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Sharpening a Rusty Blade

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Saturday, 4th February, 2006. F.A. Trophy - Fourth Round, at Aldershot.

Seven days ago, we'd faced the hottest club in the Conference, sixth-placed Aldershot, and battled them to a 1-1 draw behind a stellar performance from Darren Dunning. Today, however, it was "the first team needs a break" day, and I named an entirely second-tier team for the minor F.A. Trophy match.

Mark Zawadski made only his fourth start of the season in goal, while free signing Adam Eckersley would make his debut at left back. Franklin Simek and Michael Staley partnered in central defense, with Phillip Bardsley on the right. Malcolm Parker was the defensive midfielder, with Darren Dunning on the left wing and young Mark Goodwin making his first start for York on the right. Ryan Ashington would be a familiar face attacking, but he was partnered with speedy 16-year-old Daryl Peters, who had been on tearing up the U-18 division lately. Levent Yalcin got the start at striker.

Aldershot were very aggressive right from the opening, as though they intended an early sucker-punch to put us out. Surely they knew about the loss we'd suffered, and were hopping to build on that, and it was enormous pressure for the first fifteen minutes. Levent Yalcin made one move against the run of play, dribbling into the Aldershot area, but skied it over from 16 yards.

The following minute, Luke Walker battled Michael Staley for a ball on the right side, both players pushing and tugging at each other as they chased it towards the eighteen. Staley tackled the ball away from him, but just knocked it into the box. Walker reached it before anybody else did, and sliced a 16-yard shot to the far post. It seemed to catch Zawadski napping, finding the side netting!! To the delight of the Recreation Ground faithful, the Shots had an 0-1 lead just 17 minutes in!

Daryl Peters had a chance in the 20th minute, but our old friend Nikki Bull made a fine save to tip it over. Dunning, playing at wing instead of attacking midfield, wasn't having the sort of impact on this match that he had on the last one - Aldershot were careful to keep him closely marked.

We'd at least balanced out the play, with chances at both ends, but in the 31st minute Aldershot struck again. This time captain Adam Miller beat Phillip Bardsley to the left wing, sending in a cross from out wide, and Paul Weaver rose above a crowd of defending Minstermen to head it home! The inspirational central midfielder had missed our first encounter with them, and it was clear to see what an impact he was having! We faced an 0-2 deficit with only 30 minutes gone.

It was clear we were having no luck when Levent Yalcin came close to getting a reply just a minute after the kickoff, but though he beat Bull, his shot caught the side netting, and I hung my head in dismay.

I almost missed the following play, but Mark Goodwin won the ball on the right sideline. Barely keeping it in play, he sent a long ball into the box. It glanced off of Ryan Ashington, who deflected it just enough to put it on target for the far post, and it went in! Neither of them had thought of it as a shot, but the result was a goal. We were back in with a chance at 1-2!!

Momentum was clearly on our side, and through halftime and the first fifteen minutes of the second half, we outplayed our hosts, outhustled our hosts, and outshot our hosts, but could not find the finishing touch.

It was definitely against the run of play when Roscoe D'Sane broke up the left wing, also beating Bardsley to the corner, and his cross carried all the way to Walker at the far post. He nodded home his second from close range, peeling away to celebrate with the home fans, at 1-3.

The crowd of 1,216 could scent victory, and their cheers buoyed the Aldershot players as the second half wore on, while our lads - though still working hard - seemed to be stuck in second gear, unable to uncork any of the attacking play which we'd shown previously in the season.

Any hope we had of coming back crumbled to ashes in the 83rd, when Weaver sent in a long ball from out near the left sideline. He was aiming for late substitute Jonathan Kift, who rushed into the six-yard box. Kift, Zawadski, and Franklin Simek all went for the ball in the air, and with the resulting collision of bodies, none of them could get to it. Untouched, it went past all of them, and straight into the net - a fluke goal for Weaver who had certainly imagined it as a cross. That made the final 1-4, our worst defeat of the season.

Aldershot 4, York 1

Walker 17, 60, Weaver 32, 83; Ashington 34

MoM: Weaver (Aldershot MC)

There was little good to be said about that match, save that it signalled an end to our perpetual fixture congestion - from now on we could concentrate on the league and earning promotion, as our Cup adventures were at a close.

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Thanks - I was absolutely gutted, let me tell ya! Let's see if the side can salvage anything without him...

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Sunday, 5th February, 2006.

"I'm concerned about Tappa." It was late Sunday morning, and Viv had come to my office for coffee between the early morning practice and the mid-morning session. "I think he's been depressed, since the injury."

"I can't say I blame him. I am too!"

"No, its not that. I've chatted it over with a few of the lads, who've been to see him, and they seem to think he's upset by the comments you made to the media afterwards."

"What, that? Its unfortunate the way that story was written, that wasn't at all how I meant it. What, does he think that I don't value him sufficiently? What was I to say, that we'll be horrible without him? I had to think of the other lads."

"No, its not that either. But you still haven't visited, either. I think you should go, see him, talk to him."

So I found myself travelling back out to Kingston-upon-Hull to visit the Jamaican, and having a little heart-to-heart. It turns out he was upset not because I'd undervalued him, but because he was concerned I might be placing too much emphasis on his absence from the team - he wanted his teammates to play on without thought for him. I have to admire his determination and professionalism: I'd've been hard-pressed to find the same sentiments were our positions reversed!

We'd never truly spoken, man to man, and I found him easy to speak with, quick to laughter but understanding and insightful on serious issues.

To my surprise, I stayed and chatted with him for an hour and a half, and found myself promising to visit again soon.

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Tuesday, 7th February, 2006.

With the injury to my creative playmaker, and two matches a week for the next month to test our squad depth, I was really regretting letting Leicester's Lee Morris return at the end of his three month loan. It had made sense at the time - don't let his injury recuperation count against our limited loan pool, but he was recovered and healthy now and I needed him. I'd offered to borrow him again, on the same terms, but so had Cheltenham, and Leicester seemed to delight in keeping us waiting.

We did get a small break with the fixture congestion, as our February 25th match was pushed out into March due to Accrington's next F.A. Trophy match. It would provide a much-needed February break.

For the first time all season - Whitmore hadn't seen any action for Jamaica this year - we had a player called up for international duty. My countryman Franklin Simek, the defender, was called up to the U.S. national team friendly against Spain on Wednesday the 8th.

I also completed another loan deal, sending 18-year-old right wing Mark Goodwin down to the Conference North for a spell with Moor Green, the first-placed team. They must have been in incredible form early in the season, because they hadn't won a game since December - nine without a win, including three straight losses - and still had a four-point margin!

Our Reserves were beaten 2-0 in Torquay, a match Viv described - I didn't make the trip - as most notable for them running into former player/coach Lee Nogan. Coincidentally, he was oddly playing a similar role for the Torquay Reserves to what Tappa Whitmore had, though Nogan was also serving as a Reserve coach and captain of the squad. There were few enough familiar faces for him on the squad he faced, most of whom were in over the summer, but Kevin Donovan said it was good to catch up with his former captain, and Viv clearly enjoyed seeing him.

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Wednesday, 8th February, 2006. Conference National - Match 26, vs Dagenham & Redbridge.

After exiting both our Cups in the preceding eight days, we had one focus left: the league, and our quest for promotion. Sixth-placed Dagenham and Redbridge - now one point back of Aldershot - would provide a stern test. They're a capable team with a quick attack, led by top goalscorer Chris Moore, who has 16 league goals to date. They normally run a 4-4-2 and are engaged in a five-team dogfight for the final playoff spots, so they'll be motivated to score at least a point at Bootham Crescent.

After giving my first-teamers a rest on the weekend, they were all fit and ready to go for this match: Stockdale, Parkin, Wright, Fontaine, Law, Fox, McGrath, McGovern, Ashington, Cooke, and Mellor. Stephen Cooke at attacking midfielder might be the only surprise; he was in slightly better shape than Neil Danns, who was made available on the substitute's bench. Despite our two losses, morale was still high in the Bootham Crescent locker room before hand.

If the crowd of 1,498 had any doubts, they were erased merely seven minutes into the match, as Jon Paul McGovern earned a free kick out wide to the right of the Dag & Red penalty area. Stephen Cooke took it, floating an aerial attempt into the 6-yard box. Neil Mellor rose above defender Anwar U'ddin to head it on goal, but Mark Overndale made a great diving save at the near post to deny him. Unluckily for Ovendale, the ball fell to turf in the six. Mellor was first to pounce on the it, sending it past the sprawling keeper for a 1-0 lead.

Unbelievably, we dominated from that point on, with Cooke, Mellor, and Ashington getting the majority of the chances. Though Ovendale saved some, others went over, and still others were blocked by well-positioned defenders, one thing was clear: the Daggers weren't getting much posession, and star striker Chris Moore was being marked out of the game by Fox, Fontaine, and Wright. It remained 1-0 through halftime.

Dag & Red hadn't manaed a single shot on goal in the first half, so I expected big changes after the intermission. Instead, they made none, content to try and soak up our pressure and look for the counter. It was going nowhere: our five-man midfield throttled every posession, and with our support in full voice, we carried the lead to the 70th minute, when Jon Paul McGovern earned a throw-in down the right sideline.

Graeme Law took a throw-in deep in the visitor's half, lofting it into the box, but it was headed back out by Tim Cole. The looping clearance came straight to Law, who launched a spectacular volleyed cross into the 6-yard box. Cooke, who had put a header over just moments earlier, made no mistake with this one, and it was 2-0!!

Dagenham all but conceded then, bringing the vaunted Chris Moore off for an unknown youngster, and though they pushed forward a bit, that just gave Mark Rawle chances. Our speedy substitute twice broke free of the Daggers' offsides trap, but both times he saw Ovendale make a fine save to keep the deficit to two goals. Ovendale had had a fine game in goal, but it was all for naught, as we completely blanketed their offense. They still hadn't managed a single shot on goal through to the final whistle.

York 2, Dagenham & Redbridge 0

Mellor 7, Cooke 70; ----

MoM: Cooke

With an assist, a goal, and Man of the Match honors, Stephen Cooke had emphatically answered the question of who would fill in during Whitmore's absence. In the Jamaican's honour, the reggae tunes he so loves were blasted through Bootham Crescent afterwards. Again, it had been a dominating performance by our defense and midfield, as we outshot a good team 17 to 0.

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Friday, 10th February, 2006.

That result put us into first with two full matches in hand, on 56 points to 55 for Northampton and 54 for Carlisle. Fortunately, we had the two games in hand over both of them.

In Blackburn, we didn't have much of an U-18 side to field against Blackburn U-18's, starting 8 amateurs against their regulars. Blackburn controlled the entire match, and took a 1-0 lead into injury time, but were unlucky to see late substitute Malcolm Parker - normally a defensive midfielder, but on as a striker because he'd begged Viv to let him play up front just once! - knocked in the equalizer at 93:56 for a 1-1 draw.

Our next opponent were Morecambe, a capable side whose pacey attacking line is anchored by Garry Hunter, who has 14 goals to date this season. They're in fifth place currently, in a tight battle with Burton and Dagenham & Redbridge over the final playoff spot, so I could see why manager Jim Harvey would characterize this as "the deciding game of the season," but it certainly wasn't in my mind and I refused to get drawn into a war of words with him.

I had more important things to worry about: namely, finding out if loanees Stephen Cooke and Neil Danns could fill the "playmaker" role vacated by Tappa's injury. I needed somebody to feed our strikers and long-range sharpshooter Ryan Ashington, and I'd prefer to slot somebody into the role than to restructure our successful tactical approach.

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Saturday, 11th February, 2006. Conference National - Match 27, at Morecambe.

The grueling schedule meant that not all of our regulars had recovered sufficiently for a Saturday game, even one against quality opposition like fourth-placed Morecambe.

David Stockdale started in goal. Paul Parkin and Liam Fontaine were the 'core' of our back four, but Michael Staley spelled Wright and Phillip Bardsley was on at right back in what would be his last game for York unless Manchester United agreed to extend his loan another three months. Captain David Fox remained at defensive midfielder, though Viv was concerned he wouldn't last 90 minutes. Young phenom Adam Corbett took over the left wing opposite Jon Paul McGovern, while attacking Ryan Ashington was joined by Neil Danns, and Turkish striker Levent Yalcin would play up front.

Garry Hunter normally plays a 'deep' forward role, as Morecambe's 4-4-2 looks more like a 4-4-1-1, with Hunter playing behind striker Danny Carlton, coming back to help move the ball out of midfield, and then making runs that slash past Carlton in attack. To counter that, I set defensive midfielder David Fox to mark Hunter wherever he goes. That tactical change had nothing to do with the first goal.

Liam Fontaine won a header in midfield in the 4th minute, and it fell to Ryan Ashington. Quickly moving forward, he was about 40 yards from goal when he spotted a beautiful run by Neil Danns, and played a low ball ahead to the loanee. Danns used one touch just beyond the penalty spot to control it, and set up goalkeeper Ryan Robinson, as it let Danns put an unobstructed shot into the lower-left corner for a quick 1-0 lead.

For a side playing "the deciding game of the season," Morecambe looked decidedly flat, and we continued to mount increasing pressure over the next fifteen minutes, until finally somebody brought down Jon Paul McGovern out on the right wing, about 40 yards from the end line. He played a long free kick past the Morecambe back line, and Levent Yalcin pounced on the opportunity, slamming it to the near post from 6 yards out with his first touch. Hapless Robinson's only chance would have been to play the free kick, which he failed to do, and the quick 2-0 scoreline silenced the crowd of 1,938.

