Manager of the month Marginson only made a couple of changes to the starting line-up for this trip to the Potteries. Simon Carden finally pushed his way back into the starting eleven after a long fight back after his knee injury, the unlucky Will Ahern, who has done little wrong in his time in the side covering in central midfield for both Carden and Steve Spencer, took a place on the bench. Joz Mitten also found himself amongst the substitutes for this one after starting in the draw with Cheadle; Josh Howard came back in after he too had spent time out, in his case with illness rather than injury. Adie Orr also reappeared after an absence of a month or so, making his return on the bench.
Vale Park was looking in good order until 15 minutes before kick off when a hailstorm arrived in Burslam. Within minutes the green grass was barely visible as the pitch softened under the weight of the falling hail. It quickly became apparent that a coloured ball would be required.
Norton United kicked off with the yellow ball and attacked the end where most of the travelling United supporters were sheltering from the hail which was still falling steadily. The opening exchanges were uneventful as both teams struggled to string together more than 2 or 3 passes. The pitch was very difficult as a bouncing ball would initially skip on the skiddy surface but would then slow dramatically as the ice built up as the ball rolled on the ground.
The early exchanges showed that Margy had kept to the usual 4-4-2 formation but that Steve Torpey was deployed up front alongside with Rory Patterson rather than in his more customary wide left position. Howard and Swarbrick were given the freedom to swap in the 2 wide positions with Howard spending most of his time on the right.
The first meaningful United attack came in the 10th minute as Howard sprinted/splashed his way down the right flank before delivering in an early cross to Patterson at the edge of the area. Mr. Godwin-Davey, who seems to be refereeing every other FC United match at the moment, awarded a freekick as Rory was buffeted by the Norton captain, John Powell. Steve Torpey spotted the ball up in a central position just outside of the area but could only drive his shot low into the defensive wall; the rebound eventually fell for Rob Nugent who fired a shot high and wide from 25 yards.
Ten minutes later Dave Swarbrick used his pace to latch onto a loose ball on the left flank. Jason Coventry in the Norton goal dashed from his goal to attempt to clear but was beaten to the ball by United�€trade;s number 9. Unfortunately for Swarbrick he could not collect the ball that he deftly sent to one side of Coventry as he lost his footing in the treacherous conditions. The Norton defence cleared the ball with no further dramas.
In the 25th minute United put the ball into the Norton net but the �€�goal�€trade; was ruled out by a raised flag from the referee�€trade;s assistant. The ball had been expertly delivered beyond the back post by Dave Brown from near halfway. Josh Howard squared the ball back into the middle where Simon Carden tapped home. The linesman hadn�€trade;t signalled for an offside so I presume that he had ruled against Dave Swarbrick or Rory Patterson who both seemed to be tangling with their markers as they ran into the area as the kick was taken.
After the disappointment of yet another disallowed �€�goal�€trade; we did not have to wait very long for a goal that did count. This historic strike signalled 100 league goals in the season and it was registered in slightly controversial circumstances. Firstly, Norton might feel aggrieved that a Torpey challenge on the right touchline was not ruled a foul. Torpey accelerated just ahead of the Norton player in possession and then used his strength to gain control of the ball whilst the Norton player failed to keep his feet. Torpey quickly looked up and saw Coventry some way out of his goal and went for the audacious shot from 40+ yards. His left foot effort was slicing slightly wide of target but Coventry had to scramble back and across and could only palm the ball away. The Norton �€�keeper looked to have averted the threat when he dived onto the loose ball but it squirmed from his grasp leaving a predatory Josh Howard with the relatively easy task of rolling the ball into the empty net. Norton captain Powell received the second yellow card of the match as he complained long and loud about the circumstances leading to the goal. 0-1.
In the couple of minutes after United took the lead they pressed to double the lead as Patterson was just thwarted by Coventry who was quick off of his line. Soon after this United constructed a nice move with Steve Spencer squaring to Rob Nugent who was eagerly supporting the attack on the right flank. Nuge picked an early pass into Simon Carden�€trade;s feet but United�€trade;s early season goal-scoring machine could only put the ball harmlessly behind after an excellent turn outside of his marker had opened up a little space.
