The long awaited return to our home finally arrived. Some five and half weeks had elapsed since our defeat versus Nelson in the Division Two Trophy tie. The only �€�home�€trade; match since then was the Holker Old Boys match played at Altrincham as Gigg Lane was unavailable. It was nice to be back amongst familiar surroundings even if the bitter east wind made things less than completely comfortable.
The United squad has been bolstered since the last match as a couple of injured absentees made welcome returns. Margy chose to start with both Simon Carden and Steve Spencer on the bench for this match. I can�€trade;t argue with the logic of this decision as both Chris Simms and, especially, William Ahern have been doing a great job in the central midfield area and would have been very unfortunate to drop out. Carden, in particular, would be lacking some match sharpness as he had been out for more than 2 months and had not even participated in the Woodley Sports friendly fixture. Spencer had �€�only�€trade; been out since the Nelson game and had gotten 45 minutes under his belt at Woodley so he was raring to get back into the fray.
The other addition to the squad completed the United substitute�€trade;s line-up. Newest signing Dave Swarbrick had impressed for Holker at Altrincham with a bright display capped with a well taken equalising goal. Margy spoke with Holker officials who felt unable to stand in the way of the youngster and the deal was soon done. Swarbrick has also played for Barrow in the Conference North this season and looked sharp in the Woodley friendly. The midfielder is making a major commitment by signing for United as he still lives in Barrow so will be clocking up a good few miles up and down the M6 travelling down for training sessions and matches.
Flixton came to Gigg Lane in decent form and are still pushing for promotion. Prior to this match they sat in 4th place in the table but well within the reach of both Winsford and Padiham immediately ahead of them.
The pitch at Gigg Lane looked in better condition than on our previous visit but it is still in dire need of some attention. The Bury ground staff are confident that they know the cause of the problems seen this season and a plan of action is already in place to begin remedial work once the final match has been played. In the meanwhile both FC United and Bury will have to contend with a very soft surface when playing at home.
United started the match positively and looked to have the best of the first 20 minutes. As often seems to be the case the decent football being played was not being translated into clear cut chances or goals. Steve Torpey hit a first minute freekick wide of target from a position where he would normally at least test the goalkeeper. A minute later and a nice combination between Howard and Orr resulted in another half chance for Torpey. This time his left foot shot from the edge of the area was partially charged down with the deflection comfortably gathered by Andy Robertson in the Flixton goal.
Flixton themselves also saw an early shot partially blocked and again the deflection allowed for a comfortable save by the goalkeeper, Barrie George this time. In the 6th minute Torpey again looked to get into the danger area, this time United�€trade;s number 10 aimed a cross towards Adie Orr. The covering defender did well to get in before Orr but the loose ball then fell to the supporting Ahern. Will could not manage to turn the ball to goal as he too was under pressure from a covering defender. The ball went harmlessly beyond the far post for a goal kick.
Before the quarter hour mark Flixton worked the ball down their left flank before a cross picked out Matt Landregan�€trade;s run. The Flixton number 10 looked to be in a good position but as he took the cross on his chest, at the edge of the area, the ball ran through to Barrie George. At the Cemetery End Adie Orr and Rory Patterson combined very well but Patterson failed to get a shot in when he had worked into a good position, again the Flixton defenders needed no second invitation to close the space and clear the danger.
On 17 minutes Rob Nugent picked out a superb left-footed pass that invited Josh Howard down the right flank. Josh tried to send in a cross but it was blocked at source at the expense of a United corner kick. Torpey took the in swinging corner with his left foot but Flixton cleared with little difficulty.
At the 20 minute mark Flixton were gifted their first decent sight of United�€trade;s goal as a horrible bobble saw an attempted clearance from Barrie George fired straight to David Chadwick. Chaddy did well to control but was immediately tackled. The ball fell well for Lee Wilkinson who attempted to chip the ball over George from around 20 yards out. The effort was good but not quite perfect and George was able to tip the shot over the crossbar.
Wilkinson�€trade;s strike partner Landregan then attempted to win a penalty kick with an optimistic claim after he pushed the ball between 2 closing defenders and then went to ground with some added dramatic effect. The referee, Mr. Jones, was unimpressed and motioned for the striker to get back to his feet. At this stage Flixton started to gain in confidence and United were having trouble all over the pitch. The front 2 were having difficulty in holding the ball up, the midfield were being outfought by their opposite numbers and in defence everyone seemed very nervous with the normally super cool Gareth Ormes looking especially uneasy. Grandison benefited from one particular piece of generosity from Ormes but, happily from a United perspective, the resulting cross was badly over hit, maybe another bobble, and went out of play beyond the far post.
Ironically United created their best attack of the half just at the point where Flixton were beginning to assert themselves. Orr carried the ball in from the right side along the edge of the area. William Ahern was looking to support and ran in, at first it looked to me as though Orr had prevented Ahern from getting a shot in from a central position at the edge but Orr kept possession and Ahern ran beyond the United number 9. Orr released the ball at just the right moment and Ahern found himself left of centre with Robertson rushing out to close down the angle. Ahern dinked the shot with his left foot beyond the keeper but it rolled just inches beyond the right-hand post.
