The Autonet Stadium, Hollinwood Road in rainy and quite frankly dull Stoke-on-Trent was the venue for FC Isle of Man’s day of reckoning in the 2022/23 North West Counties League Premier Division season. The implications were simple this time.
“Win, just win”, were Bass’ instructions to his players, not wanting to over-complicate matters this year. Last year’s experience of final day disappointment was fresh in the manager’s mind but he didn’t want to cloud his players thoughts this year.
Club captain Brian Esperance stared down at the changing room’s grey concrete floor, looking focused. He knew it was potentially a big day for him. The 29 year old Dutchman had scored an amazing 56 goals in all competitions this season, a new club record. Only 8 weeks ago he scored his 100th league goal for the Ravens at Mossley in a 2-0 win. He could be lifting the trophy come the end of the day. Like his manager said, they just simply had to win today to fend off 2nd placed Avro who were just 1 point behind, that’s all that was in his mind.
Sat 2 places away from Esperance was baby-faced 16 year old Stewart McConville, not quite as cool as Esperance, the youngster fidgeting with his left shin pad whilst his manager spoke. Just 5 weeks previously, Stewart was playing on playing fields in Douglas for the Ravens academy side yet here he was now in the starting XI for the clubs biggest game in it’s short 3 year existence so far. Bass was impressed enough by the youngster to deploy him in place of the experienced Jason White for the last 3 games. You could argue the young lad had every right to feel some nerves for this one. With the clubs new youth training facility upgraded recently last October to the tune of £136,000, he was hoping McConville was the first in a long line of home grown Isle of Man players to come through.
On the chilly rain soaked terraces, 46 Ravens fans had made the journey over by air from Douglas International to Manchester. Following FC Isle of Man was a way of life for these guys and a close knit bunch they had quickly become. “When every single one of your away games involves taking a flight, you spend a lot of time waiting around in departure lounges and airport bars, you soon get to know everyone,” said Ravens supporter Dom Jacobs.
All huddled in under the roof of the small stand behind the goal due to the grey Stoke-on-Trent rain filled afternoon, the fans were confident that last years final day choke against phoenix club Bury AFC won’t be repeated today. Dom added, “We’ve won our last 6 games. Brian Esperance, the legend, can’t stop scoring. Kidsgrove have nothing to play for, so today is surely going to be our day.”
Avro were taking on Burscough at home, just 1 point behind FC Isle of Man and were hoping for any form of slip-up from The Ravens. The surprise package of the season, the small club from Oldham had somehow managed to overcome the might of phoenix club and title favourites Bury AFC with a 3-0 win on 7th March (something which FC Isle of Man had not managed to do in 5 games against them). The fortunes of Avro would only be an issue if the Ravens were heading for defeat or draw at Kidsgrove.
Kidsgrove Athtletic: Beardmore, Hopkinson, Tetlow, Ord, Dixon, Brogan, Whieldon, Shuttleworth, Armaos, Lester, Davidson. Subs: Okoroji, Burton, Alcock, Jones, Reilly, Keller, Heler.
FC Isle of Man (4-4-2): Davidson, Currie, Morris, Furness, Ajibode, Magee, McConville, Patrick, Samms, Sunderland, Esperance (c). Subs: Bensmann, Bartholomew, Adams, White, Wilson, Davies, Reid.
3 min: GOAL! Kidsgrove Athletic 0-1 FC Isle of Man (Sunderland). The perfect start for The Ravens. A delicate side-footed volleyed pass from Akim Samms put James Sunderland through. Sunderland smashed it low first time into the near post. Surely nerves would be now settled for FC Isle of Man.
20 min: RED CARD! Stewart McConville (FC Isle of Man). An early bath for the 16 year old central midfielder. A needless challenge on Kidsgrove’s Whieldon in the centre circle earns McConville his 2nd yellow in the space of 1 minute, talk about giving the ref an easy decision. It’s not looking so straight forward now for The Ravens. Young Stewart looked inconsolable as the realisation of his minute of madness kicks in. Assistant manager Aaron Appleton walks him down the tunnel with his arm on his shoulder, the youngster is in tears. He will come back from this.
