Following a monumental week of cancellations, postponements and suspensions to major events across the world, only a selection of football games were due to take place in the UK because of the recently confirmed coronavirus pandemic.
All of these matches were in the non-league system, as professional divisions protected their staff, players and fans from being exposed to the disease at large-scale gatherings.
But with the threat of all non-league and grassroots football to follow the same decision as the EFL and Premier League in suspending their seasons until at least April, I took the girlfriend and my mate, Alex, to see a match up the road before the beautiful game shut down indefinitely.
Midland Football League Premier Division side Haughmond were the hosts at Shrewsbury Sports Village and they were taking on Nottinghamshire-based outfit Newark Flowserve.
Back in nature
Winter can often be a difficult time for me but it’s been particularly tiresome over the past couple of months.
Normally I would get a break abroad in warmer climates but uncertainty around Brexit, and then the coronavirus, stopped any travel plans. Even just getting away somewhere in the UK proved a challenge when storms hit almost every weekend in February.
It felt liberating, then, to finally take a walk through the nature path en route to Shrewsbury Sports Village. The air was mild and there were many active birds and squirrels along the way – while, at the ground, Haughmond Hill provided a nice, scenic backdrop.
Plenty of controversy
Wearing orange shirts that featured a neat silhouette of a skyline, Newark gave a debut to their new player-coach Francois Zoko. The former EFL striker still looked a pro at the age of 36 – battling hard, holding the ball up magnificently and starting off a number of Flowserve moves. Haughmond, meanwhile, enjoyed a lot of possession themselves but neither team were able to create any chances.
That quickly changed on the half-hour mark when Sam Agar was shown a straight red card. The Newark forward had only just re-signed for the Highwaymen the day before the game but was taking the long walk of shame back to the Sports Village after his tackle was deemed too dangerous by the referee – the first of a few contested decisions by the man in the middle.
Flowserve’s strong away following weren’t happy but they were the ones smiling at the break after Lewis Brownhill put them 1-0 ahead with the last kick of the half. Danny Meadows then made it 2-0 to the visitors at the start of the second period when he burst into the box and slammed the ball into the bottom corner.
Despite their numerical advantage, Haughmond looked cagey and finally looked to attack with more intent after conceding the second goal. Scott Ryan cut the deficit to 2-1 but Brownhill grabbed a brace soon after when he tapped in from Mond goalkeeper Sam Jones’ spill. Jones was adamant that he’d been fouled but the referee dismissed his claims.
When Haughmond substitute Christian Oldham scored in the 90th minute, Mond looked like they’d left it too late to mount a comeback. However, the referee seemed to give the home side every chance of finding a third goal by letting the game continue deep into added-time.
We didn’t know if he was punishing Newark for some time-wasting earlier in the half or just wanted to extend his final match before the inevitable coronavirus break but the Flowserve contingent were furious and one of their coaches received a booking for his protests – which only extended the match further.
Newark goalie Alfie Smith-Eccles stayed alert, though, snuffing out any danger until the ref belatedly blew his final whistle at five minutes past five.
Away fan takeover
As eluded to earlier, there was a strong number of Flowserve fans at the Sports Village and they really began to rub things in when their team went 3-1 up. One fan in particular began to ask the linesman for a wave every five minutes before loudly recommending his favourite British films to the gang around him (Dead Man’s Shoes was his big tip-off).
His actions were possibly another factor in why the referee continued to let Haughmond press for so long at the end. He did poke fun at the linesman a bit too often but ‘lino’ – as he was called – took it well and they had a photo together on the pitch at full-time.
My friend, Alex – who used to support Arsenal until he became bored with top-level football – said he would definitely attend another grassroots game. For a fiver each, we got goals, controversy and all the outrageous, explicit content from the players’ and managers’ mouths. Plus, we saw some quality skill from Zoko and Haughmond’s broad defensive midfielder Carl Rogers – who could launch throw-ins like Rory Delap in his prime.
The facilities at the Sports Village were also pretty good. The adjacent indoor cafe is great for half-time refreshments and warmth, while there are lots of seats in the ground – although these could do with a wipe down.
Obviously, it was a strange time to watch a football game so I’d like to thank all the officials, staff, players and fans for coming out and making our day memorable. I hope everyone stays safe in the next few weeks and we can look forward to games like this being part of everyday life again.
Newark Flowserve 3
Midland Football League
Ground rating: 5/10