Adventures in Groundhopping – Grand National
North West Counties
Bootle 2 – 2 Ramsbottom Utd
How do you whip up interest in a non-league game on a chilly February afternoon between two of English football’s oldest names? Throw in a top-of-the-table clash, that’s how, and with all the ingredients to keep Sky Sports graphic designers in fits of excitement for weeks beforehand.
At the Delta Taxis Stadium in the midst of Netherton Industrial Estate, Bootle played host to Ramsbottom, in the shadow of a wind-turbine and within strolling distance of the greater tourist draw to these parts of northern Liverpool, that horse racing track of some repute.
Within a fifteen minute stroll from Aintree railway station, the Bootle ground [note to sponsors, it's not a stadium] is very much as expected for this level of non-league. It’s very cramped, reminiscent of Flixton’s home ground with the rough-around-the-edges feel of Ashton United not too far from the mind either. The two main draws are the burger bar (“The Scran Van”) and its positioning of the team dug-outs directly opposite the players’ tunnel, giving the impression that both managers requested to be moved as far from the fans as possible. Maybe they did, as at least team orders could be given without the distraction of two young boys engaging in a spitting contest for an excruciating ten minute period during a lull in the first half.
As is common at this level, half-time refreshment is limited to whatever can be deep-fried or re-heated, leaving me with the choice of a burger (blackened meat in a barm) or cheeseburger (blackened meat in a barm on top of which is placed a cold Kraft slice). At least the beer was okay, notwithstanding the lack of crisps or even the hallowed Scampi Fries (“We don’t do food, there’s a van outside”).
That’s not to say that the game was such during the first half that my mind was focused on making the front of the line for a cup of tea, indeed it was quite the opposite. As so often happens when league leaders meet nearest challengers, there is as much light as heat, creating a match which was ultimately fairly even. Ramsbottom were the more inventive and exciting, creating space and chances through the middle and out to their pacy forwards, leaving Bootle tied up and confused. It was refreshing to see the Rams using techniques clearly borrowed from higher up the divisions, much more as it contrasted nicely with the host’s more traditional non-league tactics. The Rams tall number 11, Jordan Hulme, was a great example of how to use size and weight throughout the game, running with subtle shifts in his pace and shape to out-fox his markers, nudging little half-turns and dummies which worked effectively almost every time. The sparky Grant Spencer, who grabbed the second goal for the visitors, looked and acted like a cartoon-strip interpretation of a pocket-sized midfield terrier, nipping in and through spaces at every time of asking.
Bootle could only frustrate themselves in response, firing shots over the Ramsbottom goal so often they would have managed a mighty lead had they been playing rugby league. It was clear that their number 11 Michael Young was tasked with more than his shirt number might have initially suggested – playing deep, his shots were often completely missed by their intended targets; used as a traditionally minded forward would see him closed down very easily by Ramsbottom’s Mark Ayres. What chances did come for the home team were rare and easily dealt with.
As expected, the second half was a role-reversal for the two sides, with Ramsbottom soaking up repeated attacks against them without offering much in return. It was nonetheless a long time before Bootle had anything like a shot on target. Their two goals, the second of which was essentially the last kick of the game, were less successes for their revised gameplan and more resulting from Ramsbottom’s visible tiredness. The second half whisked along far quicker than the first appeared to have done, the sense of urgency helping as much as the impending chill and thickening clouds.
The result keeps both sides neck-and-neck at the top of the NW Counties, suggesting the kind of photo-finish which is common around Aintree at the height of summer. I have been to many games in the NW Counties divisions this season and they have all had excitement and interest throughout. No place for the knackers yard at this level of the game at least….