Thursday, 8 May 2014

2013-14 - Season review

SO A SEASON that started up at South Shields (well Peterlee to be precise) in August with a goal conceded inside the opening two minutes, was concluded at Norton in April with a goal scored with less than two minutes remaining. Here, we look back at what happened in-between.

PRE-SEASON - Before a ball had even been kicked, manager Peter Mulcaster hosted a question-and-answer night where he stated that his aim for the season was to equal or better last season's sixth place finish. With a smaller budget to work with and with a new squad to build could he achieve that ambition?

Mulcaster also announced that his assistant for the season would be Academy and Juniors secretary, Steve Cooke. Eyebrows were raised.

Pre-season saw many comings and goings, with much of the previous year's squad departing for pastures new. The pick of the early arrivals was former Darlington RA skipper Dale Elgie and much-travelled striker Jamie Clarke. Meanwhile, Darren Kokes, Danny McLachlan, Jason Brazauskas, Lee Newby and Paul Johnson also arrived.

The pre-season campaign saw a serious of tough games against sides from a higher level (and Nunthorpe). Striker Graham Caygill was promoted from the Academy side and scored five times in six pre-season games, including two at FA Vase winners Spennymoor. Unfortunately Town lost 8-2.

The highlight of the pre-season campaign however was the 2-1 win at Bishop Auckland which included a great free kick from Brazauskas.

AUGUST - Elgie and Clarke were both missing for the opening day trip to relegated South Shields (or Peterlee to be precise), as was Mulcaster himself, so Cooke took control. After going 2-0 down early in the second half, Town fought back with first Northern League goals from that boyband strike force of Caygill and McLachlan to grab a 2-2 draw.

The opening home match was a midweek visit of Tow Law Town and saw the debut of Clarke, who wasted little time in opening his account in the 4-2 victory. Grant Hickman, Colin Anderson and an own goal from Gary Anderson completed the scoring.

The FA Cup campaign began with Whitehaven the visitors to the Calvert. A dreadful start saw Town go 2-0 down inside the opening15 minutes but Hickman was on target again before the break while Kokes then equalised with his first goal for the club early in the second half. However two late goals, both blamed on young goalkeeper Dean Hudson, saw Whitehaven triumph 4-2 and it was another early cup exit for Town.

Mulcaster was back in the dug-out for the midweek trip to Alnwick in what turned out to be an eventful game. Goalkeeper Alex Kell was re-signed from Darlington RA and was back between the sticks for a match Town dominated for long spells but were unable to score. Then, after Anderson had been harshly sent off, the hosts won it with a late wonder-goal from Tony Brown.

But that was Town's last defeat for four matches. Esh Winning were brushed aside 6-0 at the Calvert in Elgie's full debut, where two goals each from Clarke and McLachlan were added to by Hickman and Kokes. Meanwhile, Kell saved a second half penalty.

August Bank Holiday Monday saw a 2-1 win at local rivals Darlington RA. Former Town player Steve Butterworth gave the RA an early lead but a penalty from Clarke and a strike from McLachlan gave Town the points in what was an exciting match.

Esh were then beaten 5-1 away in Anderson's last appearance before his three match suspension. He marked the occasion with two fine goals. Brazauskas, who had been impressing on the left wing, opened his account, as did former Crook Town defender Sean Davies. Kokes also scored against his old club.

SEPTEMBER - The midweek match with Stokesley attracted a crowd of 155 but Town were rather fortunate to escape with a 2-2 draw. Clarke put Mulcaster's side ahead deep into the second half but Stokesley deservedly turned it around with two late goals from Reece Kelly. However, Caygill stepped off the bench to equalise in the last minute.

Next up was the FA Vase and a tie at newly-promoted Willington. In case you need reminding this was the infamous match were Town led 3-0 inside half an hour with goals from Hickman, Brazauskas and Clarke, were then reduced to nine men and lost 4-3 after extra time. The less said about that one, the better.

A depleted squad then travelled to high-flying North Shields and somehow came away with a 2-2 draw against the side that would win the title, thanks to two second half goals from Clarke - the second of which was a thing of real beauty. It was just a shame the camera was not there to capture it.

