Champions are very often the masters of winning ugly.
And West Yorkshire League leaders Bardsey provided testament to that once again on Saturday, grinding out a 2-1 win over Ripon City at their Keswick Lane ground.
A placid performance from the title holders gave City the chance to cause a shock. But the hosts showed just enough quality to bounce back from falling behind and Rob Dickinson’s sublime free-kick and Tom Leneghan’s winner grabbed another three points.
Ripon played their part in disrupting Bardsey’s flow, with captain Daz Simpson’s own rasping free-kick putting them ahead, but Charlie Brown’s depleted outfit lacked fire-power in the final third.
Heading into the clash with a ten-point advantage, Bardsey knew a win would pile even more pressure on their title rivals Leeds and Beeston St Anthony’s, who were both playing each other in the League Cup.
City, hurt by a 4-0 collapse at basement side Kippax last week, were in need of a response after drifting down in the race for a top five spot.
But manager Brown was handed a selection crisis with up to seven first-team players, including new signing Ben Jones, out injured.
So much so, the boss signed himself on before the clash expecting to feature on the bench.
Stuck with work commitments, Brown left the pre-match rituals to assistant Alistair Hogg, and he was forced into a late selection change when right-back Liam Gaffney pulled up injured in the warm-up. Reserve defender Elliot Gracey came in.
The opening 10 minutes gave little away as both sides battled to earn a share of the midfield, and chances were limited.
Pa Cisse had one snap-shot sail wide after Bardsey ‘keeper Chris Barrow’s poor goalkick fell straight at visiting forward Duncan Terry’s toes.
Dickinson provided an early spark for the hosts but his crafting pass was sniffed out by City skipper Daz Simpson.
Bardsey’s star marksman was involved again as he tested young goalkeeper Josh Avery, on loan at City from Harrogate Town, with a left-footed volley destined for the corner.
On 22 minutes, the deadlock was magnificently broken.
Bardsey captain Jamie Thomson mis-timed a challenge two yards outside his area, and Simpson stepped up to sweetly bend the deadball into to the top corner.
The goal unnerved the champions, but not for long.
Eight minutes after falling behind, Dickinson levelled matters and in doing so voiced that old song, “anything you can do, I can do better”.
From 30 yards, he arrowed a breathtaking free-kick into the top corner, leaving Avery with no chance.
Dickinson’s strike partner Steve Palfrey almost completed the comeback two minutes later as he ran across the City defence only to angle a strike at John Rimmer.
And with the game opening up, the hosts’ second did come less than ten minutes before the break.
Strong running from Palfrey again caused issues and he laid across for Leneghan to turn home.
Cisse had a chance to equalise on the stroke of the break, but he struck straight at Barrow.
Clearly given a short half-time blast, Bardsey rattled out of the blocks after the restart.
Palfrey forced Avery into two comfortable saves before the youngster showed off his talent by palming another thunderbolt free-kick from Dickinson out for a corner.
However, City stemmed the tide and were pushed on throughout by the experienced head of former Harrogate Town man Paul Vincent in midfield.
The referee Steven Berry also began to influence the match, harshly cautioning players.
Vincent became another name in his book for asking the assistant “are you sure?”, before his boss Brown was sent from his dugout for what looked polite protestation.
“Everyone has come to see you,” became the gaffer’s cry.
Such was the feeling against the man in black’s afternoon, he received little sympathy from the crowd when he took a tumble midway through the half.
Chances continued to be few and far between as City struggled to niggle behind Bardsey’s feared back-line, which has only conceded 17 times this season.
Substitute Nicky Seed headed a John Swift corner over for the hosts before another free-kick from Simpson was cleared well by John Swift.
Dickinson had one more opportunity to show why he is possibly the best player in the West Yorkshire League as expertly brought the ball down before lacing a shot wide.
One last push gave gallant City a chance to share the spoils, but Cisse, handed the set-piece duty from Simpson, blasted straight at Barrow.
With just eight matches left, Bardsey know seven victories would guarantee them the title. And with only blemish so far, it is looking more and more likely the village side will celebrate their fourth triumph in the last half-decade.
Such a lead would usually seem unassailable at this stage of the season. However, with second-placed Leeds City three games behind and still to welcome the villagers, boss Barraclough isn’t resting easy just yet.
“If they draw, or get beat, I think it’s game over,” he said.
“But there will be no let up from Leeds City. I am sure they will keep pressuring us till the end.”
City, on the other hand, have lost their grip on fifth-spot. Brown’s boys must soon end a run of four points from five games if they wish to stop fierce rivals Boroughbridge snatching the coveted position.