Saturday 3rd March 2018, 1500 KO
Sutton Common Rovers FC vs AFC Hayes
The Build Up
The Maesters were correct – Winter certainly was coming, and with it, snow. Copious amounts of the stuff. As Friday night wore on, the pitches of this fine island were stacked high with more white powder than Scarface’s desk, and every ten minutes seemed to bring confirmation of yet another (justified) postponement. Even with some pitches playable, clubs and leagues were sensibly heeding the advice of emergency services, and prioritising the safety of players, officials and fans on the roads. With the exception of one National League chairman, everyone seemed to agree this was the way to go…
The best hope for any football action would likely be around Steps 5 and 6, where the distances for travel were smaller, and less likely to be disrupted by snow. The catch 22 being that pitches at that level were even less likely to be able to cope with the adverse conditions. Unless, of course, you happen to be a Step 5 club playing at a Step 1 ground, blessed with one of the finest 3G pitches in London. Sutton Common Rovers, of the snappily named Cherry Red Records Combined Counties Football League Premier Division, are that Step 5 club.
Formed in 1978, SCR have had many names, but settled on this iteration in 2004/5 when they started playing competitive Saturday league football. Having flitted between the Premier Division and Division One since joining the Combined Counties League in 2008, the Commoners were last promoted to the top flight in 2013, where they have remained since. Sitting in 3rd position, and in a three way fight with Bedfont Sports and Walton & Hersham for second (Westfield are strengthening their stranglehold on 1st by the week), Sutton Common Rovers look certain to secure their highest ever league finish. If they can grab 2nd, there’s a good chance of promotion to (probably) the Bostik Isthmian League South for the first time in their history.
A 1-0 win against Guildford City last weekend meant they were approaching today’s match in polar (get it?!) opposite form to the visitors, AFC Hayes. The artists formerly known as Brook House FC have been having an annus horribilis so far this year – 2018 has seen them record 4 losses, 1 draw and 8 postponements, which leaves them lying in 20th place. With all Step 5 leagues being compulsorily fixed at 20 teams due to the restructuring of the nonleague system for 2018/9, relegation is a very real risk for the Brooks. Having dropped down to this league in 2015 from Southern League Division One Central, Sean Berry will be doing everything in his power to turn things around, and avoid a second relegation for the club in four years.
A sterling performance by the club staff and volunteers meant that the pitch at Gander Green Lane was completely clear of snow when I arrived an hour before kick off. With no other matches on in the local area, Sutton Common Rovers were likely to get a bumper crowd, and with 126 fans coming through the doors, that’s what they got.
Whilst Gander Green Lane is not SCR’s own ground, they clearly have a good relationship with Sutton United, and the bar and kitchen were both open. Thanks to that, I availed myself of some cheesy chips and a Diet Coke (£4.50) and settled down to read the programme (£2). With the price of tickets only £2 with a Sutton United season ticket (£7 for non-SUFC adults) there were a fair few Sutton United scarf-wearing fans in attendance.
It’s worth noting that at this level only two fixtures could be played today – SCR’s, and Deportivo Galicia’s. It’s no coincidence that both sides play on immaculate 3G, and when you compare this to the raft of postponements across the National League and EFL divisions, surely the EFL cannot continue to bury their heads in the sand as far as artificial pitches are concerned.
The game started at a frenetic pace, I assume because the players were simply desperate to get warm. It took only two minutes for SCR to miss a gilt-edged chance, when left back Matt Tanton curled in a tantalising cross. It fell perfectly for the onrushing Asa Rixon-Nicholls, but he was only able to sidefoot his volley over from five yards.
Five minutes later, and AFC Hayes were creating and missing an opportunity of their own. A slide rule pass by number 10 Jon-Jo Bates found the diminutive centre midfielder James Charles, but his shot was well smothered by Michael Eacott in goal for the hosts. The opening ten to fifteen minutes were typified by a high press by Hayes, which looked effective in the most part, but did leave them vulnerable when the Commoners managed to play through it, or simply bypassed it.
