Bobby Mimms reports
March, it was once said, was designed by God so that those who don’t drink can know what a hangover feels like, so this game, in that case, was a curer – nothing particularly special but enough to take the edge off all the crappiness about. It was Convocation’s 947th (or something like that) visit of the season to Ramblers-by-the-Aldi, their planned fixture against Flint Town having been called off due to the Welsh team’s cup commitments, and in fairness the replacement tie wasn’t much cop: the home side seldom seemed arsed yet still could have (should have?) won, whilst their guests spluttered along in second gear for most of the match and couldn’t have complained had they lost, but ultimately did end up victorious.
For Convocation there was a whiff of getting the old band back together on Saturday, with a number of long-absent faces making their first appearances in a while and referred to as “Convo Legends” by Andy McLaren; as the club’s Senior Shield game in Speke had been called off (again) there were also a handful of First Teamers available at Moor Lane for the Captain to pick from. Decked out in orange his charges began with “The offside Andy Willis” and Craig Kaye up front, and a midfield quartet of Iacopo Carnacina, Ian Poole, Richy Houston and Jamie Long, left to right. The big changes were at the back of the line-up, where the Father Larry Duff of Convocation, Tim Jago, made his inaugural Second Team appearance of the season, at right back, and Keith Purcell started in goal, an equally lengthy amount of time having passed since he last pulled on his boots; Liam Byatt (left back), Dave Bastow and Ben Prince made up the remainder of the defence.
Talk after the match, in between mouthfuls of sausage and beans, had concerned (amongst other things) whether the Convocation Treasury should get involved in the mortgage industry, but earlier on it had taken less than a minute of the game before the Seconds attempted to release some equity from their performance. The home side had got proceedings underway but quickly lost possession, and after two or three quick dinks of the ball around the Ramblers half of the pitch the ball ended up with Poole who smashed a shot against his opponents’ crossbar from the edge of the penalty area, and though Willis was first to react to the rebound he was (not for the last time that afternoon) offside.
That was the closest Convocation would get to scoring in the first period, and though the Ramblers ‘keeper made a couple of necessary blocks during that time – albeit ones he would have expected to make – on the whole the visitors’ finishing was fairly rotten. Pretty much every one of the front seven (Mike Kent replaced Willis up front midway through the half) had some sort of ‘shot’ that was more troubling to the clubhouse or the vehicles in the car park than the actual goal, although by far the worst culprit was Houston, who kept trying his luck from range and even had the cheek to pretend in the immediate aftermath of some of them that they were misplaced passes.
In general Ramblers were a bit meh, but they did create a number of good chances to score during the first half, although all of them ended either equally as off target as those of their guests or thwarted by the resurrected Purcell. It only took about three or four minutes for the first shot to have to be retrieved from the tennis court thicket behind the Convocation goal (one ball would be lost forever in the undergrowth later on in the game) and not much longer than that before the ‘keeper was called into action: a punt into the box by one of the home side’s midfielders was battled for by Bastow and another chap in quarters and eventually, from a tight-ish angle, the latter fired off a low rocket towards the back post that Purcell got down to his right with unexpected agility to push away towards the corner flag, from where the danger was cleared.
The #1’s gymnastics wasn’t finished there: about ten minutes later another chipped pass into the Convo box (along the right as they would have looked at it) was contested by one of the home side and Prince, but when the former of those managed to blast a rising shot goalward from ten-or-so yards out, and despite it coming from the direction of the sun glaring across the pitch (the shade from the trees appeared to have been reduced – had some been cut down?), Purcell threw up an arm of oak and batted the ball over his crossbar for a corner that came to nothing. Not long after that he stuck another two fingers up at his critics when Byatt was given the slip down the left and the Ramblers player who ran on into the area struck a rasping effort towards the nearest post, but it was turned out for another flag kick by the advancing ‘keeper’s upper limb.
Despite those chances for the hosts Convocation’s back line didn’t really have that much defending to do throughout the match, as theirs was the better side – not greatly, but the better side nonetheless – and most of it was played in the other two-thirds of the pitch. It was a very blustery afternoon (which made any ball over head height difficult to predict – it had also poured down in the morning making an already bobbly surface quite tacky) and the visitors’ greater possession in the first half could be somewhat attributed to having the wind behind them, although even after the break when the meteorological tables were turned Ramblers struggled to pose much threat.
The sides were equally guilty of poor ball retention though, and there can’t have been many times during the match when more than three or four successful passes between team mates were accomplished. By far the worst offenders were the denizens of the two midfields and due to the ever changing possession in their third of the pitch niggly but not nasty fouls began to litter proceedings, although the liberal referee seemed determined to play advantage as often as possible. Carnacina had a steady but quiet afternoon out on the left, but the same couldn’t be said for Long on the other wing as he terrorised the Ramblers back line all game and was a regular source of enticing crosses into the box that Kaye in particular appeared to appreciate. However, despite the intriguing interaction between the pair the score at half time remained nil-nil.
As you might expect under the circumstances there was a choice of oranges at the interval – Aldi and Waitrose? – but there was also an understanding amongst the Convocation ranks that the game was definitely there to be won. McLaren made his bow at the restart in a straight swap with Jago (seeing as how they are so similar), while Willis returned on the left wing in place of Carnacina. Somewhat annoyingly, the wind also appeared to have got up even more during the break, just as Convo were about to start playing into it.
