On an unusually warm November evening, I was making a first ever visit to Rowley Park, or the Premier Plus Stadium if you wish, for an FA Trophy Second Round Replay between St Neots Town of the Southern League Premier and Marine of the NPL Premier. I always find clashes between teams from the same Step but in different division fascinating.
I must admit that due to work and family commitments, I hadn't read the match report from the first game so I wasn't aware of the 'previous' between the sides. With three reds coming in the first game and, presumably, a few scores to settle on both sides, it was always going to be a tough tie to referee. And so it proved.
First though, a little about the stadium. Parking, I was told, was quite tight at the ground and around the stadium so I took the club website advice and parked on the railway station car park. It's a short walk over the bridge to the stadium. The ground itself has a very pleasing feel to it with covered standing behind both goals and a reasonably large covered seating area on the car park side. The railway side of the ground, where the dugouts are situated, is uncovered but backed by a fairly steep bank and fencing, so it feels quite enclosed.
I entered the stadium just as the game had kicked off with Marine in their change kit of yellow and green attacking the Kester Way End. The home side, wearing all dark blue, and the officials, all in black, were quite difficult to distinguish. Or maybe it was just my old eyes starting to give up on me?
It didn't take too long for the game to burst into life. The electronic scoreboard was showing 14 minutes on the clock when a deflected shot from Declan Rogers looped over the Marine keeper and nestled in the far corner.
The lead, however, wasn't to last too long. Four minutes later Marine won a corner on their right. The ball was
delivered towards the far post where Adam Hughes climbed highest and powered a header into the Saints net. 1-1.
The game ebbed and flowed for the next 10 minutes, with Marine possibly just edging it in my opinion. On the half-hour mark they forced a succession of corners, all of which looked quite dangerous. The final one actually resulting in the ball hitting the net again but the referee had already blown for a clear foul on the keeper.
Saints hit back with a couple of attacks of their own but nothing that unduly troubled Hare in the Marine goal. The referee did hand out a couple of yellow cards on both sides, a fact that would be more significant as the game rolled on.
At half-time it was St Neots Town 1 Marine 1. A good, even game with all to play for in the second half.
Just as in the first half though, Marine looked to hit back immediately. They really should have been level just 3 minutes later when Sherlock beat the offside trap but dragged his effort wide.
On 72 minutes Tom Wood picked up a very unfortunate second yellow and became the third Saints player to see red over the two games. The incident happened right in front of me and I have to say it was never a yellow card offence in my opinion. Still, I'm not the referee and he saw it as bookable.
Marine saw their opportunity and started to push forward. Within two minutes of the red card Archer, in the home goal, made a great save to keep his side in front. However, a minute later, he was left for dead as Robbie Threlfall struck a lovely free-kick over the wall and into the net. Another very good strike. 2-2.
Archer was called on again a few minutes later but the stopper was equal to the effort and kept his side in the game. Despite the man advantage, Marine couldn't grab a winner and the game was heading for extra-time.
FT St Neots Town 2 Marine 2.
The first half of extra-time saw St Neots giving it all the had. Even with a man short they managed to create as many chances as Marine. However, the only real action of note was yet more yellow cards from the referee. By this time we had all started to lose count I think.
HT in ET. 2-2.
The game was getting increasingly niggly both on the pitch and on the benches. It was clear that there was soem hangover from the previous match. Midway through the second period of extra-time it finally boiled over. A challenge near the touchline on the railway side resulted in a melee involving a fair few players. From the other side of the pitch it was nigh-on impossible to tell what actually happened. A couple of players certainly hit the deck, whether pushed or they just tripped in the fracas was unclear. However, once the dust had settled the referee proceeded to hand out two more red cards, both to players in Blue. It looked like a second yellow for Miles Smith and a straight red for Tom Ward (don't quote me on that one). I really wished I had stayed on that side of the ground, then maybe I would have seen what went on. I guess some fans from that side may fill in the blanks.
So, with Saints down to eight players, Marine could afford to push players forward and go fo the win. St Neots had little option but to try to hang on for penalties.
They almost did it too.
Then as the clock was about to tick over to 120 minutes Monaghan tried his luck from the edge of the box. The ball flew past Archer, hit the inside of his right-hand post and went into the net. A cruel blow for Saints who had defended like lions since going down to eight. 2-3.
A minute later, with Saints trying desperately to rally, a ball over the top was chased down by Mitchley who stroked it past Archer to make it four. 2-4. Game over.
FT in ET. St Neots Town 2 Marine 4.
A good game of football despite the red cards. My initial reaction was that the referee had ruined the game. However, on reflection, he did get the first red card wrong but after that who knows. I certainly didn't have a clear enough view of the other two reds. He could, maybe, have not handed out so many yellows to start with, which left him nowhere to go in the second half and extra-time. Having said that, it was a difficult game to manage. There were a lot of little incidents going on, both on and off the ball, and both teams as well as the officials also have a responsibility to behave accordingly in these cases. So, maybe Saints were sinners but Marine were no angels either and the officials didn't help themselves.
Still, plenty of entertainment for the crowd, even if it was a late night for the travelling Marine contingent.
St Neots Town - @stneotstownfc
Marine - @marineafc