After Saturday's mishap it was a Tuesday evening back at a welcoming location for the re-arranged semi-final vs Pex Hill. Stoneycroft holds special memories for us given it was the venue of our last two cup final victories in 2021 and 2022. We were also inspired further by the return of both Alex McDonald and Charlie Hacking who returned to the matchday squad for the first time in over 7 weeks. The only change to the side which was already picked previously was in goal were Josue Fukiau came in for the absent Joe Wilson. The game started as expected both sides looking edgy and as though what was on stake was getting the better of them slightly. Pex Hill's danger man Alex Tenaka was understandably the one to watch although that's not to say the rest of the team didn't have quality too. Tenaka's record however was impressive having played in every game this season he's only failed to score in just one. Three of these included a brace in our 7-3 victory over them back in October alongside the opener in the 2-1 defeat on 25th March which effectively ended our title charge. He was up against Jay Boner who was given the job of filling the void for the injured Jude Carroll and our big number 12 done very well to contain him. The deadlock was broken when we got caught trying to play out and conceded a free kick which was dispatched superbly into the top corner by the left foot of Junior Jaminah which left us stunned with the execution of his finish. The goal seemed to help us and give us the kick up the backside to settle and we began to play some decent football. Skipper Paddy Clegg struck a shot that whistled just past the post before he was involved in a great move that saw him bundled over in the box and a penalty awarded. Up stepped Gift Sibanda who made no mistake to convert to level the scoring up. 12 minutes later and we went in front when Kaleb Sweeney's cross was headed goal wards by Antwone Duke who had stayed forward from a corner. Duke's header was making it's way into the far corner and could only be hooked in by one of their defenders who could only find the back of his own net. Ethan Danku who was quiet by his standards struck a volley that was well saved and Kaleb Sweeney's left foot effort was also denied which would have given us a well deserved 2 goal lead going into the break.
It was a case of stick or twist at half time and manager Tony Cosgrove admitted post match that maybe he was a little over eager and naïve to make the changes so early. As quoted he felt there was an opportunity to be more ruthless in front of goal and try to smoother Pex Hill with 2 attacking midfielders getting into the pockets to open the game up. This resulted in Ben Devlin moving to left back and Charlie Hacking being introduced down the middle, Alex McDonald also replaced Danku to form a new look front 3. Gift Sibanda moved wide right and this saw Clegg and Sweeney playing as double eights to try and offer the much needed creativity in our build up play. Within the first 10 minutes it looked like a masterstroke as they couldn't cope with McDonald's penetrating runs and his threatening pace. He certainly wasn't lacking his sharpness after his lengthy lay off and it galvanised the team in pursuit of our much needed third goal. Hacking on the other hand was finding it difficult, he seemed off the pace and wasn't getting the service into his feet which he thrives off. The longer the game went on without us finding the opening it gave huge belief to Pex Hill that they could still get in the game. That was proven to be the case after 65 minutes but it was a defensive mix up and a misjudgement by our deputy keeper that gave them a lifeline. It was a cruel and unfortunate error as up until that point Fukiau was doing superbly. It set up a tense last 25 minutes and McDonald had a great chance when he went in on goal but his shot was straight at the keeper. Sam O'Neill who had an unbelievable second half putting his body on the line with two great challenges countless blocks and headed clearances missed the ball with just 5 minutes to go and this left Tenaka one on one with Fukiau. He's so fast and you could see he wanted to go round him to then roll the ball into what could have been an empty net. A rush of blood to the head meant our keeper slid out and due to the fastness of this brought him down and left the referee Marsh with no choice but to point to the spot. There was only going to be one outcome and as the ball hit the back of the net it was a huge dagger to the heart as from being just 5 minutes away from a possible shoot-out it was a 12 yard spot kick that looked like sending Pex Hill to Saturday's final. Heads went by then and although we threw everything at it they defended superbly and managed to hit us on the counter attack and it was that man again for his second of the night to clinch it. The disappointing thing for us to swallow was the fact that for 85 minutes we'd kept him quiet but a 5 minute centre forward masterclass was to be the difference and it denies up the opportunity in our final ever season as a group. The season ain't over we have to pick ourselves up and with 3 league games left our aim is 9 points and to finish as high as possible. It means no silverware however after back to back seasons of jubilation the pots are handed out. WE GO AGAIN!