We held that scoreline through halftime, despite a couple of chances at both ends, and Morecambe must have made some sort of adjustment at the break, because they came out a reinvigorated side, pressing for goals and really jkeeping us back on our heels through about the 65th minute. Pushed back on our heels, I made my substitutions - and for a change, they were defensive in nature.

At 70 and 71 minutes, Ashington and Yalcin both had great chances. Each time, Robinson made a fantastic save, but the rebound squirmed loose in the 6 yard box for a great opportunity. Both times, right back Danny Mahoney cleared before our forwards could get to it.

The lead looked fairly safe, and then looked impregnable when Mahoney came off in injured in the 87th minute, leaving the hosts a man down. In the 89th minute, a long ball to the right corner got past Paul Parkin. Speedy winger Steve Davidson ran it down, and sent a cross into the 6-yard box. Phillip Bardsley was there, but rather than boot it clear, he tried to leave it for Stockdale with a header. It got away from him, rolling well wide of the post. Most players on both sides gave up on the ball as the keeper's, but Garry Hunter was charging for it. He got there at the same time as David Stockdale, and fell to the ground as Stockdale wrapped himself around it - but referee Michael Porter was pointing to the spot! Stockdale was accused of tripping Hunter!!

It was as weak a penalty as you'll ever see: Hunter could well have been booked for dangerously running into the exposed 'keeper! I was livid!!

Hunter coolly converted, cutting the deficit to 2-1!

That made injury time a tense, fraught affair, but in the end we were able to hold on, and the only real chance was Mark Rawle's. On as a substitute, with every Morecambe player save one defender pushing forward, he broke through on goal, only to be caught from behind by Morecambe captain Jim Bentley when he tried to make the shot.

Morecambe 1, York 2

Hunter pen 89; Danns 4, Yalcin 20

MoM: Robinson (Morecambe GK)

Though the 2-1 scoreline may have looked close, the fact that their goalkeeper was named Man of the Match and their only goal came on a penalty may be more indicative of the run of play, which had never looked close. I was happy with three points, but worried that we'd failed to convert more of our chances.

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Tuesday, 14th February, 2006.

At Bootham Crescent, in a simultaneous match, York Reserves and Morecambe Reserves played to a dull 0-0 draw in a bit of a rainstorm.

Luckily, the rain lifted in time for our training the rest of the week, and I was happy to be able to inform Stephen Cooke that he'd been selected to the Conference National Team of the Week on Monday.

Sunday, I went back to Kingston-upon-Hull to visit Tappa again. I'd brought him a book of sudoku, and my wife made me take some flowers "to brighten his room."

We must have spoken for a good three hours, covering all sorts of topics: football, of course, but adding the difficulties of living in a foreign land, homesickness, loneliness, friendship, love.

In the middle of the conversation, I realized that its been a year and a half since I had the company of a close friend, save my wife. There was Opé, of course, our friend over in Manchester, but we've not seen him as much as you might expect; Viv and I had a fine relationship, but in the manner of work friendships, we'd never so much as had a pint together outside of the office. Gary was still in the north-west with Lancaster, and with me in central Yorkshire, when we spoke it was by phone. Spencer and Dave are scouts, so of course, they're not around much..

I'd really needed a friend, and found one in the most unexpected of places.

Life's funny that way.

Doctor Weller's news wasn't as rosy: though the need for traction was almost over, and Tappa would be able to start walking on crutches in a week or so .. it would still be four months or so before they could even start the simplest of physiotherapy, and he doubted the Jamaican would ever play competitively again.

"Don't tell him that," I urged him. "I know him as well as anyone: the thought of getting back on the pitch will motivate him more than anything."

Manchester United have rejected our offer to extend the loan of right back Phillip Bardsley - though Sir Alex Ferguson was nice enough to explain it to me on the phone: they'd prefer to place him higher up the footballing pyramid, so his spell as a Minsterman has come to a close.

Phillip Bardlsey, DRC, 20: November 2005-February 2006: 1 season, 9 games, 0 goals, 1 assists, 7.22

It was an honour of course to speak with Sir Alex, even if I was disappointed to see Bardsley leave.

That would return Graeme Law to "ironman" status, starting nearly every match as he had no backup more advanced than young Kevin West, whom I was coming to realize wasn't really ready as a starter.

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Wednesday, 15th February, 2006. Conference National - Match 28, at Canvey Island.

Canvey Island caused us problems last season, but now Gary Lloyd reports that the 11th-placed side are an average team whose attacking speed won't give us much trouble this year.

The lineup saw some changes from the weekend side, but with nice weather thus far this week, most of the side were reasonably well rested. David Stockdale was again in goal. Adam Eckersley replaced Parkin at left back, while Mark Wright returned in center alongside Liam Fontaine. Graeme Law was well-rested at right back. Malcolm Parker spelled Fox at defensive midfield. The wingers were our usual pairing of John McGrath and Jon Paul McGovern. Neil Danns and Ryan Ashington started again after pairing so nicely for the first goal, and star loan striker Neil Mellor was well-rested up front.

A storm was blowing in off the English Channel, and with Canvey Island situated right in the mouth of the Thames, there was little shelter.

We got off to a phenomenal start again: in the fourth minute their goalkeeper Shaun Allaway put a goal kick straight up the center of the park. Malcolm Parker was allowed to rise unchallenged, and headed it straight back upfield. His ball, carried by the wind, split the central defenders, and Neil Mellor ran onto it. They were never going to catch the Liverpool speedster, and as Allaway came out to meet him, Mellor launched his shot from the 18-yard line.. just that quickly we had a 1-0 lead!

Mellor nearly made it two just moments later, but Allaway saved his effort from 12 yards, deflecting it wide with a fine diving stop. Canvey Island pushed forward for most of the first half, but with the rain and the ever-increasing wind, they were tiring themselves out, and most of their shots were off target. Our central defenders were playing very well, as Mark Wright and Liam Fontaine both cleared away several dangerous crosses with their aerial prowess.

By the time the 45th miunte drew near, the Canaries were clearly exhausted, and just before halftime, a series of nice passes left them unable to chase effectively. John McGrath, who had dribbled into the center of the park, spotted Mellor unmarked in the area, and played it forward to him. From 17 yards, the Liverpool man struck home, and made it 2-0 at halftime.

By the second half, it was officially a gale-force wind, with driving rain that bogged the play down. Neither side could really get much going offensively, and Mellor's quest for a hat trick came to an end on nasty challenge by hard-hitting sweeper Steven Murphy. The 21-year-old stepped on his ankle, cleats down, a foul which drew Murphy a yellow and a stern talking to, but left Neil Mellor hobbling for the sideline.

Our hosts had the storm at their backs, and their best chance came on a wind-aided long ball in the 72nd minute. Irishman Lee Boylan broke the offsides trap, and was clean through on goal. One-on-one, Stockdale made a spectacular fingertip save to divert the ball wide, denying the 27-year-old a fine goal and preserving the lead.

With that, you could see the last fight go out of the sodden yellow jerseys, and by the final minutes both sides were playing a walking pace, content to end the evening and get into the shelter of the changing room.

Canvey Island 0, York 2

----; Mellor 4, 44

MoM: Mellor

Neil Mellor was deservedly the Man of the Match for his performance in the storm, and the celebration in the locker room was understandable, as we'd moved four points clear of second place and still had another game in hand.

I think everyone in the room felt we were unbeatable!

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Thursday, 16th February, 2006.

The newspapers and my board agreed. The next morning, the following article ran in the Yorkshire Evening Press:

<BLOCKQUOTE class="ip-ubbcode-quote"><div class="ip-ubbcode-quote-title">quote:</div><div class="ip-ubbcode-quote-content">Following York City's 2-0 win over Canvey Island, York's chairman Steve Beck declared himself extremely pleased with the result. Winning the league title is getting closer and closer to becoming a reality for the Minstermen. They have looked unbeatable recently and must be confident that they will still be top of the Conference when the season draws to a close. </div></BLOCKQUOTE>

Dispelled were the negative columns about how we would be unable to win without Tappa Whitmore.

I had a bigger problem, however - the F.A. tribunal for my outburst at the late penalty awarded to David Stockdale. I was charged with abusive language directed at the referee, and with leaving the touchline to come out onto the field of play.

I've got to confess, the only fines I'd heard about previously were on the Premiership level, so I was expecting anything between £2,500 and £10,000 as a fine; I'd failed to consider the differences in scale.

The tribunal allowed us to present our side of the case, and to my surprise Morecambe manger Jim Harvey was present to testify on my behalf! He said he, too, had thought the call was one of the softest penalties he'd ever seen awarded, and pointed out several other dubious calls given earlier in the match as well.

The tribunal chief promised that F.A. would keep the behavior of the referee in mind over his next matches.

Then, he reminded us that the justness or unjustness of the call was not at issue - my behavior stood, regardless. He found me guilty on both counts, and tallied a fine of £750 - £500 for the language, and £250 for the touchline infringement. However, I escaped without a touchline ban, merely a warning.

I reached for my chequebook, but to my surprise chairman Steve Beck stepped in and paid it himself.

"Least we can do for you, lad," he told me as we walked out.

York Reserves beat Yeovil 1-0, with young goalkeeper Kevin Butler earning Man of the Match for another shutout, and Daryl Peters earning consideration for a first-team start with his 11th Reserve goal of the season. Unfortunately, the Reserves' recent run hasn't been all that impressive, and even with the three points they're still down in fourth - a knock-on effect of the senior side's fixture congestion.

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Saturday, 18th February, 2006. Conference National - Match 29, at Gravesend & Northfleet.

It was down to the mouth of the Thames again on the weekend, though Stonebridge Road is on the south bank and a few miles upriver from Canvey Island. Gravesend and Nortfleet are relegation-battlers, who lay 17th after running off 12 straight games without a victory. The play a 4-3-3 which makes them one a reasonably strong attacking side, but with one of the leakier defenses in the Conference.

With the side thoroughly exhausted from playing in a gale mid-week, it was wholesale changes in our lineup. David Stockdale and right back Graeme Law were the only starters to take the opening whistle of both matches. Paul Parkin was on at left back, with Franklin Simek and Michael Staley giving Wright and Fontaine a well-deserved rest at centre back. David Fox returned defensive midfield. Young star Adam Corbett would take left wing, with Stephen Cooke on the right wing. Darren Dunning would captain the depleted side from an attacking midfield role, partnered by impressive 16-year-old Daryl Peters in his first-ever league start. Levent Yalcin was the striker.

Right from the opening kickoff, we placed a ton of pressure on Gravesend despite my 'conservative' orders. They seemed unable to penetrate our midfield, while we were ventruing forward at will despite a constantly falling rain. In the 23rd minute, Graeme Law sent a long curling poss into the area, and Darren Dunning met it with a beautiful volley. He deserved a goal, but incredibly, Paul Wilkerson made a fabulous save to knock it away.

In the 29th minute, not to be outdone, Stockdale tipped Roy Essandoh's wicked 16-yard shot over the bar to deny the Fleet faithful what had looked a sure goal.

The 35th minute saw young Adam Corbett pick out Dunning in the box, and again Wilkerson made a fantastic save to deny the veteran. Dunning repaid the youngster with an opportunity of his own moments later, and again Wilkerson rose to the task, tipping the youth's 18-yard drive over the bar. It went to halftime scoreless solely on the fantastic play of the Gravesend keeper.

The rain continued in the second half, and we still seemed unable to put a shot past Wilkerson. Finally, I decided i needed some veteran help, and in the 60th minute I brought the youngsters Corbett and Peters off for Jon Paul McGovern and Ryan Ashington, juggling the other midfielders as follows: Dunning at left wing, Ashington and Cooke attacking, McGovern at right wing. I also let the wings and defensive midfielder push forward, though I kept the fullbacks at home.

It was a wholly different look, but neither that change nor bringing on Mark Rawle for Yalcin in the 70th minute seemed to help. We looked doomed for a scoreless draw, but then in the 78th minute Gravsened captain Jimmy Jackson, a defender, was injured. They'd already made their 3 substitutions, so we had a man advantage, which we exploited immediately.

Dunning dribbled quickly up the left wing, then played it straight ahead of himself for Rawle. Wide of the area, but nearing the end-line, Rawle cut it back for Stephen Cooke at the top of the area. With a spectacular volley, Cooke launched a blistering shot that finally put the ball in the net, and 2,255 fans groaned in disbelief as we took a 1-0 lead!

Moments later, Dunning again started a move, this time crossing things up by sending a ball over the midfield to Jon Paul McGovern on the right. McGovern moved into the area, and drove his shot from about 15 yards away. Wilkerson made his eighth save of the day, a wonderful diving effort, to push it wide of the 6-yard box. Rawle pounced on the rebound as Wilkerson scrambled for it, and the whistle blew as Rawle fell. Referee Michael Porter, the same man who'd given Morecambe a weak penalty a week earlier, was now awarding one our way - at least he's consistent about it!!

David Fox stepped to the spot, and made no mistake, his second goal in a York jersey giving us an insurmountable 2-0 lead.

As the fans streamed for the exits, our lads were just having fun. Rawle, with two assists, nearly got a goal as well in the 90th minute. Dunning was again the architect, sending a low cross to him at the far post. With plenty of time, Rawle really should have scored, but he golfed it over, confirming my decision to let his contract expire at the end of the year.

Gravesend 0, York 2

----; Cooke 79, Fox pen 84

MoM: Wilkerson (Gravesend GK)

It was hard to begrudge Paul Wilkerson the Man of the Match honours, as he'd done a spectacular job in the Gravesend goal despite his eventual defeat.

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Monday, 20th February, 2006.

