FC United’s first team returned to Broadhurst Park for the first time in six weeks on Saturday afternoon, as the Reds played out a fiery 2-1 friendly defeat to Clitheroe.
Following on from a highly-competitive pre-season encounter between the two sides in August, United looked to gain some much needed match-time ahead of their return to league action, which had been scheduled to take place on Boxing Day.
However, shortly after the game, the Northern Premier League released a statement advising that clubs may forego their upcoming fixtures on both Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Following concerns from the FC United board that any home matches which the club are obliged to play would mean operating at a financial loss on match days, the decision has been made to exercise this option. This means that the Reds will now not return to competitive football until the second week of January at the earliest.
Played to a backdrop of bad weather which grew worse as the game wore on, a new look United started with returning midfielder Alex Babos, and recent loan-signing from Fleetwood, Dylan Boyle, going straight in to the starting eleven.
Things started well enough for the home side, with Joe White and Finlay Sinclair-Smith linking up to good effect early on down the Red's left hand side, and the hosts enjoying the lion's share of early possession.
Despite the early promise, it was Clitheroe who took the lead just 18 minutes into the game. Forward Kielan Adams found himself clear in the United penalty area with only keeper Dan Lavercombe to beat. The visiting forward had already shown glimpses of his attacking ability with an earlier opportunity and, having been set up with a header from Blue's captain Billy Priestley, took his goal well.
United played some neat football but found an equaliser hard to come by against strong opponents who relished any opportunity to outmuscle their opponents. Dan Cockerline had an excellent chance to level things up in the 36th minute, but was too ponderous in front of goal and aimed his shot at Clitheroe keeper Chris Thompson. Babos and Boyle both looked good on the ball, with the former playing Sinclair-Smith in for a chance late in the first half, which drew another fine save from Thompson.
The start of the second half saw six changes to the home team's line-up, taking advantage of the rolling substitutions available for the afternoon. Initially this had a positive impact, as United engaged in more dynamic play with a higher tempo than in the first half. Particularly, Michael Potts and Regan Linney seemed to be providing exactly the tonic that FC United needed to get themselves back into the game.
Clitheroe had other ideas though, and soon had their second goal of the afternoon. Half-time substitute for the Blues, Braulio Maeico was allowed time on the ball and after some neat footwork found clear sight of the United goal, striking the ball past a prone Lavercombe for 2-0.
Throughout the afternoon there was a sense that the game was perhaps being played a little too robustly for a friendly fixture, and United were forced into making a change in the 63rd minute when Linney hobbled off the field following a particularly crunching challenge. The injury prompted United into taking their talismanic forward off, and bringing rolling substitute Sinclair-Smith back on to the field.
Fortunately the young winger breathed life into United's play and, following a close chance from fellow-substitute Michael Fowler just moments before, Sinclair-Smith gave United a hand-hold back into the game as he latched onto a ball played from captain Michael Potts for the Red's opening goal. The United skipper had done well in the build-up, riding a challenge in the centre of the park, before bursting forward with the ball and picking out his young teammate for the side's opener.
Any real hopes that the Reds had of forcing their way back into the game fell apart just minutes later with a flashpoint which saw red cards handed to United forward Fowler and Clitheroe player-manager, David Lynch. Having been bundled to the ground, Lynch appeared to pull at Fowler's leg with some force. Fowler was visibly irked by this, and after a moment's contemplation, aimed a knee between his opponent's shoulder blades in return.
This was a difficult afternoon for FC United of Manchester against well organised, physical opponents. The first half showed that some familiar problems persist for United, as the side struggled to make the most of their possession and chances in front of goal.
Manager Neil Reynolds and the Reds will take heart from a better second half showing, in particular the encouraging performance of some key first-team personnel, as well as positive outings from two fresh faces which will add depth to United's ranks when the team does eventually return to league action.
Website man of the match – Finlay Sinclair-Smith. A player who is looking more and more integral to the Red's starting eleven as the games roll on. United rely on him as a creative outlet in attack, just as much as they do for his defensive tenacity.
Report by Sam Turner