Long Eaton United’s interest in this season’s FA Vase ended for a further year when they slipped to yet another home defeat, this time to United Counties side St Ives Town who ran out 3-nil winners in a game in which United were unable to maintain a sustained threat on their Cambridgeshire visitors.
Despite some good individual performances, particularly in their back line, it was the lack of creative guile that eventually undid United’s aspirations of progress against a visiting team that had won eleven of their last twelve games in all competitions.
United began the game with only one change from the side that started their successful Derbyshire Cup tie in midweek against Glapwell. Injured Chris Murdock was missing and Gary Breach returned to the starting line-up to take up a central midfield position with Paul Gamble reverting to fulfil the left back role. In hindsight, the two players may have been more effective if their roles had been reversed.
During a subdued opening, both sets of players appeared to be sizing up their counterparts, with United seemingly content to sit fairly deep.
Ross Whalin, dealt confidently with a two shots on target from the visitors before Shaun Rickford
tried his luck with a strike from distance for United, which was equally well-held by the St Ives ‘keeper.
Although the Cambridgeshire outfit were having more of the possession United were fairly effective defensively and Dean Whiley in particular appeared to be in commanding form at the heart of the action.
Unluckily, and just at the point at which United seemed to be breaking out of their collective shell, St Ives took the lead midway through the opening half. After a brief moment of pressure, United were unable to close down Conor Washington quickly enough and the visiting striker fired his shot low to Whalin’s right as United’s ‘keeper was momentarily wrong-footed.
The setback rocked United, particularly in view of their recent home form, but they strived to hit back and Gamble provided a dangerous cross into the visitors area which was headed wide by Matt Weightman and Zakk Hilton
had a speculative effort blocked by a defender. Nonetheless, for all their endeavours, United went into the break trailing.
Long Eaton had perhaps their best period of the game during the opening fifteen minutes after the resumption with Hilton again finding space before firing in a rising shot from the left that almost brought some reward and Michael Martin headed wide of the post after good work from Michael Armstrong
At the other end Isaac Marshall broke up a promising St Ives counter and Whalin held on to a well-struck drive from the visitors.
After sixty-eight minutes substitute Will Mellors-Blair beat his man before cutting inside to hit a strike that was also off target and just at the point when the home supporters expectations were beginning to lift St Ives scored their second goal, which was a carbon-copy off their initial effort. Once again it was Washington who provided his team with the comfort of a two-goal cushion.
The deflating impact of the goal was almost visible and although the blue shirts of United battled manfully to reclaim a position in the game it was clear that the visitors had the control that was required to see them through.
Josh Hooley fired a shot wide shortly afterwards and a number of crosses were pumped deep into the St Ives area but all were calmly dealt with by a defence that knew that the job in hand was almost completed.
Much to the delight of the visiting contingent, Washington completed his hat-trick after a defensive mix-up late in the game and United accepted the final whistle with almost as much relief as disappointment.
The workmanlike display of St Ives was clearly enough to ensure their passage to the next stage and although their performance was not stylish, it provided the reward that was required. For United, it was their tenth successive Saturday fixture at Grange Park without a victory.
Long Eaton United: Whalin, Armstrong, Whiley (c), Marshall, Gamble, Hooley Breach, Martin, Hilton (Mellors-Blair 64), Rickford (Mushambi 84), Weightman (King 73)
Another home defeat will have left the Joint Management team of Craig Weston and Mick Galloway reflecting on the difficult task ahead of them. The limitations of the squad in terms of numbers has pretty much seen combinations of almost all the options that are available to them and it is at times like these that everybody involved with the club needs to accept and understand that it will only be the collective spirit of the squad that will see them through to the end of the season. If there is a bonus to be gained from the wretched home form it is in the fact that only Scarborough and Parkgate have to visit Grange Park from the top nine of the Premier Division between now and the end of April.
The age-range of the nineteen or so players that form the basis of the present squad has an unusual balance right now, with a group of teenagers and a number of senior players aged over 30. Due to this, and little in the way of new faces at the club, the team has often started games with up to six players aged twenty or under, which may or may not be a burden to the older players.
The younger players have been having exposure to the first team and those that come through will be all the better for the experience, those that fall by the wayside will at least know that they were given the opportunity.
However, it has to be accepted that if new players aren’t signed then what you have been seeing is what you are going to get and no amount of criticism, touchline team selection or club room punditry will change that.
Finally, it is a truism that the game is all about opinion and the only thing that really bears up are the facts.
On Saturday, two United regulars gave their opinion separately that two particular players were awful and ‘so and so’ was United’s Man of the Match. It won’t surprise you to know that both sets of opinion were completely opposite to the other.
The facts are that United lost at home again.