Good news arrived in the form of news from around the league, as Barnet had hammered Northampton 5-0, a result which meant we were now five points clear of Carlisle; a thrashing like that could have important implications in the goal difference column as well. Chairman of the Board Steve Beck again gushed to the press how extremely pleased he was with our squad and the job we'd done so far.

I'd given up on trying to dampen the enthusiasm: nothing less than promotion would do now, for anyone involved with the club: supporters, board, players, staff .. and, of course, myself.

In F.A. Cup action, the results all went fairly as expected, save that Wigan Athletic upset Southampton 2-0, adding another Premiership feather to the cap of the Championship squad which had eliminated Arsenal. Sheffield United, still high from defeating Manchester United, were knocked out by Fulham.

There was more good news arriving on Monday, in the form of reinforcements. Leicester City midfielder Lee Morris, who returned to York City for his third loan with us. He'd chosen us over Cheltenham, Darlington, and Scunthorpe, and his presence would be of great benefit with the loss of Tappa Whitmore. He said in a press conference that he felt strongly that he was needed at Bootham Crescent, and that he wanted to 'finish what he'd started', referring to our drive for promotion.

We were also joined by 18-year-old Steve Hall, a free agent who had done reasonably well on trial with us.

DR Steve Hall, 18, English: Reasonable physically, this hard-working fullback shows better skills going forward than any other fullback on the club. He can finish shots, and put them in from long range. However, his defensive positioning needs a lot of work, and even in the areas of tackling and marking he's a bit sub-par. We've signed him on a youth contract through 2009, but he'll need to develop substantially to break into the first team.

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Wednesday, 22nd February, 2006. Conference National - Match 30, vs Hornchurch

Hornchurch are dead last in the Conference, with by far the worst goal differential though they are merely three points shy of safety. They are at best a mediocre side, with a very leaky defense which is not offset by the pace of their attack. For an indication of how bad they are, they were coming off of a 6-2 defeat at home against Morecambe, a side that we'd thoroughly controlled just a week earlier.

At home, and feeling rather safe, I gave some of my younger players a look despite an 8-day break coming up. 16-year-old Kevin Butler made his senior debut in goal. Adam Eckersley took the left back position. With a young keeper, I put my two starting central defenders in, Mark Wright and Liam Fontaine. 16-year-old Kevin West would start at right back, and Malcolm Parker would be the defensive midfielder. John McGrath would start at left wing, with popular veteran Kevin Donovan at right wing for only the third time this season. Lee Morris, just returned to the side for another loan spell, was one attacking midfielder. Neil Danns would partner him, with Neil Mellor, now tied with Ashington as the side's leading scorer, the lone striker.

It was clear from the off who the better side was, and we mounted constant pressure, earning two corner kicks in the first two minutes. I had the players attacking, pushing the wings and fullbacks up, and this seemed to cause Hornchurch to pull back in a defensive shell. It didn't take long to break down, as in the 15th minute McGrath put in a fine cross, which Mellor headed home from 8 yards despite double coverage. The 1,229 fans who had come to see a rout cheered loudly as we were up 1-0.

Though we continued to dominate, that scoreline lasted through halftime - not through any skill on Hornchurch's part, but because our finishing was utterly amateurish. Nobody could seem to hit the target, and the lads behind the net were getting a cardio workout chasing down our wayward shots.

It was the 63rd minute before Hornchurch finally tested young Kevin Butler. The ball was struck straight to the youngster, and he made no mistake. Even better, his clearance split the Hornchurch defense, and Mellor ran it down, one on one with veteran Hornchurch keeper Ashley Bayes. The 33-year-old made a fine save to deny the striker. In the 65th minute, he added another save on Lee Morris' 18-yard effort, tipping it over for a York corner.

Bertie Brayley caught us asleep, sneaking upfield with no marker, and when the corner was cleared, he outraced my two backs to the ball. He came dribbling into the area, one-on-one with Butler, but the youngster positioned himself perfectly and tipped the shot over.

Any thought of a comeback was extinguished moments later when Mark Rawle, on only two minutes as a substitute, ran down a long ball from the York back line. He dribbled perhaps forty yards into the Hornchurch area, just to the left of the near post. He held on to it too long to take the shot himself, but chipped it over central defender Lee Matthews for Neil Danns to head home from a mere three yards out with an open net. That was too easy to miss, and we were up 2-0 with twenty minutes left.

An indication of how badly Hornchurch are struggling could be seen in the 84th minute. With a ball loose in our 6-yard box, Butler inexplicably stayed on his line, allowing Kirk Jackson to get to it. With a perfect chance, Jackson mis-hit the ball, and it rolled weakly wide of the 6-yard box, not even crossing the end-line. It was the weakest shot I'd seen since coaching a side of 5- and 6-year olds!

York 2, Hornchurch 0

Mellor 16, Danns 69; ----

MoM: McGrath

Though there was some sentiment for giving Kevin Butler a Man of the Match on his debut, truthfully he'd only made two saves all afternoon, and there were more deserving players. John McGrath was one, as his play on the left wing had been utterly dominant. In the locker room afterwards, there was hardly any celebration: the players, as I had, expected nothing less than three points at home from a weak team, and there was more a determined sense of 'job done' than celebration.

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Thank you! I'm glad folks are still finding it entertaining .. its a bit unique in style, so I wasn't sure people would stick with it.

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Saturday, 25th February, 2006.

Twenty-two games unbeaten was a new Conference National record, and we'd now won five straight since our twin Cup exits. Other results continued to go our way, as 21st placed Southend beat Carlisle 2-1, on national television no less, which meant we were seven points clear with a game in hand and only eleven matches remaining for our pursuers.

Promotion was clearly on the cards:

<BLOCKQUOTE class="ip-ubbcode-quote"><div class="ip-ubbcode-quote-title">quote:</div><div class="ip-ubbcode-quote-content">1 York 68 21 5 4 +29 30

2 Northampton 61 18 7 6 +19 31

3 Carlisle 60 17 9 5 +26 31

4 Morecambe 51 15 6 10 +14 31 </div></BLOCKQUOTE>

The only flaw I could see was that seven of our remaining 12 matches were away, but even in that we were lucky, as the toughest matches on the schedule, Barnet and Carlisle, were both at home.

More importantly, we had eight days off until our next match, which was time for everyone to get some life back in their legs. Meanwhile, York Reserves beat first-placed Hartlepool 2-0 on goals by trialist Neil Burgess and attacking midfielder Joe Foote. Mark Zawadksi earned the shutout in goal. A trialist left wing by the name of Lee Campbell was Man of the Match after providing both assists. His performance earned him a contract offer, though nowhere near what he was asking. Franklin Simek, in the lineup putatively to help stay fit, strained his neck.

Champions League action resumed with the First Knockout round first leg. Arsenal crushed Portugese side Benfica 3-0, while Chelsea earned a draw at Barclona with a vital away goal, 1-1. Manchester United were humiliated by Bayern München, 4-0, and Newcastle were defeated at home 2-1 by Valencia. Roma beat Leverkusen 4-1, and the other matches - PSV-AC Milan, Internazionale-Lyon, and Deportivo-Juventus - all ended in draws.

On Saturday the 25th, our Under-18's shelled Rochdale U-18's, 6-1. Before twenty minutes had passed, amateur Ian Black had two goals, and amateur James Smart had one. Adam Corbett added one for good measure, as did a third amateur, Aaron Dennis; the sixth was an own goal by the flustered Rochdale defense. Black was the clear Man of the Match.

Personally, I headed down to Kingston-upon-Hull one more time: this time to pick Tappa up and bring him back - he was out of traction, and the doctors thought he could probably make his way around town on crutches if he had to.

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Tuesday, 28th February, 2006.

The monthly meeting with the board went as well as I could have hoped. To a man, the board remain delighted with my performance, as one might expect with a record unbeaten run.

In the all-important finances department, we had turned a profit for the second consecutive month. This month we'd earned a £48,000 profit, which puts us up to a profit of £93,000 for the season. Sure, thats because we'd sold £159,000 worth of players, but all told it had us just about neutral bank balance until the monthly loan payment went out. Sophie McGill was very pleased with me.

They also had a representative from the Mirror on hand: with victories in all five league games, I was named the Mirror's Conference (National) Manager of the Month. It was an honour, and I was gratified to be getting some national recognition for the work I'd done so far. For their roles in our victory over Hornchurch, John McGrath and Neil Mellor were selected to the Conference Team of the Week.

Our training review revealed that most of the team were stagnant. Jon Paul McGovern and John McGrath had both seen some improvement, but almost nobody else had, from our promising youngsters to our developing center backs. Most worrisome was newly signed left back Adam Eckersley, who had dropped off significantly. There didn't seem to be anything wrong with his training regime, either, so I left him on the same schedule as my other defenders, hoping he would recover.

Sunday was the League Cup Final, and Manchester United defeated Arsenal 1-0 to win the League Cup. It was a fortuitious win for the Red Devils, as the London side outshot them 15-6. United's only goal came on a play where Ruud van Nistelrooy had appeared clearly offsides, but was allowed to tap it in from 8 yards out anyways. Referee Rob Styles sent Ryan Giggs off in the second half, so the winners finished with just ten men in a desperate defensive shell for the final 20 minutes. They were barely holding the Gunners at bay, and at the final whistle they were clearly "saved by the bell", but a title it was nonetheless.

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Wednesday, 1st March, 2006. Conference National - Match 31, at Stevenage Borough.

Stevenage is north of London, in fact just east of Luton. The Boro have the absolute worst defense in the Conference, conceding 2.08 goals per game. Though their quick-pace offense has done well - fifth best in the conference - it hasn't been able to salvage them from some horrible poundings, and they're only in the mid-table.

After the long bus ride down south, our full-strength, well rested lineup would come out to meet them: Stockdale, Parkin, Fontaine, Wright, Law, Fox, McGrath, McGovern, Danns, Ashington, and Mellor.

We came out conservative, trusting the weakness of the Stevenage defense to create plenty of chances for us, and a sequence in the 25th minute confirmed that strategy. Jon Paul McGovern's shot from the top of the box was blocked by defender Justin Gregory. Graeme Law kept it in the zone, but Anthony Elding played his far-post cross out for a corner. From McGovern's corner, Neil Mellor headed on goal, only to see 'keeper Rob Burch push it away. Mellor collected again, and this shot was blocked by fullback Paul Perry out for another corner! Finally, Ryan Ashington's 18-yard shot from that corner was cleared off the line!! It was a tremendous period of pressure, but no result to show for it.

Burch went walkabout in the 40th minute, turning it over to McGrath well outside of his area, but the Irishman rushed his shot and missed the open net.

It was going to halftime scoreless when Stevenage's Jamie Gould was handed a yellow card for a clumsy tackle on McGovern. He was incensed by the call, and argued himself into a red card, which referee John Pearce gave with a "you brought this on yourself" shake of the head.

With a man advantage through the second half, I went to my 'aggressive' formation, pushing forward on the wings, but Stevenage collapsed into an ultra-defensive 'park the bus' tactic, which we found hard to penetrate.

In the 58th minute, Paul Parkin put a curling free kick behind the offsides line, but obviously Stevenage had done their scouting. Having seen that play a half-dozen times in game film, central defender Mark Rogers was well positioned for it, and did well to avert the danger.

Despite my three substitutions, we weren't generating many chances until the 78th minute, when Neil Danns and Levent Yalcin tore free on a counter-attack. The Turk wound up taking the shot, from 18 yards, and it beat Burch .. but it went just wide of the right-side post!

The final minutes passed with little incident, and we'd been held to a scoreless draw.

Stevenage 0, York 0

----; ----

MoM: McGovern

We'd been held to a scoreless draw by the weakest defense in the league, shorthanded - which was not a good sign for a team hoping to push for promotion in the final two months of the season. To be fair, Stevenage keeper Rob Burch was on loan from Tottenham Hotspurs, and a cut above the average Conference netminder, but I'd expected more from us.

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Friday, 3rd March, 2006.

The York Reserves continued their resurgence with a 2-0 victory at Halifax. Trialist Neil Burgess and attacking midfielder Daryl Peters scored the goals, and Darren Hollingsworth was named Man of the Match after a dominant performance in central defense.

Jason Pickerin had turned 17, and with his contract expiring at the end of the season, I had a tough choice - to retain him or let him go. After reviewing his training progress with Viv, I thought he was worth keeping on as an U-18 player for another year or two, but his agent is asking for first-team wages, literally four times more than he's currently making. There's no way the youngster is first-team quality, so I may have to sell him, or worse, let him go on a free.

The tragic tale of hapless Paul Robinson added another chapter, as he injured his neck in training. He hasn't proven himself worth anything since I took over management of the side, and I'm looking forward to clearing his sizeable salary off the books when it expires at the end of June.

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Saturday, 4th March, 2006. Conference National - Match 32, at Hinckley.

Hinckley is a small town just next to Leicester, between Leicester and Birmingham. They have a competent side, according to Gary Lloyd, with a potent attacking line, and a combative and hard-working midfield. They had an unlucky start this season, but in the last ten games have really turned it around, accruing four wins, four draws, and only 2 defeats. Still, their poor start means they're down in 16th place.

Fatigue forced a number of changes from the Wednesday match. David Stockdale made his 32nd start in goal. His back four were Adam Eckersley, Liam Fontaine, Michael Staley, and Graeme Law, as Parkin and Wright needed a rest. Malcolm Parker spelled Fox at defensive midfield, with John McGrath and Stephen Cooke covering the wings. Darren Dunning would captain, partnered with Lee Morris in the attacking midfield roles, and Levent Yalcin was the striker.

The crowd was the smallest we'd played in front of, 433, reminding me of the sort of crowds Lancaster drew. However, the opposition was definitely not weak - I can't remember the last league match we played where we were under pressure from the start. Nathan Lamey's header from close range forced a fine save by Stockdale in the 3rd minute, and it took a defensive header in the 8th minute by Fontaine to avert danger again.