A trip to bottom side Ryton & Crawcrook Albion brought a 3-0 victory thanks to a hat-trick from the returning Anderson, although it was the performance of York City loanee Chris Dickinson that really caught the eye.

A run of five home games followed, and with Town handily placed in the league, this was seen as a great opportunity to really make an impression in the promotion race. However, the first three games of that run, against Heaton Stannington, Whickham and Chester-Le-Street, brought just one point.

The early sending off of Brazauskas against Heaton for an alleged handball on the line (later proved to be incorrect by TV replays) helped the visitors to a 2-1 success - another goal from defender Hickman not quite enough this time -  while only an injury time strike from Clarke brought a 1-1 draw with Whickham. That proved to be Clarke's last involvement with the club however, as the much-travelled striker was on the move again; to Seaham Red Star. No one knew why.

Chester then left the Calvert with a 4-2 victory in what was another poor Town performance. Mulcaster was keen to play down the significance of Clarke's departure, especially as Dickinson was on target in the Chester game - along with Davies - but there was no doubt the predatory instincts of the 40-year old would be missed.

OCTOBER - Another departure was that of the maverick Brazuaskas. A great talent and a lovely lad, but the travelling was proving too much for him, being a non-driver, and he left after his one-match suspension.

But after all the doom and gloom came the light as Town put together their best run of form of the season. Brandon United were swept aside 4-0 in a classy display. Young Mikey Stevens, fresh from the Academy side, scored within 26 seconds and grabbed another before the break. Caygill, and a first Town goal for Stephen Banks sealed the win - all four goals created by the impressive Dickinson.

The 3-0 midweek victory over Seaham, Clarke and all, was arguably the best display of the season. Hickman, skipper Gav Parkin and Banks again - just like London buses, you wait two years for a Banks goal and then two come along at once - put the seal on a superb performance. This was the last match of Dickinson's loan before retuning to York. Everyone at the club wished him well.

The trip to Jarrow Roofing had started well, with Anderson putting Town ahead early on, but four Roofing goals in 20 minutes meant Kokes' late header was a mere consolation. But that 4-2 defeat was the only one in a run of six games that briefly took Town to the top of the table.

The midweek meeting with Birtley Town brought five second half goals, three of them for Town via Anderson, Kokes and McLachlan. McLachlan then scored from 40 yards in the 2-0 win over Washington - 'Everyone needed to stop panicking,' was the scorers reaction - where Kokes was also on target.

It meant a midweek win over Whitehaven would take Town to the top, although they had played several more matches than many of the teams around them. It may not have been a great display against the ten-man Cumbrians but Elgie's first goal for the club, a brace from Kokes - now top scorer with eight - and another from McLachlan, sealed a 4-2 victory and a place at the top.

But that would be about as good as it would get. As winter closed in, Town were caught cold as a 2-1 defeat at Stokesley - Christian Holliday with his first goal of the season - was quickly followed by a 3-0 reverse at a West Allotment Celtic side who would finish runners-up. Town actually played well at WAC; the match turning on a harsh penalty award early in the second half with the score at 0-0.

More new signings saw defender James Howlett and striker Freddie Huscroft both arrive from Darlington RA, but they would have contrasting fortunes at the club. Indeed, Huscroft was off again before even managing to find the back of the net.

NOVEMBER - Following the WAC defeat, Town beat Thornaby 3-2 at the Calvert in a rain storm of Biblical proportions, thanks to goals from Anderson, Holliday and Kokes, before the visit of Redcar Athletic in the North Riding Senior Cup.

With a trip to Middlesbrough awaiting the winners, this was a tie Mulcaster really wanted to win but his team put in a poor showing and lost 3-2, despite a rare effort from Danny Shoulder and an own goal.

The re-match was Willington was next, and in front of big and vocal crowd at the Calvert of 159, six goals were shared. Goalkeeper Kell was at fault for two of the Willington efforts and did not play for the club again. Strikes from Anderson and Parkin saw Town lead 2-1 at the break, but after Kell's howlers it needed a last gasp Kokes goal to rescue a point.

