Chorley FC finished the season in third place in Division One North of the Evostik League, and the inimitable Mark Critchley was there to watch – if not exactly remember – their play-off semi-final against Curzon Ashton.
Ever pondered over whether a cake can epitomise a whole town? If so, help yourself to psychiatry. If not, then cock your ear. Hundreds of years ago last Tuesday, one man took a region’s most celebrated moist delight, the Eccles cake, and thought he could improve upon it. If it ain’t broke, knick it. After all, every burgeoning entrepreneur can be afforded a swipe at success and swipe that man did – dusting the hallowed sugar coating off the top; unveiling it as his own ‘Fly Pie’ and somehow rendering that lump of viscous dough-smash even less palatable than it already was. That man, some say pioneer, was from the Lancashire town of Chorley and his sobering, denta-friendly revolution slab became known as ‘the Chorley cake’, available from all good patisseries and petrol stations to this very minute. Ever since then it seems the town has only followed his methods to the teaspoon. Chorley steals everything that’s sweet in life, and knocks the sugar off the top.
From spending my childhood growing up there, I know that. And yet, vogue though it may be for guilt-laden, socio-economically comfortable sorts to exaggerate the ills of their quarters and mutate every Leighton Buzzard into a Beirut, I don’t want to accept it. Chorley’s no shithole. Rival fans might disagree, but they’re wrong. My hometown is simply inert. Comatose. Plain cake. Neither rural or urban, large or small; the place with a name derived from the Anglo Saxon term for ‘peasant’s clearing’ amounts to a lot of nothing. None of the positively fecal refuse found in a proper shithole. Chorley’s more a wasteland, you might say. Case in point: whilst playing football back when I was yay high, some anonymous lads twice my age, width and shoe size lined my team up against our goalposts one day and feigned an execution, shooting each of us in the face with BB guns. Fair play, they killed some time. That, and my confidence in outdoor spaces. And then probably some small rodents too, but how else does one spend a Saturday? Especially here. Chorley: Where People Go To Fight – because fuck it, we may as well. Only now, we’ve something better to do.
Chorley F.C., under former Blackburn Rovers skipper and super-injunction supremo Garry Flitcroft, are back. More precisely, they’re good. A gluttonous introduction to the league campaign, which saw a positive goal difference of 21 in just the first four fixtures, did however prove a tad too filling. In a division appropriately dominated by the inspired set-up at Chester and a technically skilled Skelmersdale United, the Magpies gradually stumbled off this early pace and spent much of the close season playing for third spot; securing the position last Friday, the final day. Finishing only a point behind their hosts, Curzon Ashton make a fourth successive playoff challenge for a spot in the Evo-Stik Premier before manager Gary Lowe relinquishes his position this summer, after a substantial eleven year stewardship. Falling short of an automatic place, the Tameside club share Skelmersdale’s status as a passing side who deserve better. The division’s surprisingly attractive, show-stealing bridesmaids – and hey, it hasn’t been a bad week for them.
With the sun out, wind up and a small but noticeable vocal section amongst a mostly tentative 1515-strong crowd, Victory Park itself could be the attraction on display. Lengthways to the pitch runs, on the one side, a crammed grassy mound, populated by club stalwarts and decade-spanners whom refer to the players not by name but the homogenous term ‘lad’ – earned through evidence of a persistent attitude and sensible haircut. On the other is the quaint, predominantly seated family area operating as a territory for the more docile and unassuming in attendance, whilst behind the two goals are the garish, scaffolding-supported ‘Valhalla’ and ‘Malcolm X Terrordome’ stands – as christened by friends of mine. Family atmosphere, no ta.
On the pitch, aided by the blowing gale at their backs, Chorley make all the initial advances; their tragic darling, the almost-international Matt Jansen is first to drag a long-range punt wide. In deference, a chorus breaks out. Since his invigorating arrival, Jansen is looked upon like royalty in these parts – everybody knows he is better than them, but nobody is sure why. What ability he holds has not yet been fully extracted in non-league football and for somebody his age, it probably never will be. But Chorley supporters don’t care. His delicate control for the match’s first effort advertised a quality the subsequently rushed finish couldn’t match. The ball meekly rolled towards the crowd. A crowd that Matt Jansen has brought here.
