FROLESWORTH United's hopes of clinching an automatic promotion place were dealt a cruel, cruel blow this morning as yet again they squandered a string of gilt-edged chances to succumb to defeat against in-form Throops at Linwood Playing Fields.
Ben Harris' side could and probably should have been out of sight at half-time after firstly Jack Sutherland thumped the crossbar and he and strikers Joe Cook and Callum Wills were all guilty of missing simple chances, before Jake Pantony then agonisingly struck the post for the visitors.
But instead they would head into the dressing rooms trailing as just six minutes before the interval, impressive former charge Adam Tester crashed home his second in as many outings against the Rabbits. A two-minute dizzy spell then completely put the game out of United's reach, before Nathan Bedford opened his account for the club from the spot with 26 minutes remaining.
But Frolesworth, pushing hard for a route back into the game, were fortunate not to be caught on the break and a combination of fine goalkeeping from stand-in skipper Sam Green and the woodwork denied the hosts.
It proves a costly defeat for United, who are now level on 23 points with Throops having played a staggering three games more and with six very difficult games still to negotiate, Harris' side are in grave danger of demolishing all of their toil and endeavour thus far should they continue to demonstrate such ineptitude in front of goal.
United went top of the Division One table for the first time in their four-year history in their last outing after a 3-1 win over struggling Horse, but they had been out of action for a fortnight after Dunley Way was chosen to host the Arthur Moore Cup semi-final between Advance Couriers and Sunbury United.
Throops, meanwhile, suffered a crushing 5-0 defeat at the hands of much-fancied Star & Garter at the quarter-final stage of the same competition after having inflicted Frolesworth’s first home defeat of the season in the Group C decider a week previous.
But manager Harris was forced into making three changes to the side that stuttered to three valuable points at Knighton Park, replacing the unavailable Harvey Morgan with Nathan Bedford at centre-half and Ben Hallam with Martin Fennon.
He also plumped for a change in formation, too, an unfamiliar outing for last season’s antiquated 4-2-3-1, with talisman Pantony and Dominic Ivens providing a platform behind Sutherland on the left, the returning Miles Splevings on the right and Wills, who was this time employed in the hole behind lone-striker Cook.
And Sutherland, who has been in blistering form of late with four goals in his last three games, continued from where he left off against Horse with a trademark rampage down the left before crashing a thunderous effort off the face of the crossbar with the help of fingertips from the Throops keeper.
It was a positive start from the visitors in a game they had to win and they would go close again shortly after, this time through Wills, whose hard work enabled him to beat the oncoming goalkeeper to the ball but he couldn’t squeeze his shot past him.
He should have done better soon after though, as he was sent sprawling clean through following another defence-splitting pass from Ivens. But as he tried to shape the ball into the far corner, he opened his body up far too much and somehow contrived to fire wide when it looked for the entire world he would score.
Harris had previously warned his players that they needed to be more clinical in the big games, but it appeared as though they did not heed his caution and this time Cook was the guilty party, when he rushed through one-on-one to fire a bouncing ball the wrong side of the crossbar.
The number nine could only fire into the side-netting from a tight angle as he attempted to atone for his previous error, but it would be Sutherland who would miss the next decent opening when he saw his shot saved when in hindsight, it was probably best to square for the unmarked Wills.
It was certainly the best half of football we had seen from the Rabbits this season, and the rebirth of the 4-2-3-1 formation had provided the much-improved Pantony with plenty of possession, but you were to get the feeling it wasn’t going to be Frolesworth’s day when the midfield magician was denied his first goal of the season by the upright.
And typically, a nervous-looking United side would concede the opening goal with the hosts’ first foray into opposition territory through former Frolesworth man Tester, who smashed home a loose ball following a corner in the 39th minute.
It was a devastating blow for the visitors, which left an apoplectic Harris thumping the ground with sheer frustration and disbelief at his side’s naivety.
It wouldn’t get much better after the break, either, as a wonderful Frolesworth move from kick-off culminated in Pantony breaching the offside trap, but he confusingly attempted to pass to Wills instead of either stroking the ball home, or taking it round the goalkeeper.
And it would appear that a bewildered Frolesworth had conjured up all they could muster, as they simply threw the game away in two crazy second-half minutes which saw Scott Williams react quickest to convert a rebound off the woodwork and Ryan Woolley run beyond a stunned United backline to fire past the helpless Green.
United have masterminded some breathtaking fight backs this season, but this was a bridge too far even for Harris’ young side as they looked completely bereft of any creativity or desire by now, though they did give themselves at least a glimmer of hope with 24 minutes to play from the penalty spot.
Wills’ delicate back-heel squirmed through the legs of the defender towards the onrushing Ivens, who was brought down, but such was United’s lack of confidence in front of goal; it was left to centre-half Bedford to gleefully dispatch his first goal in Frolesworth colours.
A spot-kick from 12 years seemingly the only way United would breach Throops’ effective, yet fortunate resistance.
But Frolesworth’s attempts to find a route back into the game were futile at best, and they were perhaps fortunate not to be on the receiving end of a heavier score line thanks largely to Green, who once again made some superb stops and his side would be left licking their wounds after somehow surrendering a game in which they would have been unlucky to draw, let alone lose.
Niffy Rangers will provide Harris’ side with another stern test at Dunley Way next weekend, but United will be hoping their lesson has been learnt and they can repeat the seven-goal haul that they achieved in the reverse fixture last December.
We still believe.
UNITED (4-2-3-1) GREEN 8 (MOM), PRATT 6, BEDFORD 7, JAMES © 6, FENNON 7, IVENS 6, PANTONY 7, SPLEVINGS 6, WILLS 6, SUTHERLAND 6, COOK 6
SUBS – SIMMONS 5
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