The Hinckley pressure continued through about the 20th minute, but having weathered it we quickly built our own offensive. John McGrath found Levent Yalcin in the area in the 25th, and the Turk's quick turn and shot were met by a diving Lance Cronin, who turned it over the bar. Three minutes later, Stephen Cooke launched a beautiful ball behind the Hinckley line, leaving Yalcin free 8 yards from goal. Somehow, he scooped it over.

In the 32nd minute a Hinckley corner kick turned dangerous. Chris Humphreys received the ball in the box, and Graeme Law made a crucial tackle to prevent his shot. Robbie Mustoe got half a boot on the rebound, poking it towards goal, but Adam Eckersley scrambled it off the line. Coming back the other way, Darren Dunning's excellent vision spotted the run of Lee Morris, and he played the ball into space for the speedy forward. One-on-one with Morris, Cronin came up with a fabulous save to deny him.

In the 42nd, Yalcin cut a ball back from the left side, teeing it up beautifully for Stephen Cooke from the top of the box, but again Cronin was up to the task, and we would go to the break scoreless.

There were fewer chances in the second half, even after I made my substitutions, bringing McGovern, Ashington, and Rawle in. In the 60th minute, Dunning's 16 yard effort was met with a fantastic save by Cronin, barely tipping the ball over the bar. The keeper looked incredible - these weren't bad half-chances he was saving!

Hinckley again found a way to muster more pressure, and in the 68th minute Adam Willis hit a free kick straight up the park. Chris Humphreys had split our central defenders, and had space in the area. He launched a scorching half volley with his left foot, which looked unstoppable but sizzled over the crossbar!

It looked like we were doomed for our second straight scoreless draw, and Hinckley were still mounting more pressure. Humphreys was again the danger-man in the 77th minute, beating Michael Staley in the box and launching a wicked shot. Stockdale could only parry it, and the rebound fell to Mark Hughes with an open net. Despite desperate lunges by Law and Fontaine, he got the shot off, only to put it over!

It was an easy chance gone begging, and they say those always come back to haunt you. In the 89th minute, Dave Hart sent a cross into the 6-yard box, and Liam Fontaine - who had played a fine game at central defense - headed it back out. McGovern picked up the loose ball, played it to Dunning, and the captain spotted the run of Mark Rawle. His great ball exposed the defense, and Rawle outran the defenders, dribbled around Cronin, and slotted it home from the left post to give us the winning goal!!

Four minutes of injury time left us with some tense defending, but in the end Stockdale never had to make another save.

Hinckley 0, York 1

----; Rawle 90

MoM: Cronin (Hinckley GK)

A late winner in dramatic fashion - it had been a fairly even match all through, and we were lucky to escape with three points. This time, there certainly was celebration in our locker room, though honestly I felt more relief than exhiliration. The pressures of this campaign must really be getting to me.

At any rate, nobody could begrudge Lance Cronin the Man of the Match honors. The 20-year-old 'keeper had played a fantastic game, to which there could be only one response: I asked my scouting department to pay attention to him.

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Monday, 6th March, 2006.

"Hey, boss, mind if I join you?"

"Tappa! Of course you can!"

It was raining, and a muddy training session is never fun; even less so for the coaches training than the lads watching it. I'd been battling a bit of a cold, too, and was feeling none to pleased until he showed up.

I've got to say I was a bit surprised to see the team leader out in it on crutches, but with the pins in his thigh, he isn't even wearing a cast at this point, just a bit of a brace that limits his mobility so he doesn't actually pull things apart.

I was glad to see him, and more so as I found that the camaraderie of the hospital room translated well to a pitch-side commentary. He's got a bit of an eye for what's going on, and sees different things than I do. It felt like having an extra coach on the sidelines, to be honest.

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Wednesday, 8th March, 2006. Conference National - Match 33, vs Accrington Stanley.

With every three points, we took one step closer to the Conference championship, which would be only the second title in York history - they had won the Third Division (now known as League Two) in 1984. The local papers were full of optimism - our opposition only had nine matches remaining, and a six point deficit. York fans had been so battered by the events of the previous two years, it would be nice to give them a title and a return to League play.

The next hurdle in our path was Accrington, 14th in the Conference, but a competent team with attacking pace. Gary Lloyd warned that Ian Craney is the spark in a creative midfield, and they usually run the 3-5-2 which has proved problematic for us in the past. The rains over the weekend had stopped, but the pitch was still a bit waterlogged.

I juggled the lineup as follows: Stockdale in goal, with Parkin, Wright, Staley, and Law across the back. David Fox was the captain from defensive midfield. Adam Corbett would partner with Jon Paul McGovern on the wings, while Ryan Ashington and Neil Danns would partner in the attacking midfield. Leading scorer Neil Mellor was up front.

The first half was a very defensive affair, with the chances few and far between. The best chance was Ryan Ashington's effort from the top of the box on a corner, but he blazed it wide of the net. Dangerous striker Lee McEvilly had been too tired to last 90 minutes, and had started on the bench for Accrington. Without him, Stanley's only real threat was Ian Craney, and our lads were marking the midfielder out of the game.

McEvilly come on at halftime, but even that couldn't spark the Accrington attack. In the 50th minute, Corbett put a line drive into the area, which McGovern met with a powerful header. It took an incredible save by Brad Jones, who caught the ball at the post, to prevent what would have been a deserved goal. The Bootham Crescent crowd of 1,557 groaned.

Both managers were clearly getting frustrated. I brought on Stephen Cooke for Corbett, and began pushing players forward, while Accrington manager John Coleman brought Craney off in disgust after a poor performance at sixty minutes. McGovern sent in a cross in the 76th minute, and Mellor headed it just wide. We were shutting Accrington out - Stockdale hadn't made a single save all day - but just couldn't seem to put a shot on target through the thick Accrington defense.

In the 82nd minute, Cooke was forced off the field with a twisted knee, and I brought on Mark Rawle for him - the first time I'd gone to a 4-4-2 since leaving Lancaster. In fact, I began throwing everybody forward. In injury time, David Fox forced a fine save by Jones, and then Lee Morris smashed an 18-yard shot at the top corner, but Jones made a diving stop despite a deflection off of Michael Murphy to salvage a scoreless draw.

York 0, Accrington 0

----; ----

MoM: McGovern

Jon Paul McGovern had been dominant on the right wing, and we'd held Accrington without a shot. However, of the 16 we'd taken, many were blocked efforts from long range, and there were only four on target.

I was livid, but held my tongue, limiting myself to reminding the lads that we can't afford to conced points at home like that. Privately, I thought there's no excuse for such poor finishing.

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Friday, 10th March, 2006.

With only one goal in the last 3 matches, it was becoming clear just how much we missed the creative genius of Tappa Whitmore. Unfortunately, I'm not seeing a way to combat his absence - the combinations I've tried up front just don't seem to be able to create much.

One thing I could do was take the time to release a statement to the press about Jon Paul McGovern, praising his performance this season.

"Not only has he played a vital part in our unbeaten streak, but he's also partly to thank for our excellent league position," I declared. "He obviously belongs in the League, and I hope we can take him there."

The fans ate it up.

The Champions League first knockout round was completed Wednesday as well. Arsenal's 1-1 draw at Benfica was enough to see them through to the quarterfinals on a 4-1 aggregate.

Chelsea, at home against Barcelona, trailed 1-2 at halftime and needed to goals to overcome the Catalunya side's away goals. Attacking midfielder Juan Carlos Valerón provided two, and the Blues added another late to make a 4-2 final and a 5-3 aggregate total.

Manchester United won the match but lost the contest at Old Trafford. A 1-0 victory wasn't enough to overcome the four-goal shellacking Bayern München had handed them in Germany.

Valencia added a goal to their total against Newcastle United, the 1-0 win securing a 3-1 aggregate in Spain.

In the other matches, reigning champions Juventus eliminated Deportivo 4-1, Roma were through against Bayern Leverkusen, Inter Milan beat Lyon 3-2, and AC Milan eliminated PSV 2-0.

17-year-old left back Jason Pickering hadn't signed our contract offers, and looked increasingly likely to be leaving the team at the season's end. Finally, on Friday, he rejected our final contract offer, saying that he merits a more important role in the team and a more lucrative salary. He's wrong, but it looks like he's found somebody who believes him: he's signed with Stevenage. They will owe us a mere £2,000 in compensation - less than we've spent on training him.

Halifax boss Steve Tilson was quoted in the Yorkshire Evening Press today as saying that he doesn't want us to earn promotion to League Two, and that he hoped to be the one to put an end to our unbeaten run at The Shaw tomorrow. That gave me another press conference in the span of three days, to field questions about it.

"Tell him to look at the standings," I told the media. With nine matches left, "We're seven points clear, so I fully believe we'll win promotion."

Hopefully that riles the lads up, rather than making them overconfident. I posted his quote on the locker-room door in case anybody had missed it.

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Saturday, 11th March, 2006. Conference National - Match 34, at Halifax.

Halifax Town is fairly close to York, a relatively short drive, just West of Leeds and Bradford, so they're almost rivals.

We ran out those players on the squad who were fit. David Stockdale made his 50th league appearance in goal, with Adam Eckersley at left back with Liam Fontaine and Michael Staley central and Graeme Law on the right. Malcolm Parker spelled Fox at defensive midfield, while John McGrath partnered McGovern on the wings. I ran out Ryan Ashington and Lee Morris in the attacking roles, with Levent Yalcin up front.

I tried our 'attacking' formation, pushing the wings and backs forward even though we were on the road against a capable side, in an attempt to spark our creativity. In the sixth minute, John McGrath streaked up the left wing and into the box. From close range, he faked a shot then dished it right for Levent Yalcin in the six-yard box. Goalkeeper Matthew Andrews' diving punch kept it out, but the rebound fell right to Ryan Ashington. He drove it from eight yards, but Andrews picked himself up off the carpet in time to tip that over as well, a spectacular effort by the goalkeeper!! Ben Andrews blocked Yalcin's shot from the ensuing corner, and then cleared the following one.

In the 22nd minute, Halifax earned a corner, and Andrews, a central defender, wreaked havoc at the other end. Mo Harkin sent a corner to him eight yards from goal, and he chested it down to shoot right-footed. The shot deflected off of Malcolm Parker and into the net, putting us down 0-1.

Mark Stallard made it two just moments later, as Colin Cramb sent a beautiful ball through traffic into the area. 17 yards from goal, Stallard, despite close attendance by our central defenders, was able to get a perfect shot off to the lower-left corner, and hapless Stockdale could do nothing about it. The crowd of 1,441 were going crazy, and we'd dropped down 0-2 at a time when we were finding goals difficult to come by.

Stallard nearly made it three nil at the 34th minute when Steve Bushell put a long ball over the York defense, but Stockdale made a fine save to deny him. In the 36th, however, Cramb pounded one home from 15 yards, a vicious shot to the top corner, and our defeat seemed all but assured at 0-3.

In fact, at halftime, I decided to give up the match, and rest some of our key players. McGrath, McGovern, and Ashington were all brought off for substitutes. I told them that none had played poorly, I just wanted to ensure that they were fresh for our home match against Barnet mid-week rather than waste their legs against an 0-3 deficit.

The second half passed relatively uneventfully. Matthew Andrews managed to save everything we sent at him, including denying Yalcin when his header looked sure to score, and making a diving stop of Darren Dunning's free kick despite the odd deflection it took off the wall. Halifax seemed content to defend, and our side clearly lacked inspiration.

Halifax 3, York 0

Andrews 23, Stallard 26, Cramb 37; ----

MoM: Andrews (Halifax GK)

Every unbeaten run must eventually come to an end, and the handwriting had been on the wall about ours for several matches. The side were tired, and there had been little we could do to penetrate the goaltending of Man of the Match Matthew Andrews on a day he demonstrated why he was the Halifax captain.

I forced myself to shake manager Steve Tilson's hand, as he'd made good on his pre-match promise to defeat us.

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Sunday, 12th March, 2005.

Luckily, our pursuers Northampton and Carlisle had played each other yesterday. The result was a 1-1 draw, so neither had gained much ground against us. We still held a six point lead with eight matches to play, though we'd squandered any advantage we'd had for games in hand.

In the F.A. Cup matches of the day, Fulham shocked Liverpool 3-1, to great delight at Craven Cottage. Chelsea fielded a second-string lineup after their Champions League encounter mid-week but still defeated Bolton 1-0. Sunderland manhandled Championship side Leeds United, 4-1, bringing an end to the only bright spot in the Whites' dismal relegation-bound campaign.

In today's match, Aston Villa weathered late pressure to eliminate the last Championship side, Wigan Athletic, 2-1, to claim the final Semi-Final berth.

In the Reserves, Joe Foote's early goal would have put our lads to the top of the table if they could have held a 1-0 lead against Plymouth Argyle Reserves, but Daryl Peters earned a red card in the 20th minute, and Plymouth managed an equalizer twenty minutes from time to salvage a 1-1 scoreline.

Promising young left wing Adam Corbett twisted his ankle during today's training session, which will keep him out for the remainder of March, though he should be able to return in time for our April fixtures.

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Monday, 13th March, 2005.

I had big news Sunday evening, which broke in the papers today: I'd signed a new goalkeeper on a Bosman transfer. Currently under contract to Southampton, and on loan to Brentford, 24-year-old Alan Blayney would represent a major upgrade in that key area. The deal would be finalized July 1st, when his contract with Southampton expires.

