Tuesday 29th September 2020, 1945 Kick Off
Hyde United FC vs FC United of Manchester
The Build Up
Every so often, like many of us, I am compelled by my job to travel away for mandated First Aid training and such like, and in the last week of September, I found myself once again boarding a train to A N Other northern town for that reason. The main benefit of this, of course, is not the fact I get to complete my legally mandated annual training requirements, but that it affords the opportunity to watch non-league in a location which I otherwise would not. On this occasion, there were two matches I had in mind – both from the Pitching In Northern Premier League. Ashton United vs South Shields was appealing, but my mind was made up by the presence of two of my co-presenters of the NLFullTime podcast doing the commentary at Hyde United vs FC United of Manchester.
This would be the second NPL match I’ve seen, after taking in 2018/19 Warrington Town vs Grantham Town Play Off semi final, and having enjoyed that I was keen to see if Hyde would provide a similar experience. Formed in 1885, at the White Lion Pub, the original Hyde FC folded in 1917, before reforming as Hyde United in 1919. After several decades in the county system, the Tigers became founder members of the Northern Premier League in 1968, a competition in which they finished as runners up in consecutive seasons in the late eighties. A 2005/06 promotion to the Conference North shortly preceded a move back to the traditional name of Hyde and in 2011/12 they won the Conference North, before spending the next two seasons at Step One. Relegation followed in 2014, as did another u-turn on the club’s name in 2015, and a further relegation. Then, in 2018, a third place finish was enough to see the Tigers promoted back to Step Three, alongside Scarborough Athletic and South Shields. Now, managed by David McGurk, Hyde United were sitting in 10th place when the season was abandoned. As for where they were in the league coming into this match, frankly, who cares, as only two matches had been played – a loss against Gainsborough Trinity, and a creditable draw against heavy title favourites South Shields.
The visitors, FC United of Manchester, are a name familiar to football fans regardless of their interest in the non-league game. Founded in 2005, the Red Rebels have a much-told origin story (that makes them sound like a Marvel superhero), which I will undoubtedly fail to do justice here. With the rampant commercialism in the modern professional leagues, disaffected fans of Manchester United had opposed large aspects of the running of their club throughout the early noughties, and a final catalyst was provided by the debt-inducing Glazer takeover midway through the decade. The club played its first ever season in the North West Counties League in 2005/06, and secured four promotions in the following ten years, rising to the National League North. Four seasons followed at Step Two, but in 2018/19, FC United suffered the first relegation in their youthful history, dropping back down to the Northern Premier League. A strong campaign followed, with FC United proving the “best of the rest” behind South Shields, lying second at the curtailment of the campaign. Despite losing 28 goal Tunde Owolabi to Hamilton Academical, the Reds are again amongst the favourites for promotion, and drew their opening two matches of the season, against Nantwich Town and Scarborough Athletic.
After arriving at Newton for Hyde train station, I was very kindly picked up by one of my NLFullTime colleagues and made the drive to the Tigers’ Ewen Fields Stadium. I was immediately struck by the stunning twin floodlights on the main stand, and the numerous tiger’s heads and Hyde crests dotted around the buildings. As Step Three stadium’s go, this was one of my favourites.
With a capacity of 4,250 Ewen Fields boasts five main stands, and despite Hyde’s average attendance being just under 500 last season, they would likely have packed in around 2-2,500 for the visit of nearby FC United of Manchester, who averaged 1,688 in 2019/20. Unfortunately, COVID restrictions limited the attendance to a maximum of 600, and the limited allocation sold out quickly. The ground had clear COVID protocols in place, with the now sadly familiar one-way system, regular tannoy announcements, and hand sanitisers scattered liberally around the concourse.
A £10 ticket was waiting for me at the turnstiles (thanks, Luke) and once inside I picked up a programme for a further £2. The final expenditure of the evening was for a meat and potato pie, chips and gravy, with my customary Diet Coke. The food and drink ran to £5.75, meaning the overall cost of the evening was still under twenty quid.
The visitors certainly started the better of the two sides, and were buoyed by their vocal supporters, who belted out a variety of bastardised Manchester pop-culture classics. With (approximately) a third of the crowd constituting FC United fans, they were confidently out-singing their hosts, while on the pitch their team outplayed Hyde for the first ten minutes as well.
There were three players in particular who seemed to be making FC United tick, and it was two of those who combined to set them ahead. With Hyde’s strategy clearly to apply pressure when the opposition were in possession, it did at times leave gaps, and Luke Griffiths exploited one to send Regan Linney clear. The 23 year old bagged eight in the league last season after arriving from Bamber Bridge, and opened his tally for this campaign with a neat strike across Joe Green in the Hyde goal.
Morgan Homson-Smith had a follow up chance just moments later when he cut inside from the right and forced a smart stop out of Green (who looks suspiciously like Neville Longbottom actor, Matthew Lewis…). From the resulting corner, a towering back post header dropped narrowly onto the roof of the net.
