FA Cup 4th Qualifying Round,
Ashford matched their Conference opponents blow for blow in this exciting nil – nil draw and came so close to snatching victory in the dying seconds when Gavin Smith’s shot rolled the wrong side of the post. But, in achieving a draw, Ashford managed their best ever result in this particular competition and will hope to go one better in the replay on Tuesday to gain the right to meet high-flying Conference South side Team Bath in the 1st round proper, uncharted territory as far as Ashford are concerned.
Mark Butler made numerous changes to the side that crashed out of the FA Trophy the previous Tuesday, bringing back Brett Cooper, Stuart Bamford, Ricky Wellard, Byron Harrison and the Harris Brothers, Scott and Warren.
Both sides made bright starts, Les Afful benefitting from some tidy work by Simon Clist but shooting wide and Warren Harris reciprocating for Ashford having two shots blocked in the same amount of minutes.
Andy Mangan picked up a loose ball and crossed to his Rovers team mate Curtis McDonald but he could only find Craig Ross in the Ashford goal who gathered safely. Ashford had the ball in the back of the Rovers net in the 15th minute from a Ricky Wellard corner but the ‘goal’ was ruled out and the scorer Stuart Bamford penalised for relocating Rovers keeper Ryan Robinson into the net with it.
Two minutes later, brother Gavin embarked on a mazy run that took him past four defenders and into the Rovers penalty box but Robinson denied the Ashford skipper with his feet then, at the other end, a perfectly good tackle by the excellent Billy Jeffreys was penalised 10 yards outside the Ashford area but Lee Fowler’s free kick was comfortably taken by Ross.
McDonald and Alex Lawless had chances saved by Ross who, like his Rovers counterpart, was in imperious form, perfectly illustrated by the superb save Robinson executed to tip Scott Harris’ goal-bound effort round the post for a corner, and soon after, again to keep out Gavin Bamford.
Rovers survived another close call when Paul Johnson’s shot from close range hit his own team mate Byron Harrison allowing a defender to clear. A foul on Clist just outside the Ashford penalty area was played short by Fowler to Mangan but his shot was blocked then a similar situation gave Afful a chance but his shot suffered the same fate.
Early in the second half Harrison fed a good ball into Scott Harris who cut inside only to see Robinson pull off another diving finger-tip save. Rovers had a great chance in the 72nd minute when Mangan intelligently held the ball up to wait for support before releasing to Clist whose shot curled narrowly wide of the far post then, shortly after, Clist returned the favour playing a well weighted ball into the path of Mangan whose first time shot was well taken by Ross.
A long distance strike from Ricky Wellard flew high over Robinson’s bar and a shot by Managan did likewise at the other end.
A run that took him half the length of the pitch gave Warren Harris the chance to magic something out of nothing but the move was bought to an unfair conclusion by a hand-ball. Johnson played in Gavin Bamford who flicked the ball past Robinson and into the net but again the ‘goal’ was ruled out, this time by the narrowest of off-side decisions.
In time added on, Gavin Smith, a late substitute for Scott Harris, had the chance to settle the match in Ashford’s favour but his usual deadly finishing deserted him on this occasion and he pushed his shot agonisingly inches wide of the far post with Robinson beaten.
A draw was probably a fair result and Ashford were far from outclassed by their opponents and can be reasonably confident of finishing the job in the replay on Tuesday.
Ashford’s defence with Jeffreys and Stuart Bamford outstanding coped with pretty well everything Rovers threw at it with Ross mopping up anything that did get past them, while Harrison’s workrate and Scott Harris’ terrier-like harassing of the Rovers defenders were telling factors up front.