BLOG: ALMOST THERE BLOG: ALMOST THERE
Posted by: Bescot Banter

BLOG: ALMOST THERE

In his first column of 2015 Hillary Street-Ender takes a look back at the Saddlers' Johnstone's Paint Trophy Northern Area Final First-Leg trip to Preston North End.
In his first column of 2015 Hillary Street-Ender takes a look back at the Saddlers' Johnstone's Paint Trophy Northern Area Final First-Leg trip to Preston North End.

Anyone approaching Deepdale, especially for a winter’s evening game when the lights are already on, meets an impressive sight as they turn onto Sir Tom Finney Way. As we walked up to the turnstiles on Wednesday night we knew that our boys would probably need to produce a performance that would match the magnificence of the place, for a game in which the home side would be under pressure to build a lead to bring to Bescot for the month-distant second leg. Leading scorer Joe Garner would be unavailable but alongside the well-past-his-best Kevin Davies would be either of North End’s recent attacking signings, or even both. Having Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Jermaine Beckford among his attacking options was going to give Simon Grayson the kind of decision to make that most managers in the division can only dream of and I have to admit to feeling a tad concerned at having to face an attack like that. The early minutes of the game gave much cause for concern and, for a while, it seemed that an opening goal for North End wouldn’t be long in coming. Just like everyone else inside Deepdale it seemed to me that Beckford was sure to score from his headed attempt but O’Donnell pulled off the kind of save his performances have caused us to expect and then followed it up with an equally impressive stop from the same player’s low shot. We might well have been two goals down very early on but we somehow held on and began to get something of a grip in mid-field from where we began to build attacks of our own and to trouble the Lilywhite’s back four as the fans turned up the volume and roared the boys forward. Taylor’s free-kick smacked against the post, one or two long-range attempts went wide and we got to the break without the deadlock having been broken.

We’d started the game slowly but improved as the first half elapsed and we had reason to be optimistic for the second half. Optimism that was borne out as we produced one of the most memorable halves in many months. We’ve been pretty good away from home during most of Deano’s tenure, in fact it’s probably fair to say that we’ve been more effective away than at home, but this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill league game, it was the type of high-stakes game that a team like ours seldom faces and we rose to the challenge fabulously well. After those early first half minutes North End had pretty much shot their bolt and, while most of us would have taken a draw if offered it before the game, a victory seemed there for the taking if we could just carve out a chance or two. For the first forty minutes or so of the second period we probed, and probed and then probed a bit more but that elusive silver-lined chance wouldn’t come, despite the very best efforts of the fans up the corner to drive the lads on. Playing conditions had been pretty foul for the whole of the second half – something that made O’Donnell’s assuredness all the more impressive – and Stuckmann in the Preston goal had looked anything but a reliable last line of defence, punching when it seemed he could easily have caught and generally looking more than a bit dodgy. His badly scuffed clearance went straight to Sawyers who drew a rugby tackle from Kilkenny to set up a free-kick that seemed ideally set for Taylor to whip over the wall and inside the near post. The position of the kick was such that it seemed difficult in the extreme for a right-footer to score but Forde caught out the entire Lilywhite’s defence – and us fans - by bending his shot over the wall and into the far bottom corner leaving the flat-footed Stuckmann seeming to be entirely appropriately named. What a glorious moment, and on national telly too, as we leapt about dementedly at the thought of taking a step closer to you-know-where. To take a lead into the second leg from such a difficult looking game would be fantastic and would bring the dream a little bit closer to being fulfilled but that wasn’t the end of it. Not by a long way.  Jimmy Bax harried their lad into attempting a risky ball back to the keeper and young Tom nipped in to intercept and advance into a position from where it seemed nigh on impossible to score. However the lad’s on fire at the moment, clearly fancying his chances of finding the net from just about anywhere, and placed his acutely-angled shot through the keeper’s feet causing the leaping around in the away fan’s section to commence before the ball had actually crossed the line. I remember watching the ball roll toward goal with a feeling almost of disbelief because this couldn’t really be happening, could it? To have a two-goal lead to take into the home leg was surely more than any of us had dared hope for but that’s exactly what was happening right before our eyes. It happened, people, it happened. We haven’t made it to you-know-where yet but we’re nearer than we’ve ever been so it’s okay to be cautiously optimistic.

A trip to you-know-where has always seemed like something that happens to other clubs while we look on enviously but maybe our turn has arrived at long, long last. It’s so close we can almost touch it. Almost……………

By: Hillary Street-Ender.
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