The Boatmen were coming into the game knowing that the league title was in their own hands and on the back of a 12 game unbeaten run since losing 2-1 at Barrow Town in March. During that run they had won 11 of the 12 games including a 2-1 victory over second-placed Teversal and a superb 2-1 win at Anstey Nomads. Last time out Dunkirk had smashed eight unanswered past Radcliffe Olympic.
Clifton, down in twelfth spot, certainly could not match the overall form of their neighbours but could better their last result having hammered Arnold Town 10-1 on their own patch. So, with eighteen goals between them in the last week I think this game had little chance of finishing 0-0.
Clifton, promoted as Champions from the Nottinghamshire Senior League last season, had already held their rivals to a 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture back in August and, without doubt, would not want to be handing the championship on a plate to them in this game. I have to admit, although I knew a little about Dunkirk (they played Stourbridge in the cup a couple of year's ago, and gave a very good account of themselves), I knew next to nothing about Clifton. It has to be said that they have a very impressive list of former players, including Garry Birtles, Jermaine Jenas, Keith Alexander and Darren Huckerby. I've not seen too many other Step 6 sides with such an illustrious list.
The All White's stadium,The Norman Archer Memorial Ground, is situated on the Eastern perimeter of Clifton, just off the A453 route into Notingham. There is a reasonable sized car park which, with this being a derby, was pretty full by the time I arrived. The club house, players and officials facilities are outside the main stadium, as are all of the facilities, toilets and tea bar. The playing area is accessed through a single gate just off the car park.
As you enter, from the car park end, to the left is the main stand which runs for approximately a third of one side and features covered seating and standing. The dugouts are situated opposite the main stand. The pitch, when you consider how late in the season it is and just how much bad weather we have had this year, was in superb condition, a massive credit to the club and all the volunteers helping to keep the ground in shape.
So, we were ready to go. All Whites in all white and Dunkirk in their change kit of all blue. A quick glance at the league table showed that Dunkirk had a four point lead at the top but, with both Teversal and Anstey playing this evening as well, nothing short of a win would suffice.
Top Three at the start of play:
Dunkirk Pl 37 - Pts 82
Teversal 37 - 78
Anstey Nomads 35 - 74
A quick glance at Twitter showed that both Anstey and Teversal had scored very early in their games at Holbrook and Holwell respectively.
Ten Minutes in:
Dunkirk 38 - 83
Teversal 38 - 81
Anstey Nomads 36 - 77
Suddenly the table was looking a lot tighter.
Both sides were showing some lovely touches on the ball as well as snapping into challenges, as you would expect in a derby game. As we progressed past towards the halfway mark in the first-half, Dunkirk had started to go through the gears somewhat and were beginning to push their opponents back more and more. On the half-hour mark Potts met a deep cross at the far post and volleyed home only to see the assistant's flag up for offside.
Despite Dunkirk beginning to get on top, things looked to have taken a turn for the worse for them in the 38th minute when their defence was caught out by a direct ball. Shannon-Lewis go onto the through ball only to be upended by the advancing goalkeeper. The referee immediately pointed to the spot and dealt a yellow card out to Mitchell.
Shannon-Lewis picked himself up and took the kick himself. However, Mitchell made up for his foul by making the save, diverting the kick over the bar with his legs.
All White's were made to regret their miss just four minutes later when, after great work by Chaplin on the right, the ball was pulled back to Ben Moore just inside the box. Moore showed a cool head to stroke the ball, with precision, inside McDonald's left hand post. 0-1.
Dunkirk had their four point gap back at the top of the table and, just as well they scored, because at this point Anstey were three goals up and Teversal already 4-0 up at Holwell.
Just as The Boatmen were getting ready to go in with their noses in front, however, they suffered a lapse of concentration at the back. A long Clifton punt forward was misjudged by two defenders, leaving Scott Litchfield with just the keeper to beat, which hid did with some composure, sliding the ball under the advancing stopper. 1-1.
