Saturday 16th Dec 2006
North West Counties Division One Congleton Town 2 Salford City 3 HT 2-1 Att: 128
At two o’clock on Saturday I still hadn’t decided between Nantwich Town v Curzon Ashton or Congleton Town v Salford City, both in the North West Counties League Division One and both top of the table clashes; all four teams in contention for promotion to the Unibond First. I plumped for Congleton’s Booth Street. As it was Nantwich’s last season at Jackson Avenue I thought I’d leave that one for their last ever game there.
Congleton is a fairly affluent and pleasant little town, home to a lot of Manchester commuters. It is often referred to as Beartown and their team is nicknamed the bears. This stems from the slightly apocryphal story that during Elizabethan times when bear baiting was a popular sport, the town sold its bible for a bear. Apparently this isn’t quite true, though. In about 1620 the town had an old decrepit bear that wasn’t much of a crowd puller, so decided to spend the money set aside for a new town bible, on a new town bear instead, a lean mean high quality bear capable of bringing in the crowds, as a kind of investment. Heathens!
As for the football team, they were formed in 1901 and joined the Cheshire League in 1920, remaining in various Cheshire leagues until the early eighties when they joined the NW Counties League. Between 1987 and 2001 they played in the Northern Premier; since then they have been in the North West counties. They were lying in 8th position, having slipped down in recent games, and desperately needed a win against today’s opponents, who were lying in 2nd. Salford City could’ve gone top with a win and overtake their neighbours, FC United of Manchester.
The Booth Street ground lies in a quiet estate near the centre of Congleton. It has a nice, comfortable main stand holding just over 200, which is in contrast to the general dilapidation in evidence in the rest of the ground. Further down on the left of the main stand is a sturdy bus shelter type cover over a two step terrace.
The other long side is just standing behind the perimeter bar and the dug outs. Behind the other goal is the same, except a natural grassy bank has potential for a few hundred supporters in theory. I had read of plans for a new stand along the side opposite the main stand, but I’m not sure whether that is still the plan or if it fell through. Behind the grassy knoll behind one of the goals is a wall backing onto some back gardens. I saw one bloke quite blatantly scramble into the ground over this wall, thus saving himself £5. Whether him and others like him were included in the 128 crowd, I don’t know.
There were a large number of Salford City fans about, with their dark blue scarves and hats on. One Booth Street regular said, in the queue for drinks at half-time, that he reckoned there were more of them than there were Bears fans. If this were true then that would be an impressive following. On the subject of refreshments the coffee was a tad pricey at 90p in comparison to similar venues that I’d visited recently; Market Drayton 50p and Buxton 70p.
Aside from its shabbiness, the ground had a good feel to it. In fact, it was its shabbiness that gave it character, as in the defunct turnstile lying in one corner of the ground next to what looked like somebody’s overspilling shed. In the earlier picture of the covered terrace you can see a ladder resting against the corrugated roof behind the goal. I guessed that the ladder had been left there as a semi-permanent fixture for retrieving balls.
I liked the board room too, a small white portacabin. The goal nets were quite shabby too. I liked the style of them a lot. They were unusual; white stanchions and nets strung back a long way past the back of the stanchions. The nets looked ready to spring some holes though and wondered whether any goals might roll under and out the back of the net, like in traditional school matches.
Salford started off the more lively and confident side, several times going close, noticeably with a close range header that was well saved. Towards the half hour mark Congleton started to wake up a bit and opened the scoring with a nice firm 20 yard chip over the keeper and into the bottom corner from Williams, on the left of the penalty area, having been set up from the left winger. A few minutes later a low shot from Congleton went just wide but then on 34 minutes it was 2-0 – Johnson on the right outran the Salford left back to leave himself one-on-one with the keeper and buried it low in the net. Buoyed from these two goals, Congleton really should have put the game beyond Salford, but they weren’t helped by a dubious penalty decision on 43 minutes. From a curled in free kick ( where a Salford player was apparently offside) the ref pointed to the spot for pushing. A low drive to the right fooled the Town keeper.
The second half saw Salford push for an equaliser which made for an entertaining, open game. Congleton’s poor finishing let them down when they really should have gone 3-1 up. Salford, too, had a lot of chances, and brilliant saves from the Bears keeper off a fierce volley, close range header and one-on-one situation, kept Congleton in the lead. However, Salford’s equaliser was always on the cards. A corner was only cleared to the edge of the box, where Robinson took a touch to the left and banged it in the net for 2-2.
The game could have gone either way in an exciting and wide open last 15 minutes, but somehow Salford’s last gasp winner was almost inevitable. They exuded an unwavering confidence and belief in themselves, indicative of a team flying high and riding on a wave of good form and confidence. Teams with this attitude always seem to get the breaks in any league. And what a break it was today. In the fourth minute of injury time the ref pulled back play for a free kick despite having previously waved play on. A twenty five yard free kick was hammered ferociously at the keeper, who could only parry it, and the rebound was smashed in by Moses. There was much whooping from the Salford bench and the celebrations around the ground led me to believe that the bloke in the coffee queue was right.
Just 5 minutes before, Congleton had missed the biggest chance of the game to win it. A woeful back pass by Salford, played square across goal, landed at the feet of an onrushing attacker. He just needed to kick it in the net. Instead he vacillated interminably, waiting and hoping for the right moment, until the keeper just picked it up. It was agonising to watch, even for a neutral. It must have been a cringeworthy teeth-gnashingly awful moment for the regulars. The winner was handed to them on a plate, but in the same way as things go right when you’re on your uppers, things go like that when your confidence is a bit down. I did feel for the Bears at the final whistle. They really should’ve had a lot more from the game, but at least I know it’s not just the Albion that can throw games so consummately!