FA Cup First QR Round Replay Ashford Town (Mx) 3-0 Dunstable Town ATT 116
The Blues had the taste of defeat for the first time in the ten competitive matches so far this season, and those there would agree that this game was a lot closer than the final score suggests.
With the reward on offer of a home tie against Southern Premier side St Albans City as an added incentive, this game went the whole distance at an unrelenting pace and despite every effort no goals were scored in an exciting ninety minutes of quality play by two good sides, whose fitness, skill and commitment were all notable.
The fact that the game went into extra-time shows just how close this was and both sides failed to score in normal time, although the bar was struck on two occasions, first by Lee Roache and then by the Tangerine’s Saturday hero, Harry Knock whose stoppage time goal enabled the hosts to force a replay.
In the last round our fellow league club, Tring Athletic had been just as close to winning when Ashford scored in injury time to level the scores and they won the replay at Cow Lane. If nothing else, it has been acknowledged- at least by Ashford that the Spartan Premier League contains some feisty teams suggesting that there is no great gulf between our league and the Southern Central Division.
The Regiment were here, of course and so were the Regimental flags which were really good to see. We were last here in 2005 and drew 1-1. But in a total of four meetings with Ashford Town, Middlesex, we have drawn two and lost two. There were many who observed that the first game at Creasey Park ought to have been a victory, but it is no good feeling resentful. I recall that psychologist who opined that holding on to resentment is like taking poison yourself and hoping someone else becomes sick. We had that game all but one and the fortuitous free kick for Ashford led to that dramatic equaliser.
Tonight, Dunstable were a fine match for their opponents and the more the game progressed without score it seemed that extra-time would be inevitable and the anxieties of a penalty shoot-out. Ironically it was penalties that did for the Blues, following two rash moments in the first period of extra-time, when two penalties were conceded – the first by Lewis Kidd and then by Graeme Buchanan. Kidd did not get a sniff of a save and after that double blow there was little chance of coming back, but they at least tried until the last, with Roache drawing two good saves by the home goal keeper, McCarthy.
The Ash Trees were unchanged in their starting line-up, but Dunstable made a couple of changes. Leon Cashman was unavailable, being all at sea, literally, and there were starts for Damen Pickering, Jonathan Cooper and George Brinkman, with Tony Burnett and Jonathan Barnett among the substitutes.
The ground had been toshed up a bit since our visit of 2006 and gone was the homely ‘sitting room’ of a clubhouse. But those huge fuel tanks, that pump aviation fuel to nearby Heathrow still peered ominously over the fine pitch and I also noticed that when I went to exchange match sheets in the referees’ room, the door contained the obvious damage, presumably by angry managers in a previous match!
Very early on there was a gift of a chance for Lee Roache, and it looked as if he was certain to score but he only hit the post and struck the upright, but it was extremely close. That would have livened things up considerably. The corner that came in was good but like so many others it favoured defenders and it cannot be emphasised to highly what a massive contribution both defences made in this game that by its very nature would see continual attacking play.
For the Tangerines there was some highly charged play by Mark Bitmead, who had forced a corner from Kidd, ad centre-forward Dan Brown had a shot blocked. There was a gruelling combat in midfield with little space to manoeuvre and signs of hesitancy or anxiety meant some short passing, lots of interception and rushed attempts to strike, often going harmlessly wide or into the goalies’ waiting hands.
When the long pass or cross was adopted they were often over hit but it really was all in an effort to clear the congestion of the midfield. Flank play was swift by both sides and defenders worked hard to close down, being mostly successful. Counter play, when it involved a long through ball did suggest that either side might just be overstretched, but this was not actually the case until extra-time when Dunstable had no option but to leave gaps at the back when seeking an equaliser to the first penalty.
Roache, of course, was seen as a danger man and received close attention, yet this did not free Nathan frater to any significant degree. Strikers of both sides found making inroads difficult. It always seems to suit Jonathan Cooper but although he was a tad pesky at times he found it just as hard. Free kicks were incomprehensibly wasted by Dunstable, and although there were one or two pleasing combinations on the ball the final shot was indubitably weak or wide.
It might be seen as a sign of frustration in the players but I feel that the total of five cautions for Blues was rather strict unless they were all for dissent – which is hard to believe. The Ash Trees received two bookings and that too was perhaps ill-judged. The referee did have moments where he wisely granted advantage and in one of these there nearly came an opening goal for the hosts. It seemed supreme folly to sacrifice possession as almost always there was a quick break and a degree of danger.
Bitmead after good work sent a cross in that was too long, but our nemesis Harry Knock clattered one against the bar and that would have been as good a goal as he famously scored at Creasey Park. Dan Brown seized a chance before Fabio Bufano saw off the danger. If either side had made even a sight error it could have had serious consequences as the game became tighter and tighter.
