Match of the Week: Equalizers football manager's impressive athletics CV
EVEN for a club that had caused one of the greatest upsets in Arlington Cup history it was asking a lot.
And for the former national champion from another sport, the role of football manager was never meant to be this testing.
Only five years ago Phil Norman was an outstanding young athlete with a CV that included an English Schools steeplechase title.
He had finished runner-up in the 2005 English Schools intermediate boys' 1,500m steeplechase, won that event a year later and took silver again in the senior boys' 2,000m steeplechase in 2007.
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That season he won the English Clubs under-20 3,000m steeplechase title in 9mins 10.16secs, which would have won the gold medal at the first four Olympic Games at which the event was held (1920-32).
But a promising future in athletics was stopped in its tracks, partly by injury but no less because of Norman's love of football.
So here he was at Rock Park, Barnstaple, an hour before kick-off in his first season as player-manager of Equalizers, and already the omens did not look good.
As if missing two key outfield players – Greg Norman and Scott Pugsley – was not bad enough, a third, Tony Philpotts, was required to go in goal in place of regular keeper Daniel Finch.
The Arlington Cup – the North Devon League's knockout tournament for intermediate one teams – holds a special place in Equalizers' hearts after their shock triumph in the 2007-08 final when, on the back of five successive defeats, they defeated high-flying Combe Martin 3-2.
So confident were Combe they even brought champagne to celebrate winning.
"Combe Martin were the outstanding favourites," said Philpotts, who has been with Equalizers since their first season in 2002-03.
"They had won the league and we were supposed to just turn up. They ended up giving us the champagne."
With the Arlington Cup in Equalizers' sights again, they were drawn at home to Northside Atlantic in the quarter-finals.
But they were down to ten players before the start and the manager's troubles did not end there.
Norman had forgotten to bring the team sheet and the match kicked off without him, leaving Equalizers down to nine men while he dashed home to get it.
"I took a different bag this week and forgot I hadn't moved the team sheets into it," he said.
The game was only 30 seconds old when Norman reappeared but his team would be back down to nine players for the entire second half after an injury to defender Nick Bruce.
Northside were at full strength bar one, with the relative luxury of a full complement of substitutes.
Remarkably, Equalizers scored first and they were still all square at half time, after which Northside made numerical advantage count to win 4-2.
When Norman curled a free kick around the Northside wall after 11 minutes, an outcome just as unlikely as their 2008 final win was in the air.
Not that Northside manager Jon Stanton was anxious during the 18 minutes his team were behind.
"I wasn't worried," he said. "We just needed to get our game together."
Although they did not hit their best form, Northside hardly needed to.
Oli Robinson had already scuffed a good chance wide when he fired an angled shot past Philpotts to make it 1-1
Six minutes into the second half Robinson headed his second and, a minute later, Matt Cann blazed a penalty high and wide.
The Equalizers goal led a charmed life as Vinnie Bott shot against a post and Philpotts showed a strong arm to keep out a thunderbolt from Tom Gleeson, but, after 70 minutes, Bott made it 3-1 with a close-range shot.
What Equalizers lacked in numbers they made up for in spirit, Matt Hawkins reducing the arrears on 83 minutes.
Hope was short-lived, though, as Gleeson made it 4-2 within a minute.
Watching from the sidelines was a frustrated Adrian Lynch, the Equalizers founder.
Though remaining as secretary, Lynch switched to Chittlehampton Reserves as a player because he thought he would be squeezed out of the Equalizers team. How they could have done with him now.
Chittlehampton's match was called off so Lynch arrived at Rock Park to give his support.
He formed the team with his brother, Andrew, out of a group of friends and family members who had played together in five-a-side tournaments. When Andrew stood down as manager, the brothers considered disbanding the club but first they asked Norman if he would take on the role.
"I thought I would give it a crack," said Norman, who is in his third season at the club.
"I get on well with the guys and I didn't want to lose the team."
Camaraderie has played a big part in Northside's development, too.
In only their fourth season, they won the intermediate two title in 2010-11 and are hopeful of promotion this season while remaining in all three cups they have entered.
The club was started by brothers Jon and David Stanton, and Tony Grills.
Neil Armstrong, the captain, said: "We have got a fantastic team spirit and we have had that from day one.
"We have added players along the way but we have not had many departures.
"A lot of local players come and go – look for trophies, move for friends – but a lot of the lads have been here from the start.
"I have played for a few clubs and you get cliques, but here we have a good bunch of lads who get on with each other."
There was a ready-made celebration for the victory over Equalizers.
Not champagne on hand, Combe Martin style, but a party to mark defender Carl Armstrong's birthday.
"There's a big do tonight," said the captain. "It's Carl's 40th tomorrow and the whole squad is going."
Founded in 2009, Northside were born in the year Phil Norman was being reborn as a footballer.
He had been only 11 when he had to choose between athletics and football.
Having come through initial trials with Exeter City, he was invited back but on a day he was due to run for Devon.
"I had to make a decision – the trials or carry on with athletics – I knew I couldn't do both," he said.
"I was enjoying the athletics so I thought I'd go with that."
Rising through the ranks, he was directed into the UK Athletics World Class Talent Programme but a hip injury in 2008 forced him out.
"The athletics tailed off and I got back into football," he said.
"Because I had been doing athletics for so long I lost interest and started playing soccer sixes.
"I was enjoying that so, three years ago, I joined a Sunday league team and it started from there."
Though he has no regrets, watching the London Olympics did make him wonder.
"You think, 'What if I'd carried on?' But I'm enjoying playing football now," he said.
Even if, like on Saturday, the barriers can look bigger than the ones he had to clear as a steeplechaser.