Malvern's Langlands Avenue ground or, The HDAnywhere Community Stadium as it is now known, is situated on the outskirts of the town. Whilst The Hillsiders have played at the ground for around 70 years, the newly-refurbished club house facility has only been around since 2014. The majority of the ground is given to hard standing. On the car park side of the ground, where the new clubhouse has been built, there is also a very well presented covered seating stand which is built on top of the players and officials changing area. The dug outs are, unusually, also on this side of the pitch. The only other covered area is a small covered standing section directly opposite the main stand.
The sides had shared four goals in Leicestershire at the weekend and, with Malvern already having 36 goals in 10 league games, there was certainly an expectation of some goals to come. Having said that, for the first twenty minutes of the game neither team managed to really stretch the opposition keeper. The game swung backwards and forwards as the teams tested each other out but the defences were on top at this point.
However, just on the 20 minute mark, Birstall did have the ball in the Malvern net. A pass was slipped in behind the home defence for Birstall captain Lewis Dodd to prod past the advancing goalkeeper. It was a tidy finish but, sadly for Birstall, to no avail as the assistant's flag had been raised for offside long before the ball hit the net.
A few minutes later it was Malvern's turn to threaten but Birstall's keeper was equal to the attempt on this occasion. He was, however, beaten all ends up a few minutes later when a lovely Malvern move ended with Hughes crashing a shot against the woodwork.
As the half wore on the game was definitely opening up but it difficult to say which team had the edge. That was until the 40th minute when Birstall finally broke the deadlock with captain Lewis Dodd nipping in to place a header past the keeper and into the net.
The Hillsiders tried to hit back immediately but were thwarted by a good save from the Birstall keeper.
The half finished with the away side leading 1-0. There was very little to choose between the teams and the game was far from over and Malvern would probably have felt a little aggrieved to have been behind.
Just on the hour mark Malvern fell to a sucker punch. Pushing forward they lost the ball which was quickly moved forward by Birstall. A threaded pass in behind the home defence allowed Sam Moore to run on and slide the ball past the opposing keeper for 0-2.
Within ten minutes, however, Malvern had a lifeline when they were awarded a penalty (awarded whilst I was making use of the facilities, so I didn't see the offence) which was converted by Dave Reynolds to make it 1-2.
The game, which had already been entertaining, burst into life at this point. Malvern had the bit between their teeth and were pushing forward in search of an equaliser. This, however, was leaving spaces at the back which Birstall were quick to capitalise on with some swift counter-attacks. After 83 minutes it was one of these quick breaks that almost cost Malvern the game. A through ball was chased down by a Birstall striker who got his shot away just as he was clattered by the on-rushing keeper. The ball went wide but the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. The penalty was struck hard but Charlie Weaver in the home goal made a great stop to keep the score at 1-2.
Anyone who thought the miss would have knocked the stuffing out of Birstall would have been mistaken. They immediately went back on the offensive missing two massive chances in quick succession.
In the final minute of the game Birstall were made to pay for their wastefulness when a through ball caused chaos in the Birstall defence and in the ensuing melee Dean Whittal-Williams was able to head the ball into the empty net much to the delight of the local following.
A great comeback from Malvern. They rode their luck to a certain extent and, if the Birstall penalty or even one of the wasted chances had gone in, it would probably have been a much different result. However, you can't knock the way that Malvern battled until the last minute. Full-time Malvern Town 2 Birstall United 2.
With the coaches out on the pitch preparing their players for another 30 minutes, I found myself standing next to a gentleman wearing a Shildon AFC hat and scarf. That in itself woudl have been a strange enough thing for rural Worcestershire but Shildon had played my team, Stourbridge, in the FA Cup a couple of seasons back and had taken them back to Amblecote for a replay. As I was wearing a Stourbridge jacket, we ended up chatting about how we came to be at a game miles from home that didn't involve either of the teams we followed. The reason, it transpired, was the same. Neither of us had been to Malvern Town before. Good enough reason. The Shildon fan turned out to live in the Midlands and was a member at Stourbridge. He was there with a friend who lived in Malvern but supported Kidderminster Harriers. You meet all sorts at non-league football matches.
Back to extra-time.
With such a late equaliser taking the wind out of the Birstall sails it wass no surprise that Malvern started the better in extra-time and they created a chance quite early on, only for it to be blasted well over. The game then took another swing when Birstall were awarded another penalty. However, once again Weaver guessed right and made a great save to keep his team in the game.
Half-time in Extra-time we were still level at 2-2 and penalties were definitely looming, a daunting prospect for Birstall having already missed from the spot twice.
A penalty shootout turned out to be the least of their worries in the 115th minute when Reynolds smashed in his second from close range, to put Malvern in front for the first time. It was a lead that they would not relinquish as they held on for a superb comeback victory.
It's a footballing cliche but it really was a shame that there had to be a loser in this game. It was the perfect remedy to the mess that our professional game has managed to make for itself through sheer greed. I'm not stupid enough to think that non-league football does not have it's faults or problems but, on nights like this and after games like this one, it glows like a shining beacon against the professional game.
Thanks and best wishes to both clubs for the rest of the season.
Malvern Town - @malverntown1946
Birstall United - @birstall_united