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When Saturday Comes #23
Written by wessex_exile on Sunday, 23rd Jan 2022 14:24

[i]When Saturday Comes[/i], and the U’s have a new management team in charge for a tough trip to Salford. Football is a results business, and sadly Hayden Mullins and his assistant Alex Dyer couldn’t deliver those results on the pitch. Yes they’ve had some tough breaks when luck and competent officials have just completely deserted them, but bottom line is we haven’t been good enough, and it was the right call by Robbie Cowling to no doubt reluctantly let them go after seven defeats in the last eight games, our solitary point a dour 0-0 at Bradford City.

[b]Club Statement[/b]

So we start again, and for now with Wayne Brown again as Interim Head Coach – let’s hope his tenure is more successful than last time. Wayne’s first decision was to bring club legend Joe Dunne and Dave Huzzey in as his assistants, and if that team can’t inject some passion and belief into the squad, I’m not sure who can. Whether they stay or not will undoubtedly be down to mostly their results, but probably also the quality and affordability of applicants whose CVs are no doubt filling Robbie’s inbox as we speak.

Given everything that has been going on at the JobServe in the last week, we could be forgiven for overlooking the wider world. If we needed a grim reminder of the harsh reality of the world at large, the conflict in Yemen between Saudi-led coalition forces and Houthi rebels continues to claim the lives of innocent people. In the latest atrocity, an air strike on a detention centre in the Houthi stronghold of Saada has left at least 70 dead and hundreds injured – the Saudi forces have denied responsibility. Keep buying those replica shirts Magpies, rockets don’t come cheap after all.

If that wasn’t bad enough, as Russia and America continue to build up their forces around Ukraine, Washington has offered to hold a summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin to try and avoid both sides being dragged into a war over the country. Whilst these shows of strength are more often than not just sabre-rattling, when Russia and America are involved, and egos at stake, the whole world needs to sit up and take notice.

At a time when we seem to need his wisdom most, influential Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has died at the age of 95. The prolific author and peace activist, “[i]passed away peacefully[/i]” at the Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam on Saturday, according to his teaching organisation Plum Village. Thich Nhat Hanh is often referred to as the father of mindfulness and spoke of the need to “[i]walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet[/i]”. I like to think that might feature in Wayne’s pre-match dressing room team talk this afternoon.

[b]U’s World[/b]
Well, leaving aside all the management shenanigans, it’s been quite a busy week for the U’s squad as well. On Wednesday it was announced that Jake Turner was heading back to Newcastle after his loan period expired. It was widely believed we would be extending his loan for the remainder of the season, and announcements from the club (and indeed tweets from Jake himself) show we were, but for whatever reason Newcastle weren’t having it and took him back. This would have been worrying indeed, were it not for the fact that Shamal George has recovered from his rib injury and is fit and raring to go – I suspect those two facts are somehow intimately related.

The day after Wayne announced Joe and Dave as his assistants, on Thursday ex-Ipswich left back Myles Kenlock signed a loan deal through to the end of the season. I say ex-Ipswich, because he’d been frozen out of the Ipswich set-up when Paul Cook took charge, and not even given a squad number. A product of the Crystal Palace youth set-up, 25 year-old Myles graduated through the influential Kinetic Academy, who over the last eight seasons have supported more than 50 players into professional football. Myles joined Ipswich in 2015, and with over 100 appearances at Championship and League One level under his belt, joins the U’s with plenty of experience. Welcome Myles, I hope your stay with the U’s is productive for both us and yourself.

In a case of in with the new, and out with the old (apologies Charlie), the U’s and 35 year-old left back Charlie Daniels mutually agreed to terminate his contract and allow him to leave the club. Charlie’s experience will definitely be missed, and he had a decent left foot on him too, but never fully established himself in the starting XI, and certainly looked to carry a few more pounds than necessary at times (though who am I to judge).

Why now rather than the end of the season is unclear. Rumours of a fall-out with the management team are circulating, and there may be something in that, but maybe he just didn’t fancy his (likely) final season playing professional football to be one of struggling to avoid relegation out of the Football League? Particularly if he knew we were just about to sign/ had signed another left back ten years younger than him? However, it’s all academic really, so good luck Charlie Daniels wherever your football career takes you next, and thanks for your efforts during your stay at the club.

[b]Stat attack[/b]
There’s not much to really report on where Salford City are concerned. As one of the most recent additions to the Football League, today will be only our sixth game against the Ammies, of which the U’s have won three of the previous five, drawn one and most recently lost one earlier this season.

Formed three years after the U’s, and surprisingly in 1940 during the Second World War, as Salford Central Mission, the club changed its name post-war in 1947 to Salford Central. During their formative years they mostly competed in minor local league football until eventually gaining promotion to the Manchester League in 1963, broadly coinciding with another name change to Salford Amateurs (hence the Ammies).

