Newhaven 2 Saltdean United 2 AET, Saltdean win 6-5 on penalties, Peter Bentley Cup quarter final, Tuesday 14th November
Having, for a variety of reasons, been able to attend a Tuesday night match for the past three weeks, I was keen for that run to continue into a fourth week. However, with my eldest son now back training with his Brighton-based team on Tuesday evenings, and with my taxi services being required there, the logistics of doing so have become somewhat trickier.
Yet noticing my home-town team of Newhaven were due to be at home last night, and in a quarter final cup clash with local rivals Saltdean United, I decided that the time was right to pay a revisit to Fort Road. (Sorry, I know it’s technically known as The Trafalgar Ground in these overly-commercialised times, but it’ll always be known as Fort Road to me).
Growing up literally a stone’s throw away from the ground, Fort Road became something of a home away from home for me during my childhood. I have fond memories of Saturday mornings spent training with my junior team in nearby Denton, before heading over ‘the rec’ in the afternoon to watch the Newhaven game. Well, the first-half at least. By the second 45-minutes, my friends and I would inevitably be indulging in a game of out own on the park outside.
I can even remember going to watch George Best playing in a charity match on the ground, along with some of the cast of Grange Hill and various other ‘celebrities’. Yes, you read that right. The cast of Grange Hill really did once grace the hallowed turf of Fort Road.
Unfortunately, and rather embarrassingly in hindsight, as an eight- or nine-year-old boy, it was the presence of the cast of the popular children’s drama that got my pulse racing, not the appearance of one of the finest footballers these isles have ever produced. In fairness, all I knew about Best at that age was that he’d once played for Manchester United (which didn’t exactly endear him to me as a Liverpool supporter) and that he bared more than a passing resemblance to my Old Man. In looks at least. Pretty sure my Dad didn’t play football like him, no matter what he used to try and tell me!
A shirt worn by the great man himself. Couldn't find any belonging to Grange Hill cast members, strangely!
By my late teens (towards the back end of the 1990s), I had become the local match reporter for the Sussex Express, and was present at most Newhaven home games for about three seasons. I reported on a fair few Saltdean matches during this period, too.
Since the turn of the new Millennium, though, I’ve actually played more games on the pitch than I’ve actually watched there. And I’ve only played on it three times.
It was high time to return.
It’s fair to say the ground has changed considerably since my last visit. The most noticeable difference are the two sets of seats which span the entire width of the pitch behind each goal. You don’t see such things too often at this level (at least I haven’t so far on my travels).
Thankfully, the now impressive looking brick-built main stand, which dominates the ground, is finally nearing completion. Construction of this stand actually started back when I was a child, only for the club to run out of money leaving it unfinished and, to be honest, a bit of an eyesore. As of last year, the changing facilities, clubhouse, tea room and, I’m led to believe, a gymnasium are now fully open and housed underneath the stand (and look great from I what I saw last night) while the top of the stand is also largely all seated.
I was attending the match with a friend who had played for The Dockers back in the late 90s, and he was quick to comment on just how much the place had changed since he’d played there. For the better, of course.
Admission to the ground was £6 a person with a well-produced and informative program costing a further £1.
So on to the match…
Now, I don’t want this post to become a hatchet job on the officials (I know it’s a hard job, and I fully endorse the respect campaign) … but… the only word that I can think of to describe the officiating last night was atrocious (I don’t swear in these blogs. I’m a respected children’s author, don’t you know. Well… a children’s author). At various points last night, both teams had cause to be dismayed by the ref’s decisions.
The first flare up occurred midway through the first half, when a Newhaven player could (and almost certainly should from where I was standing) have been show a straight red for an untimely and high lunge which very much caught the opposing player. The referee instead issued a yellow and then spent the next 20 minutes handing out cards like it was Christmas, mostly for very minor offences. Then, one foul that should definitely have brought with it a yellow card right on half-time, only led to a brief talking to. It was simply baffling to watch.
