The Collieries were in unchartered territory have reached the 5th round (last 16) of the Buildbase FA Vase. After seeing off Northern League big guns Shildon in the previous round, the Colls faced their fourth consecutive tough road trip, this time Lincolnshire the destination with Cleethorpes Town the hosts.
At this stage in the competition there were never going to be any easy games, however a game against the Owls on their own turf was possibly one of the hardest. The hosts were 10 points clear of the NCEL top flight, then again Clegg’s lads were joint top of the NWCFL Premier Division, this told us it was going to be another ridiculously close game.
In reflection, it was a game of two halves. The first belonged to the Colls, 2-1 up going into the interval, the second to Town, winning the game 3-2 thanks to a last minute winner.
The people of Atheron came out in their hundreds to watch the black and whites, they could only watch on as the Owls knocked a shot wide in the opening seconds.
The atmosphere created was electric, and the 150+ that made the journey east couldn’t quite believe it when the Collieries took the lead just three minutes into the game. A Gaz Peet free kick was curled directly into the middle of the danger zone for Mark Battersby to flick the ball into the back of the net with a dinked header. Goalkeeper Liam Higton could do nothing to prevent the Colls supporters from going into delirium.
Not used to being on the wrong end of a score line, Cleethorpes threw everything they had at Atherton. On 15 minutes Adam Reid was forced into a good save to ensure the Collieries stayed in front. Liam Davis was allowed to release a low and hard effort inside of the left quadrant of the area. Reid was alert to it and dived down to prevent a Cleethorpes reply.
Minutes later and a Colls one-two resulted in winger Mark Truffas picking up a loose ball on the edge of Town’s box. The skilful winger collected and curled just wide of the right post after good defensive pressure from the hosts. It was end to end entertainment.
In the last round, Reid played a key role in ensuring Atherton progressed in this national competition. Everyone remembers his first minute scoop from Michael Rae’s goal bound effort. Well, on 23 minutes the stopper was called upon to make a just as important save from a Marc Cooper volley. 25 yards from goal, Cooper let fly, the ball was destined for the top right hand corner. Reid had other ideas however; he stretched and managed to claw the ball away for a corner. A save described as ‘unbelievable’ by many in the ground.
Truffas and Battersby both had good chances to increase the lead but the efforts both narrowly sailed over the crossbar, however Colls were building up a head of steam and on 41 minutes doubled the lead. Peet picked up the ball and zig zagged his way into the box before unleashing an unstoppable shot past Highton. A wonderful solo goal. The Crazy Gang behind the goal were in rapture.
Unfortunately, once the dust settled Cleethorpes clawed a goal back. With half time looming the Collieries were caught off guard. A regulation cross came in and following a defensive mix up it somehow reached a surprised Davis to add the finishing touch from close range. From genuinely coasting the Colls left the pitch with their heads down while the hosts were reinvigorated.
The second half was going to naturally be a very long 45 minutes, Cleethorpes were galvanised and the momentum was definitely going their way.
However it was Colls who had the first real attempt. Vinny Bailey played the ball out wide to Battersby who returned the compliment. Unfortunately Bailey scooped his 10 yard effort over the bar.
Five minutes later, Town got their equaliser. The excellent Davis again caused problems for the Atherton back four as he drilled in a cross and a Colls defender miscued an attempted clearance into his own goal.
Sandwiched in between this and a Jake Kenny clearance off the line, Bailey had a second opportunity to get his name on the scoresheet. From the edge of the area, the midfielder’s low and hard shot was saved well by Highton.
This was a fast paced game, the ball was moved around quickly, and tackles flew in from both sides, a literal midfield battle unfolded. Neither side wanted to lose this game, so when Brad Cooke broke through a tight Town defence on 62 minutes the Owls feared the worst. Just yards out, with only the keeper to beat, he gut wrenchingly saw his effort cannon off the crossbar.
Cleethorpes began to edge the 50/50s, and it looked like this would make the difference. With nine minutes left on the clock they broke through on the left side. Cooper was one-on-one with Reid when he released his shot. Luckily for Atherton, the ball tickled literally millimetres wide of the post. Like Cooke he should have scored.
Despite the very best of efforts of Clegg’s men, Cleethorpes took the lead in stoppage time. Extra time seemed an inevitability, but the Colls were unable to clear an Owls corner, defender Matty Coleman scrambled the ball home to break Colls hearts.
Atherton tried their hardest to save the game and from a corner Danny Lafferty’s near post header tantalisingly drifted wide of the post with Colls fans already celebrating.
Fair play to Cleethorpes on their victory. To come back from two goals down against a top team has to be applauded. Colls had chances to win the game and could have been out of sight by half time but weren’t and we all know football is a cruel, cruel game.
Numb with shock and pain, it took a while for the 90 minutes to sink in. Then the realisation what the club had achieved in this epic Vase cup campaign came. It had been a meandering journey around the North of England with evocative tales to tell along with the odd tear of joy and pain. Ultimately, it ended in Grimsby, not Wembley but everyone at the club, from the management to the supporters, can be proud to have reached the last 16 in a competition in which 500 plus teams initially dreamed of glory on Saturday 21 May 2017.
Atherton Collieries bowed out of the FA Vase on the same day the FA Cup 4th Round was played. Rotations are en vogue in the so called greatest Cup competition in the world, but this was not the case in this FA Vase match up. Working lads playing for the love of the game and daring to dream of a day with destiny. Non-league football hasn’t lost its soul!