A STAR IS BORN?

Shildon 2 Guisborough 1 – Mitre Brooks Mileson Memorial League Cup Group F

Tuesday saw the first night of the new style Mitre Brooks Mileson Northern League Challenge Cup. The competition now mimics FIFA, UEFA and the leasing.com Trophy (forever known in this house as “That bloody Checkatrade thing that Portsmouth beat us in at Wembley”) in having group stages before the more exciting knock out stuff starts.

Unfortunately, the date for this inaugural mass group day clashed with the rare occurrence of a live game on terrestrial television as England played Kosovo in a European Championship qualifier at St Mary’s Stadium in Southampton.

Presumably, the FA will have a jolly good reason for playing the game at the smallest venue possible, far enough away from the capital for an overnight stay, but not up north amongst the unruly northern hordes who have been known to look less than favourably on some of the London based players who seem to regard an England place as an absolute right. Jack Wilshere, anyone?

I, along with another 167 dedicated souls, chose a Group F game at Dean Street, where Guisborough Town were the visitors. Both teams have started reasonably well and both sides had made it clear that this would be an opportunity to give regular substitutes and younger players a run out.

Shildon excelled in this role as the average age of the team was 19, with the visitors weighing in at 23, with skipper Brian Close, a distinguished grey hair of 37, pushing up their mean. Throw in a referee who looked as if he had barely started shaving and two assistants who still had their school shoes on, and it was a night for the young.

They gave us older spectators an excellent night by producing 90 minutes of football that was a pleasure to watch. There were no cynical fouls and absolutely none of the rolling around and squealing that is prevalent in the professional leagues and amongst some of those who play at this level. The referee, Adam Nichol, had a good game and was not harangued from all sides as is often the case. The air did not turn blue with language that would make a docker/sailor/Archbishop blush.

We got 90 minutes of hugely enjoyable football, and we saw some impressive individual performances.

Matthew Bancroft in the Shildon goal made a series of outstanding saves when it was goalless and then another set when Guisborough had pulled one back and were hunting an equaliser. Stephen Roberts burrowed away for The Priorymen and was rewarded with a goal that set up an exciting finish. Matthew Crust marshalled a youthful Guisborough defence and Shildon’s first ever Romanian, Iulian Petrache did likewise for the Railwaymen.

But the star of the show was Shildon’s young forward, Tafari Nicholas. He is not the biggest player, standing at 5’8” and he is slight, but he was prepared to stand up to the powerful Crust and his colleague Harry Thompson. Throughout the first half, he harried and chased them, never flinched a challenge and had a couple of half chances which he snatched at.

When the halftime whistle sounded, three of the Shildon side were yanked off by their mams in order to finish their homework and polish their school shoes, but Tafari was not one of them. His second half performance was the difference between two good sides.

First of all, he took a finely weighted pass from Nathan Steel in his stride, skipped over two despairing lunges and rattled home a shot to put Shildon ahead. That got a standing ovation from some (ok, me) in the stand.

A few minutes later, he picked up a rebound in the box and placed a shot past Ryan Catterick to make it two and set his team on the road to victory.

Steven Roberts pulled one back with 15 to go, leading to the greybeards saying that “a 2-0 lead is the hardest one to hold in football”, Matthew Bancroft made a couple of good saves to keep the North Yorkshire hordes out and when the whistle went at just after 9.15, all agreed that they had seen a fine game and that Tafari Nichols was one to watch.

We may well have witnessed a new star in the making at Dean Street. I am sure that all in the 168 crowd wish him all the best as he makes his way in the game. And I think that Shildon’s second half defending was marginally better than England’s was last night – not that that would be difficult.

Pete Sixsmith