The game between Smithswood Firs and Burntwood Town survived a pitch inspection Saturday morning which meant an early start for Paul Ryder, Neil Armstrong and Dean Farnol as they were at the Mackadown at 9am to get rid of any standing water, line the pitch and get it ready to make sure that the game was on as the home side definitely didn’t need another game postponing to add to their fixture back up that looks inevitable at the end of the season due to their great efforts in the cups this season.
The Lions had a strong sixteen player squad with one of the strongest benches they have named this season. Paul Ryder named an unchanged side from the one which beat Barton United 3-1 the previous week so lined up with the following;
Short, Clarke, Rooke, Duffy
Anderson, Curtis Thomas (Capt.), Weeks, Sayer
Subs: Leek, Russell, Craig Thomas, Thompson, Williams
The pitch was not the best so it was tough from the start to play the ball around but the home side tried in the early stages and got on the front foot early on but it was the away team who had the first chance in the opening exchanges. Burntwood managed to catch the Smithswood defence square and Adam Rooke bought their striker down inches outside the box. The away team were calling for a straight red and a lot of the home team were worried that it could be but the referee gave him the benefit of the doubt that Jack Duffy was covering and only produced the yellow and a free kick rather than a penalty which it could easily have been as it was that close to the area.
Smithswood survived the early scare and took the lead on five minutes with a goal out of nothing which most of us on the side-lines actually missed. Danny Charlton pounced on a defensive error and coolly slotted the ball home to give his side the lead and bag his fourth goal in the last three games.
Despite the early lead Burntwood Town were causing the home side problems as the defence looked shaky early on. Scott Clarke made some good interventions as the home side tried to settle into their rhythm.
Five minutes before the end of the half the home side made it two with a great move down the right involving Anthony Short and Aaron Anderson. Anderson powered into the box and unleashed a bullet shot that forced a great save from the Burntwood keeper but he could only parry it due to the power and Lee Sayer was on hand to tap in.
Despite the score line it was one of the poorest first half displays of the season from the home team and a lot of players were playing below their best. The pitch wasn’t the greatest but the manager wanted much more from his team in the second especially with the quality of subs he had to call upon. One thing that has made Smithswood stand out in most of their games this season is their attacking play and clinical finishing but they were coming up short of the expectations they have created for themselves this season even though they led 2-0 at the break.
The second half was a nightmare from the home side’s perspective as they really had to dig in following two major incidents in the game. The first massive blow came six minutes into the second half when striker Sam Hulme went down with an ankle problem after a challenge with the defender. Hulme has been fantastic since signing from Sutton United and is the home sides current top scorer but he couldn’t carry on so Liam Williams replaced him up top with Danny Charlton. Charlton was causing them problems with his pace and was being supported well by Aaron Anderson who was putting a real shift in on the right and causing them problems.
The turning point in the game came shortly after as a missed tackle in midfield put Burntwood away and Adam Rooke was forced to make a last ditched tackle in the area. Rooke was nowhere near the ball as he sent the striker crashing to the ground. The referee had no option but to award the penalty and send Rooke off for a second yellow card. Harry Gardiner then made a fantastic save from the penalty to keep his team two goals up which would prove to be huge by the end of the game. Gardiner had been solid all game claiming everything, making the saves he needed to and kicking well on a very poor pitch.
Burntwood were encouraged by the one-man advantage though as the home side made quick changes bringing Nathan Leek and Craig Thomas on for Lee Sayer and Ash Weeks. Danny Charlton dropped deeper with Liam Williams playing the tough solo role up top. Shortly after the changes they got the reward for their hard work with a goal taking advantage while the home side re-organised their players after the sending off.
There were still thirty minutes to play and Burntwood really went for the equaliser but Smithswood changed things around with Jack Duffy and Scott Clarke at the centre of defence, Nathan Leek dropped in at left back while Anthony Short stayed on the right. Craig Thomas sat in front of the defence alongside Curtis Thomas while Danny Charlton and Aaron Anderson played wide with Liam Williams playing up top on his own. The home side managed to keep Burntwood at bay and take a bit of control in the middle of the pitch spreading some great passes to the wide men to create a few chances. Liam Williams battled to hold the ball up on his own up top and the team worked hard in the last thirty minutes to play off him as the focal point.
Ten minutes before time they killed the game off as Aaron Anderson broke down the right. He shifted the ball quickly and hit a great shot which looked destined for the bottom corner but the Burntwood keeper made a fantastic save low down to deflect it away for a corner. Danny Charlton’s delivery from the corner was fantastic and Jack Duffy rose above everyone to glance the ball passed the keeper.
It wasn’t a great performance but the sign of a good team is when you win while playing badly and they were well below their best with a few festive hangovers. Scott Clarke and Aaron Anderson stood out and both had excellent games but it was keeper Harry Gardiner who was Man of the Match with a great penalty save at a key point in the game and another good performance. He has been in excellent form since winning his spot back although he is away next week so Lewis Cottrill has his chance against Inkberrow. Paul Ryder is lucky in that he has two keepers in his squad that he has faith in and the back four have confidence in too. Liam Williams looked strong up front although he earn’t himself another yellow card from the referee. If he can just cut them out of his game, he will be a big player in the second half of the season as he showed his strengths the way he held the ball up in the second half. With Sam Hulme’s injury keeping him out next week at least, Adam Rookes pending one match ban for his read card the squad will be tested over the coming weeks. Craig Thomas continues to get more game time under his belt and shows his quality when on the pitch as he slows the game down and looks for the easy pass.
Paul Ryder needs focus from his squad now as it is a massive month for the team. Next week they travel to Inkberrow who are coming off a great win against Redditch Borough before hosting title challengers FC Stratford the week after. The Lions will be desperate to take six points before their County Cup game at local rivals Chelmsley Town on 16th January before finishing the month off with the visit of Badsey Rangers and Boldmere.
Having only played twelve games in the league so far Smithswood Firs are not even half way through their league campaign so picking up points in the upcoming league games are really important so that when they have their free weeks playing cup games they are not too far off the leader as they don’t want to be too far behind even though they have the games in hand.
Paul Ryder’s team have now won 13 out of their last 14 games.