BY PAUL BREEN
Saturday 30th April 2016 might not be remembered as a significant day in the history of football. But in Guiseley the date will find a special place in local folklore. Forget Leeds United and their 44 days of Brian Clough. Or Huddersfield Town’s hat trick of league titles from the first half of the twentieth century. At half past seven on the last Saturday of the National League season, the beautiful game in this part of the world belonged to Guiseley A.F.C. as surely as if they’d discovered the moon to be a football and planted their blue and white flags upon it.
Long the featherweights of West Yorkshire, Guiseley’s players and supporters must have felt like heavyweight champions after a 4-3 victory over Torquay United landed a knockout blow to relegation rivals and neighbours Halifax Town. Going into the match, Guiseley sat in 21st place in the National League table knowing that salvation could only come with a victory. Even then, if Halifax Town and Boreham Wood bettered this result, the Lions would be relegated.
Going into the game, the football world had very little interest in the fixture. Torquay, after all, had already written the National League’s story of the season with their own great escape from relegation. Guiseley’s scrap for survival made few headlines in a week that waited for Leicester City to face Manchester United. Yet Guiseley faced arguably the biggest date in their club’s history since their 2015 Northern League play-off final victory over Chorley. Defeat would bring relegation after just one season. Victory could mean another bite at the cherry and establish a platform on which to build for the future.
Guiseley, as I was to discover on my trip, is very much a club with its eye on the future and a club rooted in its own community. Driving through the rolling countryside and small villages of West Yorkshire, it’s easy to get a sense of why. These places have a distinct feel of rural islands set against a metropolitan sprawl coming at them on two sides from Leeds and Bradford. Competing with bigger towns and football teams there will always be a struggle to survive. For teams like Guiseley one way of surviving is to get the community and the kids involved from a young age. That much was apparent on Saturday evening as their supporters gathered to cheer on the team against Torquay United at Nethermoor Park with its less than 500 seats and 3,000 capacity.
Yes, it’s one of lower league football’s smaller grounds in a location that is slightly out of the way but it is home to a club that has been kicking around since 1909 without ever capturing too many national headlines. But I was soon to discover that this is a proud little club that puts a great deal of emphasis on youth and community. In doing so, the whole set up at Guiseley demonstrates ideals and practices that go right to the heart of all that is good about grassroots football. Indeed, the club’s efforts in this area have been officially recognised by the National League through awards for their outstanding work with communities and kids. Most recently, in the summer of 2015, Guiseley won an award at the League’s AGM for Best Player Involvement in the local community. Significantly this type of work is carried out not just with boys’ teams.
Research shows that a lot of work is also being done with girls’ teams at Guiseley AFC. But at Saturday’s game I didn’t need Google to tell me that. Just looking at the crowd it was obvious that this club draws support from across the sexes. Girls in club gear helped stock up the home support on Saturday evening. That support was soon in full voice too as one of the biggest names in English football (for linguistic reasons) contrived to gift the Lions an early goal.
From a hopeful punt up field, Torquay’s journeyman centre half Exodus Geohagon managed to head the ball backwards into the path of the advancing Oli Johnson. The former Norwich City striker, born down the road in Wakefield, snapped up the chance with a clinical chip over the head and hands of advancing Torquay keeper Moore. One nil to the hosts, and the girls and guys of Guiseley were in fine voice. Minutes later a second local boy got his name on the scoresheet when midfielder Will Hatfield sealed a nightmare start for Torquay. By half time it was three goals to nil as Geohagon and company’s nightmare start continued. This time, Bury loanee Anthony Dudley had provided the finish.
Guiseley then went into the break three nil up with the supporters’ passion not dampened by the news that both Halifax and Boreham Wood were winning too. The mood amongst Torquay fans by this stage was one of resignation to defeat but also a sense of this being a decent club with friendly supporters – basically hosts who had done nothing to warrant being the team that relegated them. Despite that, there was also a demand amongst the Torquay support for a better showing in the second half since the team and the fans had come this far.
