Saturday 1st May 2021
Going into the play-offs, Mark Milne had done something that he never had done in his time managing Wetherby Athletic from Sunday league level, to where they were today before the quarter final clash against Dunstable Town - he had enforced a ban on his players drinking all the way through the play-off process.
“I know it’s something that you don’t want to hear as it is something that we have always done, but this is a necessity. We need you all in the best state of fitness and mind going into these games.” Mark said to his team after the final match of the league campaign against Pontefract Collieries.
Coronation Park in Eastwood, Nottingham was the venue of the Wetherby v Dunstable match, which worked out almost ideally as the ground was equidistant between the two sides’ towns, a one-and-a-half hour journey on the road for both teams to contend with.
On the Wetherby minibus, Anthony Holt was on the music with a combination of cheesy pop songs of the 1970s and 1980s mixed in with rock’n’roll of the 1960s and 1990s. One or two couldn’t stand the playlist, but the large majority - particularly those who had been with Wetherby for years - loved it.
Mark slapped his brother Karl on the back in his seat as he hadn’t spoken to him on the way to Nottingham yet. Karl sat up, startled by the feeling that someone had made contact with him.
“You alright, lad?” Mark said chirpily, with a warm smile on his face. This smile was quickly replaced by a concerned look as he saw Karl’s face which looked incredibly pale and his eyes glazed over, as if he had had a rough night’s sleep the night before. “Are you feeling well, Karl?”
“Yeah,” Karl said tiredly as he struggled to look his older brother in the eyes. “Yeah! Why?” he reiterated, as if he realised that Mark knew something was wrong with him.
“Just checking up mate, that’s all.” Mark said, smiling again but with the knowledge that something wasn’t quite right with his brother today. He walked down the aisle to the front of the minibus where his seat next to Mike Jackman was. Karl didn’t look like he was in the mood to play today just from what Mark saw in his brief encounter with him. He spent the rest of what was left of the journey to Coronation Park drawing up the starting eleven for today’s match.
Before letting his side off the bus, Mark read out the team sheet which saw Karl Milne back on the subs bench: “Holt, Hosannah, Garfield, Casey, Downing, Jackman, Gibbon, Meeson, Herd, Mottley-Henry, Harker. You’re all starting.
“That leaves Elliott, Thornton, Turner, Scholes, Hudson, Jacobs and Karl on the bench.” Mark looked up at Karl in his seat as he read his name off the paper. He still looked pale and tired which was a large reason as to why he was on the bench. Karl rolled his eyes and hung his head down towards his Adidas trainers.
All eighteen players warmed up to the side of the pitch as the staff of both sides of today’s game greeted the officials. Mark still couldn’t keep his eyes off his younger brother during the warmup though - he looked slow and sluggish and on the whole simply foreign to his usual self.
It was Dunstable who were to kick the game off in this play-off quarter-final with Kavanagh passing it back to Evans in midfield who lumped it diagonally forward to the hopeful run of left-winger Domingo-Carrington. Bryce Hosannah met the ball in the air under limited pressure, nodding it inside to Jackman.
Play progressed quickly in the middle of the park between the three central midfielders. Seth Meeson lumped a ball over the top towards Craig Herd’s run down the right. After what was an inch-perfect pass, Herd brought it down incredibly well as he soared towards goal, one-on-one with the Dunstable keeper after just one minute of play. Herd finished off the quick move with a finish to the keeper’s near post as he wheeled off to celebrate before the ball had even crossed the line.
“Get in there Herdy!” Mark exclaimed as the Wetherby staff all came together in a huddle of joy on the sidelines, with fans on the other side of the pitch cheering in delight at Meeson and Herd’s great play.
Dunstable Town 0 - 1 Wetherby Athletic
Craig Herd (2’)
Dunstable looked shaken up after the first goal as the Wetherby side pressured them straight from the restart after the 2nd minute opener. Dunstable could barely break into the Wetherby half without a hopeless clearance or misplaced long ball over the top to one of their striker pairing.
Dunstable’s inability to get past the orange midfield protection as Wetherby’s ball retention was killing off Dunstable without even breaking the ten minute mark. Next came a corner as a Rob Harker shot was deflected past the post. Bryce Hosannah rushed over to take it to try capitalise on Dunstable’s tiredness from the constant defensive stints. With an inswinging ball, Cleminshaw headed it clear, but only as far as Dylan Mottley-Henry who greeted the ball with a half-volley into the vacant bottom-right corner of the net.
Wetherby had doubled their lead and ten minutes had not even passed in this quarter-final.
Dunstable Town 0 - 2 Wetherby Athletic
Dylan Mottley-Henry (9’)
Dunstable were still struggling to make anything out of their efforts with the ball as they had been doing all game. The opposition manager was screaming any cliché that he could in order to get some rhythm in his players, but it just wasn’t working - Wetherby were running them ragged.
The killer blow was dealt to Dunstable in the 21st minute as Craig Herd cut a ball back to the edge of the area for the in-form Rob Harker, who prodded the ball onto his favoured right foot before his strike his Denny’s shins and deflected past the desperate Leighton Smith who had just conceded his 3rd goal of the game, all within twenty minutes of play.
Dunstable Town 0 - 3 Wetherby Athletic
Rob Harker (21’)
Wetherby began to relax and start passing the ball around rather than their typical all-out-attack mode. They had lost the ball a couple of times in doing so but it paled in comparison to Dunstable’s players losing their heads at each other as well as at Wetherby’s possession and quality on the ball. Oliver Casey received a booking in the 43rd minute as he tugged back Jamie Forrester’s shirt whilst the ball was in the air and that was all the action up until half-time as Wetherby led 3-0.
After a stirring, complimentary teamtalk by Mark Milne who was fulfilled by the football he had seen in the first half of this clash, the Wetherby side didn’t change going into the second half of the game. This soon changed as Wetherby were reduced to ten men as centre-back Oliver Casey was given his second yellow and marching orders in the 51st minute. This dismayed Mark Milne who had desired a thoroughly professional performance for the whole 90 minutes.
Dylan Mottley-Henry was forced to come off as a result of the red card, replaced by centre-back Will Thornton.
Four minutes after the red card and the substitution bringing Mottley-Henry off the field, Wetherby conceded their first of the match, causing Mark Milne to build up in anger as he thought his team was slowly beginning to lose their heads after a three-goal lead and having a man sent off.
Dunstable Town 1 - 3 Wetherby Athletic
Ajani Domingo-Carrington (55’)
Following this goal, Mark decided to tighten the pitch in the middle, bringing the opening goalscorer Craig Herd for top scorer Henry Jacobs in the 56th minute. Switching to a 4-4-1 Diamond formation, Henry Jacobs fitted in at number 10, just behind Rob Harker.
The change in tactics and personnel on the field worked wonders as it stifled almost all Dunstable attempts at getting the ball past the midfield and allowed the midfield more central options, in turn bringing Dunstable’s wingers inside and allowing Wetherby’s full-backs a lot more space out on the flanks if they were needed.
Wetherby had dominated the game for near enough the full 90 minutes as the referee called time on the quarter-final as Wetherby celebrated subtly, knowing that a big celebration is earned by winning another two consecutive games in these play-offs.
Dunstable Town 1 - 3 Wetherby Athletic
Wetherby advance into the Play-Off Semi-Finals
When I saw Bamber Bridge lose that last game, I was crushed. Harker has deserved every minute he's played since February, an incredible streak of form.
It's undeniably been a great season to come straight up and finish in fourth. Now is the time to go one further!