Bitmead tried a run but was crowded out and Brinkman shot wide. Roache did his best to instil cunning and subterfuge but the defenders were wise to him. Frater was also trying to gain space, but Dunstable attacks were often pushed square and it took the steam out of it. Corners were sprayed in liberally by both sides and both goal keepers looked relatively sound in dealing with them, and the game was not short of goalmouth action at any time. It was not surprising that the interval arrived without either team gaining ascendancy in any area.
The second half did not decline in action ad enterprise. Roache chased a long ball and this favoured a defender. A combination of Buchanan, Cooper and Frater culminated in a wasteful shot that cleared the bar. A couple of in swinging Dunstable corners looked the business but there were infringements.
A Frater cross saw Canderton, playing his 401st game for the Tangerines, cleared. Both sides were caught off side through over eagerness. A Cooper shot was saved by McCarthy. Bitmead’s blistering shot brought the save of the game from Lewis Kidd, and he also dealt well with the following shot from a corner, ad from two further Ashford free kicks.
Brinkman was replaced by Burnett and he was soon involved with some teasing play on the right flank. Bitmead was still proving a problem with his pace and he forced a corner which was headed over the bar. Olaleye was giving a gritty display and he combined well with Burnett on two good possibilities, rather than probabilities. Frater disappointed with a low, weak shot after breaking free, and Roache was being crowded out despite his persistence in possession.
There was one moment when Roache had his pockets picked but he recovered possession, passed to Burnett whose effort was saved by the goal keeper. Pickering tried his luck from range and a quick throw in from him with minutes to go saw Burnett once again foiled. A Dunstable free kick on stoppage time had us hoping but it was a poor effort given its monumental importance as one goal would have done it, I am sure. This was followed by a late effort form Ashford that cleared the bar and extra-time was inevitable.
This of course is a drain on players who had given every effort, but that same hectic pace continued. Frater broke away yet his cross was way over hit into space, and then came the home side’s breakthrough. We had been half expecting the game to go to penalties and, well it did, but not in a shoot-out.
Lewis Kidd unwisely left his line to chase out a clearance and in doing so he was correctly adjudged to have committed a foul and he had to face Bitmead who, in what was the ninety-third minute. The home striker struck with emphatic precision and the relief for the home supporters was almost tangible.
It was a decisive blow to the hard-working Blues and yet we all thought that there was time enough for an equaliser. This hope was effectively shattered when Buchanan’s tackle was again correctly seen as a foul and after one hundred and one minutes Bitmead doubled his side’s advantage with a second well taken penalty.
Dunstable were understandably a bit ragged, needing to attack in numbers and inevitably leaving themselves vulnerable to the many counter strikes as Ashford attacked with impunity. The only goal from open play came two minutes later when Dan Brown swept home a cross and it was all up for the gallant Blues, who did not deserve to lose by a three goal margin and indeed deserved at least one goal. Roache tried to make this happen on two occasions but these brought two fine saves from McCarthy.
So there was no doubt that Ashford would face St Albans city in the next round, a team they defeated last year in the FA Trophy. We wish them well, since they face a team who play in the Southern Premier league and we instinctively go for the underdog.
Dunstable may feel proud of their two performances against Ashford Town and what hurts a little is the memory of just how close we came to winning on Saturday, but this Middlesex side has a wonderful resilience about it and a definite will to win. A defeat at some point was inevitable, but importantly, the team is still top of the league as we heard that the only team to take a point from us, Oxhey Jets, had an incredible 0-8 thrashing from Haringey Borough at home.
Dunstable face Stotfold at Roker Park, where they lost tonight 0-2 to AFC.
On Tuesday there will be something of a clash when London Colney, unbeaten as yet come to Creasey Park. Yes, I am consciously ‘concentrating on the league’ here, but the Regiment were proud of their team tonight and it was gratifying that a number of home supporters waited to applaud the Blues off the pitch and there was a sincere observation from a home official who said ‘Dunstable Town are the best team we have played all season so far.’ We take that in the right spirit and it is appreciated by us all.
ASHFORD TOWN (Middlesex)
Paul McCarthy, Harry Knock, Ed Thomas, cautioned, Russell Canderton, captain, Bairoh Conteh, Jack Mullan, Ashley Lodge, Scott Weight, Dan Brown, goal, 112 minutes, Kofi Lockhart-Adams, cautioned, MARK BITMEAD, two penalty goals, 93 and 101 minutes.
Substitutes - Alex Duffy, Samad Kazi, Joe Bennett, Jim Mann, Jacob Fuller GK.
Lewis Kidd, Damen Pickering, cautioned, Daniel Mead, Shane Wood, Fabio Bufano, Graeme Buchanan, cautioned, Moses Olaleye, cautioned, George Brinkman, cautioned, Nathan Frater, Lee Roache, cautioned, Jonathan Cooper.
Substitutes – Tony Burnett, Jonathan Barnett, Warren Plowright, Adam Mead.
Referee – Adrian Piggott, assisted by Mark Sennett and Vlad Sawenko.