Saturday 16th March 2024.                        Southern League, Premier Division South.

Walton & Hersham 4    Didcot Town 2.

Swans finally made their dominance over the bottom placed visitors pay, the win keeping them just outside the play-off spots. The Oxfordshire club had twice come back to equalise, before Swans’ third goal, scored with just under a quarter of an hour remaining, effectively saw off their challenge. As in the earlier match at their ground Didcot had belied their lowly position with a spirited, hard-working performance. After spurning the chance to take an early lead by having a penalty saved, they had equalised just before the break with an excellent strike, and had then capitalised on an error to again level after 68 minutes. Swans however will feel they should not have been in that position, as they should have had the game well won by half-time if they had been more clinical in their finishing, that trend continuing in the second-half.

There was one enforced change to the starting line-up, with Mitchal Gough making his first start in seven games in place of Joe Hicks, who was starting a two-match ban for accumulated cautions.

Swans had a great chance to take the lead after just four minutes when Johl Powell sent Stan Flaherty clear down the right, but after getting to the edge of the box his low, left foot shot was well saved down to his left by Didcot’s newly-signed goalkeeper Paul Strudley.

Just a minute later the visitors had the opportunity to go ahead following their first attack. They had a free-kick deep on the right, the first of several during the match that would prove their main threat to the home defence, and when Sam Barder delivered the ball into the box Gough headed away. Jack Alexander followed up to strike a half-volley into the pitch, and as the ball bounced up he struck a second shot that struck the arm of Alex Kelly, who could do little to avoid it as the ball appeared to come up off his foot. It seemed a somewhat harsh award of a penalty, but Swans’ keeper Tyla Dickinson went down to his right to make a reasonably comfortable save from Patrick Osborne’s kick.

Powell made an excellent run forward from the halfway line to drive in a shot from just outside the box that brought another good save from Strudley on the edge of his 6 yard-box. Swans continued to press, and a fine move led to Flaherty finding Arsen Ujkaj on the right, but his cross into the box was headed away.

A long throw from the right by Barder resulted in Didcot forcing a right-side corner, but Swans took a deserved lead just past the quarter of an hour with a terrific goal. Another patient piece of play led to Gough, in the centre-circle just inside his own half, chipping a great ball over the top to pick out the run of Nana Owusu. Owusu got between Luke Carnell and Adam Learoyd just outside the left edge of the box, and after bringing the ball down superbly with his left foot he clipped it with the outside of his right low into the far corner.

Strudley just got out to kick clear as John Gilbert almost got in as Swans continued to threaten.

Didcot had an opportunity with a free-kick awarded 30 yards out, but Barder wasted it by hitting the ball far too long and it went behind.

Swans went close to doubling their lead with some terrific play by Kelly. Caelan Avenell sent the ball over the top from deep in his own half to find him on the front edge of the centre-circle, and he brought the ball down to burst past three defenders and into the right of the box. Kelly then sidestepped Learoyd in the right of the 6 yard-box, only for Strudley to block the ball at his near-post and put it behind for a corner.

Didcot forced another couple of free-kicks, both taken by Barder. The first from the right touchline was well cut out by Dickinson at his far-post, and the second from deep on the left led to a far-post, downward header that was straight at the Swans’ keeper. Dickinson was soon getting behind the ball on his line when clever play by Robbie Gallagher on the left led to him cutting across the edge of the box to get in a low shot.

With the half coming to the final five minutes Gilbert twice created openings for Swans. When he laid the ball back from the left, Josh Tobin drove in a shot from 25 yards that deflected off a teammate to go behind for a goal-kick. Gilbert then drove in on the left byline to have a low cross blocked behind for a corner. Following Gilbert’s kick from the left the ball came out to Gough on the right, and he got in a fine volley that was blocked in the box.

Swans have developed an unwelcome habit of conceding in the final stages of the first-half, and they did so again, although they could have done little to prevent the visitors’ equaliser.

A Swans’ attack was broken up, and Osborne picked the ball up halfway inside his own half before driving forward down the right. After cutting inside he struck a tremendous left foot shot from 25 yards out that Dickinson had no chance of keeping out of his bottom right corner.

