Stafford Rangers 0 Basford United 0 (16th April 2016)
A three hour plus drive and I get to see a 0-0 draw. It doesn’t sound the greatest afternoon, does it? The hope had been for a promotion party, but the frustration of my trip up, where my detour to avoid delays caused by a crash on the M40 was further delayed by a broken down car causing a jam in Banbury, was matched by Stafford Rangers failing to nick the winner that would have seen them promoted and crowned champions of their division.
With bad weather forecast, I’d hoped to get there early so I’d be able to make my alternative of Burton Albion if the game was postponed. As it happens, that ended 0-0 too, but it didn’t matter as the sun was shining, even if only the very brave would have called it t-shirt weather.
A season’s best 1250 had turned up in hope to Stafford’s Marston Road Ground, for a club clearly at least a couple of divisions lower than where they ought to be. With the customary bargain-bin “sounds of the early 80s” CD playing over the reassuringly tinny PA system (where else, but at a non-league football ground, would you hear “On My Radio” by The Selector being played in public?) the fans filed in claiming the best spots on the terraces, or in the main stand.
The ground capacity is 4000, but even with 1250 in, you could get the feeling that anything more than 2000 would start to cause problems for people who actually wanted to watch the game, but this was OK. The amount of crush barriers about, even if a few were oddly located, suggested the ground was certainly designed for much bigger crowds. One end also had the thickest crush barriers I’ve ever seen, with the horizontal bar being about the thickness of a child’s leg, as if it would have to support the weight of a small wayward ship now and then.
At the back of this end were the remains of steel uprights, which once supported a roof. A poster at the back of the only other bit of covered terrace, down the side, told how they were raising money to rebuild the roof, which would certainly enhance the ground.
The covered terrace down the side is very old school with its wooden beams and walls painted dark green like a garden shed. The view from inside was decent enough, but was relatively empty compared to other parts of the ground. Maybe the locals just wanted to make the most of seeing the sun.
With the teams swapping ends after the coin toss, to the usual groans of fans having to change ends, Stafford were kicking into the strong wind, and came out like a team on a mission. For all the effort though, the chances created were mainly scrappy. The best by far was a one-on-one that the Basford keeper saved, but generally the shots that did fire in weren’t really testing the keeper.
Basford were no mugs though, sitting 4th in the table, and were in no mood to roll over and play the sacrificial lamb, and they rode the early storm, then shocked everyone by getting a penalty. In fairness they’d looked not bad on the break, especially with the wind behind them, but this certainly wasn’t in the script. Losing the game would take promotion out of Stafford’s hands, due to their 2nd place challengers, the implausibly named Shaw Lane Aquaforce, having a much better goal difference. A fine save, down at the keeper’s left, kept it 0-0 though, to keep the dream alive. News of an away goal at Shaw Lane also increased the excitement in the ground.
The penalty didn’t really seem to spur Stafford though, so the hope was that in the 2nd half, with the wind now at their backs, they’d make the breakthrough, and goals, with their strangely large stanchions, would see some action.
It wasn’t to be though. Again, chances were plentiful, but nerves seemed to get the better of the players, with shots snatched and short passes overhit or misplaced, and other shots being attempted when no shot was on. Best, other than a deflected shot which looped up and bounced off the crossbar, was a loose ball six yards out after a shot had been blocked. With the whole goal to aim at, at it looking almost certain that this would be the moment, the shot still managed to find one of the bodies in the way, and it bounced to safety.
With time ticking away, another cheer from the back of the terrace told of another crucial goal at Shaw Lane, and a renewed call from the terraces to the players, as a goal would take them up.
Stafford’s players did need perking up. You could sense they were losing belief, and you could also tell they were getting very tired against a Basford side that still looked fresh and dangerous on the break. The announcement of four minutes of additional time brought another roar of encouragement, but it didn’t help. In fact Basford went down the other end and Stafford conceded another penalty.
In an afternoon where heads had gone into hands with regularity in frustration, this was a nightmare for the home fans. Defeat wouldn’t be quite as bad as if Shaw Lane had won, but it would still give them a very hard game at 3rd place Coalville next Saturday that they’d almost certainly have to win, and Basford wouldn’t miss two penalties in one game, would they?
They most certainly did. This time it was hit straight down the middle, and the Stafford keeper just stood up and blocked it, then reacted fasted to knocked the parried ball away from danger. As a neutral I really don’t like 0-0 draws, but both of these saves, because of what they meant, made them almost as good as goals.
Ideally, that save would have been a springboard for a dramatic winner, but it wasn’t to be, and the final whistle went to be greeted by almost no reaction at all. Barring a highly improbably draw or win for rock-bottom Tividale at Shaw Lane on Tuesday, Stafford will visit Coalville knowing a draw will take them up. Given how badly wrong things could have gone, they just be grateful for that.