Saint John’s Victorious In Sportsreach Champions Cup Final

Saint Johns FC represented our church and Accrington with pride and put in a performance which underlined what a determined and talented group of players the team has to offer. Manager Paul POUNTAIN was spoiled for choice in the run up to the final, played at the superb venue of The Brian Addison Stadium, home of Squires Gate FC, as all fifteen players who played in the semi-final were once again available for the final. POUNTAIN once again opted for the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation which has proved to give the team a good balance this season. The starting team was the same team for the third consecutive game with Tom HALLIWELL starting in goal with the ever dependable full backs of Paul HAWORTH at right back and James MULHALL at left back. Gary BARON, who has served the team so well since the team was formed in 2014, informed POUNTAIN that this was to be his final game which will be a big loss, and he partnered Ryan LAWSON at centre back. Captain Craig RICHARDSON and Liam REYNOLDS played in the holding midfield role and their performance was sure to be crucial in this game. The attacking three of Jake SCHOFIELD (right), Eddy RILEY (left) and Rob ADDISON (centre) would look to support POUNTAIN at every given opportunity as he led the line up front. There was the attacking threat of Michael MENSAH, Dave SHAW and Andrew DI FRANCESCO on the substitutes bench and the defensive option of Ryan ROBINSON should POUNTAIN need to shuffle the pack.

For some of the players this was the first time that they had ever played in a stadium and the added bonus of playing under the floodlights meant everyone was looking forward to pitting their wits, for the third time this season, against the favourites Wray FC, who were leading the Sportsreach league table by three points and were unbeaten in that all season. Wray FC had a large following of supporters but the team were grateful for the backing of those who made the 45 minute trip along the M55 to back them. St Johns FC were also indebted to Accrington Stanley who provided the team with a full kit for the big occasion. The team were hoping to win the Cup and that this could be a precursor to Stanley holding aloft the League Two trophy in May.

After a challenging Gospel presentation by David EARNSHAW about how ‘once you cross the line you can never go back’ regarding the decision about accepting Jesus as our saviour in this life, the players were also keen on making sure that once the whistle went in this game they had no regrets about the decisions they made on the pitch and the commitment they showed in the 90 minutes. POUNTAIN and RICHARDSON both encouraged the players to not be overawed by the occasion and they needn’t have worried.

Saint John’s started the game confidently with SCHOFIELD and RILEY causing numerous problems down the wings in the early exchanges. Wray were clearly a good footballing team spear-headed by manager Mark ELLERSHAW in the centre of midfield and the powerful Jake FAWCETT, who has previously appeared for Saint John’s back in 2015 in the All Day Tournament, up front. RICHARDSON and REYNOLDS were winning the early exchanges in midfield which meant Rob ADDISON was free to concentrate on attacking the back line of Wray, alongside POUNTAIN, and their dominance was to pay off as early as the fifteenth minute. Rob ADDISON received the ball from a SCHOFIELD pass in the area, turned the centre back brilliantly before slotting the ball into the bottom corner. GOAL! 1-0! The relief was palpable and with Saint John’s now enjoying a confident spell of possession the crowd did not have to wait long for another goal and what a goal! Jake SCHOFIELD, who had already surely won goal of the tournament with his rocket versus Loko in the quarter-final, received the ball out on the right wing, took on three defenders before curling the ball into the top corner from outside the area! Brilliant! 2-0! Saint Johns FC continued to attack knowing the next goal could be crucial. Wray, struggling to cope at this point with the attacking four of Saint Johns continually were guilty of fouling Saint Johns’ flair players. RILEY was caught late leading to a yellow card for their right back, who was subsequently substituted. However after all this positive attacking play, FAWCETT who was a threat all night, did manage to reduce the deficit with a great run and finish to the bottom corner on 30 minutes. 2-1! Saint John’s though, being encouraged by the faithful fans, continued to press the Wray backline and found a way through once again when POUNTAIN wriggled free down the left and put a hopeful ball into the box which SCHOFIELD managed to get to and shot powerfully at goal only for a deflection off a Wray defender which made it impossible for Wray keeper HUTCHINSON to get to and made the score 3-1! SCHOFIELD’s ninth goal in seven appearances this season.

At half-time Saint John’s knew that Wray FC would come at them in the second half. Rob ADDISON was also struggling to breath after he was battling through the first half with a chest infection. Not wanting to make any changes too early POUNTAIN stuck loyally with the same eleven. From the outset Wray came out with the intention of attacking Saint Johns to try and get an early goal to drag themselves back into the game. ELLERSHAW would have been pleased with the early pressure in the second half. On 55 minutes DI FRANCESCO replaced ADDISON whose performance was nothing short of incredible especially in light of his ill health. Wray scored a second on 60 minutes when the impressive George WHITAKER got the ball down the left wing and fired a cross come shot into the top corner. 3-2! With Saint Johns FC now facing a barrage of attacks from Wray they suffered two further blows when POUNTAIN and BARON, both 35 years old and both suffering from cramp, had to be replaced. POUNTAIN rather than bolster the defence with a defensive substitution brought both strikers MENSAH and SHAW onto the pitch to try and hold up the play in Wrays half. Whilst Wray, now playing some good, attacking football, kept pushing the defensive line-up of HAWORTH, LAWSON, SCHOFIELD who was now winning everything in the air and on the ground at centre-back, and MULHALL these lads were repelling everything that Wray were throwing at them. REYNOLDS and RICHARDSON were now camped in the defensive third and battling brilliantly. Time after time the team put their bodies on the line and defended with everything they had. For all Wray’s possession though they were not allowed many shots on target. ELLERSHAW did see a long range effort hit the bar on 80 minutes. The atmosphere within the ground was electric. POUNTAIN, no longer able to influence the game on the pitch was increasingly proud of his players’ determination to win this terrific competition. SHAW and MENSAH both held the ball up well and won the headers when needed. It was a brilliant effort by the whole squad and when the final whistle blew the team were delighted to be able to hold aloft the Sportsreach Champions Cup. Wray were as tough as POUNTAIN expected them to be but ultimately the performance both as an attacking threat, particularly in the first half where the team deserved their lead, and then the defensive brilliance of the backline in the second half meant the victory will live long in the memory of this talented set of players. Liam REYNOLDS, who has been incredible this season won Player of the Final and when RICHARDSON lifted the Champions Cup there was a great feeling of pride amongst all the players. Commiserations to Wray FC who will now look to win the league. Thanks must go to Sportsreach for organising such a fantastic competition and Sooty for refereeing the game so well. Also thanks go to Squires Gate FC for hosting the final and allowing the use of their facilities and most notably a great pitch, and also to the fans of both teams for making the long trip. Dave Finch also drove the team to and from the stadium in the minibus so that was greatly appreciated. Let’s hope this is the first of many trophies that are lifted by the team in the coming seasons! Also a special mention to Gary BARON who retires from competitive football on a high after lifting the cup.