There was cause for mixed feelings after Coventry Sphinx’s League Cup loss on penalties.
Sleaford Town scored four out of four to progress to the next round of The Sports Ground
Development UCL Cup but the match itself wasn’t without its plus points.
Sphinx clawed their way back to 2-2 by half time after going two goals down, pegging back a
Sleaford team that possessed a dangerous edge throughout this fixture between Premier
Division South and North opposition.
Joint managers John Woodward and Shaun Thomas made a couple of changes to the
starting line-up, with Callum Whiteside stepping in for Loz Rawlings at right wing back and
Max Johnson getting his first Sphinx start in the centre of midfield.
Jordan Hayward continued on the left, with Jack Downes and captain Callum Woodward
joining Johnson in midfield. Jamie Draper, Louis Guest and James Bryson played in defence
in front of goalkeeper Scott Martin. Matty Shipman and top goalscorer Cally Stewart got the
nod up front.
The visitors made their presence felt from the first minute, narrowly missing from the edge of
the box with just 15 seconds played. Sphinx looked scruffy from the off and it was
immediately obvious that Sleaford were dangerous. Martin held a deflected shot in the third
With five minutes played it was Sphinx’s turn to give Sleaford goalkeeper Liam Flitton some
work to do as they briefly gained a foothold. Hayward’s slotted pass found Stewart in the left
channel, and the forward cut in and struck a low effort that Flitton saved comfortably.
Stewart hit the side netting with a left-footed shot after a tidy move involving Hayward and
Johnson, but Sleaford went ahead with a goal in transition in the 14th minute of the match.
The visitors stretched Sphinx with a break to the right wing and the home side were
immediately in trouble. The pass across goal had the power to find Ryan Rushen, whose
sliding finish took the ball past Martin for 0-1.
A defensive error gave Sleaford another chance just a minute later as they caused problems
all over the park and looked to build on what was a deserved lead. In the 21st minute an
attacking Sphinx set piece led to another Sleaford break and a powerful drive just over, and
it wasn’t long before they went one better.
The home team produced a decent move from a throw-in and got themselves into a
threatening position in front of Flitton’s goal, but they just couldn’t apply the finishing touch.
Sleaford broke with urgency and made it 0-2 thanks to an unfortunate touch from defender
Sleaford can take credit for forcing Sphinx into their worst half hour of the 2022/23 season so
far, but if Thomas and Woodward’s team know anything it’s that they’re never beaten until
they’re beaten – and neither is anyone else. With the score at 0-2, they rallied.
Johnson curled over in the 34th minute but five minutes later Sphinx were back in the match.
A brilliant diagonal pass out of defence by Guest found Whiteside on the right. He showed
strength and skill to get into the area and he found Stewart in the six-yard box. The forward
got the ball under control before volleying through Flitton to halve the deficit.
Sleaford responded, continuing to play on the front foot and get sufficient numbers forward
to keep the defenders on their toes, but in the first minute of stoppage time it was Sphinx
who scored again to make it 2-2.
Another neat move, again from the right flank, led to Johnson finding a pocket of space in
the area with enough time to get his head up. He slipped a lovely pass in behind for
Whiteside, who finished confidently past Flitton and into the bottom corner. Sphinx hadn’t
been impressive in the first half, but they had dug deep.
The home team started the second half on top and eventually achieved a level of control,
albeit with Sleaford’s potency frequently in evidence.
In the 52nd minute Stewart headed just over after meeting Hayward’s cross from the left,
and just after the hour a clever passing move around the box ended with Stewart clipping a
pass for Stone, who beat Flitton one on one but saw his shot hit the post.
Flitton denied Stewart a couple of minutes later after more creative work on the left by
Hayward, as Sphinx finally built up a really good spell of pressure in the attacking third.
Flitton saved again from Stewart, this time a header from Draper’s cross, but Sleaford
quickly got to the other end and had a shot of their own come back off the woodwork.
As the tension ramped up late in the day, Flitton saved a Stone drive from a tight angle and
Martin held a shot from Sleaford. 2-2 it remained.
And so to the disappointment of a losing penalty shoot-out. Sphinx have made hay from the
spot in recent seasons but have also been eliminated by the same method more than once.
This time, there was no ebb and flow. Sleaford went first and went on to net four excellent,
nerveless penalties that gave Martin no chance whatsoever. Stewart and Woodward scored
for Sphinx but Stone hit the post and Shipman fired wide. So it goes.
It’s easy to feel despondent after losing a penalty shoot-out, not least when the club’s
appetite to do well in the competition is clear. But there’s always an argument for seeking out
the positives and there were a number of those even in defeat.
As is so often the case with Sphinx, many of those positives had to do with steel and
character. Coupled with the ability so evident in the team’s league games so far, that should
serve them well as they move into a new month with two more cup games and some key
fixtures in the Uhlsport United Counties League Premier Division South ahead.
S. Martin, Draper, Hayward, J. Downes (Rawlings), Guest, Bryson, Whiteside, Woodward,
Shipman, Stewart, Johnson (Stone). Unused subs: L. Downes, Fraser, Noon