Stratford Town 0 Stourbridge 0
This contest between the league’s two most in-form teams didn’t produce a Christmas cracker, however taking into account results elsewhere, it was a good point for the table-topping Glassboys in the finish.
A bumper crowd of 620 crowd at Stratford – their highest of the season so far – saw a largely tight clash on an awkward, bobbly pitch that didn’t help the game to flow. The hosts had the two clearest sights of goal, but home custodian Matija Sarkic (on loan from Villa) had to make two sharp saves – one right at the death - in the second period to deny Stourbridge.
Glassboys boss Gary Hackett brought in Stuart Pierpoint and Brad Birch in place of Darryl Westlake and Rob Thompson-Brown, while there was also a place on the bench for Tom Tonks as he continues his return from ankle surgery. The home side included former Glassboy Dan Preston for the first time after drafting him in from Highgate United and he occupied a midfield role. Other ex-Stourbridge players Kieron Westwood and Shane Benjamin were amongst the Stratford substitutes.
Stratford edged a cagey opening half-an-hour where most of the action was played out in midfield. The hosts were first to threaten after three minutes as Shawn Richards rode a challenge from Aris Christophorou before feeding their returning new striker Nabil Shariff in the right channel area, but he screwed his angled low shot wide of the far post with Niall Maher untroubled in the visitors goal. A few minutes later Stratford’s Jamie McAteer saw his driven shot blocked before there was a scare for the home side when a long bouncing ball forward seemed to lead to a moment’s confusion between Will Grocott and Sarkic and Grocott’s weak header back was almost pounced on by the pursuing Luke Benbow, however Sarkic reacted quickly to mop up close to the edge of his box.
With 31 minutes played the visitors produced their best move of the half as a Benbow header allowed Aaron Forde to drive forward. Preston nibbled at his heels but the Stour midfielder managed to stay on his feet and play a pass into Greg Mills in the left channel area. Mills attacked the box and tried to find the opposite corner of the net with his placed low shot, but it was too close to the keeper and Sarvic saved easily. Preston was retrospectively booked by the ref the next time the ball went dead.
Three minutes later Grocott tried his luck with a speculative 30-yard effort that flew wide for the home side and then on 40 minutes Stourbridge were awarded a free-kick around 25 yards out but this time Benbow curled his attempt just over the angle.
The chance of the half though came two minutes before the interval. Grocott swung over a free-kick from out on the left and Stratford had two men over at the far post with McAteer getting in a downward header that struck Maher’s left-hand post for a let-off for the league leaders.
Half-time 0 – 0
Play began to open up after the re-start with Mills seeing more of the ball for the visitors, but it was Stratford with the first chance of the half after 53 minutes. Richards took on the Glassboys defence as he dribbled the ball towards the Stourbridge box before laying a pass off to Wilson Carvalho, however his low side-foot shot from the left-hand side of the area was blocked by Maher’s legs at his near post.
Two minutes later Sarkic was called into action at the other end as Forde took a quick free-kick and played it low into the feet of Benbow with Stour striker hitting a low first-time shot on the turn that Sarkic did well to push aside low down to his right before the ball was cleared for a corner.
With an hour gone Mills won a free-kick just outside the left-hand side of the box and Benbow took aim, but he clipped his effort over the top. Paul McCone then headed well off-target from a right-wing corner a few minutes later before Stratford went close to breaking the deadlock in the 69th minute. Richards burst away from Christophorou down the right before finding Carvalho with his low cross. Carvalho’s shot was blocked, but the ball broke invitingly towards James Fry, however the alert Forde superbly blocked his shot to thwart the hosts and then from the resulting flag-kick, McAteer couldn’t keep his header down and the ball sailed over the bar.
Stuart Pierpoint picked up a caution soon afterwards before Shariff blazed a shot over the bar as Stratford pushed again.
Stourbridge made their one and only substitution on 75 minutes with Thompson-Brown replacing Birch. The visitors finished the stronger and might have snatched maximum points in the latter stages. In the 83rd minute Thompson-Brown and Forde combined to tee up Benbow who saw his shot stopped by Sarkic with the keeper gathering at the second attempt. Three minutes later Benbow drifted inside and unleashed a left-foot shot from 20 yards that cleared the crossbar.
More pressure from the visitors in stoppage time led to two free-kicks in good areas and Stourbridge twice going close. In the first minute of added time Thompson-Brown sent a free-kick into the box and Pierpoint struck a low shot that Sarkic safely held and then two minutes later Mills won another free-kick just outside the left-hand side of the box and Thompson-Brown drilled in a low shot that drew a smart low save down to his right from Sarkic at his near post to keep the visitors at bay and ensure the spoils were shared at the final whistle.
Team - Maher, Hayden, Christophorou, McCone, Pierpoint, Forde, Anderson, Broadhurst, Benbow, Birch, Mills
Subs: Thompson-Brown (for Birch 75 mins), Westlake, Steele, Evans, Tonks (not used)
Booked - Pierpoint
Updated 19:56 - 6 Jan 2019 by Nigel Gregg