Ilkeston FC 3-1 FC United [NPL Premier division, New Manor Ground]

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After their barnstorming finish to the previous season, which saw them win 13 of their final 15 matches, only to miss out on the top spot by a whisker (before losing out to Ashton United in the play-offs), the start of the Rebels’ new campaign had been marred by frustration and disappointment. They had failed, so far, to capitalise on the momentum generated in the spring, and though they had begun the season as favourites to win the title – no fallen giants to contend with, this time (such as Halifax Town, champions in 2011; or Chester, champions in 2012), no rich men’s toys (such as Bradford Park Avenue, play-off winners in 2012; or Fylde, play-off winners over Ashton last year), no feeder clubs soaking up the patronage of their local Football League institution (such as North Ferriby United, champions in 2013, and the beneficiaries of major investment from Hull City chairman Assem Allam) – results had been poor, and moreover, the quality of some of the football had begun to elicit muttering in the stands. When the going got rough, there were a few too many long balls being launched up the field for some peoples’ liking, and they were beginning to say so.

The problem was draws – they kept drawing games. In fact the first four matches of the season had ended all square, and by the beginning of October they’d drawn 6 of their first 10.  The fact that the Rebels had been unable to overcome lowly, newly-promoted Belper, just as they were strong enough to earn a home point against aspiring Buxton, pointed up the inconsistency of Karl Marginson’s side. Defeats to Frickley Athletic on September 16 (a wretched 4-1 humbling at the hands of the division’s bottom placed club); Lancaster City on September 27 (forcing the Rebels’ elimination from the FA Cup at the first hurdle, at the hands of lower league opposition); and at home to league leaders Skelmersdale United on October 14 (an agonising last minute winner handing the west Lancashire side the points) soured the milk still further. The latter result, which left United adrift of the play-off places and 12 points off the pace, prompted one disenchanted fan to leap out and offer Marginson the benefit of a gob-full of abuse – a new development at a club where the manager was generally revered, irrespective of how his team was performing, and at which politesse was usually observed.

Was it the new players, the new blood, the changes since the close season? That was hard to say. Marginson’s most pressing problem had been the need to replace centre backs Tom Davies and Charlie Raglan following their departures to Football League clubs. A more unexpected addendum to that was the exit of the club’s other main centre back, Adam Jones, a former fans’ player of the season, who had in recent months returned from a long term achilles injury. Jones had found himself substituted before half time during a league encounter with Ashton United towards the end of the campaign, following a frustrated, ill-tempered display which had seen him exposed by the pace of Ashton’s attack, and on the verge of earning himself a red card. After that, he wasn’t seen again for the remainder of the season, and when he subsequently left the club it gave rise to the suspicion that Marginson thought he wasn’t the same player in the aftermath of the injury. Then again, maybe the quality of Davies and Raglan, in the year they had spent at the club, had served to make Jones look inferior, to some extent, by comparison. Perhaps the towering defender’s positional sense, and his occasional susceptibility to the ball in behind, had led the manager to have a rethink about this much-loved member of the squad (his 19 goals in 107 appearances for the club during his three year tenure – a significant return for a centre-back, underlining his value in attacking, as well as defending, corner kicks and set-pieces – would certainly be missed). When his departure was announced, though, it was stressed that the decision had been Jones’s own. He subsequently took up a full time post as head of community work at his new club, Nantwich Town, so perhaps there was a little less to the whole affair than originally met the eye. 

