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AFC Halifax Veterans Worldnet Champions Report

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Last weekend the AFC Halifax Veterans travelled to Bodington Hall, Headingley (Leeds) attempting to wrest the trophy they won two years ago but bequeathed to Bury who beat them on penalties twelve months ago. It would be no easy task. For starters, half the squad was laid up with ailment after ailment, with skipper Matthew Blackburn complaining of being unable to walk at all only two days before the event, and having to resort to acupuncture in the hope of getting fit (indeed, that was true, though to say his leg was 'full' of needles was perhaps an over-exaggeration; a rough head count revealed two). Coach Dave Thompson was ruled out with a pulled calf (or had he pulled a calf?) whilst Stewart 'Bobbins' Heaton prepared to make himself available despite having what he described as a severely broken toe (when we got to the crux of the matter we were actually talking about a bruised littl'un, though painful nevertheless, especially in tight fitting boots). Starlet Matthew Thompson was also ruled out, so in turn manager John Barker turned to trialists Mathis Okolimong (Uganda) and Michael Bloch (Germany) as his two underage players.

The draw for the groups was not kind to AFC Halifax. Pitted against the two other most recent winners in Bury and Arsenal Nigeria, as well as RC Lens, whose open-age side always progressed well, not without good reason were the pundits labelling it 'the group of death'. The first game scheduled for a 9.40 kick-off saw AFC take on holders Bury, an almost instant 'return' match since these two last met in the final twelve months earlier when the Shakers held their guard to force the penalty shoot-out which saw them earn rich dividends. The game this time round ended all-square, too, with four goals shared, though it has to be said, none of them were classics. Indeed, the opener which gave Bury the lead was witnessed by no one. A hopeful shot which took a deflection off an AFC defender looped over keeper Nigel Walker and fortuitously bobbled to the far post where it rebounded back into play, seemingly into the grateful arms of Big Nige, who flopped down to gather. Sadly, that was the last anyone can remember. Big Nige being abducted by aliens seems as good a reason as any as to why the ball ended up the net since nobody has come up with any rational explanation. The fact was, however, that indeed the ball suddenly found itself over the goalline and nestled in the net and AFC were a goal down. Referee Claire Rushton, easily the most attractive referee to have handled AFC (though Lou Casalino runs her a close second) looked almost embarrassed to have to point to the centre circle, but that was where the ball was placed and AFC prepared to restart a goal down.

Not for long however. Super Kev Dawson, who was to have a real tournament to remember, managed to get beyond a defender to fire in a shot which the keeper had little chance with. However, the ball hit the underside of the bar but Super Kev reacted quicker and managed to head the rebound over the line to put AFC back on level terms. That was how the scores would have remained as half-time approached, but literally with the last second of the half, Bury regained the lead, a free-kick to the far post headed back into the danger area for a tap in. Cue for a real ear-bashing from Thommo Mainwaring which left the players in no doubt; it simply wasn't good enough. AFC came out all guns a blazing and rescued the situation with Dawson on the mark again, a speculative effort which floated out of reach of the keeper and into the top corner.

By the time of AFC's next game, the world and his wife had moved on considerably, so much so that gaffer John Barker had managed to do a tour of Yorkshire and come back en famile. 1.40 was the allotted time with RC Lens, who had opened their account with a goalless draw with Arsenal Nigeria, next on the agenda. To settle any nerves, an early goal was called for and Johnny Meynell provided it, a tap in after Andy Hemblys and Okolimong had worked to deliver a low ball across the box. Both Meynell and Bloch were waiting at the far post, but it was Meynell's superior fitness which saw him win the race for the loose ball to steer it carefully home. AFC experienced only one real scare but when Hemblys lashed home the ball in the second half, the points were in the bag.

The last group game wasn't until 4.15, though by then, with all other games completed, AFC knew victory over their friends from Arsenal Nigeria would see them top the group. After their goalless draw with Lens, Arsenal had soundly beaten Bury 3-0, but a similar score in AFC's favour would help Bury into runners-up spot (helped by a 3-0 win themselves over Lens) and thus put Arsenal and Lens into the other half of the knockout draw.

It was clear that whilst Arsenal could play a bit, most of their tap-tap-tapping was reserved for their own half, and AFC were happy to let them. When little Okolimong forced the ball home at the far post following a corner, it was AFC who found themselves in front and on the front foot. Paul Sykes won a professional penalty, dispatched by Dawson and a two-goal lead looked impregnable. Arsenal offered little punch, though their manager threatened a few as he protested long into the night about the awarding of the spot kick, and he looked a forlorn sight as he made his way through the trees having been ordered 'off' by the ref. AFC managed a third goal through Okolimong, who chased down the Arsenal keeper into submission and rolled the ball into the empty net. Result: 3-0, top of the group and the gauntlet had been thrown down. AFC Halifax were the team to beat.

