AS Wednesday night’s game headed towards an inevitable conclusion, something flickered in the corner of my eye.
It was a flag behind the goal on the John Askey Terrace which read ‘Against All Odds’. Those three words have become a motto for MACCLESFIELD TOWN, a club that has made a habit of punching above their weight given the limited resources, budget and fanbase they have.
That phrase featured on the do-rag – not a bandana – worn by former defender Efe Sodje, who scored the club’s first Football League goal in 1997. It was against all odds that the Silkmen went on to secure back-to-back promotions to reach the third tier in 1998.
And, after slipping out of the Football League in 2012, it would be against all odds if they win promotion back there this year, especially after Wednesday night’s result.
Barrow were the visitors for a rearranged National League clash and with both sides pushing for a play-off place, it was set to be a hard-fought contest at the Moss Rose, although the Silkmen went into it with high hopes.
Askey has been Macc manager since 2013, leading them to a top-10 finish in the last two seasons. Known simply as ‘Sir John’ by many fans, he was part of that promotion-winning team and played over 700 games between 1984 and 2003. No wonder they named a terrace after him! And he’s challenged the current vintage to keep fighting on two fronts having also reached the FA Trophy quarter-finals.
The Silkmen went into the game 9th in the table after Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Torquay and despite having to sell Jack Mackreth, Paul Lewis and Danny Rowe in January, the board answered Askey’s call for reinforcements by bringing in the likes of Connor Jennings, Luke Summerfield and Andy Haworth, with the former the most exciting addition having already enjoyed a prolific loan spell there in 2013.
Having got the train to Macc, I made my way along Sunderland Street. There’s an array of pubs on the way to ground but unfortunately I didn’t have time to pop into the George & Dragon to sample their Soup of the Day which, according to the sign outside, was ‘Beer!’
As I went to find my seat in the McIlroy Stand, I smiled at the ‘Beware of Flying Footballs’ sign. And it proved to be apt as Barrow kicked off and immediately aimed for target-man Richie Bennett. That would be a recurring theme.
The Bluebirds featured former Macc and Stockport County midfielder Paul Turnbull and youngster Luke Burke at right-back having just signed on loan from Wigan. Jennings partnered Chris Holroyd up front for the Silkmen and both must have given up half a foot to Barrow’s French centre-half Moussa Diarra but, physically, they gave as good as they got and linked up well.
Jennings thought he’d released Holroyd on 17 minutes but Danny Livesey made a well-timed challenge. Danny Whitaker won it straight back and Mitch Hancox had a shot blocked before Haworth sliced the loose ball out for a throw. Hancox and Kingsley James were also showing plenty of energy and industry in centre-midfield and Jennings headed wide after Hancox clipped a ball into the Barrow box.
The Cumbrians replied by whipping in a couple of dangerous crosses, one of which saw Bennett poke a hopeful effort wide, before winning a throw deep in the Macc half. The ball looped towards me and without leaving my seat or even unfolding my arms, I sidefooted it straight back to the full-back with a cushioned left-foot volley. “Good touch lad,” said a bloke behind me. What can I say? You never lose it! Bennett showed similar dexterity to nudge the resulting throw-in back to Alex-Ray Harvey, who gave Macc their only scare of the first half as he drilled a 20-yard strike just wide.
On 29 minutes, Akil Wright was rightly booked for deliberate handball and home fans were calling for a second yellow barely a minute later as he caught Andy Halls late. The Barrow forward only got a ticking off from ref Joseph Johnson but the locals were beginning to get frustrated with the officials. One of the more polite spectators offered the linesman some helpful feedback on his first-half performance: “You’re missing a lot of stuff liner!” Someone else immediately gave a more blunt assessment: “You’re s**t liner!”
Macc continued to play some decent football, with a low Hancox cross cut out by Burke, while Whitaker tested keeper Jonathan Flatt and Haworth should have done better from a James lay-off. And Barrow only antagonised the locals further when they refused to give the ball back after Macc played it out so that a hobbling Halls could be replaced by John McCombe.
Generally they must be a well-behaved bunch at Macc, though, as they have a permanent programme stall inside the McIlroy Stand which I had to explore at half-time, and I treated myself to some second-hand books on two subjects that are so diverse yet so similar too – Diego Maradona and ex-Oldham and Man City winger Mark Ward.
I headed back out for the second half with a spring in my step, as did Macc as James’ cut-back was cleared before Hancox won the ball straight back and crossed for Holroyd. The local lad should have hit it first time with his right foot but controlled it with his left then hit a tame shot too close to Flatt.
Jennings headed inches wide from a Haworth corner before exchanging passes with Whitaker and crossing for Haworth, whose back-post header was easy for Flatt. Even the Macc defenders were at it as Neill Byrne, who moved to right-back after Halls went off, played a one-two with Jennings only to see his cut-back cleared.
Wright didn’t heed his warning though, and neither did Barrow. I’m surprised they didn’t take him off as a precaution and his late lunge on left-back David Fitzpatrick saw him sent off after a second booking on the hour mark.
Managers always tell us how difficult it is to play against 10 men. It’s even more difficult when the 10 men then take the lead 6 minutes later, just as the visitors did.
Burke latched onto a ball into the box but miscued his first touch, onto Holroyd’s arm. It looked ball to hand but the ref deemed it deliberate and Bennett sidefooted the penalty beyond the reach of Scott Flinders.
Barrow fans chanted “we only need 10 men”. And, predictably, 9 of them spent most of the closing stages camped in or around their own box. Just as predictable was time-wasting. While Barrow wore their all-red away kit, keeper Flatt wore a green shirt and shorts with, for some reason, some orange socks, so whenever he was killing the clock some home fans not only berated him for that but for his bizarre footwear. Who’d have thought a random pair of orange socks would be so provocative?!
Summerfield replaced Haworth with 18 minutes left and his energy helped lift Macc a little, with Flatt gathering Hancox’s low cross at the second attempt before Holroyd had a goal disallowed for offside. A James cross then deflected into the side-netting, with McCombe heading straight at Flatt from the corner.
Burke was treated for cramp and, quite rightly after the first half, Macc didn’t give the ball back, but this is where the game drifted to that inevitable ending I spoke of. With Barrow sitting so deep and protecting their lead, Macc could no longer pass it through or round them so too often resorted to diagonal balls and the Bluebirds repelled virtually every ball that went into their box.
Hancox fired wide after more desperate defending and Macc sub McCombe was subbed himself on 88 minutes, sacrificed for the attacking threat of Rhys Browne. Summerfield then hit a 20-yard effort straight at Flatt but despite 5 minutes of stoppage time, Barrow went closest through Bennett on the break.
Losing the game 1-0 was bad enough but that really would have taken the biscuit. As Askey noted afterwards, Macc had dominated throughout. He said: “The only thing I can criticise the players for is not putting the ball in the net. Apart from that you can’t ask for any more. We’re struggling to hit the back of the net, and all we can do is keep working, keep creating the chances and eventually they’ll go in. You come away really frustrated after games like that, and I bet they can’t believe it.”
Barrow’s smash and grab sent them into the final play-off spot but Macc are only 6 points adrift with 16 games left so there is plenty of time to reel them in. The Silkmen are at home again this Saturday and although they host a Braintree side in 16th place, the Essex outfit have taken 10 points from the last 12. While Macc remain 9th, it means they have plenty of rivals in the play-off hunt so they’ll have to do it the hard way.
But isn’t that the only way they know? Doing it against all odds.
“We’ve got to pick ourselves up,” Askey added. “If we keep on playing like that then we’ve still got a chance.” It would be foolish to write them off just yet.