NORTHWOOD FC   Saturday 22nd September 2012   AFC DUNSTABLE

FA Cup with Budweiser 2nd Qualifying Round

  Northwood 1  AFC Dunstable 1   

McCluskey 5

Christie 75

Team line-up  

  Team line-up
1 James Reading     1 Sam Leggett
2 Adamson Ajayi     2 Wayne Mills
3 Ryan Phillips     3 Luke Little
4 Lee Grant     4 Danny Ryan
5 Reece Yorke     5 James Baldry
6 Scott Raper     6 Steve Hawes (66m)
7 John Christian     7 Jason Blackett
8 Craig White     8 Gareth Harnaman
9 Oliver Hawkins (80m)     9 Bernard Christie
10 James McCluskey (46m)     10 Graham Clark
11 Romaine Walker (59m)     11 Lee Burgoyne
Substitutes     Substitutes
12 Danny McDonnell (59m)     12 Dale Turney (66m)
14 Dean Worman     14 Anthony Leslie
15 Jack Hutchinson (46m)     15 Steve Howarth
16 Spencer Bellotti (80m)     16 Alex Igori
17 Kyle Matthews     17 Connor Lambert
18 Mitch Swain     18 -
19 -     19 -
      Referee: Adrian Oldershaw; Assistants: John Sandlin & James Pope      
  REPORT by Matt Ford      PHOTOS by James Brown  

A replay will have to decide who progresses through to the FA Cup 3rd Qualifying Round after this heated and physical encounter finished 1-1 at a sunny Chestnut Avenue. Having been the underdog in the previous round and having seen off the challenge of higher ranked Chesham United, it was the Woods’ turn to be the favourite as they looked to avoid an upset against Spartan South Midlands League high flyers AFC Dunstable – an outfit that had already seen off the challenge of Redbridge (the giant killers in the competition from last season) 5-0 on their way to the 2nd Qualifying round stage.

Gary Meakin included James McCluskey in his side for the first time in a competitive match this season, and had goalkeeper Mitch Swain in his squad; a man who has yet to add to his 150 appearances for the club so far in the 2012/13 campaign. Furthermore, the Northwood manager had Lee Grant back and available for selection and it was a good job too, as Brad Hewitt sat this one out.

As expected it was the hosts who looked the livelier as Adamson Ajayi roamed free down the right flank and was unlucky to see his cross turned away with Romaine Walker looking likely to latch on to it, and then the latter showed patience to win a corner when a crossing opportunity had passed.

The Woods were looking for an early goal to settle the nerves and they got exactly that. A short corner resulted in an exchange of passes between Walker and McCluskey and the former Hanwell Town midfielder showed decent composure tucking the ball away neatly from inside the penalty area – 1-0 to the home side after six minutes.
Even though Northwood had gained the early advantage they were dealt a reminder that Dunstable would pose a threat further up the field and a dangerous inswinging free kick only just evaded the arriving attacker who had momentarily lost his balance. Then the passing football from Meakin’s side came to the fore as McCluskey found John Christian, and he played an inch perfect cross field pass for Ajayi, though the former Chalfont St Peter winger drove over the bar. There was evidence of more directness in their play compared with last week as Oliver Hawkins – recalled to the side was causing some problems for the visitors – and by and large, AFC were not allowed to settle.

However, the Bedfordshire based outfit were to demonstrate why they had hit thirteen goals in the FA Cup prior to today’s meeting as they tested James Reading for the first time in the afternoon. Jason Blackett controlled a cross well, and hit his effort having been given time on the edge of the box, although it was easy for the home goalkeeper Reading. A short time later and the experienced Craig White – as he has done numerous times this season – broke up the play on the right side of the box at the expense of a corner kick, the visiting parties first of the afternoon.

Up the other end, and there was some urgency from Northwood as they carved out one opening after another. Christian, McCluskey and Ajayi were linking effectively and the latter was the recipient of a gorgeous, inventive ball in and behind the Dunstable defence but fortunately it ricocheted off Ajayi after he had got the better of Sam Leggett, and on this occasion he couldn’t keep the attack alive. Moments later and the tempo which the Woods has adopted did not appear to be subsiding. The outstanding McCluskey who had been carving out ‘Scholes-esque’ type passes for much of the half found Walker one on one, and the dangerous wide-man beat the keeper to the loose ball only to appear to be upended. Despite the cries for a spot kick, in particular from the felled player himself, the referee was un-moved and opted to point for a corner kick instead.

From the corner that followed, McCluskey went for his second goal of the game but his curling effort cleared the left upright; yet Northwood would have another opportunity to increase their lead. Hawkins did well to create a goal-scoring opening and it looked destined to find the bottom corner once he hit his effort except it beat the ‘keeper and the post. Ajayi was then leaving the OD’s at sixes and sevens as he beat Luke Little for pace, but like so often this campaign on the part of the Woods, the finishing touch was lacking as his attempt was mere catching practice for former Biggleswade Town goalkeeper Leggett. But the home side’s dominance was not about to reap its rewards, though it might have done had McCluskey – so often at the forefront of all things good this afternoon – failed to hit the free-kick (in a good area) with much conviction.

