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Sharpening a Rusty Blade


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Friday, 24th September, 2004

Up next for us were Ashton United. My ever-more useless advance scout reported that they, too, were a 'capable side', though they lie 19th, not far above us on the table: we could leapfrog over them with a victory. To my delight I noted that their defense has been leakiest in the league, just what we need. Even on the road, this game looked much easier than some of our last opposition.

I'd made some subtle changes to our offensive mixture, minor adjustments to mentality, tempo, and passing style, but for the most part I just wanted the lads to settle in to the system, learn their roles, and convert some of the chances we'd had.

The week closed out with my coaches' report on the six trialists I'd had in - all young players without a team, and all reported with great potential, but worse current ability than my current crop of players. I decided I couldn't afford to further bloat the roster by signing any of them, potential or no.

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Saturday, 25th September, 2004. Conference North - Game 7, at Ashton United.

I wanted to keep the team as consistent as possible, so I made three changes - Elderton for Birks, Clitheroe for Black, and Jones for the injured Clarkson up front - but kept mostly the same lineup as last week. Jamie Speare started in goal, with Andy Scott, Martin Clark, Ricky Mercer, and Paul Sparrow in the flat back four. Ryan Elderton was the defensive midfielder, with Neil Prince and Lee Clitheroe were on the wings. Shane Tolley and Steve Jones were the attacking midfielders, supporting lone striker Michael Yates.

Ashton United came out in a formation I'd not seen before - a 3-5-2, with 3 in the back, 2 wing backs making long runs up the sideline, 2 central midfielders, and an attacking midfielder in front supporting 2 strikers. It was an aggressive, attacking formation - no wonder they'd conceded so many!

Their offense generated a chance just 8 minutes into the match, a shot which Speare deflected. It nearly trickled into the goal at the far post, but an alert Andy Scott arrived in time to clear it off the line: it pays to have veterans in your defense!

The teams seemed fairly evenly matched through the first half, our defensive formation soaking up their attack, and limiting them to inaccurate long-range shots. Michael Yates had a trademark breakaway just before the half, but was caught from behind by Aspinall.

In the second, Ashton United had several good chances from free kicks, while our offsense seemed to slack off. Fortunately, their free kick taker blazed shot after shot over the bar. In the 63rd minute, I brought Phil Bartholomew on for Yates, and by the 77th minute I'd made all three substitutions, all in my front five: Jason Lay in for Tolley, and Ryan-Zico Black for Clitheroe. Finally, in the 79th minute, Bartholomew escaped, dribbling around two defenders to create a golden chance, but his shot went well wide.

I was hanging my head in my hands, and almost missed the next play, as Ryan Elderton won posession from the resultant goal kick with a header. Jason Lay collected, and sprayed it right for Steve Jones, who drew the near side central defender to him. Bartholomew sliced into the vacant space, Jones played it ahead of him into the box, and the ball was in the back of the net past a despairing Ashton United keeper before anybody could react!

What a goal! Bartholomew opened his tally on a one-touch rocket, and we'd swept to a 1-0 lead with just ten minutes to go!

The last time we'd held a lead, we'd conceded, but this time we kept the pressure on, nearly getting another minutes later. Ashton had no more luck breaking down our defense in the final flurry than they had all match, and we held through the final minutes until the ref blew the whistle for full time.

Ashton Utd 0, Lancaster 1

----; Bartholomew 80

MoM: Elderton


At long last!

You might have thought we'd won the Champions League for the celebration in the visitor's locker room afterwards. The lads were whooping it up, patting each other on the back, and somebody brought out a tape deck to play some music - all that was missing was the champagne!

Well, and the trophy and television cameras, of course.

Ryan Elderton, in the defensive midfielder role, earned Man of the Match, for though he hadn't contributed towards the final goal, he'd had a fantastic match defensively, helping hold the home side's potent offense scoreless, especially in the final minutes.

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Monday, 27th September, 2004.

The headline Sunday morning?

"The American Wins One!"

I hadn't realized what a big monkey it was on all of our backs until I saw how loose and relaxed the team were this evening in training.

The result had let us flip places with Ashton United: we were up to 19th, clear of the relegation zone for the first time in over a month, while they had dropped to dead last. Even better, our next opponent would be 21st placed Kettering Town. The Poppies had been title favourites before the start of the year, but have yet to win a match, and were coming to our place on Tuesday. I reminded the lads that we'd just upset the 19th-placed team under similar circumstances last week.

The scouting report? "Competent," of course, though Richardson did add that their aerial ability shouldn't cause us much trouble.

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Tuesday, 28th September, 2004. Conference North - Game 8, vs Kettering.

I was as stunned as the team was at today's crowd: 1,209 turned out to The Giant Axe to welcome us back from our first victory! To my amazement, they sang, and cheered us onto the pitch - the majority of the crowd were in the standing-only sections. I'd known that lower-division fans do that, intellectually, but to see several hundred people standing throughout a 90 minute match to watch us play brought home the passion in a visceral, emotional way!

The lads were excited and the mood in the locker room was ebullient. I kept the core of the defense together: Jamie Speare in goal, Andy Scott, Martin Clark, Ricky Mercer, and Paul Sparrow across the back four. Chris Beech came in at DMC, as Elderton was too tired to repeat his starring role. Ryan-Zico Black and David Mellor took over on the wings, while Jason Lay's performance off the bench earned him a start with Shane Tolley and Michael Yates up front.

Kettering came out in a straight 4-4-2, the formation we'd had the most difficulty with this season. Nonetheless, morale definitely plays its part, and we were clearly the stronger side through the first half. Mellor shot just over in the second minute, while Yates curled one wide on the 10th minute. In the 26th, Lay set up Yates beautifully - Lay's creative presence up front was definitely earning him consideration as a starter - but Yates' shot was saved in style by Kettering keeper Steve Corry.

In the 36th minute, we had our best chance, as Shane Tolley blazed a volley on goal from 10 yards out, and only a fantastic save by Corry kept it out. The visitors didn't reply seriously until just before the break, when Toby Oshitola got off a shot from a mere 8 yards out, somehow lifting it over our goal.

I was nervous at halftime: for all that we'd dominated, now anything less than a win would be unacceptable to our fans. They were still loud and supportive, but I could imagine the mood turning ugly if we couldn't produce. The side was starting to fade, and I brought Lay out after just 56 minutes, pushing Black up into an AMC role.

There was still no luck, and I was conscious of time slipping away from us and a dismayed silence began to settle over the ground. I brought Peter Thomson on for Yates on 70 minutes, hoping to force a breakthrough. He quickly earned a dangerous free kick, 20 yards out on 73 minutes gone. Black drove it in on goal, curling it over the wall .. and just wide, narrowly missing the far post.

In the 82nd, Ryan Mercer was injured - and we had no substitutions left. It would be 10-man stuff for the final ten minutes, and I shifted around to a more defensive formation, pulling back the attacking midfielders.

I'd shifted my aim to a scoreless draw, but somebody forgot to tell the squad that. In the 84th, Black took a free kick from 35 yards out. He lifted it into the box, where Peter Thomson met it with a diving header from 10 yards away, which netted past the Kettering keeper! A man down, we'd scratched a 1-0 lead!

With the visitors stunned and off balance, Thomson nearly scored a second in the 85th, and then broke free on a one-on-one the next minute, which Corry halted on another amazing save. The crowd's roar seemed to lift my tired players, and Kettering were more exhausted than we were... and shortly, the final whistle blew.

Lancaster 1, Kettering 0

Thomson 84; ----

MoM: Corry (Kettering GK)

Kettering's goalkeeper Steve Corry was named Man of the Match for the two fantastic saves he'd made, plus a handful of others: we'd outshot the visitors 11-6, and Kettering hadn't even managed a single shot on target all game. Without Corry, the final score might have been much more lopsided.

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Wednesday, 29th September 2004.

The headline said it all:


The result lifted us to 16th. Our meagre 3 goals-for was last in the division - after 8 games, Hinkley had 17! - but our defense ranked tied-for-third out of 22 in preventing goals. I noticed, in the article, an interesting fact: Jamie Speare now had a 343-minute run without conceding a goal, three straight shutouts plus most of the previous match!

Its amazing how much difference two games can make around the training ground. A week ago, we were all in the doldrums, worried about relegation; now, everyone is talking confidently, as though we expect to contend in any game.

I was somewhat concerned at Dave Hughes' report: the physio informed me that Ricky Mercer had fractured his ribs, and would require at least a month before he could train again, and longer still to recover his match fitness.

Besides, I knew that our two victories had come against the two last-placed teams in the division: easy fodder; the schedule would get harder again in a hurry. But first, it was the FA Cup Qualifying Round against Rugby United - a real chance to win our third in a row.

I treated myself to some Champions League on the telly - TiVo'd, of course, as we run training through the normal match-time. Manchester United looked just as strong this week as they had against Fenerbahçe, sweeping to a 2-0 victory and an easy first in their group.

Arsenal took the full three points in Portugal with a 2-0 win over FC do Porto; their second straight win kept the Gunners in a solid first place.

Rangers rebounded from their embarrassing loss to Spanish champions Valencia by posting a 3-1 win over Swiss side Basel, giving them third place on three points.

Liverpool lost in Rome, as they were just unable to break down the Roma defense; the Italian side are a strong first, and with Real Madrid winning their match, the Reds are a distant third with lots of work to do.

Celtic beat Benfice 3-1, going second behind Chelsea after the Blues absolutely crushed Dinamo Bucharest, 3-0.

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Friday, 1st October, 2004.

The meeting with the directors, which I had been dreading prior to our two victories, went very well. Over wine and cheese, my bosses gushed over how they were hopeful of a long and successful era with me at the helm. Several told me that they'd been so certain of my talents even when others were doubting me. It was nice to hear the praise, though I didn't doubt that a reverse on the field would end the honeymoon period.

Yesterday Blackburn's left fullback Alan Morgan joined us for 3 month loan. The Scottish left-back would push Paul Sparrow a bit, providing some competition at a position which had previously been very secure.

On the domestic front, my wife and I are finally fully unpacked in our new home, and with the weather turning chilly, we're very glad of the warm fireplace in the living room. The last arrangements for the wedding seem to be in place, though we're still hard at work making our wedding favors for our guests - venetian masks, painted ourselves, and God is that taking forever! - and there are some things yet to do when we return to the States, like her final dress fitting.

The big news of the day, though - hold the presses! - was that Carl Richardson's upcoming opposition report didn't include the word 'competent'! He told me that he believes lower-division Rugby United is average, and that they lack pace in attack.

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Saturday, 2nd October, 2004. F.A. Cup - Qualifying Round 2, vs. Rugby United.

With two straight victories, I stayed with the 4-5-1 which had brought us our recent successes. Joe McMahon replaced the injured Mercer in the back line, while up front numerous changes were required to replace the tired, so the starting Cup lineup was: Jamie Speare in net, Andy Scott, Martin Clark, Joe McMahon, and Paul Sparrow across the back four, Steve Birks at DMC, Lee Clitheroe and Neil Prince on the wings, Shane Tolley and David Mellor up front, with Phil Bartholomew earning his second start at striker.

Our home crowd was back down in size, as the 414 attending the match didn't quite fill the seating capacity of The Giant Axe, perhaps due to the quality of the opposition. The day was partly cloudy and cool, a typical fall day, with plenty of sunlight as a backdrop to the afternoon.

