Hardly Athletic have dined out on our underdog status in the short period since the club was established. Accused of media manipulation and using our pathetic performances to gain publicity, an impressive following was all that the team had to show for our first six months, which yielded zero points and a goal difference of minus forty-three.
With the league season in tatters, all hope rested on a cup run. This was dashed swiftly as Athletic, languishing at the bottom of the bottom division, were pitted against SS Ladzio, the leaders of Division One. Dreadful name aside, Ladzio posed a truly terrifying threat to a defence that would make the partnership of Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams look competent.
Despite the result of the draw, the relentless optimism of certain squad members did not wane. If I’d received a pound for every time the phrase ‘magic of the cup’ was uttered prior to the game, the club may have been able to invest in a top-quality striker.
The signs were there for a thrashing of ungodly proportions. Ladzio had beaten Division Two’s Combined Honours 19-2 in their previous game and Athletic had endured a testing winter. Assistant manager James Bate departed for a three-month placement at PwC in Manchester and Athletic’s final match before the Christmas break had, naturally, resulted in another calamitous defeat.
Lacking regular goalkeeper Danny Aspinall due to essay deadlines, an advert for a replacement was placed on Facebook group ‘Castle Leazes Ticket Exchange’ but produced zero results. It seemed that 6-foot-8 centre-half ‘Big’ Will van Woerden would have to deputise once again. Fortunately, upon collecting defender Henry Clark for the game, his flatmate Liam McGlinchey agreed to play in goal.
Unbeknownst to me, McGlinchey had not played football since under-8s, making him a perfect fit for the team. Although striker Raff Marioni broke his season-long goal drought at long last, the game finished 9-2 to mid-table IngSoc and Athletic remained at the foot of Division Three. Hardly great preparation for the forthcoming cup tie.
The new year and the game against Ladzio came around. Our team, lacking fitness due to the January exam period and the celebrations that followed, were not looking forward to the prospect of chasing the ball for the entire ninety minutes. However, the squad was buoyed as an impressive crowd of close to fifty descended on Longbenton Pitch 2, eager to witness one of the most mismatched games of football in the history of the game.
Agrics FC and Boca Seniors striker Rory Langdon was brought in as Assistant Manager. Dressed in a tracksuit, Langdon’s vocal approach provided the squad with a necessary motivational yang to my besuited, continental and quietly tactical yin. Ignoring numerous suggestions to play at least eight men at the back, Langdon and myself remained bullishly loyal to our tried and failed 4-2-3-1 formation. We hoped to drag Ladzio down to our level by attempting to play actual football.
Despite being put on the back foot immediately, Athletic started the game well. Playing at full-back for the first time, Andrew Watson was calm on the ball and assured in defence, while Henry Clark and Callum Jackson stood firm at centre-half. The first nervy moment arrived when goalkeeper Aspinall, still unable to get to grips with the position of the sun, watched an opposition goal kick rattle his crossbar. He recovered well, making several incredible saves to deny Ladzio and keep the scores level. Inevitably, the First Division outfit took the lead from a corner and doubled their lead shortly before the interval.
After an inspiring and insightful team talk, the unthinkable happened. George Yates won a free kick forty yards from goal and midfielder Ben Sangster stepped up. Reminiscent of Ronaldinho’s lob of David Seaman at the 2002 World Cup, Sangster’s controlled strike sailed over Ladzio’s keeper and sent the baying masses into rapture.
A truly great footballing moment that will live long in the memory of all in attendance. Unfortunately, Athletic were unable to capitalise on the goal and Ladzio scored two more to crush the Division Three outfit’s hopes of an incredible upset. Numerous questionable referring decisions halted Athletic’s chances of getting back into tie and resulted in calls for VAR to be implemented at Intra Mural venues.
As the game came to an end, Ladzio’s centre forward took the ball into the corner to run the clock down and was met by a thundering challenge from George Yates. Although we hadn’t won, we certainly got under their skin.
Despite being knocked out of the cup, Athletic can hold their heads high. A superb performance, possessing more steel, and crucially, more footballing ability than they had shown before, shows promise for the remainder of the season. We go again.