Also to leave were wingers Nelson Mota and Astley Mullholand, and left-back Lee Neville, who were released by the club in early September – in order, Marginson claimed, not entirely convincingly, to make room for younger faces. Mota, a quick-footed Frenchman acquired from Salford City in 2013, had never really established himself in the first team, having been found a little lightweight, a little too easily knocked off the ball. Mulholland, by contrast, had enjoyed a couple of spells at United, the second arguably more successful than the first: his service and decision-making, amidst the pelting sorties he made along the flanks, seemed to improve, second time around, to an altogether more productive end, and as a consequence Marginson seemed to pick him more, or at least deploy him as an impact sub. His goal in the 2012 play-off semi final against Chorley, cutting in from the left before lifting the ball dynamically into the roof of the net from a tight angle, would be widely remembered. But it was the departure of Neville, the brooding blonde left-back with the rodenty, Steve McQueen glower about his chops, that elicited sentiment the most. A fixture over four seasons, Neville had made nearly 200 appearances for the club, before finding his position usurped by teammate Jerome Wright, as Marginson switched to a five man defence and Wright converted from a winger to a wing-back. It was without question the Middleton boy’s misfortune to be replaced by a player of such considerable talent: quick (he may have lost half a yard since his return from Chester but he was still highly nimble), capering, multi-skilled, strong in the tackle…there was something about Jerome Wright which was expansive in everything he did. There was a bigness to his game, an extroversion. The way he fronted up. The way he exerted influence over the course of play. The way he took the game to the opposition, whether in defence or in attack. The way he brought the ball out into the opposition half, as if the possibilities multiplied with every yard he took. Wright was simply a better all-round footballer, a very fine footballer indeed at this level. He also wasn’t a cross patch like Lee Neville.

Neville wasn’t universally admired, but he would, nonetheless, be fondly recalled: putting out fires with fierce, lancing challenges, like a man trying roughly to pick a lock. Steering the ball to safety like a bad tempered schoolteacher shepherding a kindergarten class across the road. Advancing along the touchline with the Gigg Lane sun in his ducklingy, straw-coloured hair. Slinging over crosses and diagonal balls shaped at Greaves’s stride, or Wolfenden’s inward run, or Norton’s doughball noggin. Covering at centre back with the steel and assurance of a man six inches bigger and broader. Disporting himself shamelessly in lurid yellow Nikes before coloured boots began to be fashionable.

And sometimes – just sometimes – showing great elegance in turning opposition full backs this way and that when venturing forth into enemy territory. He was, after all, a converted winger himself.

He would be remembered, too, for his short fuse (though his disciplinary record improved), and perhaps for such moments as the one at North Ferriby in 2012, when, dismissed from the pitch for some overzealous arm-throwing deemed too dangerous by the referee to permit him to continue, he turned at the touchline, situated as we were on the lip of the Humber estuary with a North Sea wind blowing in, and – seemingly addressing the ref, the linesman, his aggrieved victim and his aggrieved victim’s teammates all at once – spat into the night air: “Youse are all scousers!

Centre backs came in. Andy Pearson and Shaun Connor returned for second spells at the club but Connor picked up an injury within 13 minutes of the opening match of the season, while Pearson was sent off in the second, after which he seemed to lose his place in the side. Chris Lynch arrived on loan from Conference outfit Southport and established himself in the No. 5 shirt for a few weeks, before Lewis Lacy, the former Moston Junior who had made brief cameos the previous season, forced his way into the side. The new mainstays seemed to be James Knowles, 31, an experienced campaigner who had captained Bradford Park Avenue to their play-off final victory over FC in 2012; and Luke Ashworth, a 6’3’’ left-sided centre back brought in from Hyde. Ashworth had in his early days tasted Football League action at both Rotherham and Leyton Orient, and at 24 was said to be ambitious for a return to full time football. Unusually for this level of the game he had his own website, detailing his strengths in his designated role (“Good in the air…Comfortable on the ball.”) Perhaps the exposure generated by some strong performances at a highly visible club like FC would prove the springboard back into the big leagues for him, just as it had been for Davies and Raglan the year before.

Having opted to retain the three-at-the-back system with which FC had had such success in the second half of the previous season – there had been a flirtation with going back to 4-4-2 in September – Marginson today persisted with Knowles (centre), Ashworth (left) and Lacy (right) as his defensive trio, with Liam Browhill and Jerome Wright continuing in the wing-back roles. So far this season the back line had proved reasonably parsimonious in the chances afforded to opposition forwards – 13 goals conceded in the 13 league games played so far suggested that as a unit they were bedding in, even if results hadn’t quite been up to scratch. On this occasion, however, the Rebels’ defence was not to be presented in its most favourable aspect.

