Tamworth 0-1 Alfreton Town (National League North)
I’ve been asked to cover a Champions League game on Tuesday night but not before I’m faced with the mammoth task of Tamworth v Alfreton in the National League North.
It’s been a good start for both teams with two wins each following opening day defeats, Tamworth promoted last season as champions from the Southern League Central Division have beaten Spennymoor and Boston following a narrow first game loss against Scunthorpe. Alfreton actually finished in the playoffs last season, they were beaten by another promoted side in South Shields on the opening day, but have since beaten Southport and Peterborough Sports to start their resurgence up the table.
It's a bright day with a bit of breeze, much better than yesterday where morning rain interrupted the cricket match I was scoring between Derbyshire and Worcestershire, I’m dog walking before cooking up a quick sausage cob for brunch, as the wife heads back from the gym at twelve, I’m shortly out the door and down the M42 towards the Staffordshire town of Tamworth.
Built in Sat Nav takes me off at Appleby Magna where I’m down the B5493 at Mercia Business Park. The road is quiet and long, straight through the fields of North Warwickshire and the villages of No Man’s Heath and Seckington.
The midlands are flat, green, pretty pastures as I dare to dream it’ll be nice to have a farmhouse here one day, not too long later though I’m midst the less scenic looking surroundings of Tamworth, past the train station and an Aldi on my left, over a few mini roundabouts and I’m onto a narrow terraced street named Kettlebrook Road where I’m looking for parking.
There’s a few spaces on the road but the gates to Tamworth Football Club have a sign up against the wall saying £2 to park with a huge wasteland of opportunity to stick my Merc way out of trouble into.
I’m asked by the steward to bang it next to a Mustang in the corner next to a few smashed glass bottles so oblige before sticking the ticket he gave me in my windscreen, I’m out the car heading for an entrance where I might find my name down on a list somewhere… The back of the ground is bland and reminds me of Nuneaton or Hednesford, it must be a Midland thing a small 90’s built stadium in sparse huge wasteland, it’s not even obvious where the turnstiles are as the back drop to the venue lacks any real signage, I’m told to go to the ticket office which is nothing more than a portacabin painted white on my left but before that, there’s a tiny door which says reception, ‘hospitality’ and ‘VIP’… I try that and I’m in luck.
“Straight through this door, turn right and walk down the back of the stand” an old boy in a tie tells me.
It doesn’t feel very ‘VIP’… I’m walking through a narrow outdoor passage in between tall sheets of metal, there’s another portacabin with a door ajar to my left, peering through the windows as I walk by it looks something like a Directors Lounge, very seedy and hidden away, finally I’m into an opening where I can see a football pitch… “Bloody Hell” I think to myself… “I forgot Tamworth played on plastic”.
The bright green 4g playing surface glistens in the sunlight, the arena internals all painted red neath blue partially cloudy skies, behind the goal to my right is open, to my left a little roofed terrace, opposite a small stand where the dugouts are situated, behind me a larger stand of seating, and more importantly the tea bar.
£2 for a round tea bag topped up with hot water, I’m told milk and sugar is on the table and to help myself, polystyrene cup in hand I take a walk behind the goal where I bump into Helen, a chirpy blonde stewardess who’s also a bouncer at the Old Stone Cross.
She’s lovely, full of conversation and knows a lot of the locals who not only frequent the football club but also her boozer on a matchday evening, she’s working 1pm to 1am today, a long shift awaits.
Leaving Helen to get on with her day job, a good hour to go until kick off, I walk back towards the Main Stand where there’s a desk at the top row next to a freelance journalist and the Tamworth FC public announcer who are already both sat down.
The guy next to me is an Albion fan, he used to work for the Tamworth Herald before taking redundancy during covid, he now writes more for the love, than the dollar, but he’s a local football enthusiast who certainly knows his stuff, he’s filing the match report for the Non-League Newspaper tomorrow, I tell him “it probably won’t be pretty”… Alfreton are big, strong, physical, ugly, a tight contested game of head it kick it is guaranteed.
The start is exactly how I expected. In the bright sunshine in front of a large and optimistic feeling crowd buoyed by back-to-back wins, Tamworth in red come out, try and play a bit, but Alfreton in yellow want to rustle their opponents feathers, they get into them, scrap like mad for every ball, go long quickly, rarely take chances in possession, looking like they're up for the fight, the home team can handle themselves too though, they have technically better players as well as a few tough boys in their team, despite this, Alfreton for me work that bit more, with a game plan to thwart. It’s a team who take delight in doing the ugly stuff and do it well they do.
Because of this, the first half is a game of few chances, a shot each from outside the box tests each keepers’ gloves, Jas Singh in the Tamworth goal largely otherwise unworked, George Willis in net for Alfreton flapping at a few crosses, uncomfortable when Jordan Cullinane-Liburd throws long into his box but otherwise he has no real efforts to save.
It’s scrappy, ugly, feisty, frantic, the home crowd are already getting on the Referees back when a huge ‘crack’ is heard off the ball in front of us… Town striker Waldock looks to have elbowed Lambs left back Callum Cockerill-Mollet to spark off some handbags and a lot of cries in the crowd of 'GBH'.. It’s only yellow for Waldock, as Cockerill-Mollet gets up and trots off ‘give him some back’ shouts one of the fans.