Norton threatened an equaliser on the half-hour mark. Powell glanced a header as a long freekick was fired in from around the halfway line. The tall Norton defender made just a slight contact on the ball but his header looked, from my angle in the main stand, to be arrowing into goal near to the right hand post. To the relief of most present the ball passed on the harmless side of the upright rather than on the side with netting attached.
In the 41st minute, with proper snow now replacing the hail that had continued to fall throughout the half, United won a corner kick on the left side. Josh Howard hit the ball into the danger area and Dave Swarbrick did well to get his head to the ball but his header flew beyond the post. In the 43rd minute Carden attempted to punch in a Torpey cross that was just beyond him. The officials were not fooled by this and awarded the freekick to the home side. In stoppage time Carden and Swarbrick combined well with the latter delivering a precise driven cross that Torpey failed to make contact with as he attempted a flicked header.
The halftime interval saw us entertained by some Norton youngsters taking penalties. The FC United masses offered appropriate support for the youngsters who clearly loved performing for an appreciative crowd. The Schmeichel look-alike goalkeeper seemed to be having as much fun as anyone as he saved a few of the kicks. Plenty of sympathy was felt for one of the smaller participants who saw his strike bog down in the mud and fail to reach the goal, oops!
Whilst we were watching kids earnest conversations were being had in the away dressing room as it was decided that David Chadwick would not resume in the second half. It turns out that Chaddy had tweaked his hamstring in the prematch warm up routines. It was decided that he would try it out and it was ok in the first part of the half but as the match wore on and the ground got softer and heavier our captain was feeling the strain every time he stretched or turned. Sensibly he decided to come off and avoid another 45 minutes on such a heavy surface which surely would have exacerbated the injury.
Will Ahern was the beneficiary of Chaddy�€trade;s misfortune. The captain�€trade;s early departure necessitated a reorganisation with Rob Nugent sliding across from right-back to partner acting captain Dave Brown. Next season�€trade;s reserve team manager, Tony Cullen, swapped from left back to right back and Steve Spencer filled in at left back. Ahern teamed up with Carden in central midfield.
Five minutes into the second half and Norton created some pressure but no panic in the United backline as Powell delivered a teasing cross in from the right side. The ball was directed to the no man�€trade;s land between the defence and the goalkeeper. It wasn�€trade;t possible for Melville to come for the cross and it was far from easy for the defenders to deal with. Somehow, facing his own goal, Rob Nugent managed to intercept the cross and divert it behind for a corner kick. A truly great bit of defending, which might easily have resulted in the ball being turned into his own net, from Nugent.
In the 54th minute Adie Orr came on to replace Dave Swarbrick who had been unusually subdued. Adie and Steve Torpey spent the remainder of the match alternating between a wide left and a central position.
Just after the hour Norton were offered a lifeline. Phil Melville had hardly been troubled to this point but he was soon called to action as the unfortunate Cullen conceded a penalty kick. A long ball was sent in by Peter Marsh and just eluded Patterson who was helping out on the edge of the United box. The ball skipped on the soaking surface and struck Cullen on his arm. Mr. Godwin-Davey barely hesitated before pointing to the spot. There were few complaints from the United players who probably realised that it was a valid decision from the referee if slightly harsh on Cullen.
Kieran Woolley spotted the ball and looked supremely confident as he strode forward but his right-footed effort was well stopped by Phil Melville, diving to his right. Big Phil even held onto the ball and was ready to resume play when it became clear that the referee was ordering a retake. He had spotted 2 or 3 defenders encroaching inside the area before the kick was taken and correctly ordered it to be retaken. Steve Spencer managed to talk his way into Godwin-Davey�€trade;s notebook as he contested the decision to order the kick retaken. After a brief delay Woolley again spotted the ball, Melville again dived to his right but the taker had changed sides and fired a low shot in the opposite direction to Melville�€trade;s dive. Unfortunately for Woolley his shot was well wide of the post and a chance to equalise was lost to the hosts.
