Hertfordshire bills itself as ‘The County of Opportunity’. When Blyth Spartans visited Bishop’s Stortford on Saturday they had a fantastic opportunity, with seconds to go, to pick up three vital league points only to see two of them snatched away.
In the shadows of Stansted airport it was a turbulent game for the visitors who went two goals down only to come back to lead 3-2 and then to suffer the late arrival which was Bishop’s Stortford’s equaliser.
Blyth manager Steve Cuggy was torn between thinking it was a point gained for his side or two lost.
“It was a bit of both really,” he said. “At 2-0 down I would have taken a draw but the equaliser after we’d come back really well was a sickener.
“The first half was about two teams both lacking belief although I thought we edged it on possession”.
Indeed the first period was characterised by the teams seeming to try and outdo each other by how often, and how easily, they could give the ball away.
Blyth lost captain Graeme Armstrong after only 13 minutes when, following a tough challenge he was caught on the hip by a flailing boot. A cut to his stomach meant he couldn’t carry on, Glen Taylor replacing him in attack.
Wayne Phillips threatened the home goal after 16 minutes but fired high. Bishop’s Stortford countered immediately with the energetic David Adepipe slicing wide. Half chances came and went for both sides before the Spartans’ Jamie Mole broke in to the penalty area and appeared to have been fouled. Perhaps a rather extravagant fall might have influenced the referee who declined to award a penalty.
Blyth just about dominated the final third of the half with Mole and Greg Pearson coming close with headers. Within the last minute however the home side took the lead when they were given a penalty which debutant Robert Birdsall parried only for the ball to come back across the face of his goal where Reece Prestedge was on hand to stab the ball home.
The five added minutes at the end of the first half saw Blyth continue to press forward. Phillips had a shot blocked, a Wayne Buchanan snap shot was deflected wide and a Taylor header was misdirected past the post.
Cuggy was not too concerned at the interval.
“Their pace gave us a few problems but Glen did well on replacing Armstrong. We had some decent attempts at goal and could have had a penalty when Mole was brought down. Our goalkeeper Robert said that Buchs [Buchanan] just tried to pass on of their players on in the box but he ran into his outstretched arm and went down to win the penalty. Robert made a great save and although we did have people back on the line Prestedge still managed to find a gap and score. We didn’t let our heads drop after that, which some teams in our position might have done”.
Blyth started the second half brightly showing increased commitment and authority. Chris Emms’ pace and direct approach was threatening the Bishop’s Stortford defence but Blyth were knocked back when the home side extended their lead on 55 minutes. Adepipe out muscled defender Phil Cave and coolly slotted the ball past Birdsall’s right hand.
“It was disappointing to concede on the counter attack,” said Cuggy. “We came out well knowing we had nothing to lose. We thought we were the better team and up till then they were only threatening us from set pieces”.
Set pieces were a weak aspect of the Blyth side too with numerous corners and free kicks failing to threaten. It is something Cuggy said he was going to work on.
Following the goal Blyth withdrew Cave and Emms and brought on Lee Mason and Rob Briggs. Mason made an immediate impact bursting through but stumbling as he went to shoot.
On 59 minutes Blyth clawed their way back in to the game when a neat Taylor flick found Neal Hooks eight yards out and the midfielder stroked the ball past Jordan Archer in the Bishop’s Stortford goal. Only four minutes later the Spartans were on level terms. A high long ball from Dan Groves fell precisely in to Taylor’s path. The forward jinked past two defenders 20 yards from goal before firing across Archer low in to the net.
Cuggy was delighted: “We’ve been working on getting Neal forward a bit more because we know he’s a good finisher. And Glen thoroughly deserved his goal. He’s been pushing for a place in our starting line up and the way he played on Saturday you could see why”.
Play switched from end to end with Buchanan and Pearson particularly prominent in the Blyth defence. But the visitors continued to be lively up front. With 11 minutes remaining Blyth took the lead when a pass from Mole found Mason wide on the right and, although the ball was going away from goal, he managed to wrap his foot around it and send a powerful shot past Archer high in to the net from 16 yards out.
With play entering the three minutes of added time a poor decision was given against the Spartans. A throw in to them was given the other way. A free kick followed immediately from which Prestedge headed home in a crowded goalmouth.
Cuggy commented: “The throw in decision was awful. The assistant on the line seemed to have switched off. Prestedge managed to get a free header in from the free kick which we should have defended better. Rob Birdsall said he slipped coming for the cross and then decided to stay where he was”.
Overall Birdsall had a sound debut and the Keighley – born Irish international was confident when facing the first half penalty saying: “I saved two penalties in the game I was playing in for Bradford City reserves against Stockport last week so I was up for it!”
Blyth now face two tricky games this week.
On Tuesday they entertain high flying Guiseley at Croft Park (ko 7.45pm) and then travel to play Halifax on Saturday.