The Ernest Armstrong Cup has brought Town a lot of success in recent years, lifting the trophy in 2012 and finishing runners-up a year later, and this season's campaign began at a freezing South Shields (or Peterlee to be precise). Academy goalkeeper Jordan Aspinall and defender Mark Hemingway both made their debuts, while striker Ritchie Playforth, who had starred against Town for Redcar, scored in the 6-2 win. It would be his only appearance for the club. Hickman, Elgie, Anderson and two in six minutes from substitute Dan Baxter, another making his debut, sealed a quarter final meeting with Jarrow Roofing.

With confidence restored, Town produced a good display at Seaham Red Star - Anderson's 12th goal of the season bringing a 1-1 draw from a real end-to-end encounter.

It was back to cup action next with another midweek trip to WAC in the League Challenge Cup. A depleted squad lost 5-3 but a comeback from 5-1 down suggested better things lay ahead. Banks, Caygill and McLachlan were all on target on another freezing cold night by the North Sea.

Norton and Stockton Ancients were the next visitors to the Calvert and first half goals from Anderson and Caygill brought a 2-1 success, in the first match filmed with the new video equipment bought with the help of money raised from the club's fans. Anderson was the lucky one to be selected to do the first on-camera interview. The girls swooned.

DECEMBER - After a heavy schedule of 29 matches in just 17 weeks, Town had a week off when the match at Tow Law Town was postponed. Despite temperatures in double figures all over the North-East, Tow Law and its micro-climate, was frozen.

The following week's meeting with Alnwick would be the last for another three weeks as winter really set in. New goalkeeper James Howarth made his debut but ended up in hospital with concussion as Town lost 4-1 - a penalty from Shoulder the only highlight.

JANUARY - The New Year brought more new arrivals. Striker Chris Burton and winger Ritchie Dacombe made their debuts at Whickham - Burton marking it with a goal, along with Elgie, in a 2-0 win. But Town would play just once in the next six-and-a-half weeks as the wet weather took its toll.

The only match in that spell was the Ernest Armstrong Cup quarter final at Jarrow Roofing on a bog of a pitch. Another goal from Elgie was not enough as Town's bid for a third consecutive final ended with an unfortunate 2-1 defeat to the eventual winners of the competition.

FEBRUARY - Mulcaster's side was not in action again until mid-February and it could not have been a tougher return - leaders North Shields were the visitors. Town had no regular goalkeeper, a problem that would not be solved for a couple of weeks, so Hickman wore the gloves and was man of the match in the 3-1 defeat. Howlett opened his account with a goal of the season contender, while defender Craig Perry made his debut.

Chester-Le-Street completed the double over Town three days later in another eventful game. Both sides had a man sent off - Holwett rather harshly - stand-in Town goalkeeper Mike Colman saved a penalty, and after Anderson had given Town the lead from the penalty spot, a hat-trick from Damian Stevens and a goal from Tony Healer gave Chester a second 4-2 victory. Kokes grabbed a late Town consolation. This match marked the final appearance for the club of Banks, who was moving away to live in Shrewsbury. (Someone has to).

With promotion now looking less and less likely, attention turned to Mulcaster pre-season prediction of a top six finish. A trip to Birtley, who began the night just below Town, was therefore crucial. Caygill showed his recent improvement with two goals, the first of which was a great solo effort, while Anderson sealed a 3-1 victory. Steven Hubery, on loan from Hordon, made his debut in goal, while the returning Martin Butterworth also featured after re-signing from Darlington RA.

MARCH - Caygill was at it again as a wonderful chip brought a 1-0 win at Brandon, although that would to prove his last goal for the club as he left for a professional career in the Philippines a few weeks later.

No one was relishing a midweek trip to Whitehaven but it brought a hard-fought 0-0 draw, thanks, in no small part, to a man of the match performance from another new goalkeeper; Steve Walker on loan from Richmond Town.

Title-chasing Jarrow Roofing were the visitors the following weekend and it saw another new goalkeeper; Ryan Hodgson, who had signed from Stokesley earlier in the week. Michael Gunnell, another promoted from the Academy side, made his debut on the left wing and a late goal from Elgie looked to have earned Town all three points. But a spectacular equaliser from Liam McBryde saw Roofing seal a 1-1 draw.

