Smithswood Firs went into the weekend in great form on the back of nine straight wins. In their way of making it ten stood Shipston Excelsior. Smithswood had beaten them 3-1 in the reverse fixture earlier this season at the Mackadown but the weather conditions meant that the game in Shipston-on-Stour was going to be a much tougher game. It was extremely cold with the temperature just above freezing and there was a strong wind making it very difficult for the keepers kicking into it.
Paul Ryder was without influential centre back Adam Rooke but welcomed back Carl Thompson from illness who slotted in at the back making this the only change from the team that beat FC Premier in the Birmingham County Vase last week. Also missing were Craig Thomas, Tyrone Borland and Lee Sayer.
Lewis Cottrill lined up in goal with Anthony Short, Jack Duffy, Carl Thompson and Adam Reece in front of him. The Lions went with four in midfield again with Aaron Anderson and Danny Charlton providing the width and Nathan Leek and Curtis Thomas starting their sixth straight game together in the middle. Up front Sam Hulme and Liam Williams looked to continue their recent form that has seen at least one of them score in the last eight games. Paul Ryder had a strong bench with keeper Harry Gardiner, Scott Clarke, Dan Russell and Ash Weeks.
With temperatures low and the wind chill factor even lower, it was important to try and get into the game early on and try and dominate possession to try get everyone into the game early on. Things didn’t go to plan though as Shipston were really up for the match and settled the quicker of the two teams. They were controlling the ball in the middle of the pitch and creating some decent chances. Smithswood Firs usually solid defence was breached a few times and a mix up at the back actually led to the first goal as Cottrill called for the ball but neither him or his defender made it as their striker got his boot on the ball first and the ball rolled into the net.
Smithswood battled to get back into the game and both teams had chances to score but it was the away team that levelled just before half-time from a corner which the attacking Nathan Leek had won for his team. Danny Charlton whipped the ball in which Sam Hulme managed to bury during the goalmouth scramble for his fourth goal in two games.
Despite Shipston having a lot of the ball and Short, Thompson, Duffy and Reece having to defend some decent movement from their strikers, Smithswood could easily have had two penalties and come in the break with three goals. Firstly, what looked like a blatant hand ball wasn’t given in the area. Even a member of the away teams’ staff said it was a clear hand ball but the referee didn’t see it that way. Liam Williams then beat two defenders and appeared to be brought down in the area without the defender winning the ball but the referee again waived the protests away.
The second half is one that Smithswood Firs will want to forget for many reasons. Firstly, they conceded two poor goals in twelve minutes which they wont be happy with. The first came from their own goal kick where Shipston were the only ones to react to the poor kick. They played the ball wide and crossed into the box where their unmarked striker slid in to finish. The second came from a cross which looked like Carl Thompson would win but their player managed to glance the ball ahead of him which then slipped through Lewis Cottrill’s hands on the line.
A few members of the team started to argue on the pitch and it really looked at one point like the team would implode and allow Shipston to score a few more but a change in formation, the introduction of Ash Weeks and Dan Russell and the attacking drive and work of Nathan Leek got Smithswood back into the game. Carl Thompson made the game interesting with fifteen minutes to go as Nathan Leek whipped in a perfect corner for him to rise above the defender to bury his header.
Smithswood pushed on for the equaliser, Nathan Leek’s free-kick was heading for the bottom corner but was deflected away but they just couldn’t get the equaliser despite dominating the last fifteen minutes and really pegging Shipston back. When all of his starting eleven are on their game, Paul Ryder is confident they can beat anyone on their day but there were too many on Saturday that didn’t play as well as they have been over recent weeks. With the cold and windy conditions, it was always going to be a battle and with the small pitch his team were always going to struggle to get at the full backs like they have on the wider pitches in the league and they couldn’t find a way through Shipston. Their number 4 Alex Seys was colossal in breaking down their attacks. Smithswood just gave themselves too much work to do before they started to really play anywhere near their ability in the last fifteen minutes and credit for that has to go to Shipston Excelsior for stopping our attacking threats on the pitch.
Leamington Hibernian took advantage by beating Burntwood Town to go top although the Lions do have a game in hand on them.
Focus switches to cup action next Saturday with the trip to Barton United in the Les James Challenge Cup. Both teams are going to be sick of the site of each other soon as they have been drawn together in the next round of the Les James Challange Cup, Birmingham County Vase and the League Challenge Vase.