The weather hasn’t been as cruel as it might have been to the football schedules this weekend. Considering that the newspaper headlines have been all about the worst winter weather for twenty years, with offices and schools closed and public transport running much as it would in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Across the south of England, a swathe of matches have been called off, but this is a good thing. Permission has been obtained to bring pitch inspections forward by twenty-four hours, which means that thousands of miles worth of wasted journies have been avoided.
At The Lamb Ground, the pitch is inspected again at 12.30 on the Saturday lunchtime, and the game is on. The travelling support from Telford doesn’t have that far to travel anyway – it’s only thirty-five miles from the new town to the north-west of Birmingham to the small market town just to the north-east of the city. The snow has been shovelled from the pitch and sits against the advertisement hoardings of how lucky everyone is that the game is actually on. It’s no understatement to say that this is a real six pointer. Tamworth are six points ahead of Telford, who are in fourth place in the table, with Gateshead and Southport between them. A little chink of daylight has opened up between them, and Telford need a win to close that gap. The two sides will only have seventeen matches to play after this match – time is running out for Telford if they wish to avoid the play-offs.
The play-offs have come to be a fact of life for AFC Telford United. The original Telford United club folded in 2004 after the collapse of chairman Andrew Shaw’s business left them with debts of £4m. The new incarnation of the club is owned by its Supporters Trust. In three of their four seasons so far, they have finished in play-off positions, getting promoted twice and losing in the semi-finals of the Conference North play-offs last season. These are exciting times for the club. They have, in their New Bucks Head stadium, one of the best facilities in non-leaague football. They are battling for promotion back to the level that they were expelled from five years ago. They’re still in the FA Trophy with an upcoming quarter-final match, victory in which would leave them one tie and two matches from a final at Wembley Stadium. Tamworth, by contrast, have come from the Conference. They were promoted into it from the Southern League in 2003 and spent four seasons there before getting relegated in 2007. They narrowly avoided promotion last season but have started this season well. They’re the team to beat in the Blue Square North this season.
Conditions don’t help this afternoon. The snow has been cleared from the pitch, but this has left it bumpy and uneven. Both sides struggle to get the ball under control, but Tamworth have the better of the opening chances, with Mark Rawle shooting narrowly wide and Stuart Nicholson heading against the inside of the post. Slowly, however, Telford begin to assert themselves. Danny Edwards fires a free kick just over and Danny Carey-Bertram making the most of a defensive mix-up and rounded the goalkeeper before shooting against the crossbar. The pivotal moment of the match arrives just before half-time. Liam Blakeman’s cross from the right strikes Tamworth defender Dominic Langdon. There’s no question that it is a penalty, and Carey-Edwards fires the ball past the Tamworth goalkeeper Danny Alcock to give the visitors the lead at half-time. Conditions continue to deteriorate in the second half, as the pitch continues to cut up. Telford debutante Mark Danks brings a good save from Alcock, but Tamworth are having a bad day at the office and the visitors hang on reasonably comfortably, even though there are six minutes of injury time at the end of the match after a succession of niggly injuries.
The Blue Square North, then, takes on an intriguing shape as the season draws towards its conclusion. Tamworth stay top of the table (second placed Gateshead’s match was a victim of the weather), but Southport have beaten strugglers Hyde United to stay in third place, with two games in hand on the leaders. There are now just three points between the top four sides in the division and with just fifteen matches of the season left to play, it’s anybody’s guess who will end up winning promotion this season. In the Blue Square South, by the way, a similar situation may be developing. AFC Wimbledon have come into outstanding form over the last couple of months, and have been chipping away at what looked like an unassailable Chelmsford City before going top of the Blue Square South the week before last with a 1-0 win at Bishops Stortford. They entertained Chelmsford at Kingsmeadow last Saturday in front of a capacity crowd of 4,700 (the highest crowd in the league since just over 5,000 saw Weymouth beat St Albans City 3-2 in 2006) and beat them 3-1, opening up a little bit of a gap at the top of the table. Their match yesterday was snowed off, but Chelmsford slipped up again, this time going down 2-1 at third placed Eastleigh. There are now just six points between first and third place in the table, although Chelmsford have now played a game more than Wimbledon or Eastleigh. The Blue Square Premier could yet see two supporter-owned clubs joining its ranks next season.