Robbie Beard got the visitors off to a good start, but Speare saved his first effort on the 2 minute mark. Phil Bartholomew nearly put us on top at six minutes, but his shot cannoned back off the crossbar after beating the keeper. At 10 minutes, Beard had a great opportunity from 15 yards, and his placement beat Jamie Speare, but he managed to overhit it, launching a slow roller rather than a screaming shot, and Speare scrambled back to dive on it just before it reached the line.

At 16 minutes, it took another great save from Speare to keep the score level at 0, and I was screaming at my defense from the touch line. They stiffened, and didn't give up another quality chance until the second half. About five minutes before the break, we got a good chance, with Shane Tolley escaping on a breakaway, but he was caught from behind by Troy Dobson, who just managed a clean tackle in the box - it could have conceivably been a penalty, but Tolley didn't argue the call. It went 0-0 to the half.

"The goal is coming," I promised the lads, "Just concentrate on your defense, and we'll lick these guys yet."

Rugby started the half strong, but Speare denied Beard yet again. In the 53rd minute, Clitheroe launched a beautiful cross, which reached Mellor about 12 yards out. He tried a gorgeous half-volley, but whistled the shot just wide - it was a lot of style, but I couldn't decide if it was a sign of class, or a bit too much highlight-show viewing. In the 58th minute, I brought on Yates and Steve Jones; Jones did not impress, seeming to dribble aimlessly rather than advance threateningly - not a useful performance from an AMC.

With the defense tight, but the offense stymied, it looked like we were bound for another 0-0 draw, until the 83rd minute. Left back Andy Scott, perhaps motivated by the threat of competition, launched a gorgeous 40-yard aerial ball into the Rugby box. Their keeper sat back on his line as Michael Yates leapt towards the near post, heading home from close range for what was surely the winning goal!

Ten minutes of time wasting, and we were through, 1-0!

Lancaster 1, Rugby Utd 0

Yates 84; ----

MoM: Speare

£4,000 prize money isn't a lot, but with the opportunity to earn more in subsequent rounds, and the potential for another gate, it certainly helped our dismal situation. Goalkeeper Jamie Speare earned Man of the Match for the four spectacular saves he made keeping Rugby United - and especially Robbie Beard - at bay.

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Monday, 4th October, 2004.

1-0 wins may not be pretty, but we'd earned three in a row. I was happy - and my players more so, as the morale problems which had plagued us early in the year had abated, and the team seemed to have gelled nicely.

Of course, I had to go out and upset that applecart: I'd been negotiating with several teams to bring their players in on loan, and Sunday I had agreed a year-long loan with Macclesfield for talented AMC Danny Whitaker, following that today with an agreement to a year-long loan with Nottingham Forest for right wing Brian Cash.

The draw for the FA Cup Third Qualifying Round was today, and we were drawn tenth of the 84 teams involved - at this stage, the Conference North and Conference South are still the highest levels represented, and we were lucky to draw another lower-division side, little London club Bromley, though we would be on the road.

Our wedding is rapidly approaching, the details all lined up, though of course there are a ton of things left to do: get a tailor to adjust my tux for the pounds I've put on, shift enough money around to cover the many bills, final fitting for my bride's dress, and of course those Venetian masks...

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Friday, 8th October, 2004.

Stacy left last night to fly back to California in preparation for our wedding. Can you believe I'm less than a week away from becoming a married a man?

Neither can I.

It was okay - she'd left me the loads of Venetian masks to paint, so between that, running the club, and working the phones trying to arrange some no-charge-to-us loans, I had my hands full.

Macclesfield pro Danny Whitaker rejected our loan offer, stating that he had no intention of going to a lower-division semi-pro side.

Our semi-pro status didn't bother Brian Cash, who agreed to terms, and on Wednesday the Forest winger joined us until the end of the season. I think that should let me abandon my attempt to train Ryan-Zico Black to play right wing, and instead let Black concentrate on the AMC role.

I had several other loan deals in various stages of works - its a good thing the club is willing to may my mobile bill!

We brought in a young left wing on a trial period - he was a player Spencer had noticed earlier in the year, and I'd put him on my shortlist. At the start of the month, he found himself released by Oxford, and I wasted no time calling his agent. With the internationals, of course, we had the weekend off ourselves, so I'd gone with a lighter training regime, and was doing a bit more player evaluation.

This lad looked like he had great potential, and again I found myself tempted to sign for the future, bloating the out-of-control wage budget even more.

At least the loan signings are free, and don't count against our bottom line.

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Saturday, 9th October, 2004.

I'd go stir crazy if I had the house to myself, indefinitely, so I invited the boys over to my house - ever so briefly a bachelor pad - to watch the England game. World Cup Qualifiers again today, of course, and armed with numeous ales, we set out to turn the house into our own private pub. There was plenty of teasing for young Joe McMahon, the team's lone Welshman, who showed up in a replica kit.

It took only 5 minutes for England to take the lead at St. James' Park. After soaking up constant Welsh pressure early, it was Joe Cole who broke clear of the last defender on the counterattack, and slipped it past keeper Jason Brown.

Just before the half, an England corner left Frank Lampard with a simple finish. Somehow, Brown pushed it away, but right to the feet of Wayne Rooney, who made no mistake, scoring his 10th goal for England.

The home side switched to a defensive mentality in the second half, and though Beckham had two near-goals late, the Welsh never seemed to threaten. The final score pleased everyone in attendance but McMahon: England 2, Wales 0.

In other action from the group, Northern Ireland beat Azerbaijan 2-0 on the road. Austria handled Poland by the same scoreline in Vienna, staying top of a tight group on goal difference.

            Pts  W  D  L   GD
1 Austria    7   2  1  0  + 4
2 England    7   2  1  0  + 3
3 Wales      6   2  0  1  + 3
4 N.Ireland  6   2  0  1    0
5 Poland     0   0  0  3  - 4
6 Azerbaijan 0   0  0  3  - 6

Late in the England game, the broadcast cut to a highlight from Glasgow - Norway had scored a second goal late to put the game out of reach, and wound up beating Scotland 2-0 after leading 1-0 for most of the match. With Italy winning again, that left the Scots with a lot of ground to make up:

            Pts  W  D  L   GD
1 Italy      9   3  0  0  + 6
2 Norway     4   1  1  1    0
3 Scotland   3   1  0  1  + 0

The French continued their domination of Group 4, pounding outclassed Ireland 4-0 in Paris. Switzerland also won to stay unbeaten, and the Irish were a full six points down on the leaders, though still in third ahead of Israel and Cyprus.

            Pts  W  D  L   GD
1 France      9   3  0  0  +10
2 Switzerland 9   3  0  0    0
3 Ireland     3   1  0  2  - 3

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Wednesday, 13th October, 2004.

My best man, Rob flew in from the States, ostensibly to keep me from getting cold feet, but I suspect it was more to get a chance to spend some time together. He's my best mate, the guy who got me my first job, the friend whom I'd call at three-am if I needed a sympathetic ear, the best game-opponent I'd ever played with, and the guy I'd trust with anything. I think the three months apart are the longest we've gone without seeing each other since uni, and as you can imagine we had plenty of catching up to do - much of it spent with paintbrush and Venetian mask in hand, tragically.

Leaving old friends aside, in the transfer market, several teams have accepted my offers. Tranmere Rovers accepted my year-long loan offer for 18-year-old striker Chris Dagnall; Preston have agreed to my year-long loan offer for talented Scottish striker Simon Lynch; and Colchester have accepted my 3-month offer for AMC Jamie Cade.

Also, some players I had my eye on due to their coming to the Conference North on loan already were nearing the end of the three-month terms they'd been signed to.

I am poised to swoop!

Our friend Ope came up from Manchester to join us today with more World Cup Qualifying to enjoy. I knew better than to try running a training session during the match - we abandoned the ground early and got down to the local pub to watch. Its easy to see why England has always been such a footballing power: it seemed like the entire town was there, from some young kids in Beckham jerseys to the old men who remember '66 first-hand.

England dominated the match, played in Azerbaijan, but chance after chance went wide, or was saved by goaltender Elhan Veliev. For a long while it looked like it was just a matter of time, but as the second half dragged on, you could feel doubt begin to creep across the room, and when I started to see it in the faces of the England players on the telly, I knew there was trouble. Sure enough, Veliev kept playing the game of his life, and earned a clean sheet, a scoreless draw.

First-placed Austria beat Northern Ireland 1-0 on a late goal from Markus Weissenberger, to stretch their lead to two points, while Wales rebounded from their defeat in London to whip Poland 4-0 in Cardiff. Three points let them sneak into second, ahead of England!

             Pts  W  D  L   GD
1 Austria     10  3  1  0  + 5
2 Wales        9  3  0  1  + 7
3 England      8  2  2  0  + 3
4 N.Ireland    6  2  0  2  - 1
5 Azerbaijan   1  0  1  3  - 6
6 Poland       0  0  0  4  - 8

Scotland beat Moldova 2-0, leapfrogging ahead of Norway after the Norwegians could only manage a 1-1 draw at home with Slovenia. The Scots still have a game in hand, but it looks like a run towards the second place playoffs for them, given how well Italy are performing - another shutout win for the Azurri had them on double Scotland's tally already!

             Pts  W  D  L   GD   GP
1 Italy       12  4  0  0  + 8  (4)
2 Scotland     6  2  0  1  + 2  (3)
3 Norway       5  1  2  1  + 0  (4)

Ireland returned home to Lansdowne Road, where they took out their frustrations on a hapless Faroe Islands side, 4-0. Ahead of them France continued their incredible run - not just unbeaten and untied, but also yet to be scored upon. Switzerland stood idle, but have yet to drop a point themselves.

             Pts  W  D  L   GD   GP
1 France      12  4  0  0  +12  (4)
2 Switzerland  9  3  0  0  + 6  (3)
3 Ireland      6  2  0  2  + 1  (4)

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Friday, 15th October, 2004.

Oh, god, my aching head.

Its hard to see the screen to type. I'd told Rob, with the wedding Sunday and a match on Saturday, that if he was going to throw me a bachelor party it had to be Thursday night.

He and Ope made it their personal mission to get me absolutely smashed; I suspect I'm lucky not to have died of alcohol poisoning.

With the match in a suburb of London anyways, they insisted on coming down to the capitol and renting a hostel room; I don't think we've seen much of it, but Lord have we seen our share of pubs!

I think there was some club news, what was it? Oh yeah, before they started on me.

Kevin Hull and I did our monthly review of training progress Thursday. Striker Phil Bartholomew was the most improved player on the side, which somewhat surprised me given his age. Ricky Mercer had continued to show improvement, right up until his injury, and Lee Clitheroe's technique was improving with all the playing time he'd been seeing. Central midfielder Jimmy Love, who was not seeing any playing time in our 4-5-1, had the best mental awareness. It disturbed me to note that defender Joe McMahon was still not improving: I might need to give up on him as part of my long-term plan if he couldn't pick up his game, so I decided to try a different training schedule for him.

Loanee Brian Cash has been very impressive at right wing in practice so far - he will definitely earn a start in the FA Cup Qualifying match tomorrow against Bromley. Carl Richardson reports that they have an average side which usually uses a direct 3-5-2 formation, but that their pacey attack will be the strength of the side.

Cade, Dagnall and Lynch all rejected my loan offers - disappointing, especially as I'd really been salivating over the idea of alternating Lynch with Yates up front. I guess nobody really wants to join a tiny semi-pro side with an unknown manager!

After that, well, I won't even try to recount all the pubs we went to, or the other debauchery we got into. Boys will be boys, and all that, and I've no idea if my bride-to-be will read these words, so you'll have to use your imagination.

I will point out one absolutely class moment, however.

