Lincoln United were relegated from the PitchingIn Northern Premier League East Division after losing 2-1 in the Step 4/5 play-off against Avro FC on Saturday. The Greater Manchester-based Avro, were promoted to step 4 for the first time in their history in only their fourth full season at the semi-professional level. Goals from Thomas Bentham and Jack Morrow gave the visitors a deserved victory as Lincoln United found it difficult to create much in the final third of the pitch.
Chris Funnell’s team narrowly missed out on safety, as United’s season haul of 41 points was one shy of the ‘Whites’ missing the play-off altogether and securing another season at step 4.
Their final-day defeat to Consett AFC was the final nail in the coffin, as the Lincolnshire side couldn’t quite string together a consistent run of results in the run-in. Important wins over playoff challengers Hebburn Town and Dunston UTS, as well as a win over relegation rivals Carlton Town, were almost enough to keep the ‘Whites’ up.
On Saturday, the play off brought what seemed to be the largest attendance Ashby Avenue had hosted all season, with large numbers of Avro supporters filling the ground with blue shirts and even a blue pyro or two.
Chris Funnell was able to name key players in his starting eleven, with the return of top scorer Matthew Cotton and first-choice striker Jake Park. Funnell confirmed after the match that both were playing through injuries, with Cotton taking painkillers for a suspected hernia.
Avro came into the playoff as runners-up of the North West Counties Football League Premier Division on 87 points. Having lost only one in their last six games, it was always going to be a tight fixture with not a lot between the two teams.
As the game got underway, Avro looked more confident and less unnerved by the occasion. Possibly, because they were the team with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Right-winger Michael Afuye was causing the Lincoln defence problems from the outset and it was to the credit of Lincoln’s left-back and longest-serving player Kallum Smith, that Afuye didn’t make more of an impact on the day.
Lincoln’s number nine Jake Park was forced off in the opening stages after trying to play through injury with Andy Janssen coming on in his place. The United attack struggled to get into gear throughout the 90 minutes, the closest they came to troubling Grant Shenton’s goal early on was from a looping cross that Elliott Dye couldn’t quite rise to.
Avro’s momentum was beginning to build through the half, as only a last-ditch header from Callum Foster averted Afuye’s goal-bound shot and a series of back-to-back corners kept United on the ropes. Avro even had a goal disallowed from what seemed to be a handball looking back at the replay.
So when the opener did come for Avro half an hour in, no one at Ashby Avenue was really too surprised. Another corner was whipped in and not dealt with by United, before Sam Rathbone flicked it onto the back post to Thomas Bentham who skilfully smashed the ball home on the volley. 1-0 Avro
United never really looked like they would have an answer to Avro’s opener. As it was long ball after long ball that never really troubled the visitors. Until they were gifted a lifeline just before halftime, as Janssen was dragged down in mid-air by Kane Wallwork, in what was a really strange decision. Matt Cotton stepped up and placed the ball calmly into the bottom left corner.
Half time: Lincoln United 1-1 Avro FC
After the break United had their best spell of the game, looking like the team from the Step above, moving the ball quickly and with confidence. However, the spell didn’t last longer than 10 minutes and they slipped into the direct football they played for so much of the first half.
Tobias Liversidge was finding the ball in dangerous areas and curled an effort into the arms of Grant Shenton. On another occasion, Liversidge drove into the box and found Kallum Smith who smashed a shot against the bar. But that was as close as United came to going ahead, until the inevitable late barrage they unleased on Avro.
The decisive moment of the match came at the 54th minute mark, as Avro were rewarded with a little bit of luck. Afuye was played in behind before he cut the ball back to the edge of the box for a waiting Jack Morrow. Avro’s number four hit the ball first time and it deflected wickedly off Matt Cotton to wrong-foot Jack Steggles in goal. Although the goal was fortunate, Avro thoroughly deserved the lead and were consistently the better team on the day.
From then on, United had nothing to lose and they battered the Avro defence with long ball after long ball. The closest they came to equalising was in injury time, when Harry Millard couldn’t keep his half-volley underneath the crossbar.
But United’s attack couldn’t muster up anything clear cut and Avro held on. At full time the Avro contingent behind the goal rushed the pitch and celebrated with their players.
The 410 in attendance weren’t treated to a game full of quality by any stretch. But Avro will celebrate their own piece of history and they won’t forget their Saturday afternoon in Lincolnshire for a long time to come.