The Lower League Week – Next Best To Christmas Day
MK Dons vs Wimbledon
I’ve written previously about my feelings on the MK Dons – Wimbledon conflict. While the last week or so has prompted a few arguments on the morality of the situation (mostly centring around the crowd drop post-Premiership and the Kingstonian stadium buy-out) I’m pretty strongly on Wimbledon’s side. The MK Dons chairman appeared to want to use the tie to normalise the situation into a rivalry like any other. Many Wimbledon fans saw it as a match that would trudge up dark feelings. But there was a game of football at the centre of it all.
Milton Keynes had been on a strong run going into the match having won five from six in the league, while new Wimbledon manager Neil Ardley has still been struggling to put together a positive run of results. It looked like the tie would be a relatively routine victory for the higher division side. In the match itself, both teams played some entertaining stuff, trying to keep the ball down and despite the heat of the game, relatively few bad tackles. Milton Keynes had the best of the attacking pressure, but Wimbledon never really looked ragged and had a few chances themselves. Though it’s a bit of a cliché, the game was ‘a great advert for lower league football’. Wimbledon were deservedly going into the break level…before Stephen Gleeson put in a great strike from long-range for MK.
Still, in the second half the underdogs weren’t dispirited, continuing to compete against a side who have been among League One’s strongest in possession and build-up play. Jack Midson ran through the centre, laid off the winger and made it into the area to head across the keeper from near the edge of the box. He was the scorer of 20 goals last year and just coming back into form recently, with three in the last five before the weekend.
That was the prompt for a pitch invasion, with a good few dozen Wimbledon fans running onto the field of play. Personally, I was struck by a sense of dread, that the complicated and bottled up feelings were going to spill over into something nasty. Thankfully that didn’t happen, with the overexcited fans being stewarded off the field relatively quickly.
The underdogs very nearly took the lead near the end with Will Gregory closing down a defender to win the ball, then forcing a full length save out of David Martin. Imagine the emotional outpour if that chance had been finished…
But Milton Keynes have picked up a habit of getting the wins recently. From a corner, the ball was half cleared then put back in, and John Otsemobor scored with the slightest of indifferent backheels to take MK through to the third round. When there’s debate over whether a goal was intentional, I’m normally one to give the player the benefit of the doubt. But given the nature of the flick by John Otsemobor, a right back who has scored eight goals in an 11 year career, it’s fair to say that Wimbledon were unlucky to lose a tie they’d competed surprisingly effectively in.
As a sympathetic neutral, it’s been frustrating to be reminded of how talented a PR man Pete Winkelman is and see how the debate is being reframed. But, in footballing terms, Wimbledon’s performance was the cause of praise from their manager. Given that they visit bottom of the table Barnet, only three points below them, at the weekend, they’ll need to put in the same sort of performance again.
Alfreton vs Leyton Orient
Later in the day, League One Leyton Orient travelled to their Conference hosts for a game that, to use another cliché was a ‘good old fashioned cup tie’.
Until recently, Orient had been on an awful run of six defeats in seven, the exception being a 1-0 win over Hartlepool, who, frankly, everyone beats. They had defeated Barnet, in danger of relegation from the division below during that run, but their league form saw them drop from 12th to 20th.
But victory over Gloucester in the first round of the FA Cup came during a run of four successive league victories, which has seen them climb up to 13th and will have given them confidence as they travelled to Alfreton.
One of the less resourced sides in the Conference, Alfreton sat towards the middle of the table. With only two defeats from the last 13, Alfreton looked capable of causing their league opponents trouble.
So it proved.
Early on, Alfreton’s Paul Clayton hit a powerful strike under the Orient keeper, and they had the chances to increase their lead, probably looking like the better side. It was a move pretty much out of nowhere that saw Leyton Orient’s Dean Cox cut inside and place the ball past the keeper. David Mooney found himself loose at the back post to put Orient 2-1 in front, then the centre forward connected powerfully with a cross to make it 3-1.
In the second half, Ben Tomlinson displayed a neat bit of control in the six yard box while being held back by a defender and pulled a goal back. At a time when the part-timers should have been tiring, they were becoming increasingly competitive, striking the crossbar more than once. But a tidy finish from Dean Cox, again cutting inside, sealed Orient’s progression.