On the half-hour a real scramble in the United area after a Flixton corner on the left side. The initial cross was headed out but the loose ball was driven goalwards again. This effort was blocked but again the loose ball fell kindly for Flixton, this time the ball sat up only about 8 yards from goal and in a central position. A goal seemed the most likely outcome but somehow Barrie George blocked the shot before the next follow up was squandered with a wayward effort beyond the right hand post.
At this point I ought to explain that it was virtually impossible for me to discern the Flixton players�€trade; numbers on their shirts as a result of them using black numbers on their blue and white striped shirts. The lack of contrast between the blue stripes and the black numbers was less than helpful. I�€trade;d respectfully suggest that they might employ either white panels or use red numbers next season in order that those of us charged with documenting the on pitch events might have a fighting chance. As I recall, the Boxing Day match also provided me with a similar problem further exacerbated by the 40 watt bulbs utilised in the Flixton floodlights. Whilst sorting out the shirts feel free to get some 60 watt bulbs too!
As they had been threatening for a while Flixton eventually took the lead in the 35th minute. Another corner from their left was knocked into the area, Gareth Ormes headed it away at the near post. The Ormes header went out to the edge of the area where a Flixton player took a wild swing at it with his left leg and barely made contact. The Manchester Road End support were quick to howl their derision but the catcalls would soon be stifled as the fortunate contact made by a flailing left boot deflected the ball very invitingly to Graham Vaughan. The Flixton number 11 measured his stride before striking a neat left foot curler beyond Barrie George�€trade;s right hand and into the net. George may have been slightly unsighted as the shot seemed to travel through a bit of a ruck of players. 0-1.
Flixton went from strength to strength and might have extended their lead before the break. Grandison again got in behind Ormes on the Flixton right before firing a low cross into the danger area. Billy McCartney looked to clear but saw his attempted clearing kick screw off of his shin and straight to Barrie George. George was happy to pick up the miscue but would have struggled had it been directed to either side of him as McCartney was only 4 or 5 yards from goal when trying to clear.
McCartney was again involved with just a couple of minutes remaining in the half. Another ricochet looked to be falling favourably for the visitors and McCartney was caught on the wrong side by one of the Flixton forwards some 40 yards from goal. Billy tried to make up ground but lost his footing as he turned and tumbled forwards; United�€trade;s number 6 ended up executing a perfect tap tackle on the ankle of the Flixton man. This really would have looked the part on a rugby pitch but Mr. Jones correctly took a dim view and offered his first caution of the evening. There was no question of this being a red card as a couple of other defenders were making ground to cover.
United started very well in the second period and might have equalised within the first minute. A long ball forward was well won by Adie Orr who nodded to Patterson who was on the right wing. Rory carried the ball forward before pulling back a low cross behind Orr that was perfectly placed for Steve Torpey arriving into the area. Torpey might have struck first time although with the Gigg Lane surface I was not surprised that he chose to control the cross. In hindsight Torpey ought to have taken that one touch and then hit a shot but he chose to dummy the shot whilst trying to gain a little more room. Unfortunately the right back did not buy the dummy and cleared the danger with some ease.
Within another minute or two Margy made his first change introducing Dave Swarbrick for his debut. The new boy slotted into his favourite right wing position in place of Josh Howard who was still feeling the effects of a nasty virus that had seen him miss the Woodley friendly. The virus has been quite debilitating and Josh was never expected to last the full 90 minutes. He�€trade;s lost a stone in weight as a result of the illness and maybe, again in hindsight, ought not to have been risked.
Flixton doubled their lead in the 50th minute after a long clearance from Jamie Bates angled perfectly for Wilkinson whilst taking David Chadwick out of the game. Wilkinson carried the ball forwards a few strides before calmly lifting a shot, from 5 yards outside of the area, over George that entered the left side of goal. In the build up to this goal Steve Torpey looked to have been fouled as he rose to challenge for a high ball in the Flixton right back area. The Flixton defender, Heath, rose well but pushed Torpey in the back as he won the header that was then hoofed up field by Bates. 0-2.
So, for the first time in the club�€trade;s young existence, FC United found themselves 2 goals behind. How would the players react? How would the manager react? How would the fans react? I think that the answers to all of those questions would be that they all responded positively. The players never gave up and might, on another occasion, have even won the game in the remaining 40 minutes. Margy didn�€trade;t panic, he let things settle again for 5 minutes before changing the personnel and the formation. The crowd also responded positively and did their bit to try to help the team out. Despite the, relatively, low turnout of 1,924 the noise levels seemed above average as the Manchester Road End, in particular, tried to inspire.
The final substitutions saw the returns of Carden and Spencer with McCartney and Simms making way. United then switched to a back three with Chadwick central and Nugent and Ormes on either side of their captain. The midfield set up as a 5 with Torpey and Swarbrick out wide. Spencer was sitting deepest with Ahern and Carden seeming to have licence to join up with the front 2 making it a front 4 when United had possession.
