Tiverton Town 2 – 1 North Leigh – Saturday 28/11/2015 Southern League First Division
There has always been something rather captivating about North Leigh. My pseudo-Oxfordshire thrice-removed heritage, and the fact that I have immediate family just a few stone throws from Eynsham Park may have a little to do with it, but more specifically they have regularly impressed with the brand of football they have brought to the pitch over the past few years. You would be hard pressed to find a team that plays with as much fluidity and attacking intent throughout the Southern League, and not only are they easy on the eye but they are also effective with a consistency that belies the level of football at which they play. Their stranglehold over Tiverton is almost absolute: bar one league and one FA Trophy encounter they have been dominant over their fellow Yellows. But they arrived at Ladysmead in questionable form (just two wins in their last eight league games, one of which was against perennial losers Bashley), and with Tivvy undefeated in sixteen Southern League matches there was never a better time to tear up the formbook and go about avenging that opening-day defeat in Oxfordshire.
For all the plaudits that this writer may wish to lay upon North Leigh for the verve with which they approach the game, it should be said that Tiverton are perfectly capable of putting on a decent show, and it seems like a lifetime ago that Martyn Rogers would play a bunch of central defenders in midfield (and even one up front) and the only intent would be to bang the ball forward high and long at every opportunity. With players like James Richards and Dan Smith in the team, and technically sound wingbacks, there is every reason for Tiverton to keep the ball down, play an intricate game, and allow skill to overcome brawn. However, Richards was absent through suspension, and the Devon weather was far from conducive for any pretty tiki-taka stuff, so the fact that Tivvy and North Leigh combined to put on such a spectacle is testament to both sides.
It started with the teams changing ends, so Town played into the wind and towards the Devco end in the first half, something of a rewind to the “good ol’ days”. And it was the home side that looked the more threatening early in the match; particularly of note was the keen running and chasing of Levi Landricombe and his striking partner Owen Howe. On an awkward surface the pair harassed and pressed the North Leigh defence as much as was sensibly possible without completely running out of steam, and this set the tone for the first half an hour. It was Howe who provided the opening goal of the game as his perfect first touch from Ben Mammola’s lifted ball towards the edge of the area allowed the forward to move into space and fire a shot low into the bottom corner past the surprisingly static James Foster. The visitors were not yet rattles and might (probably should) have been level immediately: Ethan Phillip’s played a seemingly harmless ball back to Steve Kingdon which Callum McNish stole away, and he set up Morgan Williams to shoot wide when well positioned.
Despite the howling wind and increasingly incessant rain that drenched the Ladysmead pitch both sides continued to forge opportunities, with North Leigh’s Williams denied by a flying save from Joe Perry, seeing another shot narrowly miss the target, and Jon Else slicing an effort wide. Increasingly the away side were piling on the pressure, and another mark of how far Tivvy have progressed this season was apparent in the fact that they defended a string of corners with perfect effect, Mammola and Tom Gardner particularly coming to the fore when called upon. All the while the Yellows carved out a handful of chances of their own, Landricombe and Howe both narrowly wide twice each. There was no problem with Phillips’ radar, however, and the midfielder scored a sublime second with a curling shot from twenty-five yards following a move down the left. The goal afforded Tivvy some breathing space, which inevitably meant they played with more caution, and North Leigh again came within a whisker of getting themselves on the scoresheet, this time Callum McNish being thwarted as his attempt to replicate Phillips’ goal resulted in the crossbar coming to Tivvy’s rescue. The visitors did pull themselves back into contention just before the interval through Else, who robbed the ball off Kingdon to break free a slide a simple finish past Perry.
The pattern in the second half would be that Tiverton would soak up any North Leigh pressure and attack on the counter when possible. Ultimately it worked, and this was largely due to the heroic performance of Perry between the stocks, without whom the visitor’s would have won by a clear margin. His save from Zak Westlake’s volley showed excellent reactions, and twice Perry smothered the ball on the line amidst a flurry of bodies when it looked certain that a red-clag leg would poke the ball into the net. But this goalkeeper wasn’t for moving, and he stood in absolute defiance, rejecting everything that could be thrown at him; the longer the game went on the better he got, and his flying leap in a north-easterly direction helped guide the ball over the bar and maintain the Town advantage, McNish again the unlucky party. Perry’s save from Stuart Hole was the best of the lot, another which required the reactions of a cat, and one that must have left the away side wondering whether destiny was not on their side. But the truth is Tivvy’s victory was not about luck but about taking their chances and having a goalkeeper in inspired form.
There was little to report at the other end of the pitch, such was the singular direction of the action in the second half. Dan Smith did go on a mazy run and his shot rolled harmlessly into the side netting, Howe failed to get the required purchase on a shot from close range and a tight angle, Landricombe was denied by Foster, and the only time Town came genuinely close to scoring was when Perry’s punt downfield took advantage of the gusts and bounced almost over and beyond Foster. The goalless second forty-five meant Tiverton moved up to third in the table, and if there was one negative to come out of the game it was the dismissal of Rob Norrish for a second yellow card close to time. His first booking was foolish, given for hand ball; his second rather harsh for a foul on Westlake. Nonetheless Norrish will miss the trip to Wimborne in a fortnight, and his influence and doggedness in the heart of the midfield will be difficult to replace.
Tiverton Town: Joe Perry, Jake Wannell, Mikey Williams, Ben Mammola, Steve Kingdon, Tom Gardner, Dan Smith (Alex Faux 90+2), Ethan Phillips, Owen Howe, Levi Landricombe, Rob Norrish
Goals: Howe 9, Phillips 32
Booked: Norrish, Wannell
Sent off: Norrish
North Leigh: James Foster, Sam Elkins, Michael Hopkins, Wayne Turk, Zak Westlake, Stuart Hole, Jon Else (Jamie Cook 79), Steve Davies, Kieran Sanders, Callum McNish, Morgan Williams
Goal: Else 44
Sent off: None
This report ©2015 Alan Reidy