Mid-Season Review

Bradford Park Avenue – Mid-Season Review     By Tom Coates

On the 11th of November, Avenue headed to the EON Visual Media Stadium to take on North Ferriby United, a match from which they picked up three points in relatively comfortable fashion. Forward Oli Johnson pounced on a knock-down from Luca Havern to fire Avenue into the lead, and Mark Bower’s side dominated large portions of the game despite being reduced to ten men in the second-half. Ferriby failed to muster together enough spirit to challenge Avenue after the break in spite of the numbers advantage, and the Yorkshire side’s lead could have even been extended further in the latter stages.

I travelled back to Bradford on the supporters’ coach, in and amongst the jubilant fans as they affirmed their admiration for the manager and players alike through choruses of chants that echoed through the coach for the duration of the journey. For fans of other National League North clubs that found their team alongside Avenue in the dizzy heights of the promotion pack, the win over Ferriby would have been a routine one. A run-of-the-mill Saturday away trip. The League is a competitive one, but the opponents had lost twelve of their last thirteen games. It is hard to imagine supporters of fellow promotion-chasing sides such as Salford City and Harrogate Town being as exuberant on their return trip after a victory as the Avenue fans were that day. Maybe I will stand to be corrected by fans of Salford and Harrogate on that statement. However, I cannot help but feel that the turbulent nature of the previous campaign has made the ‘Green Army’ realise just how good of a squad has been assembled this season, and how well the club is doing to prove doubters wrong on an admittedly shoestring budget in comparison to what rivals have at their disposal.

Although many had tipped Avenue for relegation before a ball was kicked, there were also many that saw the maintaining of Mark Bower at the helm as an excellent move made by the club, and possibly one that would help retain the club’s National League North status. Bower wasn’t alone in penning a contract extension in the latter stages of the 2016/17 season, as Danny Boshell also committed himself to the club until 2019, continuing to combine his role as Assistant Manager with his duties in the centre of Avenue’s midfield. Vastly experienced defender Ryan Toulson completed the coaching setup in mid-June, also combining his playing duties with a role in the dugout. It was evident that in each of the coaching trio, Avenue had stalwarts that boasted impressive careers in football as well as a contact book full of illustrious players they had worked with at previous clubs. The trio’s contacts were utilised fully in the summer of 2017, as Avenue completed a series of coups in the lead up to the opening day visit to Tamworth. All three had worked together at Guiseley AFC, and managed to secure deals for fellow Lions alumni Steven Drench, Javan Vidal, Nicky Clee and Adam Boyes. Bower had already completed swoops for former Guiseley talents midway through the previous term, and the accomplished pair of Wayne Brooksby and Oli Johnson both put pen-to-paper on new deals for the 2017/18 season. Key figures in what came to be known as ‘the great escape’ of the previous campaign such as Matt Hill, Shane Killock, Nicky Wroe and Adam Nowakowski all agreed terms on another season at the Horsfall Stadium. In hindsight, it was bizarre that many failed to see beyond Avenue being forced to fight for survival once again. Experience was combined with youth in the arrivals of combative midfielder Jamie Spencer and energetic forward Lee Knight, both of which were products of Football League academies. Spencer boasted experience as captain of Huddersfield Town’s under-18 side, and had previously featured at the Horsfall in a brief loan spell, whereas Knight had gained non-league experience during a loan spell with Ashton United whilst on the books of Oldham Athletic. Signings continued to be made as the beginning of the season drew closer. The squad was bolstered by the canny addition of defender Luca Havern, former captain of league rivals Telford United and a two-time Conference North promotion-winner having helped both Hyde United and Altrincham achieve top non-league tier status. Pacey winger Cameron Lyn also linked up with Mark Bower’s squad following a successful trial, having previously enjoyed stints with Harrogate Railway, Ossett Town and Ossett Albion. Pre-season even included a 3-0 in the annual Tom Banks Memorial Trophy, disposing of neighbours Bradford City with strikes from Clee, Wroe and Boyes.

