Saturday 22nd August 2009

Cranfield United 0 Hadley 3
Molten Spartan South Midlands League Division 1
At: Crawley Road
Kick-off 3-00 pm
Admission: £3 including 32-page programme
Attendance: 21
Weather: sunny spells
Duration: first-half: 45:00; second-half: 46:28

In trying to work our destination for today’s trip, the idea of Milton Keynes came to mind. I knew that MK Dons were at home to Colchester at stadiummk, which I’d not previously visited, but my thoughts were diverted to the non-league clubs in the vicinity. The Spartan South Midlands League has its northern-most clubs in and around the town and I plumped for the Division 1 game at Cranfield United, around eight or so miles away on the eastern side of the M1.

The journey down got off to a bad start – delayed by five minutes when the deliverer van of a well-known supermarket dropping shopping off at the neighbour partially blocked our drive – and momentarily got a whole lot worse with queues as soon as we joined the southbound M6. Wolves coaches on the way to Manchester City were in the thick of queues going north. Soon, thankfully we were on the move and a ‘detour’ around the M6 Toll made up some lost time. On the way down I was able to spot a couple of club coaches – Cambridge United heading for Tamworth and Rothwell Town on the way to Romulus.

We made good time to MK and after dropping off Mrs and Junior ‘iwf’ for their afternoon of shopping, I plugged in the SatNav to give me directions and was parked up in Cranfield’s car park by 2-20 pm.

Cranfield is a place I’m not aware of even passing through before and I was interested to find signs to Cranfield Airport and the entrance to the Cranfield University campus. The village was larger than I though and the ground was located right on the outskirts on Crawley Road, the road leading to North Crawley and Newport Pagnall.

Programmes, a 28 pager, were available at the game and included in the admission charge.

I parked up at pitchside on the car park and the pitch (orientated south-east–north-west) ran lengthways with three floodlight pylons down each side. A white post and rail went all the way round Behind the near goal were the clubhouse, changing rooms and tea bar. On halfway down the left-hand touchline was a brick stand, behind the dugouts, with a row on bench seating in the front and standing behind.

My eyes were drawn to a plaque on the side of the clubhouse, in memory of Michael James Johnson, a man who ‘will always be part of Cranfield United’.

According to a display in the clubhouse, Cranfield were formed in 1903 during a meeting at the Crow Inn. They originally joined the South Midlands League in 1949, winning Division 2(B) in 1949/50 with a 100% record over 22 games. Since 1960, Cranfield have had spells in both the South Midlands League and Bedford & District League before returning to the Spartan South Midlands League in 2001. They initially played in Division 2 and gained promotion to Division 1 in 2004, where they have remained.

From what I read in the programme, the season for Cranfield (16th position out of 21 teams with two points from three games) hasn’t got off to the expected start. ‘The club was hopeful of challenging for one of the top 4 positions in the table,’ was the comment. Hopes took a knock with draws from their opening two games and this was followed by defeat in the FA Cup last Sunday and also against Bedford FC on Tuesday. Manager Craig Connell and his assistant Mick Lemon resigned after that 3-1 defeat at home to Bedford FC so caretaker managers Pat Booden and Mark Hardie were in charge today.

Visitors Hadley took the Spartan South Midlands League by storm as a rookie club last season and finished second in Division 2 to gain promotion at the first attempt. They current season has began well and they went into this fixture in fourth position behind early leaders New Bradwell St Peter with nine points from four games.

The programme admitted that Cranfield would ‘once again go into action with a depleted squad’ due to injuries and a recent retirement.

In need of a tea, I popped along to the tea bar incorporated into the clubhouse and sat a bench dedicated in memory of Brian Griffiths. I spotted a Hadley official carrying coloured pieces of paper who kindly let me note down the line-ups – much appreciated. Later on at half-time I noticed a team sheet was displayed on a clubhouse door.

Players came out in fair-play fashion and lined up on the edge of the nearest 18-yard box and exchanged those increasingly familiar handshakes, before the Cranfield players broke to the far end.

“Captains please,” shouted the referee after a shrill blast of his whistle and soon Hadley got the game under way attacking the far end. I opted for a place on a bench in the stand which turned out to be near the home dugout.

“From the start, Cranfield,” was the instruction from the bench and they did so during the opening minutes as a new era got underway.

The home side (wearing all red) survived a scare in the 7th minute. Mark Betts got the better of full-back Hugo McGlue on the right bye-line and squared a pass to Matt Smithurst in front of goal. The striker fired against the right-hand post and the ball rebounded to the grateful keeper James Egerton.

