Saturday 3rd May, 1500 Kick Off
Sidmouth Town AFC vs Stoke Gabriel FC
The Build Up
In true South West fashion, just like with election results, the leagues in Cornwall and Devon have been the last to declare. Whilst the Step Six league was wrapped up last week, both Step Seven divisions have a few matches still to run. However, that worked out nicely, as having travelled to Cornwall to visit family, and been unable to get a ticket at the sold old Home Park, it presented a nice option to watch some football.
With the other half taking my mum shopping in Exeter for wedding accessories, it freed up Grass Roots Sr and myself to find afternoon entertainment, and we found it in nearby Sidmouth, where the Vikings were hosting the newly crowned South West Peninsula League Division One East champions, Stoke Gabriel. That said, the championship this season is like an Athenian Olympics, and counts for pride only, as almost every Step Seven side in Devon and Cornwall will be promoted this season, due to league restructuring. Sidmouth and Stoke Gabriel have already had their places in the new eastern Step Six league confirmed for next season, though the champions have had to demonstrate a business case to meet the ground grading criteria.
Sidmouth were formed in 1912, and were elected to the South West Peninsula league for the first time in 2011/12, since when they have consistently finished between 10th and 15th. That said – secure the points today, and they’d end the season in 9th, representing their highest ever league finish. Originally Sidmouth Unionists, then Sidmouth Imps, the coastal side settled (disappointingly) on Sidmouth, contributing further to the removal of awesome names in English football. Whilst this season could result in a highest league position, it has already seen another first for the club, as they competed in the FA Vase after 106 years. Victories over Keynsham and Godolphin Atlantic (that’s a good name) took them to the 1st Round, where Cadbury Heath of the Step Five Toolstation Western Premier knocked them out.
Having won two and lost four of late, Sidmouth arrived at this fixture in substantially worse form than their visitors, who had won six on the bounce. Nick Milton’s Railwaymen had already secured their third Step Seven title (having won previously in 2014 and 2017), and could finish the season as far as 12 points clear of second placed Bovey Tracey. After finishing 12th last season in the SWPL Premier, Stoke Gabriel were relegated on ground grading criteria, but even without the restructuring would have been bouncing back at the first time of asking. From a village of under 1,200 people on the River Dart, Stoke Gabriel have been running since 1905, and it’s a strong effort to be the West Brom of South Western football, continually bouncing between first and second flights. It’s also a bit weird to think that they had Kieffer Moore playing for them back in the day, but there you go.
Sidmouth is a delightful coastal town in South Devon, and the drive there from Exeter took around half an hour through the country roads. Upon arriving at Manstone Lane the difference between Step Seven and Step Six requirements was immediately apparent. A perimeter fence, dugouts, floodlights and a good club house were all in place, but the Vikings still have improvements to make. A covered stand for 50 people is required, along with hard standing along some edges of the pitch.
Still, at only £3 per person to watch, the ensuing match can only be described as having been good value. The hot food doesn’t become available until post-match once the players have had their fill (fair enough), so the options were a cold roll (egg mayo for me, tuna and sweetcorn for the old man) and a couple of soft drinks at a cost of £6.20. The programme was included with the entry fee, meaning in total, father and I took in a match, with snacks and programme, for £12.20 all told.
Stoke Gabriel entered the pitch to a guard of honour, having already secured the league title, and then returned the accolade for Sidmouth’s captain, who was apparently starting his final match for the club. The game kicked off in bright sunshine, and it took about six minutes for the first chance to arrive, when Stoke Gabriel midfielder Joey Andrews shot straight at the keeper from the left hand side of the box. Five minutes later and the untaken half-chances count (the one everyone really wants to win) was even, when a corner was headed well over by right back Dan Churchill, shortly after which Sidmouth’s Ferenc Bodor shot over after a mix up between Danny Gaze and Mark Ashworth.
With around quarter of the match played, it was fairly even, though Stoke Gabriel were showing greater quality when they had the ball. Neat play on the twenty minute mark led to Nathan Hobbs shooting from the edge of the box, which was well kept out by the home ‘keeper. Unfortunately for the Vikings, the ball dropped invitingly in the six yard box, where Dave Worthington won his off-the-ball tussle with Duchenski to tap into an unguarded net, putting the champions one up.
The goal kick-started a flurry of activity, and caused Sidmouth to gradually take control of the remainder of the half. On 21 minutes Dom Aplin almost got himself in trouble when he backed his footwork to beat Scott Hughes. Thankfully for him, his luck was better than his Cruyff turn. Less than a minute later, a deep ball by Ethan Slater found Bodor beyond the back stick. He tied up a defender and laid the ball off to Dan Churchill to shoot. His first time effort was bravely blocked by Simon Laughton.
With 27 on the clock, a good through ball by the 16 year old Jack Hatswell found Scott Hughes in space, but his footwork was about as good as Aplin’s moments earlier, and he scuffed an easily saveable shot goalwards.