There were more new arrivals further up the field, in the form of right-sided midfielder/ winger Craig Lindfield, 26, from Chester, who had looked lively before suffering a medial ligament tear in the Buxton game back in August, a setback from which he was scheduled shortly to return; and the left-sided midfielder/ winger Andy Welsh, 30 years old and seemingly something of a coup for Marginson, following a recommendation from a friend, the former Everton and Bradford striker, Danny Cadamarteri. For Welsh, a Manchester-born, Manchester United-supporting wide man, had a pedigree unmatched by any FC United player in its history so far: he had played in the Premiership, no less, for Sunderland, almost a decade earlier, before stints at Leicester City, Blackpool and Yeovil in the Championship, and a season over in Canada at Toronto FC. The player himself professed to be excited, and not dismayed, about the challenges presented at this level of football, while for their part the fans had taken him quickly to their hearts, rewarding him in record time with his own song. “I’m excited about playing here for these supporters,” Welsh revealed in an interview for the match day programme. “I think I am going to thrive on that kind of support and in that kind of atmosphere.”

And so to Derbyshire. Ilkeston, it was widely perceived, were a club going places. Like the Rebels, they found themselves outside the leading pack as they went into this game (in 8th place) but they were reputed to have some exciting young talent who played neat, attacking football. In particular there was the left-sided wing-back Kieran Wallace, 19, who, it was known, was being tracked by a host of Football League clubs; there was Kane Richards, 20, a converted winger who now played mostly through the middle, who had scored at Gigg Lane back in February and was reckoned to be one of the quickest players in the league; and then there was Che Adams, 18, the ace in the pack, and the pride of the club’s youth academy: strong, fast, raw, a finisher with 5 goals to his name, already, from just a handful of appearances this season. Adams’s progress for the Robins was being monitored by a legion of scouts, it was said; it was only a matter of time before he would move on to bigger and brighter things.

This investment in youth was now the beating heart of the club – following its rebirth (as Ilkeston FC) from the ashes of its former incarnation (Ilkeston Town FC), after the latter was wound up by the taxman back in 2010. To the rescue had come businessman Dave Mantle, whose company, a specialist training provider called SR Education, was at the centre of the reboot. The company took over Ilkeston Town’s assets; manager Kevin Wilson (an ex Chelsea and Northern Ireland striker) was kept on; a youth academy was established; and £100 000 was spent on purpose built classrooms at the club’s New Manor Ground stadium. Ilkeston, it was decided, would develop their own players, picking up rejects from the academies at local Football League clubs such as Derby County, Coventry and Nottingham Forest: offering them training and qualifications to equip them for a life outside football, nurturing their talents on the pitch, and selling the better ones back to the bigger clubs having moulded and reconditioned them away from the cut-throat cattle markets of the major academies.

By “going young”, as the club liked to put it, the future of Ilkeston Football Club would be cemented.

FC United, of course, had their own academy, established in association with Manchester College in 2013, but so far there had been few breakthroughs into the first XI from within the youth ranks (an exception being Lewis Lacy). Here it was different. Here there was a first team dominated by raw, hungry rookies, each of them training in the mornings under the guidance of ex-Nottingham Forest legend Steve Chettle, and studying in the afternoons for BTECs and NVQs in Dave Mantle’s classrooms, on site at the New Manor Ground, or pursuing apprenticeships in Business Administration, Health and Social Care Management or Customer Service Skills. There was Che Adams, of course. There was Chettle’s son Callum, 18, midfield. There was right-back Luke Shaw, also 18. There was centre-back Matt Baker, 20.  And on top of that there was a sprinkling of recruits poached from the higher leagues: centre back Jack Lane, 21, formerly of Macclesfield Town; left wing-back James Reid, 24, a classy-looking left foot specialist and fans’ favourite, once of Nottingham Forest; and the old man of the club, Rob Duffy, 31, a striker recently arrived from Kings Lynn Town who had Football League experience at Newport, Wrexham and Oxford United.