A further tame poke from the left boot of the Division One 2000/01 second top scorer is snatched up by the away side’s goalkeeper David Carnell, followed by an even tamer penalty appeal for handball. Finally Curzon’s belated response arrives, carving the home side apart in rapid exchanges played out from the back as Lowe’s men verify their reputation in this division with each disoriented gurn on the fizzogs of dumb Magpies. Chris McDonagh’s darting penetration and pirouette slides in strike partner Daniel Broadbent whose attempt on goal does well not to uproot the corner flag. Shortly after, an excellent touch takes him past Chorley centre-back Andy Russell and into a one-on-one, only for Broadbent to lob over. Off target, again. In, out; in, out. The game is, so far, a numb fuck – all thrust and no finish.
Half an hour gone however and through the finesse of their most exciting artisan, Chorley find a breakthrough. Gangly and agile, Rochdale target Dale Whitham harnesses a pinky onto a through ball from central-midfield partner Jamie Vermiglio, the local lad who stands a chance of acquiring paralysis in every game that he plays, to loft the ball over the crashing Carnell. Cue brief abandon in the Valhalla Stand. Just like heaven. Even when behind however, Curzon’s knack for finding space continues to threaten. One last-ditch poke out from Chorley left-back Tom Walker prevents winger Luke Mack from equalising, followed by repeated smotherings of Broadbent’s misfires. Chorley’s Steve Foster, an archetypal semi-professional, perhaps the kind of man whom you imagine would bathe in gravy, takes a harsh blow in the gonads – a moment for solicitude and a pint. Half-time.
With the tempestuous wind now literally beneath their wings, Curzon take advantage of the elements and stretch their play out wide. Mack’s break round the outside of Chorley’s backline allows a cross caught in a gust to evade goalkeeper Chris Howarth, leaving Joseph Evans to bundle in an equaliser. Incensed, Flitcroft spat blue truths at the good name of meteorology, but as Mother Nature well knows, such things even themselves out over the course of the four seasons. Or indeed, fifty-two minutes. Both sides had benefited from breezes, and now the momentum was all Curzon’s. Not that they could do much with it. Skipper David Birch finds Howarth too collected to trouble from a free-kick born out of relentless Mancunian harrying which ultimately gets nowhere. Through the inventive trio of Whitham and wingers Tom Ince and Jack Dorney, the latter a half-time replacement for Jansen’s creaking calves, Chorley’s ‘keep-ball and counter’ methods lurk as the potentially more effective. Indeed, a dart from Ince in the 69th minute produces a corner from which, through a hustling melee, mobile beanpole Adam Roscoe tentatively nods home.
Being one of the footballers at this level whose entire career can be attributed to there being simply more of them than most in a vertical direction, Roscoe can take some much-required confidence by scoring arguably the most important goal of the Magpies’ season to date. Even if after fourth months at the club, his teammates haven’t assigned their ‘Roscoe’ a nickname yet. Perhaps one day, he’ll be just like a real player – an attitude his admittedly tireless, labouring performance in this game somewhat encourages.
Following that setback Curzon look to regain the absolute presence they opened the second half with, but through balls and dinks are tracked by Chorley like minor inconveniences. Another ominous Mack left-side meandering finds Broadbent flatfooted, and the finish in the side netting. As Lowe’s side press further, more Dorney forward thinking slides Foster through on the counter, but his twenty-five yard dipping effort safely drops on the roof of the goal netting. Lancastrian weather has no further favours for either team, and with minutes to go and both ‘keepers competent enough, we resort to frantic, ineffective ball-thumping. Two minutes stoppage time is a generous mercy. It elapses, and Curzon make it four successive playoff collapses. Chorley may yet go one in one. If they do, for your author, there won’t be a sweeter feeling.
Chorley face AFC Fylde in the Evo-Stik First Division North Playoff Final – 19:45pm, Friday 6th May at Victory Park, Chorley.
You can watch (very) extended highlights of the Chorley vs. Curzon Ashton game here. Useful if you’ve to write on it but too smashed to fully remember – like some.
Follow Mark Critchley on Twitter here.
Follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter here.