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  • Writer's pictureHead Scout

Missing Messi

Boston United 0-1 Banbury United (National League North)

I was at an Irish Wedding this weekend at the fabulous Cabra Castle with its picturesque grounds bordering County Cavan and County Meath. On Monday we went to Newgrange, the Irish equivalent to Stonehenge, before a few evening drinks, but not too many as we were up early Tuesday morning, scraping the ice off our Mitsubishi hire car in darkness to head back to Dublin Airport and home to the East Midlands, a busy day had me commuting to Boston later in the evening for a National League North game, the only one on in the division after many postponements following the recent winter freeze.

I’m checking Twitter but the game looks good, I’m told the covers are off at 5:30pm and the club thanks to the work of the ground staff and many volunteers are confident everything will be ok for a 7:45pm start.

I’m leaving shortly after 5pm as it’s an hour and a half journey down the A52 where there’s cars crashed in the bushes, blue flashing lights everywhere as I head towards Grantham past not one, but two incidents and issues most likely caused by the icy roads and peoples need for speed.

It’s dark and cold out but I’m toasty in the car, heated seats on full blast listening in to TalkSport as I try and update my World Cup Dream Team whilst driving. I’m missing Messi tonight as Argentina face Croatia in the semi-final, after England’s exit on Saturday night, which certainly went down well in the Hotel I was staying in, I’ve became a little disheartened and uninterested in who wins the competition, but still have invested interest at least. I’m top of my fantasy league so transfer in Argies striker Julian Alverez which I feel will be a savvy move after hearing he starts up front.

The Venue

Third time I’ve been to the Jakemans since October and I have a little routine now which I like. The drive is slow down the unlit single lanes of Lincolnshire's A roads but traffic is sparse, I finally get onto Wallace Way and pull up on a housing estate where I park up, walk over the A16 towards the modern venue fully glowing thanks to its curved floodlights, past a Starbucks and Costa which are strangely placed opposite each other, into the club carpark and straight to main reception where I grab my ticket, before walking in through the turnstile, the zapper failing to register my barcode (just like last time I was here), and going straight to the kiosk for steak pie, chips and gravy, along with a coffee, as a big TV on the wall shows the two sets of Argentina and Croatia players lining up to sing their national anthems.

The chips are amazing… None of that frozen chunky crap you get at many grounds, often tasting of cardboard only improved by a bit of cheap sauce, either piping hot to burn your mouth or left to stand often too long by young trainee part time chefs who you wouldn’t even trust making a slice of toast, but these feel fresh, thinly cut, perhaps locally grown, a little bit of skin on in parts, soaked in gravy, they’re up there for me as some of the best I’ve ever had. Maybe I’m just extra hungry tonight, but I’ve been looking forward to this all day, I’m perched underneath the stand watching the opening minutes of a World Cup semi, eating, drinking, relaxing after a tough weekend on the Guinness, time is getting on though, half hour to kick off and I need to find my seat, up in the media section of the Acorn Taxis West Stand, as I walk out towards the pitch, the playing surface is immaculate, not a tad bit frozen, I’m up ten or eleven rows where I find my chair and desk, BBC Radio Lincs behind me, the Puritans Radio guys from Banbury already on air, the teams just coming out to do their warm ups as I marvel at the new three sided venue which I’m told will be finished one day, the cost likely to be £3m to get the final stand done, which will also house a gym and sports hall behind the southernmost goal.

The Game

I get chatting to the Radio Lincs guy who I tell ‘Banbury will enjoy this pitch tonight’. My feeling is that the way they play, a good footballing side, who knock it about confidently, they’ll get an instant buzz of seeing this wide flat green surface in top nick, which sort of heads into the hands of their philosophy, Boston perhaps better on the break or when a game is played at high intensity, within minutes of the match starting as Banbury slowly pass at leisure between their back four, you can tell, it’s not going to be one of those press and break nights of full flow for the home side.

Banbury in Roy of the Rovers red, yellow trim, are patient, playing out from the back, slow sideways passes, into midfield where the pace picks up, one-twos, out wide and infield, they look so comfortable on the ball, but lost at bottom of the table Telford on Saturday, it’s typical from this sort of team, who prefers to be given time and space to strut their elegant stuff, they’ll lose when they shouldn’t, win when they shouldn’t, which means no doubt they’ll be in and around the playoffs, because they’ll certainly be competent when they face those at the top, not fearing anyone and being confident in their own identity, is what Manager Andy Whing has installed in his two very successful years at the club.

The 30 Banbury fans in attendance already acknowledging the marvellous achievements of former Oxford United full back Whing, he helped his side to promotion last season and the away fans on their first ever visit to the Jakeman’s are already singing “He’s got no hair but we don’t care”.

Boston in their yellow and black stripes, have slipped in form since my last visit. They beat Blyth comfortably after the win against Kidderminster which I watched early November, but were since knocked out of the FA Trophy by Tamworth, they were thumped at Fylde 4-1 and beaten by lowly Bradford Park Avenue before a hat-trick by Scott Pollock helped see off Leamington 3-0, beaten last time out at Spennymoor 2-1, they were supposed to play at Southport on Saturday but were told late on that their hosts pitch was unplayable, which I’m also told ‘went down well’ with the players, staff and fans who were already set to head to the North West on the day.

Four changes and a couple of new starters from that loss at Spennymoor, they look off it as they sit back and watch Banbury play, unintentionally firing miss-placed passes during the few occasions when on the ball, low press off it, returning possession to the opposition far too often, it’s a real cold evening, the sort of night which looks to me like too many players are going through the motions.