However, Hughes’ touch was much improved two minutes later, when this time he was found by Slater. Signed in November from Budleigh Salterton, the former Exeter City (yuck) Academy product looked good throughout. On this occasion, his pass slid in Hughes, who nicked the ball past Aplin with the outside of his right foot, to level up the scores.
Sidmouth almost went ahead just before half time, when one of their three centre backs, Martin Hancock, almost connected with a diving header, however he was just short of the cross. It would have been unfair of Stoke Gabriel, though I felt that the Vikings had just about shaded the first half. Possession had been even, but the hosts had showed more attacking intent when they had it – especially through their highly active Romanian winger.
As the second half kicked off, Stoke Gabriel started on the front foot, and it took only two minutes before top scorer Liam Mosely was shooting over on the turn. Then, on fifty minutes, Mosely’s pace enabled him to get clear of the defence to receive a long ball, but Sidmouth’s three man defence got back well to snuff out the danger, preventing Mosely from adding to his 28 league goals.
On 65 minutes Jack Taylor played a pass so precise I’d let it perform surgery on me, and it completely took Ben Miller out of the game. The ball reached centre forward Adam Dyson, but he was unable to ‘hoover’ up the chance, and instead rolled the ball wide of Jake Wreford’s goal. Eight minutes later, it was back to Sidmouth to test the opposition ‘keeper, through the lively Bodor again. He shot low, but Aplin got down well, and having spilled the ball reacted quickly when Ollie Jarrett dived in to challenge.
A minute after that we were back up the other end, where Nathan Hobbs was threatening. He had a good effort well blocked by Ben Miller, who was growing into the game nicely. With the ball then half cleared, an unidentified Stoke Gabriel player crossed invitingly for Adam Dyson. He got up well, and completely missed the ball, letting Sidmouth off the hook.
The Vikings went almost straight up the other end and took advantage of that miss to go ahead for the first time in the match. A pass down the right found Bodor chasing, and he used his pace to beat the first man. With Aplin coming out quick Bodor beat him to the ball, rounded him, and then clipped into the empty net.
The lead lasted precisely six minutes. When Dyson got to the ball first, he was clipped later by the Sidmouth defender. His teammate Josh Webber, on as a sub, stood over the ball with Danny Gaze, both left-footers, but when the shot came in it still took Wreford by surprise. Webber hit his shot low to the ‘keeper’s right, with enough pace to find the corner, and the scores were level with under ten minutes to play. I of course missed it, because with the camera all lined up, Ethan Slater selfishly walked right in front of me, almost as though he was focused on actually playing the game or something.
With seven minutes left to play Ferenc Bodor took things by the scruff of the neck again, and skinned around 43 players down the right of the pitch. He drove into the box, and with as much predictability as Arjen Robben, cut in on his left to shoot. The ball was blocked, falling to Slater, who also shot, this time striking the post. In the ensuing melee, Jack Hatswell had a volley blocked, and Bodor had a further two shots blocked, before the ball was eventually cleared.
Then, with 86 on the clock, Stoke Gabriel scored what was surely the winner. Mosely tricked his way down the left, beating two in the box, and after making sure one defender was thoroughly comfortable on his arse, teed up Dyson in a pocket of space at the edge of the box. He struck across the ball well, putting the spin on it to drive it into the bottom corner, and despite Wreford getting a strong hand on the shot, it was too powerful and gave the Railwaymen the lead.
A lead which promised to give them the three points. In fact, no sooner had my dad said there’d be no more goals, a good bit of interplay between Danny Gaze and Josh Webber down the left resulted in Hobbs having a shot blocked on the goalline.
So definitely no more goals then. Oh go on then, just one more. And what a “one more” it was. A deep free kick was punched clear, and when it dropped to Hatswell on the edge of the area, the attacking midfielder showed the sort of technique he’d surely just learned in GCSE PE. With very little backswing, he hit a first time left footed volley, which set outside the post, and curled beautifully into the top corner. No hyperbole, it is in the top three goals I’ve seen live in the last two seasons. And the GroundHopper App tells me I’ve seen 344 goals live in that time, so it’s a hard fought competition! A fitting strike to bring up 3-3, and a fair score to end the match.
The Wash Up
A point for Sidmouth ensured they finished the season in 9th, securing their highest ever league finish – a fine springboard for their first leap into Step Six. However, the post-match focus was all on Stoke Gabriel as they were presented with their winners’ medals. League Secretary Phil Hiscox was in attendance, along with the obligatory wasted champagne.
Congratulations to Stoke Gabriel on their fine season, having been at the top for almost the entire campaign, and they had some strong performances on the day, notably from Liam Mosely when he came on.
My man of the match though was a hard-fought tussle between three of Sidmouth’s players. Ferenc Bodor and Jack Hatswell both performed well and threatened when in possession, however my vote on the day goes to Ethan Slater for a fine performance in both offence and defence. He kept play ticking over well, yet also got stuck in despite being (or at least looking) about ten years younger than most players on the pitch.
To see any photos in more detail, simply click on the picture.
Any photographs or text produced on this website 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.