The 70s were good years for Salford, winning the Lancashire Amateur Cup in 1971, 1973 and 1975, and the Manchester Premier Cup in 1978 and 1979. On the back of this success the club joined the county-wide Cheshire County League in 1980, and were still there when it was amalgamated into the North West Counties League two years later.

In 1989 they changed their name to the present-day Salford City (for those that were wondering, yes they do have a cathedral), were eventually promoted to the Northern Premier League in 2008, and the following season narrowly avoided immediate relegation on the final day – not surprisingly referred to by supporters as the Great Escape.

Salford’s prominence finally took off in 2014 when they captured the eye of the Class of ’92 millionaires Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes (also financially backed by businessman Peter Lim and David Beckham). In rapid succession the Ammies won the NPL Division One North league in 2015, the NPL Premier Division in 2016, the National League North in 2018, finally gaining promotion to the Football League via the National League play-off final in 2019.

[b]Match of the Day
[i]Salford City v Colchester United
22nd February 2020
Sky Bet Football League Two (Tier 4)
Attendance 2,589[/i][/b]

[i]Match of the Day[/i] for WSC23, and in the circumstances I thought another special was in order, something to stir the blood and gee us up for the battle to come at the Peninsula Stadium. So what better than our first ever visit to Salford, barely two years ago in February 2020. I didn’t get a programme for this game – not for want of trying, just couldn’t find any vendors anywhere – but I do still have the ticket stub for the game, which bizarrely doesn’t include any reference at all to a date or opponent. Incidentally, and a slight digression, I was intrigued to discover during my visit earlier this month that Forest Green Rovers no longer produce matchday programmes, a move I can only assume is related to environmental sustainability?

I’ve mentioned in the past my Tranmere-supporting friends Ange and Chris, and with Salford’s promotion confirmed to the Football League, we were already hatching plans for a trip north to see them, and take in the U’s first ever visit to Salford City in the process. Fortunately the fixture list computer was kind to us, and so I found myself heading north on the train bright and early on the Saturday morning.

In relation to both where they lived, where the match was being played, and most importantly avoiding any need to head into Manchester to pick me up, I was collected by the family, kids and all, at Wigan North Western to grab some excellent Caribbean food at a place whose name unfortunately escapes me. Suitably refreshed, Ange and the kids were dropped at home, as myself and Chris headed over to the match.

Those of you who have also made the trip to the Peninsula Stadium will know it’s actually quite a long way out of Salford itself, in the leafy suburbs of Kersal. Various football ground guides warned of residents parking schemes in the general vicinity of the ground, but we didn’t have too much trouble finding street parking on the opposite side of Bury New Road, leaving a short(ish) walk along Moor Lane to the ground.

It's also worth pointing out that for much of the drive across from Wigan, and certainly for the walk to the ground, it was absolutely tipping it down, backed by a howling wind too. I’m not sure whether at any point the match might have been in question, as Salford does have a bit of a reputation for drainage problems, but nevertheless it was foul weather. Once we’d arrived, grabbed some refreshments from the away end kiosk and met up with a few known faces from the faithful, I was surprised (and Chris was amazed) quite how many had made the trip up for the match – I’m not sure if I ever saw an official figure, but it looked well over 400 to me.

Managed by John McGreal at the time, the U’s were well in the hunt for a play-off place, and although we’d lost the previous two game, prior to that we had absolutely battered then league leaders Plymouth Argyle 3-0 at the JobServe. As a result, confidence was reasonably high that we could get something from the game. Personally, given the conditions and opposition, I would have been happy with a point if I’m honest, particularly when the rain took itself up a couple of notches to monsoon level with less than 15 minutes to kick-off.

McGreal’s U’s lined up:

1….Dean Gerken
2….Ryan Jackson (18 Tom Eastman 85’)
3….Cohen Bramall
6….Omar Sowunmi
5….Luke Prosser (captain)
8….Harry Pell
24..Ben Stevenson
49..Kwame Poku
15..Callum Harriott (45 Frank Nouble 73’)
9….Luke Norris
13..Theo Robinson (14 Brandon Comley 73’)

Amazingly, with seconds before kick-off, the rain finally relented, with the wind so strong it was blowing horizontally into our faces even when stood right at the back of the covered terrace behind the goal. The U’s started in a 4-4-2, with Poku out on the right and Harriott on the left, but it was Salford who started the brighter, with James Wilson’s 25-yarder fading wide of goal with just a few minutes on the clock.

The cloudburst had left areas of the pitch so waterlogged that the ball was literally grinding to a halt at times, which didn’t help either side’s passing game that much. On the quarter-hour mark Norris had a chance from the edge of the box, latching onto a misplaced pass from O’Connor, but he rather snatched at the effort. A few minutes later, with Harriott creating all manner of problems down the left, Norris failed to connect with a peach of a pass from the wide man.

