Saturday, 27 February 2016

Morpeth Town 2 Bristol Manor Farm 0

FA Vase quarter final
Attendance: 718

We’d all been on a journey to reach this match. Bristol Manor Farm had driven 314 miles having come a similar distance for the previous round at Sunderland RCA. The hosts, meanwhile, had taken 108 days to get to this point. Astonishingly, that’s how long it had been since their last home match (on November 11), the intervening fixtures having been postponed due to a waterlogged pitch. They last played at home on a Saturday the weekend the clocks went back.

Before the monsoon they began their Vase campaign with a 5-4 win with the last touch of the game at West Didsbury & Chorlton having been 4-0 up at half-time. They had a walkover in the second round when 1874 Northwich were unable to field a team for tie rearranged for midweek. The next match due to take place at South Shields was postponed eight times before being staged on Consett's 3G pitch, Morpeth winning a thriller 10-9 on penalties. Morpeth surrendered home advantage to get the fourth round tie played at Vase holders North Shields in a gale. Then came a long trip to Hertfordshire to beat Berkhamsted and so to today. My journey was a bike ride along Druridge Bay in the morning (see last pic). Always nice to make a full day out of a fixture if you can. This was the furthest north I’d ever watched a match.

I approached the ground on a country lane. “Prepare to navigate off-road,” instructed the sat nav. Ah. The “off road” bit was actually the track to the car park. That was full so drivers were told to return the way we came and take the first right. This led towards a farmhouse and again I thought I’d gone wrong but, no, an expected dog leg led to pitchside. I parked right behind one of the goals. All this for £6. What a bargain. That would barely buy you a cuppa in the Millionnaire League.

As soon as I stepped out of the car I knew I was going to enjoy this one. Craik Park boasts a superb, secluded, sylvan setting that would be heaven on a summer’s day. Tall trees surround the pitch, conifers (or is it a giant hedge?) on two sides and deciduous on another in a style that brings to mind Guisborough’s ground. The clubhouse and changing rooms are half-hidden in the woods (see below). The whole place has the feel of a Scout campsite than a football ground. As modern grounds go (Craik was purpose-built in 1994) the scene takes some beating.

The main stand is set back from pitchside, the gap to the touchline denoting where a running track used to run. Opposite is a new barn-like cover (see below) but the eye is caught by a peculiar small, temporary stand just 10-seats wide that is positioned behind one of the goals as if mimicking it (see first pic). You feel that just by removing a couple of strategically placed steel rods the whole thing could collapse in an instant. There is a similar structure at Tadcaster Albion. The club had had heaters on the pitch all week to get the game on. Across large swathes the surface was as soft as putty.

Considering this was what the club described as “the most important match in our long 132-year history” they may have been a little disappointed that the gate didn’t reach four figures. The only sound was the shrill shreiks from the young lads behind the goal that brought to mind those England schoolboy internationals at old Wembley. (Always great to see so many youngsters enthusiastically supporting their local, non-league team).

In an exciting, end-to-end game Morpeth took an early lead when Swailes (see ‘Old warhorse’ below) scored with a flying header from a corner. They pretty much bossed the rest of the half and should’ve put the tie to bed by half-time given the number of good chances they had. Bristol, who came into the match off the back of 13 straight wins, had the better of the second half and richly deserved an equaliser. I felt sorry for them when, in the dying seconds, Morpeth sealed victory – and that with a tap-in following a mis-hit.
So the journey continues for The Highwaymen (see below). They will be travelling precisely the same distance as Bristol did today – to Bowers & Pitsea in darkest Essex for the semi-final first leg. Assuming the tie is still alive for the second I highly recommended going along. There will be a good craic at Craik, to be sure.

Names that stand and deliver: I always like nicknames that both reflect a club’s location and have an air of menace. The Highwaymen, the nickname for Morpeth, a town located on the old Great North Road, is a cracker.

Old warhorse: You wouldn’t pick a fight with 45-year-old Chris Swailes of Morpeth. He looks as hard as nails. Click here for an interesting profile on the ex-Ipswich, Bury and Rotherham defender. He’s described as having a “love affair with the Vase”. Ooh, err, missus.

Pics and clips: Bristol Manor Farm went to Craik from their home ground, The Creek. Click here for pics of a match there in 2011. The club is the only one in steps 1-6 with ‘farm’ in its title which relates to the city’s Manor Farm estate. Highlights of today’s game are here.