Best be beelieving

The game: Barnet v. Gateshead.
The ground: The Hive.
The conditions: highly nebulous, much like the future of the Conference title at kick off.

It was five o’ clock on Saturday afternoon, and I had just arrived at The Hive for the biggest game in Barnet’s recent history and the last of the regular Conference season. While the Bees were about to face the mid-table ‘Tynesiders’ of Gateshead knowing that a win would guarantee them the league title, close rivals Bristol Rovers – only a point behind the league leaders – were readying to pounce on any slip by Martin Allen’s men in their own fixture against Alfreton Town. The stakes couldn’t have been any higher.

With a capacity, ground record 5,233 in attendance, the pre-match atmosphere was quite unprecedented. Flags and banners abounded, the stands lurched with fans, all four sides of the ground chanted for promotion in unison – tight at the top as it was, there was an indubitable air of belief about the place. The teams soon emerged to thunderous cheers and then – after an immaculately-observed minute’s silence on the anniversary of the Bradford City fire – a huge round of applause and appreciation shook the stadium to its foundations. The two sides formed up. The whistle screeched over the din.

Barnet certainly took confidence from the support; the home side started very much on the front foot. In fact, having had all the initial possession, they should have scored in the fifth minute; Barnet striker Michael Gash pressured Gateshead keeper Adam Bartlett into shanking a clearance straight to main man John Akinde; the Bees’ number nine raced to the by-line before squaring for Curtis Weston five yards out, but he saw his snatched effort scrambled off the line.

A minute later, Mauro Vilhete found midfielder Conor Clifford on the edge of the box; he pumped a shot over the crossbar. The lively Vilhete teed up Weston just after that, but his effort was much the same. The home supporters were crying out for their side to take an early lead when the Tynesiders quickly counterattacked in the tenth and Alex Rodman unleashed a low shot on target; Graham Stack had this well covered, yet it was a reminder that the visiting outfit might just have a sting in the tail. Barnet settled, reorganised and almost immediately had the ball in the back of the net via the boot of Andy Yiadom – unfortunately for the Bees, he had quite clearly fouled Gateshead defender James Curtis prior to stroking in.

It had been a lightning-fast start; Barnet rather sensibly calmed things down for a while after that. Bar a shot wide from Tynesider Josh Gillies, the Bees totally stifled the opposition. Playing keep ball amongst themselves, they edged closer and closer to the away area. Soon enough, they held a stranglehold on the final third.

Inevitably, this led to the opening goal. The visitors were struggling to relieve the pressure; in the twenty-fifth minute, Gateshead’s Jamie Chandler couldn’t help but foul the rampant Akinde fifteen yards out. From there, set-piece specialist Sam Togwell chipped a sweet ball over the defence. He found Vilhete completely unmarked; Barnet’s number sixteen leapt high and – momentarily suspended in flight – then nestled his close-range header in the far corner of the net.

The crowd reacted with boggle-eyed delirium. The Bees swarmed Vilhete in euphoria and relief. Nonetheless, even as ‘We’re on the pitch – if we go up!’ rang in their ears, the home players managed to regain their concentration and reorganise once more. In the thirty-second, after Akinde had held a long ball up just outside the area, Clifford smashed another shot just over the bar. Four minutes later, with Akinde again the architect, Weston took aim from twelve yards; he ballooned an effort against the woodwork. Hands on heads.

There were a couple of nervous moments just before the half, the Tynesiders spurning two passable opportunities. First, in the fortieth minute, Stack sliced a goal kick straight to Gateshead forward Kevin Sainte-Luce thirty yards out; with the Bees’ keeper off his line, Sainte-Luce couldn’t get an early shot away – he was eventually cut out by Bondz N’Gala. Then, just before the break, Sainte-Luce found Matty Pattison in space twenty yards out. Pattison sent a swerving shot at goal, but Stack redeemed his earlier mistake by saving and holding well.

The referee brought the half to an end, this the signal for 5,233 people to frantically check their phones for the Bristol Rovers score. The murmur went round. Rovers had gone in 3-0 up. Barnet absolutely had to see out the win.

