2023/24 Season | Walton Casuals (N) | Regional Division One Playoff Semi-Final

Stewart McConville waved his FC Isle of Man flag furiously in the air in the imposing and mostly empty 2-tiered all seated stand behind the goal at Walsall FC’s Banks Stadium. The stadium announcer’s words echoing around in the acoustics as he reads out the team line-ups, McConville’s name is missing from the list. The 17 year old had cheekily sunk a few underage lagers in the concourse and was with his mates, having a laugh on an away day which involved a flight out from Douglas International airport and a cheap night in a West Midlands Travelodge. McConville’s alcohol consumption was numbing the disappointment on missing out on what would have been the biggest game of his fledgling football career so far, the Regional Division One Playoff Semi-finals.

Since making 5 tentative first team appearances at the tail end of last season for FC Isle of Man, McConville had firmly established himself in Chris Bass’ starting XI for the entirety of the 2023/24 season. He had made 32 appearances and his ability seemed to be growing all the time, enough so for Aldershot Town from the Vanarama National to come calling only to be rebuffed by Chris Bass. “They wanted him for free, it was absurd, not even any future incentives were offered. After the £140,000 investment we had put into youth facilities last season, we want at least something back in return. Stewart’s time will come.”

A yellow card in the 1-0 win over Skelmersdale on 7th May 2024 made it 13 bookings in total for McConville this season ensuring him a 3 match ban ruling him out of the playoff semi-final with Walton Casuals and also the final, if the Ravens got there of course. It was a shame for the lad, he’d scored his 1st goal in senior football only recently on 30th March 2024 against Runcorn Linnets and then followed it up with another against Durham the following weekend. His promising form had helped FC Isle of Man reach 3rd in the Northern Premier League Division One North West and a spot in the play-offs.

Meanwhile, in the tunnel, captain Brian Esperance stood at the front looking dead ahead at the field of play in front of him as The Ravens awaited for Walton Casuals to emerge from their changing room. Another good season for him, 43 goals, the man was a club legend.

Behind Esperance was keeper Jordan Davidson, standing tall at 6’0” and leading the way in terms of clean sheets this season in the Northern League Division One North West (18 in total). He of course had his defence to thank for assisting him in that. inlcuding transfer find of the season Phillip Duffy, 18 years old and 6’5” who signed from Swallownest from a couple of divisions below. The young Irishman was flung straight into the team from virtual obscurity at the start of the campaign as a replacement for Matt Furness who returned home to Scotland, the lad managed to keep himself there all season long.

Although Stuart McConville was missing, Bobby Johnson in midfield had been a revelation, the other new signing Chris Bass made in pre-season, a free-kick technician with 10 goals to his name. Finally, Chris Bass had felt he had found a central midfielder that commanded.

Walton Casuals finally emerged from their dressing room in their distinctive black and orange shirts having being given a friendly nudge by the referee. There was no doubt about it, their squad was more experienced than The Ravens with most of their lads having come through the wastelands of professional London club academies like QPR, Millwall and Crystal Palace. Ugandan Striker Ibra Sekajja, 31, was well travelled through the higher echelons of non-league and even had 3 Championship appearances to his name for Crystal Palace in the early 2010’s. Going in the favour of FC Isle of Man was the absence of Casual’s centre back Nathanial Oseni due to a sports hernia. The former Manchester City trainee had been one of their most consistent performers all season long.

The teams walk out, it’s a colourful spectacle, the orange and black of Walton Casuals contrasting nicely with the white and olive away strip of FC Isle of Man against the backdrop of almost 8,000 empty bright red seats in Walsall FC’s Banks’s Stadium.

Up in the posh director seats, club chairmen Carl Pope of FC Isle of Man and Tony Gale of Walton Casuals stand side by side applauding their teams out. Gale, a familiar face in football having won the Premier League with Blackburn Rovers as a player in the 1990’s and more recently turned Sky Sports Pundit was looking smart in a black suit with orange and black club tie. Pope on the other hand sports this season’s Joma FC Isle of Man home shirt with a Ravens scarf draped over his shoulders, pure Manx passion on display.


Teams

Walton Casuals (4-4-2): Hill, Bowden, Lent, Fox, Connolly, Chandler, Maher, Munting, Miller-Fenwick, Turnbull, Sekajja. Subs: Fanshawe, Drame, Pickering, O’Connor, Lamont, Martin

FC Isle of Man (4-4-2): Davidson, Currie, Morris, Duffy, Ajibode, Magee, Johnson, Patrick, Samms, Esperance (c), Sunderland. Subs: Tensel, Bartholomew, Adams, Dolan, Davies, Wilson, Reid

Attendance: 2,019


10 min: GOAL! Walton Casuals 1 (Ibra Sejakka) FC Isle of Man 0. A poor kick from GK Jordan Davidson is easily controlled by Munting. Casuals play through the mdifeld and Sekajja is unchallenged just outside the FC Isle of Man box. A neat ball inside to Turnbull, Sekajja continues his run and receives a through ball from Miller-Fenwick just inside the area. Sekajja’s low shot clunks off the foot of the near post with a big thud and the rebound looks like it was going to land kindly for the experienced striker. Sekajja is of course the first to react and places the ball in the back of the net. No pressure offered by FC Isle of Man and it’s all too easy for Walton Casuals. Ravens boss Chris Bass was heard shouting at his team to ‘bloody wake up!’

