v Cheltenham Saracens (GFA Challenge Trophy, First Round – 16 Nov 2021)




Uhlsport Hellenic League, Division One (West) side Cheltenham Saracens ensured that Tuffley Rovers’ hopes of success in the GFA Challenge Trophy ended at the first hurdle in 2021/22, as they left Glevum Park victorious in this First Round tie.

The 5-2 defeat, after Rovers had been in front at 2-1 via goals from Dom Kent and Joe Shutt, continued an appalling run of form in the County Association’s competition, which has seen them win just two ties in the past seven seasons, with several defeats, like this one, coming against lower ranked opposition. It also extended a run of poor form in competitive fixtures, with Saracens’ win making it six defeats in succession, with seven defeats in the last eight fixtures.

That the appalling run of form is punctuated by a remarkable victory over promotion chasing Westfields in the Premier Division, and was preceded by an excellent run of form against some of the top sides in the division, is perhaps an illustration how the inconsistency that has dogged Rich Cox’s first season at the helm as manager has now turned into a matter of concern which he will, no doubt, be looking to address as quickly as possible.

The evening saw full debuts for two of Rovers’ promising Under 18s players, with Demilade Yussuf selected in midfield and Tomas Shyamapant given an opportunity in an attacking role.

However, it was a former Rovers player, Ryan Dobbins, who made the first telling contribution opened the scoring as early as the third minute, finishing a low cross from the left from close range. Had it been 2-0, just a minute later, Rovers might not have had any complaints, but Jordan Bryan’s shot was hit straight at Dan Greenhouse in the Rovers goal and the visitor’s lead stayed at a single goal.

After their early tribulations Rovers began to get a foothold in the game and Lewis Bainbridge might have done better, on 9 minutes, when he struck Shutt’s excellent cross wide of the Saracens goal.

Had Cox feared his side’s poor run of form and falling behind might have shattered already fragile confidence, he would have been reassured by the way in which they worked their way back into the game, increasingly controlling possession and looking the most likely team to score.

The improvement eventually paid dividends, 25 minutes in, when Yussuf teed up Kent, who took one touch then fired an unstoppable effort home from 25 yards, with Saracens’ keeper Joe Wright helpless to keep it out.

Just two minutes later, Rovers had the lead, as Warren Mann’s ball found Sam Mendes inside the visitors’ penalty area and he produced a back-heeled pass into the path of Shutt, who curled the ball past Wright’s despairing dive and into the net.

On the half hour it was 2-2, as Luke Hitchman found space on the edge of the six-yard box to meet Coby Handley’s corner-kick and head it beyond Greenhouse, who could only push the powerful header into the roof of his net.

The match action was now heating up, in stark contrast to the weather conditions, and there were more fireworks in the 32nd minute, as the visiting side took the lead.

Wright’s big put upfield was initially cleared but the ball quickly got recycled to full-back Austin Parker and his pass into Jordan Bryan, who was afforded way too much room on the edge of the Rovers box, although he took full advantage, curling an excellent effort beyond Greenhouse and into the top corner of the net.

Shortly afterwards, Handley was withdrawn having picked up an injury and replaced by Harry Duncan. Moments later the newly introduced substitute created a chance for Bryan but this time his effort from just inside the box went high over the Rovers goal.

When the half-time interval arrived it drew to a close a frenetic 45 minutes that had seen the game ebb and flow before eventually settling in Cheltenham Saracens’ favour.

After the break it seemed the game was going to continue in a similar vein, with both sides showing attacking intent.

Iain Sercombe might have extended the lead for his side, as he got through on goal, but his lofted effort went over the advancing Greenhouse but narrowly wide of the Rovers goal and the score remained 3-2.

On 50 minutes Dom Kent had Rovers’ first chance of the second period, as he picked up a clearance, controlled the ball and then unleashed another excellent effort, albeit one that this time went marginally wide of Wright’s goal, with the Saracens keeper at full stretch to guard his net.

Just three minutes later Bryan was fouled just outside the Rovers penalty area, marginally to the right-hand side of the penalty area arc, and Duncan swung a free-kick in that went through a crowd before Greenhouse’s effort to keep it out was only enough to steer it into the bottom corner, leaving Cox and his side with a mountain to climb.

As if deflated by conceding the goal, Rovers struggled to get back into the game and eventually succumbed to a wonderful effort from Sercombe, who picked up the ball wide on the Rovers left, before cutting in, evading two challenges and rounded Greenhouse, before turning a slow shot into the corner of the goal, making it 5-2 with a little over 20 minutes remaining.

If Rovers had a mountain to climb at that point, things became considerably more difficult moments later. Mann collected a quick free-kick but mis-controlled and then made a lunging challenge that was to eventually result in a caution. Before the match official could administer the card a scuffle ensued and Mendes was dismissed for an act deemed to be violent conduct.

With the result all but secured in Saracens’ favour, the numerical advantage against Rovers and a flurry of substitutions interrupting the action, the game drifted to a conclusion that meant Rovers are now without a win since 26 October and their hopes of a run in the Challenge Trophy will have to wait for at least one more season.