Following on from Saturday’s disappointing result against Battersea Ironsides, Reigate Priory travelled to Chessington on a Thursday night to face Epsom Athletic. Epsom are in a rich vein of form, having currently only dropped two points out of a possible 15 and been the early pace setters in the Surrey Elite Intermediate league this season. It would prove to be a tough test.
It seemed that circumstances were against Priory from the minute they arrived at Chessington for their first game under the floodlights. Travis Purnell had picked up an injury on Saturday and was unable to play so Dan Benson had to deputise in goal. Rob Horan was unable to make the mid-week game due to working away so James Leask was given his first start of the season at centre back. To make matters worse, Glen Davies had decided to call time on his Priory career to concentrate on his family so Steve Beckett was asked to move into centre back to complete the new look defence. One bit of good news, Chris Byrne was able to make his first start in 3 games.
As the game got started, there was a real cup final feel to the match as Priory got into their stride nice and quickly. There had been plenty of time for a warm up before the game and Priory appeared up for the challenge against a near full-strength Epsom side. A few sighters from Jamie Williams and Rob Stratton early on failed to trouble the keeper from long distance. The new look back-line partnership of Leask and Beckett were still trying to find their feet but a couple of timely headers and interceptions settled the nerves and the back four of Hogg, Doick and the aforementioned two looked like they had been playing together for years! With the game still in the first ten minutes, Chris Byrne linked up well with Williams to just drag a shot wide with Philcox and Stratton well placed at the back post. This would be Priory’s undoing as 5 minutes later, they went behind in a game that had started so positively. A speculative shot from distance did not appear to be much trouble for Benson, however the stand-in stopper parried the ball out to the feet of the Epsom striker who slide the ball home despite having three Priory players in close proximity. It was a tough break for Benson, who had started the match in good form, but Priory were behind. It went from bad to worse moments later as Byrne had to be replaced following a reoccurrence of the rib injury that had kept him out for the past two weeks. Steve Payne was his replacement with a slight formation jog to boot. With twenty minutes of the first half remaining, Priory would remain under pressure from an Epsom side keen to improve on their fortuitous lead. Benson would make amends for his earlier error with a crucial save just before the break to keep Priory in with a chance. The striker following up to finish off had done so from an offside position and Priory went into halftime 1 goal down.
Despite an excellent start to the game, Priory had still failed to work the Epsom goalkeeper and, even though the goal had come from a mistake, could not feel too hard done by being one goal behind. There were good signs of encouragement though and nothing but good chat came out of gaffers at half time. With words of advice ringing in their ears, Priory came out confident of causing an upset.
What transpired in the second half could be described as one of the best halves of football anyone will be lucky to watch in the Surrey Elite League this season. Both teams went out in the second half looking to win the game and giving the crowd that had developed behind Bensons goal quite the spectacle. It started with some early Epsom pressure that was soaked up well by the make-shift Priory backline. Timely interventions from Doick and Hogg stopped any potential threats getting through to Benson and a last ditch tackle from Beckett kept the gap between the sides to one goal. Priory grew with confidence as the game wore on and some end to end football was more like a basketball game than a football match! The Reigate side were starting to get some joy on the wings were Payne and Philcox were enjoying, arguably, their best performances in a Priory shirt this season. It was some good link up between Philcox, Doick and Paddley that sent the former down the left hand side. His cross failed to find either of the strikers in the box but it was a sign of things to come as a similar move involving Payne, Hogg and Blackwood saw Priory earn a number of corners but just fail to add the finishing touches on numerous occasions. It was from one of the lung-busting counter-attacks and then clearing off the line in his own box that Liam Hogg (feeling unwell) had to be replaced by 30th birthday boy Edgar Ndazi. Ndazi slipped into the backline with great ease as it was Priory’s turn to fend off numerous Epsom attacks. Goal saving crucial headers from Leask, Doick and Beckett plus a couple of smart saves from Benson meant Priory could have one last go at trying to get something out of the game. Enter potential goal hero 1: Edgar Ndazi! It would have been an unlikely one but, on the run, Ndazi struck the ball well (off his shin) after good work from Payne and Stratton. Enter potential goal hero 2: Karl Paddley. From the last corner of the match, Williams swung in an excellent delivery with Padders just getting a little too much on the header as the ball rose above the bar and off target.
The full time whistle went and Priory were left to wonder what if. Despite losing the game, the lads were in great spirit afterwards and it is the spirit and fight that was shown here against the best side the league that needs to be shown every game this season, starting with AFC Cubo next week.
I said it after the game and since but it is worth mentioning it again: I was as proud as I have ever been to be a Priory player after this performance and not one person in the squad shirked responsibility when asked to do a job. Everybody stood up to be counted and should all be proud of the job that they did today. The result will show as a loss but I can guarantee that Epsom will not face a tougher match than that this season. From the makeshift back 5 (+ Edgar), who were outstanding to a man, to the performances of Blackwood, Philcox and Payne who put in their best shifts this season. Captain Padders played out of his skin despite being under the weather and messers Stratton, Williams and, briefly, Byrne who defended from the front and led by example. We MUST keep this performance in mind and set this as the benchmark for games to come.
Squad: Benson, Hogg, Beckett, Leask, Doick, Philcox, Blackwood, Paddley (c), Williams, Byrne, Stratton, Payne, Ndazi