There was no respite for the AFC lads, for while a nation slumbered in its bed, the players were up at the crack of dawn in readiness for the knockout stages, do or die, a 9.00am starting time. The only saving grace was that their opponents were lowly Brentford, pointless from their three group matches and probably the team any other would want to play. Oddly, the match was scheduled across the way at Weetwood Hall on a heavily sanded pitch, but great players can play on anything, and the AFC lads duly did. Not before the gaffer had surveyed the remnants of his troops, now down to a threadbare squad of twelve for varying reasons (injury and holidays), bumped up to a lucky thirteen when Matty Thompson agreed to 'give it a go'.

In the event, Brentford proved no match for the still ex-World champs, and the 4-0 scoreline flattered them, though one wondered whether Halifax would ever make the breakthrough, so many chances did they miss. Eventually, Hemblys thumping header from Paul Sykes'left-wing cross unlocked the door, and he added his second from close range before the break. Craig Peckover opened his account by rolling the ball into an empty after dispossessing a defender when Brentford tried to play the ball out, and skipper Matthew Blackburn got in on the act by forcing the ball home following a corner to make it 4-0, though his celebrations in removing his shirt a la Balotelli failed to reveal a 'Told You So; T-shirt and earned him a booking, a terrible example to set for the youth of today.

Brentford would prove to be the last easy encounter. Next up in the quarter-finals were Leeds United, looking for revenge following defeat by AFC in the group staged a year ago. But it was AFC who came out on top again, grateful to Peckover's powerful header in the first half from Blackburn's corner, the only goal of the day. Leeds who threatened the most in the second period, Meynell's blatant trip and handball earning him a booking (unlike Blackburn, necessary and justified) and AFC moved into the semis where old friends Oxford awaited them.

It's funny how some games come around. Twelve months earlier, Oxford were beaten by Halifax in the semis when Paul Sykes grabbed the only goal. Here, one goal proved decisive yet again, though not before Oxford had caused a couple of scares with shots pulled across the face of goal. Matty Thompson twice went close having breached the defence but in the end he turned provider for Kev Dawson, splitting the defence for Dawson to run on and fire past the advancing keeper. Halifax showed their resolve and held their nerve to book their place in a third successive appearance in the final.

New opposition awaited them in the form of a youthful looking Everton, Golden Goal winners over Bury in the other semi-final, and the two teams provided a match which the purists would have had them pulling out their hair. Apart from the one real moment of quality which saw Halifax take a fifth-minute lead, a move and a finish that had coach Dave Thompson purring from the sidelines, all things practised on The Stray, Hipperholme, coming to fruition. A patient build-up, Meynell holding the ball up, a run and shout from Kev Dawson on the inside, and a sublime pass into his path onto which Dawson never had to break stride, and an unstoppable 25-yarder which had the keeper beaten all ends up, despite his valiant attempt at a flying save. It was a gem of goal - Dawson's last meaningful contribution as he soon succumbed to a groin strain that had hampered him all weekend - but would it prove to be enough? Ultimately, it would, though Everton had several golden opportunities to tie up the game, particularly with the awarding of two penalties, one contentious, one blatant. The first, an unlucky handball offence committed by Meynell who failed to move his arm out of the way of a ball delivered at pace through a crowd of bodies, came minutes before the break, but if there were ever such thing as justice, it came when the Everton skipper blazed his kick wide. Halifax breathed a sigh of relief and clearly other things as well. When they kicked off the second half, it was obvious several of the Halifax players were running on empty and they simply had to dig deep to protect what they had. When Big Nige flattened an Everton attacker in a six-yard melee the referee had little option but to award a second penalty (though he took an age to blow his whistle) and the Toffees looked to a different spot-kick taker. Different he may have been, but the result was the same - wide, high and mighty. The taker may well have been disturbed by Paul Sykes' delaying tactics, but he was merely pointing out that the ball had been placed a good yard in front of the penalty spot (his protestations earned him a booking, though unlike Mr Blackburn his actions were necessary and justified). The kick was missed - surely the cup had Halifax's name on it? When Nige was forced into a point-blank save the engraver was ready to etch in 'AFC..', and when Everton squandered one final chance following a last-minute corner, the ball somehow looping inches over the bar from two yards out, the engraver was sure - Winners 2012 - AFC Halifax and the referee confirmed it with the final whistle seconds later.

A fantastic effort from every man-jack of the AFC Halifax squad, each one sure to be a household name somewhere; Nigel Walker, Matthew Blackburn, Dave Holcroft, Stewart Heaton, Adam Robinson, John Barker, Brett Abson, Paul Sykes, Andy Kelly, Johnny Meynell, Kev Dawson, Andy Hemblys, Craig Peckover, Mathis Okolimong, Michael Bloch, Matty Thompson, Danny King and Jonny Kavanagh, and not forgetting coach Dave Thompson, whose warm-up and cool-down routines were something to behold and which had the desired effect.

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