The Southern League play-offs weren’t the only matches being played last night. Play-off semi-finals were also being played in the Northern Premier League and we were lucky enough to have Andrew Gibney offer to write up the match between Bradford Park Avenue and FC United of Manchester for us.

The month of April began with Bradford Park Avenue sitting unspectacularly in mid-table. Home wins again Burscough and Kendal Town sparked a wonderful run of eight games unbeaten. The twenty three days that had passed saw 23 goals scored and only four conceded and Avenue had climbed from tenth place in the Evostik League Premier Division to third. Promotion was now a realistic possibility. Opponents FC United of Manchester had enjoyed an imperious run themselves; only two defeats in nineteen games had made the play-offs a certainty, defeat against Kendal Town on the last day of the season meant they finished fourth and not second, setting up a “War of the Roses” at Horsfall Stadium.

A crowd of just over 500 had enjoyed the last home game of the season against Woksop Town, the highest gate since Halifax Town had been the visitors back in January. Tonight would be something much different. Bus upon bus of FC United’s faithful arrived in the sleepy suburb of Bradford; impeccably behaved the fans were only there to cheer on their team. Expectations were mixed, some were wary of Avenue’s impressive form, others quietly confident. Some fans were praying for promotion just for the opportunity to visit some different grounds. Fans of both clubs lined up on Cemetery Road. Complaints could be heard over the size of the queues to gain entrance. Even with turnstiles each side of the ground, they couldn’t cope with the sheer volume of fans. The kick-off was inevitably delayed to allow the 2,700 expectant fans into the ground. Back in September only 990 were in attendance when Avenue saw off FC United with a 4-1 win. The away side had taken an early lead but a Tom Greaves hat-trick earned Avenue the three points.

Eventually everyone was inside, the one and only stand in ground was packed. FC United’s fans had taken it over and they decorated it with a wall of colour and noise. The running track surrounding the pitch did not affect the atmosphere coming from the away section. Horsfall Stadium is not without its charms, however the running track really does affect the areas behind the goals, the twenty five yard gap between the fans and the by-line makes it an impossible place to stand.  This leads to the majority of fans standing along each touchline; one expects the forthcoming move to Odsal Stadium will be a step forward for the club.

Finally the game was underway, just after eight o’clock. FC United came out of the gates full of spring and energy taking the game to Avenue. The home side struggled to get the ball under control and spent the first five minutes camped in their own half. Then just like back in September FC United took the lead. Bradford failed to clear the ball, goalkeeper John Lamb parried away a fizzing shot but the ball fell kindly to Matthew Wolfenden and United had struck the first blow. If the noise from the away support had been raucous pre-match the volume had now gone up to eleven. With memories of the previous visit in the back of their minds United seemed to take their foot off the pedal, Bradford came more into the match. Throughout the game the home side bossed the majority of possession. Happy to let Bradford’s backline control the ball, United did a fantastic job of stopping any of Avenue’s advances. United’s centre-backs rarely lost an aerial battle and the full backs left very little change down the flanks.

Forward Adrian Savory had been in excellent form in recent weeks but the lone front man struggled to make anything happen when it mattered most. Against Kendal Town he had shown an ability to hold the ball up and bring the midfield into the game, but this evening too often the ball was played down the channel for the striker to make a run in behind. The defence dealt with this with ease and Bradford didn’t seem to have a Plan B. Midfielder Nicky Boshell was a key absentee; without his forward runs the home side looked very toothless. It is hard to remember Grant Shenton making a save throughout the whole game. Avenue’s lack of width, meanwhile, was hurting their chances of finding an equaliser. Full back Martin Drury – with the eye-catching hairstyle and white with yellow boots – can usually be relied on to provide some extra width down the left, the threat of United’s Carlos Roca and Mike Norton kept Drury pinned back and restricted how far he could venture forward. Every time he did managed to find space to deliver a cross again the United defenders easily cleared the ball to safety.

Despite dominating possession, Avenue couldn’t find any way to level the game before half-time leaving manager John Deacey with his most important team-talk of the season ahead of him. His initial game plan had failed to trouble United, time for the manager to earn his corn and give his side a chance of making the play-off final. The interval also saw an increase of the police presence in front of the away support. A couple of flares had been thrown but overall the fans were very well behaved, the extra police seemed to be there out of nerves rather than necessity. Only two minutes into the second half, though, Bradford chances of a comeback were dashed. The United defence cleared the ball high and long forward Norton took the ball down well, Roca made the run outside his and his cross come shot flashed across the goal and Jerome Wright nipped in at the back post to apply the finish. Fantastic scenes as the whole team celebrated in front of their jubilant fans. There would be no way back for Avenue.

Expectantly, the heads of the home side dropped. Their fate was sealed when centre-back James Riley was booked for a rash challenge, pleading his case to the referee he obviously went a step too far, after Mr Curry had already told him to go away Riley continued his debate. One word too far and Curry reached for his top pocket and showed Riley his second yellow and the defender was off. With the score against them and only thirty minutes remaining Avenue stuck with three at the back unable to sacrifice an attacking player. It was now all or nothing. Gradually, the home fans began to head for the exit, a man and two goals down they knew their fate was sealed. FC United’s fans were in full voice, the delayed kick-off meant the fans learnt who they would be facing in the final before the game came to an end. Songs about their pending trip to Colwyn Bay echoed out from the stands, and even after the full-time whistle signalled the end of Bradford Park Avenue’s season the songs from the exceptional away fans continued long and loud into the cold night air.

You can see the goals from last night’s match between Bradford Park Avenue and FC United of Manchester here:

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