I tried to tell young David Stockdale that it wasn't in response to him conceding three goals, but he took it very poorly. It was clear that Blayney was a very talented player whom I would expect to step into the starting lineup, and there's only room for one goalkeeper at a club.

I can empathize - it had to be frustrating to do all the work to help the team earn promotion only to be pushed aside.

I remember how badly I felt when something similar happened to me, God, back when I was sixteen or so. I'd been playing for a "travelling team", perhaps the second-highest level of the woefully inadequate American youth pyramid. Well, inadequate at the time - its gotten better, now, with a much more organized effort to train our young players for the future.

In retrospect I can see what a nasty dilemna I posed for my managers. I was far and away the best choice in goal, but I was also one of the top outfield players, a tireless midfielder with solid defensive instincts and a creative touch which opened up the offense. Essentially, my coach - the son of Ron Newman, who had played for Portsmouth, Orient, Crystal Palace and Gillingham in the '60's, and went on to coach the San Diego Sockers in the MISL - was left with two choices. Either he could play me in goal and hope to nick a late goal in a low-scoring affair, or he could play me in the field for a wide-open scoring battle. He often switched things up at half-time, based on the score and need.

Well, one day I remember we were facing a much much stronger team, from the next division up. Prudent tactics had me in goal and a defense-minded long-ball approach that was hardly threatening the opposition defense. I remember the half-time team talk vividly, as he railed at my defense "C'mon, you guys, Ian's getting shell-shocked back there!"

In the second half, the referee awarded the opposition an indirect free kick some 25 yards out. I'd never been taught the signal for direct versus indirect - did I mention how inadequate the American youth system was? Well, apparently neither had my opponent, as he struck it direct on goal. My first instinct was to let it go past. It was indirect, wasn't it? Then I outthought myself, changed my mind, and reached for it. I got my fingertips to it, not enough to keep it out, just enough to be the key "second touch" that made the goal count.

We lost, 1-0.

The next training session, my boss had brought in a new specialist 'keeper, a guy who couldn't play the outfield at all, and had me focus on my midfield duties.

I'd loved playing 'keeper, and he never explained his actions - for years, I thought I was being punished for the mistake.

Of course, I see now that even if the new lad wasn't quite as good as I was (and oh, I was self-righteously sure of that, at sixteen!), the team as a whole were better for having me in the field.

I wish I could tell David all that, but he hardly wants to hear it now. He was visibly moping when he left the facility this evening, and I'm worried that he won't be able to pull himself together for tomorrow's match.

He looks like he thinks his life is over.

Well, in a way, perhaps some of his dreams are: there's no doubt Blayney will be my starting 'keeper next year; Stockdale's hardly League quality.

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Tuesday, 14th March, 2006. Conference National - Match 35, vs Barnet.

I needed my first choice keeper to be mentally ready Tuesday evening, as we played host to 7th-placed Barnet on national television. The rest of my starting lineup would be on the pitch in every respect but one.

David Stockdale, despite his emotional turmoil of the week, remained in goal. Paul Parkin and Mark Wright were joined by American international Franklin Simek, as Fontaine needed a rest. Graeme Law at right back was making his 50th career league appearance, all for York City. Also in his 50th appearance, defensive midfielder David Fox would captain the side, with John McGrath and Jon Paul McGovern on the wings. Neil Danns and Ryan Ashington were the attacking midfielders, while Liverpool man Neil Mellor was the striker.

It was a cracking match, and the 1,764 fans at Bootham Crescent put enough heart into it to sound like twice that number. John McGrath gave us the first chance, sending a cross into the 6-yard box for Neil Mellor, who powered a header on goal, but keeper Barry Roche blocked the shot.

We were getting the better of the pressure through the first half, and in the 24th minute Mellor came into the area from the left. On a tight angle he shot, but Roche got enough of a hand on it to divert it. The ball rolled tantalizingly across the goalmouth, but Danns couldn't quite reach it and it rolled past the far post.

Through the final 15 minutes of the half, it seemed we had a half dozen chances, but again none had the killer touch, and halftime came with the match still a scoreless draw. If there was one bright spot, it was that Stockdale seemed to have settled with a few touches, so he was

Barnet got the first worthy chance of the second half, at the 56th minute, as Ben Strevens centered from the left wing. Giuliano Grazioli had lost his marker 12 yards out, but tried to head the ball on goal rather than control it, and he put it harmlessly wide.

Then came a blistering York onslaught over the span of a mere eight minutes. Mellor shot from 16 yards, but Roche turned it over the bar. Fox launched one from outside the area, but Roche gathered it to his chest. Ashington curled one to the top right corner, but Roche caught it above his head. Finally, McGovern's far post cross for Mellor seemed a perfect set-up for a goal, but Roche punched it clear almost off of the striker's head.

With 20 minutes left and time running out, I brought on Lee Morris for Ryan Ashington, and began pushing the fullbacks and wings forward. Morris set up John McGrath on the left wing, and McGrath's cross into the 6-yard-box found Mellor. He had Roche beat, but this time the shot went narrowly wide.

In the 82nd minute, Franklin Simek came close, coming up on a corner kick, and sending a header which just grazed the bar as it went over. Paul Parkin tried his luck, blazing a 20-yard effort over the bar.

Ninety minutes in, with another scoreless draw looming, Parkin, McGrath, and late substitute Levent Yalcin combined to cover 80 yards up the left wing with two long passes. Yalcin reached the by-line well before anybody else did, and held up the ball waiting for support. He spotted the far post run of Jon Paul McGovern, and launched an inward-curling right-footed cross towards him. As McGovern, Roche, and fullback Marcus Bignot converged on the ball, it continued curling, and suddenly it was carombing in off the post! Nobody had touched it, and Yalcin had scored a fluke goal!!!

From there, it was a matter of weathering injury time, and Barnet weren't able to threaten as we ran the clock out!

York 1, Barnet 0

Yalcin 90; ----

MoM: McGovern.

Jon Paul McGovern appeared to be revelling in the media limelight, and had played one of his best games of the season on national television. He was again the consensus Man of the Match for a dominant performance on the right wing.

There was celbration and music in the locker room, as this had been a big match, and even goalkeeper David Stockdale seemed in better spirits.

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Friday, 17th March, 2006.

As I learned during the post-game interviews, fourth-placed Aldershot had manhandled Carlisle 3-0, so we had moved eight points clear with seven to play.

York Reserves had to travel to Carlisle the next day, and took quite a bit of verbal abuse from the small crowd, but came away victorious 2-1 behind goals from amateur striker James Smart and on-form hero Daryl Peters. A draw elsewhere by Hartlepool, and they had taken over first place in their Reserve Group with merely eight matches to play.

Tappa, meanwhile, has become a bit of a fixture on the sidelines, joining me for every training session. That won't last, of course - eventually he'll have to head into physiotherapy to start training his way back into match shape, but for now he's been a nice addition to the backroom staff. I was a bit worried during the post-match celebration, to be honest, as some of the lads tried to whoop it up with him. Their exuberance looked a bit dangerous to his still-knitting bones!

We got a bit of bad luck yesterday when Levent Yalcin strained his neck - he'd been scheduled to start on Saturday against Farnborough. I can't hazard to guess how long he'll be out, maybe a week or two.

Through the week, rumours emerged that I was in discussion with clubs about the potential transfer of David Stockdale. I was frustrated - in case the deals fell through, I'd wanted to keep it quiet to avoid further unsettling the youngster, but there's always a leak somewhere.

The rumours were true. I'd had two League One clubs enquiring about him, and with a new keeper coming in, I might even arrange a transfer to be completed immediately, if the price were right.

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Saturday, 18th March, 2006. Conference National - Match 36, at Farnborough Town.

Finally, we reached the last match of our fixture congestion - from here on out, our schedule appeared to be reasonable weekend matches, which would do our club well after the grueling two-match-a-week schedule we'd been maintaining. The trip to Farnborough, south-west of London, was a long ride, but they lay 20th in the table and weren't predicted to cause us much trouble. They hadn't scored a goal since the first of March, four straight games, and their last win was a month ago to the day.

Despite the rumours swirling about him, unsettled goalkeeper David Stockdale again got the nod. Paul Parkin, Michael Staley, Liam Fontaine, and Graeme Law made up the back four, with David Fox ahead of them. John McGrath and in-form Jon Paul McGovern were the wingers, with Neil Danns and Lee Morris the attacking midfielders, and Neil Mellor asked to start again despite short rest.

From the opening kickoff, it was clear who the title contenders were, as we mounted constant pressure in front of the Farnborough goal. By the fifteenth minute, Craig Holloway had made three saves and seen two more shots narrowly miss his net.

At the 27th minute, McGovern made a spectacular dribble to work around one man and draw two more defenders to him in the area. Just as they closed on him, he dropped it off for Neil Danns who launched an 18-yard shot which Holloway just tipped over the bar. We looked certain winners, in complete control.

In the 35th minute, Farnborough's Ben Turner took a throw-in on their right sideline, about 35 yards from the end line, and launched a curling cross to the far post. David Stockdale settled under it, waiting for it to come to him rather than aggressively going to it, and Lloyd Blackman flashed between him and the ball to head it home! 1,944 Cherrywood Road fans went delirious as we went down 0-1!

I wasn't too worried; we'd dominated the run of play, and surely there was a way back into the match. In the 40th minute, McGovern's corner came to Neil Danns at the far post, and he drove a wicked half-volley at the top corner, but Holloway came up with a fantastic save.

At halftime, I brought off Paul Parkin for Mark Rawle and switched to a 3-5-2, determined to find some way to break the creative rut which had been challenging us since our playmaker broke his leg, but there was nothing doing. Time after time we surged forward, and whether it was a quick break or a slow buildup hardly seemed to matter: there was a white shirt there to deflect the shot or make the important tackle.

To chronicle our chances would take pages, but the summary is short: none went in, and the confidence of the first half was slowly replaced with a feeling of dread, easily recognizable as the feeling you get during that "stuck in quicksand" nightmare. Lowly Farnborough successfully held us off.

The final whistle announced that injury time had elapsed, and I slammed my clipboard to the ground in disgust.

Farnborough 1, York 0

Blackman 36; ----

MoM: Holloway (Farnborough GK)

I lit into the players for their uninspired finishing afterwards. If there had been a loose boot, I'd have kicked it at them.

If we failed to win the title, I told them, they could look to this game and see the reason why: a mental mistake at the back, poor finishing at the front, and failing to take even a single point from a relegation battler.

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Thursday, 23rd March, 2006.

Despite a late injury to the Scarborough U-18's goalkeeper that left an outfield player in goal, the our Under-18s couldn't score, and dropped a 1-0 game, missing a golden opportunity to pull away from the pack in the youth league.

The bidding for David Stockdale concluded, as Peterborough met my demands for £20,000, letting him finish out the season with us, plus a home friendly against the Championship side this off-season. By Wednesday, Stockdale had terms arranged with them, and the deal was confirmed for June 7th.

With the rumours put to bed, I told him that I was counting on him for the remainder of the season, and he responded enthusiastically.

Mid-week, an overstrength Reserve side beat Bournemouth Reserves 1-0 at Bootham Crescent on a 95th-minute goal, deep into injury time. Franklin Simek played a ball over the top of everyone, and amateur James Smart made the finish for the game-winner, earning Man of the Match honors.

On Thursday, we made a key addition for next year. Though David Fox had been a fine stand-in at defensive midfield, he was on a one-year loan, which would leave us with only Malcolm Parker, a frightening thought. Continuing our tradition of purchasing cheap midfield talent that Tranmere Rovers was planning to let expire, I added Alan Navarro to the roster.

DM C Alan Navarro, 24, English: 15 matches, 0 goals, 1 assist, 1 MoM, 6.80 with Tranmere Rovers in League One: A better player than most of my squad, Navarro has no real weaknesses. He is determined, and a good free kick taker, who can knock shots in from long range. His tackling, marking, and defensive positioning are all above average, and he should be a solid fixture at number six next year.

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Saturday, 25th March, 2006. Conference National - Match 37, vs Tamworth.

Carlisle had snuck to within six points of us, and were now only one point of goal difference behind as well, so we needed a good result at home against 7th-placed Tamworth. They needed a result as well, sitting three points outside of the playoff zone, so it promised to be a hard-fought match.

We had our best lineup ready, though morale was very mixed after our recent results. David Stockdale was in goal, but appeared unmotivated as his transfer was already arranged. Paul Parkin, Mark Wright, Liam Fontaine, and Graeme Law made up the back four. Alan Navarro made his York debut at defensive midfield, with John McGrath and Jon Paul McGovern on the wings. Up front, Ryan Ashington was in high spirits, but Neil Danns and Neil Mellor both appeared to be suffering a little bit from the realization that they would not be here to celebrate even if we do earn promotion.

Ryan Ashington put on a show for 1,246 fans today. In the 14th minute, he and Neil Danns worked an exchange of passes upfield. Danns looked to be in a more dangerous postion as he darted into the arc, and the defenders converged upon him, forming a wall of bodies iin front of him. He deftly cut it back to Ashington, neatly setting Ryan up with a clear shot. The young attacking midfielder curled an amazing swerving shot to the top-left corner from all of 25 yards out, and we took a 1-0 lead!

Ashington nearly made it a second three minutes later, breaking through the defense to hit one from 18 yards out, but this one was saved by Trevor Wood. He got it in the 20th, however, as John McGrath fed a short pass between two defenders into the area. Though Ashington was well to the left of the goal, he launched a left-footed shot. The first-time effort, in such narrow confines, caught Wood off-guard, and we were in control at 2-0.