The previous season had seen a contrasting pair of encounters between the two sides: a see-sawing 3-3 draw at the New Manor Ground at the beginning of January, followed by a comfortable 4-1 victory for United back at Gigg Lane the following month. That campaign – the Robins’ first in the NPL Premier following promotion from NPL division 1 – had seen the Derbyshire outfit finish an unconvincing 17th in the table. This time out – on the evidence of today, at least – they looked much more the part.

Those young players were coming of age.

United, in contrast to their hosts, were an experienced crew: in goal, Dave Carnell (29), and in front of him Brownhill (27), Wright (28), Knowles (31), Ashworth (24) and Lacy (19). With Mike Norton (33) chosen to lead the line, Welsh (30) drifting in from the left to support him, Dave Birch (33) sitting in front of the defence, and Matthew Wolfenden (27) and Joe Fox (22) taking up the other midfield positions, the visitors had a substantial number of years on Ilkeston – a fact which was to be picked over at some length in the aftermath of the game.

The Rebels started brightly, circulating the ball, enjoying a greater share of the possession, showing the greater penetration into opposition territory. Wolfenden crossed for Welsh, whose effort was saved by Robins’ goalkeeper, Jordan Smith (20). Another ball in from the midfielder, this time cut back for Brownhill, was blocked en route to the target. United’s big chance – the one that went begging – came on 22 minutes, when Wolfenden was put through, one-on-one. Closing in from the right the No. 7 elected to lob, but his contact was weak, and Smith was able to gather the ball comfortably without serious threat to the goal.

Three minutes later, the whirlwind hit.

What followed was an eleven minute, three gun fusillade which -at the time – seemed to throw the visitors’ aspirations into a very unflattering perspective, undermining everything the manager had conceived, and calling into question the Marginson project as a whole. It began with United again on the offensive. As Ilkeston defended a corner the ball came back across to Welsh, who floated a second ball into the area which Lacy failed to control. Jack Lane nipped in to emerge with the ball at his feet, and with the home side looking to break, shunted it quickly forward to Che Adams in the middle of the Ilkeston half. Adams was quickly into his stride, prodding the ball confidently before him, skipping past a challenge from Knowles, advancing at speed towards the centre circle where Dave Birch stood sentry for visitors. Alongside Birch, some twenty yards to his left, was Jerome Wright. With the centre backs still to recover from the thwarted set-piece, these two constituted United’s last line of defence. Fifty yards to the back of Birch stood Carnell in the Rebels’ goalmouth.

Adams bore down on Birch with all the elemental swiftness of youth, as the midfielder girded himself, turning his shoulder in anticipation of the onrushing forward, readying himself to put in a challenge. In an instant the two were in the same frame. As they came together Adams did not bother to pay the older man the compliment of attempting to use sleight in his bid to get past. There was no feint, no fake, no stutter, no shimmy, no drop of the shoulder, no flick of the hips, no twitch of the leading leg designed to throw his opponent onto the wrong foot, and thus open up a route for the continuation of his journey. Adams simply swept the ball to his left – Birch’s right, in and behind the United man – and set off after it: speed, grace and economy in one quicksilver package.

Birch, 33 years of age, lean, unshaven, tousled, ruggedly blonde, a full time gas fitter, a loving husband, a doting Dad, a man with a long and distinguished record in non-league football, who had captained Hyde FC in the Conference National, a whole two divisions higher than this, and who had by no means ever, not even in his latter years, acquired a reputation for being slow…Birch reacted by taking the only course available: he turned on his heel, and, with the disadvantage of a standing start, he began to give chase to the teenager, in the effort to catch him.

Adams lit out, lengthening his stride. He had, of course, the ball to contend with, but this proved no hindrance to his progress. Even at speed his every touch was weighted to perfection, pushing the ball sufficiently far in front of him to allow him to accelerate in behind it, while never allowing it to stray beyond the perimeter of his control. Over his shoulder, Birch clamoured busily to keep pace, jockeying to find the angle to put in a challenge, straining for the leverage to steal the ball away from under the fleeing striker.