Swans regained the lead just three minutes after the resumption for the second-half. Dickinson sent a clearing kick long down the left for Gilbert to nod the ball over Murphy Bennett. Learoyd tried to shield the ball into the box, but Gilbert nipped in front of him and was tripped by the Didcot skipper to concede a penalty. Flaherty had scored Swans’ equaliser at Didcot from the penalty-spot, and he again took responsibility. On the previous occasion he had dinked the ball into the right corner, and although he chose the same spot he used more power to beat the dive of Strudley.

Swans soon went close to increasing their lead when Gough took a free-kick quickly from the halfway line on the left to send Gilbert through to the byline. Gilbert cut into the box to lay the ball across to Powell seven yards out, but Strudley made a fine save to push his shot away. Ujkaj was soon playing the ball down the right to Flaherty, who cleverly dummied his way past Cameron McNeill to drive into the right of the box and get in shot that Strudley just managed to push away. The ball ran across the goal-face, and Carnell just prevented Owusu turning it in at the far-post. With an hour played Gilbert was fouled by Bennett five yards outside the box on the left, earning the Didcot right-back a yellow card and giving Swans a free-kick in a good position. Owusu struck the ball over the wall, and Strudley did well to get to his left and push it away.

The visitors had been awarded several free-kicks during the match, and they had another 35 yards out, but Harvey Fox sent the ball straight through to Dickinson.

Swans responded with a fine build-up that led to Tobin driving a shot over the far, top corner from outside the left corner of the box.

Swans should have been well ahead, but midway through the second-half they were shocked to be pulled level for the second time. Avenell was dispossessed by Gallagher on Didcot’s left, and the young striker was free to drive into the box and send a fine shot low into the far corner.

Swans responded with Avenell sending a long ball down the right to get Owusu clear, and he got into the corner of the box to sidestep Carnell and get in a left foot shot that took a deflection to go wide of the far-post for a corner. Gilbert’s kick from the left was well claimed by Strudley.

Didcot had yet another free-kick deep on the right, and before it could be taken Anis Nuur came on to replace Tobin for Swans. Barder delivered the ball to the far-post for Carnell to head back across, and Ben Putland was in the right of the box to send a half-volley over the goal.

Eoin Bolger and Nuur combined to send Gilbert down the left, and he cut inside past Bennett, but his shot lacked power and Strudley made a comfortable save. Owusu then found Flaherty in the right of the box, but his shot was also weak and straight at the Didcot keeper.

Swans went ahead for the third time with just under a quarter of an hour remaining. Kelly found Flaherty on the right touchline on halfway, and he set off on a terrific run that took him to the corner of the 6 yard-box to lay the ball inside to Powell, who slotted it into the far corner.

Cameron Thompson then came on to replace Gilbert.

Ujkaj delivered a free-kick from the right, and Gough was at the far-post to head across goal and wide. As the match entered the final five minutes of normal-time Gough spotted Strudley off his line and sent in a lob from the centre-circle that dipped over.

Swans then clinched the win with a fourth goal. A good move down the left led to Nuur slipping Thompson through to the corner of the box, and he stepped inside Carnell to send a fine shot into the far-corner for his first Swans’ goal.

With stoppage-time being played Didcot had another free-kick out on the left touchline, leading to a header coming in that Dickinson took on his line.

Swans had one last chance to increase their lead when Powell took a throw-in quickly on halfway on the right to send Flaherty into the box, but his shot was blocked by Carnell.

Swans’ Team: Tyla Dickinson, Caelan Avenell, Eoin Bolger, Alex Kelly (Jake Frailing 90’), Arsen Ujkaj, Mitchal Gough, Stan Flaherty, Johl Powell, Nana Owusu, Josh Tobin (Anis Nuur 72’), John Gilbert (Cameron Thompson 78’). Subs. not used: Eddie Simon, Joe Pratley-Jones. Scorers: Owusu (16’), Flaherty, penalty (48’), Powell (76’), Thompson (89’). Caution: Flaherty, foul (58’).

Didcot Town Team: Strudley, Bennett, McNeill, Barder, Carnell, Learoyd, Putland (Humphries 84’), Alexander (Brenan 76’), Gallagher, Osborne, Fox. Subs. not used: Galpin, Pitman. Scorers: Osborne (41’), Gallagher (68’). Cautions: Carnell, foul (48’), Bennett, foul (61’), McNeill, foul (67’).