With 12 on the clock, the Brooks should have gone ahead when Mourad Jarraz was sent through. Jarraz took the wrong option with his finish, and tried to chip Eacott. He looked a touch silly when the big stopper from Chessington simply stood up and caught his shot… However, his embarrassment was short lived when Daryl Cooper-Smith, formerly of Leatherhead, got his angles all wrong and headed weakly back across with the goal gaping from a Malachi Thomas cross.
Cooper-Smith would make amends with quarter of an hour played though, when he put SCR ahead. A through ball was slipped into the channels, and there was “DCS” running onto hit. He shot first time across the ‘keeper with his left foot, and opened the scoring. Cooper-Smith, SCR’s top scorer with 12 league goals before today, had looked bright in the opening fifteen, and was a constant threat on the shoulder.
The hosts continued to create chances, and Matt Auletta could have got his name on the scoresheet after 23 minutes. The man with the best mutton chops in nonleague was found by a delightful cross field pass, but couldn’t direct his shot on target. Minutes later, Cooper-Smith thought he’d doubled SCR’s and his personal tally. He timed his run perfectly, rounded Samuel Szymczyk (CTRL+C, CTL+V), and slipped the ball home, but, the linesman inexplicably raised his flag.
Both sides had chances around the half hour mark, first Hayes, when central midfielder Dean McDonnell went close with a right footed effort. Minutes later, the busy Cooper-Smith went one on one with Szymczyk, but just as he went to pull the trigger, out of nowhere Haluna Masembe, a man with legs right up to his armpits, stretched out a foot to make an exceptional goal saving tackle. I was impressed by Masembe throughout actually – not only was he composed in possession and effective in the tackle, but he wears his shirt tucked in to high waisted shorts for the full ninety, like a nonleague Mark Noble.
If that was a warning, the Hayes backline gave it a stiff ignoring, and a minute later they were two goals down. When Auletta was set free down the left wing by Cooper-Smith, he drove in towards the box. Just as it looked that he had taken it too far, he laid the ball off to Malachi Thomas. Thomas shot, and his effort was deflected past Szymczyk into the net. I saw Thomas play for Walton & Hersham as a sub in December, and it was clear he was a player who with a bit of confidence could be very effective at this level. He seems to have found a management team who are behind him here, and looked impressive along with Auletta as the two switched wings throughout.
There was time for another two disallowed goals, this time correctly – one for each side. First, Auletta stuck one in from the right for Rixon-Nicholls, and the bullish midfielder finished neatly first time. He was probably just ahead of the last man as Auletta crossed though. Literally thirty seconds later, Max Bennicasa did well to shoot across Eacott, and his shot was sneaking in at the far post when a player I couldn’t identify slid in for the classic primary school goal theft. Whilst I applaud such shameless opportunism, unfortunately, he was also offside, and the goal was chalked off.
Some handbags at twelve paces in the tunnel took us into the break, and I was glad of the respite. It was bitterly cold, and as I checked my photos from the first half I was hugely grateful to the exceedingly friendly and welcoming club officials from Sutton Common Rovers. Inviting me into the club lounge, with free tea and cakes, their hospitality was probably the only thing that stopped me going man down and wrapping on the second half.
Which is good, because the second half was mega. It took only two minutes for Matt Auletta to have his head in his hands, when he somehow (I’m still not sure how) managed to not score an open goal from approximately a metre out. Central midfielder Craig Nelson held the ball up well from a throw and made space to cross, finding Auletta at the back post. With Szymczyk having misjudged the flight of the ball, he was out of the picture, but at the crucial moment Auletta’s studs rolled across the ball, enabling a goal line clearance and ensuing goalmouth scramble.
Sutton Common Rovers were pushing for a third, and could potentially have been awarded a 52nd minute penalty when Thomas was nudged off the ball underneath a Cooper-Smith cross. As for Auletta, despite putting in a good performance, it really wasn’t his day in front of goal when he was adjudged to be offside as he volleyed home a fine finish from another Craig Nelson cross. A frankly mental fourth offside goal.