Patterson was presented with a golden opportunity to extend the lead as an attempted back pass from Anthony Kirk fell short of its target. Patterson did well to anticipate the pass and to gamble but having found himself just inside the area with only Coventry to beat he seemed to dally and Coventry launched into a textbook lunging tackle that saw the danger averted. This missed opportunity soon looked more significant as the homes side finally got their equaliser on 69 minutes as the penalty taker Woolley partially redeemed himself by providing a pinpoint cross from the right that Mark Grice nodded home from 8 yards out. 1-1.
With the sun now shining Margy responded to the equaliser by introducing Joz Mitten to the fray with Patterson coming off. With Joz on the pitch United started to launch high balls into the area and found that Coventry was not confident in dealing with this bombardment. The home �€�keeper came out to a few of these crosses but never looked comfortable in the crowded area. It seemed only a matter of time before United scored again and so it proved but there were a few misses before the lead was regained.
With 15 minutes remaining Joz flicked on at the near post, Coventry just got fingertips to the ball but it dropped in front of goal towards the far post. In rushed Dave Brown with the simplest of tasks to convert as the ball stopped no more than a foot from the goal line. Somehow United�€trade;s acting captain swung his right foot and completely missed the ball allowing a defender to clear his lines. Immediately after the fulltime whistle Brown was heard to excuse his �€�jester hat�€trade; moment �€“ �€�I was dazzled by the sun,�€� he said!
Just one minute after Brown�€trade;s blunder United put the ball into the net only for the officials to bizarrely rule the goal out. Josh Howard was near to the bye-line on the right side, he delivered a cross in that was headed back towards his own goal by a Norton defender. Coventry did tremendously well to react and at a stretch managed to push the ball against his left hand post. The ball rebounded from the inside of the post across the face of goal where Joz Mitten gleefully knocked it into the net. Somehow the linesman saw an offside, I�€trade;m not sure whether it was from Howard�€trade;s pulled back (!) cross or from the defender�€trade;s (!) header but whatever the reason the goal did not count.
At the other end Grice tried his luck again with a freekick just over the bar from 25 yards out. Melville looked to be relieved as it passed above the intended target. This was only a brief respite for Coventry and the Norton backline as United marched forwards again. Torpey and Orr exchanged passes before Powell intercepted the low cross and put it behind for yet another corner kick. Torpey took the kick and picked out Rob Nugent but his header went wide with Coventry again not getting anything onto the cross despite his best efforts. Mysteriously, United were awarded another corner after Nugent�€trade;s miss so perhaps a defender did get the last touch?
The resulting corner was taken by Howard and he again picked out Joz at the near post. Mitten�€trade;s deft flick looped beyond Coventry and fell in front of goal in much the same position from which Brown had so miserably failed to convert minutes earlier. Happily on this occasion it was Steve Torpey who latched onto the loose ball and the Wiganer made no mistake as he scored only his second goal in nearly 2 months and his eleventh league goal of the season. 1-2.
Two minutes later and the game was made safe as another Howard corner aimed to Mitten at the near post was diverted into this own net by Kirk (?) at the near post. Mitten�€trade;s presence and aerial threat had turned the game as the Norton backline seemed to have no answers to the big man. 1-3.
In the final minutes Joz managed to score another disallowed goal. On this occasion he might legitimately have been ruled offside after a neat break from Torpey with Orr also involved. In stoppage time Torpey had 2 good chances to further extend the lead but on both occasions he dragged his shots wide of the far post. The first chance was provided by Orr but the shot from right of goal went wide. Moments later an exchange with Carden set United�€trade;s favourite Scouser scampering clear again but this time his left footed effort passed just beyond the right hand post.
My man of the match vote would go to Steve Torpey with Joz Mitten just behind him in the ranking. Torpey was all action and looked a lot more lively than of late, perhaps it suited him playing in a more central role. Mitten changed the game when he came on and was terribly unfortunate not to have added his name onto the score sheet. He will have made a compelling case for inclusion from the start in the next match.