Ever since I was a little boy, I've been a racing fan. It started, of course, with the Indianapolis 500, and I graduated to Formula One. It so happened that my first race, on ESPN, was Michael Schumacher's debut - so I've been a lifelong fan. We even go to Indy for the USGP every year!

Well, every lad's dream has got to be driving a race car, but in the States there's little opportunity to make that happen.

Rob, bless his heart, had found a karting track, the sort where you can rent time with your mates and go find out who's got it and who hasn't, rubbing fenders, crashing into tyre barriers, the whole works.

A lifelong dream realised?

It was officially the best bachelor party ever.

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Saturday, 16th October, 2004. FA Cup - Third Qualifying Round, at Bromley.

To London! Though the locals might not see it so, Bromley feels like a suburb of London to me. The stadium is set in a neighborhood, and though it would look very out of place in an American neighborhood, it looks perfectly part of the surroundings to me. We could hear the crowd as we approached, and I realized from the sound that we had not played in such a full ground, ever: the attendance was announced later a 3,140, which was quite a windfall for both sides.

The squad was fully rested, but with a Tuesday league match to consider, I didn't actually start a full-strength side. It was Speare in net as usual, but I gave loanee Alan Morgan and young Neil Uberschar the starts at fullback, left and right respectively, trusting the central defense of Clark and McMahon to keep us firm at the back. Coach Gary Bauress got his third start of the year as the holding midfielder, while loanee Brian Cash made his debut at right wing opposite Neil Prince. Jason Lay and Ryan-Zico Black started in the attacking midfield positions, with Phil Bartholomew at striker for the 4-5-1.

We started the first in control of the match, and in the 13th minute, both Ubershar and Cash came close, with their shots going just wide of the post. Bromley tightened up the defense, and we didn't get our next chance until Black launched one well wide on 30 minutes. Lay's fantastic effort three minutes after was saved by Danny Harwood. Bromley did get off two reasonable attacks in the final five minutes of the half, but it was 0-0 and I felt very confident - we were definitely controlling the tempo. There would be no changes at half-time, I told the lads: "Just go win."

Disaster struck in the 57th minute. Prince launched a long back-pass to Jamie Speare, who tried to one-time it right for Uberschar rather than settling and controlling it. His errant pass went straight to Karl Wilson, who rolled it into the exposed net 20 yards away. We were 0-1 down, on a gut-wrenching mistake.

I was proud of the lads, though, as they fought on with determination, with Cash setting up Jason Lay from 18 yards; Harwood was up to the task. At 66 minutes, I brought on fresh legs in the attack: Yates, Jones, and Mellor came on for Bartholomew, Lay, and Prince. They weren't able to create a gap at the back of the tight Bromley defense, and at the 75th minute, we narrowly avoided having the coffin locked on a Bromley counter. Gary Drewett stole free of McMahon on the back row, and his shot beat Speare, but rose just over the bar.

At 80 minutes, I switched to an aggressive, attacking version of the base formation which I'd introduced the side to over the two-week break, pushing the wings forward and having the fullbacks advance to get involved as well. It was the attacking 4-5-1's first time in action, it took one minute to produce a result: Mellor broke free down the left sideline and into the corner, where he launched a cross. Michael Yates beat double coverage from 10 yards out to launch a header on goal.. level! 1-1!

Bromley came straight back at us, and Speare's save the following minute was highlight-reel worthy. The hosts switched to an aggressive 4-2-4, desperate to avoid a replay on the road - a decision which would create plenty of chances at both ends. John Wilfort's 25-yard shot hit side netting. When Bromley defenseman Justin Fox had to leave the field briefly for treatment, Michael Yates split between the two central defenders, and only a great save 1-on-1 by Harwood kept the scores level. As injury time played out, it was end to end stuff through the exhausted defenses, but when our corner on 93 minutes went nowhere, I thought surely the game was over.

A foul and a yellow card to Andy McConville gave us a last chance almost five minutes into stoppage time. Cash took the free kick from the right sideline about 35 yards out, and played it perfectly to Yates in the box. With one touch, Yates juked around McConville, leaving the midfielder for dead, and rifled a shot to the far corner, past a despairing Harwood.. utter silence in the ground, and then the Lancaster stand and our bench erupted in joy - 2-1, and that would be the final touch of the match, coming at 94:55 by my watch!

Bromley 1, Lancaster 2

Wilson 58; Yates 82, 90

MoM: Yates

Michael Yates was mobbed by his teammates in the far right corner, and nobody who had seen his display could doubt that he'd been the man of the match despite only playing 30 minutes.

It was incredible! That had to be one of the best matches I'd been witness to in a long time, with an absolutely riveting finish!

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Sunday, 17th October, 2004.

Rob and I went straight from the stadium to Heathrow for my trans-Atlantic flight, where we met Spencer Field, the sole club employee whom I'd invited - he joked that he'd be scouting at least one player so he could charge it to the club as a business expense.

The twelve hours airborne were perfect for savouring the taste of that great ending, and I treated myself to some champagne.

It was a brutal whirlwind schedule: match in London Saturday, rehearsal in California Saturday night, wedding Sunday, and back in Lancaster for training by Monday night.

The only way it could work at all was thanks to the time change: I arrived in California, exhausted but happy and excited, still on Saturday evening. We had a fine rehearsal dinner arranged for the wedding party at one of our favorite little Italian restaurants, La Scala, in Burlingame, and though I was bleary-eyed, I made it through little speeches of appreciation for my groomsmen.

The wedding was Sunday afternoon, and though every time we'd seen the venue, a beautiful winery overlooking San Francisco Bay, it had been stunning and sunny, it was instead cold, foggy, and rainy, but somehow that just made everything more intimate and cozy. The minister was a friend of ours, who gave the most heart-wrenching speech on love and marriage, and I swear to you even the hardest cynic in the place was daubing tears from his eyes.

I'd had some beautiful vows memorized, but when Stacy gave me hers, mine went right out of my mind - and though I brought out the 3x5 index cards I'd written notes on, my eyes were too watery to see 'em! I stuttered through something, I'm sure, because I wound up with the "I do" and a ring and a kiss.

Wedding receptions are such a blur for the married couple - I swear you get only 30 seconds with each guest, and the food.. was there food? No, seriously I know there was, our second string caterer had done a fantastic job, and the cake was incredible, but its such a blur: we were introduced, there were toasts, food, dancing, the oh-so-wrong sight of my brother dancing with her sister, toasts, Venetian masks everywhere, cake, more toasts, and through it all my beautiful wife - suddenly we were being herded out the door.

Our wedding night was hardly a romantic ideal of marriage: we boarded a plane not for an exotic honeymoon, but for a late red-eye flight arriving in Liverpool the next morning, and were back to the Giant Axe just in time for training.

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Monday, 18th October, 2004.

With four victories in a row, the mood in training was ebullient, and matched only by the 'Dolly Blue Fever' which had swept through Lancaster town. No longer could I sit in my favorite coffee shop for a quiet cup: now I was a minor celebrity, and it seemed everybody wanted to offer their advice for the squad. None of them saw the irony which had my wife - wife! - and I laughing over dinner: I'd desperately needed that advice a month ago!

I shared the happiness, especially when I looked over the books.£5,000 prize money four our victory at Hayes Lane, plus a share of the gate receipts for that large London crowd, and the chance to advance to the Fourth Qualifying Round. It was as much as I could have hoped for - in fact, we were turning a fairly significant profit for the month so far - more than half of our season's revenue had come this month, between ticket sales and the two chunks of prize money. We were now only £10,108 in debt.

However, I was also realistic about it: all four of our wins had come against lesser opposition, and all by only a single goal. We hadn't improved as much as the townsfolk thought we had, and I dreaded reaching a tougher part of the schedule where that might be revealed.

The draw for the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round was this afternoon, and the lads and I tuned in to listen on radio. For the first time, teams higher than us were included, as the field widened to encompass the teams from the Conference National. Worse, we drew one: Leigh RMI, away. At first, I was disheartened, but after visiting the Conference National website, I saw that Leigh RMI were firmly down in the relegation zone, 2nd from last, and sporting the worst defense and the worst goal difference in the Conference.

"We might actually be able to handle that," I told Kevin.

With that out of the way, I turned my attention to the scouting report. Carl Richardson described Runcorn as a 'mediocre side', which I could only take to mean weaker than either of the lower-division sides we'd just beaten. He explained that their slow attack led to a very defensive, conservative style of play, a 5-3-2 'park the bus' sort of game. They were 17th, one place behind us, with the same record but a worse goal difference.

I was ready to sleep for a week, but as I turned out the office light to head home, chairman Steve Johnston arrived in the hallway.

"Congratulations," he told me, "I just heard."

"Thank you,"

"I have just one question for you. What are you doing here? Don't you know you can take a holiday?"

The stunned look on his face told him everything he needed to know.

I hadn't.

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Tuesday, 19th October, 2004. Conference North - Game 9, vs Runcorn.

We returned home for a league match, and I selected all of the starters who had rested against Bromley. Jamie Speare, who had played so well despite his mistake against Bromley, was of course in goal. Paul Sparrow and Andy Scott returned to the starting lineup at fullback, with Martin Clark and Joe McMahon central. Steve Birks returned at defensive midfield, as did Lee Clitheroe and Neil Prince on the wings. Steve Clarkson, Shane Tolley, and Michael Yates were the trio up front.

All told, it was eight changes from the side which had won on Saturday, and I couldn't help but think this was the stronger side! The day was cold and overcast, with a stiff wind from off the Irish Sea: I was bundled up in a warmer jacket than one would typically see with a suit, but I'm from California, and not used to this sort of weather.

We started out absolutely rampant, and the crowd of 356 were on their feet throughout the first ten minutes, as we saw four great chances go begging, the best of which were from Shane Tolley, who was denied by the crossbar, and then turned away by goalkeeper Mark Cartwright a minute later. When things settled down a bit, and it appeared that Runcorn had begun to solve our conservative 4-5-1, I switched things up, calling for the shift to the aggressive attacking 4-5-1 which had created a goal so quickly in our previous match.

This time, it went against us, as Runcorn midfielder Lee Parle made an incisive pass, finding Neil Ross split between my two central defenders and 20 yards out. Before anybody could close him down, he unleashed a curling long-range shot which Jamie Speare could barely get a hand on at the post, but could not deny, and Runcorn led 0-1.

I was committed to the attacking formation, now, I thought, and left it be - we'd had six men back in defense as it was, even if four attackers had made short work of them. Runcorn shifted things up a bit at the half, as apparently Parle had been injured in a hard tackle from Andy Scott.

At the 51st minute, Birks' shot hit the side netting, and then Tolley was denied again by Cartwright. Finally, at 60 minutes, David Mellor slipped free down the left wing, just as he had against Bromley. This time, the cross found Tolley, whose header from 12 yards scored to amply reward the work he'd done all game with his first competitive goal! It was all level at one!

I shifted back to the conservative formation, not wanting to risk a loss at home, but that didn't slow Tolley, who almost added a second with a beautiful curling shot from 24 yards that whistled inches wide. Aside from him, however, we went meekly through the chilly final minutes. Runcorn were obviously content with a draw on the road, and even the crowd were too cold to put much effort into spurring us on.

Lancaster 1, Runcorn 1

Tolley 61; Ross 35

MoM: Tolley

Shane Tolley had been all over the pitch, creating chance after chance, and earning the tying goal. He thoroughly deserved the Man of the Match award, and I actually thought his rating in the paper the next day was a bit low - perhaps they figured, with all the chances he'd had, he should have scored more than once.

Regardless, our streak of victories was over at four.

