A 4th minute penalty from Thatcham Town’s Ross Cook gives the Uhlsport Hellenic League Premier Division side a one-goal advantage over Hallmark Security League Premier Division outfit 1874 Northwich, going into next week’s Buildbase FA Vase Semi-Final second leg.
In cold and snowy conditions at Waterside Park, there were chances at both ends in a keenly contested 90 minutes, with Thatcham perhaps edging the territory and possession statistics in the second half.
But despite being free scoring in their own competitions, 1874 restricted the home side to just the one goal, and the tie is now nicely poised going into next week’s second leg at Wincham Park.
1874 Northwich joint-manager Paul Bowyer conceded afterwards that Thatcham were worth their win, but the belief is still very strong in the 1874 camp that their Wembley dream can be achieved next Saturday.
“I think over the 90 minutes Thatcham were the better side, and the better team won”, Bowyer told the league`s Ian Templeman. “Their front two were very good and they played well together, they always know where one another is, although I think we paid them a little bit too much respect at times and let them dictate the game too much in the first half.
“In the second half we didn’t let them play quite as much, they didn’t get as much service up to the front men, and then we created a couple of chances of our own and the keeper has pulled off a couple of saves.
“But they have scored a lot of goals, and I don’t think there will have been many games this season when they have only scored one at home. So you can look at it from the other way that we have limited them to one.
“We had a couple of great clearances and Greg’s had a couple of saves, but we had a couple of chances at the other end too.
“Obviously it would have been better going back level or up, but they score a lot of goals and don’t concede many, and we are very similar to that, so going back 1-0 down is not the worst result we could have had.
“If there was only going to be a goal in it either way today, you know it’s going to go into next week and that is where we’re at, it’s now down to the one game. The main thing is that the tie has not gone away from us.
“They have now got to travel, and we are still confident that we can do a job next week and get through, but to do that we will have to be better than we were today at times.
“They are a solid side and I don’t think it’s in their nature or ours to play defensively, and there’s still very much everything to play for next Saturday. It’s definitely going to be an interesting game”.
A single goal defeat in the first leg of a cup semi-final certainly gives cause for optimism in the second leg, although 1874 would not have legislated for falling behind so early in the tie as they did.
With the clock moving round towards the 4th minute, disaster struck when Thatcham were awarded a penalty.
Out on the left wing, Ekow Elliott’s pace took him past his defender and his ball inside found Thatcham’s leading scorer Shane Cooper-Clark, whose dummy and touch to find space invited a challenge.
As he hit the deck, the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot, and off a short run up, Ross Cook confidently stepped up to send 1874 keeper Greg Hall the wrong way and roll the ball into the right-hand corner of the net to give his side a great early boost.
Cooper-Clark’s goal threat had been highlighted pre-match as key in the Thatcham armoury, and he caused concern in the 1874 defence twice within a few minutes, having two efforts on goal that drew saves from 1874 keeper Hall.
But eventually 1874 created a chance of their own, with Taylor Kennerley testing Thatcham goalkeeper Chris Rackley with a shot that required a smart save to push the ball over the bar.
That sparked a period of 1874 pressure, and there were furious claims for a penalty on 21 minutes when Scott McGowan appeared to be fouled in the area, but the referee waved play on.
As the half wore on, Thatcham began to exert pressure on the 1874 goal once more, and after efforts from Babs Jarra and Tom Moran were blocked, midfielder Lewis Brownhill – brother of Ashton Athletic’s Joel Brownhill – tested Hall in the 1874 goal with a fine volley that the keeper dealt with well.
The pace of the game and the number of chances created in the second half both dropped, perhaps not surprisingly after a frantic first half, although Thatcham were ahead in terms of territory and possession.
But 1874 always looked a threat on the break, and Sam Hind tested Thatcham keeper Brackley with a well struck shot 20 minutes from time, which was parried to safety.
However, with no further scoring, the tie ended delicately poised, and the teams now meet up again next Saturday at Wincham Park in the second leg.
Two first half goals gave Stockton Town the advantage in the battle for a place at Wembley as they beat Ebac Northern League First Division rivals Marske United in the first leg of their semi-final.
Jamie Owens headed in Max Craggs’ free-kick after 12 minutes, and Fred Woodhouse scored Stockton’s second just before the break.
Marske were dominant in possession, but created very few clearcut opportunities, with Liam O’Sullivan missing their best chance from eight-yards out midway through the second half.
Both teams had to compete in cold and blustery conditions throughout, and a severe snow storm at the end of the first-half led to some speculation as to whether the game would continue.
The weather relented slightly in the second half, and Stockton, playing as the visitors despite the match being played at their Bishopton Road West ground, defended solidly to take a solid lead into the second leg next week.
The reality of competing for the chance to play in one of the world’s most famous stadiums was evident early on, with both sides slow to shed their nerves.
But when Craggs lifted in a free-kick after a foul on Kevin Hayes, Owens timed his jump to perfection to convert the first real chance of the game.
Marske tried to take advantage of a Stockton side that was sitting deep throughout the half, and, despite hitting the post from a throw in, they didn’t do enough to test Michael Arthur.
Midfielder Chay Liddle found himself in a good position on the edge of the Stockton box, but couldn’t connect cleanly, and it was further sloppy play at the back by Liam O’Sullivan that let Craggs square to Woodhouse for Stockton’s second.
Ground staff had their work cut out during the interval to make the 4G pitch visible after heavy snow at the end of the half.
The football was as frustrating as the weather for Marske supporters. O’Sullivan couldn’t get a clean strike on a volley from eight yards out, and despite multiple corners – including six in 10 minutes – and balls into the box, the home side failed to pull a goal back.
Stockton occasionally threatened on the break, but remained resolute behind the ball, and took a somewhat surprising advantage into next week’s second leg.
(Ian Templeman & Ray Simpson)