Smithswood Firs have had a fantastic start to the season with four wins out of four in all competitions but today saw them come up against their toughest opponents of the season so far. They took on Sutton United in the Les James Challenge Cup, a team a Division higher than them. Some of the team had been to watch Sutton United beat Chelmsley Town a few weeks ago as they had a free week and had seen a good performance but came away with the feeling that Smithswood could really give Sutton United a game and confidence was high in the dressing room before the game. Some people within the game had written Smithswood off and said that Sutton United would turn them over and pass them off the pitch, something that nobody within the club thought might happen. Everyone who watched their game the other week knew exactly what they had to do to beat Sutton United so it was just a matter of firing the team up and hoping they could deliver on the pitch.
Things didn’t go well from the start for Smithswood with two players pulling out of the sixteen-man squad as Nathan Leek picked up an injury in the week and Ed Godwood pulled out this morning. To make matters worse, Andrew Glenn pulled up in the warm up with a tight hamstring and Carl Thompson with a thigh strain. Manager, Paul Ryder had to re-shuffle his team as he gambled on Thompson but not Glenn in the starting line up.
Smithswood starting line up:
McKenna, Evans (Capt.), Rooke, Billingsley
Hemming, Thomas, Thompson, Harris
After getting over the injuries and missing players, Smithswood made things even worse for themselves as they lost the ball in midfield within the first two minutes. Sutton United played a quick pass in behind the defence and their striker rounded the keeper and slotted home to give them the lead. It was a disastrous start and Paul Ryder must have wondered if he had walked under a ladder or broken a mirror to be getting all this bad luck at once.
Curtis Thomas, relishing being back in the center of midfield created a chance soon after the goal as he played a similar ball in behind their defence for Aaron Anderson who had the beating of them for pace but fired his shot over.
Sutton were in control of the game for the first half hour as Smithswood stood off them and gave them too much space. Every time a Sutton United player received the ball he seemed to have three yards of space and time to pick out a pass. As well as the goal, they went close on four occasions as they first hit Smithswood on the counter-attack forcing Adam Rooke to clear off the line, something Craig Evans had to do as well later on. They forced a wonder save from David Stratford as a free kick bounced off the post falling to their striker. His shot was saved by Stratford with a great reflex save and he was also quick to recover and get back up to push the ball clear of danger for his defence to clear. Sutton United also got in as they angled a 40-yard cross-field pass that beat the defence but luckily for Smithswood, it was fired over the bar. Smithswood’s full backs William McKenna and Daniel Billingsley weren’t getting chance to support Adam Hemming and Lee Harris as they were being forced back by Sutton United and both of them along with Craig Evans and Adam Rooke were under a lot of pressure early on making last ditch tackles and hooking the ball away.
Smithswood couldn’t weather the storm and they went 2-0 down after 24 minutes from a headed corner. Up until that point, Smithswood had been second best to everything and were not playing anywhere near the level of football they have been playing this season. The gamble to start Carl Thompson had also back-fired as he had to be replaced by Stuart Taylor after just twelve minutes, Taylor then picked up a yellow card for a late challenge.
The second goal seemed to kick start Smithswood into action and they started to play more of the football we have seen this season. Curtis Thomas was controlling the midfield with his brilliant range of passing taking the ball in tight areas and calmly moving it into better positions. Stuart Taylor was being more disciplined alongside him as he took it upon himself to be the more defensive midfielder, allowing Thomas to use his creativity to help the team. Lee Harris hadn’t had a look in wide left and suddenly started to get more of the ball showing his attacking qualities. Up front, Anthony Short and Aaron Anderson were working tirelessly together and Adam Hemming was starting to push their left back the right way, back towards his own goal. The defence had their hands full with their big number 9 but started to get closer to them and break down their attacks.
Smithswood got a goal back just after the half hour mark following some fantastic work from Adam Hemming. He had been moved to the wing today and battled to win the ball back and get past his man forcing their centre-back to come across and cover. His clearance took a deflection back into the box under pressure from Hemming and Aaron Anderson was on hand to tap the ball in. It looked like they would get back on level terms before half time as Adam Rooke stepped in to intercept the ball and hooked it towards goal. Everyone stopped thinking the ball was going out except Lee Harris. The ball curled and stayed in as Harris headed towards goal and fired a shot, which hit both posts and deflected clear. Sutton United had bossed the first thirty minutes but the last fifteen were all Smithswood as they looked for an equaliser. Daniel Billingsley went close with a 25-yard shot that skimmed just wide of the keepers post as the teams went in with Sutton United leading 2-1.
Paul Ryder was happy with his teams performance the last fifteen minutes and wanted more of the same. His team had given them too much space in that first thirty minutes but wanted more positivity from them as they were better than them in all areas in that last part of the half. He was positive that if they gave him a committed performance from the off they would get something out of this game as they were good enough to come back.
Craig Evans went close early on as he made a surging run from the back onto a Daniel Billingsley throw in. He calmly turned the defender twice and unleashed a shot that just went over. Billingsley had to be replaced by Wayne Challinor, which meant Stuart Taylor had to drop back to left back and play out of position for the team.
Smithswood got their reward on the hour mark as they won a free kick on the edge of the area. Curtis Thomas stood over the ball sizing up the goal. He hit a low, hard shot that beat the keeper to make it 2-2. Smithswood were on top and you could see the belief in the team, they looked hungry and were all putting in 100% effort as they put their bodies on the line to get their team back on level terms. Adam Rooke picked up a booking just after the goal.
It wasn’t all Smithswood as Sutton United were also getting in some good positions. They had a half chance on the edge of the area but a bullet shot was held well by David Stratford who was having a fantastic game. Lee Harris forced a save from their keeper as well as he was becoming more influential in the game.
On 74 minutes Smithswood’s showed their quality with a great team move originating through the middle of the pitch. The ball was played into Wayne Challinor who hit a first time pass to put Lee Harris through wide left. He faked to go one way and then beat the full back to get one on one with the keeper. It looked like he was going to square it into the middle but he fired it under the keeper triggering huge celebrations from the players and staff both on and off the pitch. Paul Ryder’s team had battled back from two goals down against a team who many said would play them off the pitch and were now 3-2 ahead.
Carl Shiels replaced the impressive Adam Hemming who had worked tirelessly down the wing for his team.
Smithswood dropped Aaron Anderson to the right and moved Carl Shiels into the middle to try and make them a bit more defensive as they looked to keep their lead and secure their place in the next round. Sutton United were always going to attack in the remaining fifteen minutes as they tried to get an equaliser but the Smithswood defence were putting their bodies on the line winning tackles and battling for each other. Paul Ryder had dropped Anthony Short into midfield too and he was tracking back, out muscling their big striker off the ball. Stuart Taylor looked like a seasoned full back like William McKenna on the other side and Adam Rooke and Craig Evans were simply immense at the heart of the defence. On the few occasions they did penetrate the defence they were met by an inform keeper who is at the top of his game. In the last five minutes David Stratford made two “worldie” saves. The first he tipped over the bar from a shot from their dangerous number 9. Then Smithswood had a half chance as Wayne Challinor put Carl Shiels through behind the defence but he tried a long-range effort and put it wide. David Stratford then made an unbelievable tipped save from a bullet shot which he just got enough on to push onto the bar.
The referee blew for full time with the final score Sutton United 2 Smithswood Firs 3. It was a quality team performance by Paul Ryder’s team and they certainly announced themselves in the league today with a win in a game many gave them no hope of winning. Smithswood will face the winner of Boldmere v Chelmsley Town in two weeks time.