But Town's good run was brought to an end with a late collapse in midweek at Tow Law Town. A great goal from Burton midway through the second half gave Town the lead but three goals conceded in the final 15 minutes saw a 3-1 defeat. And it wasn't even that cold. For a change.

A second consecutive defeat followed at a windy Washington (or Sunderland Nissan to be precise). Town were 2-0 down inside ten minutes and never recovered. A disallowed goal from Butterworth the only highlight of the 3-0 reverse.

The last thing Town needed now was a visit from high-flying West Allotment Celtic, but Mulcaster  had once again raided the Darlington RA piggy bank to bolster his squad as the Ramsbottom brothers - Andy and Aaron - both returned to the Calvert. Aaron marked his second debut with a great late free kick but it could not prevent a 3-1 defeat.

Anderson's return from injury coincided with a return to winning ways at Thornaby. Holliday was forced to play in goal in the absence of Hodgson but Elgie took the plaudits with another two goals to seal a much-needed 2-1 victory in the early spring sunshine.

APRIL - A second successive victory was achieved as bottom side Ryton and Crawcrook Albion were the visitors. But while two goals from Anderson sealed a 2-1 success, Mulcaster described it as the worst performance of the season. No one was arguing.

The performance the following weekend away at Heaton Stannington was better but the result was not; a late header from McLachlan only enough to bring a 2-1 defeat.

With just four matches left, Town needed to win at least three of them to guarantee that sixth place finish. South Shields arrived in midweek and were swept aside 4-0 as the new strike force of Anderson and Holliday scored twice each. It was the best team performance for quite some time.

A third meeting with Willington followed, but whereas the previous two had brought 13 goals and three red cards, this was a sterile encounter. However Town left with the points as goals either side of the break from McLachlan, his 10th of an impressive first season in the Northern League, and Aaron Ramsbottom, sealed a comfortable 2-0 victory.

The final home match of the season was against local rivals Darlington RA on Good Friday and marked the day when Town fans walked the 20 miles from Darlington to Northallerton, raising over £1,000 for the club. In front of the biggest league crowd at the Calvert in over 10 years - 223 - an 8th goal of the season from Hickman - the 100th scored by the club in all competitions - was only enough to bring a 1-1 draw. But with other results going their way, Town only needed a point from the final match at Norton and Stockton Ancients to fulfil Mulcaster's pre-season target of a sixth place finish.

But the season ended in disappointment. Despite the hosts being reduced to ten men early in the second half, a goal from Anderson, his 20th of the season, came too late to pull back a two goal deficit and Norton finished sixth instead.

So that was the 2013-14 season. To sum it up in one word - frustrating. Too many points were dropped in matches that should have been won. Too many decisions went against the team. Apart from the goals of Anderson, no one else was able to score consistently enough, particularly from midfield where only Elgie was a regular scorer.

Over the course of the season, Mulcaster used 44 different players, 10 of which made two or less appearances. Here is a summary.

APPEARANCES (subs in brackets) GOALS (bold)

Parkin 45 2
Hickman 42(1) 8
Kokes 36(6) 11
McLachlan 34(12) 10
Anderson 34(3) 20(1p)
Elgie 34(1) 7
Porritt 33(3)
Banks 29 3
Kell 22
Howlett 21 1
Caygill 17(12) 8
Hemingway 15(4)
Stevens 13(11) 2
Brazauskas 13(1) 2
Shoulder 13 2(1p)
Butterworth 12
Davies 11(1) 2
Clarke 10 9
Hodgson 10
Holliday 9(10) 4
Ramsbottom (An) 8
Perry 7(3)
Burton 6(5) 2
Dickinson 6 1
Dacombe 5(1)
Gunnell 5(1)
Ramsbottom (Aa) 5(1) 2
Smurthwaite 4(4)
Aspinall 4
Huscroft 3(2)
Hudson 3
Howarth 3
Swankie 3
Colman 2(12)
Hubery 2
Newby 2
Johnson 2
Atkinson 1(1)
Cooke 1
Playforth 1 1
Toman 1
Walker 1
Baxter (1) 2
Lee (1)
Own Goals 2

*Special mention should go to Mike Colman, who was an unused substitute on 27 occasions, many of them away from home.