Then the momentum shifted in an instant. A ball in and behind saw captain Reece Yorke and Blackett become tangled and the striker went down about 25 yards from goal. The referee then made a contentious decision – displaying no hesitation - to show the former St Albans City defender a straight red card after deeming it a ‘clear’ goal scoring opportunity even though it was debatable as to whether Yorke was the last man. The hosts would have to play the remainder of the tie with ten men, a tall order to say the least after losing their influential centre half. The direct free kick forced Reading into a save as he had to parry the ball behind.

Then, after the Woods had only half cleared, an AFC attacker went for an audacious attempt that had the Northwood keeper back tracking and he did extremely well to turn the ball over the bar when it appeared to be heading in. That save was the last action in an entertaining, largely one sided first half; however the red card would prove to be the catalyst in evening the flow of the game, a major talking point for all the wrong reasons!
As the saying goes, this affair was a tale of two halves. Northwood had seen the majority of the play in the first half and may have felt they should have gone in further in front, though AFC Dunstable were benefitting from playing against a team a man light, and they made that count. For long periods in the second forty five minutes, Northwood were under the cosh and that was demonstrated immediately as Scott Raper showed athleticism to race back and clear a header off the line from Blackett that had Reading wrong-footed, and would have levelled the scores. Alex Butler’s side were growing more confident with every passing minute and a dangerous delivery from the right wing by Wayne Mills had Northwood scampering, and then the driven shot from 25-yards that followed from Gareth Harnaman only just crept wide. Gary Meakin then brought on ex QPR youth player Danny McDonnell – a defender – for Walker to try and obtain some balance at the back, but it was fair to say the Woods were certainly weathering the storm!

A matter of minutes later and with the hosts backpedalling, Lee Burgoyne let rip from the edge of the eighteen yard box and he was not too far away from hitting the target. The pressure was coming from all angles and inevitably it forced an equalising goal. A clever through ball sliced open the Northwood defence, but full credit must go to front-man Bernard Christie, who steadied himself and then belted an unstoppable driven shot high in to the net that left the goalkeeper with no chance. 1-1, and all to play for with fourteen minutes remaining.

Spencer Bellotti was then brought on for the tiring Hawkins and we was at the centre of attention a short time later. A long throw in by McDonnell caused havoc in the Dunstable defence after they had allowed it to bounce, the ex Oxhey Jets striker Bellotti turned before being cynically tugged to the floor just as he was about to shoot: no complaints as the man in the middle Adrian Oldershaw pointed to the spot. Northwood – having been on the back foot with a man down for much of the second half, had a chance to win the game and book their place in the next round with nine minutes remaining. The Dunstable goalkeeper Leggett had other ideas, though, as he guessed correctly to divert Christian’s poor spot kick away, a moment which summed up the small margins in football. The question had to be asked though, was it going to be Woods’ day?

Nevertheless, both sides still had time to grab a decisive goal, Christian tried to make amends for his penalty miss as he drove over more in desperation than anything, and then a Jack Hutchinson free-kick found Scott Raper, but he couldn’t direct it towards goal with half hearted shouts from a section of supporters for handball being waved away. Both sides were trying to make the most of any opportunities that came there way, although the Woods were leaving themselves exposed at the back and that was very nearly cruelly exposed by Christie who failed to add to his earlier strike, as he could only succeed in firing high and wide.

If Northwood are to make it through to the FA Cup 3rd Qualifying Round for the first time since the 2001/02 season then will have to overcome AFC Dunstable in a replay at Creasey Park this coming Wednesday, in what is likely to be a tough encounter. If they are able to play like they did for most of the first half, then barring any controversial refereeing decisions, they should have a decent chance of doing just that. All eyes will be on the draw which is made on Monday to see who the Woods or Dunstable will face then, depending on the outcome of the game in midweek. Fingers crossed that Northwood can make it through and keep their cup dreams well and truly alive!

Northwood manager Gary Meakin’s Post-Match comments

“No I’m not relieved with a replay to be honest, because we missed a penalty with ten minutes to go and we should have won the game, that’s it really. The red card is irrelevant now as it’s happened and the decision has been made we can’t argue now, what can you do? But it’s not a sending off as he is 30-yards out and he hasn’t even got it under control, so if that’s a goal-scoring opportunity then you can score from anywhere on the pitch.”
The Woods manager went on: “Lee Grant’s very important but he’s probably injured again now as he wasn’t really ready to play in all honesty, because if Brad Hewitt’s fit ‘Granty’ probably wouldn’t have played, but at the moment we’re trying to plug holes with semi-fit hopefully he can make it through till Wednesday.”
Meakin added: “James McCluskey coming off had nothing to do with the red card, it’s because he hasn’t been around for a few weeks and you can see his quality, but he only had 45 minutes in him. You just try to get the best out of him for 45 minutes and then save him and that was it, he ran out of legs that was all, he just isn’t fit enough yet.”
And he concluded: “We created enough, and it’s frustrating because we shouldn’t have had to worry about the red card, it should have been all over by half an hour as we had at least four clear-cut chances after the goal, to put them to bed, so what can you do? We didn’t put them away so we move onto Wednesday night. Christian was brave enough to step up, and if someone does step up and take a penalty, if they miss it they miss it – you can’t moan as these things happen, never mind.
“They have shown how difficult they are to beat now, so with regards to how difficult the replay will be, ask me Wednesday night! We have to go there, a long trip away in midweek after work and we have to be there by 6.30, but that’s non-League football. We know we have to dig in for 90 minutes maybe or possibly even more, and try and get the result we need”.