The Score

Not so Puritans skipper Giorgio Rasulo, he starts well, easy on the eye, diminutive in midfield from a central position, he’s gliding in possession, like an Italian Jayne Torvill, getting the ball and carrying it forward as the likes of Mbeka and Pearson against him, six foot somethings struggle with their footwork on the slippery surface now slowly frosting over underneath a rather daunting looking partial red moon above the distanced North Sea.

Rasulo links with left winger Alex Babos and crosses low to Jak Hickman who taps in at the back post, the first real bit of quality and the away side are one up with just fourteen minutes played.

It should be 2-0. Babos then curls from long range a right footed shot which cannons off the crossbar. Boston clearly not at the races as the away side look to put the match to bed.

At half time I chat with a local supporter who says “they can’t play any worse in the second half”. Boston’s Lebrun Mbeka is a favourite of mine, when playing centre half, but he’s in midfield today and this surface, this opposition, this type of game, it just doesn’t suit his playing style, who’s better when given basic instruction to simply 'mark tight, and clear his lines.'

Banbury have been dominant and deserving of their lead, the Radio Lincs commentator says to me “the better side are ahead” before heading off for a piss. I’m bewildered as to why Boston don’t press? “It’s freezing, the sort of night you need to run around a bit to get the blood boiling, I’ve not seen that from Boston tonight” I say to a fan.

The home team make a change and during the second half you can see a substantial difference, but it’s not until the second and third subs are made by Pilgrims boss Ian Culverhouse, do you see a real positive reaction. Sam McLintock has been trying to carve out opportunity all night, he’s knocking the ball around well but too often team-mates are not on his wavelength, becoming more and more prominent as Banbury sit back and defend on what they have, McLintock’s brilliantly found Jake Wright racing through on goal who now only needs to roll it home for a leveller, he’s tried to chip the goalkeeper and has put too much on it, a huge chance missed, Jay Williams who’s been having a battle with Wright all night has probably said something in his ear, Wright who’s known for an outburst wants to swap handbags, both end up with a booking, I feel that’s the centre half getting immediately in the strikers head, I like Williams who’s got a bit about him, not your usual dominant looking defender, but one who can light a cigar everytime he’s on the ball, he reads it well and organises those around him, as well as having the cheeky ability to piss off an opponent.

That Wright chance is a huge miss for Boston, and it’s catching as leading scorer Pollock gets into a shooting position and forgets to unleash. The coaching staff on the side-lines are in disbelief, usually so reliable inside the area, he completely scuffs his lines as every man woman and dog inside the stadium put their mortgages on the net bulging for a leveller.

Boston give it a good go, improve dramatically, but I wonder is that because Banbury retreat for much of the second period to protecting their lead and managing the game, which in the end they comfortably do. The home side are no question much better in the second half, dominating possession and territory, after a first half of receiving a football lesson themselves, but the worry now is defeat has them again looking over their shoulder, just as they were when I first came to see them play in October.

The Stars

The away side midfield duo of Rasulo and Josh Smile not for the first time impresses me this season, Rasulo follows his forward passes and looks to receive the ball, always offering an option for a one-two whilst Smile only needs one touch, often playing the way he faces, giving it simple and keeping possession for his team.

In defence Williams, as he was against Bradford Park Avenue where he scored a last minute winner in a 1-0 win, was again instrumental in his side keeping a clean sheet, Connor Roberts at right back got up and down well to link up with Jak Hickman who shown glimpses of skill and pace whilst Jack Stevens in attack put himself about a bit too.

For Boston, McLintock didn’t have his best first half, but as the game grew so did he, instrumental in the good moves that the Pilgrims make, if he’s on it, Boston are on it, and they need to play through him to have a real chance of winning more games.

Of the pair of Pollock’s on show, it was an evening where Ben, in defence, impressed me more than Scott, in attack, but the Pilgrims leading scorer will no doubt come again, he’s the sort of player you won’t notice all evening, but is one that will usually take his chance, tonight however wasn’t his night, which too often means this season, it won’t be Boston’s night either, when he’s not on the scoresheet.

The Verdict

Boston are now looking over their shoulder in sixteenth, the relegation places are just four points and five places below them, whilst Banbury now seventh, in the final playoff slot, are ten points above the Pilgrims and are already sitting in a position looking increasingly difficult for Boston to reach.

I certainly feel Banbury have the tools, can continue with their progress and make the playoffs this season, whilst Boston will do well to make the top half, too inconsistent to get a real run together, but too good to go down, they need to stabilise their team and get the best out of what they have got, because they are not a bad side at all, just lacking some stability in selection, before their fortunes can finally turn to much improved results.

As for my own fortunes, well picking Alvarez did me well, he scored two goals as Messi again displayed reason to be widely acclaimed as the best footballer to ever play the game, I instead of watching Argentina beat Croatia 3-0 in the warmth of my home, opted for sitting in minus four temperature with freezing hands, knees and toes, taking the full brunt of cold weather in a Baltic like Boston besides the sea, long johns now ordered from Amazon, next time, for Notts County v Barnet on Tuesday night, I'll be a little more prepared for the Trentside winter chill.

The Teams

Boston United: Sam Long, Joe Starbuck, Tom Platt, Lebrun Mbeka (Will Atkinson 59), Scott Pollock, Jake Wright, Ben Pollock, Sam McLintock, Jo Cummings (Keenan Ferguson 46), Shaun Pearson, Harry Lewis (Jordan Burrow 59).

Banbury United: Jack Harding, Connor Roberts, Sam Brown, Josh Smile, Jay Williams, Giorgio Rasulo, Jack Stevens (Harry Landers 73), Ben Acquaye, Jak Hickman (Callum Reilly 80), Ben Radcliffe, Alex Babos (Josh Dugmore 80).

7:45pm Kick Off. Tuesday 13th December 2022, Jakemans Stadium, Boston (att 890).

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