FC United took to the field with an unchanged starting line-up after the comfortable victory versus New Mills last week. Margy�€trade;s only change was the reintroduction to the squad of Josh Howard who has now recovered from the debilitating virus that had kept him out since coming off at halftime in the Flixton match last month. Daz Lyons was the one to drop out making way for February�€trade;s supporters�€trade; player of the month. Josh was presented with his trophy before the match.
United kicked off on a soggy Gigg Lane surface. The pitch looked ok* as the warm-ups were going on but then a 10 minute monsoon arrived and softened the going from very soft to heavy. Dave Brown set his stall out very early on, no nonsense as he launched a clearance onto the roof of the heavily populated South Stand after only 15 seconds. With the Manchester Road End stand closed pending some urgent repair work most of the usual inhabitants of the MRE had transplanted themselves to the far side of the pitch. I heard that a few were confused and dizzied by the sight of the ball moving from side to side in front of them rather than the usual sensation of it getting bigger and smaller as it moved towards or away from them. Despite this disorientation they were in fine voice for most of the contest whilst the Main seemed slightly subdued for long periods.
In the 6th minute Cheadle�€trade;s captain and goalkeeper was injured as Rory Patterson chased through onto a Steve Spencer through ball. The ball was just a little too strongly hit and it just got through to Whittle as Patterson arrived. There was an innocuous looking collision which left Whittle in some discomfort. It appeared that Rory�€trade;s knee had made contact with Whittle�€trade;s back or hip. The unfortunate keeper received treatment and bravely resumed but was clearly still struggling. In the 9th minute he took a goal kick which picked out Patterson stood 40 yards from goal. Patterson controlled expertly and then struck a neat right footed lobbed volley back to goal. Whittle scrambled for all he was worth and then launched himself as the ball bounced 6 yards from goal roughly in line with the left post. Unluckily for Patterson this lob seemed to land on the only firm piece of ground on the whole of the Gigg Lane pitch as it bounced up and over the goal very near to the top corner. Whittle, in turn, took some time to climb back to his feet after his effort to intervene.
On 12 minutes Cheadle�€trade;s lively centre-forward, Onibudo, made a good run down the Town left flank. His cross was a little too deep and Martin could only weakly head back where it was easily cleared. Two minutes later and Cheadle got the opener through a scuffed shot from Aaron Riley. Cheadle�€trade;s number 7 saw the ball go in by way of the left hand post with Melville beaten. Credit to Martin for a clever back heel that helped create the space that Riley exploited. 0-1.
Over the next 10 minutes United saw two offside decisions given against them in questionable circumstances. On both occasions the �€�goals�€trade; were scored. The first saw a cross from the United left pick out Swarbrick but the over eager assistant flagged against Mitten who probably was in an offside position in the centre. The cross soared beyond Joz and Swarbrick finished with aplomb from the right edge of the area to no avail. Whittle might have been able to stop this shot had the whistle not already been blown but it still rankles when officials fail to allow play to develop before deciding on offside.
The second was equally poor, in my view, as this time a cross came in from Torpey on the right. Chaddy might have been in an offside position but the ball picked out Joz who had been in a deeper, onside, position when the freekick was delivered. Mitten headed the ball in via the inside of the left post with Whittle completely beaten. Again the �€�goal�€trade; was disallowed. To add injury to insult Joz picked up a nasty head wound as he rose to head the ball in. He received treatment and resumed.
Finally, in the 28th minute it was determined that Whittle could carry on no longer. Off he came; his replacement was a 17 year old defender with little goalkeeping experience, Ashley Stokes. Everyone in the ground surely would have expected the United attackers to pepper the new goalkeeper with shots at every opportunity but in actual fact he barely had a save to make as the half drew to a close.
The only really meaningful effort was in stoppage time as Steve Spencer received a throw-in from Tony Cullen and struck a swerving and dipping right foot effort from just outside of the left corner of the Cheadle area. Stokes was nowhere near the shot as he arrowed just high of it�€trade;s intended target and clipped the bar.
Prior to Spencer�€trade;s fine shot United again had cause to question a couple of key decisions. Firstly Patterson seemed to have been brought down in the area; it was one of those challenges that leaves you instantly thinking �€�that has got to be either a penalty or a corner kick�€trade; but Mr. Hussain awarded a goal kick. The second of ’the penalties that never were’ was about as clear-cut as any that I�€trade;ve ever seen. Dave Swarbrick was at full speed having beaten 3 defenders before entering the area on a diagonal run in from the right flank. He was crudely scythed down and again somehow Mr. Hussain decided that no foul had been committed. Mystifying.
