Wealdstone now face the greatest challenge of their historic cup run after they went down 3-1 to Newport County AFC in the first leg of their FA Trophy semi final.
Despite a very spirited performance, some uncharacteristically poor defensive play gifted County all their goals, with the Welsh side taking a valuable two goal lead into next weekend’s decisive second leg at The Vale.
But Stones have proven time and again throughout this glorious Trophy run that their never say die attitude and fierce fighting spirit is embedded within the camp, and they will feel an epic comeback is still a real possibility at a packed Grosvenor Vale next Saturday.
Manager Gordon Bartlett’s team selection for this first leg was heavily influenced by key, debilitating, suspensions; Alan Massey, Chris O’Leary and Connor Smith were all missing. There were recalls to the side for Scott Fitzgerald and David Hicks, as well as a return to the substitute’s bench for Callum Martin after a hugely lengthy spell on the sidelines due to persistent injury.
Wealdstone’s first attack on a gloriously sunny afternoon in South Wales came in only the second minute when Richard Jolly sent Lee Chappell scampering down the left; the winger sending over a low cross to the onrushing Scott Fitzgerald who was just beaten to the ball by Newport captain Gary Warren.
Chappell was enjoying some space down the left early on and he had another chance to put the ball across three minutes later, this time over hitting his delivery.
Despite the positive start from Stones they were dealt a major blow on six minutes when the home side took the lead. A long ball forward from the back saw Jonathan North surge from his goal to clear, however he got his clearing diving header all wrong gifting possession to Elliot Buchanan who appeared to control the ball with his hand but the forward was able to shoot over the stranded ‘keeper and into the net with the 500 away fans screaming for handball.
Stones looked to respond, and Fitzgerald was unlucky to be flagged offside after a neat passing move as he bore down on goal.
Buchanan nearly doubled his side’s advantage on 20 minutes, with North doing well to palm his hooked effort away for a corner.
It proved to be just temporary respite for Stones as they found themselves 2-0 down from the resultant set piece. Warren saw his headed effort crash off the cross bar, with Nat Jarvis following up to slam the ball home from close range. It was harsh on the visitors who had been enjoying some good possession in the opposition’s half prior to the goal.
Buchanan certainly was proving to be a thorn in Wealdstone’s side in the first half, and North had to dive smartly to his left to palm away the striker’s 20 yard effort on the half hour mark.
Scott McCubbin showed great skill five minutes before the break as he beat two men before cutting in from the left; however his shot lacked direction and sailed over and wide.
Kurtney Brooks then had one last chance for Stones to claw a goal back right on the stroke of half time when his low effort from the edge of the box was comfortably saved by Glyn Thompson.
Wealdstone came out flying for the second half and managed to claw a vital goal back on 49 minutes. David Hicks played a great raking pass out to the right where Fitzgerald carried the ball forward before drilling it across the box. The ever alert Richard Jolly was on hand to follow up, seizing onto the rebounded loose ball and somehow the Stones goal machine managed to turn the ball home from the tightest of angles.
The home side were now looking edgy, although they did have a great chance to grab a third on the hour mark when Stones made hard work of clearing a free kick resulting in a scramble in the 6 yard box, however play was eventually stopped due to a foul on North.
Lee Chappell was unlucky to be flagged offside five minutes later after a clever flick from Fitzgerald presented him with a great shooting opportunity.
Both sides were now creating chances, and substitute Jake Harris looked to capitalise after a defensive slip gifted him possession, but his effort was turned away for a corner by Hicks.
Peter Dean came close to an equaliser with fifteen minutes to play, hitting an exquisite 25 yard volley which Thompson did well to scramble away low down to his right.
A trademark long throw from Chappell then almost created an opening as Thompson dropped the ball, but luckily for him his defence was able to clear.
A quick counter attack saw Newport grab a gut wrenching third goal with 12 minutes left on the clock. McCubbin dived in rashly with a tackle that failed to connect leaving David Pipe in acres of space to sprint down the right unchallenged before pulling the ball back to substitute Darryl Knights who was able to shoot home.
The goal was a real hammer blow to Stones and they desperately tried to reduce the arrears once more, introducing Callum Martin and Nikki Ahamed late on in a bid to inject some flair into their attacks.
It wasn’t to be though and Wealdstone now face a massive battle to keep the dream alive next week in the return leg, but it would be a brave person to write off Stones chances just yet.
Tickets for the all ticket home leg on Saturday 17 March are available on-line from: http://www.wfcmegastore.co.uk/en/match-tickets/895-fa-trophy-semi-final-2nd-leg-home.html
Before then, though, there is a vital league match for Wealdstone on Monday as they welcome Horsham to The Vale, 7.45pm kick off WHEN 2ND LEG SEMI-FINAL TICKETS WILL ALSO BE ON SALE
Wealdstone: North, Hammond, McCubbin (Ahamed 88), Parker (c), Cronin, Brooks, Dean, Hicks, Fitzgerald (Martin 80), Jolly, Chappell. Subs not used: Hoban, Jones, Dyer
Report by Stuart Warren