It was, according to its website, the first time that this had happened in the one hundred eight years of the history of the Isthmian League. This afternoon at The Harry Abrahams Stadium in Finchley, North London, a match in its Premier Division between Wingate & Finchley and Thurrock was abandoned with five minutes to play, after the home side had five players sent off. The match was an important one, in its own way. With the home side fifth from bottom in the table and the visitors in second from bottom place – but, due to a run of postponements, with between three and eight games in hand on the teams clustered around them at the foot of the table – there were important points at stake for two clubs looking to avoid the drop into the further regionalised North and South divisions below them.
What was, perhaps, more remarkable about this happening than anything else was the speed with which it played out. Wingate & Finchley lost their five players in the space of twenty-five minutes in the second half, with the referee only being compelled to call the match off with eight minutes left to play. All the more extraordinary – and this is something that the management might want to take some solace from on what was otherwise a car crash of a day – was the fact that all the advantage that they had, Thurrock could still only manage a one goal lead by the time the referee indicated that the teams couldn’t continue. In such a statistic, it could be argued, we might have seen the primary reason behind Thurrock’s lowly position in the Ryman League table.
The Thurrock secretary Mark Southgate, who is presumably already having kittens at the prospect of the fixture pile-up awaiting his side over the next few weeks – this winter has had a harsh effect on the schedules of most of the leagues in the semi-professional game – and said that, “‘You have to feel sorry for the backroom people at Wingate who are really nice and they must have been embarrassed as their players and the club management just seemed to lose it.” This much we know to be true about Wingate & Finchley FC. Their Community Development Manager Mike Bayly is one of the brains behind the now-annual Non-League Day and has been an occasional writer for this site before. Indeed, Mike was only on the radio on Saturday evening promoting the Thurrock match as the club’s “Kick It Out” day, with free admission for mothers in view of yesterday being Mothering Sunday. It is to be hoped that a little common sense prevails. Punishment enough for the home club would be for the match to be awarded to Thurrock and for the club to be called to account for its behaviour. Only those who were there know exactly what happened, so other conjecture on whose motives might have been what would seem to be pointless at this time.
Meanwhile, it was FA Cup quarter-final weekend, and readers could be forgiven for having overlooked this fact. The weekend’s big winners were Wigan Athletic, whose three-nil win at Everton was enough to book them a place in the semi-finals of the competition for the first time in their history, and that’s not all. The luck of the draw means that they will play either Millwall or Blackburn Rovers – who played out a drab goalless draw at The New Den yesterday afternoon and will replay next week – for a place in the final of the competition. If nothing else, we will at least get another opportunity to test the theory of whether clubs take their eye off the ball when a place at Wembley is on the horizon, and few Wigan supporters will be under the illusion that retaining a place in the Premier League remains their main aim over the next few weeks. Their hopes of managing this were delivered a glancing blow on Saturday afternoon when Aston Villa scored a crucial win at Reading in the league, while Queens Park Rangers won for the second time in a row against an almost lifeless Sunderland side at Loftus Road. With just seven points separating the bottom six in the Premier League, however, trying to predict who will slip into further trouble and who will continue to haul themselves from danger is a risky business.
Manchester United, meanwhile, may have felt that they had a point to prove after their Champions League elimination at the hands of Real Madrid last week, and going on to secure a domestic double would presumably have gone some way towards feeling like compensation for not having gone further in that competition. Within a quarter of an hour of the start of the match at Old Trafford yesterday afternoon, it felt as if Chelsea might feel the full force of this backlash, with goals from Nani and Wayne Rooney putting United into a comfortable early lead. For once, however, this wasn’t quite enough. Rafael Benitez – whose plight at Stamford Bridge can only be viewed by neutrals with a a degree of detached amusement – shuffled his pack, however, and… it worked. Second half goals from Eden Hazard brought the visitors level early in the second half, and for much of the remainder of the match it was they that looked the most likely to grab a win and a place in the semi-finals of the competition.
They couldn’t quite manage that third goal, though, so the two teams will play off at Stamford Bridge next week for the right to play Manchester City – whose five-nil demolition of Barnsley looked at times like a cat toying with a dying vole – at Wembley in the next round of the competition in a match that will now, with it being highly likely that there will be no English clubs left in the Champions League and Manchester United likely to have effectively won the Premier League title by that point, presumably have to assume some degree of importance. We had a Manchester derby at Wembley two years ago, of course, and it is likely that the television broadcasters were cursing the possibility of a one-sided FA Cup final, but that’s what happens when some clubs get all the money to spend on players and the majority have to to make do and mend. Matches get one-sided, and if that ruins the end of this season as a spectacle, perhaps the authorities and broadcasters might want to have a little think about what they could conceivably do to level up the playing field a little.
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