45+1 min: OFFSIDE! Yet again another poor kick from Ravens goalkeeper Jordan Davidson which is intercepted by Casuals centre-back Fox who easily beat the uncharacteristically quiet FC Isle of Man talisman Brian Esperance. The pacey Casuals winger Miller-Fenwick was fed down the left flank (now nursing a knee injury following a tough tackle from Currie minutes ealier) but still manages to jink and bob with the ball and making life uncomfortable for Isle of Man’s right back. A ball over the top to Turnbull is too high even for the 6’6″ Alex Morris who jumps more out of last resort hope than any real chance of actually winning the lofted ball. A swing of the left boot and Turnbull has it in the back of the net. But the assistant has his flag up, ruled out, a lucky escape for FC Isle of Man, grateful for the half-time whistle seconds later and to be going in at just 1-0 down.

52 mins: GOAL! Walton Casuals 1 FC Isle of Man 1 (James Sunderland). Finally a bit of attacking initiative by FC Isle of Man, right back Isaac Currie picks up a hoofed clearance from the Walton Casuals box. Attacking the flank, Currie outpaces no.7 and heads for the corner flag. With FC Isle of Man still camped in the box following the previous attack, Currie sends in a cross as he reaches the penalty box and it’s a good one. The Ravens fans behind the goal they are attacking rise out of their seats in almost perfect unison, finally a genuine sight on goal. James Sunderland is on hand and in space between 2 Casuals defenders. With 23 goals to his name already this season, Sunderland doesn’t normally snuff opportunities like this and his 1st time effort creeps into the near post. The 1,800 fans behind the goal where the equaliser was just scored go rightfully mental. The Ravens have found a way back into this semi-final, can they build on it?

68 mins: GOAL! Walton Casuals 2 (Ibra Sekajja) FC Isle of Man 1. FC Isle of Man are undone on the counter by Walton Casuals. Not for the first time this afternoon Isaac Currie’s long throw-in into the box fails to beat the 1st defender. It takes Casuals just 6 seconds to find Turnbull in the FC Isle of Man half beating Alex Morris easily and leaving the FC Isle of Man defender on his backside. It’s 4 against 3 and Sekajja is fed the ball just inside the penalty box, a low shot into the far corner ends a deadly move and Walton Casuals have the lead again.

89 mins: Walton Casuals 3 (Jordan Davidson O.G.) FC Isle of Man 1. FC Isle of Man have a free-kick in a dangerous position just outside the Walton Casuals box. With time quickly running out for The Ravens, the anxiety in the stand where the FC Isle of Man fans congregate is at an all time high. The area is packed with no less than 17 players, very congested. Bobby Johnson, FC Isle of Man’s free-kick specialist waits for the whistle and looks up. The angle isn’t right for a shot and The Ravens have all the big lads up. It is now or never for FC Isle of Man. The cross is headed clear and Casuals break from the box with only Isaac Currie and Leke Ajibode back for Isle of Man. The dangerous Sekajja is taken out mid way through the FC Isle of Man half by Ajibode but the ball runs free for and the ref waves play on, a good advantage. The ref may re-visit this afterwards but that is not important at the moment. Walton’s Chandler picks the ball up and continues the charge, he has Turnbull with him in the centre and only the isolated Isaac Currie stands in between as he marauds into the penalty area. Currie puts in a desperate late challenge on Chandler, knocks him off balance, there’s shouts for a penatly, play on. Chandler stayed on his feet, only just, and plays the ball to Turnbull but it’s not great and FC Isle of Man are able to regroup and now have 6 bodies in the box. The momentum is lost and Turnbull plays the ball back to Maher on the edge of the box. Maher shoots through the crowd, it hits the post, Jordan Davidson was diving at full stretch. The ball rebounds of the post and hits Davidson on the back, the keeper is powerless and the ball bounces over the line in slow motion. Walton Casuals now had a 2 goal cushion with only stoppage time to see out, surely the end of the road for FC Isle of Man.

FULL-TIME: Walton Casuals 3-1 FC Isle of Man. It’s the team from Surrey that progress to the play-off final.

Stuart McConville is pulled from the stand and onto the pitch by his teammates Wesley Magee and Phillip Duffy and encouraged to take part in the applause to the 1,800 FC Isle of Man fans thanking them for the support, not for just today but for the entire 2023/24 season. Although missing today due to suspension McConville has been a key figure all season long. These fans deserve applauding, the monumental effort of crossing the Irish Sea week-in-week-out just to support their team cannot go unnoticed.

Another season in the Northern Premier League Division One West beckons for FC Isle of Man…

Unleash The Ravens