The failure of Chelmsford and Eastleigh to show signs of faltering means that Sutton’s play-off hopes remain those of an outsider, but U’s certainly can’t be accused of not playing their part as a storming finish to Saturday’s game at Gander Green Lane saw them claim a sixth consecutive league win and put them in prime position to take advantage should there be any slip-ups in Essex or Hampshire this week. Realistically the two clubs would be expected to beat Maidenhead and Truro respectively, in which case U’s visit to Bath on Saturday will be academic, but what can’t be doubted is the momentum with which Sutton are finishing the season with a squad the majority of which is already contracted to be at the club next season, and even when Hornchurch equalised on Saturday with just under twenty minutes left, so strong was Sutton’s reaction that there was almost an inevitability about the two goals inside the last six minutes that left the visitors needing Tonbridge to lose at home twice this week if they are to avoid joining Billericay in an immediate return to the Ryman League.
As against Hayes on Wednesday Sutton started on the front foot and could have had the game under control in the first twenty minutes. Indeed Craig Dundas should have given U’s the lead less than a minute after being presented with the Supporters’ Club Player of the Year award, shooting over the bar after Sam Rents had found him in space inside the penalty area. Shortly afterwards Dundas cut off a backpass from Billy Coyne that was always going to be short of goalkeeper Joe Woolley, but having gone round the keeper he allowed Marvin Williams to take over and he could only scoop the ball over the bar from an angle when Dundas was well placed for a return pass. Woolley saved well when Jamie Stuart met a Rents corner with a firm header, and Williams shot just over after a fine turn past Rickie Hayles had given him the chance to race through as U’s looked for the early goal, while Hornchurch, for all the efforts of Lewis Smith who was, as in February’s meeting at Hornchurch, a constant threat to the U’s defence, were unable to create much of note. They were almost handed a chance, though, when Stuart’s misplaced pass allowed Tambeson Eyong to run dangerously at the defence and Rents had to accept a booking for the foul that ended his progress.
Six minutes later referee Adam Bakalarz, who had originally been due to run the line but had to pick up the whistle after the last minute withdrawal of appointed referee Rob Hyde, and whose performance generally stood respectably alongside those of his more senior colleagues over the season, had a decision to make when Williams again turned Hayles, this time just inside the Hornchurch half, and was brought down by the defender. There wasn’t much left between Williams and Woolley, but he still had a long way to go and was heading more towards the touchline than the goal when fouled, and the choice of a yellow card rather than red seemed the right one. Not everyone of a Sutton persuasion agreed, but within three minutes any indignation had been assuaged when Williams hit a low shot on the turn from the edge of the penalty area after a move involving Anthony Riviere and Harry Beautyman, and when Woolley, who should have done better, could only push the ball away Beautyman was on hand to give U‘s the lead.
Hornchurch sounded a warning just before half time when Martin Tuohy volleyed over following a free kick, and right at the start of the half Beautyman made an excellent block to deny Eyong after the ball had run to him inside the penalty area, and with U’s struggling to assert themselves after the break, and Hornchurch sending on attacking substitutes as they desperately sought to preserve their status, U’s position was far from secure. They did come close once when Williams broke in to the penalty area and saw his shot diverted to Beautyman, who couldn’t force the ball in, but substitute Michael Spencer sent a low volley just wide from the edge of the penalty area, and soon afterwards a long throw from Hayles bounced through to Wayne Gray, who had only been on the pitch six minutes and whose acrobatic volley flew past Lovelock to maintain his excellent record of scoring against Sutton.
U’s response was terrific, and within three minutes Dundas had rampaged through the middle from inside his own half, chased all the way by Smith who then rather ruined his hard work by pulling Dundas back just outside the penalty area to earn a booking, although the referee should have let play go on as the ball ran on to a well-placed Beautyman, who was justifiably frustrated at the lack of an advantage. Before the free-kick could be taken Rhys Murrell-Williamson was brought on as U’s made attacking replacements of their own, and his first touch almost led to a goal as Rents’ free kick rebounded off the wall and Murrell-Williamson’s cross shot found Dundas, whose shot was superbly saved by Woolley and who stabbed the rebound against the post.
