Saturday 21 April 2012, Genix Healthcare Stadium
GARFORTH TOWN 2-1 SKELMERSDALE UNITED
Play-off race goes to the wire but the Miners make it after stern Skelmersdale test.
Congratualtions to my local team, Garforth Town, for making it into the Evo-Stik first division north play-offs after seeing off some fierce competition from Skelmersdale. It’s taken a remarkable run of form from the turn of the year to get them into the top five, but they’re there after securing their 14th home league win of the season – a season that has also seen them score over 100 goals in all competitions.
But the victory this afternoon was far from straight forward. Having started the day in the last play-off place, the visitors arrived just a place and two points behind, knowing that a win for them would push them into the top five at the expense of Garforth. And just to complicate things further, a third team – Lancaster City – could jump above them both if the game ended in a draw and they saw off Warrington Town by four clear goals.
I don’t profess myself to be the biggest Garforth fan but I do live just around the corner from the ground, so I’ve been down to the gloriously named Genix Healthcare Stadium a few times over the past couple of years to cheer on my local team. They’ve had mixed success when I’ve been in attendance in the past; earlier this season I saw them beat Harrogate Railway 5-1 and Bamber Bridge 3-1, while I’ve also seen them lose to Frickley Athletic in an FA Cup second qualifying round match.
Garforth’s objective was to avoid defeat, but they made the worst possible start when they went 1-0 down to an excellent early goal by the visitors. The stadium announcer got the identity of the scorer wrong and made his correction at half time.
A bumper crowd of 381 had come out to support the Miners – this is far above the typical sort of crowd I’ve been a part of in the past. While it would be unfair to say that it’s usually just one man and his dog, I’ve been to games where they’ve struggled to get over 100. But the numbers were boosted by what seemed like a sizeable away following from Skelmersdale – who had brought some claxons with them to add to the end-of-season atmosphere.
Of course, with both teams having a chance to make the play-offs there was a lot at stake. Garforth played a patient game, even if the home crowd didn’t appreciate it at times, and their measured approach paid off after half an hour when they equalised through one of their more easily identifiable players in Paul Walker – a striker whose hold-up play, excellent close control and quick feet have made him stand out in the past. He converted a cut-back from the by-line by Garforth’s left back, although the visiting players and fans were convinced the ball had gone out of play.
Garforth’s keeper made a crucial save on the stroke of half time – and with the game finely poised at 1-1 going into the break, it was the Miners who were on course to make the play-offs.
Early into the second half news had filtered through that Lancaster were 3-1 up in their game against Warrington. Just as the fans began to work out the mathematics of the situation they were helped by Garforth taking the lead. A through-ball found the pacy Adam Priestley racing in from the right and he slotted under the keeper as the two almost met on the edge of the area.
At one end Skelmersdale thought they had equalised but for another excellent save from the Garforth stopper, and from the corner the home side broke and should have doubled their lead but Priestley’s shot was cleared off the line after it had beaten the keeper. It was end-to-end stuff, but as time started to drain away so did Skelmersdale’s discipline.
One of their strikers threw his shirt into the crowd in anger after being subbed off, and a few minutes later they were down to ten men. Frustrated at not winning a penalty, the Skelmersdale left back made a late challenge and then pushed a Garforth player in the face as they squared up. He was shown a straight red and the home fans looked to relax.
But then news filtered through that Lancaster had clawed back the goal difference, which meant a Skelmersdale equaliser woud ruin the day for Garforth and allow Lancaster into the play-offs via the back door. The invention of the Evo-Stik app couldn’t have come at a better time, as it made me wonder how days with these complex scenarios would have played out amongst the supporters when scores from other non league grounds weren’t so readily available.
It contributed to a nervy ending for Garforth, although they twice came close to making it 3-1 on the counter when substitute David Brown hit the outside of the post and then shot straight at the keeper when in a good position.
After playing a couple of extra minutes on top of the five injury minutes signalled by the officials, the referee blew the full time whistle and the Garforth players and fans celebrated their achievement of making the play-offs. At the start of February, following a third successive league defeat, the idea of finishing in the top five wouldn’t have been considered, but a 12-game unbeaten run to end the season – of which ten were won – has meant that they’ve just extended their 2011/12 campaign by at least another couple of games.
They will face Curzon Ashton in the play-off semi final, and they’ll have their work cut out – Curzon haven’t lost at home all season. But with goals aplenty in the Garforth team (95 in the league) and the form team of the division, it wouldn’t be the first time the team that storms into the play-offs beats the team that’s feeling a bit sore about accruing 95 points and still missing out on automatic promotion.