v Fleet Spurs (Isuzu FA Vase, Preliminary Round – 24 Sept 2022)



Tuffley Rovers win 4-2 on penalties


(ATT: 74)

This was a repeat, at the same stage of the competition, of a fixture played one year less a day earlier, in which the Wessex League visitors had acquitted themselves well but were still on the wrong end of a 2-3 scoreline.

The Spurs had endured a torrid time in their initial season in the Wessex League (2021-22), finishing in 18th position in Division One but earning a reprieve from relegation. Things didn’t improve at the start of 2022-23, so they arrived in Gloucester still seeking their first league point after seven successive defeats in which they had conceded twenty-four goals. Their hosts had made a decent start to a new campaign, picking up eight points from seven matches. Although Rovers play one level higher than Fleet, memories of last season’s encounter suggested that this would be another tight cup-tie.

This was an interesting game to witness. Despite Tuffley playing at a higher level than Fleet, there was no real sign of the porous defending which had seen the Hampshire club leak so many goals in their opening league matches this season. There were times when the hosts looked to be in the ascendancy, particularly in the closing stages of the first half, but Fleet’s defending was disciplined and determined as Rovers tried to cancel out the lead which the visitors had taken just before the half-time interval.

The match kicked off nearly an hour late because of a very delayed journey which the Spurs had undertaken. The opening exchanges suggested that the two teams were pretty evenly-matched, with both teams winning early corners and both goalkeepers called upon to make fairly routine saves.  Jack Beardsell was an enthusiastic and willing runner down the right-hand channel and across the other side of the field Ryan Goddard was doing much the same thing for the visitors.

Nearing the mid-point of the first half, when a corner was blocked and fell loose in the box, Ashley Davies struck a ferocious shot against the Fleet crossbar and shortly afterwards Beardsell’s shot was clutched gratefully by Fleet keeper Joe Hill. Down at the open end a free-kick by Larry Biggs was deflected and Eliot Jones had to twist and stretch his fingers to their utmost limit to flick the ball up and over the crossbar.

The hosts’ pressure was slowly mounting. Henry Birkett’s inviting cross from the right was headed goalwards by Beardsell but even this close-range effort did not go in thanks to heroic defending. Then a sumptuous pass by Ryan Dobbins sent Beardsell clear on goal but he could only drag his shot wide from a really favourable position. A minute or two later the same player clattered into the Fleet goalkeeper but the referee did not deem that it had been a malicious challenge and the game restarted almost immediately.

It only takes a second to score a goal and just before the interval Harry White proved that as Fleet broke quickly and he rounded the onrushing Jones, before tucking the ball home and wheeling away in celebration. It was hard on the hosts who had just had a good period themselves, but for all their attacking superiority Rovers went in one down at the break.

Soon after play resumed Davies was clattered by Nick Holmes and the two players squared up to each other but it was goalscorer White who received a caution for delaying the restart. Then home ‘keeper Jones was injured in a bizarre incident after a speculative shot had been deflected up in the air and struck the woodwork as the ‘keeper desperately tried to catch the ball but instead ended up in a heap on the ground, having collided with the frame of the goal.

White was somewhat subdued after receiving his caution so it wasn’t a surprise when he was replaced by Gavin Francis. Fleet also brought on Jordan Wynter.

Rovers responded by sending on the hugely-experienced Shayne Bradley and shortly afterwards Fleet’s Connor Knight was cautioned for wasting an inexcusable amount of time preparing to take a throw-in.

The hosts were still knocking on the door but it just wouldn’t open. Dobbins turned his defender to get a shot in but his effort went over.

Then, suddenly, the game changed in an instant. Warren Mann found space on the left, slipped his marker and his inch-perfect chip found Bradley waiting at the far post to plant an unstoppable header into the net. Time was nearly up and this critical moment by two of the most experienced players on the pitch was greeted with enthusiasm on and off the playing surface.

The clock ran down without another serious chance being created at either end although there was enough time for Mann to incur the referee’s wrath, for a foul deep in Spurs’ territory, and receive a yellow card.

So, to penalties. Tuffley’s first spot-kick, from Bradley, was saved but Fleet’s second and fourth soared high in the general direction of the city-centre. Mann, Beardsell and Dobbins held their nerve to tuck their kicks away before it was left to a Rovers’ substitute, Kieran Squires, to drive a neat left-footed shot into the net and ensure Tuffley’s progression into the next round of the Vase.