Saturday 23rd March 2024.                       Southern League, Premier Division South.

Merthyr Town 1    Walton & Hersham 1.

Swans came away from their first visit to Wales for a competitive game having crucially not suffered a defeat that would have put them four points behind their hosts in the fight for a play-off spot, and having played a game more. They can take great pride in their contribution to an excellent game, but also have a deep sense of frustration that they had not made the long journey back with three points in the bag, as they had totally dominated the home side for 90% of the game, having put on arguably their best performance of the season. Merthyr had taken a 37th minute lead against the run of play after Swans had put them under considerable pressure. That pressure continued in the second-half, with Stan Flaherty and Johl Powell on the right, and after coming on, Anis Nuur on the left, constantly destroying and getting behind the home defence on the flanks. Arsen Ujkaj deservedly equalised after 63 minutes, and from then on The Martyrs’ goal bore a charmed life, with Powell twice having efforts cleared off the goal-line in the final ten minutes, and Alex Kelly, in added-on time, superbly sending a volley against the underside of the crossbar, and the ball bouncing down on the line.

Despite suffering from a muscle strain, Mitchal Gough was named in an unchanged starting line-up, and along with Josh Tobin never put a foot wrong at the heart of the defence, although every member of the side can feel highly satisfied with their contribution.

Merthyr had an early opportunity when Gethyn Hill got in on the left byline, and Frazer Thomas drove in a shot from the edge of the box that was blocked by Tobin, followed by appeals for handball, although that had clearly not been the case. Tobin was then quickly out to prevent Tom Handley from getting in a follow up shot.

Swans were soon winning the first corner when Kelly found Flaherty on the right, and his neat pass sent Powell through to the byline to have a low cross put behind. Ujkaj picked up the first yellow card after ten minutes for a foul in the centre-circle. John Gilbert got through to the edge of the box for Swans to get in a shot that was half blocked, and the ball ran through to home goalkeeper William Fuller.

Fuller kicked downfield, and Lewys Twamley found Hill on the left corner of the box, but his shot cleared the far, top corner by some distance. Twamley then made a good run on the right, but his low ball in was cleared away.

At the other end Fuller just denied Nana Owusu in the box when Powell found Flaherty on the right, and he cut inside to play the ball in. Immediately, with twenty minutes played, Swans had their first real opportunity when Gilbert won the ball on halfway and Powell and Owusu combined to send him away on the left. After getting into the box Gilbert sidestepped Matt Harris and drove in a left foot shot that Fuller beat down at his near-post. Gough played an excellent high, diagonal pass to Flaherty on the right, and he pulled the ball down superbly to drive in on the byline, his low cross picking out Powell, who just failed to get a shot away. Owusu was soon capitalising when Merthyr’s Alex John played a stray pass following a throw-in just inside his own half on the left. Owusu drove forward to the edge of the box to get between both Callum Ryan-Phillips and Nick Rhodes, but his shot lacked power and Fuller went down to push the ball wide of his right post for a corner, with Flaherty unmarked on the right.

Gough made a good header away when the home side forced a corner on the right and John delivered the kick into the box. Hill then turned 40 yards out to get in a speculative effort that was well over.

Swans continued to look the more likely however, and Ujkaj got Gilbert to the left byline, but his cross was cut out by Fuller at his near-post. Tobin made a great drive forward from the edge of his own box and into the home half before finding Flaherty on the right. Flaherty cut inside to the corner of the box to drive in a low, left foot shot that Fuller did well to keep out, going down to his right at the near-post to push the ball away and just out of the path of the incoming Kelly. Eoin Bolger was soon getting down the left to cross the ball in, and when it came to Ujkaj on the right his cross was cut out by the home keeper. Gough struck another terrific diagonal ball from deep in his own half to pick out Flaherty on the right, and he got into the box to cleverly get past Noah Smerdon, but his low shot was just inches the wrong side of the near-post.

Merthyr immediately took the lead after 37 minutes, having been out of the match as an attacking force since the opening exchanges. Swans seemed to switch off following a home throw-in on the right, and Harris was allowed to send a deep cross to the far-post. Caelan Avenell did not appear to be aware of Hill coming in behind, and the Merthyr player climbed above him to guide a header into the left corner past Swans’ keeper Tyla Dickinson, who had not had a shot to save while watching his opposite number being kept constantly involved at the other end. There was a hint that Hill had pushed Avenell illegally in his jump, but the referee saw no offence.

Flaherty got close in on the right to force a corner, but he hit the kick too long. Another corner was immediately won when Flaherty and Ujkaj combined well on the right. Swans went close to equalising with three minutes of normal-time left of the half. Ujkaj threaded the ball down the right to Powell, who showed great skill to drive past defenders and into the box before driving in a shot that Fuller just got his hands on at the near-post to deflect the ball over his head, before it was cleared. There was still time for Ujkaj to complete a fine move by crossing from the right to the far-post, where Ryan-Phillips just got to the ball before Kelly to head it away from goal.

