Saturday, 3 May 2014

Eccleshill United 2 Knaresborough Town 2 (aet, Knaresborough win 4-2 on pens)

Northern Counties East League Cup final
Attendance: 390

“What’s it like to not see a crowd?” I’ve often wondered. I’d been planning for the novel experience of watching a football match in a near empty stadium at the Wakefield Wildcats’ rugby league ground used by Wakefield FC but they’ve recently announced they’re dropping a division and moving back in with the missus at AFC Emley, a village club. Knaresborough Town, the non-league team nearest to home, presented another opportunity to rattle around in a big ground by virtue of an exceptional cup run.

Admitted to the Northern Counties East League for the first time only last season, Town were drawn away in all five rounds in the League Cup and won the lot, three of them against higher division opposition, to find themselves in the final at Valley Parade, Bradford. The opposition was Bradford-based and also first division (i.e. step 6) Eccleshill United. They went into the match hoping for an unlikely cup double following their shock victory against step 2 Harrogate Town (Harrogate is conjoined to Knaresborough) in the West Riding County Cup final at the same venue only last month. So this, Knaresborough’s biggest match of all-time, was my biggest little match of the season and, in the absence of any tasty Northern Premier League play-offs and on a pleasant spring day, I was rather looking forward to it. All I needed was a black and red scarf …

It made a change for my destination ground to be big enough for listing on the sat nav. Ecclehill wouldn’t have needed such technical assistance; their home is just 2½ miles away and is used by Bradford for reserve fixtures. An obvious venue, then, what with the Bantams playing away today. Parking predictably wasn’t a problem. In fact, only the sight of the Knaresborough coach outside the ground confirmed there was a game on. As my son and I approached what I thought was the PA music turned out to be the jingle of an ice cream van and, once inside the outer perimeter, I had to ask a steward where the turnstile was. Inside the 390 spectators (1% of capacity) were liberally spread over the one stand open for the occasion. It must feel a bit like this if you break into a stadium.
The fella from the Knaresborough Post had the press box to himself (above). There did appear to be another scribe but he preferred to have his own block of seats. “I paid £3 for this seat and I’ve only seen a quarter of the match”, whinged an OAP at some of the Knaresborough blazers who were blocking his view by watching standing up. Full admission was only £2 more. Cheapest ticket of the season – and for a cup final at a League ground to boot.

Claps echoed. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any quieter we had a minute’s silence – for the murdered Leeds school teacher. Once the game was under way the volume increased. Fans mostly called out to players by their first names not through over-familiarity but, I suspect, because many of the supporters were friends and family.

Refreshingly, the teams wore shirts simply numbered from 1-11. As it happens, the names were so unusual (Tyler Tanango among them) they were worthy of sartorial display. Bizarrely, 18 out of the 28 Eccleshill squad members listed in the programme were American. Why? The club has an unlikely link with the Leeds-based Richmond International Academic and Soccer Academy which gives US students competitive football experience with Eccleshill. Other players are from Canada, Palestine, Ghana and Slovakia with only three local lads.

I did wonder if the Eccleshill juniors in the crowd, proudly sporting full blue and white kit, will ever have the chance to progress to the senior teams. The club comes across as an odd blend of community club and, well, franchise although I may be wrong. Knaresborough had a continental too in the form of Weston Murau from Zimbabwe. He originally turned up at the club at the start of the season to watch this brother play. The Knaresborough goalie didn’t show so Weston took his place.

His side came bursting out of the traps and took an early lead when a cross was struck in at the near post. Eccleshill soon got into the match, though, and took the lead with two headers in three minutes (one of them, above). The match ebbed and flowed and the chances came thick and fast until Knaresborough equalised at the start of the second half with another header from a fine cross.

Ee-eye-addy-oh, he's won the cup!
I overheard that their Reserves had taken the lead and were on course for the West Yorkshire League. Frankly, does it get any better? Well, actually, yes. The match deteriorated. I’m no football connoisseur but even I know woeful defending the shooting when I see it – and I saw a lot of it. There was still plenty of cut and thrust and chances at both ends, though, to maintain the entertainment value.

The additional 30 mins also ended in stalemate so we went to penalties. While they were being organised the cup was brought out by the same old geezer who was silverware custodian on that unforgettable night at Tadcaster four years ago. I daresay the black bag from whence the cup came was the same too – and possibly the small table it stood on. No fancy podiums and fireworks at this level, thanks goodness.
Knaresborough won the shoot-out 4-2. For Weston (above), who saved one of the penalties and was named Knaresborough’s man of the match, these are the things the things that dreams are made of. (It probably wasn't an outcome he was expecting when he arrived at the ground without his gloves and had to borrow some from the reserve keeper.) There will be dancing on streets of Knaresborough – and Harare – tonight. For me the afternoon had been an unexpected birthday treat.

Star turn: Coming on as sub for Knaresborough in extra-time was Frenchman Seb Carole, formerly of Monaco (including Champions League appearances), Leeds (41 games)… and the wonderfully named village side, Burton Leonard Squirrel.

Video clip: Click here for some footage of Knaresborough's celebration following the winning penalty complete with my lad roaring his delight despite this being the first time he's even seen the team.

Harrogate’s other big match: Some ex-pros including Nigel Martyn, Bruce Grobbelaar and Danny Mills played in a five-a-side match on a pitch somehow shoehorned into Harrogate’s grand Edwardian Royal Hall on Monday. Wonderfully quirky occasion from the look of it. Here is the full story.