Four minutes later, Danns again got in trouble, and had to pass back from the right just outside the eighteen. Fully thirty yards from goal, Ashington let fly a half-volley made more difficult by the thigh-high bounce Danns' pass took - but everything he touched was gold today. It curled impossibly into the top corner, leaving Wood shaking his head in disbelief. Just 24 minutes in, and the rifleman had completed his hat trick with a goal you'd expect to see at Old Trafford, not Bootham Crescent!!

He could actually have had a fourth from a 36th-minute corner. McGovern's ball found him unbelievably unmarked at the eighteen - didn't Tamworth realise he was playing a blinder? He chested it down neatly for himself, but drove his sixteen-yard effort just high and wide.

In the 40th, it was Jon Paul McGovern who was the creative one, dribbling up the right side and then sending in a far post cross. Tamworth defender Michael Gordon headed it clear, but right back to McGovern, who drove a low cross to the near post this time. Neil Mellor shouldered his way just inside Tamworth captain James Smith to power a chest-high header into the netting! Incredibly, it was 4-0: I'd have lit into the lads weeks earlier, if I'd known this was how they'd react!

I rested Ashington, Mellor, and McGrath through the entire second half, letting others get the playing time, and it was fairly quiescent. Tamworth did score one, as Rory May knocked on a throw-in to Chris Potter at the six-yard box. David Stockdale, diving at his feet, got a hand on it, but Potter was able to put the toe of his left boot on as he fell, and the ball wound up in the back of the net to make a 4-1 final.

The only other news of note was debutante Alan Navarro picking up his fifth yellow card of the season, which would result in a one-game suspension. He'd picked up the others in different leagues before joining the squad, but that didn't matter - all English yellow cards, even from friendlies, count towards the limit.

York 4, Tamworth 1

Ashington 14, 20, 24, Mellor 40; Potter 70

MoM: Ashington

In the span of just ten minutes, Ryan Ashington had scored the first hat trick of his career, and he was the consensue Man of the Match. He'd also regained the team's goal-scoring lead for the season. I was happy to see the creative floodgates open at last, as I'd begun to doubt my tactics, but clearly they were still sound.

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Thursday, 30th March, 2006.

The York Reserves match was nowhere near as exciting. After a long drive to Exeter, the lads were held to a scoreless draw, but thanks to a Hartlepool loss they moved four points clear with six games to play.

There was certainly no denying that Ryan Ashington deserved a place in the Conference Team of the Week after his hat-trick heroics, and he was duly rewarded on Monday when the honour roll was announced.

With the English lower-league transfer deadline rapidly approaching, I desperately tried to move the last few players I wanted to get rid of, especially players whose contracts were expiring. There were no takers, and rightfully so - I expected that Paul Robinson's career was over once he left York, for example. The transfer deadline passed without any further moves, though local club Harrogate Town had desperately tried to loan Adam Corbett for the final month of the season.

My training regime took a sudden turn of brutality. Lee Morris suffered fractured ribs when he took the brunt of the weight in a three-man collision, winding up at the bottom of the pile. The next day, Kevin Donovan suffered a fractured jaw, taking an elbow to the face as he challenged for a header. Under-18's player Steve Hall dislocated his jaw during the same session, in a separate incident, and trialist Lee Crosby bruised a rib. Then, on Thursday, Michael Staley suffered a groin strain!

The lads were just trying to impress, of course, but I had to give them a talk about making sure not to injure each other in training - save the 100% effort for the real matches!

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Saturday, 1st April, 2006.

I strode into the boardroom to be met with smiles all around. "Did you know?" Steve Beck asked me, and apparently my blank look was enough to convince him I did not.

"We've clinched a playoff berth!"

Of course, we were all delighted - but there was still work to do.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Team Pts W D L GD GP

============================================

1 P YORK CITY 79 24 7 6 +30 37

-------------------------------------------

2 Carlisle 71 20 11 6 +26 37

3 Northampton 71 21 8 8 +20 37

4 Aldershot 65 19 8 10 +24 37

5 Burton 60 16 12 9 +15 37

-------------------------------------------

6 Barnet 59 16 11 10 +10 37

7 Tamworth 54 13 15 9 +11 37

8 Crawley 54 12 18 7 +10 37</pre>

Mister Beck went on to gush about the Tamworth game, and how they'd just announced today that Ryan Ashington's 25-yard screamer against Tamworth was voted Soccernet's Conference Goal of the Month.

That was mildly surprising - I hadn't thought it his best goal of the match! The half-volley ten minutes later was more impressive to my eyes, as he'd had to pivot on his left foot while meeting a right-to-left pass with his right foot. That's tricky to do in practice, let alone at speed in a match!

Jon Paul McGovern came runner-up in the voting for the Mirror's Conference Player of the Month, as well, so it was a good haul for the team.

In Sophie McGill's eagle-eyed review of the finances, she noticed that the addition of Alan Navarro has put us back over the wage budget by about 5%, £24,000 per annum or so.

Viv reminded her that the contracts of Kevin Donovan, Mark Rawle, and Mark Zawadski are expiring at the end of June, as are those of scout Gary Lloyd and coach Brian Neaves. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think 'good riddance'. Between them and Paul Robinson, we should save nearly £95,000 p/a next year - which I'm counting on to pay Navarro and Blayney's salaries.

Only 9 of the 36 players now on the squad had trained under Chris Brass - I'd made wholesale changes, and of those nine four more were going out this July.

Despite his awesome performance against Tamworth, Ryan Ashington's training pitch performance was slumping. Jamie Cooper's remained on the rise, as did Adam Corbett and Liam Fontaine, who both reached personal highs. However, according to Viv, the most improved player on the squad was Mark Goodwin, who had been out on loan to Moor Green. It wasn't so much that the move seemed to be suiting him well as that he'd been injured last month.

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Saturday, 1st April, 2006. Conference National - Match 38, at Burton Albion.

An away match against fifth placed Burton Albion was our second-most difficult fixture remaining. I went in expecting to defend: I would be happy with a single point, honestly, but I wasn't about to tell the lads that!

I came out one player shy of our top lineup: David Stockdale in goal, Paul Parkin, Liam Fontaine and Graeme Law joined by Franklin Simek in the back line, as Wright needed a rest. Alan Navarro was the defensive midfielder, with John McGrath and Jon Paul McGovern on the wings. Neil Danns and Ryan Ashington again partnered up front behind Neil Mellor.

Pessimistic expectation or no, we were in control from the opening touch, maintaining constant pressure through the opening minutes despite my instructions to keep the fullbacks home. Ryan Ashington had one shot saved early on, then in the 20th minute, Neil Danns and Neil Mellor worked a textbook wall pass to get around Lee Ayres, who had started out well positined in the Burton arc. The return pass sprang Danns into the area with a clear look at goal. From 15 yards, his chest-high shot authoritatively rippled the back of the net to give us a 1-0 lead.

It could have been two on 23 minutes, but Mellor's breakaway was stopped one-on-one by Burton keeper Ryan Whitehouse. Alan Navarro followed that with a beautiful pass that put Ashington into the area one-on-one, but again Whitehouse rose to the occasion. A minute later, Ashington tried his luck from range, nearly 20 yards out, but it was right down the middle and Whitehouse was able to palm it over the bar.

Not to be outdone, David Stockdale made a great save on a Burton corner kick, pushing away Stuart Ross's header. It stayed one-nil through halftime, and I reminded the lads to mind their defensive duties: a 1-0 would be a great result here.

In the 53rd minute, right wing Ashley Sestanovich sendt a cross into our box for Burton, and Andrew Oakes's header slipped just wide of the post. Stockdale took the goal kick quickly, and we were off on the counter. Danns and Mellor teamed up again, each dribbling a ways, and passing to the other when challenged. The last pass, from the arc to the right, was Danns's, and it sprang Mellor into the area without a marker. He struck a low drive from perhaps eighteen yards, past Whitehouse to the far post: it was 2-0 York!

Danns had to come off a few minutes later, with a bruised shin, but Burton were outclassed, and the 2,207 fans knew it. Though they tried sending more gold and black shirts forward, most of their shots were from too long range to be troublesome, 20-yard efforts that went wide, or were easy saves for Stockdale. Any attempt to get through Alan Navarro led to tears for the hosts: the new man is clearly League class, and he's only here because of our apparent certainty of promotion.

Our hosts attempts acheived was to open up space at the back for our substitutes. The goal on the counter was almost predictable, and in the 87th minute Darren Dunning's fine pass sprung Levent Yalcin. He raced into the box, and from 17 yards, he drilled it to the lower right corner. It was a finely taken goal, a rarity for the Turk, who hasn't made good on his potential.

Burton 0, York 3

----; Danns 20, Mellor 55, Yalcin 87

MoM: Danns

There was celebration in the York locker room after that one - we'd come fired up to play, and had dominated a very good team. I told the lads how proud I was, and lauded the creative vision up front, so dramatically changed from two weeks earlier.

Midfielder Neil Danns won Man of the Match with a goal and an assist, but his bruised shin would see him out for about a week, probably keeping him on the sidelines of our next match.

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Thursday, 6th April, 2006.

Supporter's Trust chairman Steve Beck could not hide his delight at our victory, and I got to listen to him go on for minutes about how excited everybody was about the prospect of a return to the League, where York "rightfully belong".

Wednesday night, York Reserves defeated Rochdale 2-0. Joe Foote was Man of the Match, amateur James Smart scored one goal, and trialist full back Lee Crosby the other. But they played to an empty crowd, as Reserve matches weren't foremost on the minds of most Englishmen:

It was Champions League Quarter-Final night.

Arsenal hosted Valencia at Highbury, in a match refereed by the legendary Pierluigi Collina. Thierry Henry scored a majestic twenty-yard goal in the first half, and Claudio Pizarro added a header in the second, as the Gunners took a 2-0 first-leg win.

In Munich, AC Milan held Bayern München to a 0-0 draw that should give the Italian side the advantage when they head to Milan.

At the San Siro, it was a battle of Italian giants as Internazionale hosted Roma, but Inter Milan proved much too strong for the visitors, rolling off a 3-0 victory that all but assured their passage to the semifinals.

Chelsea took an early lead in Juventus on Mista's 2nd-minute goal, but the Bianconero fought back to equalize in the 63rd minute. In the waning minutes, Mateja Mezman took over the match, scoring two goals in eight minutes to give Chelsea an incredible three away goals and a 3-1 lead going into the home leg.

Other than that, it was a quiet week; with the transfer deadline past, the focus of any negotiations was next season, and I knew fairly well what our changes would be, at least unless the board were prepared to release more transfer budget or wage budget.

Promising young goalkeeper Kevin Butler had turned 17, so I began negotiations with him for a long-term contract. This proved somewhat troublesome, as he wanted a guarantee of first-team football. With Alan Blayney coming in, there was no way I could make that promise. Finally, by meeting his financial demands precisely, nearly tripling his current salary, we were able to agree a contract through 2010.

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Saturday, 8th April, 2006. Conference National - Match 39, at Crawley.

Crawley Town had earned promotion from the Southern League Premier Division in 2003/04 under the management of Francis Vines, completing a treble of minor-league triumphs to establish the Red Devils as the leading non-league club in Sussex. Consolidation last year saw them place 17th, but they're definitely an up-and-coming club, battling just six points adrift of the playoff spots this year.

My lineup was almost forced, with injuries to so many of the second-string players, to be my regulars yet again. Stockdale was in goal, with Parkin, Wright, Fontaine, and Law across the back four. Alan Navarro was settling in nicely at defensive midfield, with McGrath and McGovern on the wings. Stephen Cooke took over attacking midfield duties from Danns, who was available off the substitute's bench but not quite ready to start. Ashington and Mellor, deadlocked for the team lead in goals scored this season, completed the attacking trio.

With Crawley in our native red, we were wearing out blue alternate jerseys. It was tight defending from both sides early on, as each manager was very cautious, dropping numerous men back to defend. Still, there were chances for both sides, a corner apiece and a dangerous free kick each in the first twelve minutes. The defenses came out on top.

In the 17th minute, we got our second free kick, about 25 yards from goal. Stephen Cooke took it, and I think he was looking to play it for Navarro in the area, but it deflected off the wall, and hapless goalkeeper Simon Cox, already moving towards Navarro, could only watch as it went in off the near post for a 1-0 York lead.

In the 23rd minute, Cox made a fantastic save to deny Ryan Ashington, but then Ashington was injured by Paul Armstrong, whose tackle opened a big gash in Ashington's leg. I had to bring Neil Danns in as a substitute, despite the fact that he hadn't trained much the previous week due to his bruised shin.

That move had nothing to do with the Red Devils' 35th-minute goal, which was as strange a goal as you'll ever see. An aerial cross into the 6-yard box box was headed away by Liam Fontaine. It failed to clear the penalty area, but Jon Paul McGovern was there to head it behind - intending to concede a corner. His ball failed to clear Simon Rusk, who would have been offsides had one of his teammates played this ball to him, but was now perfectly positioned to keep it in play by heading it back in front of goal. That set it up perfectly for Andy Furnell, who headed past David Stockdale, and the crowd of 3,662 let out a great roar! Four headers in the area, and it was equal at 1-1.

The tied scoreline lasted a mere four minutes, as we built up a steady attack, which culminated in Neil Mellor's back pass from the area to John McGrath. From the arc, despite the close attentions of fullback Martin Ure, McGrath let loose an impossible shot, curling into the top right corner. I couldn't believe he'd gotten it off, and there was nothing any keeper could have reasonably done about it, at any level of play. Crawley came right back, with a period of mad pressure, but after two goalmouth scrambles resulted in two corner kicks, Fontaine was finally able to clear, and we went to the half with a 2-1 lead.