In the second half, the match became increasingly niggly, mainly caused by the ref’s inability to control the game. There were lots of little fouls going on all over the pitch; yet the officials seemed unable to detect quite who it was making the fouls and more often than not ended up making decisions which just left everyone bemused – players, managers and spectators. It was almost like he was tossing a coin to see who he should give the decision to. Bizarre.
However, the most baffling decision was yet to come. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
In a game which produced few first-half chances between two fairly evenly matched sides, the Dockers took the lead after half-an-hour, when Kyle Woolven sent Lee Robinson away through the middle and the league’s top scorer made no mistake to open the scoring.
After the break, the Dockers came out with a bit more purpose and started to take a stranglehold on the game. Ian Robinson (Lee’s younger brother, and my personal MOM last night) had a goal ruled out for offside (it was tight, but not one of the game’s more controversial decisions), before the older Robbo, whose sheer pace is a nightmare for defences even when he’s not having a particularly great game, almost doubled the lead only to see his shot come back off the post.
The second goal duly arrived, when a flowing move down the left was finished off by Freddie Beale from inside the area.
For the next 20 minutes or so, not much happened. Aside from some increasingly baffling decisions adding to the growing chagrin of an already angry crowd, that is.
The Dockers looked comfortable and, aside from a couple of half chances, Saltdean weren’t looking particularly threatening.
That all changed when, with ten minutes to go, a Saltdean substitute did well on the right wing and sent in a cross which, with the aid of a slight deflection, made its way to Jamie Brotherton, Saltdean’s stand-out player, who acrobatically hooked the ball home.
Within three minutes The Tigers were level. A straightforward free-kick into the area seemed to catch the home defence cold, and with the host’s goalkeeper rooted to his line, Will Berry reached the ball first to prod home the equaliser, sparking wild celebrations from the visitors.
It's the second time I've seen Saltdean come back from a two-goal second half deficit this season. It's only the second time I've watched them!
The two quick-fire goals rocked the Dockers, and it was suddenly Saltdean who looked the more likely to snatch a winner.
Then, with time having reached 90 minutes, there were a couple more flashpoints. Firstly, Saltdean’s number eight was sent off for a second bookable offence, although he was adamant the Newhaven player he’d been adjudged to have fouled had dived (didn’t look like it from where I was sat).
Then, the aforementioned baffling decision.
Deep in injury time, a rasping drive from Ian Robinson was brilliantly tipped onto the bar by The Tigers’ goalkeeper. As Newhaven’s attackers tried to pounce on the loose ball, a Saltdean defender clearly (and I can’t emphasise with mere words quite how clearly) pulled the ball away from an attacker with his hand, just as he was about to shoot, and proceeded to almost lie prone on the ball. Like a rugby player protecting the ball in a maul. Inexplicably, the ref waved play on. Even the Saltdean fans I was sitting next to couldn’t quite believe it. The Newhaven dug out certainly couldn’t.
So into extra-time we went. Seriously, can’t we just go straight to penalties nowadays? They do in the League Cup at professional levels, why not at County League level?
Somewhat inevitably, extra-time played out as you may expect. Newhaven pressed for a winner; ten-man Saltdean doggedly defended for a draw, and hoped Brotherton could do something magical on the counter. Ultimately, both teams cancelled each other out, and we ended up where I think we should have been half-an-hour earlier. Oh well.
After an epic penalty shoot-out, which featured some brilliant penalties and some… erm… not so good ones, the visitors came out on top, 6-5 to seal a spot in the semi-final of the Peter Bentley Cup.
At the end of the match it was pleasing to see the level of respect shown by both teams and management towards their counterparts. After such a niggly game it would have been easy for tensions to boil over at the end. They didn’t, though, and the post-match hand-shakes and camaraderie was great to see.
Whether this respect extended to the officials, however, is rather more doubtful.