It was a drab mid-October day in the unfashionable leagues of English football, and the sky above the Erewash valley was the colour of mastic. The wrought-iron hands on the New Manor Ground’s clock tower were nudging the 3.30 position, and the weather vane which stood atop it was perfectly still. Around the touchline, behind the advertising boards, and on the narrow covered terraces behind the goals, a thin crowd, in places just one or two deep, ringed the playing area. Perhaps it was fanciful, but at this moment everyone seemed to step up a fraction, as though drawn by the essence of the unfolding spectacle: the panicked sound of pounding boots, the fleck of mud churned up by sunken studs, the scent of turf hung softly in the air.

They wanted to know how this was going to play out.

As the two players tore past, the cries of onlookers followed them urgently across the playing field.

“Go on!”

“Take it, Che!”

“Stop him, Dave!”

“Go on!” 

There was Adams: coffee-coloured skin, hair clippered innocently neat, blunt juvenile features caught serenely in the moment, betraying not a glimmer of effort. Neither coltish, nor with a sprinter’s physique, it was not obvious from where he derived this prodigious pace, but there was no doubt he was stretching his advantage with every yard.

Behind him, as Adams listed leftwards and increasingly out of range, the flailing Birch pumped ever harder in his wake, arms swimming frantically, fingers clawing the air, as if trying to find purchase from Adams’s slipstream. But Birch was not swimming, he was drowning. The ship had left him behind. In the few heartbeats it had taken for them to traverse the United half of the pitch there had opened up yards of clear blue water between the boy and the man.

By the time Adams arrived at the penalty area he was able to inflict the final indignity on his pursuer. So far ahead was he, now, that he was able comfortably to check back, rightwards, across Birch’s path, without fear of encountering a tackle, and so attack the goal from dead centre. From right of picture, Jerome Wright had made a desperate rear-guard run, tacking back from the half way line in a last ditch attempt to catch up with the danger, but he was too late. Behind Wright, Kane Richards was arriving, offering himself for the cut-back, but he wasn’t needed. As Carnell stepped up to close the angle, Adams picked a side and simply passed the ball beyond him into the back of the net – no gulling, no grace notes, no grandstanding from the 18 year old, here – to break the deadlock, receive the acclaim of his teammates at the by-line, and raise the applause of the home supporters…all in one seamless, breath-taking act.

775 people were there to witness it – most of them having travelled down from Manchester as supporters of FC United. Derbyshire, so it appeared, had yet to awaken to the jewel in its midst.

Four minutes later the led was doubled, as the home side exploited a yawning gap in the United back line. Collecting a lofted clearance from Knowles on the half way line Luke Shaw took a touch to bring down the ball before half-volleying it straight back in the direction it had come from – right through the heart of the gaping hole that had opened up between Knowles, in the middle of United’s central defensive trio, and Lacy, to the right. The void was bisected perfectly, as, into this inviting pool of space ran Richards, at speed. Having stolen a march on Lacy, Richards now jigged his way to the by-line, sailing past the recovering Knowles and drawing the ‘keeper off his line, before drifting over a cross into the six yard box where Duffy was able to nod home, with Ashworth stranded helpless on the goal line.

Having – until just moments before – enjoyed the majority of the play, the visitors were now back on their heels. For a fleeting instant it appeared that they might rally, as Fox put a good chance over the bar – but then on 36 minutes Ilkeston effectively ended the game as a contest with a third display of devastating pace.

It was James Reid, this time, who was the playmaker, finding Duffy in acres of space between the United lines with a raking volleyed pass of 30 yards or more, fiercely despatched from the left back position. Duffy, with time on the ball in a central position and the United back line fanned out in front of him, was able to pick a perfect pass through the line for Richards to run on to, the striker stealing in behind Ashworth as the visitors appealed for offside. The flag stayed down, however, and Richards was through, rounding Carnell with ease before clipping the ball pitilessly into the back of the net to make it 3-0.

Whatever ranting and raving Marginson subjected his team to at half time he kept it short and sweet, as barely five minutes after they went in they were out again, no doubt dismissed with a flea in their ear. The second half was to be a decidedly more even affair, however. Just as suddenly as the monster had reared up and mauled United, its claws now retracted again, and the threat receded. Ilkeston passed crisply and neatly. United pressed for a way back into the game. The score-sheet aside, a sense of parity seemed now to be restored.

