The Bears’ inconsistent and fitful season took another step along the way last Tuesday evening (7th) and very few people noticed (writes Mike McLaughlin).
A rearranged fixture against Ashton Athletic — many places and 10 points ahead of the Bears — was witnessed by a remarkably small crowd of 94. There were no goals, there was little to report, and a long-standing supporter of the Bears remarked: “One of the most boring and uninspiring draws I have seen for some time.”
Only two incidents merited attention — a great save from Craig Ellison, and a beauty of a shot from Kyle Diskin; both in the second half.
Ellison is returning to form; Josh Ryder was outstanding again; new signing Lee Cropper looks promising; injury-returnee Sam Freakes contributed neatly, but apart from that “the rest was just huff and puff by two equally dismal teams”.
Even Ashton Athletic concurred: “A disappointing game against Congleton Town…neither team could break the deadlock in a disappointing game…”
Amid the general criticism somebody was happy. A “groundhopper” tweeted: “Cold Tuesday night over at Congleton FC. Cracking ground though… Easy the best tea hut in the league… amazing pies!”
Step forward and take a bow The Wednesday Club and our caterers, Guy and Janice! Saturday promised to be an entirely different proposition but, this season, who can tell?
Bootle were the visitors to the Silk Stadium, challengers for promotion as expected, sitting threateningly in third place with only four defeats in 20 games, and with six consecutive wins behind them.
They also have valid claims to be a true family and community club, and have “developed into an important community hub where young and old are welcomed and interact…Bootle FC is in the heart of the community and everyone is welcome.”
With that commendable spirit and solidarity behind them, Bootle took to the field calm, confident and controlled.
Even the fact that, on a grey and gloomy afternoon, they faced the prospect of a first half playing up slope and into the jaws of a cold and fiercely gusting wind bothered them little.
They moved purposefully up the slope towards their array of banners and vociferous, bellowing fans whose enthusiasm often bettered their judgement.
They immediately looked like a good team playing well.
The Bears’ defence, complete with three centre-backs, were soon working hard as Bootle attacked from all angles, but particularly from the right flank. The visitors mounted close, quick attacks through the centre, but seemed to favour dangerous, dipping, wickedly-curving centres from the flanks.
They moved quickly and confidently and as one. Down the right they went again, all the way to the byline, from where the ball was pulled sharply back to the edge of the area.
The Bears’ defence, gravitating towards the initial dangerous thrust, tried to readjust, but a Bootle midfielder on the edge of the box was alone and unimpeded as he smashed the ball into the net. A great goal! 0-1.
The Bears responded immediately, themselves favouring attacks built along their right, and Dan Cope, in the centre and clear, hit a good shot, but too close to the grateful and relieved keeper.
The home team were now playing well, they had to in order to compete with Bootle. Cope and Cropper (sounds good) moved smoothly in attack, but much of the movement behind presented them with long balls of the lofted variety and they, being on the wrong side of tall, struggled to capitalise.
Nevertheless, the game was close, competitive and constructive.
Then the Bears appeared to have won a free-kick in their half after a harsh and painful tackle, and adjusted accordingly. But no, the kick was to Bootle (for, as explained later, a previous handball) and a quickly taken and accurate kick was slung to the far post and nodded neatly into the net; 0-2. The crowd were mystified, stunned and angered somewhat.
On such incidents can close games be decided.
In the second half, the Bears readjusted personnel, jettisoning a centre-back in favour of a forward. Many fans seemed pleased with the change in formation, if not entirely with that in personnel.
There was still much animated discussion of the injustice, possibly critical, of the free-kick and the second goal.
Whatever, the home side pressed up the slope into the gale and the Bootle defence had to prove itself. It did. It was tight, rarely stretched and manned by good, competent individuals. Tackles were sure, blocks were assured, interceptions timely.
And yet it seemed highly likely that the Bears would soon open their account. They were now favouring quick passing attacks, shortening their play, wasting less possession.
A close finish to the game was anticipated, testament to the Bears’ competitiveness, rather than superiority. A seemingly minor collision in midfield regressed to Dan Cope and a visiting defender disagreeing over some aspect of the incident, standing face to face until the visitor leaned gently forward and was dismissed as a head-butter. He went quietly as a member of the team with the best disciplinary record in the league. Such is the modern game, how often do we see this farce enacted?
Down to 10 men, Bootle remained defensively sturdy, smothering home attacks, and threatening to exploit the alarmingly large gaps in the home team’s defence.
Then calamity, a penalty to Bootle, in a moment of mild panic and little danger. Beautifully taken, and the Bears were 0-3 behind.
A misleading scoreline perhaps, but Bootle are not where they are by chance.
So it ended 0-3, Bootle buoyant and upwardly mobile, the Bears (and fans) frustrated, exasperated and perplexed.
Just what is going wrong? What is missing?
Theories and suggestions abounded afterwards. More thrust down the wings, more control in the centre of the field…perhaps a settled formation with settled personnel to encourage and develop cohesion and understanding, but wise decisions need to be made on what formation and which personnel. Genuine confidence is vital, but not readily available.
The overall feeling was not particularly negative, despondent or desperate.
The team had looked competent in many respects and had competed well. Bootle looked a good team — solid, efficient and confident. Video interviews with management and player confirmed just how confident and at ease with themselves they were.
Both teams desperately need more points, but for entirely different reasons.
The Bears face some interesting and extremely important games in the near future against teams around them in the league table. They go forward with our full support.