Carl Pope finishes the last dregs of his pint in the Bedworth United FC Social Club and begins to make his way to the seated main stand for the upcoming kick-off of the Regional Division One Playoff Final between Ashford United and FC Isle of Man. As he attempts to leave the packed bar, he is patted on the back and wished well by numerous Ravens fans as he exits. No mattter the result today, this will be FC Isle of Man’s chairman Carl Pope’s last ever game representing the club as chairman. Having ruled himself out for re-election in the upcoming club presidential elections coming up in June, it will be somebody else sat in the hotseat next year.
Pope can be proud with what he has helped build with The Ravens. He was instrumental in getting the club formed, accepted into the English league pyramid system and securing The Bowl in Douglas as the club’s home ground just for starters. Under his chairmanship the club has acheieved 2 promotions, climbing from the depths of the North West Counties League Division One South up to the Northern Premier League Division One North West in just 4 years. Victory today could see The Ravens reach the Northern Premier League and potentially be just 3 promotions away from the Football League. Behind the scenes, Pope has also overseen the club’s training facilites improved with over £300,000 investment going in and the youth academy was this season granted category 4 status. There is no doubt that Pope leaves FC Isle of Man with the future looking bright.
Bedworth United’s home ground, The Oval, today’s neutral ground for the playoff final, is absolutely packed to the rafters. With just the one proper stand behind the dugouts, it is standing room only around the other 3 sides of the ground. People are 4 or 5 deep behind the green metal railings all around, the locals say they havent seen scenes like this here since 1982 when 5,000 turned up for a Southern League match between Bedworth and Nuneaton Borough. Nearly 2,500 Ravens fans have made the trip from the Isle of Wight to Warwickshire, once again showing fantastic levels of support. There is a small pocket of about 500 Ashford fans clad in green behind the goal to the left and the pre-match atmosphere is fairly lively.
Watching the teams warm-up in the main stand is FC Isle of Man legend Brian Esperance, currently recovering from a fractured hip he picked up following a nasty collision with a Bamber Bridge defender at the end of February. Esperance had hit an incredible 40 goals by this point and was having the season of his life before it came crashing down. Sat next to Esperance is the experienced pair of injured right back Isaac Currie, 29 nursing an ankle ligament injury picked up in the playoff semi final win against Maldon & Tiptree and suspended centre back Alex Morris, 30 which makes for a fairly young and inexperienced FC Isle of Man starting XI on the pitch today. How will those players handle this occasion?
Ashford United of the Isthmian League Division One South are going to be tricky opponents for FC Isle of Man. Under the guidance of 35 year old manager Tom Graham, Ashford have finished 3rd, 3rd and 2nd in the past 3 seasons only to fall short in the playoffs. United have a settled side and know how to win. They are certainly owed some good fortune in these end of season winner takes all lottery fixtures.
Striker Johan ter Horst in their main man and if the past few weeks are anything to go by he is looking in good shape. Johan has managed double figures in goals for the last 4 seasons since he signed for Ashford from local rivals Folkestone Invicta. He burst onto the scene as a teenager for Folkestone and impressed enough for Steve Bruce, then manager of Hull City in the Premier League, to sign him on a 3 year deal 11 years ago. He didn’t quite make it as a full time professional but played in Hull’s U23’s along with Harry Maguire and Andrew Robertson. He is certainly going to be a handful for FC Isle of Man’s youthful centre-back partnership of Shaun Adams and Phillip Duffy.
Ashford United (4-2-3-1): Collins, Westwood, Crellin, Cole, Greco, Taylor, Skinner, Fasanmade, Hickey, McAughtrie, ter Horst. Subs: Bailey, Acar, J.Rose, Burdett, D.Rose, Foulkes, Davis
FC Isle of Man (4-4-2): Davidson, Tshibuabua, Duffy, Adams, Ajibode, Magee, McConville, Johnson, Samms, Sunderland, Reid. Subs: Tensel, Bartholomew, Doyle, Jordan, Wilson, Forbes, Smyth
9 minutes: FC Isle of Man striker Orville Reid receives the ball with his back to goal in the centre circle, turns defender Remi Crellin and runs into space. As he dashes off towards goal with serious intent it’s almost reminiscent of his goal against West Auckland Town earlier in the season when he ran half the pitch with the ball and scored a blinder. However, on this occasion Reid’s shot is weak and is comfortably caught by keeper Collins.
Ashford keeper Collins, ball in hand, is on the front and immediately launches the ball forward looking for the counter for Ashford. Johan ter Horst skilfully takes it cleanly on the halfway ljne before passing out it wide right to the Ashford United right midfielder. The ball is airbourne seconds later, a crossfield pass finds Fasanmade on the edge of the FC Isle of Man box and he gets a volley away before FC Isle of Man’s Leke Ajibode can close him down. The volley goes safely wide in the end but both sets of fans applaud this frantic passage of play. It was end-to-end stuff, this has the makings of a classic playoff final if it carries on at this pace.
Half-time: Ashford United 0-0 FC Isle of Man. Despite the frenetic 8th minute it’s been a dull 1st half in honesty. Very cagey from both sides and not much creativity on display. The large queue for the social club for a half-time drink probably being the biggest talking point.
55 minutes: Bobby Johnson in the FC Isle of Man midfield hits a curling 30 yard pass forward over the top into the Ashford box which is met by James Sunderland. Sunderland watches the ball over his shoulder and hits it on the volley. His low shot beat Collins but clipped the outside of the near post. The closest anyone has come yet, it has got the fans back into life and will hopefully get this playoff final going too.
