Tuesday 20th February 2024.                                 Southern League, Premier Division South.

Didcot Town 1    Walton & Hersham 1.

Swans run of a treble of wins and clean sheets came to an end in Oxfordshire as they failed to make their superiority pay against their bottom placed hosts. They can be well satisfied however with their recent haul of ten points from twelve, with three of the last four matches having been on the road. They made it difficult against their first time opponents by gifting them an early goal, having dominated the opening exchanges, and despite that domination continuing they could not find the goals to give them all three points. They seemed to have given themselves the chance of doing that just past the hour, only to have what seemed a perfectly good goal ruled out by an obscure decision by the referee, and it finally took a penalty to bring them level with a quarter of an hour remaining. They had come up against a spirited, determined home side that was made up of several promising young players, bolstered by older, more experienced heads from the other end of the age spectrum. Two of those young players, Tobias Brenan and Harvey Fox, are on-loan from EFL clubs Oxford United and Swindon Town respectively.

Swans made three changes to the starting line-up from the previous match against Tiverton Town, with Eoin Bolger and Joe Hicks both returning in place of the injured Stefan Parkes and his fellow Fulham loanee Caelan Avenell, and Anis Nuur coming in for the unavailable Nana Owusu. They made a good start, soon settling, and a fine move on the left led to John Gilbert cutting inside, but slicing a shot well over.

Didcot had barely had a touch of the ball for the first ten minutes, but Arsen Ujkaj was then adjudged to have fouled their young striker Robbie Gallagher just outside the right corner of the box. Patrick Osborne struck the free-kick well, and Swans’ goalkeeper Tyla Dickinson made a fine save down at his near-post.

Didcot immediately took the lead with a soft goal following the breakdown of a Swans’ attack. Hicks played the ball inside from Swans’ left to Ujkaj  ten yards outside the box, but he failed to control it and Gallagher nipped in to set up Fox, who got forward to the ’D’ and chipped a neat shot past the exposed Dickinson.

Swans soon went close to equalising when Eddie Simon set up Gilbert for a fine run in on the left byline and a low cross that Hicks met at the near-post, but he clipped the ball just wide. Joe Pratley-Jones then laid the ball in from the right to Simon, and he sent a shot over from five yards outside the box.

Didcot’s Ben Putland was played through to the right corner of the box to drive in a strong, low shot that Dickinson parried on his line, and Pratley-Jones just managed to get the loose ball away for a corner as Fox followed in. From the left-side corner Luke Carnell got in a strong, far-post header that Dickinson got a firm hand to under his crossbar before catching the ball.

Swans responded with Stan Flaherty being played to the right byline and getting in a low cross that was cleared. Two shots were then driven in in quick succession, with both appearing to strike defenders’ hands in the box, but neither resulted in penalties. A corner was won on the right, and when Flaherty and Gilbert worked it short, Flaherty cut inside to send a left foot shot over the far, top corner. Pratley-Jones took a long throw from the right, and when the ball came back him on the edge of the box he sent a fine, left foot volley dipping just over the far, top corner.

Gallagher was then played through on the right for Didcot, but shot over.

With five minutes of normal-time left of the half Gilbert found Nuur wide on the left, and he cut in to the corner of the box to get in an excellent strike that home keeper Leigh Bedwell did well to block down at his near-post, and the ball spun just over the bar. When Gilbert swung in the corner from the left Bedwell had to tip the ball over for another kick on the right. Swans continued to apply pressure, forcing two more corners as the half went into stoppage-time.

Straight after the resumption Nuur played Gilbert in on the left byline, but his cross went wildly over. Five minutes into the second-half Swans had a great chance to pull level. Ujkaj found Flaherty on the right touchline, and he played an excellent ball in to pick out Simon in space in the box, but after setting himself he put his shot over. Gilbert then almost got Simon through into the left of the box, but the ball ran away from him and behind.

Ten minutes into the half Trae Cook-Appiah came on for Nuur. Swans continued to dominate play, and a fine build-up led to Gilbert driving just over from outside the box. They then thought they had got the equaliser they had been seeking. Flaherty played a neat one-two with Johl Powell on the right for Flaherty to drive in a shot that was blocked to send the ball behind for a corner. From Flaherty’s right-side kick the ball ended up in the net, seemingly by deflecting off Hicks in the 6 yard-box, but the referee disallowed the ‘goal’ for an offence that only he seemed to see.

With just under a quarter of an hour remaining the equaliser finally came. Pratley-Jones found Flaherty on the right, and after cutting into the box he went down under a challenge from Cameron McNeill. Gilbert got in a shot that Bedwell pushed round his left post, but the referee had pointed to the penalty-spot. Flaherty stepped up for the spot-kick and calmly dinked the ball past the Didcot keeper.

Swans pressed for the winner, and Powell had a shot well blocked by the keeper after getting into the right of the box.

They were almost caught out however as the match entered the final five minutes when Didcot’s Josh Grant crossed high from the right and Dickinson saw the ball bounce off the top of his crossbar. The Swans’ keeper then had to field a far-post header when Grant again got in a right-side cross.

Swans went close to winning it in stoppage-time when Powell set up Flaherty in the right of the box, and he dummied a defender before driving a low, right foot shot just inches wide of the far-post.

There was still time left for the home side to pose a late scare as Gallagher was allowed to drive through the middle and get in a low shot from outside the box. Dickinson saved on his line but spilled the ball, and the keeper just recovered to claim it as Didcot’s substitute Murphy Bennett followed in.

Swans’ Team: Tyla Dickinson, Joe Pratley-Jones, Eoin Bolger, Alex Kelly, Arsen Ujkaj, Joe Hicks, Stan Flaherty, Johl Powell, Eddie Simon (Jake Frailing 76’), John Gilbert, Anis Nuur (Trae Cook-Appiah 55’). Subs. not used: Mitchal Gough, Josh Tobin. Scorer: Flaherty, penalty (75’).

Didcot Town Team: Bedwell, Grant, McNeill, Brenan, Carnell, Learoyd, Putland, Glover, Gallagher, Osborne, Fox (Bennett 86’). Subs. not used: Humphries, Galpin, Pitman, M. Hedges. Scorer: Fox (11’). Caution: Putland, foul (65’).