Alan Navarro was struggling with some form of injury, and though I'd left him in for about thirty minutes after he picked it up, when he left Furnell wide open 20 yards from goal in the 66th minute, I knew he had to come off. We were lucky Furnell's shot curled wide of the post, and after Neil Mellor's breakaway the other way was saved by Cox, I brought Darren Dunning on to play defensive midfield.

It appeared that our lead would hold, and in the 80th minute Levent Yalcin, on for Cooke, had a 20-yard effort which Cox barely tipped wide of the post. Crawley came back the other way, and Charlie MacDonald appeared to be breaking into the area for the equalizer, but Fontaine brought him down with an inch-perfect slide tackle when any mistake would have been a penalty.

In the 87th minute, however, a nice Crawley move saw fullback Neil Jenkins, playing up front in a desperate 2-3-5 formation, break through the offsides trap. As he entered the area, he lost control of his dribble, letting it get well off of his foot, and it looked to be heading out across the end line where the 6-yard box meets the end line. Stockdale wanted to take no chances, and dove out for it, but succeeded only in diverting it. He could do no more than watch in horror as it rolled to the far post, and Graeme Law's desperate attempt to reach it was in vain. The Broadfield Stadium faithful erupted in joy, as the Reds had equalized 2-2 on an own goal!

I urged my players forward to seek the winner, and Crawley manager Francis Vines was shouting for caution, but when his players had a long possession, it convinced more and more of them to try and sneak forward for a late winner. Eventually, seven men had ventured forward, and when captain Graeme Law scrambled the ball away, that was Crawley's undoing. Blue shirts streamed forwards in a five-on-three rush, and Danns had the vision to spot McGrath as the unmarked man. The Irishman dribbled thirty yards, free into the area, and closed to within ten yards of goal before slotting it past Cox for his second of the game, a late winner!

Crawley 2, York 3

Furnell 35, Stockdale o.g. 86; Cooke 17, McGrath 39, 88

MoM: McGovern

Such a heart-stopping victory prompted a wild celebration in the York locker room, and McGrath was the toast of the team - I was worried he might wind up injured from the force of the slaps to the back he was receiving. It was great to see him embrace Tappa Whitmore, who was still on crutches, but made the trip with us to show his support. It was a bit of a surprise that Jon Paul McGovern was chosen Man of the Match over the game-winning hero.

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Tuesday, 11th April, 2006.

Northampton Town had won their match, but Carlisle were no longer a contender. Two points scored by us or lost by Northampton would be sufficient to see us through:

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> 1 P York 39 26 7 6 +34 85

----------------------------------------

2 P Northampton 39 23 8 8 +22 77

3 P Carlisle 39 21 12 6 +27 75</pre>

Jon Paul McGovern was again selected to the Team of the Week for his fine performance.

Ryan Ashington's injury required stitches and would keep him out of practice most of the week, but physio Jeff Miller figured he could play if he had to next weekend.

York U-18's defeated Chester U-18's at Bootham Crescent 4-1. Darren Hollingsworth converted a penalty, amateur James Smart continued his tear - I wish I could convince him to sign a professional contract - with another goal, and fellow amateur Chris Simpson, a late substitute, added two more in a five minute span to put the outcome beyond doubt.

Excitement built throughout the week, both in town and in . There were numerous "Go Minstermen!" posters, York City Football Club flags, and other signs of support showing at houses and businesses all over the city. Everywhere we went, Stacy and I were offered well-wishing.

Unfortunately, I was unable to enjoy the moment, as there were numerous details to take care of looking forward to next season.

Looking to the off-season and the departure of two of my four goalkeepers, I arranged the transfer of Torquay United's 17-year-old goalkeeper Paul Carruthers, who I thought could give Kevin Butler some competition for the number two spot behind incoming Blayney. For £2,000 plus 50% of his next transfer, it felt like a very good deal.

A story broke mid-week that Graeme Law's agent could get him a better contract at another club, and that the fullback was unhappy with his current deal. I could understand that - at only £9,000 p/a he'd been an absolute bargain the past two seasons, but I wasn't convinced that he would be worth the amount nearly four times that which his agent was demanding, or that he would remain a first-team player for several years after our promotion. I spoke with the kid personally, and he assured me that he would rather commit his future to the club than seek a better deal elsewhere.

Jamie Cooper had turned 17 as well, and given the rate at which the young centre-back had been improving, I was keen to tie him up to a long-term contract, but like Law he wanted an incredible raise and a guarantee of first-team football - quite brazen from somebody who had yet to play his first competitive match!

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Friday, 14th April, 2006.

The second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals provided an entertaining diversion mid-week. I joined a number of players and fans at the Burton Stone Pub for a viewing. Being a vegetarian ("heretic!"), I can't comment on their fish and chips, but the place is a fine, comfortable venue for any York fan - and those wearing the wrong colors on match day are promptly shown the door.

They had four TV's set up, one for each match, and roars from different parts of the pub would tell you which way to look if you didn't happen to be watching that match.

The Chelsea-Juventus rematch was a boring 0-0 affair, which allowed the London side to advance on a 3-1 aggregate.

Arsenal looked to be through when Sanli Tuncay scored in the 9th minute to give them a 3-0 aggregate lead in Valencia, but the Spanish side fought back through the second half with a pair of goals, making it 3-2 in the 87th minute. Though they threw everybody forward in a scintillating injury time frenzy, the Gunners held on for the 3-2 aggregate win.

In the other two matcher, Inter Milan assumed with a 3-0 lead that they were through, and played a younger side against Roma. Nothing's sure in football: an own goal, a player sent off early in the second half, and the gap closed to 3-2, left them holding on by their fingernails. Desperate defending saw them through to the semi-finals.

The best match, however, had to be Bayern München at AC Milan. Andriy Shevchenko scored early on to give the hosts a 1-0 lead after a scoreless first leg. Ze Roberto put the German side ahead on away goals just before the break, and the second half was one of the best-fought contests in recent memory, with brilliant play on both sides of the ball. The hosts were getting desperate as the match ticked into injury time, and finally Munich struck on the counterattack: Bastian Schweinsteiger played a wonderful ball for Roque Santa Cruz, who slotted it past Dida to make the final 2-1!

Despite a Man of the Match performance by captain Kevin Butler in goal, the York Reserves lost 1-0 at Hornchurch, in a match not even I watched, as everybody tuned in to Champions League matches. The poor result trimmed their Reserve Group 6 lead down to a single point over Hartlepool and a mere two over Playmouth with four matches left to play.

That did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm in York town!

Excitement had grown to a fever pitch by Friday evening, with an editorial in the Yorkshire Evening Post claiming that a victory against Forest Green and a Conference title would "validate the Supporter's Trust experiment, making the team a model for fans of every sport."

Not to put the pressure on, or anything!

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Saturday, 15th April, 2006. Conference National - Match 40, vs Forest Green Rovers.

The day infamous in the States as "Tax Day", the day one's income tax return must be postmarked, was instead a day of great excitement and anticipation in Yorkshire. With a win against the 17th-placed side in the Conference, or a draw or loss elsewhere by Northampton Town, York City Football Club would clinch the Conference National championship and more importantly, promotion back to the League.

Excitement had built to a fever pitch by the 3:00 kickoff time, with 1,544 fans singing and cheering in the Bootham Crescent stands. I'd expected more, honestly, but the loyal supporters made up for in volume what they lacked in numbers. You couldn't have asked for a better day, sunny and warm, a perfect Spring afternoon for football.

I selected almost the exact same lineup as had won the thriller the previous week, my regulars who had so thoroughly earned the right to celebrate together should things go their way. David Stockdale was making his 40th appearance of the season in goal. Scottish 21-year-old Paul Parkin was the side's ironman in the field, making his 38th start at left back. Mark Wright and Liam Fontaine had grown together into an impressive partnership in central defense, while Graeme Law was again the right back. David Fox returned to captain the side from defensive midfield, a nod to his hard work all year long. Last week's hero John McGrath was on left wing, while Jon Paul McGovern had stepped into the creative void left by Whitmore's injury on the right wing. Stephen Cook and Neil Danns would pair at the attacking midfield, with Whitmore still on crutches on the bench, and Ashington sitting on the substitute's bench due to his stitches. Neil Mellor, of course, was our striker.

There was little question who the better side were: we came out attacking, pushing the fullbacks and wingers forward, and created plenty of chances in the first half. In the 14th minute, Stephen Cooke's laser blast from the edge of the box forced the first of many saves by Mark Howard, who tipped it over the bar.

In the 20th minute, a large roar went up from the crowd while Forest Green were lining up a goal kick. The out-of-town scoreboard had just been updated, and it read "Northampton 0, Gravesend 1". Northampton would have to score two, or the result of this match wouldn't matter.

In the 29th minute, Neil Danns ripped a vicious 17-yard strike at the post, but Howard made a diving save to keep things scoreless. In the 40th minute, Mark Wright rose above the defense to meet a corner kick, heading it on goal, but again Howard made the stop - and launched a quick counter-attack for the black-clad Rovers. To my delight, it was Wright who hustled all the way back to make the saving tackle at the other end.

Things were still scoreless at halftime, and I had to bring off a frustrated Graeme Law, who had picked up a knock. Michael Staley would fill in out-of-position at right back, but that hardly worried me: we'd earned 5 corner kicks to none for the visitors, had outshot them 6-0, and Gravesend still led in Northampton.

The visitors came out for the second half content to park the bus with a 5-4-1 defense. In the 50th minute, yet another corner kick was headed away - Forest Green were very strong in the air - but Cooke retained control, and sent in another cross. Danns was there at the far post, but Howard again made the stop.

In the 62nd minute, I switched to a 3-5-2, bringing on Levent Yalcin to replace a somewhat nicked-up Liam Fontaine. Not seven minutes later, John McGrath darted up the left wing, and the Rovers defense found themselves outnumbered. With superb vision, McGrath drove a low cross to the near post, where there was plenty of space. Danns burst past Matthew Gadsby to connect with a diving header, and the crowd roared their approval as it nestled into the back of the net!!

It was a spectacular goal, real flair from both players, and a 1-0 lead seemed to all but guarantee the title!

I switched back to the 4-5-1, giving a negative outlook for the first time. Fox dropped back into defense, while Darren Dunning came off the bench to be the defensive midfielder. McGrath gave way, my last substitution of the day. I'd have been content to take the 1-0 lead to full time, but Forest Green had other ideas.

Gadsby atoned for his error with a 30-yard forward pass into space, as Jefferson Louis had slipped past both Staley and Paul Parkin. Wide of the post as he entered the box, he chose to cut it back instead of shoot, and teed it up for Mark Danks in the arc. Danks put a curling shot to the far post, and Stockdale, who had been cheating to his left, had no chance to get back across, and things were level at 73 minutes, 1-1.

We moved back to the 3-5-2, with Dunning now on the left wing. Fox, back at defensive midfield, launched a brilliant half-volley from 20 yards; Howard, diving to his left, caught it in full stretch. As the minutes ticked into injury time, the out-of-town scoreboard continued to read "Northampton 0, Gravesend 1", which would see us champions, but the lads desperately wanted to clinch with a victory.

Two minutes gone out of three, McGovern had a cross headed back out. He tracked it down, held it in the zone, and readied himself to send it in again. There were nine black shirts in the box as the cross came in from the right winger, but somehow Stephen Cooke rose above them all at the corner of the 6-yard-box. His driven header clipped in off the near post, giving Howard no chance!!

Pandemonium took Bootham Crescent! The 2-1 lead would see us Conference champions!

For a moment, I feared a pitch invasion was imminent - I know I was 20 yards on the pitch, screaming my lungs out, and the rest of the bench with me - but the fans settled for joyous cheers.. and just as they were settling and Forest Green was kicking off, another cheer arose, as loud as the first, for the scoreboard read "Northampton 0, Gravesend 2"! It was just a matter of seconds until the final whistle..

.. and York City had won the Conference National title!

York 2, Forest Green 1

Danns 68, Cooke 90; Danks 73

MoM: McGovern

As the crowd sang Queen's immortal "We are the Champions, my friends...", our side shook hands with the Forest Green players, and then began a celbratory lap. They jogged slowly, limiting themselves to the pace of crutches-bound Tappa Whitmore to show their solidarity as a team.

When we finally returned to the locker room, there were the Board of Directors and numerous other key members of the Supporter's Trust, with bottles of champagne. As corks flew and cold champagne sprayed over the room, I'd say everyone was thoroughly doused.

The celebrations would last well into the night, and I'm afraid I can't tell you much more; Stacy and I were well and truly plastered by the end of the evening. I can't even remember how we got home!

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Thank you both! Without readers, a story goes nowhere, and I appreciate everybody whose stuck with our trials and travails thus far. Fifteen pages, and we've made it to the League! icon_biggrin.gif

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Monday, 17th April, 2006.

The next morning, I read the evening's Yorkshire Evening Press, which had our triumph as its front-page. It was thoroughly, almost embarassingly, complementary, as fans and pundits alike were unanimous that I was the person responsible for the team's success. The board expressed publicly the delight they had obviously so genuinely felt with us in the locker room, and said how much they were looking forward to our return to League football.

I'd given everybody Sunday off to sleep off the damage, so I didn't return to Bootham Crescent until Monday. There, I discovered that a framed copy of the front page awaited me in my office, a championship gift from chairman Steve Beck. He had also kept smaller clippings chronicling our F.A. Cup run, which were hung on the wall behind my desk. It was an impressive sight, and would certainly keep me motivated to add to it in the coming years!

Then it was back to work. First, I gathered the players, and explained to the veterans that, with the league secured, I'd be giving younger players a look in the final two matches. The loan players would see no senior action at all, though some of them might see action in the Reserves. We still had a good shot to win an odd triple crown: league title, Reserve group title, and U-18 title in the same year.

