Never doubt Coventry Sphinx’s ability to put supporters through the emotional wringer from
the very beginning of a new football season. Two years ago, in the FA Cup, the first game of
the season ended with a penalty shoot-out. In 2022/23, in the Uhlsport United Counties
Premier League Division South, they banked three of the toughest points they’ll win all year.
There was nothing normal or routine about Sphinx’s opening day away win over league
newcomers Histon, playing their first ever match in the United Counties League.
16 minutes into the new season, first choice goalkeeper Tom Cross ruptured his Achilles
tendon – it was the worst possible start and everyone at the club wishes Crossy the best in
his recovery and rehabilitation over the coming months.
The remarkable performance that followed was carried out by a Sphinx team full of players
who were part of last season’s progress as well as a few new faces. Cross lined up in front
of Jamie Draper, Louis Guest and James Bryson in a familiar back three, with debutant
Callum Whiteside and Callum Martin in the wing back positions.
Jack and Luke Downes played in midfield with captain Callum Woodward, while Matty
Shipman had a new partner, Jordan Francis, up front.
Under the guidance of joint manager John Woodward it was a positive start for Sphinx in the
Cambridgeshire sunshine. The team looked to get Shipman and Francis on the ball early
and give Histon’s defenders something to think about, but the visiting defence had work to
do soon after kick-off.
With ten minutes played Histon created a dangerous chance on the counter-attack only to be
thwarted by a superb last-ditch tackle by Draper. Guest was earning his money the hard way
from the start and would continue to do so throughout a monolithic defensive display.
The game was still young when Cross was injured and his loss will be felt this season. First
order of business: no goalkeeper on the bench, Danny Fraser on to make his competitive
return from his own injury and centre back Bryson in goal. With more than 70 minutes left to
play Histon must have fancied their chances.
Attack was likely to prove the best form of defence and Sphinx soon had their first chance,
Shipman flicking a difficult header over Sam Roach’s crossbar from a long Whiteside
Bryson stood up impeccably to his first test between the posts. The hosts worked a very
presentable opening and a clear sight of goal, but the heroic stand-in made a fine diving
save to keep the game goalless.
By the half-hour mark, Sphinx were struggling for possession and Draper and Guest
powered their way through an enormous workload at the back. Bryson kept Histon at bay
with another piece of handling that was more tenacious than technical, but it did the job.
Draper came to the rescue again in the 32nd minute as the half became difficult going for the
away team. Histon were eager to test Bryson and Sphinx had to withstand growing pressure.
The players were grafting to protect the goalkeeper, snapping into tackles all over the pitch.
Shipman’s hold-up play at the other end was vital to that effort and not without a threat of its
own. He was involved in a nice move in the 37th minute that resulted in Draper being fouled
on the edge of the Histon penalty area. Fraser’s free kick was cleanly struck but easily held
Sphinx were unable to take a clean sheet as far as half time. Dan Brown was the Histon
beneficiary in the third minute of stoppage time, calmly tucking the ball home to take a
relatively simple chance with the break looming and make it 1-0 to the home side.
If the visitors had bent to the will of the football gods in the first half, shown too much respect
to a team no better than them in more orthodox circumstances, in the second they were
having none of it.
By turning 1-0 into 1-2 without a specialist goalkeeper, the players played a Sphinx half for
the ages. They were immediately more composed, more comfortable on the ball, and
generated a chance three minutes into the second period when a deep cross from Martin
found Fraser at the far post. His first-time effort hit the side netting.
While the visitors were now more involved in an attacking sense, Histon pushed to put the
match beyond them. They curled a shot over from the edge of the box in the 54th minute but
Sphinx substitute Callum Stewart soon got through at the other end. Last season’s top
goalscorer got a good shot away under pressure but Roach made a strong save with his
Sphinx were thrown a lifeline in the 56th minute when Fraser raced on to a through ball, got
across his marker in the Histon box and was fouled by the last man. Stewart scored plenty of
penalty kicks last season and he scored this one too, confidently stroking the ball into the
bottom corner to level the match.
As the match passed the hour, Sphinx’s tails were up and they looked as likely to pick up
another two points as to lose one.
Bryson held a deflected shot and the visitors were now protecting him by making things
happen at the other end. They had no shortage of attacking intent and it worked out
beautifully, even if the occasional lapse in possession allowed Histon to go close in the
middle of the half.
Close, but not close enough. In the 67th minute, Histon were penalised for a foul in the same
position as Fraser’s free kick in the first half.
This time, Woodward placed the ball and took the free kick. It curled in at Roach’s near post,
kissing the crossbar as it found the top corner and bounced up into the roof of the net.
Woodward has scored many a free kick for Sphinx. This was one of the best.
With quarter of an hour remaining, Fraser produced a vital block to deny Histon an equaliser.
The match was getting stretched, with Histon chasing a second goal and leaving opportunity
after opportunity for Sphinx – the better side by far in the second half – to break.
Mason Platts, off the bench to make his debut, dragged a shot just wide that looked destined
to nestle in the bottom corner. Shipman and Stewart constructed a clever exchange that
culminated in Shipman’s shot being well saved by Roach for a Sphinx corner. Stewart’s
sliding shot nicked off a defender with five minutes left.
But the most important moment in the last quarter of the match came in the 89th minute from
a Histon set piece. The Sphinx wall collapsed and allowed a waist-high shot to whip through
on goal. An unsighted Bryson, who started the match in a number six shirt, somehow made
a sensational save to see Sphinx home, albeit after five of four stoppage time minutes.
The Sphinx performance in the second half was tremendous. It’s brave to take the game to
the opposition in those circumstances but it’s also necessary, and once the players took
control of the match between the two penalty areas they fared far better. Bryson’s heroics
rewarded their efforts.
There were stellar performances in all departments at the Bridge Road Stadium but this was
a gutsy team effort with one outstanding contributor. A number of Sphinx players were terrific
but Bryson stood up to be counted – again – and backed it up with a string of saves to win
Sphinx started the 2022/23 season with a win in exceptional circumstances, forced to dig
deep from the word go. The value of keeping last season’s team together was immediately
apparent and will serve them well for the campaign ahead.
Crossy will have to play his part from the sidelines for now, but the rest of the team is intact
and every bit as diligent and feisty as it was in 2021/22.
Cross (Fraser), Draper, C. Martin, J. Downes, Guest, Bryson, Whiteside, L. Downes (Platts),
Shipman, Woodward, Francis (Stewart). Unused subs: Billing, Walker