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Wednesday, 20th October, 2004.

Coupled with our draw, disappointing results from around the league dropped us back to 18th. Still, we remained out of the relegation zone, and morale on the training ground remained high. I was enduring much jocularity about having acquired "the ball and chain," which I dished back in good nature with taunts for my players.

"Obviously you're just jealous you don't have a California beauty to call your own," I jibed at Gary Bauress, after a particularly witty jab from the player/coach.

"Why should I pay the upkeep," he called back, chasing down a loose ball in training, "When I can enjoy yours while you're working late?"

From the "oooohs" of my players, I knew he'd won that exchange.

Later, and in private, I got to mention to Neil Uberschar that he had done a great job at right back on Saturday - he'd been as solid in defense as eventual Man of the Match Michael Yates had been up front, and I told him as much, promising him an increasing role down the stretch.

I didn't have time for Champions League football, but did note the following group stage results:

Paris SG 0, Manchester Utd 1

Lokomotiv (Plovdiv) 1, Arsenal 3

Rangers 2, Panathanaikos 2

Liverpool 3, Lyon 1

Celtic 4, Dinamo Bucharest 1

Chelsea 2, Benfica 0

After half the matches in the group stage, it meant that Liverpool lay third, 2 points behind Roma and 3 back of Real Madrid. Premiership leaders Chelsea were top of their group, unbeaten and untied, with Celtic solidly in second at six points. Manchester United were even more dominant, on nine points with second in their group on but four.

Arsenal led their group, with Italian giants Juventus a close second.

Rangers were third, tied for second with Panathanaikos on 4 points, but needing a result against the Greeks on the road to break the stalemate due to goal differential. Also of note were Barcelona - to everyone's surprise, the Spanish juggernaut was struggling at fourth in a group that included Inter Milan, Bayern Leverkusen, and Olympiakos.

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Friday, 22nd October, 2004.

Wednesday night, my new bride and I finally got to have our wedding night - and I took the offered holiday on Thursday, as well.

No, I'll not tell you about it, thank you very much!

When I got back on Friday, I counter-signed the contract of another player, left winger Scott Davis, 18. We'd had him in on trial for the past two weeks, and both Spencer Field and Kevin Hull were in agreement, recommending him in the most glowing of terms. I know I promised not to bloat the wage bill, but we were still desperate for wingers!

I'd again offered my fringe players to other clubs, and after spending several hours wading through rejection notices - why did I feel like an aspiring author? - I turned my attention to the scouting report on Moor Green.

Carl Richardson again reverted to calling our opposition 'competent', but he did point out that they like to play a direct 4-4-2, which made them a threat offensively, but that their defense is slow and weak in the air, so he expected us to be able to capitalize. With the Moors one place ahead of us in 17th, we stood to move up in the league if we could garner three points.

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Saturday, 23rd October, 2004. Conference North - Game 10, at Moor Green

I'm sorry to report that I've no idea where Moor Green is. I was feeling mighty carsick on the bus, and wasn't paying attention, and worse, I couldn't find it on the Ordnance Survey map later, either. When they say a team is 'obscure', they really mean it!

When I was feeling better, I penciled in a starting lineup: mostly the same side as had drawn against Runcorn, but the left side was utterly changed, with new loanee Alan Morgan in at left back for Scott and new signing Scott Davis in immediately on the left wing. That left Jamie Speare in net, Morgan, Joe McMahon, Martin Clark, and Paul Sparrow defensively, Steve Birks the holding midfielder,and Lee Clitheroe opposite Davis on the right wing. Up front, Shane Tolley was joined by Steve Jones, on for Clarkson, and Peter Thomson started for Yates.

It was just as chilly as it had been Tuesday: grey, bleak and overcast, but mercifully dry. A bit of chill wouldn't keep 483 faithful from the Moorlands. They got what they paid for in the first half: Moor Green had our number throughout, and only some good goalkeeping from Jamie Speare kept us in it through the first thirty minutes. In the 39th minute, though, they finally got the reward for their hard work. Darren Middleton's corner was struck perfectly to Ryan Semple, who used one touch to dodge around Joe McMahon and then launched a left-footed blast past Speare to put us down 1-0.

Peter Thomson nearly equalised for us, but his shot from 6 yards out was saved by Moore Green netminder Adam Rachel. At half time, I talked about it with Kevin Hull: most of the time we were being outnumbered 6-5 on the Moor attack, which of course was putting our defense in a spot of trouble. But, a goal down, we both thought the best course was to put the lads on our aggressive formation, and hope to force our hosts into a more defensive formation.

It seemed to work, and on the hour mark, Alan Morgan took a throw deep in Moor Green territory. Steve Jones played a long cross to Peter Thomson at about the six yard box, and as Rachel charged Thomson to cut off his heading angle, Thomson knocked it down for Lee Clitheroe at the far post. Clitheroe's one-time shot easily beat the awkwardly positioned keeper, and it was knotted at one apiece!

I brought Jason Lay on for Tolley, and reverted to our conservative formation, which would cost us immediately. Richard Follett, their left back, launched a long cross from about 45 yards out, and Speare made an awful mental blunder - he went as though to catch it along the end line, wide of his goal, seeming to forget that if it went out, it would be a goal kick. Worse, that let Darren Middleton sneak between it and him, and when Middleton outjumped the hapless McMahon, our fate was sealed: Middleton's header went easily into the open net.

I shifted back to the attacking version of our 4-5-1, but all that did was open more holes at the back for our hosts to exploit. It took a great tackle by Martin Clark to stop an Andrew Nelson breakaway at 80 minutes, and with everybody pressing forward, there was nobody to stop Ryan Semple at 85 minutes. He had plenty of time and space, but Jamie Speare atoned for his earlier mistake by smothering the chance at the edge of the penalty box.

Despite bringing on my wonderkids, Michael Yates and David Mellor, there was no magic in it for us this day, and the final whistle ended our unbeaten run at six.

Moor Green 2, Lancaster 1

Semple 39, Middleton 64; L.Clitheroe 61

MoM: Middleton (Moor Green MC)

Darren Middleton, with a goal and an assist, was given a '10' rating and the post-match accolades - his dominant play in midfield had been part of our hosts domination, which was much more complete than one might guess from the 2-1 scoreline. We still had a long way to go to compete at this level.

Joe McMahon had been victimized for both goals, and I was less than impressed with the youngster.

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Friday, 29th October, 2004.

We were still 18th, with one team between us and the relegation zone, but the invincible aura which had overtaken the camp was noticeably absent once our six-game unbeaten streak was brought short. I began to focus the side on our next challenge, the F.A. Cup match against Leigh RMI.

In the privacy of the office, I turned my attention to a different Cup: Monday was the draw for the F.A. Trophy - a minor British tournament, open to all the non-League sides. The First Round features teams from the Conference North/South and many teams from the Regional Divisions below, but with poor luck we drew fellow Conference North side Droylsden, placed 5th in the division.

The match would be next Saturday, giving us a stretch with four matches in eleven days, and in fact we'd play Droylsden twice in four days, since our Tuesday Conference North match was against them as well.

I found my scout's report: Carl Richardson thought that Leigh RMI are an average side, but warned that their attacking pace might cause problems.

I wanted to fax him back, "Not competent?", but couldn't decide which would be worse - if he got it, or if he didn't.

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Saturday, 30th October, 2004. FA Cup - Fourth Qualifying Round, at Leigh RMI.

The match would be a relatively local match, and we drew a fair following who made the drive from Lancaster to watch us play at Hilton Park in Bolton - shortly north-east of Manchester.

Most of the side were well-rested, but central defenseman Martin Clark, who often takes the captaincy, had tired legs - he'd started every match of the season so far, the only outfield player to do so, and Kevin Hull approached me the morning of the match and informed me that Martin needed to rest. I'd been planning on benching Joe McMahon for his performance in the previous match - but with Ricky Mercer still injured, I didn't have the flexibility to remove both my starting central defenders in a single match.

What I did instead was shift Andy Scott over from left fullback to the middle, so my defense was Jamie Speare in goal, Alan Morgan, Andy Scott, Joe McMahon, and Paul Sparrow across the back, with Steve Birks at defensive midfield. Up front, I placed Brian Cash and David Mellor on the wings, with Shane Tolley and Ryan-Zico Black the attacking midfielders and Michael Yates at the fore. It was the best lineup I could manage, I felt.

Despite the 3:00 start time, it was cold and windy, with gray clouds scudding across the sky. You could tell right from the start that Leigh RMI were playing to win, as they had a direct 4-4-2 which became almost a 4-2-4 when they had the ball, but we had the better chances early, taking advantage of their exposed back line. Cash's free kick from 25 yards went narrowly over, then Shane Tolley launched a shot wide. Steven Blair gave the home side their first opportunity, but blazed it harmlessly over the bar. At about the 20 minute mark, we brought the crowd of 1454 to their feet, mostly in dismay, as first Yates' shot was deflected into the side netting, and Tolley's header on the ensuing corner went just over, and moments later, Tolley had another shot curl just wide.

At the 27 minute mark, Cash had the ball on the right side, and launched a long ball into the area. Yates's perfectly timed run sprung him free of the last defender, but his first touch was too far from his body as keeper Paul Crichton charged out. Crichton just got a hand on it, knocking it to his right, but Yates pounced on the rebound and had an easy chance on the open net from six yards out. 1-0, Lancaster! We could see the dejection on the faces of the Leigh players - they had a "Oh no, not again," hang-dog look which was unmistakable, and we easily held the lead to halftime.

I don't know what Phil Starbuck said to them at halftime, but it must have been incredible: they came out fired up, and just after the restart, their fullbacks combined on a play: Stephen Jordan, the captain and left back, had the ball deep in the corner on the left side, and launched a cross. Right back Paul Cherry leaped above my two central defenseman, Scott and McMahon, to head the ball home from 8 yards and tie the game at 1-1.

Fortunately, their enthusiasm didn't last the entire match, and by the 65th minute, they were back on their heels again. At the 70th minute, Ryan-Zico Black's free kick from 22 yards was deflected by the wall, and Crichton made an amazing reflex save to keep it out. I was noticing that on our back line, Scott was having trouble with the fresh legs of substitute Craig Mitchell, but I didn't have much I could do about it; instead I brought on fresh legs of my own up front, in the form of Bartholomew for Yates and Clarkson for Black.

At about that time, Starbuck shifted Leigh to a 4-2-4, determined to beat his lower-level opposition without a replay, and that really opened things up at the back. Clarkson's header at 86 minutes set up Bartholomew, but he blazed it over. In the 89th, Bartholomew dribbled through the Leigh defense, but Crighton deflected his shot wide. In injury time, he added another chance, this from 6 yards but to a narrow spot between Crichton and the post, and the Leigh keeper smothered it.

A long four minutes of injury time expired, but there was no last-second goal in us this time. Still, we'd earned a replay at the Giant Axe!

Leigh RMI 1, Lancaster 1

Cherry 47; Yates 27

MoM: Crichton (Leigh RMI GK)

Paul Crichton was the obvious choice for Man of the Match: we'd outshot the 'better' side 14-6, but his numerous saves had kept them in it. We'd have a replay scheduled for sometime in the coming week, I figured, and hoped the FA would be smart enough to reschedule our conflicting match, whatever it was.

On our side, Paul Sparrow had been our best player.

I'd noticed one other disturbing trend: it was Cherry's first goal for Leigh RMI, and believe it or not, it had been first goals to both Moor Green players previously, and for Ross before that.

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Sunday, 31st October, 2004.