However, with the game settling down, it was definitely the U’s who were coping better with the conditions – not helped by frequent additional downpours throughout the game. Although Salford were still making a few chances, probably the best a shot just wide from Thomas-Asante after latching on to a loose ball from a Ben Stevenson block, it was the U’s who finally broke the deadlock just before the half-hour mark. Kwame Poku picked up the ball in the middle of the park, and just ran and ran at the Salford defence, who appeared determined to back off and give him the freedom of the city, allowing Poku to finish with a magnificent left foot shot past the despairing dive of ‘keeper Kyle Letheren – and regardless of the weather the away end erupted!

With the confidence from the goal, the U’s continued to harry and press Salford City. Poku curled a beautiful left-foot shot just wide of the post, and a few minutes later Cohen Bramall lofted a 25-yard free-kick just over the bar. Salford were still a good side though, and If we needed a reminder, Gerken did fantastically well to block a point-blank albeit tame shot (virtually a pass) from Wilson, after a free-kick had been headed into his path.

However, any jangling nerves were calmed less than five minutes before half-time as Bramall made excellent ground down the left, fed the ball inside to Harriott, who from the corner of the box drilled a beautiful shot into the far corner of the net, leaving Letheren no chance. We were going mental, and indeed also looking forward to a well-deserved Bovril to warm us up at half-time.

However, ever thus with the U’s, Salford provided one final twist in what had been an entertaining first half, albeit in atrocious conditions. Scott Wiseman did well getting down the U’s left, sending in a low cross from virtually the byline into the six yard box. Both U’s and Salford players seemed to fluff their chance to do anything with it, until it bobbled through to Ash Hunter for the easiest of tap-ins. Typical U’s! In fact, with slightly better finishing Thomas-Asante could have equalised virtually straight after the re-start but flashed his shot across the face of Gerken’s goal and wide.

Into the second half, and manager Graham Alexander decided to make the first change, brining on Darron Gibson for the somewhat ineffectual Michael O’Connor. After about 15 minutes of generally turgid stuff, and still with rain occasionally falling, Thomas-Asante put his claim in for the next production of Swan Lake with a beautiful dive in the box from a Prosser challenge. Referee Andy Haines was rightly having none of it, but the U’s (on and off the pitch) were furious a card wasn’t shown for simulation.

Thomas-Asante was still nevertheless causing the U’s no end of problems, and just a few minutes later Sowunmi did brilliantly to block his 6-yard box effort from another Wiseman cross. Still though the U’s held out, and as the half wore on, even though Salford now definitely looked like the side more likely to score, hopes were rising that we might just see it out for three much-needed points. With just over 20 minutes to go Alexander brought on Elliott for Wilson, and few minutes later Gerken had to be on his toes to palm away a long free-kick from Touray.

Sensing like us we had this in the bag, McGreal made a double substitution with just over 15 minutes to go, bringing on Comley and Nouble for Robinson and the rapidly tiring Harriott. Still Salford pressed, and still the U’s held firm. With less than ten minutes to go, Alexander’s last throw of the dice was to bring on striker Adam Rooney, their leading goal-scorer from the National League promotion campaign. With the clock running down, Salford’s efforts were becoming more and more desperate, typified by a speculative long-range shot from Gibson which went wide.

With five minutes to go, McGreal made his final change, bringing on workhorse Eastman for racehorse Jackson to close the stable door on any further chances falling to Salford City. It pretty much worked too, although not helped by the referee allowing an incredible 9 minutes of injury-time! However, but for a Hunter free-kick lifted well over the bar, Salford had run out of ideas, and on such a heavy pitch, probably energy too – and the U’s held on for a brilliantly dogged and determined victory.

[b]Salford City 1 (Ash Hunter 43’) Colchester United 2 (Kwame Poku 27’; Callum Harriott 41’)[/b]

Rumour had it on the terraces and the walk back to the car that co-owner Gary Neville had seen enough at half-time and been driven back to Manchester. Who cared, all we cared about was celebrating a fantastic win with an excellent night out. After dusting the cobwebs of the previous evening away with a stonking home-cooked full English for all, Chris dropped me back at Wigan for the journey home.

I’ve already featured matches from around this time, and this is just one more example of where precious points were gained to ensure that when Covid brough a premature end to the 2019/20 season just two games later, the U’s had amassed enough points for the play-offs. It’ll be too much to hope that we can achieve a similar position following this visit to the Peninsula, but I’ll be just as happy with a hard-fought draw and a 22nd place finish at the end of the season right now.

There is an extended highlights video of the match on YouTube, so sit back and enjoy ahead of the big game this afternoon – Up the U’s!

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