At lunchtime, I met with Jamie Cooper and his agent - they had agreed to terms, and Jamie signed through 2010.

I had similar luck in the evening's conference with Graeme Law, though he had eventually accepted a guarantee of first team football with a lower salary over an offer I had made earlier with a higher salary to play a rotational role. His extension will keep him at the club through 2009.

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Thursday, April 20th, 2006.

Jon Paul McGovern was again named to the Conference National Team of the Week after a spectacular performance on the right wing - he'd literally earned three "10" ratings in his last eight matches, and his form over the last ten looked like this: 9-7-10-7-10-6-8-8-9-10! He'd obviously found a higher gear in the absence of Tappa Whitmore, and I hoped he could continue that quality of play in the League next season.

A Reserve side starring ringers Mark Rawle, Neil Danns, Stephen Cooke, Darren Dunning, and Franklin Simek utterly overwhelmed Dorchester Reserves at Bootham Crescent, 3-0. Danns and Cooke scored while the outcome was still in doubt, and forgotten man Paul Robinson scored what everyone imagined would be his final goal at the Crescent as a late substitute. Cooke was named Man of the Match, and a Hartlepool loss at our friends Gravesend saw our Reserves move four points clear with three to play. Unluckily for him, Rawle had played his last match for the Minstermen: he'd torn his groin in the second half, and would end his season under the surgeon's knife.

Bad luck also befell 16-year-old Kevin West. A day after I'd pencilled into Saturday's starting lineup, he damaged his foot in training. It wasn't a bad injury per se, but enough that it would prevent him from starting either of the final two matches. I offered him my condolences, but he took it hard, knowing it was giving a valuable chance to impress to his rivals at the fullback positions.

There were a few players who were clearly not part of my long-term plans. With the arrival of left backs Adam Eckersley and Joe Keenan, Scottish left back Paul Parkin had gone from being the most-started outfield player on the side to being superflous to my needs.

He blanched when I told him he'd been placed on the transfer list: he looked absolutely gut-shot.

He's a professional though, he recovered his composure enough to give me a cynical laugh, and quipped "Its a rough business, inn't, gaffer?"

With Jamie Cooper locked up for the long term, central defender Darren Hollingsworth's continued failure to develop had left him expendable in my eyes. He'd have been no better than fifth or sixth on the depth chart at his position, and I decided to solicit offers for him as well.

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Saturday, 22nd April, 2006. Conference National - Match 41, vs Carlisle.

It must have been particularly galling to second-placed Carlisle to sit through the pre-game ceremonies, as we unveiled the "Conference 2005-06 Champions" pennant and placed it alongside the similar banner, which read "Division Three 1984-85 Champions". More, they had to know we were fielding an inexperienced side, far below our normal strength. I hadn't exactly gone with a youth side, but my rule was "must be part of my long-term plans."

The lineup bears some introduction. 17-year-old goalkeeper Kevin Butler had been the Reserve starter, and would probably be the first team's backup keeper next year. At left back, Adam Eckersley supplanted the transfer-listed Parkin. Promising 17-year-old Jamie Cooper would make his league debut at centre-back, partnered with Michael Staley. Another debutante was at right back, where West's injury promoted Steve Hall into the lineup. Alan Navarro was one of the few veterans in the lineup: I expected to start at defensive midfielder next year, and he needed more time to adjust to the system, so he got the start.

Stellar youngster Adam Corbett started on left wing, while Kevin Donovan had recovered just enough to make one final honorary start at Bootham Crescent. I expected him to announce his retirement after the match, so I gave him the captain's armband - but was prepared to sub him off after as little as 20 minutes. Ryan Ashington was recovered from his stitches, and would start alongside speedster Daryl Peters, who had led the Reserves in scoring. 21-year-old Levent Yalcin got the start at striker, as he was the only front-man under contract for next season.

Carlisle came out in the defensive 5-3-2 they'd used all season, while with such a young squad I gave orders to be very cautious as well. Most of the first half gave neither side anything to be excited about, and the loudest cheers were for Navarro, who demonstrated what a hard tackler he was with a crunching tackle in the 8th minute. His hit left Carlisle's leading scorer Elvis Hammond unable to continue, and the rest of the visiting side seemed unable to adapt an offense that had clearly been built around him.

It was characteristic of the roughness of the encounter, a typical lower-league dogfight. At half-time I brought on star Jon Paul McGovern for Donovan and switched to a more forward-searching patient buildup approach. Still, the second half looked to be more of the same. Navarro came close with a blistering effort from the top of the arc in the 53rd minute, but Kieren Westwood made the save for Carlisle.

Promising winger Adam Corbett was injured by Paul Arnison in the 58th minute, a tackle which left the youngster clutching at his hamstring and writhing in pain. The crowd jeered for a card, thinking it retaliation for Hammond's injury, but none was given. I moved Daryl Peters over to left wing, and brought Joe Foote on for Corbett to play attacking midfield.

In the 73rd minute, I made my final change, bringing on Neil Mellor for Yalcin, violating my 'long-term plan' concept, but honestly we only have two healthy strikers, and Yalcin had taken quite a beating from the crunching Carlisle defense. In the 80th minute, Navarro curled one narrowly over the bar, again proving adept at shooting from the arc, but with that miss the match seemed headed for a scoreless draw.

In the 88th minute, we had a throw-in deep down the right sideline. Debut right back Steve Hall took it, throwing to the double-covered Foote, who made a neat move, foot atop the ball to drag it out of the challenge. The two defenders collided with each other as he spun away, and his back-pass was perfectly out in front of Hall. With his first touch, the 18-year-old launched a curling cross into the box, where the speedy Peters had eluded his marker by cutting away from goal. Perhaps 12 yards out, he tried to control the ball with his chest, but was unable to really do so. Instead, the ball glanced off of his biceps and went straight into the net at the far post! Carlisle players were screaming for a hand ball, but it had looked clean to referee Brian Parry, and that fluke goal would officially open Peters's tally.

Carlisle sent players forward, but I was shouting at my lads to 'park the bus', and time was running out. In injury time, Ryan Ashington tracked back to steal it from Lee Andrews as he worked up the right wing. Ashington played it back to new left back Adam Eckersley, who launched a tremendous 50-yard ball over everybody. Keith Lowe misjudged a header, and the ball was past him to Neil Mellor, who broke the remaining thirty yards into the area. He launched an outstanding strike from 17 yards out that could have beaten half the keepers in the Premier League, and Westwood had no chance to stop it.

York 2, Carlisle 0

Peters 88, Mellor 90; ----

MoM: Lumsdon (Carlisle AMC)

The youngsters celebrated as though the win had meant something, and I had to admire their enthusiasm. They'd treated Carlisle's defense as a tactical puzzle to be broken down systematically, and had proceeded to do just that.

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Wednesday, 26th April, 2006.

The news about young Adam Corbett was devastating. He'd torn his hamstring, and phyio Jeff Miller was recommending surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation. I brought in Viv Busby for a consultation, and he pointed out that it was likely to cause recurring problems. Reinjuring it might be worse, and would certainly stunt the growth the youngster had been making. He also reminded me that Corbett is just sixteen - he should recover from surgery faster than some older players would.

My mind was made up; it was then a matter of convincing Corbett and his parents that this was the right decision. Finally, after two or three days of dickering, the lad made his mind up, and convinced his father. The decision taken, the youngster would undergo surgery as soon as the swelling subsided. Miller cautioned he would be out six months or more; at least part of that is the summer break.

I bid farewell to fellow American Franklin Simek. His loan expired, he returned to Arsenal. He'd been brought in for three months to provide depth at defense in the final stages of the league, and he'd done just that.

Franklin Simek, DC, 21: January 2006-April 2006: 1 season, 6 games, 0 goals, 7.17

On Tuesday, we arranged a transfer with non-Conference side Radcliffe Borough to purchase Paul Parkin for £14,000 at the season's end. They were re-investing the moneys they'd earned from a run up to the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round this year, aiming to earn promotion from the UniBond Premier League into the Conference North. After our experiences, I could thoroughly appreciate an FA Cup run being instrumental to a team's financial well-being!

The next day, a deal taking Darren Hollingsworth to tiny Leek Town for £4,000 was completed. The trivial fee represented a major percentage of their transfer budget - but then again, I'd started the season with a budget of £160. Like the Parkin transfer, it would be completed in June.

Wednesday night, the "York Ringers" won a Reserve match again, this time beating Scunthorpe Reserves 3-1. Paul Robinson scored his fifth of the season, starting as a striker for the first time, then "the Scum" were reduced to 10 men. Neil Danns and Neil Mellor quickly made it 3-0, and a late goal for pride was all Scunthorpe could muster in reply. With results going their way in the other two matches, that left our Reserves six points to the good with two matches remaining.

All of England, of course, was rooted to the telly Wednesday night, for the first leg of the Champions League Semi-Finals.

In London, Arsenal conceded an away goal to Internazionale's Obafemi Martins and lost 0-1, leaving the Gunners a nearly impossible return in Milan. The pain of injury was added to the defeat, as Patrick Vieira was ruled out for the remainder of the season, which could spell trouble as the Gunners remain in a tight battle with Chelsea for the Premiership title. They've a five-point margin with three matches to play, but Manchester United looming next.

For Chelsea, the score was the same, an 0-1 defeat on a goal by Bastian Schwinsteiger in Munich. They, at least, had the luxury of a home match at Stamford Bridge for the second leg against Bayern München.

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Saturday, 29th April, 2006. Conference National - Match 42, at Dorchester.

For the final game of the league schedule, I started a lineup as close to what I would start next season as I could arrange. Kevin Butler was in goal, with Adam Eckersley, Liam Fontaine, Jamie Cooper, and Graeme Law across the back. Alan Navarro was the defensive midfielder, making the 100th league appearance of his career, with John McGrath and Jon Paul McGovern the wingers. Ryan Ashington and Joe Foote partnered in the attacking roles, with Levent Yalcin the striker.

We had the first chance, in the 7th minute, when Levent Yalcin broke into the area one-on-one with Dorchester keeper Craig Bradhsaw, but the goalie made a fine save. In the tenth, Kevin Butler made a diving stop at the other end to parry Juan Urgate's 18-yard strike, and Dorchester began a period of ever-increasing pressure, keeping it in our area for what felt like ten solid minutes. It came to a head when Liam Fontaine upended Urgate about two yards from the 18 yard line, and well wide of goal. Butler expected Justin Keeler to send over a cross, but instead the veteran winger curled it over the wall to the near post, a beautiful free kick that gave the hosts a 0-1 lead.

Ryan Ashington nearly got a reply two minutes later, as Joe Foote's great pass put him free in the area, merely 12 yards out, but Bradshaw knocked it away. In the 23rd, John McGrath sent a long pass upfield, which Ashington was able to run on to clear of the defense, but again Bradshaw came up with a fine save, this time from 8 yards as Ashington tried to hit it to the near post. At a 31st minute corner, Butler did well to tip Danny Barrett's header over the bar, and as we came in to halftime, I felt we were being outplayed.

I don't usually give rousing team talks, but this time I opted to express sadness. "You're not playing like Champions," I told them. "And frankly, I'm disappointed in you." I left it to them to sort out from there, although I did change us to the 'attacking' style tactically, pushing the backs and wings forward. I don't know what else was said by the players to each other, but where the first half had been Dorchester's, we came out a new team in the second. Jon Paul McGovern sparked the attack, playing a great ball to find Yalcin splitting the defenders. With time and space, the Turk wasn't going to be denied a second time, and he slotted it past Bradshaw from 17 yards the moment the keeper made a move to come off his line. That equalized things at 1-1.

The breakthrough seemed to embolden the lads, and now they were playing with real fire. In the 61st minute, Adam Eckersley played a long ball up the left wing for McGrath. The Irishman took it to the corner, but instead of trying the predictable cross, he cut it back to Ashington trailing the play. Ashington blistered a 20-yard strike, which Bradshaw knocked away, but the rebound fell directly to McGovern on the other side. From 12 yards away, he seemed certain to score, but put the shot high and wide.

In the 74th minute, Dorchester came forward, but Butler read the play well to cut out a dangerous cross in the box, one where many keepers might have stayed on their line with disastrous consequences. Not a minute later, Jamie Cooper knocked a long header up the park to Levent Yalcin, who turned around Kirk Miller and was suddenly clear of the defense. He launched this one home from 18 yards for his second of the match. He was putting on a real show, relishing the starting role, and we were up 2-1.

I told the lads to fall back and play defensively, but they were having none of it: they were still riled up from halftime. Graeme Law, wearing the captain's armband, came forward to take a throw-in in the 83rd minute. McGovern played it back to him, and Law sent a sizzling cross in from 40 yards out. Neil Danns, on as a substitute, made a perfectly timed diving header to meet the screaming pass, and from 8 yards out with that kind of velocity, there was nothing at all Bradshaw could do: 3-1.

The lads were just having fun now, and less than two minutes later Eckersley picked up a ball in his own area. He spotted Danns free in the middle of the park, and sent a long pass perfectly on target to him. Danns played a quick continuation to late substitute Neil Mellor, who broke free of the last defender. He put the capstone to his York season by drilling it into the net from 16 yards out, and what had appeared a struggle had turned into a complete rout at 4-1.

Dorchester 1, York 4

Keeler 19; Yalcin 53, 76, Danns 82, Mellor 84

MoM: McGovern

It was a fine way to finish out the season, and gave me a very good feeling to carry through the summer into our first League season. Jon Paul McGovern was once again selected Man of the Match, though how one could choose between about nine players who had distinguished themselves on the day I'm not entirely certain; I would have taken Graeme Law or two-goal hero Levent Yalcin myself.

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