Their chances of doing so were massively increased four minutes after the restart. A long kick forward from Stack was taken down by Akinde, who then skilfully won a corner on the left. Togwell fired in a perfect delivery and found Gash leaping highest; his glancing header was saved superbly, yet the rebound fell for Vilhete to smash in from a couple of yards. Pandemonium.

Gateshead should have pulled one back immediately, forward Carl Finnegan heading a cross downward at pace for what looked a certain goal; Stack made the save of the match to keep him out, stretching low to his right to palm the ball to safety. Despite the fact that the home stopper was still to charge off his line like a lunatic a couple of times before the end of play, this was a crucial intervention. Barnet were back in the groove not long afterward, Gash going close before Yiadom glanced another Togwell-delivered corner onto the underside of the bar.

The last half-an-hour was a little dicey at times, the Bees allowing Gateshead considerably more time on the ball – even if neither side was exceptionally threatening. Sainte-Luce caused the Barnet defence some problems, not least in the seventy-third minute when he dinked a pass to Chandler on the edge of the home box; he belted his header just high.

Martin Allen brought Jack Saville on for the last ten minutes, shoring up his back line with an extra man; this was a shrewd move and shut down any hopes of a Gateshead comeback. The visitors did see the Bees’ net bulge in the eighty-sixth via a volley from substitute Jon Shaw, yet the Tynesiders’ number nine had run far too early and been caught well offside. Now, as the game edged toward its close, the fans edged nearer to the pitch. A glitter cannon went off on the South Terrace. The party was almost in full swing.

The referee blew. The pitch was instantly awash with a sea of amber and black. Players were mobbed, kids were held aloft, whirling mosh pits tumbled across the luxurious turf – all in wondrous delight. Gateshead had played their part on the day, but Barnet were worthy winners of the match. More importantly, regardless of an eventual seven-nil victory for Bristol Rovers, the Bees were worthy champions of the Conference. Time to celebrate in style.

Result: Barnet 2 Gateshead 0.
My MoM: Togwell deserves high praise for his two set-piece assists, but the top accolade must of course go to Mauro Vilhete. Hero goals.
Best fans: Barnet fans. I cannot condone pitch invasions. But nice pitch invasion.

Best be beelieving

Devon knows I’m miserable now

The game: Exeter City v. Morecambe.
The ground: St James Park.
The conditions: absolutely bloody miserable.

It’s jolly tiring, this whole sport writing lark. Everyone needs a break every now and then. After months and months of lower-league football, I decided to take my leave from it all; a little staycation by the seaside was required, so I leapt on a train and adventured to the distant city of Exeter.

I made an itinerary on my way there, planning out my holiday from the beautiful game with pleasure. I could visit the grand medieval cathedral. I could enjoy a half pint of Abbott Ale in The Ship Inn, a Tudor public house with a prestigious nautical history. I could even attend a life class at the renowned Exeter University, indulging my artistic talents at only the 154th-ranked higher education facility in the world.

Inevitably, come three o’ clock on Saturday, I had done none of those things. Rather, I found myself plodding away in the pouring rain, en route to Exeter City’s St James Park for the home side’s match up with Morecambe. The football had called to me, and I had answered. Goodbye cathedral. Goodbye historical half pint. Goodbye life class.

Pushing through the turnstiles and finding myself a spot on the ‘Big Bank’ – an impressive terrace indeed – I readied myself for some mid-table League Two fare. The resident ‘Grecians’ had an outside chance of a sought-after play-off spot coming into the game, while the visiting ‘Shrimps’ would be desperate for three points after a three-match winless run; there may not have been automatic promotion or relegation at stake, yet this would still be a hard-fought fixture.

Exeter started brightly, good early play seeing midfielder Tom McCready curling a shot straight at Morecambe keeper Andreas Arestidou; not long afterwards, Grecians’ wide man Lee Holmes paced up the left flank and rocketed a low cross through the box – nobody could get a touch on it. To encouraged cries of ‘We are Ex-eter!’ the home side pressed Morecambe from all sides. In the twelfth minute, after the Shrimps’ Aaron Wildig had been dispossessed in the midfield, McCready charged up the middle of the park before lashing a shot just wide of the upright. It felt like the home pressure might soon pay off.