The opening ten minutes-or-so of the second period were largely uneventful and played in the middle third of the pitch, the one exception being when the hosts had two opportunities to score in immediate succession but failed with both: one of their forwards slipped through the Convo rearguard along his inside-right channel and from a narrowing angle blasted a shot on target, but Purcell made another great save, low at his left-hand post; the rebound, however, returned to the same johnny and with the #1 grounded and out of the equation the goal was at his mercy, yet his follow-up effort was cleared of the line by Bastow, who had done excellently to get back and cover. The missed chances were only a temporary frustration for the Ramblers man though, as not long after that he picked up possession in the heart of the visitors’ half, took a couple of touches, and then let rip with a thunderbolt from about thirty yards out that no ‘keeper would have stopped. 1-0.
That was pretty much all the home side had in them; apart from a couple of corners and several long-distance efforts that were all way off-target they never got near their guests’ goal again. Despite falling behind Convocation were playing well enough and were still the better side (although their habit of ‘sending up the little men’ whenever they won quadrant kicks of their own while the giants in the side dropped deep and defended was counterproductive and a little perplexing), and Long continued to have a field day along the right flank – he had seemingly boundless energy that his blue-and-gold shirted opponents (and especially their left back) just couldn’t cope with, and at times his passing was so smooth the word should be spelt with several ‘o’s.
When the visitors equalised though, about five minutes after falling behind, it was an ugly affair. They won a corner that when delivered resulted in an almighty stramash breaking out in the Ramblers goalmouth, with half those in orange having stabbed shots and half those in quarters making desperate blocks (Jago described it as “Rorke’s Drift”) before a chance eventually fell to Willis at what had been the back post, and though his initial blast was saved at very close range by the opposition #1 the ball rebounded back to him – “right into me cock” – and he was able to give it the one revolution it needed to cross the line.
As the midpoint of the second period neared Convocation had a great chance to take the lead when a lovely defence-splitting pass from out left sent Poole through on goal, his legs a blur like Road Runner’s as he streaked away, although his eventual scuffed effort from a few yards inside the penalty area was wide of the target and brought shame on his family. He made amends shortly after that though, when it was his turn to be provider: once again he was played clear of the Ramblers back line, but as he entered their box (along the inside-left channel) his shooting angle rapidly became impractical so he squared the ball into the path of Willis, running in from the opposite direction, and despite being manhandled by an opponent he forced the thing into the back of the net from a gnat’s wing further out than for his first notch. There was an offside appeal from the hosts but the referee wasn’t interested.
By then the scorer was playing up front again as Kaye had been hooked for Carnacina (who went onto the wing) and the grizzled Jago had returned in a straight swap with McLaren, their goalkeeper pointing out during the change that you never see them both on the pitch at the same time; the Captain agreed: “We’re the Janet and Michael Jackson of Convo” he joked, although he never clarified who was whom. That second substitution meant that there was also plenty of Tim-on-Tim action for the remainder of the tie (for those interested in that sort of thing) as Convocation’s Scot lined-up directly opposite the home side’s Crutchley, but otherwise Ramblers’ reaction to falling behind was… well, not to react at all. Their #1 made a couple of decent blocks from players in orange in the time that was left but in general the game had started to fizzle out the moment the visitors took the lead.
The final ten minutes were all about going through the motions and not an awful lot happened, although there were concerns for the referee at one point when he was asked how long was left and replied in the manner of Len Goodman: “Seven!” Purcell probably had the ball more than anyone else in the closing stages, as Ramblers had several over-ambitious shots from distance that all ended up behind the goal (where a beagle on a long lead pegged to the ground wandered about, possibly looking for a fag) and the ‘keeper managed to waste an awful lot of time retrieving them; rumours that he then retired immediately after the final whistle, as he could never again hope to play as well as he had on Saturday, remain unfounded.
Despite the game being nothing to write home about it was nonetheless enjoyable, in no short part due to none of the Convo Angry Brigade being on parade – isn’t it funny how not being moaned/shouted/fumed at stops experiences being crap? As previously mentioned though, it wasn’t much of a spectacle and few will recall it at all, never mind fondly, in years to come, March hangovers or otherwise. But a win’s a win’s a win, and it was nice to get the old band back together for a couple of hours, even if it was only to help pay off their Convo mortgages.
Man Of The Match: “Let no man leave the field feeling he did not do his utmost” growled McLaren before kick-off (it might have been implied), and he got his wish as nobody played poorly, although in fairness nobody had to sparkle either to overcome their fairly flat hosts. Bastow deserves a mention for a clinical and intelligent performance at the back, while Purcell was also impressive in goal and made a number of necessary saves to keep his side in the game when Ramblers were actually making an effort. Willis insisted afterwards that it must be him – it’s an opinion – neglecting to acknowledge that his brace was netted from a combined distance of about six inches, but the award goes to Long who ran tirelessly all game, passed with precision, was a constant pain to the home side’s back line, and was only denied the goal he deserved by a fine save.
Convocation (4-4-2): Purcell; Byatt, Bastow, Prince, Jago; Carnacina, Poole I, Houston, Long J; Willis, Kaye; Subs: Kent, McLaren