Saturday 5th September 2020, 1500 Kick Off
Saltash United FC vs St Blazey AFC
The Build Up
A weekend visit home to Cornwall (my first in over a year!) presented a perfect opportunity to take in some local football, and it just so happened to fall on the first match day of the South West Peninsula League’s 2020/21 season. It also happened to fall on the same day that Plymouth Argyle hosted QPR in the EFL Cup – having married into a family of QPR fans, this is a big deal in my world. Despite no fans being allowed at the elite level (not that anyone could realistically consider QPR elite…), my iFollow membership allowed me to watch the Mighty Greens dispatch the Rangers with a deserved 3-2 win, rounded off by a debut goal for Frank Nouble.
After that slice of magic, I walked the roughly 50 metres from my front door to Kimberley Stadium – home of Saltash United. It’s been a summer of upheaval for the Ashes, with manager Matt Cusack departing to take the role of Lee Hobbs’ assistant across the river at Plymouth Parkway. Shortly afterwards, top scorer Ryan Richards followed him, with Mike Smith moving the other way. In the following weeks, club stalwarts such as Dave Trott and Callum Martindale also left for various reasons (as outlined in a thoroughly tongue in cheek programme). Former assistant Dane Bunney has stepped up to the hot seat, and on Tuesday, the football gods conspired to give Bunney a perfect opportunity to make a statement in his first competitive match as manager – they visited Parkway in the FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round. A perfectly executed away performance, at the Western Premier League side, took Saltash to penalties where they won 5-4. The match was not without controversy, however, with Parkway submitting a 7-day transfer request to young Saltash forward Reece Thomson on the day of the match. One might suggest it was a tactic to unsettle the 20 year old prospect, but obviously I’d never be so cynical as to say that myself.
Saltash were deemed by many to be in a head to head race with Helston Athletic for the title (bit harsh on St Austell, though) when COVID interrupted the 2019/20 season, and the result against Parkway has sent out a statement that Saltash will be in the mix this season again. Their visitors today, St Blazey, are one of the traditional powerhouses of Cornish football – with 13 South Western League titles, including an incredible six in a row in the early 2000s. They’ve fallen away from those lofty heights in recent seasons, and the Green & Blacks were 11th when the SWPL was annulled in the spring. Formed in 1896, the Blaise Park side have played host to some greats of the Cornish game – not least in the form of Nigel Martyn, who started a career which would take in Crystal Palace and Leeds United at the club.
Saltash’s home ground, Kimberley Stadium, is a 3,000 capacity venue, and the main feature is the Tim Halford Stand, which is named after their former manager who sadly died in 2007. The club averaged a crowd of 131 last season – putting them 4th in the division. Due to COVID19 restrictions, they were limited to 250, and operated a policy of booking in advance, at a cost of £5.50 per ticket. COVID was not, however, any barrier to their production of the aforementioned programme, which added another £2 to the bill. A word of credit for the programme – it was produced with a real touch of humour, and the feature covering the end of last season was great.
Saltash had a good turnout, and the pandemic enforced socially distant queue for beers stretched out of the clubhouse. St Blazey had clearly brought a decent number too, and they’d come equipped with a fairly impressive flag display, featuring Union flags, St George Crosses, White Ensigns and – of course – the almost legally required white cross on a black background of St Piran.
With Richards (3rd top scorer in the history of SWPL) recently departed, and his former strike partner Sam Hughes (4th top scorer in the history of the SWPL) missing, it fell to new boy Mike Smith to lead the line for Saltash, partnered by the in-demand Thomson. It was Smith who had the first real effort on eight minutes, when a left footed shot from the edge of the area threatened to sneak in at the back post. Fortunately for St Blazey ‘keeper Jordan Duffey, who tripped whilst moving to cover the ball, it passed just wide of the goal.
That chance was an outlier in the first 15 minutes though, as St Blazey really took the game to their hosts. With forwards Luke Cloke and Jack Alexander willing runners behind the back line, they were particularly looking to exploit their right flank – giving full back Elliott Rendle (complete with obligatory Bootneck dagger tattoo) plenty of room to push on.
However, it was the Ashes who took the lead, and it was former-matelot Smith with the goal. The ball was worked down the left wing, which led to a low cross from close to the byline. It was narrowly missed by the front post runner, but arrived to Smith at the back stick and he stuck it away with ease. The last time I saw Smith he had a superlative game against Wellington a division higher, and a player of his undoubted quality could have a field day in this division. A rangy, tireless runner, he is also a quality finisher, and with the, ahem, variable quality of sides in the division, it would be no surprise to see him pass thirty goals.
Almost immediately from the restart his opener was cancelled out, by the busy Jack Alexander. Alexander, who had a brief spell at Bodmin mid-season, was the Green & Blacks’ top scorer last term with 11, and made absolutely no mistake when he received a lofted ball over the head of Saltash’s Danny Lewis. As the ball was rising on the bounce he struck it sweetly on the volley to give Ryan Rickard no chance, and level up the scores.