Text messages from mates in Ireland suggested that I should have gone to see Charlton Atheltic at Elland Road as was part of my original plan. I was going to watch two games in one day, from two different divisions, and draw a comparison between them. Massimo Cellino and his 37 quid for an away ticket put paid to those plans. Fifteen quid for this match wasn’t bad even if only one team had turned up so far. That was all to change though as I got my value for money in the second half.
Torquay came out storming. Same names on the jerseys but a different team. The one that had been second only to Cheltenham Town in the form league of recent months. Even Exodus Geohagon was showing the form of a man who was an England C international at one point in a career that has taken him to around twenty clubs stretching between Sutton Coldfield Town and Stourbridge. Seven minutes after the restart, Nathan Blissett headed home a cross from Aman Verma and suddenly it was game on. Echoes of Istanbul 2005. Or Wrexham for the Guiseley fans in a match where they threw away a three goal lead.
Squeaky bum time another seven minutes after that as Toby Ajala sneaked in a second for Torquay. By this stage it didn’t seem to matter anyway. Both Halifax and Boreham Wood remained in the lead with the latter so far ahead of relegated Welling United they might as well just get on the coach and go back home across London with half an hour remaining. The Guiseley fans stayed in fine fettle though, and by the three quarter way stage had a double cause for celebration. Anthony Dudley had buried his second goal of the day, and elsewhere Macclesfield Town had equalised against local rivals Halifax.
The Lions were roaring on a fine April evening and the cubs were getting very excited. ‘Stand up if you’re staying up’ the kids sang as they rattled the back of the stadium. Some, along the sidelines, had been standing up all match. Young boys and girls no more than seven or eight almost spilling over the fence right into the action every time a ball was kicked, such was their excitement and fun in the sunshine. But then a late Torquay surge threatened to tear up the script and probably make for an uncomfortable exodus from the stadium if the Gulls were to relegate the Lions at the death. Thirteen minutes from time Sean Harrad hammered home the goal his play had deserved all afternoon and brought the score back to 4-3.
By now, as Macclesfield held firm in Halifax, the Lions roared for the final whistle to come and devour the new found energy of Torquay’s ferocious finish. Moods amongst some of the away supporters were strangely mixed though. Of course every one of them wanted another goal and the story of being there on the day of such a heroic fightback. But at the same time nobody wanted to relegate Guiseley and though I’m sure it never entered their minds, the players probably felt the same at the end. It had been a very clean fight by a team fighting for their football life. Throughout the match Guiseley showed heart and played with passion. The supporters too showed goodwill and generosity throughout. Horrible as this might sound for Halifax, Guiseley just didn’t deserve to go down.
And so, even the Torquay fans greeted the final whistle with a sense of justice. Though there’s little sentiment in football, a Guiseley victory seemed a fair result on the day. Still though, there was one vital ingredient missing. Confirmation of the Halifax score. When that finally came the news was greeted with a mighty roar, perhaps strongest in the young players’ end of the ground. Within seconds somebody had hurdled the fences and ran onto the pitch. Soon the trickle became a flow in the evening sunshine as Guiseley fans young and old ran to celebrate with their team in the centre circle. The sun would soon have set on the dales in the distance but those fans could cherish the memory of this forever.
By night and the sports headlines, the whole country would know of their escape. But I was glad to be there witnessing their evening in the sunshine in the flesh. It’s a great memory of a game and a place I’d never been to before. Most people probably couldn’t point out Guiseley on the map of England but what was obvious on Saturday is that it knows its own place and is proud of where it sits. Each of the teams in this season’s National League relegation battle have their own stories and some of them I know better than others.
For me, having lived a couple of miles from both Welling and Halifax, it’s sad to see both these sides going back down into the regional divisions. But as Saturday evening proved, every team gets their turn in the sun eventually. The day proved something else too – that you don’t have to pay forty quid to see a good game of football. On the whole this was a fine advertisement for going down to the grassroots to find a true sense of value in the football experience.
PAUL BREEN – @CharltonMen
Paul Breen’s first novel The Charlton Men is available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen/dp/178308166X and a second work is in progress.