v Hartpury University (Isuzu FA Vase, First Round – 22 Oct 2022)




(ATT: 67)

The opportunity to equal their best ever run in the FA Vase was not enticing enough for Tuffley Rovers’ squad, as they succumbed to a disappointing 1-0 defeat away at Hellenic League Division One side Hartpury University.

A midweek defeat at Worcester Raiders was not the ideal preparation for any game, but Rovers had shown enough fight and spirit, despite the scoreline, for manager Neil Mustoe to believe his side were capable of seeing off the students of Hartpury, and he would no doubt have been even more confident when he was able to welcome back the experienced Ashley Davies to the starting line-up and to have Warren Mann back, albeit only fit enough for a place amongst the substitutes’. Mason Lewis was selected to start after two impressive appearances from the bench, joining Jack Beardsell in starting, with Kieran Alder cup-tied and Joey Haswell back with parent club Cinderford Town.

Unfortunately for the Rovers boss, his side produced a limp first-half display that was ultimately their downfall against a highly energetic side, who used an excellent playing surface to exhibit a technically proficient performance, allied to a determination and resilience that belied their years.

From the outset, the student side showed composure on the ball and a calmness in possession that a far more experienced Rovers side failed to match. Not for the first time this season, Ryan Dobbins found himself isolated in Rovers attacks, making Alder’s absence all the more noticeable, and when his side did hold onto the ball, which was all too rare for the Rovers support, they failed to turn that possession into a clear attacking threat.

By contrast, the hosts were attacking with pace and in numbers, making good use of a healthy share of possession to stretch Mustoe’s side, and although they created few clear chances they looked the most likely team to score.

Twice in the opening minutes, Hartpury had sight on goal and although Morgan Mahoney and then Josh Radford both put their efforts high and wide, respectively, it was a warning to Mustoe’s side. In the 8th minute, Elliot Jones was into action for the first time, as he had to get down low to turn Luca Robinson’s free-kick away from goal.

When the hosts did open the scoring, in the 19th minute, it was not against the run of play and also summed up Rovers’ performance up to that point, as three claret and blue players might have done better to avoid the goal. Davies got under Alfie Toland’s long ball upfield, leaving Macaulay Herbert one-on-one but too far away from his Mahoney, who had been the target of the long pass. When Mahoney then unleashed a low, fizzing drive from 18 yards out Elliot Jones, who had been in sensational form during the heavy midweek defeat, will probably feel he might have done better, as the ball went through an area close to him and into the net.

If Mustoe had hoped going behind would spur his side into action, Rovers were sloppy in possession and they had to be grateful to right-back Paul Azubilla on 33 minutes, as he made a superb last-ditch tackle to deny Radford what seemed like a certain goal. From the resultant corner a training ground move created space for Josh Beadle, but his shot went over Jones’ bar.

Lewis was Rovers’ best outlet, giving Toland a torrid time in defence, and he almost conjured a chance on 34 minutes, after bursting onto Dom Kent’s path inside the full-back, but Laiith Fairnie got in between the cross and Dobbins’ run to deny an opportunity. Three minutes later, he beat his marker again and the ball fired across the goal was only inches away from Dobbins’ attempt to divert it home.

When half-time arrived Mustoe’s side were behind and without a shot on goal, despite an improvement late in the first period.

There were signs of a more attacking intent at the start of the second period and Lewis twice had efforts on goal in the opening nine minutes of the half, although neither troubled Hartpury’s keeper Stephen Sarkodie, before Herbert headed wide from a corner when he’d found a little space. Jones then made a comfortable save from Ben Baxter’s effort as Hartpury came forward again.

On 58 minutes Mustoe replaced Kent with the returning Mann, with Rovers’ most experienced player pushed into an attacking role that he has featured in many times in recent years, although less so in the past two seasons.

Davies and Herbert were now commanding in the Rovers defence, repelling almost any Hartpury attack, with Azubilla and left-back Kieran Squires also playing their part in keeping the hosts at bay. Mustoe sacrificed some of the defensive reliability to push Davies into midfield, where his side had been second best, and the elder statesman of the side picked up a caution moments later when Radford on his knees with a robust challenge as Hartpury launched an attack. Davies’ response was to berate his team-mates who had failed to sufficiently press the ball in the build-up to the move and few could have argued that the ticking-off was anything other than justifiable.

That caution aside, the move appear to work to good effect, with Davies becoming the driving force in the centre of the pitch, and they almost found their way back into the game on 75 minutes, as Beardsell drilled a cross across the six-yard box but, once again, marginally out of the reach of Dobbins, whose diving stretch was not quite enough and the ball ran away and out of play.

Lewis then hammered another shot high and wide of the goal and the game became more open, albeit without any clear chances for either side.

Mustoe then introduced veteran striker Shayne Bradley, with 14 minutes remaining, and with Mann now becoming increasingly influential in his wide attacking role, hope remained that his side might find a way back into the tie. Bradley had one headed effort, from a corner, that went narrowly wide but for all their efforts in the second period, Rovers failed to find a way back into the game and exited the FA Vase against a Hartpury side who deservedly took their place in the next round.