Skelmersdale Utd 4 – 1 Barnoldswick Town

By Martin Stewart

First of all an apology, for taking almost 48 hours to get this report out, but its taken that long to get everything that happened on Saturday settled in my head enough to be able to replay it back to you.   Before you start, grab yourself a cup of tea, a plate of biscuits, maybe even a sandwich and settle down, this is gonna be a long one.

During the week, the club had been working hard behind the scenes to get four new signings over the line in time for kick-off, all four of these new Skem musketeers were named on the team sheet for Pascal’s first NWCFL game in charge.   Nelson Digbeu a big centre half in every sense of word, Omar Mbowe another big centre half, Anis Zaknoune a left wingback and Yacin Amarzou in central midfield and captain.   Jack Grimshaw got his first start since returning to the club to partner Amarzou in midfield.  Also getting a welcome return to the starting line-up was Reuben Denton up front alongside Mark Bollongino.

The players took to the pitch in sunny but cold and breezy conditions, there was a good crowd ready to create a good atmosphere as Skem Utd embarked on this new era.  It didn’t take long for United to set out their stall for what was to come.  Just four minutes in and a sweeping move that was started by Zaknoune down the left wing.  He swapped passes with Denton outside the area, before getting to the edge of the box to pull the ball back to Denton again.  He attempted to spin in the box but was thwarted by Ethan Kershaw.

Two minutes later and another good move, this time Dana Amaral, exchanged passes with Bollongino but his pea-roller shot didn’t trouble Callum Jakovlevs in goal.

After 8 minutes Zaknoune was involved again,  Amarzou played a searching long ball out to the right which the pacy wing-back latched onto, he continued his run into the box but his shot deflected off the keeper for a corner.

The new boys were all impressing but their presence was also bringing the best out of some of the existing players too and on 14 minutes Bollongino spun brilliantly in the centre circle before setting Kristian Knowles free down the right,  three Skem players were waiting for the deep cross but it was well intercepted by Jakovlevs.

Chimbonda has been saying all week in many press interviews how he wants to play, entertaining attacking football, and it was certainly on show here from the off, with Skem passing their opponents to death, probing down both wings whilst Grimshaw and Amarzou dominated the middle of the park.   Amarzou in particular looks some player.  Some captains lead by barking out instructions and encouragement to those around them, some just lead by inspirational example and the new skipper is very much the latter.   He seems to be everywhere yet nowhere all at the same time.  Everywhere in that he pops up all over the pitch recycling the ball and keeping the team’s rhythm going on in metronomic fashion , yet nowhere in that opposition players just don’t see him coming to swoop in and take the ball off them with casual ease.

All the onslaught needed was a goal and after 24 minutes Skem duly obliged in another sweeping move.  Dana Amaral won the ball in the middle of the park and fed it to Amarzou on the left, he drew two players towards him then slipped it straight back to Amaral who by now had advanced to 40 yards from goal.  The 11, swapped passes with Bollongino on the edge of the box and with defenders, still not knowing which shadow to chase next, Amaral was in the box before slipping the ball neatly past the advancing keeper at his near post.  Cue all ten outfield players rushing to the corner to celebrate the goal with the goalscorer, yes we’ve led games before this season, but this time it felt like there was no stopping us from now.

Less than 10 minutes later Skem made it two.  Again the move started deep in Skem’s own half, Zaknoune picked it up outside the box and played it forward to Amarzou who was now popping up on the halfway line infront of the dugouts.  Going one better than before, this time he waited and drew three players towards him before slipping the ball inside to Amaral in the middle of the park. It was quickly fed onto Bollongino who shot low and hard from the just outside the box and the ball flew past Jakovlevs before he’d had time to set himself.

It took until the 32nd minute for Barnoldswick to finally put the Skem back line under any sort of pressure.  Digbeu and Mbowe were peerless at the back, gobbling up every ball that came near them with ease, and emerging cool, calm and collected to move it forward into midfield.   After a couple of corners were dealt with, the industrious Kershaw did manage to get a shot off on goal but it was straight at Ben Barnes.

