The frantic last six weeks of the season for Smithswood Firs had been tough on the squad but they have come through a run of 12 games in 35 days with grit, determination and a lot of fight. They had come together as a team and moral had soared on and off the pitch while the exciting attacking brand of football they have produced has won them several plaudits on social media from opposition players, managers and fans. A run of nine straight wins to end the campaign secured promotion for The Lions in only their second season in the Midland Football League and they went into the final of the Les James Challenge Cup in confident mood that they could beat Division 2 Champions Alvis Sporting who themselves have had a phenomenal season, one that saw them go unbeaten in the League and lose the Presidents Cup Final to Droitwich Spa only two days previous.
Manager Paul Ryder had some selection headaches ahead of the Final. They had a few players absent however with Troy Baker (ineligible), Harry Donaghey (cup tied), Cameron Lee (hernia) and Daniel Wall (dislocated shoulder) all unavailable.
Despite the absentees Paul Ryder sent a very strong team out against Alvis Sporting going with the following
Duffy, Clarke, Rooke, Leek
Short, Weeks, Thomas (Capt)
Charlton, Sayer, Anderson
Subs: Cottrill, Gardiner, Reece, Russell, Thompson
With a Division separating the two teams, Smithswood Firs went in as underdogs but had already got past Division 2 teams Coton Green, Knowle and Paget Rangers so were not overawed by their opponents. The Manager sent his team out to attack Alvis Sporting from the first whistle and they didn’t disappoint him.
The first half was all Smithswood Firs as they took the game to the Division 2 Champions. Danny Charlton almost put them ahead early on following some great work from Curtis Thomas but fired just wide which was a warning for Alvis. Nathan Leek almost had the ideal start to his game when he picked the ball up outside the box and hit a 25-yard bullet of a shot which had the keeper beaten but Leek saw it hit the bar and bounce clear as Alvis scrambled it away and then conceded a free kick wide right. Leek was still shaking his head as he wondered how it hadn’t gone in when Curtis Thomas whipped the free-kick in, it fell for Leek in the box and he watched agonisingly again as his shot went wide of the post as Smithswood Firs piled the pressure on Alvis Sporting.
That pressure finally told just after twenty minutes in. Danny Charlton picked the ball up inside the Alvis half and ran at the left back. He couldn’t find space for a cross the first time so faked to drive inside creating a yard and he fired a ball across the six-yard box for the onrushing Aaron Anderson who got in front of the defender to guide the ball into the net. It was no more than they had deserved.
The goal didn’t make Smithswood sit back as that isn’t in their nature and they pressed on for the second goal which came only ten minutes later. Curtis Thomas picked out Nathan Leek on the back post from a long free-kick. Rather than panic and head towards goal, Leek calmly directed his header across goal for Adam Rooke who fired in from close range to put The Lions two goals up.
It was game on five minutes later from a Smithswood corner. Alvis cleared and broke quickly with three players getting an overlap on the left. Tommy Maguire worked the ball in well to David Moyo who made no mistake to make it 2-1 and put his team back in the game.
Rather than crack under the pressure, Smithswood done totally the opposite as they went back on the attack from the kick off with Nathan Leek driving forward from left back. It looked like he was going to lose the ball ten yards outside the Alvis area as he had three players on him but Aaron Anderson backed him up and drove towards goal beating three defenders with his quick feet before calmly placing his shot past the keeper to restore The Lions two goal lead going in at half time.
Smithswood were winning the battle in midfield which was being run by Ash Weeks, Anthony Short and the impressive Curtis Thomas who was getting in to so much space between their midfield and defence that Alvis couldn't pick him up. They couldn’t handle the pace of Danny Charlton and Aaron Anderson while Lee Sayer was just a menace all game chasing everything down and not giving them a second to settle.
The first half was definitely all Smithswood Firs but Alvis Sporting came out fighting after the break. Jack Duffy, Scott Clarke, Adam Rooke and Nathan Leek were having fantastic games and kept Alvis at bay despite them being much better in the second half.
Dan Russell and Carl Thompson had to replace the injured Lee Sayer and Nathan Leek in the scond half.
As the game headed into the last quarter of an hour, Alvis Sporting won a dubious penalty. It looked like a simple shoulder to shoulder challenge between two players starting outside the box, but the referee pointed to the spot. Tommy Maguire stepped up and confidently blasted his shot towards Jake Woodward’s top right hand corner. Woodward amazingly got a hand to the powerful shot and deflected it over the bar to keep his teams two goal lead in-tact as his teammates congratulated him on the unbelievable save.
Smithswood looked like they were going to keep Alvis out as they defended excellently until a crazy last six minutes which saw Alvis score twice to send the game in to extra-time. Shaun Brassington scored first as he found himself free to fire in from close range from a long free kick and the equaliser followed two minutes from time from David Moyo.
Both teams deserve credit as they both went for the win in extra time and it was like a basketball game at times as it went from end to end. Unfortunately for the neutral and Smithswood, the game was to be decided by the referee and his decision to award a penalty ten minutes into extra time for an alleged foul on Tommy Maguire. It looked very much like an even battle from the side line but the referee saw it differently. Everyone on the Smithswood bench were amazed at the decision and even the fourth official couldn’t explain it in his opinion to manager Paul Ryder as Dildale Linton netted the penalty to give Alvis the lead.
Adam Reece came on for Aaron Anderson in extra time.
Alvis were to be awarded a third penalty three minutes from time which was a definite foul this time but Linton fired the ball high over the bar. Smithswood went on the attack with even Jake Woodward coming up for the last corner but they just couldn’t direct the ball into the net.
Alvis Sporting won 4-3 after extra time to lift the Les James Challenge Cup and start the discussions in the stands from The Lions’ fans and most of the neutrals about two of the three penalties on the evening going the way of Division 2 side.
We couldn’t be more proud of the lads though for their efforts on the night and over the season. They have been phenomenal and Alvis won’t have had a harder game than that this season. Quite a few of their players and staff were complimentary about how well we played and how well they think we can do next season in Division 2 and we wish them all the best in Division 1.
The season closes with the disappointing cup loss but promotion was always the aim and the lads secured it playing some fantastic football and they all deserve the break before we come back in July to start pre-season and do it all again.
Thanks to everyone who came to watch this season, it is really appreciated by us all as we look forward to seeing you next season.