Saturday, September 30, 2017

FA Cup, Third Qualifying Round: @needhammktfc 1 @DartfordFC 6

Or, as the title suggests, "The Day That The Wheels Fell Off". It was, I'm afraid, not one of the most glorious moments in the eight or so years that I've been intermittently following our local non-league football team. And yet, it had started so promisingly...

The sun was shining brightly on a somewhat busier than usual Bloomfields, as Conference South side Dartford were the visitors, with the promise of knockout drama and a possible giant killing. Alright, Dartford are only one division above Needham Market, but it's quite a big step up from the Bostik League to the Conference South, as a number of teams have found in recent years. And besides, they had been in reasonably good form coming into the match, whereas the Marketmen appeared to be saving their best performances for the road, with a rather poor home record thus far.

The theory is that the underdog has two options, either keep it tight and try to nick a goal from a set piece, or have a go, and Needham Market had clearly chosen the latter, putting the Darts under quite a lot of pressure early on. It all looked promising until, twenty minutes in, a Dartford free kick just outside the box was played along the ground, causing some chaos, and after a scramble, the Dartford number nine, Alfie Pavey, struck a fierce shot past the home keeper.

The sun promptly disappeared behind a cloud. It was an omen, wasn't it...

Whilst Needham weren't obviously downhearted - it was rather against the run of play - it was clear that the goal had settled the visitors and, from a tidy break, a nasty, teasing cross from the left was met by a bullet header from that man Pavey. Thirty-five minutes gone, 2-0 to Dartford.

Needham heads were visibly dropping at this point, and you just had to hope that they could make it to half-time just two down and regroup for the second half. It wasn't to be. In stoppage time, another ball into the box, good strength shown to hold off the defender before hooking a shot past the keeper. Yes, it was a hattrick for Pavey, who else?

The mood in Bloomfields was a resilient one though, and in truth, Dartford had made only four real chances, and a quality striker had taken three of them, none of them that easy. Dartford's more confident distribution, with an ability to move the ball at pace, was at the heart of the gap between the two sides.

The second half kicked off, with the hope that the score could be kept respectable. It didn't last long, as with Needham pushing forward, another lightning break, a well-chosen diagonal through ball and Tom Murphy took a gift-wrapped opportunity to make it 0-4.

It could have been even worse soon afterwards, with Dartford awarded a penalty for a senseless push on Pavey as he had a clear header on goal. The defender was lucky to get away with a yellow card, and had an even luckier escape when the keeper managed to push the penalty onto the bar, the rebound being blazed over it.

The Dartford manager had clearly seen enough to be relaxed about saving key players for the league campaign ahead, and Pavey and Murphy were both substituted on the hour mark. Whilst the substitutes were getting into the game, Needham stepped up a gear and, from a corner, central defender Sam Nunn got above his marker to nod in what was probably only going to be a consolation.

There followed a brighter spell from the hosts but, just as you began to wonder if they might spark an unlikely comeback, Dartford cut them to ribbons. Again, a break from the back, another long diagonal ball cut out the defence, and Andy Pugh had an age to beat the keeper and restore his team's four goal advantage.

With twenty minutes still to go, you feared for the Marketmen, but the game remained pretty open, with both sides looking to add to their tally, until, with seven minutes to go, Warren Mfula, on as a substitute, was on the verge of beating the last defender when he was brought down somewhat clumsily. A red card was the only likely outcome and the referee didn't shirk his responsibility, ending Billy Holland's afternoon with seven minutes to go.

The game rather petered out after that until, in stoppage time, Gareth Heath laid off a hideous back pass to an unsuspecting keeper who just about beat the onrushing striker. Unfortunately, he could only toepoke it to Ryan Hayes, whose precise pass into the net from thirty yards or more put the final gloss on what was an object lesson in how to avoid a Cup upset.

So, a 6-1 beating for the Marketmen, and an emphatic end to the dream of a game against the big boys in November. It would be fair to say that, whilst Dartford were clearly the better side, a five goal margin wasn't reflective of the gap in ability between the two sides. Needham were a bit naive and open at the back, and a bit underpowered up front, where Ryan Gibbs tried his hardest but doesn't yet have the nous or power to compete with more hardened and experienced central defenders.

Back to the league then, and perhaps an FA Trophy run?...

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