Relegation Candidates to Promotion Contenders

Reflections on an amazing season for Guiseley AFC – John Clements

Saturday’s 3-1 win over Gloucester City completed a remarkable turnround for the Lions, who under the guidance of Mark Bower, Danny Boshell and Martin Stringfellow have progressed from relegation candidates to promotion contenders.

The transformation has been achieved over a period of eight months and has seen the team climb fifteen places up the table in the process, from third bottom to fifth and a play-off spot.

In achieving it the team has amassed a massive 69 points from a possible 93, losing just four times in the league. Among those results have been key victories at promotion contenders North Ferriby, Solihull and Brackley, all of which were the first time their opponents had been beaten on their own turf this season.

Of the three, only Ferriby recovered from the setback and they went on to vie with Telford for the title, a contest settled only by AFC’s 3-0 win over Gainsborough yesterday. In Solihull’s case, the defeat virtually put paid to their promotion aspirations, while Brackley suffered several more reversals before staging a mini-revival that saw them finish seventh.

However, in order to understand how the Lions are now just three games from a place in the Conference National we need to rewind to Saturday 7th September, when Brackley had just won 2-0 at Nethermoor leaving Guiseley thirteenth in the table with just eight points from six games:

Played 6  Won 2  Drawn 2  Lost 2  For 6   Against 9  Points 8

It was at this point that the Board decided the time was ripe for a managerial change and Steve Kittrick – perhaps Guiseley’s most successful manager ever – was replaced in the hot seat by defensive coach Mark Bower. He might not have been the first choice for many, but time would prove what a judicious decision it was by the Board.

Not that Bower got off to the most auspicious start. The team slumped to a further four consecutive league defeats, scoring  just two goals and conceding eleven and including a 4-1 reversal at Altrincham, where ex-Lions favourite James Walshaw helped himself to a hat-trick.

And old rivals Bradford Park Avenue added to their woes as they bundled Guiseley out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle.

The string of defeats left the Lions down among the dead men in 20th place, and the league table from Saturday 19 October makes sobering reading:

Played 11  Won 2  Drawn 3  Lost 6  For 9   Against 18  Points 9

When Altrincham released midfielder Danny Boshell from his contract to enable him to become Bower’s assistant at Nethermoor, little did the travelling support expect the turnround to begin at league leaders North Ferriby the following Tuesday.

But begin it did, with Ferriby taking the lead against the run of play before Gavin Rothery netted from the penalty spot to square matters.

Wayne Brooksby gave the visitors the lead on the stroke of half time only for the Lions to be pegged back by Anthony Wilson’s equaliser straight from the restart. But when Brooksby converted Rothery’s cross on 70 minutes it kicked off an unbeaten run of thirteen games that a month earlier would have seemed impossible.

After the conquest of  Ferriby, a sequence of seven wins and two draws took the Lions up to tenth in the table on 35 points. The run, which included a Gavin Rothery hat-trick of penalties in the 3-2 Boxing Day win at Harrogate and the 3-0 thumping of Solihull at Damson Park, eventually came to an end with a 1-0 defeat at Barrow on Tuesday 28th January.

In between times Histon and Avenue had been put to the sword in the FA Trophy, both suffering 3-0 defeats, although Aldershot Town put paid to Guiseley’s Wembley ambitions at the Recreation Ground by the same scoreline in early January.

Subsequent league defeats at Telford and Worcester – followed by a surprise West Riding County Cup semi-final exit at eventual winners Eccleshill United – looked to have stalled the revival, but when the management team set an ambitious target of two points a game the players responded by losing just one of the next eighteen – a 3-2 reverse at promotion rivals Hednesford Town – including the 6-1 humbling of eventual champions AFC Telford at Nethermoor on April Fools’ Day.

The change in fortunes is even more remarkable, and a testament to the players’ resilience and fitness and the management’s ability to cope with injuries and suspensions, considering that it was achieved over a raft of rescheduled games. A series of postponements early in the New Year produced a punishing schedule of two games a week from mid-February right up to yesterday’s final league game against Gloucester City at Nethermoor.

So what of the Lions’ play-off chances this time round?

North Ferriby have to some extent emulated the Guiseley team of three seasons ago in carrying forward their momentum from winning the Northern Premier League into the Conference North. However, that night in mid-October, when the Lions kicked off their superb form and in doing so showed United what top-flight football is all about, must be in the back of their minds as Wednesday’s first leg appears on the horizon.

Dedicated to the memory of Michael Hill – a true gentleman and Guiseley AFC stalwart who possessed a wicked sense of humour!

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