After that flurry of activity, Saltash started to impose themselves more, though they looked prone to the occasional sliced clearance at the back. Both sides’ offensive players were full of running, and Smith drew a good save out of Duffey (who had a good game) with a rasping drive on 20 minutes. Four minutes later, he had another opportunity when he lofted a bouncing through ball over the St Blazey ‘keeper, and when it struck the crossbar, he couldn’t quite get his head to the follow up. In the centre of the park there was a great tussle developing between Henry Wilson and Shaun Cleary for Saltash, and Jake Miller and Liam Parnell for St Blazey. Miller in particular, a recent arrival from St Austell, has real pedigree at this level, and the battle in the middle of the park was likely to prove key to the outcome of the match.
Reece Thomson had a passable chance from a goalmouth scramble for Saltash, before Sam Farrant tried his luck from forty yards – his lobbed effort dropping just over the bar. The match was also becoming more frenetic at this point, and Luke Cloke was issuing some fairly robust challenges in the attacking third. On the Saltash side, Henry Wilson – no stranger to a thumping tackle despite his wispy frame – was snapping into some ferocious looking 50/50s.
Despite the even ebb and flow of the match, it was definitely Saltash creating the better chances, and on 36 minutes they took the lead again, through midfielder Shaun Cleary. The Saltash local picked up a half-cleared corner around 25 yards from goal, jinking between two despairing lunges with some neat footwork. He then struck a firm effort towards the bottom left corner from the edge of the box, which was always pulling away from Duffey in goal, and ended up nestling in the side netting. 2-1 to Saltash.
They extended that lead on forty minutes, when Thomson won the ball from a St Blazey throw near the half way line, and slipped in Smith on the left corner of the box. Smith had plenty of time, steadied himself, and curled a neat finish into the far top corner of the net. With five minutes left of the half – and things quite even up to that point – it felt like a decisive moment in the match.
Duffey made another good save on the stroke of half time, when Moxham forced him into a full stretch dive to tip around the post. Formerly of Cardiff City, Duffey is still only in his early twenties, and has played for the Kernow CONIFA side. His performance today marked him out as a solid ‘keeper, who was consistently comfortable under the high ball (as was Rickard for Saltash in the interests of fairness), but who was also capable of the spectacular saves when required. In truth, neither goalkeeper could really have done anything about any of the goals scored in this match.
Half time came and went with Saltash leading 3-1, and it was Smith again who had the first chance of the second period. Breaking down the left hand side, he took slightly too long to decide on what to do, which gave Duffey chance to get out and close down his shot.
The game continued to get more testy from this point out, with Wilson being ‘sin binned’ for dissent on 55 minutes, before the referee dished out a raft of yellow cards. By my reckoning, at least Dave Barker and Wilson for Saltash received yellows, whilst Sam Cooper – sporting a haircut like a 1940s tank commander – picked up a caution for the Green & Blacks.
On 67 minutes Callum O’Brien, the Saltash.net alumni, had a half chance in the box following a deep free kick by substitute Chris Menhenick. Menhenick dropped the ball in at the back post, where Leary’s first touch was heavy, but fell calmly to O’Brien. The centre half swivelled with as much grace as the Bolshoi’s finest, and struck a left footed effort, which was well blocked. Eight minutes later St Blazey had a decent chance when Callum Kenny forced a good save out of Rickard low down to his right.
The final opportunity of note came on 78 minutes, and fell to Reece Thomson – another recent graduate of Saltash’s premier educational institution – just inside the box. He struck on the half volley and it whistled past the post. It had been an intriguing game for Thomson, who was an aggressive runner and caused no end of problems for the St Blazey back line, but often his decision making or final ball let him down. The potential is clearly there though, and as a foil for Sam Hughes and Mike Smith he’ll develop plenty across the season.
The Wash Up
A great advert for the South West Peninsula League after it returned to action following a six month hiatus – both sides gave everything, and the match had cracking goals, thunderous challenges, needle and skill. For Matt Hayden and his St Blazey team, they showed enough going forward to indicate they should be pushing for a top half finish at a minimum. Miller is a shrewd addition in midfield, and Rendle is a threat from right back, whilst Cloke and Alexander seem a particularly unpleasant pair of strikers to play against. Sam Cooper in defence had a wonderful old school aura of menace about him, as though he might torch your car if you dared to go past him, but their stand out player was the young ‘keeper Jordan Duffey.
In the Saltash side, once again I was impressed by Henry Wilson, but in the first time I’ve seen him, I felt that Shaun Cleary showed up equally well. Callum O’Brien was as steadfast as expected, and has grown to become one of the division’s most dependable centre backs, and Ryan Rickard performed well in goal.
Worthy of a mention too is Dane Bunney, because the manager has had to deal with more than most in the summer, and there were definite suggestions that Saltash might struggle to replicate last year’s form, with the likes of Helston, Mousehole and Bodmin (courtesy of a certain Mr A Carter) being seen as the teams to beat. This week, however, has been a real dose of reality for anyone doubting the Ashes’ credentials, and credit goes to Bunney for maintaing that belief.
The man of the match though, was clearly Smith. But for a lick of paint and some good goalkeeping, he could have finished the match with five goals, and was probably the key difference between the sides. Not only did he finish well, but he was always an outball and matches his physicality with a tremendous work rate. There are some top strikers in this division, such as Hughes, Carter, James Lorenz at Liskeard and of course Mark Goldworthy – but don’t discount Mike Smith when looking for a prospective golden boot winner.
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