By Connor Steel
AFC PORTCHESTER exited another knockout cup competition as they hosted Phoenix Sports on Saturday, losing three-two against their Kent-based opponents in an entertaining FA Vase First Round encounter; thus ending any dreams of a Wembley final in May 2023. It will be a particularly difficult defeat to absorb for Dave Carter’s side in front of a large crowd at the On-Site Group Stadium as a scoring battle between Brett Pitman and Francis Babalola saw them net two apiece; Tashi-Jay Kwayie’s late effort proving the ultimate difference.
The hosts started brightly under grey skies when Elliot Wheeler was fouled in a dangerous area with the free kick from Pitman forcing a brilliant save from Phoenix goalkeeper Andy Walker at his near post. This led to a succession of deep corners that were all dealt with by the away defence despite a chance for Liam Robinson whose effort flew harmlessly over the crossbar from range, before Tom Cousins went closest down the other end after linking up with Joseph Denny as he fired over from an angle with the scores nil-nil after 15 minutes.
Phoenix seemed to be more confident after absorbing home pressure and creating their first chance, winning a corner that was headed over at the back post by captain Lewis Clark under pressure and Andy Pugh sliced wide minutes later. But the visitors did open the scoring on twenty-five minutes when a good passing triangle released Francis Babaloa in space down the wings and the striker jinxed his way between the 2 backtracking defenders, finessing the effort into the bottom corner past the diving Portchester goalkeeper Aman Skryniarz.
However this advantage only lasted three minutes before the hosts equalised with an outstanding team goal, starting with Harrison Brook advancing towards goal through midfield and playing inside to Marley Ridge; the youngster’s cross met by a sliding Pitman who calmly slotted home his seventeenth of this campaign for 1-1. And this was how it stayed at the interval despite openings for both sides; Kwayie driving wide of his far post from a tight angle before James Cowan then saw a low goalwards shot blocked at source from 20 yards out.
As drizzly conditions began the second half Portchester looked to retake impetus but were unable to take full advantage of intense possession; Jake Raine’s cross headed over by the jumping attacker and Conor Bailey slicing harmlessly wide on the overlap during a quiet period. The hour mark saw Lee Bird shooting straight at Skryniarz from an angle before the hosts saw another two missed openings in quickfire succession; a corner bouncing through the crowded penalty area to miss the far post before Pitman dragged wide under pressure.
Substitutions for both teams signalled a lull with the match seemingly drifting towards a penalty shootout, the next chance coming on eighty-one minutes when a free kick dropped to Elliot Wheeler and he drove his shot wide of goal with a volleyed effort. Moments later the Royals were denied a spot-kick for handball in the area as this scare rallied Phoenix, who took the lead after 83 minutes when a snapshot floated across the six-yard box and was misjudged by the home defender; Baraloa making no mistake converting his second of the day.
A killer third goal soon arrived for Phoenix with three minutes left as Kwayie played a simple one-two with his strike partner before slamming his effort into the net; sparking jubilant celebrations from a visiting contingent in the corner of the ground. This made it 3-1 and there was still one more goal to come in additional time as Portchester got a late consolation when Pitman collected the loose ball in midfield; sending an angled effort skidding off the wet surface and nestling into the corner from thirty yards in the last action before the whistle.
Phoenix march onto the second round of this famous non-league (step 5 / 6) competition and will find out the next opponents in a draw on Monday afternoon, whilst Portchester will look to recover from 2 successive cup defeats after losing to Brockenhurst in midweek. But this loss shouldn’t take away the Royals’ brilliant start to their new league campaign with ten wins from ten games, although this record will see huge tests this week as they travel to Horndean on Tuesday night at Five Heads Park before hosting Hamble Club next weekend.
PICTURED BY DANIEL HASWELL: Home player is crowded out by three Phoenix Sports midfielders in FA Vase on Saturday, the Royals exiting popular non-league competition after tough 3-2 loss in ninety minutes.