Frantic finale sends Hartley through in the Vase
With only 16 minutes of normal time remaining and the home side on the wrong end of a 2-0 scoreline, it seemed as if visitors Holyport FC from the Hellenic Premier would be taking their place in the Second Round Qualifying tie away at Highworth Town. Hartley Wintney had looked the better of the two sides in the first half but went in at the break with nothing to show for their marginally superior possession, and the visitors showed they had the pace and strength to trouble their hosts.
Two down with three quarters of the game played but a few minutes of magic changes everything.
The second half began in much the same way, with Hartley having good possession, but a quick counter-attack caught the home defence stretched and Holyport struck the first blow with a well taken goal, if somewhat against the run of play.
They doubled their lead very soon after, seemingly catching the home side still pondering what had happened with the first goal. After that it was Holyport that appeared to have the belief it was going to be their day. They played with more confidence and energy, creating another chance, and for a while Hartley heads dropped.
But captain, Steve Noakes, rallied his team with some typically well chosen words and they got some of their previous rhythm back into their play. Lukas Burt came on for Elliot Hobden in midfield and with fresh legs he immediately started working to close down the Holyport defenders and midfielders, to great effect.
Shane Hollamby was assaulted from behind by what was nothing less than a full bodied hack by Holyport's number 15 sub - I have no idea why it was only a yellow, it's not often I've seen such a premeditated foul; I guess the officials weren't in as good a position to witness it as I was. Fortunately Shane - who was once again the focal point up front for the home side - was not badly injured and Hartley's patience and renewed belief eventually led to a ball played forward to Hollamby which was deftly flicked through into the path of the on-running Luke Walker. Walker's first touch was good and, as the keeper came out, he slotted it calmly to his left and watched it roll into the corner of the net for 2-1 on 74 minutes.
Defender Jason Minton - who'd had a good first half at right back but was feeling a strain - was sacrificed in order to bring on another forward, Jason Palmer, as Hartley saw a chance to get something out of a game that had been slipping away. Palmer was soon looking lively and it was 'JJ' who sent the ball across the edge of the opposition 6 yard box where Ryan Stephens had got ahead of his marker and left the ground as he twisted his body and hit a volley sweetly into the left-hand corner of the Holyport net on 86 minutes.
Having justifiably looked so confident at two up just a short while before, Holyport were now facing a wave of Hartley pressure and it was that man Jason Palmer, not long on, who was involved in the winner. He collected the ball in a central forward position and, with excellent close control, moved across the very edge of the penalty box in an attempt to find enough space to get a shot off. Just as he was shaping to turn, he was taken down just inside the area. Ryan Stephens buried the spot kick confidently to the keeper's left. 3-2 on 88 minutes.
Ryan's volleyed finish was a goal worthy of winning a game, but before that we had seen a free-kick by Max Elward, from the half-way line, hit the bar with the keeper beaten. That would have been some goal and I even caught Holyport players chatting and admiring the effort as they left the ground later.
Nathan Nurse replaced Luke Walker as the game entered injury time, and there was still time for Holyport to stage two or three late attacking moves but they came to nothing and the win was Hartley Wintney's. The home side has a reputation for memorable cup games and this was another of those crazy matches where a win was snatched from the jaws of defeat. An amazing last quarter to the game.
I'm giving my Man of the Match jointly to a midfielder and a forward - Max Elward and Ryan Stephens - but there were plenty of good performances and Jason Palmer's influence after he came off the bench was crucial. The next round away at Highworth Town is to be played on Saturday 4th October. [KOB]