Carden had only been on the pitch for about 2 minutes when he retired to the United dugout. Many in the ground were wondering if he had suffered a recurrence of the knee problems that have kept him out for so long but after about 5 minutes he resumed battle. Seemingly he was receiving treatment from Mark Cooney after a rather unsavoury off the ball incident with Flixton�€trade;s Tobin. The officials did not see the clash of heads but some in the MRE clearly did as there was a clear reaction from many in the stands.
As play continued Ahern nearly found the key to unlock the stubborn Flixton defence with a nicely weighted through ball for Dave Swarbrick. Swarbrick beat Robertson to the ball but could not quite get into position to shoot before defensive cover again intervened. A couple of minutes later and United might have found themselves further embarrassed as a Flixton break saw Landregan leading a 3 on 1 assault but George saved well from the eventual shot.
Immediately back on the attack United ought to have clawed a goal back. The chance resulted as a Torpey freekick was well won by Rob Nugent in the air. Nugent headed down to Chadwick who controlled before guiding a shot cum pass towards the far, left hand, post. Patterson looked for the entire world as though he only needed to swing his leg in order to tap the ball home but somehow Heath managed to throw himself into a tackle/clearance that saw the ball kept out. A great intervention from the Flixton right back though Rory maybe ought to have been more clinical.
At this point, with 20 minutes remaining in the match, Dave Swarbrick began to impose himself on proceedings. He is very quick and is a great dribbler. His approach was very direct and he caused Flixton several problems as they struggled to contain him. By this point the Flixton goal was largely under siege although on occasions they themselves did break out with purpose and might have added to their 2 goals.
One Swarbrick run on 72 minutes was probably as good as any I�€trade;ve seen this season. Unfortunately after beating the 3rd man the ball was cleared by a fourth but the speed and control as he dribbled forward was quite stunning. In the 74th minute Swarbrick received the ball with his back to goal in a central position about 25 yards out, his first touch was superb enabling him to turn his defender with ease, he then spotted Adie Orr in space to his left and delivered the pass. Adie took a touch but then ballooned his shot from 16 yards over the bar.
On 78 minutes a looping ball fell in the United area and struck Steve Torpey on his arm. Some Flixton appeals ensued but the referee saw no problem and play carried on. On 82 minutes Wilkinson got in behind the threadbare United defence again but this time George was equal to his shot.
In the 84th minute a lifeline for United as Mr. Jones awarded a penalty kick against Mark Ayres for handball. This resulted from a nice cross from Swarbrick that Orr headed goalwards, the header struck Ayres high on his right arm and the referee thought it deliberate. Patterson strode up to take the kick but could not beat Robertson. The right-footed effort was neither powerful nor well placed and Robertson parried it and before voraciously gathering the loose ball. Just as it seemed that all hope was lost and this was clearly going to be �€�one of those nights�€trade; then up popped the captain to grab a goal.
Chaddy was, by this stage, a full time spearhead to United�€trade;s attacks. Yet another United corner was fired in by Torpey from the United right. Will Ahern flicked a header on at the near post and Chaddy bravely threw himself into a full length dive to head the ball into the bottom left corner. Chaddy might easily have been kicked by either Adie Orr who was just beyond the United number 5 at the far post or indeed by a Flixton defender who was looking to clear. David Chadwick only had eyes for the ball and made no mistake from only 5 yards out for his 5th goal of the season. 1-2.
Immediately after the goal went in the players staged an advertisement for the cage fighting event that will be taking place at the MEN this weekend as at least 15 of them bundled into the net with 2 different agendas. Robertson and his team-mates were intent on delaying the restart whilst Chaddy and those in red were intent on retrieving the ball as soon as possible and ferrying it back to the centre spot. This was one battle that United certainly won on the night as Chaddy emerged with the ball after about 10 seconds and had it back to the centre circle 5 seconds later, meanwhile, back in the netting, the other dozen or so would-be cage fighters exchanged pleasantries whilst the referee and a few stewards tried to restore order. For his attempt to delay the restart Robertson was cautioned.
United mounted another couple of attacks with Barrie George even appearing in the Flixton area at one point but the equalising goal was not to come in the remaining 3 minutes plus 3 minutes of added time.
On balance Flixton probably deserved the 3 points that they took from this match. They created at least as many chances as United and converted 2 of them. They defended well and did not collapse under the United onslaught late on. United for their part never really got started until they were 2 goals behind. It�€trade;s tough to know whether Flixton then sat back at 2 nil therefore making the United changes look inspired or whether the United changes forced Flixton back and really changed the balance of the game. In truth it was probably a combination of both of those 2 things.
As for man of the match plaudits, I offer my vote to Dave Swarbrick. He changed the game when he came on and most of United�€trade;s good attacking play was directed through him. All in all a very impressive debut for the Barrow lad. The only other 2 serious candidates, to my mind, were Steve Spencer and Barrie George but the new lad in the 12 shirt edged them out, for me.