Captain Nicky Wroe committed himself for the 2017/18 season (Credit: John Rhodes)

Avenue kicked off their campaign with a trip to the Lamb Ground, taking on Andy Morrell’s Tamworth on their artificial surface. The home side felt aggrieved to have suffered an opening day loss having enjoyed large spells of dominance throughout the game, but Boyes secured the three points for Avenue with a dramatic 97th-minute winner. However, Avenue’s first two outings at the Horsfall didn’t prove to be as fruitful. No points were accumulated from home clashes with Southport and York City, with the latter netting five on a dismal afternoon for Mark Bower’s men. A bizarre visit to Spennymoor Town followed, in which the hosts bagged each of their goals in their 3-0 victory within the space of four calamitous first-half minutes. This had followed a spell of Avenue dominance, but the visitors couldn’t provide a response and returned to Bradford empty-handed. In the midst of a hectic fixture pile-up, defender Mark Ross had become the latest addition to the new-look Avenue squad, linking up with the squad prior to the defeat to York having left Stockport County in May. The first real signs that Avenue’s cohort of new arrivals were beginning to gel came towards the end of August. Karl Marginson’s struggling FC United of Manchester slipped to a 3-0 defeat at the hands of a ruthless Avenue, who eased to victory courtesy of a Brooksby brace and a first-half strike from Boyes. It was then made clear that the resounding victory had been no fluke just two days later, as Avenue completed a 4-1 rout of AFC Telford United at New Bucks Head. August was rounded off with a 0-0 draw with Chorley, and the frustration felt at the result was as good an indication as any as to the strides already made by a rejuvenated Avenue.

Adam Boyes and Lee Knight applaud the travelling fans after the opening day win over Tamworth (Credit: John Rhodes)

With the division firmly placed on notice that Avenue were a force to be reckoned with, Mark Bower’s much-improved outfit had reason to be confident heading into September. A second successive stalemate followed as Avenue visited Edgeley Park, grinding out yet another respectable draw, this time against Stockport County. They returned to winning ways just two days later, chalking up three points at the expense of Gainsborough Trinity in a comprehensive 3-0 victory. Two games in three days at the Horsfall yielded four points for Avenue, as their unbeaten run began to receive more plaudits. The acquisition of forward Adam Boyes to partner his former Guiseley teammate Oli Johnson was already beginning to pay dividends, with Johnson securing a point against Nuneaton with a vital equaliser and Boyes notching the winner in a 2-1 win over lowly Boston United. Avenue’s first involvement in the Emirates FA Cup presented an opportunity for the high-fliers to extend their unbeaten run to eight matches, and they did just that by sweeping aside National League North counterparts Southport in a comfortable 3-0 triumph. The club’s final fixture of the month saw them visit Paul Holleran’s Leamington, who brought an end to the unbeaten run with a thoroughly-deserved 2-1 win. After the mist of immediate frustration had lifted following the defeat, many supporters saw the defeat as one that was going to come eventually, a sentiment echoed by Mark Bower in his post-match interview. September had also seen the arrival of a loanee left-back in the shape of Port Vale’s Graham Kelly, who penned a temporary deal to fill the gap left by an injury to veteran defender Matt Hill. Kelly arrived in Bradford with impressive pedigree, having been capped by Republic of Ireland at youth level and being handed a Football League debut by Sheffield United before being snapped up by Vale.