The near miss heralded an all-out assault by Sutton on the Hornchurch goal, which somehow survived when Woolley parried Murrell-Williamson’s shot and Chris Benjamin’s attempt to turn the rebound in was scrambled away in a frantic melee. Six minutes from time, though, another Benjamin shot was blocked but this time Rents seized on the rebound, fired across goal and Williams arrived at the far post to score. Two minutes later Hornchurch had another throw-in from a similar position to the one that they had scored from, but this time U’s cleared the initial danger, and Ali Fuseini then blocked a follow-up shot with such force that the ball rebounded all the way to the halfway line where Murrell-Williamson took possession, raced through the space created as Hornchurch pushed up looking for the equaliser, and after beating the one covering defender slid the ball past Woolley to score his first senior league goal for the club and make sure that U’s efforts were fully rewarded.
Hornchurch: J Woolley, B Coyne(sub K St Aimie 56), A Bentley, R Noel, R Hayles, E Styles, T Eyong(sub M Spencer 59), F Curley, M Tuohy(sub W Gray 67), L Smith, C Bourne Subs n/u. S Glover, J Love.. Booked: Hayles(33-foul), Smith(76-foul).
I thought the lads were magnificent again against Hornchurch on what was a really dry and bobbly surface. You could see that every time the ball was played up to Marvin it was bobbling up to him and I thought we did really well. We tried to play football, but it’s very difficult when the ball spends most of its time in the air but I thought there was one team trying to play football and one team playing a direct style which suits them. I don’t think it was the best viewing for the spectators, but we did create losts and lots of chances, never more so than after they’d equalised, when Craig Dundas hit the post and there were several scrambles in the goalmouth, and I was delighted with the positive substitutions that we made, with Rhys Murrell-Williamson coming on and stretching the game , which is what we wanted him to do, and let’s not kid ourselves it was a thoroughly deserved 3-1 win and probably should have been more.
We started well again and had four really good chances – in the first minute there was a great ball in from Sam Rents and Craig put it over the top, then Marvin got in on a backpass which you’re hoping he might stick in, there was his run and shot which I thought was a great save by the keeper although the referee gave a goal kick, and Jamie Stuart’s header, and they were all in the first fifteen minutes. You always want an early goal to settle you down, but as it was it wasn’t until the 36th minute that we scored. It was a good strike from Marvin, although I think the keeper might have been disappointed not to hold it, and Harry was in the right place at the right time.
It was difficult in the second half and they scored from a long throw, which we’d identified as being a major threat. It’s a shame in some respects that you’re talking about the main threat from a team coming from long throws, but that’s the way they play and they’ve equalised from it. I think the lads have dug in to their reserves and again I certainly think you’re looking at the levels of fitness we’ve got, because in the last fifteen minutes it was all one way traffic and in the end we thoroughly deserved the win. It was a great run and finish from Rhys to score the third goal, and I think that made the scoreline a fair reflection of the game.
Jamie Stuart came off near the end, and the old warhorse has put his body on the line once again today. He’s got a sore groin, and I’d say it’s touch and go for him for Monday. We’ll have to wait and see, and knowing Jamie he’ll try and play but you’ve got to be realistic about the recovery period which is only 48 hours.
Welling have all but won the league today, so congratulations to them and I think they’ve proved over the season that they’re the best side, but we’re probably the best side at the moment in terms of current form, and we need to go again on Monday against Salisbury as it would be lovely to take it to the last game of the season, which no-one would have given us a prayer of doing a month or so ago. We need Eastleigh or Chelmsford to draw or lose in midweek and then we’re in with a real chance on the last day of the season, but whatever happens this last month has given us a really positive momentum for going in to next season. We know a lot of the players are already contracted for next season, and that’s a very positive sign for what’s coming up