Report by John Edwards
The Isle of Man has always been home for proud Manxman and Altrincham co-chairman Lawrence Looney.
Thanks to the unstinting efforts of Lawrence and his friends at FC Isle of Man, it was made to feel like home for the 100 or so Alty fans, players and staff who crossed the Irish Sea for Saturday’s pre-season friendly at The Bowl.
The weather helped, of course, sunshine all the way, whether you sailed with the team on Friday morning or made your own way over by plane or ferry on the day of the game.
But it wasn’t just the tropical temperatures that made it such a memorable weekend for all concerned.
The warmest of welcomes usually awaits visitors to the island, and it was no different for the hordes of Robins followers who descended on Douglas for the latest instalment of Alty’s build-up to the new campaign.
There’s no shortage of bars in and around the promenade, all equipped with giant TVs screening the sporting world’s latest major events.
Alty colours were particularly evident in Jak’s Bar & Smokehouse, where the squad dined together in the first-floor restaurant post-training on Friday evening, while a lively group of fans kept the bar staff busy on the floor beneath to a backdrop of Rory McIlroy blazing his way round St Andrews on the widescreen monitors.
It was all good, convivial camaraderie, but the main attraction, needless to say, was the match itself the following afternoon at the hosts’ compact, tidy, tree-lined stadium 10 minutes or so outside the main centre.
Such was the meticulous preparation by Lawrence and FC Isle of Man officials that the afternoon passed without a hitch and was thoroughly enjoyed by both sets of supporters, Alty’s making their presence felt, as is the custom, with a level of vocal backing that was gratefully acknowledged by the players at the end.
And what a game it was, from an Alty perspective at least, as Phil Parkinson’s charges turned on the style and ran the Ravens ragged with a sublime exhibition of purposeful passing and exceptional finishing.
Possession stats, had they existed, would have made interesting reading - somewhere in the region of 75-80 per cent in Alty’s favour - but it was as much the way they used the ball as kept it that was so impressive.
It was fairly pinged from foot to foot with speed and precision, and the home team had no answer, other than to defend in numbers and protect their goal as best they could.
They had at least some limited success with that basic objective, as Alty broke the deadlock in only the seventh minute but were kept waiting until just before half-time for goal number two.
Three more followed in the second half, and it was further testimony to the way everything seemed to click on the day that all five goals stayed in the memory long after the final whistle.
The opener came courtesy of two expertly-executed lobs, Brad Jackson measuring a bouncing ball into the path of Jordan Hulme, who looked up for an instant before lifting it over the advancing keeper and into the net.
Image: Jordan Hulme lobs the keeper to open the scoring for Alty. Picture by Jonathan Moore
There were near-misses aplenty from an increasingly dominant Alty side before they doubled their lead with a moment of sheer class from Callum Gribbin in the 41st minute.
Controlling a sweeping crossfield pass from Toby Mullarkey, the winger completely wrong-footed his marker with a clever change of direction before drilling a shot unerringly into the bottom corner.
One of many crisp, incisive left-flank forays led to a third goal in the second half, as the ball was worked across the face of the area for Isaac Marriott to tee up Ben Pringle for a spectacular left-foot curler into the top right corner from distance.
With both young full-backs, Aidy Roxburgh and Liam Brockbank, surging forward at every opportunity and stretching the Isle of Man defence with their enterprising runs, Alty were making good use of the wings, as well as the central areas, where Marriott, Elliot Osborne and Josh Lundstram were in complete control.
The home side pulled one back through Jacob Crook, finally giving their supporters something to cheer, but it was to prove a rare incursion into Alty territory.
It was Osborne’s turn to pluck a goal straight out of the top drawer soon after, as he curled an unstoppable right-foot shot into the same top corner Pringle had located from a similar range.
Still the Robins poured forward, with Marcus Dinanga showing a commendable determination to make his mark after going on as replacement for Hulme for the second half.
Dinanga has started the pre-season programme brightly but, like any striker, he could do with a goal to complement everything else he contributes.
He must have wondered whether it would ever materialise after twice having that all-important breakthrough moment snatched away from him in frustrating fashion, as Alty continued to carve out chances.
When he was upended by the keeper, he looked to have landed himself a scoring opportunity from 12 yards as the referee pointed to the spot, only for a simultaneously-raised offside flag to prompt a change of decision.
Being in the right place at the right time has served him well down the years, but he only got it half-right shortly afterwards when he instinctively darted towards the near post to turn a left-wing cross over the line, only for another raised flag to indicate he had gone a split-second too soon.
Alty’s persevering marksman was not to be denied, though, and when Pringle whipped in another inviting cross from the left, he controlled it and lashed it home from close range.
Mercifully, the flag stayed down this time and Dinanga had his goal with what was to prove the last kick, sealing a 5-1 win for the free-flowing Robins.
The game, like the weekend itself, could not have been scripted any better.