Evo-Stik League Southern, Division One Central
Ashford extended their unbeaten run to three games with this hard fought victory against a resolute Leighton Town side that would not lie down despite being out-played for much of the first half. As the heavy rain stopped, the occasional thwack of wood against willow reminded us that summer was not yet confined to history and to have no illusions that a long and hard season was in front of us.
The ball zipped around the park before the pitch started to dry out and an early chance from Mark Bitmead, from a splendid ball over the top by Rob Curtis, ran away from him so his shot very nearly hit my car in the car park.
Leighton were forced into a very early substitution when their left back, Sam Scott, went down with an injury and had to be helped from the pitch, to be replaced by Jake Bewley but play soon continued with Ben Gallant latching on to a ball down the right and, seeing Ashford keeper Steve Windegaard way off his line, tried an audacious lob which sailed wide.
The mercurial Pietro Palladino was proving to be a handful for the Leighton defence with his quick-silver runs and it was he that was bought down on the Ashford right, in the ninth minute, giving Bitmead the chance to fire a free-kick into the penalty area where the ball was forcibly headed home by Jack Mullen to give the visitors the lead.
The diminutive Italian striker was at it again, just three minutes later, cutting in from the left and testing Joe Cox with a fierce right footer, but soon after, a break for the home team through the midfield gave Neil Lazarus a chance, his fizzing effort bringing a decent diving save out of Windegaard.
Windegaard’s next job was to deal with a speculative long range effort from Gallant, which he gathered comfortably then, a few minutes later, was obliged to palm away another shot from 20 yards this time from Jack Copson.
Cox came to his side’s rescue on 28 minutes when a Bitmead corner from the right was met by Dan Brown and struck on the volley but the Leighton keeper made a superb point blank save to deny the Ashford striker but, a minute later, even the heroics of Cox couldn’t stop Ashford from increasing their lead. Again, Palladino was the catalyst, his run being halted unfairly on the edge of the Leighton penalty area, up stepped Bitmead to dip an unstoppable free kick over the wall and into the net.
At the end of every Ashford move, the attending committee members were entertained by two aging gentlemen sitting in the stands who regaled us with their opinions, reminiscent of Waldorf and Stadtler from the Muppets, with special attention given to Palladino, who they accused of spending more time on his backside than on his feet, understandable given that he is not much taller than 5 foot while the defender marking him was at least 6′ 3″.
Despite some early second half pressure by the visitors, it was Leighton that eventually took the initiative. Firstly though, following two corners in quick succession, Scott Weight (pictured) sent Brown away with a delightful ball over the top but Cox came racing out of his goal to half clear, Palladino’s follow up shot was headed off the line, had that have gone in it would have been good night Vienna.
Instead, Leighton started to get the better of their visitors. A good run by Bewley ended with a dangerous cross that should have been planted in the back of the Ashford net by Gallant, then Weight was forced to clear off his own goal line from the head of Lazarus.
You sensed that a goal was imminent and sure enough, in the 66th minute, it duly arrived with no little help from Ashford when a weak headed back pass was seized upon by Stuart Deaton who had the presence of mind to lob the advancing Windegaard.
With the bit between their teeth Leighton were looking the more likely to score and, six minutes later, they did. Lazarus crossed a fine ball in from the right and, following a goal-mouth scramble, Gallant rammed the ball in for the equaliser.
Another Lazarus cross was met by Copson who should have at least hit the target.
Manager Paul Burgess pulled off Mullan and replaced him with Tom Kanek with a quarter of an hour to go and it proved to be an inspired substitution when, in the 83rd minute, he swung in a trademark free kick for Dan Brown to glance a fine header past Cox and into the Leighton net.
Ashford’s players and travelling contingent had to endure some 10 minutes of nail-biting pressure from the home side in which space of time a corner was headed off the Ashford line and, thankfully, another shot where the ball hit the bar and post before coming to rest in a very grateful Windegaard’s arms.