I gave the lads All Hallow's Eve off, to spend with family or as they will. I spent it with my new bride, and we enjoyed a warm fire in the fireplace and a few cups of hot tea - the British obsession with tea makes so much more sense when you realise how cold the Isles are!

I did drop by the office for a moment to check when the replay would be scheduled for: Wednesday, 3rd November, in a mere three days? Why, most of my first-choice side wouldn't even be fit by then, and that's not to mention the Droylsden match the following Saturday! Fixture congestion would cost us, I was sure.

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Monday, 1st November, 2004.

Today's meeting with the Board went well: they are pleased with my performance, and especially so by the run of results early in the month. I wasn't even admonished for the state of the club's finances, or the overrun of the wage bill.

The draw for the F.A. Cup First Round proper was today. The draw added all of the League One and League Two sides - the divisions above the Conference National - and there were few enough teams of our level surviving. But we dodged all of the largest teams: if we can defeat Leigh RMI, it'll be an away match against Stevenage, also from the Conference National. Not easy, but I didn't think it would be much worse than Leigh RMI... until I looked at the standings.

Stevenage were in first place, with 22 goals for and only 8 against after 12 matches. Yes, that had them first in goals scored and first in least goals allowed, a far different proposition than relegation-battling Leigh RMI.

In better news, young Ricky Mercer returned to the practice ground this evening, the first time in a month that he had practiced, since cracking two ribs. He would not be ready for Wednesday's match, but might be ready by the coming weekend.

Carl Richardson filed another scouting report on Leigh RMI, and this time, though again he reported that the team is average, he noted that their attacking pace may cause problems and their midfield is creative.

Thanks, Carl. I'd noticed that.

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Wednesday, 3rd November, 2004, FA Cup - Fourth Qualifying Round Replay, vs Leigh RMI.

967 fans turned out to the Giant Axe to cheer us on in. The 7:00pm start time and the cold did not deter many.

With the short week, I started whoever seemed well-enough rested. James Speare was between the posts, of course, with Andy Scott, Joe McMahon, Martin Clark, and Neil Uberschar across the back row. Clark was well-enough rested to return to central defense, while Uberschar replaced Paul Sparrow at right back. Player/coach Gary Bauress would be the defensive midfielder, with Lee Clitheroe and Scott Davis on the wings. Jason Lay and Phil Clarkson replaced Tolley and Black in the attacking midfield roles, with Phil Bartholomew spelling Yates at striker. Seven changes from the strong lineup I'd fielded for the first leg? It was sounding like the swan-song for our FA Cup run.

It was all Leigh RMI early on, but for nearly half an hour we were able to soak up the pressure, averting attack after attack, though not seeming to threaten ourselves. In the 28th minute, though, Andy Roscoe broke past Uberschar on their left wing, and launched a long cross to Ian Fitzpatrick on the far post. Fitzpatrick was unmarked, having slipped loose from Andy Scott, who seemed confused about his coverage responsibility, and Jamie Speare didn't try to play the cross. Fitzpatrick hammered it on goal, and from 4 yards, hapless Speare had no chance. Lancaster 0, Leigh RMI 1.

We nearly got one back on the 38 minutes, when Bartholomew broke free of the last defender, but goalkeeper Paul Crichton tipped it wide. He saved a good shot from Jason Lay a mere five minutes later, and that ushered us to the break, down a goal. I told the lads to change over to our attack-minded version of the 4-5-1. Physio David Hughes mentioned that Lay was limping, so I substituted Shane Tolley in his place.

The changes didn't seem to help, and I brought Yates on at the 54th minute. Scott, determined to atone for his mistake, roamed far forward to join the attack, but his 57th minute shot was acrobatically tipped over the bar by Crichton. I made my final change, bringing Mellor on at the 65th minute, but he couldn't unlock the Leigh defense, either.

Finally, with perhaps ten minutes left, I committed the lads to 'all-out-attack' mode. All that seemed to do was give possession to the opposition, though Yates did nearly break one, curling his shot just past the top-left corner of the net on 86 minutes.

There was no late miracle: we were knocked out of the F.A. Cup.

Lancaster 0, Leigh RMI 1

----; Fitzpatrick 28

MoM: Crichton (Leigh RMI GK)

The fans gave a warm round of applause, appreciative of our effort, if not the result.

Leigh keeper Paul Crichton was Man of the Match again, but this time the Conference side had dominated, holding us to only five shots all match. They definitely deserved to advance, and if I was disappointed, I could also see the pragmatic side: it would mean less fixture congestion, among other things.

That night, I tuned in to the BBC to catch updates from the Champions League over the past two days. A man can dream, can't he?

Lyon 2, Liverpool 0: A loss to the fourth-placed French club had done serious damage to Liverpool's hopes of advancing, as with two games to play they trailed Real Madrid by 3 points and 6 goals worth of goal difference.

Benfica 1, Chelsea 3; Dinamo Bucharest 2, Celtic 1: Chelsea became the first to qualify for the next round, with a perfect 12 points and a 9-point lead over third-placed Benfica, while despite the loss Celtic retained second place and a 3-point advantage.

Manchester Utd 2, Paris SG 0: The win guaranteed the Old Trafford side first place in their group, with a 7-point lead over second placed Fenerbahçe.

Arsenal 4, Lokomotiv (Plovdiv) 0: The lopsided win leapfrogged Arsenal into the group lead, four points above 2nd-placed Juventus and five clear of Porto.

Panathanaikos 0, Rangers 0: The Greek side maintained their slightest of edges above the Old Firm club, as each were at 5 points, but the hosts had a win over Rangers plus goal difference in their favor. Both trailed well behind group leaders Valencia.

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Friday, 5th November, 2004.

I brought Kevin Hull and Barrie Stimson into my office today, to get their opinions on the defeat to Leigh RMI.

"There's a pretty big drop-off between our first choice XI and some of our reserve players, Ian," Barrie answered.

Kevin chimed in, with "The full-side changes you've been making have made it difficult for the players to establish a working rapport."


"If you're willing to take advice," Barrie added, "I'd recommend leaving in some of the players you've been considering 'tired', and starting them anyways, rather than break up the rhythm and momentum of the side."

I could see their point.

We turned our attention to the scouting report. Droylsden are "capable", surprise surprise. Scout Carl Richardson did note that they have a potent threat in their pacey attacking line.

That's not a good sign, considering we'll be playing them twice in four days.

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Saturday, 6th November, 2004. F.A. Trophy - First Round, vs Droylsden.

Despite my assistants' advice about wholesale changes, I'd been planning on using the F.A. Trophy as a chance for some of our fringe players to see action, so I rung the changes once again.

For the first time all year, I made a change in goal, starting young Kevin Welsby instead of Jamie Speare. The back line returned to the usual configuration: Andy Scott, Joe McMahon, Martin Clark, and Paul Sparrow, from left to right. Ryan Elderton got his first start in a long while at defensive midfield. Our best wingers, Brian Cash and David Mellor, would start, with Steve Jones and Ryan-Zico Black handling the attacking midfield responsibilities. Up front, Peter Thomson made only his fourth start of the season.

The paltry crowd of 210 for this minor competition seemed very casual and small after the FA Cup crowd mid-week. The first 20 minutes passed fairly quietly, and it wasn't until the 23rd minute that either side had a real chance. Steve Jones's long ball freed Peter Thomson, but Droylsden keeper Jon Worsnop was up to the task.

In the 35th, it was Paul Sparrow who made an incisive run, then as the Droylsden midfield challenged him, launched a high ball forward into the box. Thomson put the ball on net, and though Worsnop deflected it, it trickled into the net at the far post! We led, 1-0!

The same combination nearly made it two minutes later, another long ball to Thomson, but this time he lifted it over the bar from 16 yards out. At halftime, I was quite content with our play, and didn't consider touching either squad or tactics, I just told them to give out more of the same. Droylsden made a halftime change, bringing the injured Chris O'Brien off.

In the 55th minute, Jones took a shot which went just over, and he missed similarly again at 58 minutes. Sparrow was having a great game, hustling back to catch David Cameron when it appeared that the substitute had broken free, and taking the ball from him with a perfect slide tackle in the box where an error would have led to a penalty.

Neil Prince came on late, and with a beautiful pass fed Thomson on a breakaway; the striker dribbled around Warsnop for what looked like the final nail in the coffin, but his shot on an open goal hit the side netting! I was reminded why he isn't my first-team choice.

In the final moments, Droylsden really pushed everyone forward, and it took a good header by Sparrow to clear one chance. They had a final effort in injury time, when Steve Brodie broke free past Joe McMahon, but missed from 20 yards, and then the ref blew full time: we had won, 1-0.

Lancaster 1, Droylsden 0

Worsnop og 35; ----

MoM: Sparrow

I felt the official scorer had been very harsh to both players when he ruled the goal an 'own goal' by Worsnop, rather than a goal for Thomson, but there is no appeal to the instant replay at this level of play.

Paul Sparrow was deservedly the Man of the Match, creating chances from the right back position, and really snuffing out every attack from his side of the field. It was a beautiful performance, and really cemented him in the starting role.

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Monday, 8th November, 2004.

"The way we're losing money, I'm not sure we're going to make it to the end of the season."

No, it wasn't my boss at the Giant Axe.

It was my wife, at home.

"I love my present," - I'd given her a BMW X3 for a wedding present, which came as a complete surprise! - "But we really can't afford it...

"Between rent, the payments on the BMW, your Porsche, and our student loans... honey, you don't get paid a software engineer's wages anymore, and I still haven't gotten a work permit."

"I know, I know."

"Well? What are we going to do?"

"We've still got some stock we can sell."

"Not much, love."

"It'll still take us into next season."

"Barely. I think we should think about selling the Porsche."

That hurt .. I love that car!

I could see the pragmatic side of it, but oh was that going to hurt.

The financial situation at work was little better.

We might have won £2,000 in prize money for our F.A. Trophy victory - but it was a pittance compared to the team's debts. Well, every little bit helps.

Today was the draw for the next round, and we drew a home match against Basingstoke, from our sister league, the Conference South.

Tomorrow, though, we'd be facing Droylsden for the second time in four days. This time, Carl Richardson did give the same scouting report as he had a few days earlier - in fact, it was word-for-word the same report, which made me wonder if he'd just gone to a pub instead of watching any of Droylsden's training: I could have used a little warning about what changes they might make for our rematch at The Butcher's Arms!

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Tuesday, 9th November, 2004. Conference North - Game 11, at Droylsden

After my discussion with my Assistant Manager and senior coach last week, I decided to stay with much more consistency in my lineup, but still made five changes from the side which had beaten Droylsden at The Giant Axe on Saturday. Jamie Speare returned in goal, behind the usual suspects - Andy Scott, Martin Clark, Joe McMahon, and Paul Sparrow. Ryan Elderton was too tired to start twice in a row, so veteran Steve Birks replaced him at defensive midfield. David Mellor is a better left wing than Prince, and would start opposite Brian Cash. Shane Tolley replaced Steve Jones at attacking midfield, partnered with Shane Tolley, and Michael Yates is always my first choice striker.

Droylsden made a surprising change, bringing on Paul Phillips in goal to replace the disgraced Jon Worsnop, who was perceived to have 'cost' them the match Saturday.

It was cold, barely above freezing, and a steady rain fell throughout the match, dampening the spirits of the 964 in attendance. We had the first chances, with Yates' shot over the bar on 10 minutes the best of the lot. In the 25th minute, Jamie Speare made a good save, only couldn't hold on to the wet ball - but he dove on the rebound before Jody Banim could convert.

