|Wednesday, August 10, 2005|
| Birthday Goal|
The mood on the bus had been decidedly more relaxed earlier today when we were riding back from the English National Football Museum. The exhibit was excellent, by the way, covering more than a century of soccer history, and the team members were engrossed. Most slept during the one-hour drive back.
The energy level is way up now. We're on the coach again, the players in their warm-up gear, on our way to Oldham Town FC for tonight's match, the third of the tour. The energy goes even higher when the bus driver slips in Brandon Washington's '08 special, pre-game mix CD. It's got some 2 Pac, Eminem, Kanye West. Our guest coach and host Jack Edwards, with us as usual, makes a sour face. He's a Brit who loves American country music. Rap? "Rubbish."
We pull into the home ground of the semi-pro team Swarthmore is facing tonight. This is not Oldham Athletic, whose League One match we attended on Saturday. Oldham *Town* plays in what's known as the Northwest Counties League. The club's pitch is completely enclosed by a fence, as is the norm for English football venues, and it has various standing areas and small grandstands running continuously along the sideline. Altogether, it has room for about 1,500 spectators, I'm told, although nowhere near that many are expected tonight for the friendly with the American college team.
At one end of the facility is a large, multi-room clubhouse, where we'll congregate after the match for sandwiches and some socializing with the opponents. I go inside to check it out and find the club chairman, a bald, portly man, sitting by the bar smoking a pipe. He shakes my hand and gives me a bit of club history. It turns out that he founded Oldham Town back in the 1960s when he was but 19 years old.
There's more electricity in the air at this match than at the previous two on the tour. A couple dozen locals have turned out, curious about this American football team that's visiting. There's a writer for the league magazine out to write an article about the visit by the collegiate team from Pennsylvania.
Unfortunately, Swarthmore doesn't show these people much in the first half. The skill and talent of the home team is plainly evident when Richard Graham, a former Premiership defender, deposits a header off a beautiful cross. A miscommunication between Swarthmore 'keeper Reuben Heyman-Kantor '06 and the defenders leads to a second goal for the hosts. Another cross-and-header combination produces the third Oldham goal, and it's 3-nil at halftime. After a few attacks in the opening minutes, the Garnet has done almost nothing offensively, seeming to rush passes in a panic under the Oldham pressure.
I'd been expecting Eric to show some flashes of anger, but the Swarthmore coach is even keel in the cramped changing room during the break. "Obviously, this is a match where we're going to have to raise our level," he says. "But that's good. It gives us an opportunity to learn and force ourselves to play better."
The players sip the tea that the Oldham brass has sent in. Assistant coach Ciaran Dalton, meanwhile, adds a few words of encouragement and comments on the typically physical play of English sides. "That's the way the game should be played," says Ciaran. "If you can add this physical dimension to your game, we're gonna [beat] Dickinson, Gettysburg, and Hopkins."
Was it the tea? Swarthmore comes out strong in the second half. The players are making smart passes and energetically pressing the attack. The Garnet comes close to scoring several times.
Ciaran, who's 27 and in good soccer form, gets sent into the action for a brief cameo appearance -- legal in this case since this is not an official NCAA match. Not long after going in, Ciaran demonstrates the skill and dash that made him a collegiate star at Millersville University and a successful semi-pro player in Ireland for part of a season. He turns on a dime in the left corner and drives a cross to Mike Bonesteel '08 in front of the Oldham goal. Mike volleys it in, bringing Swarthmore within 3-1 and giving our contingent a big lift.
Ciaran's expert pass was actually a birthday present of sorts. Today is "Bone's" 19th birthday, as it turns out, and the sophomore striker dearly wanted to celebrate the occasion with a visit to the back of the net.
Oldham gets one back against Ryan Sutcliffe '08, who's in goal for the second half, but the Garnet continues playing with energy and verve. Colton Bangs '07 gives Andrew Terker '06 a perfect through-ball, splitting the defense and sending him in alone on goal. Among those who follow Swarthmore soccer, it is said that Andy *always* converts his opportunities, and he shows his knack this time as well, drilling the ball into the upper-right corner for his third goal of the tour.
Sutcliffe thwarts Oldham with a good save, and Swarthmore continues to apply pressure. Only some good stops by the Oldham goalkeeper and a few near misses prevent the Swarthmore team from tying the game. It ends with the Garnet on the losing end of a 4-2 score. Given the big turnaround in the second half, and the fact it's a friendly against a good English semi-pro team, it hardly feels like a loss as the players get on the grass to stretch.
"We really woke up at halftime," Eric tells them. "It must have been the tea. Your work rate was great in the second half. Who cares about the result? We improved from beginning to end. If we play like this in our conference, you can look forward to some hardware this season."
The players take a quick shower and join the Oldham guys in the clubhouse pub. We bring out the birthday cake we sneaked in and stashed for Bone a few hours ago. Jack's wife, Gwen, had it made up with green frosting, with white lines like those on a soccer pitch. We break into "Happy Birthday."
The grinning Bonesteel starts cutting out pieces and handing them around to players on both sides. For him, this is just the proverbial "icing on the cake." He already got his birthday present, back in the second half, on the receiving end of that gorgeous crossing pass from Ciaran. ...
|Wednesday August 10, 2005 posted by Tom Krattenmaker @ 4:49 PM|
About This Site
In August 2005, the Swarthmore College men's soccer team embarked on England Tour 2005. Their mission: Play matches against English teams, spread good will, take in the sights, attend a professional match or two, learn about English culture, and, well, have fun. Follow their progress at this special web site, written by Tom Krattenmaker, director of news and information, who is traveling with the team.
Men's Soccer Website
Respond to These Posts
England Tour 2005 Itinerary