FC United’s initial dominance wore off as the match progressed, and the first half became quite an even (and at times rubbish) affair. There was one spectacular passage of play where we were treated to two solid minutes of head/volley tennis – if the ball spent any more time airborne it was going to be recruited into Easy Company. However, that visual spectacle couldn’t last forever, and neither could the visitors’ lead.
On 18 minutes, the Tigers notched an equaliser, and it was no surprise that it came from some aggressive pressing in the final third. Post match David McGurk would talk about how he wanted to see his side take the game to opponents more this season, and no one embodied that more than his experienced Hyde campaigners, Liam Tongue and Tom Pratt. Indeed, it was pressing from Pratt which resulted in loose defensive play gifting the ball to Chinedu Uche. Whilst he had a shot on, the winger – sporting a mask lifted from the set of Phantom of the Opera – slipped in Liam Tongue, and the hard working midfielder coolly slotted an equaliser.
This goal gave the Hyde supporters a lift, and in turn their increased vocal offerings (“You’re just a shit Salford City”) lifted the players. Tongue in particular was magnificent, hassling and harassing more than a double glazing salesman at dinner time. Kingsley James was also impressive, offering incisive passing which looked to utilise the channel running of Pratt, Uche and Paddy Lane.
Indeed, as the clock reached half an hour, Tongue did brilliantly to retrieve a lost cause wide right, before digging out a deep cross to the back post. Paddy Lane – who I assume plays for Hyde as part of his GCSE PE coursework – had plenty of space, and unleashed a fine half volley, but it was blocked before it could trouble Dan Lavercombe in goal.
Lane was growing in stature as the game went on, and rumours of Harrogate Town’s interest appeared justified when he struck the hosts into the lead on 41 minutes. Once again, it was Tongue who created the opportunity. He aggression outside the box forced indecision from the Rebels’ centre backs and he outjumped them to the bouncing ball. With possession regained, he played the pass to Lane. The winger looked to shoot as Aaron Morris attempted the block, but instead turned inside his man, leaving the full back scrabbling for change to get re-entry to the stadium. With the ball on his weaker right foot, Lane drilled home at the near post to put Hyde 2-1 up.
At half time, the match felt finely poised, with both teams giving as good as they were getting, even if Hyde had taken a narrow lead into the break. When hostilities were resumed in the second period, it was FC United who again created the first opportunity, when Adam Dodd was given the freedom of Greater Manchester on the left corner of the box and delivered a teasing cross which narrowly eluded both Daniel Cockerline and Michael Donohue.
Both sides had spells of possession, but good chances were at a premium in the second half. In part this was due to the sterling efforts of the defensive players to break up play before it reached a dangerous position. Of particular note was Hyde’s Ashley Young, who joined the Tigers from FC United last season, who ended the match surprisingly unbooked given his proclivity for an army shoulder barge…
Where there were chances, Hyde looked the more likely, particularly on the break, where Pratt’s hard running gave them a consistent outball. On 68 minutes, Uche won a free-kick and Lavercombe was forced to tip a header over the bar from the resulting delivery. When that corner came in, Regan Linney went all cirque du soleil, contorting his body to produce a remarkable goalline clearance.
It certainly felt like the game had more goals in it, and Uche very nearly set up Pratt to extend Hyde’s lead on 75 minutes. The 21 year old winger came through the youth system at Oldham, and looked to have wasted the promising attack when he appeared to stumble on the ball just before providing a cross. However, he recovered and dug out a fine ball to Pratt, who dragged his shot just wide.
That miss would prove crucial on 80 minutes when substitute Michael Fowler produced a fine strike to bring the scores level. Cockerline did well to win the long ball, and as it dropped to Fowler on the edge of the area there didn’t appear to be much threat. The striker from Scunthorpe steadied himself, and struck a fine half volley off the base of the post which bounced into the net, giving Green no chance.
In the last ten minutes, Regan Linney smashed a shot into the side netting from a narrow angle, whilst Dan Cockerline was fortunate to avoid a card for a dash of handbags with Bradley Roscoe. On 89 minutes, Griffiths broke through centre, and it looked as though FC United could snatch a winner at the death. Griffiths’ ability to drive from the base of midfield had shone through in the match, and he laid it out wide to Linney, who swung a testing ball into the corridor of uncertainty. And uncertainty is exactly what it caused, as a combination of Joe Green, Kyle Brownhill and Andy Hollins somehow smuggled the ball away.
The Wash Up
Despite the protestations of my Hyde supporting podcast buddies, I felt that a draw was probably the fair result, in a match where both sides had spells of dominance. It means that of the six games both sides have been involved in this season, five have ended in draws.
As before, the table doesn’t really matter at this point, and the result leaves both Hyde and FC United somewhere between 1st and 22nd, ahead of FA Cup matches against AFC Fylde and Curzon Ashton respectively.
Both managers will have been able to draw positives, and none more so than in the performance of Liam Tongue, who was my man of the match on the night. Tom Pratt was also in the conversation for the way he stretched the FC United defence, but in the end it could only go to Tongue. Not only did he finish the match with a goal and an assist, but he was involved in almost everything that the home side did well. He defended from the front, closing down and pressing when required, but also had the presence of mind and the ability to use the ball well when he did get it.