21 min: SUBSTITUTION Jason White replaces Brian Esperance (FC Isle of Man). The Ravens supporters behind the goal can’t believe what they are seeing. Manager Chris Bass has taken off his top scorer and captain Brian Esperance, scorer of 56 goals this season and sacrificed him for a defensive minded midfielder in the experienced Jason White. Something had to be done but was this the right choice? Esperance kicks a water bottle as he comes off and looks frustrated. He had eyes on lifting the trophy shortly after 4.45pm, that’s in the balance now and all he can do is watch on helplessly from the dugout in his tracksuit top.
33 min: GOAL! Kidsgrove Atheltic 0-2 FC Isle of Man (Magee). Determined play from the right midfielder, a lucky couple of ricochet’s off the Kidsgorve defenders and 17 year old Wesley Magee was clean through. A powerful effort firmly into the corner gives The Ravens a 2 goal cushion to defend with 10-men. Captain Brian Esperance is out of his seat in the dugout punching the air.
38 min: GOAL! Kidsgrove Athletic 0-3 FC Isle of Man (Sunderland). Brilliant counter attack from FC Isle of Man who were defending a Kidsgrove corner. Wesley Magee nicked the ball from Kidsgrove’s Whieldon just outside the area and advanced centrally with the ball before passing to James Sunderland on the halfway spot. Sunderland ran the lenght of the Kidsgrove half with the defenders eating his dust. He slotted from just inside the area, a clinical finish. Magical stuff by the 10-men from the Isle of Man. Surely now the title is coming to the island!
80 min: GOAL! Kidsgrove Athletic 0-4 FC Isle of Man (Sunderland). After a spell of sustained pressure from Kidsgrove, Ravens right back Isaac Currie heads the ball down to experienced midfielder Jason White. Sunderland is on the shoulder of the last defender and on his bike, a ball over the top to Sunderland chase on to. Sunderland seals his hat-trick and now the title with a chipped finish over keeper Beardmore. Let the celebrations commence! The 46 Ravens fans in the Swinton Insurance Group Stand behind the goal were in full song, “We are going up, say we are going up!”
85 min: GOAL! Kidsgrove Athletic 0-5 FC Isle of Man (Sunderland). Another Kidsgrove attack is cleared from the box by Ravens left back Leke Ajibode. James Sunderland came deep to collect the ball, held it up and played it along the ground back to Ajibode. Sunderland swivelled, he knew where he wanted it, back over the top. Ajibode’s ball had just too much on it but Sunderland had committed himself and continued his run just to put Beardmore in the Kidsgrove goal under a bit of pressure if nothing else. What should have been a routine hoof down the field for Beardmore turned to comedy as he completely missed the ball. Sunderland took full advantage and had the simplest goal of his career, walking the ball to the goal line completely unopposed before smashing it into the net and nearly ripping it away. North West Counties League Premier Division title signed, sealed and delivered there and then! Sunderland’s 30th goal of the season.
94 min: FULL TIME! Kidsgrove Athletic 0-5 FC Isle of Man. It’s there, The Ravens are confirmed champions of the North West Counties League Premier Division for 2022/23. Amazingly, what could have been a really difficult and tense afternoon with 10 men for 70 minutes was somehow as easy as anything.
The final whistle brought joyous scenes to the Autonet Stadium and captain Brian Esperance got his wish of lifting the trophy. “When the gaffer brought me off after the red card I thought we were done for. I thought it was going to be a long 70 minutes but James Sunderland with his 4 goals sorted that one out.”
With promotion now confirmed to the Northern League Division One North West, the chairman’s target of playing in the Football League by 2032 was now 4 promotions away.