Accrington vs Oxford
For the most part this was a routine cup tie between two League Two sides.
Oxford’s pacey John Paul Pitman wriggled through some bigger and nastier defenders to move into the box from the left, and slot home to give the favourites the lead. Craig Linfield later equalised for Stanley. The last ten minutes were when things got really interesting. Latching onto a knock-down from a long-ball, James Beattie smashed a stunning rising half volley past the keeper from well outside the area.
Four minutes from time, James Constable tidily placed home a close range equaliser and Lee Molyneux struck a free kick from the edge of the area in stoppage time made it seem like Accrington were going through. But deep into stoppage time, a ball cleared from a corner was placed back into the area for Raynes to head a final equaliser.
It’s the kind of series of twists and turns that will have made anyone who decided to leave early regret their choice.
James Beattie, who looked a spent force during a brief spell at Sheffield United last year, now has three in four since signing for Stanley. The class of the weekend’s goal alone is proof that he still has something to offer.
After going eight months without a league goal – a shocking length for one of League Two’s greater talents – Constable now scored for three games in a row and has five goals in nine, all singles. He’s a player who at his best has been a strikingly powerful centre forward and a regular goalscorer. Since signing for Oxford, he put away 24 and 26 goals in successive Conference seasons, then 17 and 11 in League Two, with the last of last season’s strikes coming in February.
Every report on his return to form in recent weeks seems to mention that he has attributed his increased confidence to repeated viewings of a DVD of his collected best moments. It seems a fairly obvious positive thinking tool to me, one that I’m sure other out of form goalscorers have copied. But apparently a mention of Constable’s return to form requires this fact be brought up.
Fleetwood vs Aldershot
As noted previously, Dean Holdsworth, having spent 18 months solidifying Aldershot as a league club, turned down the chance to take charge of League One noveau riche side Crawley in August. Instead of pushing on and challenging for a play-off place as he’ll have doubtlessly hoped, the Shots have fallen down the table, currently sitting in the League Two relegation zone. In all honesty, I don’t have much of an insight as to why results have been so dramatically different this season from last.
When Fleetwood took the lead through a scrappy opener by Junior Brown, it looked like the tie would go according to form. But Danny Hylton equalised with a placed shot from the edge of the area, and Peter Vincenti, seemingly intent on outdoing his team-mate , powered in a shot from 30 yards to give Aldershot the lead.
In the second half Hylton chased a ball out of defence down the wing and when the keeper came out to give the chasing defender a hand, he took the ball past him before slotting the ball away from an angle. A long shot by Fleetwood was deflected off a defender straight up into the air, which the keeper was forced to palm away, straight to Fleetwood’s David Ball. But although he pulled the tie back to 3-2, that was the final score.
Though the pair are both League Two sides, given the form, league positions, and relative resources of both teams, it was a bit of an upset. Hylton claimed afterward that the Shots’ performances have often been better against the top teams. Victory should be a shot of belief to help them turn things around.
Fleetwood’s Management Policy is Twisting my Mellon Man!
But it was a strange one. In the evening of a narrow FA Cup defeat to a team in the same league, Micky Mellon, the manager with whom Fleetwood won the Conference last year with over a hundred points and who currently has them in a play-off position, was sacked.
In fairness, it’s important to realise that Fleetwood’s achievement in getting promotion last year wasn’t all his own – he had significant backing from the board. And the signings during the summer were largely what pass for ‘big name’ signings in League Two, players who’ve proved themselves at that or a higher level, and weren’t particularly down on their luck. As well as weekend goalscorer David Ball, Jon Parkin and Steven Gillespie were among those captured in the summer who fall into that group.
There’s an obvious parallel with a recent high profile sacking. While Roman Abramovich’s behaviour is extreme, managers at Chelsea SHOULD be under more pressure than Arsene Wenger is at Arsenal because they have more resources. More resources equals higher expectations in return – that’s the case in League Two as much as it is higher up the leagues.
And in fact, there’s probably a case to be made that Fleetwood should be higher up the table, challenging for automatic promotion. The gap between Conference and League Two isn’t that big, with many teams picking up successive promotions in the last decade. It’s always hard to fairly judge how quickly a well-resourced but growing team should put together results worthy of their separate parts. But they’re in a play-off position, only four points off third. It’s definitely a reasonable possibility that a good run could be put together to take The Cod Army up the table.
