CARMARTHEN went into this match one place and eight points below Aberystwyth in the Welsh Premier League table and knowing that victory over their old rivals would provide a highly significant boost towards their chances of WPL survival.
However after 90 minutes of play it seemed certain that the Old Gold would suffer a disappointing defeat as the Seasiders held a healthy two-goal advantage. But in added time Town staged a sensational comeback to draw level and claim a vital WPL point – and they even went agonisingly close, twice, to snatching a winning goal.
In the early stages the game was fairly open and evenly-balanced as the play switched briskly from end to end but with both defences initially appearing sound and untroubled no notable scoring chances emerged.
Yet all that changed on 12 minutes when the visitors took a shock lead – Declan Walker, from 25 yards fired a rasping free-kick through the defensive ‘wall’ which may have unsighted ‘keeper Lewis Thomas who misjudged the flight of the ball before it hit the back of the net.
And though the earlier pattern of play continued, Aberystwyth went close to increasing their advantage in the 23rd minute – Joe Phillips received the ball from Ryan Wade then dispatched a stunning long-range strike that arrowed towards the top corner of the home goal only for Thomas to atone for his error by turning the ball around the post with a spectacular flying save.
But Town responded well and on 26 minutes managed their first notable scoring opportunity when Mark Jones moved swiftly infield from the left touchline before sliding the ball across to Luke Bowen on the edge of the penalty area – he neatly evaded his marker then produced a fierce drive that ‘keeper Chris Mullock managed to beat away to safety.
However Bowen was not to be denied success just moments later – Kieran Lewis, from the right flank, sent an inviting free-kick into the crowded goalmouth where the experienced striker rose high above defenders and planted his smart close-range header past Mullock and into the back of the net.
This led the hosts to produce a spell of sustained pressure orchestrated by the energy and invention of midfielders Lewis, Ceri Morgan and Clayton Green yet despite the willingness of Carmarthen’s prolific strike-force, Liam Thomas, Jones and Bowen, to pursue every scoring opportunity no further serious chances emerged before half-time.
After the interval the Seasiders took the initiative and soon regained the lead. In the 48th minute John Owen made a strong run along the left-wing before firing the ball across the face of the goal to reach Damian Allen – he in turn set it up for Walker who fell under Morgan’s clumsy challenge. The referee immediately awarded a penalty which Walker confidently drove beyond the reach of Lewis Thomas and into the corner of the net.
The Old Gold, stung by that setback, straightaway poured upfield in search of another equaliser. And on 62 minutes they were close to succeeding – from a Lewis corner-kick the ball was played out to Morgan who instantly struck a promising 20 yard volley that Mullock resisted with an impressive full-length save.
But as Town continued to press forward in numbers they became increasingly vulnerable to any counter-attack – opportunities which Owen in particular, with his strong running, was eager to exploit. And this directly led to Aberystwyth securing a third goal on 67 minutes. Owen won possession on the right flank then quickly sent the ball into the path of Walker who was allowed to race completely unmarked into the penalty area before clinically dispatching an angled drive into the far corner of the goal.
Manager Neil Smothers’ response was to strengthen his attacking options by bringing newcomer Dwayne Coultress, who impressed by scoring on his debut last week, off the bench in place of a defender.
Carmarthen’s pursuit of scoring opportunities had now become even more urgent. After 79 minutes a slick interchange of passes between Coultress and Bowen just inside the penalty area finished with the lively youngster hitting a smart 15 yard strike that Mullock resisted, turning the ball against the bar with an excellent reflex save.
Then on 83 minutes a long throw-in from Dan Sheehan into the penalty area was cleared, but only as far as Morgan who struck a 20 yard volley that the increasingly busy Mullock was well-placed to claim.
As the 90th minute approached, the 4th match official indicated there would be four minutes of added time – realistically Town’s prospects seemed hopeless.
Yet, undaunted, the Old Gold staged an all-out assault on the visitors’ goal. In the third minute of added time Bowen raced along the left flank and sent a low cross into the goalmouth where Coultress, with timely anticipation, capitalised on a defender’s error to stab the ball home from close-range. And with Carmarthen now seemingly irrepressible, moments later they drew level – Morgan made a surging run from deep inside his own half then lifted the ball high into the packed penalty area where Lee Surman volleyed it past several defenders and into the net.
Remarkably, they then twice went close to snatching a winning goal. Lewis sent a searching free-kick into the congested goalmouth only for Bowen to see his close-range effort cleared off the goal-line and over the bar – from the ensuing corner Dave Vincent headed the ball forward to the experienced striker who produced a smart close-range header that Mullock resisted with a superb reflex save.
At the final whistle, for Carmarthen fans there was a clash of emotions – the shattering disappointment of failing so narrowly to win the game conflicting with the relief of avoiding defeat which seemed inevitable for so much of the second-half.
These two teams must now meet again at Richmond Park next Saturday (3rd March k/o 2.30pm) for a Welsh Cup Quarter-Final tie – it’s unlikely to be a dull affair!
Team: Lewis Thomas; Jordan Knott (sub Dwayne Coultress 73); Dave Vincent; Lee Surman; Dan Sheehan; Kieran Lewis; Ceri Morgan; Clayton Green (sub Liam Walsh 66); Luke Bowen; Mark Jones; Liam Thomas (sub Craig Hanford 83);
Unused subs: Stephen Hall; Danny Thomas;
Cards: (Y) Clayton Green (17)
Goals: Luke Bowen (28); Dwayne Coultress (90+3); Lee Surman (90+4);