Skem’s supporters have only had the luxury of enjoying being two goals up in a match once this season, and that was late on when the second went in against FC Isle of Man back on August Bank Holiday to secure the only league points of the season so far.   A two goal lead is comfortable, but a three goal cushion is joyous and those long suffering fans were about to have it.

Zaknoune again started it, this time he won the ball off a Barnoldswick forward inside his own box just five yards from the touchline, he skipped past two opponents before setting off up the field at some pace.   With Amarzou intelligently making a dummy run down the right, the space opened up infront of the wing-back and he carried it all the way into the middle of the visitor’s half before laying an inch perfect pass into Reuben Denton who was himself running in between the two centre-halves.   Denton raced onto the ball and chipped it expertly over the keeper into the top corner.

Half time Skem 3 – Barnoldswick nil and the home side’s performance was worth every single penny of the entrance fee so far.

The second half proved to be just as exhilarating an affair but perhaps not for the football.   Inside 5 minutes Denton brought a chipped pass down well inside the box, but his shot was blocked by two defenders.

Then just as the match was starting to drift into stalemate, all hell broke loose.  It started on the hour mark when Ben Lightfoot was yellow carded for a foul.  A couple of minutes later Lightfoot seemed to win the ball cleanly this time but a Barnoldswick man went down in the box and jumped up to confront his assailant.   Soon players from both teams were heading towards a melee that had broken out, just outside the Skem penalty area.   After a lot of pushing and shoving and accusing fingers being wagged, the ref managed to calm the situation down long enough to show Lightfoot his second yellow card and order him off the pitch.

But before the ref had, had time to put his book away, another altercation broke out near the benches, with Pascal Chimbonda and one of the Barnoldswick coaches front and centre of it.  This was a fierce one and the game was halted for a long time until the referee eventually brandished both the red card and they trotted off the pitch gesticulating their innocence.  Before play could be restarted, out came the red card again, this time for Mbowe who had obviously said something to earn himself a second yellow.

In all that had gone on, nobody seemed to notice that the ref had placed the ball on the spot and awarded the visitors a penalty.   Andrew Hill converted and suddenly from 3-0 up Skem were back to 3-1, down to nine men and no manager on the bench to give instructions.

All decisions now would be up to the assistant manager and he instantly showed what he was about. It would have been easy to send on a defender for a striker to try to shore up and hold on, but instead he decided to keep up the pressure and swapped Bollongino for Gabe Ellis, striker for striker.

Even with a two man disadvantage Skem looked comfortable, the midfield dropped deeper and left Ellis and Denton upfront to forage for whatever they could alone but the Barnoldswick front line were getting nothing out of the Skem defence.

On 80 minutes Denton chased after a hopeful punt forward and his challenge caused Jakovlevs to kick out at the youngster.   The referee spotted it instantly and showed the red card to the stunned keeper.  It was now 10 v 9 and Skem had a penalty to try and restore their three goal advantage.   Up stepped Ellis to fire the penalty home and make it 4-1.  Now the party could truly start as Ellis joined the supporters and all of his teammates behind the goal in a game of jumping and hugging.

The ref showed a yellow card to Ben Barnes for the ‘offence’ of joining in with the celebrations.  Technically it was correct, but it perhaps shows that the people responsible for such a joyless rule have never truly enjoyed a game of football in their lives.  And anyway for a 38 year old man to sprint the entire length of the pitch to celebrate a goal and then back again, surely deserves some sort of reward not a punishment.

There was still time left in the game for Ben to pull off a great save from a centre headed goalwards inside the box by George Chmiel and a free kick from Paul Dugdale to hit the base of the post, but United would not be denied and after 9 minutes of added time the ref blew, probably quite wearily for the final whistle.

This was certainly the most entertaining game of the season so far, with some home fans buzzing that it was the most entertaining they had ever seen as they left the ground to celebrate with the players down at the Bridge Inn.   If the rest of our time under Pascal Chimbonda is like this, then I think many more will be coming along to witness it for themselves before long.

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