Leighton Town 2 Swans 1

Saturday 17th April 2021.                                                          FA Vase, 4th Round.

Leighton Town 2    Walton & Hersham 1.

Swans’ FA Vase dreams ended in Bedfordshire following a controversial 4th Round tie against their Spartan South Midlands League Premier Division hosts. Apart from the understandable disappointment at their exit from a competition they had high hopes of progressing still deeper into, and the sudden termination of a fine, but truncated season, it was an aggrieved and frustrated Swans’ squad and management that boarded the coach back to Walton. As at Guildford a week previously they had fought back from going behind to an early goal, to equalise early in the second-half. The first-half had been pretty even, but was a fairly scrappy affair that had done little to enthuse the small number of people allowed to be present due to Covid-19 restrictions. But with that equaliser, and Swans beginning to settle down and get their game going, they looked the more likely to come out on top. Things changed however when Max Hustwick was shown his second yellow card of the game after 56 minutes, and was sent-off. Whether both of the offences were worthy of cautions is a matter of conjecture, but not dissimilar challenges by the home side had passed without sanction. Leighton then regained the lead with a somewhat fortunate goal scored direct from a corner-kick, and with their substitute Jamie Byatt being red-carded with ten minutes remaining Swans’ task looked hopeless. But to their credit they refused to pull down the curtain on their FA Vase hopes, and their nine men put in a tremendous shift for those remaining minutes, leaving the home side desperately defending, and hanging on. During those final minutes Leighton survived a clear handball in their box, Alex Kelly thumping a shot against their crossbar, and substitute Dan Taylor heading home with two minutes of normal-time remaining, only to be contentiously ruled offside.

Two changes were made to the side that had started at Guildford in the previous round, Stuart Baldwin coming in for Taylor, and Arsen Ujkaj making his debut in midfield. Ujkaj almost marked his first appearance with a goal after just three minutes. Kelly sent a free-kick into the box from the left, and when Joe Hicks did well to nod the ball back across from the far-post, Ujkaj sent a header just over the far, top corner.

But it was the home side that took the lead after seven minutes. Scott Thomas’s through ball sent Archie McClelland clear into the right of the box, where he was clipped by Louis Collins and a penalty awarded. Swans’ goalkeeper Liam Allen was sent the wrong way as Danny Webb slotted the kick into the bottom, right corner. Leighton won a corner on the right, but from Ross Adams’ kick Jim Burnside sent a volley well over the bar from close to the penalty-spot.

Swans had been slow to settle, but with just under a quarter of an hour played Harry Mills forced a corner on the right, but the only outcome from his kick was Hustwick being booked. Following a lay-off of almost four months it was understandable that Swans’ passing and movement lacked its usual accuracy and crispness, and with the home side closing down quickly and biting into tackles moves were not quite coming off, and were breaking down after a few passes. But with 24 minutes played a fine move saw Mills play Reece Brewster through to the right byline to drive the ball low across, but Dominic Ogun just failed to turn it in at the near-post.

Almost immediately Swans were grateful to their keeper Allen for keeping the deficit to a single goal. Ashton Campbell’s clip into the box from the left led to the ball being crossed to the far-post, where Burnside came in to power in a shot that Allen somehow turned over his crossbar with a tremendous, point-blank save. Adams’ resultant corner-kick from the left then sent the ball harmlessly behind.

Mills was beginning to find his game on the right for Swans, and he went close to equalising with a terrific piece of play. A great run on the right got him in on the byline, and with a clever flick of the outside of his right-foot he tried to score inside the near-post, but home keeper Brad Kirkwood just kept the ball out with good block. Swans had begun to finish the first-half well, and Mills was again in the action with a fine cross-ball to pick out Sean McCormack on the left, but his eventual cross was just too high for Ogun in the box.

McCormack was again afforded space on the left soon after the resumption, this time by Hustwick’s fine pass, but his ball laid inside could not pick out a teammate. But, just five minutes into the second-half, Swans equalised. Mills was again the provider with a ball from the right into the left of the box, where Kelly let the ball bounce before cleverly directing a header over the keeper and into the net.

Swans now looked well set to push for the win, but their hopes took a blow when the referee deemed Hustwick’s tackle on Burnside warranted a second yellow card for the central defender. They did not look fazed by the setback however, and when Mills sent the ball low across the edge of the box from the right, Baldwin played it on with a back-heel, and McCormack came in from the left to have a shot blocked. A corner-kick by Mills then led to keeper Kirkwood making a juggling take of the ball. McCormack then sent Ogun through, and Kirkwood was outside of his box as he came out to just deny the Swans’ striker, with some suspicion he had cleared the ball with his hands.

But Swans went behind again after 64 minutes in somewhat unfortunate fashion. Leighton’s Adams swung in a corner from the left, and the ball just evaded the fingertips of Allen to curl inside the far, top corner.

Byatt came on for McCormack to make his first Swans’ appearance since picking up a rib injury in late September, and with just over ten minutes remaining he just failed to get his head on the ball at the far-post when a neat build-up led to Ogun crossing from the left. But just a minute later a ball into the right of the box sent Byatt running through on goal, and when keeper Kirkwood came dashing out he collided with the Swans’ player, whose foot was raised. It looked like a 50/50 challenge with Byatt attempting to poke the ball home, but with his assistant immediately flagging, the referee showed almost unseemly haste in producing a red card for what was judged dangerous play.

Swans’ heads could have dropped at that stage, but they showed terrific desire to stay in the competition, and for the remaining minutes took the game to the home side despite a two man deficit. With the last five minutes of normal-time approaching Swans were denied a penalty when the ball was clearly handled in the box by a home defender. Kelly was then played into the right of the box to strike a terrific shot that came back off the underside of the crossbar with the keeper palpably beaten. A penalty-shoot out was the least Swans deserved, and they looked to have secured that when Taylor was at the far-post to power home a header from a yard out when the ball was crossed from the left. Celebrations were immediately cut short when the referee’s assistant flagged for offside, although the Swans’ substitute looked to be behind the ball when it was played across.

Swans’ Team: Liam Allen, Stuart Baldwin (Dan Taylor 80’), Louis Collins, Reece Brewster, Max Hustwick, Joe Hicks, Harry Mills, Arsen Ujkaj, Dominic Ogun, Alex Kelly, Sean McCormack (Jamie Byatt 72’). Subs. not used: Darren Simpson, Tom Henzi, Will Kouadio, Max Lohmeier, Alfie Mickley. Scorer: Kelly (50’). Cautions: Collins, foul (6’), Hicks, foul (73’). Dismissals: Hustwick, 2 cautions for fouls (14’ & 56’), Byatt, dangerous play (80’).    

Leighton Team: Kirkwood, Fitzgerald, Adams, Foulger, Murphy, Newbury-Barr, McClelland (Bryant 75’), Thomas, Burnside (Towell 60’), Webb, Campbell (Osborne 81’). Scorers: Webb, penalty (7’), Adams (64’).