The move of Stourbridge FC into the NPL and out of my range for a midweek game, has, in some ways been a godsend. Although I now rarely get to see my team play, I have had the opportunity to explore new leagues and new teams. Last season was all about the Southern League but this year I have 'discovered' the United Counties League and what a discovery it has been. So far, this season, I have seen some really good football, played by competitive teams, talented individuals, and all for reasonable entrance fees at welcoming stadia. The UCL should be proud of it's product which, in my opinion, offers fantastic value for money. My only grouse would be that, Rushden & Diamonds aside, not enough people are witnessing these matches. They really don't know what they are missing.
Enough trumpet blowing for the UCL and on to Tuesday night's game. This was my first visit to Fernie Fields but the stadium is easy enough to find and, when you do arrive, you are left in no doubt that you have come to the correct place with Sileby Rangers FC emblazoned across the back of the main stand in large red letters. There is a reasonable sized parking area on the Talavera Way entrance, certainly for a standard league crowd, and I was able to park almost next to the single turnstile. This was a bonus because it was raining pretty heavily when I arrived. The entrance fee was, a standard, £6 plus £1 for the programme. One thing you may notice if attending a night game is that they don't turn the full floodlighting on until very close to kick-off time. This is quite unusual but, I suppose, makes perfect sense. It's not cheap to run those lights and every second counts. It was, however, very unusual to see the officials out warming up in the dark. The players, I believe, have a warm-up area on the other side the stadium boundary where there appeared to be some lighting.
The stadium itself has covered areas all along the car park side of the ground. In the centre there is a seating area with covered standing on either side. The rest of the ground is surrounded by hard standing and the dug outs are opposite the main stand. Behind the right-hand goal, as you enter the ground, is the clubhouse, tea bar and toilet block. The far side, behind the dugouts, and the left hand goal are backed by quite large hedgerows. The playing surface, once the floodlights had come on, looked in very good condition and almost perfectly flat. Ideal for the passing game which, as will become apparent, was just as well.
Sileby were coming into the game having taken only 4 points from the last 7 league games. Nirvana, in contrast, had taken 13 points in the same number of games and had only narrowly lost, 2-1, to Northern Premier side Barwell in the Westerby Cup.
It became apparent very early in the game that this was not going to be as one-sided as current form suggested. Both sides got into their strides very quickly and proceeded to knock the ball around well, creating chances at both ends within the first 5 minutes. The willingness of both teams to play a passing game was very noticeable and the playing surface was certainly aiding the style of play.
It was the home side who eventually made the breakthrough. A run down the right flank was pulled back for Jake Gillingwater to fire in from 12 yards out. A very accomplished finish to the move giving the Nirvana keeper no chance.
Three minutes later it was 2-0. This time, Simon King cut in from the right flank and hammered an unstoppable shot into the top right corner. So, despite edging possession, the away side found themselves two behind. However, they continued to play their passing game and, as the half progressed, they got closer and closer to pulling one back. Testament to the style of football played by both sides came on 35 minutes. The home keeper kicked the ball long, downfield, out of his hands. As I looked up to follow the ball it occurred to me that this was the first time that I had had to take my eyes away from pitch level.
With five minutes to go until half-time Nirvana got a goal back. Another run down their right side (a favourite tactic) and a far-post cross which was turned in by Matt Melbourne. No less than they deserved and the perfect set-up for the second half.
So at half-time, after a thoroughly entertaining 45 minutes the score was Sileby Rangers 2 Thurnby Nirvana 1.
It was at this point, during the half time kick around by the subs, that I noticed a David Luiz lookalike warming up on the Nirvana side. I was informed by their official twitter feed that this was, none other, than joint divisional leading scorer Liam Canavan (not sure about any relationship to the Glassboy Drew), rather than a loan signing from PSG.
The second half continued where the first half left off. Nice passing sequences fromm both teams and chances created at either end of the pitch. On the hour mark, though, the home side restored their two goal advantage when a though ball beat the offside trap, allowing Jake Gillngwater to run on and finish tidily for his second and Sileby's third.
Even at 3-1 there was never a feeling that this game was over. Canavan was duly introduced to the fray and Thurnby started to pick up the pace of the game. No heads went down. The passing game continued and bit by bit they started to dominate the game. Don't get me wrong, Sileby were still dangerous when they had the ball but they were starting to see less of it than they had done previously.
It was the aforementioned Canavan who started the comeback for Nirvana. Losing his marker in the box he took the ball around the keeper and slotted home to make it 3-2. A couple of minutes later and the away side had a penalty. No complaints from Sileby about the decision. Ash Day put the spot kick away and we were all square again.
Despite being in front for the majority of the game, or maybe because of it and now being pegged back, the equaliser seemed to knock the stuffing out of Sileby somewhat. All of the urgency was coming from the away team whereas the home side looked like they would settle for a point at this stage. It was not to be. With two minutes remaining a jinking run down the left was followed by a tempting cross along the six-yard line and the onrushing Jouel Potter smashed it in off the underside of the bar. The comeback was complete and Nirvana were in front for the first time in the game.
They played out the last couple of minutes without any incident and the match finished Sileby Rangers 3 Thurnby Nirvana 4. A superb advert for the game at this level.
Although I thought that Thurnby deserved the win in the end, some sympathy had to go to Sileby who played the game as it should be played and certainly did not look like a team at the wrong end of the table. There was some real talent on display this evening and both teams should be commended on their style of play. Wonderful entertainment.
Sileby Rangers - @silebyrangers
Thurnby Nirvana - @thurnbyvirvana