Birmingham Walking Football over 50's team put in a strong performance in the first round of the People's Cup but ultimately their dreams were shattered in typical BWFC fashion - losing a penalty shootout in the final after a 1-1 draw.
BWFC Whites travelled to Northampton on Saturday, played in seven 5-a-side matches and put in a sterling performance whilst winning five and drawing one, showing great team spirit and hunger for the game.
The maximum 14 teams, mainly from Northamptonshire, turned up on a warm, sunny February day.
Teams were arranged in 3 groups, 2 of 5 and 1 of 4, with the top 8 ranked clubs progressing to the QF knock out stages.
BWFC started impressively with a 7-0 victory over Moulton Masters Reds, taking early control and never taking their foot off the gas, despite losing midfield dynamo Gary Felton to a nasty-looking quad injury.
The next game saw Bedford catch the BWFC defence cold with an early well-worked free kick. Clever game management by the talented Bedford side saw them hold out for a 1-0 win, in spite of Paul Checkley's shot hitting the post with the keeper well beaten.
This reverse placed pressure on the brummie outfit as they knew that they probably had to win their 2 remaining group games to stay in the tournament.
Their aim was accomplished with aplomb, defeating Moulton Masters Blacks 5-1 and West End FC 2-0. Both matches allowed BWFC to show their tournament experience, totally dominating the opposition by retaining possession for long periods. There was however a comical moment during the game against Blacks when, at 2-0, a speculative, long range shot from the opposition midfielder went some way over the bar, but the ball rebounded and hit Mike the Cat's head as he completed his (for the camera) dive and ended up in the top corner of his net. Arguably the goal of the tournament!
Played four, won three meant that BWFC had qualified for the last eight as the fourth ranked team.
A comfortable 3-1 Q-F victory over Cobblers' second team resulted in a rematch with Bedford in the semi-final. This could easily have been the final as most touchline experts (there were quite a few amongst the crowd) believed that this was a matchup between the tournament's two strongest teams.
The cagey opening exchanges were soon brought to life by a fantastic move involving all five BWFC players, ending with Checkley stabbing home from 15 yards. Clever ball retention frustrated the opposition for long periods thereafter but the run of games in quick succession, coupled with only one fit replacement being available, inevitably saw the impressive Bedford side claw their way back into the game as Birmingham tired. The equaliser duly arrived and, at 1-1 and Bedford in the ascendancy, most neutrals may have considered BWFC's days were numbered. However, straight from the restart, Mark 'Gibbo' Gibbons engineered some space to unleash an unstoppable left foot drive inside the near post. BWFC had 4 minutes to negotiate and clever, disciplined defending saw the game out without alarm. 2-1 to Birmingham!
Cobblers, naturally backed by considerable and vocal local support, awaited Birmingham in the final. The game saw few chances although BWFC did have most of the ball as expected. However, a clever move by Cobblers ended with a fierce strike by their striker beyond the Cat and into the net. Chasing the game, Birmingham raised their fitness levels beyond expectations and their stellar efforts were duly rewarded when another fine Checkley strike levelled the scores. Cobblers seemed to adopt the Chelsea approach and had settled for penalties while BWFC strove for the elusive winner, without success.
After the final whistle, a short impasse followed whilst the organisers deliberated on whether to have extra time or to go straight to penalties. A sensible decision was ultimately made - both teams looked tired (to be fair it appeared that it was nearly bedtime for some!) and the match went to the dreaded shoot out, three kicks each.
The first penalty was scored and the remaining five were all missed. Alas, the only successful strike came from Cobblers and so Birmingham had come up short in cruel fashion, at the final hurdle.
Although this was a huge disappointment there were numerous positives to take from the day.
Mike Taylor-Lane made some unbelievable saves, often at crucial stages of games, to keep BWFC in front.
Stan Payne was the mainstay of the defence, ever reliable and solid in front of the Cat. He seemed to intimidate opponents by his mere presence.
Paul Harris put in an impressive display in an unfamiliar midfield role, scoring goals and also making important tackles when opponents were about to shoot.
Gibbo enhanced his reputation as a top sharp shooter with his 'fox just outside the box' skills rightly earning him the golden boot as top scorer. His winning goal in the semi is testament to his abilities.
Super sub and player manager Rob Castle chipped in with some goals, arguably running Gibbo close in the 'goals per minutes played' stats!
Special mention must be made of 'Player of the Competition' Paul Checkley's tireless work rate. He covered more miles than anyone else, tracking back to assist the defence but also getting forward to register goals.
Every squad member scored (even Mike!) and the team played in a wonderful spirit, clearly enjoying the experience. There were compliments from more than one of the teams who have invited Birmingham to return to play in other tournaments in the area.