Saturday 14th April 2018, 1500 KO
Havant & Waterlooville FC vs St Albans City FC
The Build Up
It’s squeaky bum time in nonleague divisions up and down the country, as the remaining fixtures list dwindles through the single figures. Well, in some leagues – rain, snow, plague and pestilence has resulted in some leagues still with over ten matches to play! In the week or so leading up to this fixture, North Ferriby and Sutton Coldfield were relegated, whilst titles had already been claimed by Taunton Town, Welwyn Garden City and Westfield. This Saturday, I set off to see another side looking to win the league, but their race is likely to go to the wire.
Second in the league approaching the fixture, Havant & Waterlooville have been in a neck and neck race with Dartford for most of the season, and whilst Hampton & Richmond briefly threatened to crash the party, it’s these two sides (separated only by one goal) who will contest the right for automatic promotion from the Vanarama National League South. After beating Bognor Regis to the Isthmian Premier title by a mere two points last season, the Hawks have proven they have the mettle to take the title bout to the bell.
Formed in 1998 through a merger of Havant Town and Waterlooville, the Hawks appointed Lee Bradbury in 2012. Relegated from the Conference South in 2016, the club stood by the former Manchester City striker and were rewarded with an immediate promotion the following year. Since returning to this division, and buoyed by Jason Prior’s 18 goals so far, Havant & Waterlooville have had a remarkable season. Indeed, even a 2nd place finish, whilst disappointing, would still represent the club’s highest ever league position.
Their form had been good, too. Three wins, two draws and a loss in the last six had seen Lee Bradbury named Manager of the Month for March, however, their competitors from Dartford had won five on the bounce since a surprise home loss to Poole Town.
Today’s visitors had somehow followed a four game winning streak with consecutive losses against heavy relegation favourites Whitehawk and Bognor Regis Town. Ian Allinson would surely be concerned, as whilst the Play Off spot looks secure, there is a world of difference this season between finishing 6th (where they lay pre-match) and 3rd. Only 3 points from the Beavers in 3rd coming into this fixture, making up the ground would save a match come Play Offs, and guarantee a home Semi Final.
St Albans have been showing good progress in the last few years, rising from 18th in 2016 to 10th last season. This year, aided by the 17 goals of Sam Merson, the son of everyone’s favourite untranslatable Sky Sports pundit (and Arsenal legend), St Albans would be aiming to go one further than the Semi Final disappointment of that year. Well, two further ideally. Speaking of famous parents, this match also had an interesting subtext, with Lee Bradbury lining up in the dugout directly opposite his son – striker Harvey on loan at the Saints from Premier League Watford.
At just £13 admission, with a robust concessions scheme (£5, including for serving HM Forces), Havant’s Westleigh Park is one of the more cost efficient grounds to visit, and has plenty of parking. With the next door Westleigh pub showing the Southampton vs Chelsea game pre-match, the 5,250 capacity ground set a good first impression. Cashing out on Southampton at 2-0 up before they went on to lose 3-2 also put me in a particularly good mood.
A £2 programme contained more adverts than content, but the £4 for chilli chips and a Diet Coke was money well spent. There are few things I detest more in life than soggy chips, and the crispiness on Havant’s offering was just right. So with the food in my belly, the upbeat pre-match tunes and the sun giving a slim glimmer of hope that we might at some point get a Spring in this country, I was right up for watching a football match.
And Lee Bradbury’s men were right up for playing in one. Within three minutes they had created enough chances to be three up. With only 40 (ish) seconds played, Wes Fogden contrived to smash one over the bar after a good knock down in the box.
Then, only one minute later, Jason Prior showed why he’s one of the most feared strikers in the division. Some good hold up play gave him the opportunity to feed Rory Williams outside him, and when the return pass came Prior’s first touch took his marker Tom Gardiner out of contention. His second touch was to slam the ball against the post, and Bradley Tarbuck could only put the rebound wide.
The third chance wasn’t quite as good as the first two, but on three minutes Matt Tubbs made space thirty yards out and fired in low, worrying Dean Snedker enough for him to push it wide for a corner. Speaking of corners, it was one of these which gave the Saints an opportunity to take the lead very much against the run of play, and take it they did. A good ball in was missed by everyone in the middle of the goalmouth and landed at the feet of Jamie Sendles-White at the back post. With space to think, the man from Kingston placed the ball high into the roof of the net, and St Albans had an unlikely lead.
Two minutes later, Ryan Woodford threatened with a header from another corner, and from a free kick Tubbs headed just wide immediately after. Tubbs had another chance on 18 minutes when he was well set up by a Prior flick on, but the 32 year old striker caught the ball with his instep and dragged wide past the far post.
It was inevitable that the Hawks would score, and birthday boy Wes Fogden got the all important equaliser in the 24th minute. More good hold up play by Prior recycled the ball in midfield, and the Havant midfielders spread play out wide right. Tarbuck crossed, but it was deep, and came all the way to Williams out on the left hand side. Williams drilled it in, and with Theo Lewis falling over and causing chaos, Fogden stabbed home to even the scores.