In the fifteenth, Exeter forward Tom Nichols won a corner; the delivery fell straight to Christian Ribeiro, but the defender could only nod his free header over the crossbar. This miss would straightaway prove costly. Having been on the back foot so far, Morecambe suddenly worked a great move and a great goal. Latching on to an accurate goal kick, Wildig charged up the left before squaring the ball for Andrew Fleming on the edge of the box; Fleming then slipped overlapping full back Aaron McGowan through, watching on as his teammate placed the ball past home keeper James Hamon. Goal.

After some slightly hot-headed celebrations in front of the home fans – the atmosphere from here on out was a wrathful one – Morecambe’s players took advantage of their surprise lead. Defender Ryan Edwards had two chances to double their advantage from set pieces, heading inches wide on both occasions. Jamie Devitt then fired narrowly over from long distance. The Grecians were living dangerously.

At the other end, the home side were now struggling to create clear-cut chances; sterile possession made little impact on the resolute Morecambe back line. In the thirty-seventh minute, the Grecians did have a penalty shout after Nichols went down under pressure from Alex Kenyon; there wasn’t much in this and referee Michael Bull waved play on, much to the rage of the St James Park faithful.

Nichols had one more shot before the break, a misplaced Shrimps’ pass giving him the opportunity to shoot low across the box – and wide. Bull then brought the first half to a close, berated off the pitch by a chorus of boos. I went off to get some wasabi peas, before coming back with an unidentifiable meat pasty.

Exeter needed to recapture their initial verve after the restart and – whatever Paul Tisdale said to them at half time – they gradually did so. In the first few minutes of the second period, Ribeiro and McCready both made snappy forays forward after classy passing – their eventual efforts were easy for Arestidou, but the home threat was evident once more. Devitt then had Morecambe’s only real chance of the half, receiving a neat pass from Fleming on the right before setting himself and firing a whisker wide of Hamon’s far post. This scare only spurred the Grecians on.

In the fifty-sixth minute, Exeter substitute Alex Nicholls made a storming run down the right before turning Morecambe’s Mark Hughes on the edge of the box and curling a sumptuous effort just over. Ten minutes later, after a long and unbroken spell encamped around the Shrimps’ area, the home side worked another good opening; Tom Nichols jinked past two defenders before smashing a low shot toward the bottom right – this was just cleared by a mass of Morecambe bodies.

In the seventieth, Exeter had another good opportunity. Nichols made yet another strong run up the left before dinking in a cross for substitute David Wheeler, who looped his glancing header a fraction too high. One further spell of pressure, and the Grecians finally had the ball in the back of the net. A tidy Holmes free kick was headed onto the bar by striker Graham Cummins; Wheeler nipped in to nod home the rebound from a couple of yards, the only problem being that he was marginally offside.

The fury on the Big Bank may now have been at a volcanic level, yet the stand was about to erupt into pure delight. At last, in the eightieth minute, Exeter equalised. Tom Nichols put the cross in. Alex Nicholls controlled it, completely unmarked. Turning on his heel, he steered his shot past the onrushing Arestidou. The net rippled. Pasty crusts rained down. Joy.

The Grecians went for the win in the last ten, Ryan Harley’s long shot from twenty yards almost skimming the bar before Nichols’ umpteenth weighted cross gave Cummins the chance to head wide. Some late Morecambe long balls challenged the home defence, but Exeter had all the possession. There was still time for late drama, the excellent Nichols receiving a straight red for an off-the-ball incident that I didn’t really see. Luckily for him, it didn’t cost the home side; a few minutes more, and things ended all square.

Exeter had played the more positive football, while Morecambe had won a shrewd point away from home; considered in isolation, there were obvious positives for both sides to take away from the match. However, for the Grecians, this draw probably signalled the end to hopes of a realistic play-off push. Time for an extended club holiday. Time to think about next season.

Result: Exeter City 1 Morecambe 1.
My MoM: Tom Nichols (Exeter City). Involved throughout, always dangerous, got an assist. Then got sent off. But still.
Best fans: the Grecians. Pasty rain!

Devon knows I’m miserable now