With Smithswood Firs well and truly in the title challenge with their games in hand and AFC Solihull being bottom of the table having only managed two wins this season, it would have been most peoples opinion that this was going to be a straightforward home win but that couldn't have been farther from the truth.
As the teams took to the pitch for the warm up the weather conditions started to take a turn for the worse and it was clear that they were going to have a big impact on the match. The wind was gail like and the rain was blowing into the players faces with the force of it.
The Lions had a strong squad for the match and confidence was high. Manager Paul Ryder was happy to have back two of his influential players this season in Adam Rooke from injury and Ash Weeks following his friends stag weekend. Adam Reece returned for his first game back since leaving and sat on the bench along with new transfer Harry Donaghey who the club signed from Premier side Boldmere St Michaels a few days earlier.
The home side lined up with the following;
Duffy, Clarke, Rooke, Anderson
Thomas (Capt.), Weeks, Leek, Short
Subs: Wall, Reece, Cottrill, Donaghey, McKenna
AFC Solihull set themselves up really well defensively and it was clear that they were expecting the home side to attack them from the outset which was the case. Smithswood Firs had the wind at their backs in the first half so were looking to take advantage of that. The home side dominated possession for most of the game but struggled to create many clear cut chances. Nathan Leek managed their first shot on target a quarter of an hour into the match. Smithswood won a free kick about 25-yards out to the keepers right. Nathan Leek looked to use the wind and unleashed a powerful shot towards goal but it was straight at Lee Garghan in goal who gathered comfortably.
Danny Charlton almost got lucky as he whipped a corner in which beat Garghan but agonisingly cannoned off the cross-bar and over as AFC Solihull survived some early pressure. Charlton went close again soon after as he unleashed a shot from the edge of the area but it missed high and right over the bar.
AFC Solihull weren't really troubling Smithswood at the back which was allowing Jack Duffy and Aaron Anderson to push on giving them plenty of numbers going forward. The few chances that Solihull had on the break were really good chances though and they managed to get a shot off at goal following a defensive mix-up as the ball got caught up in the wind but Harry Gardiner was comfortable with the shots.
The home sides Manager tried different things as he switched Curtis Thomas and Anthony Short to try and use their strengths against the different full-backs weaknesses but it was really hard with the worsening weather conditions as both teams struggled to get the ball down as it was frantic in the middle of the pitch. Nathan Leek was getting more of the ball but with the wind it wasn't ideal for his normal types of passes and Ash Weeks was finding it hard to get time on the ball and dictate play like he usually does. Their main threat was coming down the flanks with Curtis Thomas and Aaron Anderson down the left and Anthony Short and the marauding Jack Duffy opposite. With the pace of Danny Charlton and Dan Russell up top they were trying to work the chances in behind but were just overhitting it at times with the wind despite some decent build up play.
Dan Russell had a great chance saved by the keeper following an inch perfect through ball from Curtis Thomas but he couldn't beat the advancing keeper as Smithswood were frustrated by Solihull going in at half time.
During the half time break the wind and rain got worse and there was even a threat during the second half that the match might have to be abandoned as the pitch started to get waterlogged in areas. The home team Manager wanted more penetration in the second half and more shots on goal to test the keeper. Some of the build up play had been good but they weren't creating enough clear cut chances for his liking and he wanted more of that in the second half but with the conditions worsening, the goal was the most important thing and securing three points as they couldn't play their normal style of football and the weather could make the game go either way.
Smithswood Firs continued to camp in AFC Solihull's half and dominate possession. Solihull seemed to be happy with the draw and were taking their time with goal kicks and set pieces as they got closer to the point they wanted.
Ash Weeks had the best chance of the match as he fired agonisingly wide as Smithswood pushed on for the goal but they almost lost all three points with ten minutes to go. AFC Solihull managed to get in behind the back four and were clean through on goal. Adam Rooke tried to take one for the team and bring the striker down but he was away and the ref played the advantage as he was through one on one with Harry Gardiner. He went for power but Gardiner pulled off a fantastic save to keep his team in the game. This seemed to spur his team on as they went on the attack and the breakthrough finally came with seven minutes to go. A cross came into the box above everyone but the defence seemed to stop claiming off side despite having a player on the post. Anthony Short reacted quickest and kept the ball in play. He slid it calmly back to Aaron Anderson on the edge of the area who whipped what looked like a cross into the box but it sailed over the keeper and nestled in the back of the net. Whether he meant it or not nobody on the home team cared as they had battled and dominated the game really with their possession and will feel that they deserved the bit of fortune and the win. AFC Solihull will feel hard done by as they defended well the whole game and had a few chances of their own to score but it was a real battle from start to finish.
The weather conditions may have been a leveller making this a fantastic three points for Smithswood Firs. They tried to play the ball around but conditions were against them and in a game where Gardiner kept them in it, they could easily have lost at the end and dented their title challenge.
After the final whistle as Paul Ryder, Andrew Glenn and Neil Armstrong were putting the nets up, taking the barrier down and clearing up, the rain had been that constant and hard that the pitch was waterlogged and unplayable. A soaking wet Paul Ryder commented after the match “Games in these conditions can go either way as there is always room for a mistake with a slip, a fall or a dropped catch by a keeper so the important thing is getting the three points and I thought we battled and dominated the match and deserved the goal but on another day if Harry doesn't make that save we get nothing. League positions count for nothing in these sort of conditions and I thought Solihull defended really well. I would like to wish them all the best for the rest of the season and if they battle like that they will get a few more wins this campaign”.
Focus now turns to bank holiday Monday and a trip to Burntwood Town. Neil Armstrong commented “hopefully, the weather will be better Monday and we can get the ball on the ground and play the type of football I know the boys can and have done for most of the season. The goal of the bank holiday weekend was always six points and we are half way there as we look to put the pressure on the teams above us with our games in hand”.
Kick-off at Burntwood Town is Monday 28th March 2016 at 3pm at Ravenhill Park, Main Road, Brereton, Rugeley, WS15 1DT.