Mossley 1 - 2 Ashton United

For a time of year that's supposed to be jolly Mossley don't half have the knack of deflating festive spirits. If non-league football was the best programme on TV at Christmas, Mossley would be the Careline advert that pops up during every break to remind you that misery doesn't take a holiday.

Whilst it may be too early to suggest that the results of the three games over Christmas week will have condemned any side to spending next season in the Unibond First, Mossley's failure to claim even so much as a point in their first game against fellow struggler's Ashton United brought the reality of renewing old acquaintances with Clitheroe ever nearer.

It had all started so well too. From the first whistle Mossley went at their opponents with more desire and purpose than they've shown for quite a few games. In fact the difference to what we've seen recently was extraordinary.

With David Eyres playing in a central midfield role, Mossley finally had the creativity in the centre of the park that they'd missed since the puzzling departure of Martin Allison and it was paying dividends; not only was the ball being played along the floor but the players were dropping off their markers and creating space for others.

In the fourth minute an industrious run down the right by Steve Burke was brought to a halt illegally by Collins and Eyres stepped up to swing the fee-kick into the box. James Turley managed to get to the front of the queue that had lined up along the six yard box to meet it but failed to connect. The lack of a touch on the ball to change direction appeared to catch out Lee Bracey and he could only watch as it continued on it's arcing trajectory towards the back of the net. One-nil to the Lilywhite's and hopes were up.

David Eyres gets the congratulations of his team mates

A few minutes later the lead was almost doubled when an effort saw Bracey scrambling low to his right turn a shot around the post. From the resultant corner Smith and Shiel combined to almost power the ball into the net but as the Seel Park faithful became enthused and excited by Mossley's rediscovery of the football that got them back into the Unibond Premier it was over.

It was like somebody had thrown a switch as within seconds Mossley went from a side that was hungry for more goals to one that was happy to defend a one goal lead; a tough task for any half decent team but asking a side that has had defensive problems all season to do it for over eighty minutes is positively suicidal and so it eventually proved.

Before the big switch-off; SAS and Smith send a corner just wide

Mossley effectively gave up the middle of the pitch by dropping astonishingly deep leaving the gap between the forwards and the rest of the team bigger than the one between now and next Christmas. The free flowing football was replaced by the long ball resulting in Ashton not even having to work to win back possession, the ball being returned to them almost immediately after they'd lost it.

Most worrying of all though was that Gary Kharas, Ashton's one man attack, was continually being left on his own. Never before have I seen a four man back line fail to cope so spectacularly badly with one player. Even though we effectively had eight men sitting in and within a ten yard radius of our own box the number of gaps and spaces the United players found was unbelievable.

As Ashton began to find their rhythm the chances started to flow and it was something of a miracle that Mossley's lead was still intact when the time came for the referee to bring a close to the half. Steven Shiel had cleared Bennett's effort off the line, Phil Cooney hit the side netting when he seemed odds on to score, Shillito's last ditch tackle stopped Garvey from firing off a shot following a fantastic break down the left and Kharas forced Trueman into making one of a few great saves; the Mossley keeper redeeming himself for a number of first half handling errors that almost gifted the Robins an equaliser.

Melford Knight replaced James Turley during the interval forcing Mossley into a reshuffle that saw them restart the match with Shillito on the left and three men in the centre of the park; a baffling decision given that Ashton's tactics of pace down the wings now gave Christian Cooke the unenviable task of having to cope with two men bearing down on him at full speed.

Ashton began the second forty five minutes in the manner they'd finished the first, only this time they were being undone by their own failings; the otherwise excellent Phil Cooney being the main culprit in failing to provide a decent final ball to compliment any of his forays towards the touchline. Despite the lack of clear cut chances the visitors were now creating at no point did the assembled home support believe that "this might just be our lucky day." Well, apart from me and my misplaced optimism.

Twenty minutes into the second period Ashton worked the ball effortlessly into the box only for Bennett's path to goal to be halted with a clumsy challenge that gave the referee no alternative but to award a penalty. Though Trueman went the right way he was unable to stop Baker's inch perfect spot kick from nestling in the corner of the goal.

Baker puts the penalty beyond Trueman to draw Ashton level

Ten minutes and another change in Mossley's shape later (now 4-3-3), the visitors took the lead. It appeared that debutant left back Will Ryder had brought Cooney's move down the right to halt and with Steve Burke tracking back to keep tabs on the overlapping Royle, it looked like there was nowhere for the Robin's attack to go. However Danny Forde dropped five yards out of the Mossley area to receive a square ball and, with no-one from Mossley's midfield bothering to go with him or put in even a half-hearted challenge as he ran with the ball, the former Oldham youngster was able to make his way along the edge of Mossley's box before firing a sweet effort from inside the 'D' past Trueman. A thoroughly avoidable goal.

The onus was now on Mossley to take the game to their opponents but after being voluntarily mothballed for the majority of the match, it was unsurprisingly difficult for the home side to kick-start their attack. The Lilywhite's best chance came when a shot from the edge of the box squirmed its way through to Peter Wright in the six yard box but a vastly under worked Lee Bracey claimed the ball at his feet.

If anything it was Ashton that looked the team most likely to trouble the score sheet again. Two Mossley set pieces just outside the United box ended with the Lilywhite's performing some desperate defending as the visitors broke upfield. In fact the most common sight in the final ten minutes was watching Burke and Eyres tear from one end of the field to the other in order to support the attack and fill in the holes in the defence; the sides oldest and youngest players looking, for the most part, like the only ones who realised the importance of the game and both deserved to be on the end of something better than this embarrassing result. Eyres in particular was playing like someone half his age.

The result leaves the gap between Mossley and guaranteed safety at a staggering ten points; a seemingly insurmountable total considering we've only managed 16 points in 23 games and a measly three points out of the the last available thirty six. Add to that the fact that a defeat at Frickley will see us drop to second bottom and the winter looks bleak - and we're not even at the midway point either!

The first ten or so minutes showed what Mossley were capable of and if they'd played the rest of the game in that style I'm sure we'd be reflecting on a deserved three points. Instead, the mind boggling decision to try and soak up eighty minutes of constant pressure saw Ashton deservedly take the points back to Hurst Cross with them. I'm sure the reason for this course of action will be put down to the players once again 'being scared' but it's an argument that doesn't convince me and I'd dare say you either.

The players showed that there was nothing about Ashton to be frightened of yet as soon as we take the lead we revert to that tactics that we've started recent away games with - games where the sum total of our ambition has seemingly been to get a 0-0 draw. We're playing with wingers so why don't we use them effectively instead of being more concerned about what our opponents are going to do? We have some great players so can we not just let them express themselves instead of regimenting them into a style of play that compliments neither them or the team as a whole? There's a good team struggling to get out at the moment.

So, after finding that Father Christmas didn't leave Scarlett Johansson under the tree, Christmas turns out to be doubly disappointing. And sadly, for the time being, it looks for all the world like the only Great Escape we'll be seeing is on the TV in a couple of days time. Fingers crossed that the New Year brings new fortunes too.