chargers. Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow explained just why the diminutive running back Hank Bauer played such an important role on that team.
“You have to have a Hank Bauer on your football team, an overachiever. Because then it forces people who were gifted, you know that natural ability, to ask themselves, why am I not working harder? He’s a guy who pushes everybody else”.
Bauer wasn’t blessed with athletic ability. There were others in his position that had the raw attributes, others that were technically better. But because he worked harder and because he wanted it more he became just as important as the star names.
I thought of Bauer yesterday when Gary Neville was described by many as an ‘overachiever’. For nearly two decades, Neville has held down a right-back berth at one of the world’s most successful clubs and on top of that he has amassed 85 caps for his country.
I can fully understand the ‘overachiever’ tag but it could be seen as too simplistic. It suggests that Neville was more of a passenger during Manchester United’s two decades of dominance. It proposes that he didn’t deserve all the accolades.
But Neville’s biggest strengths were those which could not be visibly seen. He possessed a burning desire, a winning mentality and his game lent itself to natural leadership. He also had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, for knowing when to attack and when to defend. He wasn’t blessed with searing speed or a bulking frame like a Micah Richards; he didn’t have an evergreen engine like a Gareth Bale or a Cafu. But mentally, Neville possessed all the traits that are typical of a Manchester United player in the Sir Alex Ferguson era yet they are often overlooked by many.
Was Neville an overachiever? Perhaps. But then this is no bad thing, in fact it should be revered. Many players waste the talents they have and the sport’s stars who punch above their weight should be celebrated.
When people look back at the Manchester United and England sides of Neville’s generation they will wax lyrical about Beckham, Scholes, Shearer and Rooney and with good reason.
But you need a Gary Neville on your football team, an overachiever. Because it forces people who were gifted to ask themselves, why am I not working harder? He’s a guy who pushes everybody else.