Pope is the Saviour – Needham Market 2 Harlow 2

They’ve been playing football in this neck of the woods since the Middle Ages.

Back in the days when there were injuries, even fatalities, it was one of those places that staged ball-playing ‘jousts’ that doubled up as anything-goes, score-settling punch-ups. Must have been the best fun going in 1490.

So you couldn’t help wondering whether, given the high stakes – with this game’s winner in pole position to win the league and go straight up to the Ryman Premier, whether there might be a throwback to the bad old days.

Needham Market

Ten minutes outside Ipswich by train, next to Stowmarket, Needham Market calls itself a town but with a population of about 5,000 seems more like a well-heeled village.

Here’s the village information board on its ball-playing pedigree – it even seems to claim that rugby was first played here.

The club playing the non-Middle Ages version of football began in 1919 and is at its highest level ever – this is its fifth season in the Ryman North. Impressive club facilities are virtually brand new after what must have been a huge Lotteries grant.

Ex-Football League pedigree comes from former Colchester player Steve Foley as head coach and Kevin Horlock, once of Manchester City, as reserve team manager.

And, arguably this was the biggest game in the club’s history so far. Win it and they were champs. Lose it and Harlow were likely to take the title instead, with Needham entering the lottery of the play-offs.Needham Market v Harlow Town

The visitors’ flags, confetti and air raid siren were much in evidence and a beefy big drum had been rattling the locals’ teeth for 45 minutes before the game.

I overheard the following in the loo: “I know your face, what’s your name?”

“Nutcluster.”

“Eh?”

“Nutcluster.”

Sure enough, the fan surfaced on the pitch, name emblazoned on his replica kit, at the end of the match.

No stand-out names in the Harlow team though striker Leon Antoine, at 29, has played for an impressive 18 clubs in his career and this is his fourth spell with the Hawks. Does he wake up in the mornings and forget who he plays for, I wondered, setting off for Enfield instead of Maldon and Tiptree?

The Big Match

Nearly 1,000 attended – 500 more than the season’s previous best crowd.Needham Market v Harlow Town

Hundreds of Harlow fans turned up which was more than could be said for their team who were 2-0 down after 20 minutes and playing like relegation candidates.

After 12 minutes, against the run of play Market’s Michael Brothers picked up the ball inside the Harlow half, attacked down the inside-left channel, putting in a shot-cross for Sam Newson to turn in.

Nine minutes later a Harlow corner was so ineffective that the home side broke free to grab a second, again via goal machine Newson who has piled up 60 in just two seasons.

Time for Needham to rehearse the speeches, ferret out the goblets and plan how much post-match celebratory mead to quaff, it appeared. Presenting the championship trophy at half-time seemed like a possible option.

Needham Market v Harlow Town
Harlow fans were on the lookout for passing Messerschmidts
Harlow’s horde barely murmured, banged a drum or raised a Luftwaffe alarm, for the rest of the half and it looked like they had their minds elsewhere.

After the break it was a shock when they pulled one back – a testing cross into the box, keeper Shaun Phillips missed his punch and the ball softly looped off the head of a defender into the goal. Attacker Alex Read claimed it but it might well have been an own goal.

Harlow’s fans went nuts and recovered their admirably vociferous collective voice and verbally piled in to Phillips from behind the goal. He was rattled for the rest of the game – unsurprisingly as Harlow’s backing were not especially well endowed in the charm stakes.

Needham Market v Harlow Town
Leon Antoine nets but was offside
On the hour Leon Antoine netted – it’s on the vid – but that was rightly ruled out for offside, though try telling that to visiting fans.

And then you understood why the air raid siren was here. Harlow pretty much carpet-bombed the home area for much of the rest of the game – getting in crosses which in the first half they had shied away from pumping into the area.

I half-expected Home Guard Hodges to intervene – Dads Army was filmed not far away wasn’t it? – to admonish: “You can’t do that here!’

One such aerial sortie – also on the vid  – was a tough cross in to the far post that Phillips and his defence could not deal with and divine intervention from the Pope – that’s Craig Pope – well he swooped like a Spitfire from two yards. He cracked home the loose ball. Bless you my son.

Needham Market v Harlow Town
Craig Pope, hidden in the scrum, equalises for Harlow

Needham Market v Harlow Town
Back of the net: Harlow celebrate the leveller
After that, chances at both ends created a cup tie atmosphere – Harlow nearly snatching it at the end, with a chance that went just wide. You could almost hear Phillips sigh with relief – he won’t fancy playing Harlow again. – when the ref sounded the all-clear and blew for 90 minutes. The bombardment was over.

Exuberant visiting fans embraced Harlow players on the pitch.

So a stalemate that settled nothing but it was a good contest. A strong ref meant it didn’t degenerate – like some Ryman contests – into a Middle Ages-era sly snarkfest of medieval skulduggery. Or if it did, then I missed it.

The Marketmen stay one point clear but with a tough trip to Chatham next Saturday won’t be over-confident. With three draws and a defeat from their last five games, they’re in danger of choking.Harlow, man for man lacking the pedigree and class of their hosts, entertain Thamesmead with a decent shout of snatching the title.

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