A place in the Semi-Final of the Les James Challenge Cup was up for grabs Saturday as visiting Knowle of Division 2 took on home team Smithswood Firs from Division 3. For those watching from the side-lines you would not have known that there was a Division between these two teams as they put on a great spectacle for the league in a game that was entertaining with some great football played by both sides.
Knowle were clearly treating it as a big game bringing in new signings ahead of the game and two of them in particular had excellent debuts with John Flanagan and Steven Ruck proving to be a handful up top for the Smithswood defence.
Smithswood welcomed back Anthony Short to the squad and due to Ash Weeks having work and not being able to get there until close to kick-off, Short got his chance in his first game back playing in the centre of midfield alongside Nathan Leek. The Lions lined up with the following;
Powers, Rooke, Thompson (Capt.), Anderson
Thomas, Short, Leek, Russell
Subs: Pinnock, Weeks, Clarke, Else
Lewis Cottrill came in for Harry Gardiner in goal while Aaron Anderson was asked to do a job at left back for this game, a position he isn’t used to playing although you wouldn’t have known that watching the game. Chris Else was back in Birmingham for the weekend and took a place on the bench.
The home side settled the quickest and controlled the opening ten minutes and could easily have been two up as both Adam Rooke and Nathan Leek went close but they couldn’t make the breakthrough. Knowle grew into the first half and John Flanagan was a constant threat up front with his movement causing Craig Powers, Aaron Anderson, Adam Rooke and Carl Thompson problems. It was Thompson’s last game for Smithswood as he moves to Stevenage and he was given the arm band for the match but he was not going to be given an easy last game as Knowle created chances of their own after settling down after the opening ten minutes.
Smithswood went to sleep on half hour and allowed Knowle to take the lead from a header inside the six-yard box. Despite being a goal down, the home team were still having some of the best chances in the game and going in one down at half time didn’t have them disheartened. In the dressing room they were confident they could get back into the game and just needed to take their chances. They were creating them and playing some great football but they needed to be more clinical. Curtis Thomas and Dan Russell were causing them problems wide and Anthony Short and Nathan Leek were holding their own in the middle against Knowle’s three. After a discussion Smithswood decided to match them and went with Thomas, Short and Leek in the middle with Williams, Charlton and Russell in a front three.
The change worked and Smithswood were the better team in the second half. For large periods of time it was one way traffic as they dominated possession with the three in the middle and played some great football forcing Knowle to defend for their lives at times but led by Luke Hennessy at the back, they stood strong early on.
The equaliser eventualy came as the pressure told on the hour as Curtis Thomas whipped a free kick in which was headed towards goal by Nathan Leek. His header was blocked and as Adam Rooke and Anthony Short tried to pounce it was Leek who got there first to finish from three yards out.
The home side had been on top and continued to press on for the winner but they couldn’t make the breakthrough. They created several clear chances but Anthony Short, Liam Williams, Aaron Pinnock and Curtis Thomas couldn’t convert as Knowle stayed strong.
Both teams his the post late on as the game went to extra time. Knowle had the better of the first half of the extra period with Smithswood shading the second but neither team could get the winner as the game headed to the lottery that is penalties.
Knowle won the toss and went first converting but regular penalty taker Adam Rooke fired against the bar to miss Smithswood’s first spot kick. Knowle were clinical as they went into a 4-2 lead as Smithswood’s Thomas and Anderson converted but Man of the Match Nathan Leek unfortunately missed for the home side as Knowle went through.
There were so many positives to take from the game and the home side will feel they should have won the game in the second half the way they dominated but it just wasn’t to be. It took Knowles debut players Flanagan, Ruck and Manning and a fantastic performance by Hennessy at the back to see it through but both teams were evenly matched and Smithswood will be happy that they can compete in the Division above should they gain promotion at the end of the season.
They still have another Semi-Final to come but can now concentrate on a good run of league matches as they try to catch up the leaders with all their games in hand. It starts next week with the visit of Badsey Rangers