On 53 minutes United won a penalty after Wright broke into the box, drawing a mistimed challenge from Shaw and then climbing to his feet to convert the spot kick: low, and to the right of centre, with Smith diving the wrong way. Thereafter the game swung this way and that, with chances falling to both sides. Wolfenden failed to connect properly when presented with one at close range. Ashworth (“Good in the air…comfortable on the ball”) headed over from a free kick. Norton blazed a volley into the stand from the edge of the area. For the Robins, Duffy squandered a gilt-edged opportunity to punish a poor kick from Carnell. Richards lobbed just wide. Adams twice went close when chances fell his way in the United box.

The damage, of course, had been done, and when the final whistle blew it seemed scant consolation that United had ‘won’ the second half. Today’s game seemed, in the rawness of the immediate aftermath, to serve as a damning indictment of United’s progress, giving rise to a storm of gut criticism on social media in the hours that followed, as the black box recorder was hauled from the ocean floor and its conflicting data mined for discernible meaning. Turned over by a bunch of kids! This team, it was said, was too old. They were too slow. The players weren’t good enough, nor were they motivated enough. Three at the back was a woeful misadventure which rendered the defence hesitant, confused, flat-footed and susceptible to the ball in behind. The manager’s tactical nous was wanting and after serial promotions in the early years he had been found out at this level: instead of kicking on from the previous season they were going backwards. He had taken the club as far as he could, he should step aside and let somebody else have a go.

Where was the flair in midfield? Why play an artisan like Joe Fox when an artist like Callum Byrne was available? Why the long ball stuff, when the team didn’t even have a big centre forward to aim for? Where was the width? It seemed like only yesterday that FC thrived on it’s wing play – now, with this 3-5-2 system, the wing-backs found themselves tied up at the back while natural creative wingers were forced to come inside. Where was the pace up front? Norton was clearly past his best while Greaves struggled on with injury concerns that were open-ended (he had a groin problem arising from the number of games he’d played the previous season) and wasn’t firing like he had been the year before. Why did Walwyn never seem to get a chance, when he always seemed to look dangerous on those rare occasions he was given a runout? And what about Welsh? Sure, he looked bright on occasion but on today’s evidence…the Premiership? The new man wasn’t all he was cracked up to be.

Nobody – at least not by name – blamed Dave Birch.  

Marginson, of course, would doubtless have offered a counter-narrative. The manager was experienced enough by now to take the longer view, to know that being undone by a bit of pace was just something that happened in football from time to time. Ilkeston were a good team with a good manager and a good set-up. They would be there or thereabouts come season-end. But that didn’t mean United wouldn’t be able to mount their own challenge, just as they had in recent years. Marginson tended to trust his players, and his own judgement. He knew his team always started slowly, however regrettable that was, it was the same every season. There was no reason to believe this group of players wouldn’t come good as time went on, or that problems couldn’t be fixed. It was just unfortunate that spirits were low right now.

Frustration at the club was undoubtedly exacerbated by progress at Broadhurst Park, which, after the projected 44 week build (they were meant to be in by now!) still looked a long way from completion. The pitch was laid, three stands had gone up, but there was a shivering hole, like a gap tooth, where the St Mary’s Road stand was due to be erected, and little sign that the ground would be ready even for Christmas. So for now, the trek out to Bower Fold, Stalybridge, to watch home fixtures, continued.    

Patience, then. The result left United in 9th place (with Ilkeston up to 6th) a full 15 points off the pace after just 14 games of the season, well adrift of the play-off places. At the top were Skelmersdale, Buxton and Curzon Ashton. So what would Marginson do now? Would there be changes? New players? A return to 4-4-2? Or more of the same?

Right now, it was hard not to feel that something was needed – some shot in the arm, from somewhere – to get the club back on track. Whether that something was to come from within, or be brought in from outside…well, the answer to that lay in the mind of one man, and one man only: the revered, the iconic, the very seldom-abused man at the helm, the manager of FC United, Mr Karl Marginson.

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