First's efforts in vain
It was a disappointing Saturday as the first team went down to a 2-1 defeat away at double champions Hartley Wintney.
With two of his three centre halves injured, and Keano Robinson arriving late, Darren Salmon was forced into a defensive reshuffle, slotting attacking midfielder Adam Allen into the heart of the backline, and leaving Aaron Bogle at right back.
The start of the game had a distinctly end of season feel to it, with not a huge amount of action in either area in the opening ten minutes. In fact the only scare either way was when an Allen backpass caused Craig Bradshaw a worrying moment, before the keeper was able to clear. Anson Cousins did well to stop a cross from Steven Duff from reaching Sam Argent, and from the corner Duff's header was straight at Bradshaw.
Allen picked out Argent with a misdirected pass, but we were able to get enough bodies around the ball and cleared the danger. Steve Noakes and Adan New defended a few balls into the area from ourselves, and likewise Allen and Owen Davies did the same for us, as neither goalkeeper was unduly troubled.
We had our first chance on 21 minutes, when Sam Blowers found Jordan Johnson-Palmer, he in turn found Michael Campbell who got beyond Noakes, but saw his shot comfortably gathered by Paul Strudley.
Back at the other end and Allen did well to prevent Adam Liddle getting a shot away, and the ball was forced out for a throw in, from this we conceded a corner, but that was comfortably cleared.
Just after the half hour, and we struggled to clear a ball over the top, and as the ball dropped to Duff his effort flew high over the crossbar. We then put a good move together involving Blowers, Matt Auletta and Campbell, which ended with Blowers dropping the ball into Joe Mead's path, but his effort flew over the crossbar.
Hartley should have taken the lead on 34 minutes, when a long ball forward by Louie Paget found an unmarked Argent at the back post, but he put his header over the crossbar. We then went close on 38 minutes, when Liam Holden curled a free kick round the Hartley wall, bringing a good save out of Strudley low to his left, and Hartley cleared the loose ball before Mead could pounce.
Allen did well on 42 minutes, having initially been caught out by a long ball by Dean Stow, he then recovered superbly to challenge Liddle when he looked as though he must score. The final action of the half saw Auletta crash an effort against the right hand post, with Strudley beaten.
Duff did well early on in the second but we were able to get bodies around the ball and defend well. At the other end, a good ball by Johnson-Palmer found Campbell, with his shot bringing a decent save out of Strudley low to his right.
Argent fired high over the bar after a good ball in by Paget and on 53 minutes Cousins fouled Luke Perkins and from the Hartley free kick we defended well at the front post and the danger was cleared. Stow then went down under challenge from Mead, and from the free kick Bradshaw gathered well low to his right.
Jack French then saw a long ball flicked on by Shane Hollamby into Argent, but his effort, under pressure from Allen went wide of the left hand post. Hartley took the lead on 62 minutes, we half cleared the initial ball into the area, but nobody shut the loose ball down, and French was able to pick his spot low to Bradshaws right for 1-0.
Three minutes later and it was 2-0, a poor defensive header by Davies only reached Hollamby, his ball split our defence allowing 9 to run on and fire beyond Bradshaw to increase the hosts lead.
On 70 minutes, neat interplay between Johnson-Palmer and Holden set up Cousins, but on the stretch he could only toe poke the ball back to Strudley. Shortly after and Blowers went into the book following a clash with Hollamby. With 72 minutes played, Salmon made a triple change, introducing Charlie Emery, Stefan Joseph and Keano Robinson, in place of Mead, Holden and Blowers.
Joseph went into the book on 80 minutes following an altercation with Paget, and on 83 minutes we grabbed a lifeline. Joseph won the first ball into the box, Auletta played it back into the danger area, and Campbell poked beyond Strudley and New for 2-1.
Our hopes were further hampered on 86 minutes, when an innocuous looking challenge between Campbell and New ended with the SCR man seeing red.
Full time came with Hartley Wintney 2-1 winners.
Good luck to them in the future, they have been comfortably the best team in the CCL for the passed couple of seasons, I would even say the best I have seen since the Ashford Town team of the late 90's, and i have no doubt they will be a success at Step 4.