By Connor Steel
AFC PORTCHESTER finally surrendered a lengthy unbeaten start to their 2022-23 Wessex Premier Division season after twenty-four matches as they travelled to AFC Stoneham on Saturday; the Purps continuing their own 100% home winning streak with a narrow two-one victory. This tight encounter was settled by finishes in both halves from the hosts in the top-two league battle in Eastleigh, a late away goal proving to be in vain for the Royals who were further reduced to ten men as they succumbed to their opening defeat since April 2022.
Under grey skies it was Portchester who started brighter and they created a first chance after seven minutes when Ryan Wilkins headed over the crossbar; Marley Ridge driving through the congested midfield third and shooting wide of the far post from twenty-yards out moment later. Down the other end Stoneham saw a spell of steady possession that settled the early away momentum and this gave them a platform to attack in much greater numbers; Tommy Barnes feeding Liam Callaghan down the right with his angled effort easily cleared.
Stoneham continued to look dangerous with Scott Hills and Alex Welch linking up as the latter forced a great save from Portchester goalkeeper Steven Mowthorpe at his far post after eighteen minutes; Ben Clarke then heading over an inch-perfect corner just moments later. But it wasn’t just one way home traffic as the Royals looked just as threatening with Brett Pitman making a good touch inside the area and threading into the path of Scott Jones whose effort was deflected wide of danger before Elliott Wheeler spun an ambitious shot over.
The home side eventually took the lead after thirty-two minutes when Cade Dyer ran through and cut his fine pass back into Duarte Martins; the striker firing home past Mowthorpe inside the bottom left corner off the far post for one-nil. This opener gave Stoneham a boost and they almost doubled this advantage with Scott Hills blasting his shot over moments later; Portchester responding well as Jones flashed over a low free kick from James Cowan and Pitman dragging narrowly wide of the target after being found by Ridge in additional time.
It was nearly two-nil to Stoneham within two minutes of the restart as Callaghan turned into a small pocket of space and rattled his drive off the near post with Mowthorpe scrambling; the afternoon’s big defining moment coming on fifty-four minutes when the hosts were awarded a harshly given penalty for deliberate handball by Sam Pearce in the area. The away defender was further shown a red card and Callaghan made little mistake with his spot kick, calming side-footing home to rub extra salt into the inflicted wounds of Dave Carter’s outfit.
However Portchester were still carrying threats within key attacking areas despite the arrears and were close to scoring on sixty-six minutes when Conor Bailey’s low delivery had to be cleared away before Pitman could convert at the back post; Jones dragging just wide under pressure by a defender on sixty-three minutes. This gave the visitors more confidence and they were given the opportunity to score moments later when a curled free kick was blocked illegally for handball; Pitman stepping up for the penalty and stroking well in the corner.
Proceedings seemed to follow a knockout cup tie after this goal as the Royals had the chances to score their second; Curt Da Costa and Ridge going close for the visitors before a loud penalty appeal was denied by the referee in a moment of frustration. In contrast the hosts were proving to be dangerous on their counter attack and created two big chances to score a third goal; Mowthorpe having to deny a driven shot from Hills before Martins blasted high over the crossbar from eighteen yards out as Stoneham battled for another three points.
The victory means that Stoneham have sliced the gaps on leaders Portchester to four points having played a match more; also extending their perfect home record to fourteen games and maintaining their five point lead over third place Horndean in the current table. Dave Carter’s outfit will be looking for a huge response after a rare league loss, their first since losing to Hamworthy last year, when they travel across to play Bournemouth Poppies before hosting midtable sides of Laverstock & Ford and Portland United in two successive matches.
PICTURED BY DANIEL HASWELL: Portchester attacker turns into a crowd of home players as his side look to rally back from two-nil behind in Eastleigh, eventually losing their unbeaten streak lasting since April 2022.