Merthyr made a strong start to the second-half, and Dickinson had to punch clear when John delivered a free-kick into the box from the right after Gilbert had fouled Ryan-Phillips. Dickinson then had to make his first save of the match, making a good block on his line when Twamley put Ricardo Rees into the right of the box to get in a shot. Tobin was shown a yellow card for a foul on Thomas in the centre-circle, and Merthyr forced a corner on the left, Gough heading away from John’s delivery.

After a slow opening ten minutes of the second-half Swans began to settle again, and a fine move led to Flaherty cutting in from the right to have a low, left foot shot blocked at the near-post. Gilbert then got Bolger to the left byline to get in a cross that Fuller cut out down at his near-post, the keeper picking up an injury that required several minutes treatment.

With an hour played Merthyr created a threat from nothing when Twamley made a great run down the middle from halfway to the edge of the box to force a corner on the left, Ujkaj heading away following John’s kick.

Swans soon went close to equalising when a terrific move started by Kelly in his own box led to Gilbert driving inside from the left past Thomas to the corner of the box to drive in a right foot shot that flew just wide of the far-post. The equaliser did come almost immediately however, when Flaherty forced a corner on the right. Gough was beyond the far-post to head the ball down from Flaherty’s kick, and Powell turned on the edge of the 6 yard-box to acrobatically hook it towards goal. The ball rebounded off the chest of Fuller, and Ujkaj was there to hook a left foot shot inside the right post.

Merthyr’s Harris was shown a yellow card for stopping Owusu’s burst forward with a foul, giving Swans a free-kick 40 yards out. Owusu took the kick himself, but his effort lacked power, and the ball went low through to Fuller. With twenty minutes remaining Ujkaj took a throw-in on the right to Flaherty, who played a neat one-two with Owusu to open up a chance on the edge of the box, but he dragged his shot wide of the right post. Nuur then came on to replace Gilbert. Powell got Ujkaj to the right byline to force another corner as Swans continued to dominate. Avenell found Nuur on the left, and he beat Ryan-Phillips to get in a cross. The ball was headed back out to the left for Bolger to set up Nuur again, and he beat Ryan-Phillips for the second time to drive in a low cross. The ball came out to Nuur again, and he beat the Martyr’s right-back for the third time, his low cross this time leading to a chance for Powell on the edge of the 6 yard-box, but with the home side packing nine men into their box his goal-bound shot was blocked by the outstretched leg of Merthyr substitute Joshua Yorwerth. Another sweeping move led to Kelly finding Nuur on the left, and he turned Ryan-Phillips inside out to get in a cross that John headed away. Owusu followed in to strike a left foot half-volley that struck John, and Ujkaj was able to set up Tobin just outside the box, but he sent a shot wildly over the goal. With ten minutes remaining Owusu sent Powell on a great run down the right from deep in his own half that took him to the home box. This led to Flaherty combining with Tobin before cutting in to the right corner of the box and striking a terrific left-foot shot that Fuller could only beat down on his line. The ball came out to Powell by the penalty-spot, and he set himself to drive in a shot that beat Fuller to his right, but Yorwerth was there to head off the goal-line. Swans’ pressure on the home goal was incessant, with Merthyr packing their defence, and as the match entered the final five minutes Nuur switched the ball from the left to Flaherty on the right. Flaherty had tormented Smerdon all match, and he beat the left-back yet again to get into the box and drive the ball low across.

Powell turned on the right corner of the 6 yard-box to drive in a shot that beat Fuller, but Yorwerth was at the far-post, and the ball struck his outstretched left leg before going across goal and wide of the right post for a corner. With the first minute of stoppage-time being played Avenell, found Powell on the right, and he ghosted past Liam Angel to cross to the far-post. Kelly was on the edge of the 6 yard-box to get in a tremendous volley with the inside of his right foot to again beat keeper Fuller, but the ball struck the underside of the crossbar before bouncing down on the goal-line. Swans immediately had an opportunity with a free-kick awarded five yards outside the left edge of the box, but Flaherty sent the ball dipping over. Swans had not given up on the win, and Tobin sent a fine ball over the top from halfway to pick out the run of Flaherty down the right. Flaherty did well to keep the ball from running over the byline, and he was able to cross to the far-post. Kelly was there, but Yorwerth and Ryan-Phillips combined to just prevent him from heading in.

Swans’ Team: Tyla Dickinson, Caelan Avenell, Eoin Bolger, Alex Kelly, Arsen Ujkaj, Mitchal Gough, Stan Flaherty, Johl Powell, Nana Owusu (Cameron Thompson 88’), Josh Tobin, John Gilbert (Anis Nuur 73’). Subs. not used: Eddie Simon, Joe Pratley-Jones Jake Frailing. Scorer: Ujkaj (63’). Cautions: Ujkaj, foul (10’), Tobin, foul (51’).

Merthyr Team: Fuller, Ryan-Phillips, Handley, Thomas (Mehew 73’), John, Rees, Twamley, Hill (Angel 88’), Smerdon, Harris (Yorwerth 67’), Rhodes. Subs. not used: Cogman, Stokes. Scorer: Hill (37’). Caution: Harris, foul (67’)