89th minute: The supporters have been starved of goalmouth action so far. Ashford’s left back Rico Greco beats Wesley Magee on the halfway line and plays a ball down the line to Danny Rose (not the Spurs one) which carves Isle of Man wide open. Rose delivered a low ball to the near post which finds Mark Burdett unmarked 7 yards out. The Ravens fans can barely look as Burdett seems to be the only one who has read it. Burdett sticks his right peg out looking to sidefoot it home, but somehow he’s put it wide when it looked it harder to miss. Anguish is in the air all around The Oval. That was the game then and there. Burdett has his head in his hands as does the Ashford gaffer Tom Graham. The FC Isle of Man contingent know how close they came to losing it. The Ravens will take extra time right now in a heartbeat.
Full-time: Ashford United 0-0 FC Isle of Man. Into extra-time we go. Not the most eye-catching fixture so far.
102nd minute: Following the pattern of the rest of the game, the opening 12 minutes of extra-time has been cagey and tense. Ashford have a throw-in midway down the Fc Isle of Man half, United’s Rico Greco throws the ball in to Danny Rose midway through the FC Isle of Man half. Ashford look dangerous playing in triangles as Rose plays it inside to Burdett, with a neat first time pass to Justin Rose and then to Attacking midfielder Brad Hickey. Ravens sub Sam Doyle (replacement for Shaun Adams) backs off Hickey as he advnaces to the Isle of Man penalty box, giving him way too much room and respect. Hickey lets fly from distance, a powerful low effort and it catches Davidson out at his near post. The ball skids of the 4G surface and into the net. Ashford have the lead! Three quarters of the ground fall silent whilst the fans in green celebrate wildly.
108th minute: FC Isle of Man’s Sam Doyle, 16 years old and actually making his debut as a sub, plays a high ball down the right flank to Jay Forbes who is in acres of space. Forbes has time to look up and pick out James Sunderland on the 6 yard line with a square ball. Sunderland’s eyes light up, he’s unmarked and has a clear view from point blank range. There’s a sudden hush from the Ravens fans, surely the net is going to bulge in a second or two. Sunderland pulls back his right foot, ready to pounce, he has 24 goals already this season, he doesn’t miss these. But wait, where has Andrew Cole come from? What a tackle, he takes it off the toe of Sunderland and out it goes for a corner. Sunderland looks down at the turf, he can’t believe it. The Ravens fans are cursing their luck, time is running out and the tension is rising. They’ll have to settle with a corner…
19 year old Jay Forbes takes a breath before running up and delvering a frankly disappointing corner that doesn’t even beat the first Ashford United man. The ball is headed clear but recovered by FC Isle of Man’s Bobby Johnson just outside the crowded penalty box. Johnson, composed with all of his 30 years refrains from just sending it back into the box and instead picks out FC Isle of Man’s prized asset in 18 year old gifted midfielder Stuart McConville with a square ball. McConville seizes the initiative and runs driectly into the penalty box leaving Westwood flatfooted and heads towards the goal line with only Ashford’s Brad Hickey in his path. McConville obviously looking to pull the ball back once Hickey is beaten, heads face on to his marker, he has the pace on him. Hickey sticks out a leg, McConville is floored and the ball is trickling out for a throw-in. 2,500 Raven fans are screaming for a penalty, McConville immediately picks himself up and appeals at the referee. Time stands still for a moment, Hickey’s heart must be in his mouth. The referee waves play on to the disgust of all from the Isle of Man, The air turns blue but play ultimately goes on and FC Isle of Man have just 12 minutes left to save their season.
120th minute: Just seconds remain as FC Isle of Man have a last gasp corner as they search desperately for an equaliser. The Ashford fans are whistling at the referee to blow up prematurely. Jay Forbes floats in a corner to the near post. Young Sam Doyle cleanly wins the header and angles it towards the centre of the goal. Collins is caught wrong-footed, his momentum taking him away from the ball. Stood on the line is Justin Rose, his feet planted firmly on the floor, he doesn’t move or react either and the ball hits him on the chest and bounces towards Collins. The desperate keeper gets a palm on it and steers it away from Orville Reid before taking control of the ball. Surely that is it for The Ravens, Collins won’t rush now. How close was that?
120+1st minute: A desperate punt forward from Fc Isle of Man is easily captured by Ashford keeper Collins. The Ashford fans are singing that they are going up and the whistles for the ref’s full-time blow up are at almost ear drum piercing decibel levels. Collins launches the ball forward from his hands expecting the ref to wrap it up imminently but the ball is met by FC Isle of Man centre-back Shaun Adams who launches his right boot at it with full force and hoofs it high into the air. James Sunderland is first on it and meets the ball in the Ashford area. He controls it perfectly with his right foot before unleashing a piledriver into the near post. In slow motion, Collins is beaten and on his back, the net ripples with the ball eventually resting deep into the far corner of the goal. Sunderland has done it at the very, very end and runs to the fans with his arms aloft in pure ecstacy. The FC Isle of Man bench are on their feet and running towards Sunderland. But wait, the assistant has his flag raised. The ref has blown his whistle and is pointing for a free kick. Hearts are broken, some of the kindergarten branch of Ravens fans are in tears. Manager Chris Bass demands an explanation from the 4th official who tells him Sunderland was running back from an offside position when Shaun Adams plays the ball. Before you know it, play has resumed, did that really happen? Seconds later, the full-time whistle is blown and the cries of joy from the Ashford fans, players, staff and board members alike dwarfs the sound of silent disbelief and disappointment being felt by FC Isle of Man.
Full-time: Ashford United 1-0 FC Isle of Man (AET). For the second year running it’s playoff pain for FC Isle of Man. In a close game that could have gone either way, it’s Ashford United who win promotion. The Ravens head home with that empty feeling in their stomachs knowing that 9 months worth of work has come to nothing. The cliche of ‘we go again’ is muttered but that seems like too much of an effort right now.
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