AFC UCKFIELD suffered cup heartache as they ran out of time in their attempts to equalise in the John O’Hara League Cup Final, while opponents Three Bridges held on for dear life to win the trophy.
The final was played on Good Friday morning on a lovely sunny day at the picturesque Beacon grounds, home of Hassocks FC, in the shadow of the Jack amnd Jill windmills on a great playing surface.
Following a run of bad form, AFC were certainly the underdogs to the potential league title winners in waiting.
Only one change from the squad for the semi-final win over Pagham was the introduction of the skilful Aaron Hopkinson, in on loan from Lewes and replacing the suspended Rich Greenfield on the flank.
Uckfield lost the toss and Bridges elected for them to play into the sun first half. The game started at a frenetic pace with AFC just edging the early exchanges. On 10 minutes a lack of defensive concentration resulted in a contentious award for a penalty, when Greg Manton was adjudged to have fouled in the box.
Tim Rivers took responsibility and profited from the spot when Betts went to the left and the ball was stroked with precision just inside the right post.
It was a bitter blow for an Uckers side conceding their fourth penalty in the last three matches.
That had been the first real scoring opportunity for either side. AFC’s first opportunity came on 15 minutes when debutant Hopkinson delivered a searching crossfield ball which met Andy McDowell’s head, only for Simon Lehky, the Bridges stopper, to collect effortlessly.
Uckfield’s best spell came in the lead-up to the interval, with diagonal balls into the wide areas giving Three Bridges all sorts of trouble as their full backs pushed-on. Three good opportunities for AFC to score came in the five minutes before the break but the Uckers lacked the clinical finish to restore parity.
Bridges started the proceedings in the second period but it was AFC that hit the self-destruct button, when captain Ben Dartnell felled an opposition player unceremoniously with an over-zealous two-footed challenge in the ‘D’.
The Uckfield bench looked on nervously as the young match official waved away the appeals from both teams, both awaiting the fate of their player. To AFC’s relief, the man in black reached for his pocket and brandished a yellow card for the robust challenge.
The free kick from just outside the area, hit by Nigel Brake, drew a save from Tom Betts which he failed to hold and William Peauroux seized on the loose ball to slot home unchallenged, doubling the Crawley side’s lead and leaving Uckfield with a mountain to climb.
Ten minutes into the half and the spritely Hopkinson was scythed down by the Bridges left back. resulting in a caution for the rash challenge. Two minutes later a tactical change to attack the game saw the pace of Tom Swancott injected into the game at the expense of Dartnell, with Dan Pollard assuming the role of captain.
Bridges hit the crossbar shortly after the substitution, and Betts was called into making a fantastic save one-on-one with a Bridges forward on 62 minutes.
Two minutes after that some great work down the left by Manton saw Jack Divall switch the play to Hopkinson on the the right. The Bridges left back misjudged the flight of the ball, assuming it had gone for a throw in when in fact it was recovered by the industrious winger, who delivered a delicious ball across the six-yard box. The ball was cleared out only for James Rhodes arriving late on the edge of the box to shoot over the bar.
On instruction from the parent club, loanee Hopkinson was withdrawn on 68 minutes, to be replaced by Joe Cuttress.
The final 10 minutes saw AFC go for broke with a 3-4-3 formation. Bridges had to man the barricades as AFC applied intense pressure on the opposition goal. On 88 minutes AFC did finally score. A left hand free kick played into the far post area resulted in a spectacular volley into the top corner by Manton.
It really was game on now, with the reduction in arrears and AFC in the ascendency. Lekhy protected his side’s lead to deny a Manton header in added time. And both Joel O’Hara and Dean Carden made dramatic goalline clearances as Bridges held on by a thread.
Unfortunately for AFC the goal had come 10 minutes too late and they were unable to compensate for their earlier errors and take the game to extra time.
Despite the defeat, the underdogs did not disgrace themselves, with an excellent performance from the back four expertly marshalled by powerhouse Pollard, ably assisted by the imperious Manton alongside him – and a man-of-the-match performance by unflappable full back Grant Harrison.
It was a cruel defeat for Uckfield who were the architects of their own downfall in a highly entertaining game from a neutral perspective watched by a sizeable crowd. Certainly AFC weren’t outplayed by a very good Bridges side who failed to score in open play against The Uckers. Good shifts were put in all over the park and it is a testament to the losers’ performance that the winners’ centre half was awarded the man-of-the-match award for his work in keeping AFC’s top scorer Andy cDowell at bay. Whilst defeat is always hard to take in a final, AFC’s support goes to Three Bridges in their attempts to win the league... as this will mean a new season’s showing for AFC in the Wingrove Trophy!