Matt Tubbs had another chance minutes later when he got goalside of Tom Bender (who received a LOT of stick from the home fans, mostly undeserved), but his shot was too close to Snedker and the former England U19 keeper parried well.
There was, however, nothing he could do with Prior’s moment of magic on 38 minutes. Receiving the ball back to goal, around 20 yards out, there was no danger. Prior stepped away from his marker, and shot on the turn, with a rising curling shot that was in from the moment it left his boot.
It was a phenomenal finish, and richly deserved the ecstatic celebration that followed, bringing Prior up to 19 for the season.
That was it for the first half, and Havant & Waterlooville were justifiably ahead. To be honest, they should have been about three up, and with one goal the margin between them and Dartford they’ll be disappointed not to have taken advantage of their dominance. Jason Prior had been simply unplayable in the first half, winning the ball every time it came within 10ft of him. St Albans, by contrast, hadn’t offered anything up front (their goal was their single shot on target). It was difficult to see anything other than an extension of the Hawks’ lead.
It wasn’t to be though, as Ian Allinson sought to flood the midfield second half. This brought Solomon Sambou more to the fore, and the former Fulham Academy player had a good second half, but Bradbury combatted the strategy by also changing formation. The end result was a crowded midfield, and both the quality of play and quality of chances dwindled. Which suited Havant & Waterlooville just fine.
On 53 minutes Tom Gardiner headed over from a Saints’ corner, and then on 59 minutes came the most contentious moment of the match. When the much-abused Tom Bender came up for a corner, he ended up on the floor holding his face. I was looking straight at the “coming together” between him, ‘keeper Ryan Young and Jordan Rose and I genuinely couldn’t see anything untoward, but somehow former Wales U21 Tom Bender had claret on his grid. With the St Albans fans behind the goal baying for a red card for by turn an elbow, a forearm smash and a headbutt (everyone seemed certain they’d seen something, but it was different to everyone else…) the referee ended up awarding a free kick to Havant & Waterlooville and everyone was just a bit confused. My perspective, no one bleeds from the mouth without cause, but I genuinely couldn’t see anything happen.
This was the catalyst for some severe criticism from the travelling fans of referee Ryan Atkin. I felt this was unwarranted, and that the man in the middle actually had a pretty good game. Certainly one of the better I’ve seen in recent weeks.
A foul on the combative Sambou resulted in a free kick for Saints on the edge of the home 18 yard box, but the shot amounted to nothing. It did signal a brief spell of improvement from St Albans though, particularly when Sam Merson and Rhys Murrell-Williamson came on. Charlie Walker had been outmuscled all match by Ed Harris, Ryan Woodford and Jordan Rose, and had struggled to get into the game.
On 72 minutes though, Rory Williams spurned a golden opportunity to put the game to bed. A fine low ball across the box – right in the corridor of uncertainty – came to Williams about 8 yards out. With enough space to berth the Queen Elizabeth and enough time to recite the bible first, Williams blazed over. A long, long way over. There are rumours that Vladimir Putin tried to shoot the ball down over Syria later in the evening.
With 13 minutes left to play, Sam Merson crafted a half chance to equalise. Chasing a long ball, he outfoxed Rose on the goalline, and squeezed a shot from a tight angle. It was the wrong decision with absolutely none of the goal to aim for, but you can’t blame a lad for trying. Minutes later, and a defensive mix up nearly ended St Albans’ resistance, when Wes Fogden was the beneficiary. Always heading away from goal though he was unable to hit the target.
Havant & Waterlooville saw out the final seconds, and four minutes stoppage time professionally, keeping the ball in the corners when they good. When the final whistle blew, a massive crowd of 1,051 (Havant’s average is 778) checked their phones for the Dartford score.
The Wash Up
I’ll save you the effort though, it was 1-0 to the Darts. So situation no chance at the top, there’s still one goal in it. I spoke to Lee Bradbury post match, and he was justifiably pleased with his team’s performance.
In all honesty, it could and should have been more, as St Albans never really got going. Despite a few good performances, the aforementioned Mr Sambou, as well as Kieran Monlouis having some neat touches. I can’t help but think that Saint Albans missed Tarik Moore-Azille’s strength and composure at the back, as Jason Prior gave Sendles-White and Gardiner a torrid time.
This loss leaves St Albans in 7th, and looking nervously over their shoulders. With Braintree only two points behind and with a game in hand, they can’t afford any more slip ups. Three losses on the bounce won’t help confidence, and Allinson is going to have to dig deep to rebuild morale. A variation from the repeated aerial assaults may not be a bad shout either…
Havant & Waterlooville, however, can look forward to East Thurrock on Tuesday with some confidence. Theo Lewis looked the business in midfield, whilst Ed Harris was strong at the back. Bradley Tarbuck threatened throughout down the right wing, but could possibly have chanced his arm and attacked the full back more often. His deliveries with his left foot were good though.
The man of the match, both officially and from me (we know which one he’ll care about more…) was Jason Prior .After an impressive season in 2016/7, Prior has stepped up from the Isthmian Premier with some style this season. He’s played league football before, and with his aerial strength, close control and powerful finishing, will surely be playing a step higher next season.