At the 31st minute, Brian Cash launched a cross from the right wing, which Yates headed on goal from six yards out. Phillips threw his body in front of the shot, and one of the Droylsden defenders scrambled it out of the box - right to Cash, who controlled it and calmly switched sides, finding Tolley at the top of the box. Tolley faked a shot, then passed left to Mellor, 12 yards from goal. The defense had done a little too much 'following the ball', and there was nobody near Mellor: he hammered it through the rain, and we took a 1-0 lead!

Ryan-Zico Black nearly added to that, as he launched three shots just wide of the goal in a five minute spread near the end of the half, and for the second game in a row, Chris O'Brien was injured before halftime. The frustration on his face as he limped off was clear to all.

In the 53rd minute, a Droylsden corner found Steve Brodie in the box, outjumping Joe McMahon, but his header went wide. Yates and Black didn't have the legs to make it past the 55th minute, so I subbed them out.

In the 67th minute, Brodie started a beautiful Droylsden move with a long ball to David Cameron up the left side. He juked past Sparrow and Clark, then crossed to Andy Lee, who beat Andy Scott at the far post. Speare stayed in goalmouth, and Lee's header was unstoppable. Tied, 1-1, and I was struck by how similar that goal felt to the one Leigh RMI had knocked us out of the FA Cup with.

Tolley blazed a good shot over the bar on 80 minutes - he was playing quite well despite a yellow card. On the other end, Cameron broke free of McMahon to run down a long pass. Speare came out, and saved the one-on-one. As the clock ticked into injury time, Paul Sparrow launched a 50-yard long ball, which substitute Phil Bartholomew outran the tired Droylsden defense to. He had a great chance - but got bogged down in a mud-puddle, and was caught from behind by substitute Adam Farley and tackled. The match would end minutes later, drawn 1-1.

Droylsden 1, Lancaster 1

Lee 67; Mellor 32

MoM: Speare

Jamie Speare earned the Man of the Match honours for making five good saves, no easy task with your hands freezing and a wet ball. Sparrow, Black, and Birks all played quite well, too. I made a mental note to myself that I needed to upgrade the central defense: McMahon wasn't improving, and every game, seemed to be victimized at least once. This game, he'd been beaten once in the air and once by speed.

Still, it was a sign of just how far the team had progressed that I was disappointed with an away draw against the fourth-placed team!

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Thank you, gentlemen! At this rate, we'll have more pages than OTT before we're in any danger of winning every match .. icon_wink.gif

Mike, are you thinking FA Cup? I'm playing FM'05. The FA Trophy doesn't have qualifying rounds (in '05); the first and second round are ECN/S and lower, the third round adds teams from the Conference National.

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Saturday, 13th November, 2004.

We were still 18th, 1 point clear of the relegation zone, and 10 points behind Droylsden, who were now occupying the final playoff spot. Since switching to the 4-5-1, Kevin Hull informs me, we've played 13 matches, and outscored our opposition 11-9, with the most common result being a 1-0 victory for us. Interesting - and despite the low scoring, there was only one 0-0 draw in that run.

This morning, we got some rough news : Peter Thomson and Jamie Speare collided while pursuing a ball in the box during training. Thomson sprained a wrist, while Speare twisted a knee. He'll definitely be out of our match with Alfreton on November 17th; the club's message boards are full of despair at losing the club's clear number one keeper before an important relegation clash.

I considered bringing Ryan Yeomans back early from his tour of duty with Poole Borough, but I asked Barrie Stimpson to get down to one of their training sessions, and compare him with Kevin Welsby. Stimpson came back with the same thing he had stated when I first joined the club: Yeomans has the better potential, long-term, but its Welsby who is better suited to fill the void on Wednesday.

I again offered mutual termination to Andy Fensome and fourth GK Mark Thornley; the two were still unwilling to accept, despite the obvious indicators that they will see no playing time on my watch. I resignedly went through the motions of calling around to see if any other side were interested in them.

To my shock, the Tamworth Lambs have made an offer to purchase Fensome - not merely a free transfer for the aging right back, but an actual purchase of £1,000! Convinced that somebody had lost their mind, I accepted.

In the meantime, I'd also offered Neil Uberschar on loan, and had a few nibbles. With Sparrow playing so convincingly at right back, I wanted Neil to get some experience.

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Monday, 15th November, 2005.

Jamie Speare's medical examination revealed no long-term effects from his injury; he should be back to fully fit in about two weeks, according to physio David Hughes. In the meantime, Kevin Welsby will take his place.

I did the 'state of training' overlook with my coaches yesterday, looking at which players have improved and which haven't. Strangely, little-used number four striker Neil Morton has shown the most improvement since the start of the season, with Ricky Mercer narrowly behind and showing more recent improvement. Brian Cash and Scott Davis are showing very good improvement recently, and Cash is still rated as the best player on the squad.

Phil Bartholomew has seen a dramatic drop in performance recently. Of most concern to me was the lack of improvement from some of my core young players, guys who are seeing regular action on the premise that they should be growing in to their potential: Shane Tolley, David Mellor, and Joe McMahon. Likewise, loaned-out keeper Ryan Yeomans hasn't been learning much on his period at loan.

Unwanted right back Andy Fensome agreed to the transfer to Tamworth, and as the squad prepared for Wednesday's game, he was busy packing his bags. He had never made a competitive appearance for us. He was gone by Monday evening, but his place on the training ground was taken by left back Jimmy Graham, who finished his loan period with Dunbar United. Graham's stats while on loan were unimpressive - 12 starts, with 20 tackles, 20 fouls, 4 yellow cards, and an average rating of 6.00 - which merely cemented my impression that the sooner I ceased paying the 35-year-old Scots' wages, the better.

Turning my attention to the upcoming match, I read Carl Richardson's report on Alfreton: 'Capable. The pace of their attack is something we should watch out for.' I wish I could get the man to write me something more than two sentences! I consoled myself with the reminder that he'd be gone at season's end.

My own scouting of them shows that they sit 19th, one place behind us in the table, and have an average defense but a weak attack. We, on the other hand, have the second-best defense in the Conference, but the absolute worst offense: only 6 goals on 11 matches so far.

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Wednesday, 17th November, 2005. Conference North - Game 12, vs Alfreton.

Kevin Welsby was excited to get the start for the injured Speare, which put Thornley on the substitute's bench for the first time. In front of Welsby was my usual foursome of Andy Scott, Martin Clark, Joe McMahon, and Paul Sparrow. Ryan Elderton got the nod at defensive midfielder. Brian Cash and Scott Davis started on the wings, with Jason Lay and Ryan-Zico Black in the attacking roles. Leading scorer Michael Yates took his rightful role up front.

Neither side looked threatening early; we had one corner kick which went awry in the first few minutes, and Alfreton forced Welsby into a save on about 25 minutes, and we may have been lucky that Cash cleared it before any opposition could get to the rebound... but frankly, it was 332 bored, cold fans at halftime, having witnessed only one shot apiece.

I left the same lineup and tactics to start the second half, but when nothing had developed by 58 minutes, I changed to what I called my 'aggressive 4-5-1' - pushing the fullbacks and wingers forward into the attack. I don't think it was related, but shortly thereafter Alfreton scored. Ben Chapman's throw-in from about 40 yards out found captain Chris Dolby, who launched a long ball into the box for Peter Duffield. The striker had slipped between my two central defenders; each apparently expected the other to 'have' him, but I was furious with Joe McMahon, as there was nobody behind him, yet he'd stayed 'back' off the open man. With plenty of space, Duffield made no mistake from 12 yards out, and gave Alfreton a 0-1 lead.

Black nearly equalized on 68 minutes, breaking clear of the last defender, but he tried to get too tricky. He slowed once he was in the box, trying to draw Alfreton keeper Lee Butler into committing. Just as the defenders caught him, he passed left for Michael Yates - a creative ploy, but he'd given Grant Brown enough time to catch up to the play, and the central defender put it out for a corner. Yet again, our corner went nowhere: we hadn't seriously threatened from a corner all season, and it seemed like we were playing it short even when two men came out to take away the short option. I told Kevin Hull to make a note of that - we'd change it for next match.

I brought Clarkson and Bartholomew on, hoping fresh legs would do the trick, but nothing seemed to be working. With 84 minutes gone, just as I was growing desperate, Ryan-Zico Black came up with a moment of magic. Ryan Elderton's header found him in a crowd of bodies. Literally surrounded by defenders and 35 yards out, he unleashed a spectacular wonder-strike, which surprised me as much as it did Butler! The Alfreton 'keeper could hardly believe that it was a shot on goal, let alone curling through the top right corner and into the back of his net! It was all level at 1-1!

The fans erupted in a loud cheer, as Black became an instant legend in Lancaster town - a truly memorable strike, and believe it or not, it was the talented North Irishman's first goal in our uniform!

I left the aggressive formation in place for the final minutes, but nothing more was forthcoming: another 1-1 draw.

Lancaster 1, Alfreton 1

Black 84; Duffield 63

MoM: Elderton

I though Black was absolutely robbed when he didn't receive the Man of the Match award for that spectacular strike alone, though I had to concede that Ryan Elderton had earned some recognition with his play at defensive midfielder. Not only did he have the assist on Black's goal, but he'd had a fine day, leading the side in tackles, headers, passing, and picking up three interceptions.

Despite the dramatic finish, I'm sure the fans who braved the cold were unimpressed with a day that say only six shots total, three per side.

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Friday, 19th November, 2004.

With another draw, we'd seeped back to 19th place, just above the relegation zone. It was frustrating: with the defensive 4-5-1, we were a threat to draw every game in low-scoring, low-shooting affairs, but the more aggressive 4-4-2 options really exposed our true lack of quality, and left us losing by 2-0 margins.

Assistant Manager Kevin Hull and I spent some time in training this week working on our corner kicks. We took the 'short option' out entirely, both preferring to see corners launched into the box than squandered as they had been these past few weeks. I also took a look at the defensive arrangements in the 'aggressive' formation: I'd expected that perhaps the central defenders were considering it 'zonal' rather than 'man marking' as we had them in the default formation: that would have explained how strikers were splitting between them as they had for several goals. But it was not the case, in fact their instructions were exactly the same as in the normal case.

Fourth striker Neil Morton strained his back in training: he'll miss the better part of a month. Normally, I'd have thought that that was not much of a loss, but with Peter Thomson also out, that left me with just two natural strikers healthy, though of course Black, Tolley, and Jones can all fill in to differing degrees.

Neil Uberschar came into my office to tell me that he'd decided on joining Scarborough on loan for the rest of the season, preferring the Conference National side to Southport, who were in our very own division.

I was loaning him up a division? Was I making a big mistake?

I sat with the contract on my desk for over an hour before I countersigned - and the only reasons I decided in favour were the fine play of Paul Sparrow, and the presence of a 'recall' clause - I could bring Uberschar back at any time without paying any compensation to Scarborough. I still had a sense of foreboding about it.

The same day, goalkeeper Ryan Yeomans returned the side, his loan to Poole Borough completed. The 18-year-old had started 12 matches for the regional semi-pro side, posting 4 clean sheets, and earning 2 Man of the Match awards - a good job, I thought. I brought in two more trialists, though I ought to know better than to tempt myself to bloat the wage budget further.

Good news, though - I'd asked Kevin Hull to make some phone calls around Scotland, and see if any of his native country's teams would be interested in bringing Jimmy Graham back to Scotland, and we got five offers from teams willing to take him from us for free. I told Kevin to set our price at 'willing to commit to a future friendly at The Giant Axe', and to call them back.

