AFTER their midweek misfortune, when they lost 3-1 at home to Three Bridges (the team they play in this Friday’s John O’Hara League Cup Final) AFC were looking to exorcise their ghosts with a victory at Lancing. But that just never looked likely in this sorry 3-0 defeat.
The depleted visitors were forced into major selection surgery. Tom Betts returned between the sticks and Andy McDowell who was rested midweek pulled-on the number 9 shirt. AFC had the first opportunity to score on three minutes when Dan Pollard’s ball over the top from the back found McDowell on his own in behind the Lancing back line only for him to shoot a foot over the near side angle. Lancing’s first opportunity came five minutes later when a visitors’ sloppy pass in the middle of the park saw the ball gifted to the home side, who drove in and let one fly from 18 yeards, Betts saving well.
Another good opportunity came for AFC on 15 minutes with some great link-up play between Jack Divall and McDowell out on the right, with the ball eventually being played back into the path of the on rushing Rich Greenfield, whose scuffed shot from just outside the box went wide.
On 21 minutes and Lancing’s best effort came with the home side finding space out on left to cross a dangerous ball in requiring the athletic Betts to make a double save – both at point-blank range. As it turned out, the assistant’s flag had been raised much to the relief of the visiting team.
Three minutes later a ball over the top down the right found county league top scorer Charlie Walker clearly offside, but no flag resulted in a great strike to open Lancing’s account.
Even the neutrals behind the visitors’ dugout could clearly see the player was offside when the ball was played. Unfortunately, the linesman, who wasn’t up with play, didn’t see it that way.
Following that shock, AFC lacked the necessary creativity in the centre and some lethargic performances by certain players didn’t help.
Five minutes before half time a Lancing forward drove in from the right – after the ball was again given away in sloppy fashion. As he approached the AFC goal he appeared to start his fall like a giant redwood on the edge of the box before any contact was made by the centre half, but nevertheless contact was still made as he tumbled unceremoniously. The young match official had no hesitation in pointing to the spot but no caution was brandished. Darren Boswell assumed the spot kick duty and profited by driving the ball down the centre, with Betts leaping to the left. This was the third penalty against AFC in two games, which is more than they’d had previously all season.
The next moment of note came just before the hour mark, when McDowell was hacked down by a obvious and dangerous foul but nothing given by the ref, who was 10 yards away. With the wind taken out of the striker’s sails, he was taken off as a precaution, presumably for Friday (see below), and the pace of young Tom Swancott was injected into the game.
The visitors’ second sub came moments later with Ben Courtnage replacing Andrew Ducille. The first chance worth mentioning came on 67 minutes, and it was from the hosts: a speculative effort from 35 yards out.
A double corner down the other end for Uckers ended with a breakaway for the home side, with Ben Courtnage under hitting the back pass to the keeper and Betts having to rush out to claim to save the day from the onrushing forward. The result, am indirect free kick inside the Uckfield box, ricocheted off the right hand upright.
On 74 minutes, Ben Dartnell was replaced by Matt Anderson, but eight minutes after that saw the killer blow arrive when a Lancing attack on the right saw the ball travelling across the six-yard box, through a crowd of players, before being stroked in side-footed with ease by unmarked substitute Lee Garnham.
AFC’s best chance of the half came on 84 minutes with a drive down the right by Divall resulting in a great through ball for Swancott to latch onto with his diagonal run. Swancott outpaced the recovering full back but ran out of pitch, and as he leant back, his shot from a tight angle went over the bar.
The visitors’ best work seemed to come in the dying stages as they woke-up, but it really was a case of too little too late.
The final reckoning makes for grim. This is the first time this season that AFC Uckfield have suffered three consecutive defeats. There was a lack of cutting edge in crucial areas that ultimately caused their demise. There are times for teams when some can have one eye on a cup final and it can become a distraction from the day-to-day routine. On a positive note, the mood in the camp is still buoyant for the John O’Hara League Cup Final and – with a good showing against Pagham in the semi and a lot gained from the midweek prequel against Three Bridges – AFC might just be the surprise package come Friday. The game is being played at The Beacon, home of Hassocks FC, and kicks off at 11am.