Even if you accept the performance so far is slightly sub-standard, with only twenty games gone, a manager who delivered everything that could be expected over the last four years in charge should be given time to ‘turn things round’.
Chairman Andy Pilley hasn’t, as far as I’ve seen, given concrete reasons for the sacking. He’s spoken only in plattitudes, saying “I’ve got to stand up and be counted and that’s the decision I’ve made”, and that “it’s not about the past, it’s about the present and the future.”
That’s all very well, but the past is often a good indicator of the future. And those arguments could be used just as equally if the ‘decision he’d made’ had been to sell his children into slavery or throw dynamite in the fishpond.
Pilley claims to have invested £10 million in the club, a huge amount considering his side have been non-league for most of that time. Most people would give Pilley more credit than Mellon for Fleetwood’s rise, but it’s still quite a classless move to sack him under these circumstances.
Sheffield Utd vs Port Vale
This tie saw the return of Port Vale manager Micky Adams to the side he grew up supporting, and who led into League One… from the Championship. The League Two side took the lead when the Blades attempted to overplay things in defence, playing the ball short when logic would suggest the smart choice would be to get the ball clear. A ball across defence was intercepted by hard working forwards and squared to Tom Pope to slot home a pretty easy finish.
The Blades pushed Vale back, but repeatedly to no effect – it looked like Adams was going to prove more successful as a visitor to Bramall Lane than he ever was as a host.
Until, that was, late in the game Shaun Miller latched onto a long pass forward, to nod the ball into the corner. Still, a draw would be a decent result for Vale, right? At 1-1, a shot was well saved, the ball fell to Richard Cresswell near the penalty spot who was tackled, and the ball travelled sideways to Miller who pretty much had an open goal from the same range. He slotted home in the fifth minute of stoppage time to hammer home the message that Micky Adams never gets what he wants from Bramall Lane.
Below the Lower Leagues
Not the usual for a column that focuses on Leagues One and Two, but there were a few all non-league ties.
Conference North Harrogate hosted Hastings United from one division below the Conference South on a pitch that seemed like it had been designed to look awful without being remotely dangerous. The match finished 1-1, though Harrogate pushed hard for a winner towards the end, and had a header against the post from centre forward Chilaka. The winners of the tie have been drawn away to Middlesbrough in the third round.
Lincoln and Mansfield drew 3-3, the highlight being when Mansfield’s Briscoe volleyed from the edge of the area. Lincoln midfielder Alan Power scored a free kick from distance and a placed shot in response to a save.
Both the replay and the third round tie at home to Liverpool have been chosen to be screened live on ESPN. The replay will bring in £34,000 per team, the Liverpool match £135,000 for whichever of the two makes it through. Needless to say, it’s a huge amount for a Conference club.
Luton tore ahead against against Dorchester, going into a comfortable 2-0 lead, which was pulled back to 2-1, but Luton managed to hold out.
Abu Ogogo o.g.
There were a handful of games in League Two. During Torquay’s win over Dagenham, a ball in from the left hit a defender at the edge of the area, taking an almost 90 degree deflection. It was a pretty unfortunate own goal. But the goalscorer’s name did provide some amusement for simple minds like myself – Abu Ogogo’s name came up on the vidiprinter as Ogogo o.g.
As you may have seen elsewhere, Mitchell Cole, formerly of Stevenage, Southend and Oxford, died at the weekend. He had gradually been playing less and less in recent years after being diagnosed with a heart condition and passed away at the age of 27.
Cole scored the second ever competitive goal at the new Wembley in 2007, helping to take Stevenage into the Football League. 22 months ago he finally gave up on continuing to play in the League, and has played occasionally for a variety of semi-pro teams since.
Stevenage have already started putting plans in place for a benefit match, with his former managers Graham Westley and Mark Stimson to be involved.
At the weekend, both Oxford and Aldershot (who had a number of Cole’s former team-mates in their side) dedicated their results to the former midfielder’s memory.
What do you think about what I have to say about your club? Are those mentioned under-appreciated or overrated? Did I miss someone or something that should be covered? Join in by commenting below, or find me on Twitter @Joe_Bloghead