There was, perhaps, something inevitable that it would all come down to a ninety minute shoot-out. That FC United of Manchester is in itself an extraordinary part of our football culture is without doubt, but even the most optimistic of their supporters could scarcely have guessed at the amount of drama that they have managed this season, from an FA Cup run that took in a last minute win at Rochdale and a last minute penalty save at Brighton to a league season that saw them end last year nearer to relegation than the play-off places, yet has ended up on the North Wales coast on a Bank Holiday Monday, with 2,000 people packed inside Llanelian Road and hundreds more perched atop a hill overlooking the ground. That most exquisitely unique of tortures, a play-off final, awaits them this afternoon.
That Colwyn Bay FC will provide stiff opposition is a given. They finished in second place in the Evostik League Premier Division with a run of form that saw them lose just two of their last thirteen matches of the season. The two sides both beat each other at home in the league this season, and just three points separated them in the final league table. It feels too tight call, before the match. As an aside, Colwyn have a history of protest themselves, in their own way. They were one of the “Irate Eight” of Welsh non-league clubs that were forced to leave their homes in order to continue to compete in the English pyramid or join the League of Wales (now the Welsh Premier League) by the FAW during the early 1990s, before winning a High Court case which allowed them to return home. Colwyn Bay had won Division One of the Northern Premier League in 1992, and their supporters might be forgiven for wondering what might have been had they not been forced into exile for four years.
The match starts brightly, with caution – to a point – being thrown to the wind by both teams in the search for an early goal. The opening twenty minutes bring chances at both ends of the pitch, a looping, curling free-kick for Colwyn Bay which drops just over Sam Ashton’s goal at one end, a shot from Carlos Roca that the Colwyn Bay goalkeeper Chris Sanna gathers comfortably at the other. On balance, though, United are dominating the midfield, but is a skittish, nervy start that is not helped by a dry – but immaculate – pitch and all the singing (and this being an FC United match, there is, of course, a lot) cannot disguise the feeling of tension that hangs heavy in the air. Half-time comes with a yellow card apiece, for Colwyn Bay’s Luke Denson – for a high tackle in Ben Deegan – and FC United’s David Chadwick for a late tackle, and little to separate the two sides. As the players leave the pitch for the interval, we are little closer to knowing which of this two sides will end the afternoon celebrating.
Against the backdrop of two enormous flags and a flare on the hill overlooking the ground, the second half gets under way. Colwyn Bay start brightly and force a corner five minutes in, but it is starting to feel as if it is going to take one moment, for one player to shake off the nerves of the occasion, perhaps forget where he is and what match he is playing in, to break this most stony of deadlocks. Colwyn Bay have the wind on their backs, which seems to be encouraging them play more direct football, but FC United see a deflected cross kicked off the line and Sanna makes a good save from a Nicky Platt long range shot, and then tips over a header from a free-kick. Slowly, the match is starting to defrost but still it remains too close to call.
With just over twenty minutes to play, though, Colwyn Bay take the lead, and it is a goal of startling simplicity, a long ball over the top which Jon Newby, a veteran journeyman product of the Liverpool youth system, places the ball coolly past Ashton. It’s a moment of clear incisiveness, which required the years of accumulated experience that Newby has built up. FC United throw players forward in search of an equaliser, but this leaves inevitable gaps at the back and one break leads to a shot narrowly over their crossbar and an extravagant lob that Ashton has to recover to catch on the line. This, however, feels like a step too far for FC United. Colwyn Bay have defended stoutly all afternoon, and it is difficult to see where they will be able to fashion an equaliser from. They manage a shot into the side-netting, but this time there is to be no late drama. Colwyn Bay are promoted into the Blue Square North, and FC United of Manchester will start next season again in the Premier Division of the Evostik League.
Promotion has proved to be a step too far for FC United of Manchester for this season, but to write the last nine months off on this basis would be to fundamentally misunderstand the ethos and founding principles of the club. We will return to the subject of the season that they have had the most remarkable of adventures this season and, if manager Karl Marginson can keep the skeleton of this team together, it would seem far from out of the question that they might challenge for the league championship next season. Such considerations, however, take second place to the ongoing quest for a home of their own. Should their revised application for a site in the Moston area of Manchester be successful, the party will really get started. For now, though, supporters of the club will have to fall back upon their memories of this season. What memories they are, though.
Highlights of this match will be on S4C this evening at 10.40 – Channel 134 on Sky.
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