There was a penalty five minutes later though, when Eacott brought down an onrushing Dean McDonnell. Up stepped Ryan Phillips looking confident, and although his spot kick was well struck, it was at a comfortable height allowing Eacott to keep the ball out. That’s to take nothing away from the ‘keeper – it was a good save.
Had they scored the penalty, then the bizarre goal substitute Spencer Maw bagged on 61 minutes would have been the equaliser. As it was, when Maw’s deep cross from the right caught everyone out (including me – hence no pictures) and clanged in off the post, it was only to halve the deficit.
This goal set up a ten minute period of pressure by AFC Hayes, who created a couple of half chances, and looked as though they might take this one to the wire. That pressure was ended on 72 minutes though when substitute Tom Neale restored the two goal advantage. Another good break and cross from Thomas was punched clear by Szymczyk, but only as far as Matt Farrell. Farrell cut the ball to Auletta at the back post, who jinked inside a defender and chipped it neatly to Neale. His first touch was an instinctive finish past Szymczyk and the game was won.
Three minutes later, Hayes needed another goal line clearance, when substitute Mike Campbell beat his man in the box and crossed low and hard. Auletta applied the finish, but it was well cleared off the line by a last ditch hack by Charlie Howes.
Players went close for both teams, including a possible block with the hand by a Commoners defender, and substitute Matt Ferdinando testing Szymczyk, but it was Neale who had the last word. With 90 minutes on the clock, Farrell nudged a header through, and Neale was there to finish first time, lifting the ball over Szymczyk on the half volley. 4-1, and full time followed shortly after.
The Wash Up
A comprehensive 4-1 victory for Darren Salmon’s team, as they maintain the pressure on Bedfont Sports and Walton & Hersham. With Bedfont’s match at Cove postponed, the result leaves SCR one point behind them in 3rd place, with both teams having ten games to play. Top scorer Cooper-Smith has added to his tally for the season, and Salmon will be pleased with how his side performed.
As for Sean Berry, another disappointing result continues their unfortunate start to 2018. Although Hayes will look back at the missed penalty and their disallowed goal as possible turning points, the truth is they were second best to Sutton Common Rovers in every area today. Despite good performances from James Charles and Haluna Masembe, they simply weren’t able to live with SCR’s ability to hit the channels early, or to play through midfield.
Even ignoring the Commoner’s hat trick of disallowed goals, they could have scored six or seven today. Daryl Cooper-Smith was always a threat (to the advertising hoardings as well – I’m convinced he injured himself booting one after being denied a possible free kick), whilst Thomas and Auletta down the wings looked dangerous. Man of the match though, has to go to Craig Nelson, who had a dominant game in midfield. His range of passing is good, and a lot of SCR’s better moves flowed through him. He also typified the age old phrase about “earning the right to play”, winning the physical battles more often than not.
Sitting in the club lounge to edit some pictures post match, the players from both sides came in for a post match beer/non alcoholic beverage. There was a bouncy, bubbly atmosphere and I firmly got the impression this would be a great place to stay and spend the evening. Time to enjoy the result for Sutton Common Rovers, but they won’t be able to dwell for long – the fixtures are coming thick and fast as they face off against Walton Casuals on Monday in the Southern Combination Cup, a competition they won last year. Today’s match though – holy shitballs. Five goals, four disallowed goals, two goal line clearances, a missed penalty, half time handbags, it really had it all. I genuinely believe that because most of the weekend’s matches were called off, Sutton Common Rovers and AFC Hayes decided to try and squeeze a league’s worth of action into ninety minutes. They did it and all.
To see any photos in more detail, simply click on the picture.
Any photographs or text produced on this website remain are copyrighted and remain the property of the author. If you wish to use any of this material, please contact me as I may be willing to give permission. If you would like to obtain copies of photos for use please contact me.