Then I took a look at Carl Richardson's report: Saturday's match was at home against Gainsborough. "Their attacking pace may cause problems and they have a strong midfield," he warned of the ninth-placed side - maybe he's actually watched these guys?

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Saturday, 20th November, 2004. Conference North - Game 13, vs Gainsborough Trinity.

With Speare-o still injured, Kevin Welsby got his second straight start in goal. Again, Andy Scott, Martin Clark, Joe McMahon, and Paul Sparrow formed the back for in front of him. Ricky Mercer made his return to the lineup in the defensive midfield role, with Brian Cash on the right wing and David Mellor on the left. Shane Tolley replaced Jason Lay, joining Ryan-Zico Black in the attacking midfield, while Michael Yates again started up front. Only three changes from the previous match, which my Assistant Kevin Hull, approved of.

It was a sunny day, and quite warm for late November, but only 312 fans showed up to cheer on their favourite lost cause. The ref was not in a sunny, mood, however, and brought out a yellow card against Carl Alford only 25 seconds in. When he added a second against our own Shane Tolley on five minutes, I feared the worst, and joked to Barrie Stimson that we'd finish up nine against nine. In the 16th minute, Mellor's pass sprung Tolley free in the Gainsborough area, and closed in to about 6 yards out, at the near post, but Shane tried to pass into a crowd rather than take the shot!

I'll have to explain to the lad that there is such a thing as too generous.

In the 30th minute, Mercer made a fine cross, which picked out Yates in the box, but the striker headed it just over the bar. Gainsborough took their shot in the 39th minute, as Adam Burley, trailing the play, wound up unmarked at the far post, but Welsby made a fantastic reflex save to deny him at the post. Amazingly, only three yellow cards total in the first half; not the bloodbath I'd expected.

I stayed with the staid, boring 4-5-1 through the second half, stressing defense to my lads, and they responded, utterly throttling the potent Gainsborough attack. The flip side of the coin was that they were unable to mount much of their own, even after the substitutions of Clarkson for Tolley, and Bartholomew for Yates. It wasn't until the 75th minute that we put a shot on target, as Mellor drove in a 16-yard blast, but had it saved by Mark Jones.

On 83 minutes, just as I was contemplating telling the lads to go for broke, Ryan-Zico Black sprayed a ball wide left for Mellor. The young winger's cross to Phil Bartholomew set the young Englishman up right on the penalty spot, where he powered a great header into the corner of the net! We were up 1-0!

Moments later, Ben Purkiss launched a long ball for the visitors, which Joe McMahon rushed forward on, playing himself completely out of the picture as it sailed over his head to the wide open Lee Ellington, whom McMahon was supposed to be marking! Only young Kevin Welsby stood between Ellington and disaster - but the young keeper was up to the task, and slid into Ellington's legs with flair. The ball caromed wildly out for a throw, and surely the 23-year-old's save had delivered the victory!

In the waning minutes, Mellor nearly earned another assist, as his incisive pass put Black only ten yards out with plenty of space, but the hero of mid-week put it wide this afternoon. It was not to matter, as the ref blew for full time just moments afterwards.

Lancaster 1, Gainsborough 0

Bartholomew 83; ----

MoM: Mellor

Left wing David Mellor was the clear Man of the Match, as his cross set up the only goal, and his passing had nearly been responsible for two more.

I was quickly running out of patience with Joe McMahon at the back. Welsby's fantastic save had bailed him out this time, but how many weeks did I have to call out his name? If we could afford a replacement, I'd be looking for one already.

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Tuesday, 23rd November, 2004.

At least we were up to 17th.


I'd dreamed of so much more .. glamour .. than battling against relegation in one of the lowest semi-pro leagues in England.

I'd dreamed of Champions League action, sold out crowds, and Old Trafford, if I must confess. I wistfully tuned in to the Red Devil's match against Fenerbahçe midweek. Having already clinched first in Group E - after only four matches - Sir Alex had named a weak, young lineup. Despite running out the second team, the side from Manchester scored five to make an emphatic point with a 5-2 victory.

In Italy, Juventus closed the gap to a single point behind leaders Arsenal with a convincing 3-0 win. With Portugese champions F.C. do Porto merely a point behind Juve, it would be all to play for in the final match.

In Glasgow, Valencia clinched Group G with a 3-2 win over Rangers. The Old Firm side were left in a real dogfight, level with Panathinaikos on 5 points, and trailing Swiss side Basel by one.

I shut the TV off and turned my mind to Carl's report on Harrogate Town: "Average, but with a potent threat in their pacey attacking line," he said, noting that the opposition were 11th in the Conference North.

We'd have to face them without Phil Clarkson, who had bruised his shin in training, and would miss at least a week.

None of the five Scottish clubs were willing to agree to a friendly in exchange for Jimmy Graham - too long of a drive, I guess - so I told Kevin Hull just to make the deal with any of them, as long as it got Graham's salary off the books.

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Wednesday, 24th November, 2004. Conference North - Game 14, at Harrogate Town.

Harrogate, it turns out, is just north of Leeds, and due west of York - which makes it fairly close to us.

Backup keeper Kevin Weslby made his third straight start in goal, while Chris Whittle replaced McMahon on our back line, joining Andy Scott, Martin Clark, and Paul Sparrow. Player/coach Gary Bauress would lead by example from the defensive midfield, with David Mellor on the left wing and Brian Cash on the right. Ryan-Zico Black and Steve Jones were partnered in the attacking midfield, with Michael Yates up front.

It was a wet and rainy night, and the temperature was just above freezing. The crowd of 318 were well bundled up, as was I. Our lads didn't start cold, though - a mere three minutes after kickoff, Steven Jones launched a 16-yard shot which goalie Paul Pettinger tipped just over the bar. I noticed with happiness that Chris Whittle was playing well defensively, as he took care of the Harrogate counterattack. On 22 minutes, star striker Michael Yates appeared to break clear of the last man, but a last-ditch tackle inside the box knocked it away from him.

Ten minutes later, we scored a nearly comical goal: Yates had the ball out wide, looking like a left wing as he dribbled into the corner and launched a cross aimed at Jones. Jones, Pettinger, and two Harrogate defenders all misplayed it, and the ball skipped past the four of them, skidding along the wet turf, to an unmarked Ryan-Zico Black. Any chance Pettinger had of saving it was gone when he slipped trying to recover, and Black had an easy goal for a 1-0 advantage.

Moments later, Yates nearly made it two, beating Pettinger to a ball on the six-yard stripe, but his shot went wide. I didn't notice that he got up clutching his elbow, but within minutes, he was signalling to be taken off, unable to continue through the pain.

At halftime, I exhorted the lads to play tight defense, just to protect the one-nil lead, but apparently they failed to listen, as Lennie Curtis' pass into the heart of my defense found Justin Jackson, with both of my central defenders absent. Though Andy Scott and Gary Bauress rushed to try and cover him, neither could arrive in time: Jackson dribbled to about 7 yards out and then laced it past Welsby to tie the match at 1-1.

Moments later, Welsby came well off his line to catch a dangerous cross by Jackson. His clearance started a move our direction - real end-to-end stuff, and Mellor's cross spotted Bartholomew in the box. His header just narrowly missed. By the 78th minute, it was clear that Mellor was exhausted, and I made my final substitution to put Lee Clitheroe in at left wing - his normal side is on the right.

It paid immediate dividends, as Clitheroe tore free down the sideline, dribbled into the box, and launched a powerful shot on goal. It hit the near post, and took a caromb across the face of the net to Phil Bartholomew. When the young striker put his shot to the far post, Pettinger had no chance, and the crowd groaned - we'd taken a 2-1 lead with just seven minutes left!

It seemed the scoring wasn't over when Harrogate captain Colin Hunter spotted Jackson and launched a long ball to him, but Welsby came out to smother it just inside his box. With Yates injured, Brian Cash grimacing in pain, and all my substitutions made, I was sickened to see Paul Sparrow drop to the turf clutching his right foot or ankle. Physio David Hughes carted him off, leaving us with ten men, and after five tense minutes, the referee finally blew the whistle. As the crowd's boos rained down on the home side, I ran for the locker room to get the news about my charges.

Harrogate Town 1, Lancaster 2

Jackson 54; Black 34, Bartholomew 83

MoM: Scott

When I arrived in the locker room, neither Hughes nor Sparrow were there: the defenseman had been taken to hospital for X-rays, Yates informed me, his arm already set in a splint. I told the lads 'well done' for their fifth straight win, but my heart wasn't in it, not even to congratulate Andy Scott on his Man of the Match performance.

I announced I'd be joining Sparrow at hospital, and I would see them all Friday evening.

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Thursday, 25th November, 2004.

The X-rays came back Wednesday night, and showed that Paul Sparrow's injury was a broken toe: he would be out at least two months, perhaps more as he tried to regain match fitness.

I felt very glum, losing the man who was clearly the heart of my defense, but perked up a little bit when Kevin Hull reminded me that we had a 'recall' clause on Neil Uberschar's loan, and we could bring him back from Scarborough for no charge.

Michael Yates's hyperextended elbow would rule him out of the F.A. Trophy match on Saturday - we'd only have one healthy striker for it! Brian Cash had a bruised rib, which Hughes thought he could probably play with if need be.

Seeing that I needed cheering up, Barrie Stimpson reminded me that we were up to 13th, our highest league position of the season, and comfortably clear of the relegation zone for the first time.

While I was at the hospital - that's one thing that's the same from country to country, the waiting rooms - I caught a highlight show of the evening's Champions League action. Real Madrid crushed Liverpool's European dream, the Galacticos running rampant in a 3-0 win at the Bernabéu. The Reds would place no higher than third, as Roma and Real had both advanced; I knew several of the lads would be down about that at tomorrow's match.

It hadn't been a good week for English clubs, with the only winner coming in a tie that didn't matter.. and it got worse. Chelsea played a second-rate side at Celtic Park, while Celtic went all out, and the result was embarrassing for the English side: Celtic 6, Chelsea 0! Combined with a draw in the other match, Celtic guaranteed themselves second place in Group D.

As soon I was in the office today, I filed the paperwork to formally recall Uberschar, which means he should be back and eligible in time for Saturday's clash. I also extended offers to two of my trialists, left winger Mark Platts and attacking midfielder Ryan Ashington, which they quickly accepted. I know, I know, the wage bill - but we'd needed another winger desperately, and Ashington had been extremely impressive: one of the few players at this level who can hit a thirty-yarder consistently on goal, and a true free kick specialist. He would be our Beckham, I hoped.

I also continued to work the phones to try and eliminate some of the deadwood, which resulted in two offers of £4,000 apiece for unused central midfielder Jimmy Love. I wish I had that kind of money to throw around wantonly!

Carl Richardson's description of Basingstoke was: 'I believe their team is average. Manager Ernie Howe usually employs a direct 5-3-2 formation'. Terse - he writes like he's being paid for each word left unsaid.

As I was finishing up for the night, Jimmy Graham poked his head into the office and informed me that he had signed a contract offer from Saint Cuthbert's Wands, and thanked me for ensuring that he could return home to Scotland to finish out his career. The deal would be official on January 1st, when the international transfer window opened: a rule I hadn't expected to apply to our tiny club!

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Saturday, 27th November, 2004. F.A. Trophy - Second Round, vs Basingstoke.

There were quite a few changes from the mid-week side for our F.A. Trophy match.