Cranfield should have taken the lead four minutes later. Stuart Reynolds crossed from the right to Ashley Deverell positioned on the penalty spot. The striker hit a ferocious first time shot that flew over the bar instead of breaking the back of the net.

Despite 20 minutes of pressure, without seriously troubling the Hadley keeper, Cranfield fell behind in the 21st minute. Neil Mangan tripped Neil Robinson inside the area and Danny Gruar sent Egerton the wrong way with the resulting penalty. The Cranfield fans/officials set next to me were disappointed to concede against the run of play.

During the first half, planes frequently swooped in to land behind the far goal including a white one just after the penalty went in.

A more confident Hadley side (wearing sky blue shirts, black shorts and socks) won three corners and then extended their lead in the 32nd minute. A misdirected header around halfway allowed Mark Betts to break down the left and accelerate away from the chasing defender Tom Barnett. He cut into the area and squared the ball low for Gruar to smash past Egerton from 15 yards out.

I decided to sample the view from the other side so commenced and completed a walk round the pitch perimeter.

It could have got a whole lot worse for Cranfield three minutes later. Smithhurst, unmarked inside the area should have slotted home but Egerton left his line to block the resulting shot.

Just before the interval, Cranfield won a corner on the right which Stuart Reynolds delivered into the area. It wasn’t cleared and Jamie Doyle hit a rising shot just over the bar. Hadley went in at the interval with a 2-0 lead.

At half-time, I returned to the tea bar for another tea as well as chips before resuming a seat in the stand. The Cranfield players were out several minutes before the visitors and got the second half underway now attacking the far end. They made a good start and within a minute Mangan got down the right to deliver a hanging cross which Russell Garland held.

Hadley quickly got forward. Gruar was allowed to create a chance inside the area which was blocked by defender Paul Stokes and the flag went up for offside when Smithurst went for the loose ball.

Cranfield made a first change in the 51st with Michael Owens – the player with almost a famous name – replacing Mangan.

“It’s all about concentration,” shouted the Hadley bench the defence and I felt that the next goal, whichever team scored it, could turn out to be crucial.

The visitors, however, continued to create chances and almost netted a third just before the hour mark. James Leaver exchanged a pass with Gruar in a move down the right and crossed low into the area. Smithurst got in a shot that Egerton somehow blocked on the lead. The keeper certainly saved a certain goal.

After Hadley replaced Mark Betts with Nick Uxaas in the 60th minute, they went close again. Smithurst and Tony Sabag were involved in the build-up before the substitute hit a left foot shot deflected out. The resulting corner was played to Gruar who forced another fine save out of Egerton.

With Cranfield still not seriously troubling the Hadley keeper, they made another substitution in the 66th minute with Gray Hutchinson on for Tom Resch.

The home side were awarded a free-kick out on the left near the corner flag from which skipper Stokes powered a header just over the bar.

The referee, who I felt had an excellent game, suggested an opportunity for a drink while Leaver received treatment. The midfielder was unable to continue and replaced in the 72nd minute by Ian Kirkwood. At the same time, Cranfield took their last throw of the dice in terms of substitutions, replacing McGlue with Michael Kalugin.

To agree with my earlier thought, one of the Cranfield players encouraged his teammates: “Next goal is massive, make sure we get it.” But I felt that Hadley were comfortable at the back.

Something that interested me during the game was the ball – an orange one and there was not a hint of snow at all. Molten had their name on the ball and an advert in the programme told me that the League sponsor is a supply of balls for a variety of sports. The orange ball certainly drew my attention to the name Molten – would a white ball have had the same effect?

The next goal did indeed prove massive and came in the 82nd minute. Owens was booked for pulling back Kirkwood as the Hadley substitute cut in along the left bye-line. Gruar curled a right foot free-kick low towards goal and it went straight in at the near post to complete a hat-trick for the striker.

At 3-0 there was no way back for Cranfield and Hadley made a final chance in the 84th minute when Aaron Baker came on for Smithurst.

Egerton again excelled to prevent a further goal. Gruar robbed Stokes 25 yards out and despite being challenged by Doyle managed to get in a shot which the keeper smartly turned round.

Cranfield created a couple of late chances to get on the scoresheet and in stoppage time Garland produced a diving save on the line to hold a header from Ellis Spence.

0-1 Danny Gruar (21)
0-2 Danny Gruar (32)
0-3 Danny Gruar (84)