Ryman League Premier Division,
It looked like a massacre was on the cards when Ashford raced into a four goal lead with just 34 minutes showing on the clock, but in the end, thanks partly to some sloppy defending added to a spirited fight back by their south coast opponents, they were left desperately hanging on and willing the final whistle to blow.
The Middlesex side had a dream start when, in the first minute, Warren Harris, one of three teenagers in the Ashford line-up along with Billy Jeffreys and Guy Hollis, picked up the ball on the right and played in Byron Harrison whose deep cross was headed home by Gavin Smith.
Ashford could have scored again, a minute later, but Ricky Wellard’s corner kick eluded all, flashing across the face of Greg Nessling’s goal before harmlessly going out for a goal kick but it wasn’t long before they did double their advantage, again courtesy of Smith. Harrison juggled the ball past a defender before squaring to Smith whose first time shot beat Nessling and found the far corner of the net.
A series of four corners in quick succession ended with Smith acrobatically volleying over the Hastings bar as Ashford tightened the screw, then a superb cross-field pass by Gavin Bamford to Warren Harris gave the winger the chance to run at the visitors defence before cutting the ball back to Wellard, but Wellard’s well struck shot was well taken by Nessling.
Ashford made it three in the fifteenth minute when Smith chased down a through ball and forced a corner. Wellard’s deep kick was headed back into the danger area by Guy Hollis, in for the injured Stuart Bamford, for Harrison (pictured) to hook into the roof of the net. Smith could have had his hattrick shortly after but volleyed Harris’ corner wildly over, then a shot at the other end by Sam Adams met the same fate.
Smith spurned another chance as Ashford, playing some superb one touch football, carved open the Hastings defence yet again, this time through Vinnie O’Sullivan and Paul Johnson but Smith shot over. However, Smith was not to be denied his hattrick, duly adding Ashford’s fourth, in this his 100th start for the club, in the 34th minute when he rose above the Hastings defence to send a looping header past Nessling from Hollis’ enormous throw.
At this point Hastings looked down and out but two defensive errors by Ashford gave them a life-line. First, in the 36th minute, Paul Burgess scuffed his goal kick straight to the feet of Frankie Sawyer who then proceeded to outstrip the home defence before slotting the ball past the Ashford keeper, then, three minutes later, instead of clearing his lines, Billy Jeffreys inexplicably lost possession in his own penalty area giving Antonio Gonnella the chance to chip Burgess, which he did successfully to bring the score back to 4 – 2 at the break.
Ashford restored a three goal cushion a minute into the second half when Harrison picked out Harris with a perfectly weighted through ball, Harris cut inside and fired in a dangerous low cross which Josh Jirbandi, could only turn into his own net, but back came Hastings to pull a goal back, four minutes later, when Jirbandi made amends by smartly volleying Adams free kick into the roof of Burgess’ net.
Hastings reduced the deficit to one in the 67th minute to leave a worrying last quarter for the home supporters. Sawyer cut in from the left and squared the ball to substitute Matt Darby whose shot from 25 yards took enough of a deflection to carry it beyond the reach of the diving Paul Burgess.
Paul Johnson had the chance to finally kill off the Hastings challenge but shot narrowly wide from Harris’ cross before a hamstring injury ended his midfield partner Ricky Wellard’s involvement, to be replaced by Adam Logie.
Nessling produced two excellent late saves to keep his side in the hunt, tipping over Harrison’s header and then diving to save from the same player.
Ashford held on to take all three points, which their first half display, in particular, deserved, in an all action match that would have enthralled the neutral observer, but did nothing for the nerves of the writer.