Jamie Speare was back in the net, making his return from injury. Andy Scott was too exhausted to play, so Alan Morgan would start at left back. Martin Clark remained in central defense, joined by Ricky Mercer, who took Chris Whittle's spot. Neil Uberschar had had time for a single practice with us Friday night, but would start at right back by necessity. Ryan Elderton took the defensive midfield role, with Lee Clitheroe starting for Brian Cash at right wing. Regular left winger David Mellor kept his usual place, while Shane Tolley and Jason Lay would partner in the 4-5-1's attacking midfield roles for the first time. Up front, I shifted Ryan-Zico Black into the striker role for the first time all year, preferring him to a tired Phil Bartholomew or the just-recovering-from-injury Peter Thomson.

It was a warm, sunny day in Lancaster, weather which proved too good to waste watching lower-division Cup play for most - only 222 showed up to watch us battle Basingstoke. The Conference South side came out with that classic 5-3-2, that attacks as a 3-5-2 with the wingbacks pushed well up into the attack. They also ran an impressive up-tempo passing game, which reminded me more of the flowing football of the Premier League than the hack-and-slash stuff our side was used to. It was very intimidating, and seemed to set our lads back on their heels for a while.

Finally, about 20 minutes in, we started to get some good chances, with Tolley's 20-yarder forcing a fine save from Basingstoke keeper Mark Zawadski. Still, it felt against the run of play when Lee Clitheroe grittily outbattled two defenders to a ball on the right side, muscling one off to make space to play it forward to Tolley, who was free in the area. Tolley has been a revelation, and from 14 yards out, he sent it across the goal and in at the far post! We took the 1-0 lead into the half.

Basingstoke switched to a 4-4-2 in the second half, but that just seemed to open things up more at both ends, as it left space for our counter-attack - in fact, now we were getting the better chances. Black's strong shot on 60 minutes forced a save from Zawadski, then Lay volleyed over the bar from the penalty spot.

At 73 minutes, as Basingstoke switched to ever more aggressive formations, they finally got their chance: a breakaway by David Byng, but returned prodigal son Neil Uberschar tracked him down, and made an important challenge to put it out for a corner. Martin Clark's header followed by a long ball from Uberschar set Ryan-Zico Black free in the defense - his shot went just wide. We held tight through the final minutes, weathering even the all-out-attack of a 2-3-5 formation to win, 1-0.

Lancaster 1, Basingstoke 0

Tolley 27; ----

MoM: Zawadski (Basingstoke GK)

Mark Zawadski had thoroughly impressed in earning Man of the Match, though you could have made a case for our goalscorer Shane Tolley or captain Martin Clark as well. Certainly not Jamie Speare, though: Basingstoke hadn't managed a single shot on target, going wide or over with every effort, and only Zawadski's fine play kept the final result from being entirely lopsided.

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Monday, 29th November, 2004.

"Ignoring the problem won't make it solve itself," Stacy admonished.

"I know, I know," was all I could mutter - though I do wish it would.

"You're either going to have to sell that car, or ask Steve for a raise. Probably both - we'll barely be breaking even, even if you do sell."

"I'll see what I can do, but you know the club won't be able to afford a raise."

So it was that my car, my beloved car, was added to the 'transfer list', very much against my wishes. It had been the first car I bought 'new', and we'd paid to ship it all the way from California.. and even if the steering wheel was on the 'wrong side' now, we'd had great fun driving it around the gorgeous British countryside - these are the kind of roads it was made for!

The £3,000 more in prize money from our F.A. Trophy victory got me to thinking about the club's finances again, and I had stopped in to check the books mid-afternoon. Not good: net, down £35,421 for the year, leaving us with a current debt of £18,644. While in the office, I tuned in to the BBC radio broadcast of the F.A. Trophy Third Round draw. The Third Round adds all of the Nationwide Conference teams, so the level of competition is seriously improved. Though nominally working on paperwork, I found myself transfixed, and then vastly relieved when we drew a home match against regional semi-pro side Grantham - it should be a relatively easy fixture.

In the mid-afternoon, just before our evening training session, I looked at Carl's scouting report for Vauxhall Motors: "18th in the division," he reported, "An average side. Their defense is slow, and weak in the air; we shouldn't have a problem."

Given his track record, I wondered if that meant I should be worried.

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I just picked up this story yesterday and am really enjoying it, hope for plenty more to come icon_smile.gif

Why don't you just pay off those two deadbeat staff members that are going at the end of the season anyway? You'll take an initial hit, but it might return you to something approaching break even which always helps with the board.

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Thanks, irishregan. Its a very different pacing from yours, which I've been quite enjoying myself. icon_wink.gif

I can't actually answer your question; it's 2013 now, and I don't remember if the board wouldn't let me cut them, or if it just didn't give me any financial benefit.

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Tuesday, 30th November, 2004. Conference North - Game 15, at Vauxhall Motors.

Ellsemere Port is just across the River Mersey from Liverpool's John Lennon Airport. It was a pretty short drive, about 100km, to reach the Vauxhall Sports Ground.

The side looked fairly exhausted, so there were a number of changes, and for the first time I named a substitute's bench which lacked a goalkeeper, a calculated risk aimed at giving me more flexibility during the match.

Jamie Speare of course was in goal, with Andy Scott returning to the left back position alongside Martin Clark, Ricky Mercer, and Neil Uberschar. Steve Birks was on at the holding midfield position, with Brian Cash recovered enough to start at right wing. Recent signing Mark Platts would debut at left wing, with fellow debutante Ryan Ashington ahead of him at attacking midfield. Veteran Phil Clarkson took the other attacking spot, while Phil Bartholomew started at striker. Black and Mellor were available from the substitute's bench if needed.

With two new faces, it took a few minutes for us to gel, minutes which Vauxhall Motors spent looking for an early goal. The best they could manage was forcing one save from Jamie Speare. At 12 minutes, Platts got his first chance, a 20-yard effort which he hooked wide. Vauxhall, determined to impress the 449 visitors - though some of those were in our colours - came right back at us, with Anthony Wright putting a header over from close range.

Midway through the first half, Ryan Ashington's first free kick hit the wall, but Brian Cash was first to the rebound and fed Phil Clarkson, giving the veteran attacker a great chance. Mike Kineslla was barely able to tip it wide. We still weren't dangerous on corner kicks, however, and the resultant one was a waste.

Just before the half, Karl O'Donnell brought the home crowd to their feet: a long ball came to him, and he outjumped Martin Clark to provide a knock-on header onto Wright's run. I've never seen one more perfectly timed: Wright was yards clear of our defense before they reacted. I breathed a sigh of relief when his finishing let him down, and his shot went wide.

Early in the second half, I brought on Peter Thomson and Ryan-Zico Black for Bartholomew and Ashington - the new signing in particular looked very fatigued. Black immediately created a chance, but Vauxhall captain Lee Woodyatt threw his body in the way to block the shot. We were increasingly dominant of the match as it wore on, and Platts' great pass to Steve Birks gave the veteran midfielder time to place an 18-yard shot; he was denied by Kinsella.

I made my final throw of the dice at 72 minutes, bringing on attacking midfielder David Mellor for Phil Clarkson. Just a minute later, Vauxhall sent numbers forward on a throw-in from deep in our territory, looking for a surprise goal. Andy Scott's header won possession, and Mellor took off down the right sideline, starting a 4-on-3 breakaway. He passed to Cash, who one-timed it on to a wide-open Peter Thomson, breaking the Vauxhall offsides trap. The experienced striker was never going to make a mistake with that, burying it in the far corner for a 1-0 lead with just seventeen minutes to play!

For the final ten minutes, Vauxhall threw everything at us, and we wound up putting ten men in the box most of the time. David Carmichael beat Ricky Mercer on 86 minutes, and unleashed an absolutely wicked shot, knuckling and dipping towards the lower-right corner. Jamie Speare made a diving save: it caromed off of his body, then hit the post and went out!!

Through injury time, ball after ball came into our area, but desperate defending by all hands sent it back out time and time again. The final whistle was a real relief!

Vauxhall Motors 0, Lancaster 1

----; Thomson 73

MoM: Speare

With that brilliant save recent in everyone's memory, Jamie Speare earned Man of the Match honours for his sixth clean sheet of the season. I was glad to have him back in goal - the lads seem to feel much more confidence with the veteran back there.

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Wednesday, 1st December, 2004.

The monthly meeting with the board was this morning. I heard over and over how pleased the boardmembers are with my performance - as well they should be with a four-game winning streak, and our highest league position of the season, 10th place.

I got great amusement out of hearing individuals telling me, "Though everybody else was starting to question you, back in September, I always believed in you."

If you believed them each individually, the entire board had believed in me and consequently nobody was ever questioning me!

It seemed to be the best time to bring up a raise, or a contract extension - my deal was only for a single season.

Steve Johnston laughed wryly.

"I'm sorry, son, but you know how poor the finances are," the Chairman told me.

"We're losing money hand over fist, and the last thing we can afford to do is bloat the wage budget even more.

"Once we get the budget under control, or if you can get us into a money-spinning F.A. Cup tie next year, or earn promotion to the Conference National, then maybe we can talk about increasing your compensation, but frankly, lad, you're already on more than we would have to pay to replace you."

"Would your replacement have you in the top ten?" I demanded.

"No, likely not," he had the grace to answer, "But he wouldn't be bankrupting the club, either, now would he?"

Somehow, I suspect that could have gone better.

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Thursday, 2nd December, 2004.

I told the lads to take it easy for a week - light workouts, nothing strenuous - as our next match wasn't until the eleventh. It was a good chance for them to rest up, with the usual holiday fixture congestion looming on the horizon.

I turned my attention instead to transfers and contracts: I'd been desperate to lower our wage bill, a even before my conversation with Chairman Johnston.

The central midfield, with the £26,000 p/a salary of Stewart Clitheroe and £16,000 p/a salary of Chris Beech, seemed like the obvious place to start. Both were rotting on the bench due to not having a real place in the 4-5-1.

I started that purge by selling their even-more-useless backup, Jimmy Love, to Burscough - and they were willing to pay me £4,000 to take him off our hands immediately.

In another key move, Ryan-Zico Black's contract was due to expire in May, and last month I'd offered him an extension. After practice today, he dropped by my office to sign it. It almost tripled his salary, but we'd been paying him pennies next to Clitheroe and Beech, and the extension would keep him with the side through 2007.

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Monday, 6th December, 2004.

Altrincham was the only club that came in with a bid for Stewart Clitheroe. They weren't willing to offer any cash compensation, but getting the albatross of his large salary off of my neck was utterly worth it. I agreed, and Sunday was his last training session at The Giant Axe. This morning he packed his bags and said farewell to the lads, but pointedly ignored me: I think he felt that I'd squeezed him out of the side, which was only fair.

Stewart Clitheroe, MC, 24: June 2004 to December 2004. 1 season, 2 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 MoM, 7.00

I had received four bids for Chris Beech, all offering to take him for free. I negotiated, to see if any of them were willing to pay for him, and had all four of them withdraw. Kevin Hull pointed out to me that I'd probably misplayed that: I should have delayed one or two of the 'free' offers while enquiring if the richer clubs would pay. There was nothing to do about that but call the clubs back and offer him for free again.

Despite the light training regime, player/coach Gary Bauress tore a groin muscle yesterday, which would see him out of action until some time in January. I wasn't too worried about it - we had four quality defensive midfielders, so there was coverage for him, but then today Ryan Elderton suffered a back strain in training, and he'll be out until after Christmas. Suddenly, I had a budding injury crisis at DMC.

Off the pitch, our personal finances were struggling as well. We'd had a few people in to look at the car, but as soon as they saw the steering wheel on the American side, they walked off.

I suppose I should have mentioned that in the ad.

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