Margy clearly was unimpressed with what he�€trade;d seen as he chose to utilise all 3 substitutes at halftime. Mitten, probably suffering after his clash of heads, Torpey and Patterson were all deemed unnecessary participants. Josh Howard, Chris Simms and Simon Carden came on. Simms and Swarbrick played up front, Howard went to the right flank. Ahern shifted across to wide left in midfield with Carden in his usual attacking midfield role.
Melville was again called to action as Dave Brown slipped ahead of him allowing Martin in on goal. Fortunately Melville repelled the low shot. Swarbrick looked to get away down the United right and was crudely body checked by the acting captain, Rob Kempton. Kempton made the 3rd yellow card following the unfortunate Spencer who got his halfway through the first half for his first foul and Cotterill who was cautioned late on in the first half.
Kempton then showed the good part of his game as he defended superbly against Simms who looked to be about to get in on goal but the big number 5 eased Simms off of the ball and shepherded it to safety. On the hour mark United finally found a way to beat the stand-in �€�keeper. Carden played a nice ball in for Swarbrick who saw his shot well saved by Stokes down low to his left. The loose ball was collected by Josh Howard who somehow manoeuvred a few inches of space and dug out a cross. The cross went beyond the back post from where it was headed back towards goal. It may have been Ahern that nodded the ball back into the danger area; it was certainly Chris Simms who rose up to head home from a central position only 4 yards from goal. 1-1.
Simms nearly duplicated the effort 2 minutes later as he latched onto a Chadwick header but this time Simms�€trade; header was caught comfortably by Stokes. Simms looked to pick up a knock in the ribs in this challenge that left him hampered for most of the rest of the game. Simms again tested Stokes but again found the youngster in good form after a Cullen cross was missed by Swarbrick but fell for the veteran. Simms controlled and shot but Stokes held on low to his left again.
Carden looked sure to score as he went through the Cheadle backline but the normally clinical finisher Carden dragged his right footed shot well wide of the left post. Soon after and another controversial moment as Swarbrick thundered in on goal again. Stokes misjudged the ball in and probably could have intercepted but he stayed back giving Swarbrick a clear run on goal but somehow Swarbrick�€trade;s shot skewed wide from 10 yards. Many thought this to be a �€�jester hat�€trade; moment but I�€trade;m fairly sure that I saw a sly ankle tap as Swarbrick drew back to shoot. Again the officials saw nothing wrong and awarded a goal kick.
Into the final 15 minutes and Rob Nugent joined the attack. An efficient one-two with Simms teed up the rightback but his shot was tipped over the bar by Stokes. Stokes picked up an injury himself from the ensuing corner as he bravely dived to parry a low cross from the United right. The loose ball spun inches away from Simms who was following up. Stokes resumed after treatment.
United were beginning to be caught on the break as they, at times, over committed. Substitute Greally fired a toe-poke beyond the near post on one occasion and Smith fired a shot wildly off target after another breakaway.
Ahern cleverly turned inside onto his right foot but shot high over the bar and then a clever quick freekick move from United saw Ahern�€trade;s shot well saved by Stokes. The stand-in goalkeeper again picked up an injury as he bravely gathered the ball at Carden�€trade;s feet. He completely the match with a large bandage near his right ear where he�€�d been cut by Carden�€trade;s boot.
Another great chance fell to Carden as a Nugent freekick from deep seemed to have picked him out. Carden, near to the penalty spot, had a lot of space but perhaps wasn�€trade;t aware as he tried to shoot first time and missed the ball completely allowing it to roll through to Stokes. This in the 5th minute of stoppage time was United�€trade;s last chance.
My man of the match plaudits go to Steve Spencer who was simply magnificent. He covered every blade of grass (and patch of mud) on the Gigg Lane pitch. He was one of few who seemed to be matching the commitment of the opposition at all stages.
Kudos also to Stokes who did a great job as the emergency stand-in for Whittle. Cheadle benefited from some dubious refereeing decisions but they never gave up and matched United in the most important area in any game, goals scored.
* ok relative only to that expected at Gigg Lane after a wet week!