Pope pops up to earn Hastings United vital win at Three Bridges
Ben Pope’s header ten minutes from time finally broke ten-man Three Bridges’ resistance after they had hung on for almost 80 minutes - and meant Hastings United got back to winning ways.
The home side opened the scoring after seven minutes through Noel Leighton’s excellent strike, but the same player was ordered off the pitch just five minutes later following a wild challenge on Tom Chalmers. Despite the majority of possession it took until the stroke of half-time for United to find an equaliser, Jack Dixon drilling home following Pope’s pass. The second-half continued in the same manner with the ‘U’s piling forward only to find the Bridges up for the fight. Just as it looked like the home side would hold out for a draw, up popped Pope to nod home Dave Martin’s corner and win the game.
How it unfolded....
Saturday 20th November, a day of grey cloud with a touch a mizzle in the air. The pitch looks in good condition albeit a visit from a lawnmower wouldn’t go a miss. Centre-half Finn O’Mara, on a month’s loan from Folkstone Invicta, goes straight into the starting line-up alongside Craig Stone. United continue in their changed kit of sky-blue shirts and socks with white shorts. The Bridges meanwhile are in amber shirts with black shorts and socks.
From the U’s kick off the tackles begin flying in and United win an early freekick which is sent wide to Martin. His cross is met by the head of O’Mara, but he’s under pressure and is off target. That would have been some start for him in a United shirt. Dixon and Kane Penn then play their way out from their own half and Pope frees Chalmers who shoots from the angle. The Bridges goalkeeper makes a fine save and there’s no United playing following in allowing the ball to be cleared.
This positive start is undone by two minutes of attrition. Neither side keeps control of the ball but twice in succession the ball ends up in a shooting position for the home team. The first falls to Brannon O’Neill 25-yards out and he shoots straight at Louise Rogers. Moments later a second chance gives Leighton the opportunity to run at the United defence and he strikes a 20-yard left-footer into the top corner. Deadlock broken, and in some style.
United are immediately on the attack and Stone’s shot from a corner is deflected narrowly over. They are then given the upper-hand with the departure of the Three Bridges goal scorer. Leighton has already gone toe-to-toe with O’Mara, then a series of tackles in midfield is halted by Leighton’s shocking challenge on Chalmers. Wild and high. He doesn’t just blot his copybook, he douses it in fuel and sets it alight. There’s no mitigation and the referee has little choice but to gives his red card an early outing.
Despite the man advantage and monopolising the ball, there’s no immediate response from United. Three Bridges set themselves up with five across the midfield and a back-four, so they’re conceding possession but are otherwise looking comfortable. A series of United crosses are repelled before the first opening arrives on the half-hour. Dixon and Penn combine down the right and the fullback’s cross reaches Knory Scott in the area. Scott’s first shot is blocked and his second flies a foot over the bar.
The Bridges make a rare venture into the United half and win a freekick in a dangerous position, 25 yards out to the right of the area. The resulting shot is on target but straight at Rogers. United come again and Penn’s ‘cross’ almost drifts into the top corner before Ollie Black nods wide from Martin’s in swinging corner.
With half-time approaching the ‘U’s choose the perfect moment to score the equaliser. Stone finds Pope who sweeps a pass Dixon who has found a yard of space on the right side of the area. One touch to control and Dixon drills hard and low into the far corner. A quality finish to make the half-time tea and oranges a tad sweeter.
Half-time: Three Bridges 1 – 1 Hastings United
The home side restart the game and immediately win a freekick on the right of the United area when the attacker gets ahead of Ollie Black who is deemed to have committed a foul. The freekick comes to nothing and not a minute later Stone releases Black down the left wing. Black gets ahead of the defender, controls the ball on his chest and is challenged from behind causing him to fall in the penalty area. It’s the exact replica of the foul Black has just been penalised for yet this time the referee waves play on. The vagaries of a referee’s decision-making are simply baffling at times.
Even so, the second-half continues in the same vein as the first with United dominating and Three Bridges standing strong in the face of a continuous onslaught. Dixon’s mishit shot is controlled by Pope who turns and shoots, the goalkeeper makes the save diving low to his left.
The next chance falls to Scott who collects a cross and fires a shot goalward. The goalkeeper makes a hash of the save but a defender is on hand to hack the ball off the line. Pope then shoots wide from 25 yards before a deep corner gives Stone a shooting chance, which is blocked, and Dixon’s follow up shot is straight at the goalkeeper.
Midway through the second-half, it’s still 1 – 1 and the ‘U’s have not yet seriously troubled the Three Bridges goal. Each cross is being cleared and when Scott rifles in a stinging shot it floors his own man, Martin feeling the full force.
With 15 minutes to go Pope’s header is on target but without enough power before Kenny Pogue’s header has plenty of power but is off target. Other than the amount of possession conceded the ten-men of Three Bridges have defended like 15 men. The home side have drawn eight of their 13 games and you can see why, defensively they look rock solid.
With the clock ticking down the shouts from the United bench urge the team to remain patient and they are finally rewarded. Pogue’s shot is deflected for a corner giving Martin the chance to swing a cross into the heart of the penalty area and directly onto the head of Pope who expertly nods home from close range. Ten minutes to go and the ‘U’s lead for the first time.
A few minutes later the game is almost put out of Three Bridges’ reach. Chalmers glides through the midfield and finds Pope who instantly lays the ball back to Sam Hasler some 20 yards out. His shot is destined to break the net but instead is brilliantly tipped over the bar.
The home side have made United work hard for their lead and nearly grab themselves a draw. A flicked header on the half-way line gives their attacker a run-on goal and it takes an outstanding sprint and sliding tackle by Stone to clear the danger. A true test of the hamstrings and a victory saving challenge from Stoney!
Even then Three Bridges are not yet done. In the final minute of added time they win a freekick on the right which is swung into the area where Rogers is needed to punch clear. The ‘U’s break and win their own freekick but time is up, and they leave Three Bridges with three valuable points.
Gary Elphick’s first league win as manager and United move up the table to sixth with two games in hand. A solid debut by O’Mara, more game time for Scott and Pope on the scoresheet. Real signs of the team finding their feet and form after a few weeks of turmoil.
Full-time: Three Bridges 1 – 2 Hastings United
Hastings United: Rogers, Black (Hasler 59’), Worrall (Pogue 71’), O’Mara, Stone, Chalmers, Dixon, Pope, Penn, Scott (Azeez 78’), Martin
Three Bridges: Wanat, Ashley (Stone 26’), Bromage, Brackpool, Gayler, O’Neill, Leighton, Ferreria, Villavicencio, Wilson (Bacon 84’), Perry (Barbary 64’)
United goals: Dixon (43’), Pope (80’)
Three Bridges goal: Leighton (7’)