AS STALYBRIDGE CELTIC fans made their way up Mottram Road last night, there was one question on their lips: ‘Can we really stay up?’
Celtic’s form over the previous 3 games – taking 7 points from 9 – suggested they had a fighting chance of avoiding relegation from the National League North, which is more than many expected they’d have heading into Easter weekend.
And the prospect of seeing Stalybridge maintain their unlikely survival mission against a Kidderminster side still chasing the title was enough to lure me to my first game at Bower Fold for a few years.
I’ve been there a handful of times before and they’ve always been a friendly, hospitable bunch. Unfortunately I had to disappoint the man on the door again. Sorry mate, I am still not The Stig.
In case you didn’t know, when Top Gear’s mystery driver was finally unmasked it so happened that he’s my namesake. And by that I don’t mean we share the same surname, a mistake many football commentators annoyingly make. No, I mean he’s a proper namesake. I once even received a cheque that was meant for him, but I didn’t cash it of course (or did I?)
A couple of weeks ago it probably looked like the other Ben Collins had been racing across the Bower Fold pitch, which is why Bridge had so many games in hand. They even played a home game at rock-bottom Altrincham. And although the pitch is no longer waterlogged, there’s a fair bit of sand on it and the players struggled with the bobbly surface even during the warm-up.
Given the state of the Gigg Lane pitch, Bury coach Chris Brass will sympathise. He and Alty chairman Grahame Rowley were also at last night’s game, along with a decent following from Worcestershire for a Tuesday night. But then the Harriers also have plenty to play for.
Their pursuit of AFC Fylde looked futile until Stalybridge went and beat the league leaders on Saturday. That meant that if Kiddy beat Celtic they’d go just 3 points off Fylde with 4 games left. The title race would be very much back on.
And they shot out of the blocks, with Dan Nti turning a cross wide. Captain Keith Lowe then headed over from a corner while Nti blazed over. It was one-way traffic. Kiddy looked a side going for the title and Celtic one destined for the drop, so at the time you felt foolish for believing Bridge could pull off another upset.
But with captain Matty Hughes barking orders at his team-mates, the hosts gradually got a foothold in the game, with on-loan Oxford United striker James Roberts slicing a shot wide from outside the box and Danny Pilkington scuffing a shot goalwards which had to be hacked clear.
Roberts blazed over again from distance while Jordan Tunnicliffe headed wide from a Kiddy corner, before visiting keeper Sam Hornby fluffed a clearance, bringing the biggest cheer of the first half from the Bridge fans. Wary of an even more costly gaffe moments later, the baby-faced Hornby took the wise option of retreating all the way to his goal-line and letting an Adam Mather volley bounce about 10 yards out before coming out to collect it.
And it was Mather who went closest to breaking the deadlock before the break, with the Celtic midfielder unleashing a low strike from the left channel which fizzed just wide. So it wasn’t going to be one-way traffic after all, and, as many Bridge fans muttered during the interval, they certainly would have taken 0-0 at half-time.
I ventured into the club shop and convinced myself not to part with £15 for one of last season’s luminous green away shirts before popping into the bar, where Stockport County boss Jim Gannon was more than happy to pose for a picture with a young Leroy Sane lookalike. With 7th-placed County 5 points behind 2nd-placed Kiddy, Gannon probably won’t be expecting to catch the Harriers but I’m sure he would have hoped Bridge could dent their confidence before County potentially face Kiddy in the play-offs.
And Celtic soon set about getting their noses in front after the break. Hughes’ header was easy for Hornby although the Kiddy keeper made a hash of another clearance, leading to chants of ‘dodgy keeper’. The pitch was doing him no favours but, to be fair to the 22-year-old Burton loanee, he made sure he wasn’t caught out by any more bobbles.
Bridge kept the pressure on, with Roberts seeing a shot deflected wide before the corner was cleared as far as Mather, whose shot stung the palms of Hornby. Kiddy replied with two corners in quick succession, the second resulting in a big penalty shout.
But Bridge full-back Danny Wisdom, who scored in the last two games, earned a free-kick on the left wing on 62 minutes. Celtic packed the box before Pilkington whipped it in. Hughes stretched to get a foot to it and although he couldn’t connect, the ball kept going and sneaked inside Hornby’s far post.
Cue pandemonium in the Joe Jackson Stand. Bridge fans roared with delight while one club official ran past, punched the air and let out a yelp of joy (you know who you are 😉 ) But who could blame them?!
Just 2 weeks ago Celtic looked dead and buried. After losing to AFC Telford they were 15 points from safety with 9 games left. Yet only a late equaliser denied Bridge victory at FC United before they beat Alfreton and Fylde. Now Pilkington’s free-kick had put them on the brink of moving 5 points from safety with 5 games left.
Celtic fans weren’t taking anything for granted just yet though. The joy at taking the lead gave way to jitters. Manny Sonupe replaced Nti on 68 minutes and caused some nervy moments down Kiddy’s left wing. Grant Shenton then had to save a Sonupe header before Ryan Croasdale sent a teasing ball across the Bridge box.
The hosts threatened on the break as Kieran Dunbar blazed over before Roberts and Andy Bishop hit ambitious volleys off target. Shenton then had to rush out to bundle the ball away from Andre Brown and although Sonupe turned the loose ball goalwards, Hughes hacked it clear. And in the 4 minutes of stoppage time, Shenton tipped over a Brown shot, which despite Kiddy’s early pressure, was the first time the Celtic keeper was really tested.
The final whistle blew, Bridge had chalked up another crucial win and you could sense an immediate change amongst the Bridge faithful. Before they doubted the team could avoid following Alty into the Evo-Stik Premier, there was hope rather than expectation. Now there’s genuine belief.
And why not after beating both of the top two in the space of 4 days? It’s one thing having games in hand, it’s another actually winning them. But Celtic are now doing just that and they’re on a roll.
The players and fans applauded each other, and for the first time I heard the fans sing the ‘it’s a grand old team’ song. Let’s be honest, Bridge haven’t given their supporters much cause to sing it in recent years, so it was a welcome sight seeing manager Steve Burr wearing a broad smile as he adopted the role of conductor. If he can mastermind a Great Escape then it really will be party time.
There’s now a double-header over Easter weekend and if Chorley beat 4th-bottom Worcester on Good Friday, a Celtic win away to mid-table Gloucester on Saturday would put their fate in their own hands as they have a game in hand. So if any Bridge fans are still asking ‘Can we really stay up?’ then the answer’s yes, you better believe it!