Football is a fantastic game. There are few things in life that match that feeling of jubilation when the referee blows his whistle and the result has gone your way. But, and this is a big but, it can also be incredibly cruel. This balancing act was something Atherton Collieries were aware of before, during and after Saturday's dramatic 3-3 draw away at Stalybridge Celtic. A result, ultimately, that saw the black and white stripes retain their Northern Premier League status.
Ahead of proceedings, Atherton knew exactly what they had to do. Avoid defeat and they would stay up. Should Nantwich not win against Radcliffe, even a defeat against Stalybridge could not send the Colls down – it would if Nantwich did pick up three points, though.
Colls couldn't have made a better start, taking the lead in just the second minute of the game. Ben Hardcastle chased down a clearance from the keeper - routine pressure, right? Wrong. The 120+ Atherton faithful couldn't believe their eyes as the ball bounced off Hardcastle and flew into the back of the net. The midfielder's first league notch since rejoining the Club and a goal that symbolises what this team is about - never give in, never give up. First blood Colls, safe so far.
It was a first half, however, in which Atherton never really got going. Cooke himself shared his frustrations about this in his post-match interview. Joel Amado had a chance to double the advantage but his free header at the far post sailed tamely wide.
Djavan Pedro was a threat all afternoon. The forward was relentless, causing all kinds of confusion with his fancy footwork - skill and creativity deserving of the two goals he scored in the 30th and 32nd minutes. Both goals were of a similar nature - the tricky forward latched on to two through balls and slipped past the advancing Chapman. 2-1 to the hosts, but with Radcliffe beating Nantwich the Colls were still safe.
This turned out to be a wakeup call for the Colls. Danny Lafferty got a touch at the near post but the front bounced wide. As the game meandered towards the half -time refuel Marcus Cusani crossed to Hardcastle who controlled, only to be sliced down by a Stalybridge defense. Shouts for a penalty on the pitch, behind the goal, from the dugout, in the stand, in the bar… seemingly everywhere. Whistle blown, spot pointed to - penalty.
Gaz Peet made history last week as he clocked up 400 appearances in a Colls shirt. Some achievement. The wing-back made history again as he converted the penalty seconds before half time to send the two teams in level. Another landmark moment for the living club legend - his 50th goal.
15 minutes rest bite. And breathe.
The second period saw a midfield battle for the most part. This was a game that both sides wanted to win, it was not end of season snooze fest.
News spread that down the M6 the tide had turned. Nantwich had overturned their 1-0 deficit and were now beating Radcliffe 2-1. The Colls were still safe with the score 2-2 but there was an air of nervousness spreading as Celtic started to edge it.
73 minutes on the clock. Stalybridge take the lead. Frankie Sinfield headed home at the far post from an inswinging cross. A blow, a big blow. For this first time this season, the Colls had slipped into the relegation zone.
Cooke has built a team that play for the badge. There is something innately infectious about Atherton Collieries. Why? I'm not sure. But Marcus Cusani's equaliser on 78 minutes goes a long way to providing an answer.
A goal seemingly from nowhere, Cusani has worked tirelessly all season and this goal was credit to that. Winning the ball on half way, our lad Marcus carried to 45 yards from goal, spotted the keeper out of position and launched an outrageous shot at goal. The net rippled, the ball settled, all in Colls colours went wild. Had Cusani kept the Colls up?
With Nantwich still winning, it was a nervy end to the game. This point would be enough to secure Atherton's place in the Northern Premier League. Bailey Thompson and Jesse Ebosele were introduced to the game and they added an extra bite. Perhaps a Celtic defender should've seen red for chopping down Thompson who was through on goal. Definitely maybe!
All eyes were on the referee as the game ticked into the 98th minute. Whistle blown. Safety secured in the most dramatic of fashion.
Cooke and his team had done it again. We are Northern Premier League. We are proud to be so and, after yesterday's showing, we deserve to be so. Many teams in our position might have buckled, especially going behind twice. The Colls boys didn't, they stood up and fought for every ball.
Safety secured. So what now? Well, just a small matter of a Lancashire Trophy Cup final against Southport on Wednesday night. After a string of semi-final flings, the Colls first outing in the conclusion of the competition. All roads lead to LFA HQ, the County Ground.
One last time this season… FOLLOW COLLS AWAY!
Mackenzie Chapman, Clive Smith, Gareth Peet, Joel Amado, Danny Lafferty (C), Scott Sephton, Ben Hardcastle, Jack Lenehan, Marcus Cusani, Cesaire Lingouba (Jesse Ebosele 78’), Jay Fitzmartin (Bailey Thompson 70’)
Sub not used - Adam Haw
Colls Mon of the Matched Presented by Follow Colls Away - Marcus Cusani (Sponsored by District Garage Ltd)
Report - Zach Pierce and Emil Anderson