October began with two meetings with Yorkshire rivals Harrogate Town, who made a Tuesday night visit to the Horsfall after being held to a 0-0 draw on the artificial turf of the CNG Stadium three days prior. A deflected effort from Joe Leesley was followed up by an unfortunate Danny Boshell own-goal to seal a win for Harrogate, but Avenue bowed out of the competition having pushed the high-fliers all the way. Midfielder Adam Nowakowski had been a mainstay in the Harrogate Town midfield during his tenure there, earning the nickname, ‘the Harrogate destroyer’. He had only featured as a late substitute in the defeat to his former club, but marked a return to the starting eleven with a goal against Kidderminster Harriers. He bundled home a Ryan Toulson cross to open the scoring, but the hosts were pegged back by an Emmanuel Sonupe strike on the stroke of half-time. Avenue’s form continued to stutter as October drew to a close. A precious point salvaged by a Boyes equaliser on a return to Harrogate was all Avenue could celebrate in the month’s latter stages, as they suffered 2-1 defeats to both Darlington and Salford City. The entertaining affair with Salford was somewhat marred by one of the most bizarre events witnessed in the club’s history, as the opposition’s goalkeeper, Max Crocombe, was shown a red card for urinating behind the goal in the 87th minute. Support for Avenue was unwavering during the club’s most difficult spell of the season, as strides made from the previous campaign remained evident, even in defeat.

Javan Vidal in action against Salford City (Credit: John Rhodes)

The spirits of supporters had not been dampened in spite of a difficult month for the play-off hunters, who still remained in the pack thanks to their scintillating form earlier on in the season. Winning ways were well and truly returned to when Blyth Spartans made the trip to the Horsfall, with Brooksby, Johnson, Spencer and Boyes all getting in on the act as Spartans suffered a 4-1 loss. The win marked Jamie Spencer’s first senior goal after the youngster netted Avenue’s third of the afternoon. November saw Avenue kickstart their West Riding County Cup campaign, and the trip to Selby Town allowed the club to hand opportunities to Academy talents. Defenders Ross Boyle and Devon Ridley, midfielders Jack Carter, Ryan Sewell and Bobby Athey and forwards Bradley Oliver and Jordan Botwood all made appearances as Selby edged through to the next round in a 7-6 penalty shootout victory. Result aside, it was an extremely promising sign for the club’s future, as the youngsters stepped up to the plate and demonstrated their ability to brush shoulders with senior non-league players. A narrow victory over strugglers North Ferriby saw Avenue surge into the play-off places in mid-November, a place they cemented further with a 2-0 win over Brackley Town the following week. On-loan defender Graham Kelly sealed the three points for Avenue with a composed finish past Brackley’s goalkeeper Danny Lewis, a goal which proved to be his first and final for the club before he returned to parent club Port Vale. Supporters clamoured for his return, and rightfully so considering the consistently high levels of performances witnessed during his stay. Man-of-the-match performances against North Ferriby and Brackley in particular helped establish Kelly as one of the most adept full-backs in the League. His absence was felt in Avenue’s first involvement in the Buildbase FA Trophy, as Stourbridge caused an upset by condemning the club to a Third Qualifying Round exit in a replay at the home of the Glassboys.

However, Matt Hill’s return to match fitness in early December helped fill the gap left by Kelly’s departure, and Avenue mounted a second-half comeback to see off Alfreton Town in league action. The harsh conditions of British winter let their presence be known the following week, as the ice and snow brought a halt to the home tie with Tamworth before it could begin. The fixture was re-arranged for the following week, but Avenue proved to be architects of their own downfall as some calamitous defending put the game beyond their reach, and they eventually slipped to a 4-3 defeat to the Lambs.

Oli Johnson is mobbed after drawing level against Tamworth (Credit: John Rhodes)

At the time of writing, Avenue are 24 hours removed from a visit to Southport’s Merseyrail Community Stadium, where former England international Kevin Davies is at the helm. The club are currently flirting with relegation, and haven’t tasted victory in well over three months. Yet, in mid-November, they landed forward Jason Gilchrist from FC United of Manchester. Gilchrist had found the back of the net on fifteen occasions already for FC United and was the League’s third-highest scorer. Southport plucked one of the best players in the division from a rival side despite being closer to the foot of the table than the top. Avenue can’t match Southport’s war chest, yet will enter the game as favourites. If that alone isn’t an indication as to how the first leg of the season has gone, what is?

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