HT Clifton All Whites 1 Dunkirk 1. A good half of football. Very entertaining for the neutral and a typical hard-fought local derby. Home keeper has been busier but it's all square at half-time. Dunkirk's lead at the top was down to two points but, with their much superior goal difference, the title was still in their own hands at this stage.
The league title was now, no longer in Dunkirk's hands. Should Anstey win all of their matches, they would take the trophy.
The goal galvanised Dunkirk again and they immediately set about getting the goal back and re-establishing their title credentials, a task that they achieved on the hour mark. The goal was testament to the perseverance of striker Stephen Chaplin who battled through a couple of 50-50 challenges before finding himself one on on with McDonald and finishing neatly low past the stopper's left side. 2-2.
With one hand back on the trophy, Dunkirk set about re-establishing their four point gap and, from this point onward it did feel like just a matter of time before they got the winner. However, despite the away side's possession dominance, they had to be aware of Clifton on the break because the All White's still posed a threat when they got the ball in the Dunkirk half.
Clifton were employing every game management trick in the book in an attempt to prevent their neighbours from securing the three points, slowing the game down at every opportunity, much to the ire of the Dunkirk players, bench and support. To be fair, I could see their point and they weren't getting a hell of a lot of backup from the referee (who could have been stronger IMO). However, these sort of tactics are part of the game and, I am sure that if Dunkirk had been in a similar position, they would have done exactly the same. The big problem though was that, because the referee had not stamped his authority on the players, frustrations were building on both sides and the little niggles from the first half were starting to become more noticeable as the game progressed. There were one or two,a s Danny Dyer would say, naughty challenges going in as well as a lot of harsh words fro the referee, who was forced to start handing out cards.
With 77 minutes gone another foul, just on the edge of the Clifton box, saw Dunkirk line up a good opportunity. Potts curled the ball over the wall, beat the keeper, but saw his effort crash against the bar and bounce to safety. They were getting closer though.
Sure enough, with 5 minutes of normal time remaining and the All White's defence under increasing pressure, Dunkirk forced them into a mistake that altered the outcome of the match. High pressing by Dunkirk forwards forced the Clifton defence to play the ball back to McDonald. Hos clearance was not well struck and, with the stopper out of position, Oliver Clark was able to control the ball and loft it back into an empty net from 25 yards. Yet another accomplished and calm finish, a feature of all three Dunkirk goals. 2-3.
The action wasn't quite finished though. We had had a missed penalty and a comeback from both teams but what local derby would be complete without a sending off? Not this one. For, on 88 minutes, the referee felt in necessary to issue a straight red to Clifton's Seaton after a clash near the centre circle. From my position the clash didn't look worthy of a red, bit I didn't have a very clear view. I heard mention of a leading elbow but I didn't see it. There didn't seem too many Clifton complaints though, so I am assuming something untoward happened.
FT Clifton All Whites 2 Dunkirk 3. From a neutral's pint of view, a fantastic advert for the East Midlands Counties League. This was my first experience of the league and, based on this game, it certainly won't be my last. Obviously, it was a very local derby, so there was added intensity but, overall, the standard of football was very good and the entertainment level very high. With both Anstey and Teversal winning, Clark's late winner was even more important for Dunkirk, who stay top of the league with two games to go. Clifton can hold their heads high after giving the league leaders a hell of a game.
Finally, I make no apologies for the cliched title of this blog. I guess it has been used many times before, but it fitted so well, I couldn't resist.
Top Three after Thursday's games
Dunkirk 38 - 85
Teversal 38 - 81
Anstey Nomads 36 - 77
Clifton All Whites: McDonald, Kelly, Hardy, Anderson (c) , Miles, Seaton, Shannon-Lewis, Ball, Crosby, Clark, Litchfield. Subs: Hawkes, Griggs, Wood, Shaw, Kennerdale
Dunkirk: Mitchell, Robinson, Rawdon, Clark, T. Moore, Burton (c), B. Moore, Hickey, Chaplin, Potts, Berridge. Subs: Wilcox, Gowing, Lang, Howes, Massingham
Ground Number: 157