The two teams can’t be separated by the break and there’s a surprise when Tamworth striker Danny Creaney is subbed during half time, “they’ve handled him well” says the fella next to me, we both agree he’s hardly been in the game, well marshalled by Shaun Brisley and Kennedy Digie in the Alfreton back line.
I’m told “You were right about Alfreton” who’ve made it difficult for their hosts, “one goal will win this” I reply and that goal comes shortly into the second half.
A routine forward ball is flicked on by Ryan Taylor as Jordan Thewlis gets into the box, he slips a defender and finds time to put the keeper on his arse before placing home, it’s certainly what Alfreton have deserved as no more than twenty or so travelling fans begin to believe it could be their day.
That goal adds to the growing frustration which is filtering from the stands onto the pitch as Tamworth begin to niggle back at Alfreton, Cockerill-Mollet does dish his own out from that earlier foul, already on a booking though he collides with Perritt on the edge of the box, both are down for a while as the physios come on but when the Tamworth defender arises following treatment, he is shown a second yellow and sent off by Referee Luis Griffiths.
It’s a harsh sending but it’s been one of those games, I say “this has all played into Alfreton’s hands” and I’m impressed with how Billy Heath’s side have came, frustrated, and taken all three points back with them.
Late on there’s few chances but lots of balls into the box as Alfreton head and kick everything away with joy, Dwayne Wiley is brought on for some extra defensive cover, he even has a ding dong with team-mate Digie before apologising to fans in the stand for his use of bad language, player for player they’ve been immense and totally deserved their win.
I expected big things from Tamworth who were never allowed to get a control in midfield. They have good technical players but weren’t given time or space to perfect their stance on matters, Ben Milnes their best player in midfield on paper but most effective on plastic was Nathan Tshikuma who was one of the few who could handle the games physicality… Wingers Dempsey Arlott-John and Kyle Finn both subbed, both poor, I expected more.
In fact, home team man of the match was their barrel-chested veteran centre half Liam Dolman who in fairness hardly put a foot wrong, he was next to Jordan Cullinane-Liburd in defence who at least looked more agile and athletic if ever needed to save Dolman's bacon, he could certainly throw it far but defensively he was pretty good, another who didn’t shy from the physical battle.
For Alfreton, without their 39-year-old battering ram target of Matt Rhead up top I thought they might struggle, but turns out the elbows of Liam Waldock are just as useful in weaponry of attack. He battled well in the first half, scrapping for everything and in the second half later stages the tall and thick set Jake Day came on to much similar effect with perhaps a little more panache, besides their big number nines, wingers Jordan Thewlis, formerly of Harrogate Town and Lewis Salmon, recently signed from Nottingham Forest, both played their part to torment and frustrate. Salmon in particular, scruffy looking, socks rolled down, gutsy with a bit of technique and an eye for goal, he’ll be one I’ll keep an eye out for the remainder of this season.
But despite my liking for Town's wide men it wasn’t a day for the forwards to be taking all the plaudits, outshone by the defences who were largely on top, not to forget the workmen-like midfielders that sat in front of the Alfreton back four. George Cantrill and Adam Lund grafted hard to put their bodies on the line, but Ken Digie and Shaun Brisley at centre half both exceptional, experienced, enjoying it with a smile on their grimacing faces and on point whenever needed most. When asked by the journalist for the Non-League Newspaper who 'he' should pick as man of the match, I said a toss up between those two, I’ll be interested to see who he went for in the end.
Alfreton do what Alfreton do, they do it well, it might be ugly, it might not get opposition fans enthralled, it might not be easy on the eye for the purists and neutrals, but it gets results, and they’ll get plenty more scalps this season by playing this very ugly but efficient way.
Tamworth may learn from this result, to perhaps be more adaptable when things aren’t going their way, to perhaps learn to be patient, to control their aggression and to dig in 'more' when the chips are down, to not lose games they shouldn’t lose, by lack of discipline or winding themselves up on not being able to play the way they want to play. They didn't lack any effort in the end, just invention, hindered by having a man less and being long frustrated by the opposition tactical approach.
They’ll be ok this season as not everyone is as horrible and organised to play against as Alfreton, who apparently, much more used to winning around the mud baths of the football winter season, won for the first time since 2017 on a synthetic surface. A pitch which may invite more football than not, to be played, today saw very little of it, if Alfreton can start winning more games against passing teams on these types of surfaces, well they might have a real chance of doing something special this season.
Tamworth: Jas Singh, Matt Curley, Callum Cockerill-Mollet, Kyle Finn (Ty Deacon 77), Ben Milnes, Jordan Cullinane-Liburd, Liam Dolman, Nathan Tshikuma, Jamie Jellis, Dan Creaney (Alex Jones 46), Dempsey Arlott-John (Jamie Willets 57).
Alfreton Town: George Wills, Joshua Clackstone, Adam Lund (Dwayne Wiley 70), Kennedy Digie, Jordan Thewlis (Jamie Oliver 84), George Cantrill, Liam Waldock, Lewis Salmon, Harrison Perritt, Shaun Brisley, Ryan Taylor (Jake Day 66).
3:00pm Kick Off. Saturday 19th August 2023, The Lamb Ground, Tamworth (att 1,009).