Stourbridge 1 Salford City 2
The Glassboys missed out on a play-off place as visitors Salford took the spoils in the Amblecote sunshine.
Needing a win to be sure of claiming a place in the play-offs, Stourbridge came up just short, and with both Ashton United and Workington winning their games, the Glassboys had to settle for sixth place, meaning they must try again next season.
Skipper Stuart Pierpoint’s headed equaliser just before the midway point of the first half had given the home faithful hope, but Stour were unable to make the most of chances to get their noses in front before the break, and as time wore on in the second half anxiety crept into their game as the dream slipped away.
Gary Hackett made one change from Thursday night’s defeat at Frickley, with George Bowerman replacing Justin Richards in attack, the former Sutton striker having picked up a knock in that game.
The opening stages were cagey, with the teams feeling each other out, and it was seven minutes before either side had an attempt on goal, when Gareth Seddon ‘s shot from 20 yards sailed well over Matt Gould’s crossbar.
However, the Glassboys were to suffer a blow on ten minutes as they fell behind when John Johnston sent in a cross from the right that Gould seemed to misjudge, with the ball dropping over him to the unmarked Michael Itela who steered his shot in from a narrow angle. By this stage Workington were already two goals to the good at home to Buxton, and Stourbridge were facing an uphill battle.
Stour’s response was good though, and persistence from Karl Hawley won a corner on 20 minutes which was cleared to Chris Lait on the left. His in-swinging cross found Pierpoint all alone in the six yard box to glance a deft header beyond Jay Lynch and restore parity and a measure of calm.
Stourbridge were to build on that with probably their best spell of the game leading up to half time. Lait saw his 26 yard shot blocked for a corner on 28 minutes, whilst four minutes later Bowerman got to the by-line and sent in a cross that Billy Priestley hooked away from the lurking Hawley.
A slip by Kristian Green almost allowed Itela another sight of the target but Scarr recovered to force him away from goal and when he laid the ball off to Seddon Tom Tonks was able to block, but on the whole it was Stour who were forcing the pace.
The five minutes before the break saw plenty of incident in the Salford penalty area and perhaps betrayed the feeling that it was not to be Stourbridge’s day. First Leon Broadhurst met Sean Geddes’s corner with a near post header that Lynch got down to save well on the line, amidst fervent claims from Glassboys players that he had taken it over. Referee Neil Radford remained unmoved, though, and was equally emphatic in denying what were in truth unconvincing shouts for a penalty moments later as Hawley went down under a challenge from Priestley.
And then, in added time, a quick Stourbridge free kick on the left led to Lait whipping in a cross that Hawley, like Pierpoint completely unmarked, headed goalwards only for Lynch to grasp low to his left.
The signs were positive for the Glassboys as the second half commenced, and given recent points dropped from winning positions, there was no great concern that the game was being chased rather than a lead protected, but it was the visitors who settled back into the game more quickly. A couple of early corners from Salford were dealt with, albeit not entirely convincingly, before Seddon flicked a shot wide from Johnston’s right wing cross just three minutes in.
Stour’s first sight of goal came on 52 minutes as Lait was tripped 25 yards out, but having got up to take the free kick himself, the winger could only fire over Lynch’s crossbar, whilst a Dan Scarr header from Tonks’s long throw lacked the power to trouble the Salford keeper three minutes later.
The game’s major talking point came just before the hour, as Bowerman turned on the by-line with the ball appearing to strike Steven O’Halloran’s hand as he fell. Bowerman seemed adamant that the Salford defender had handled but if he had done then both Mr Radford and his assistant clearly deemed it accidental and gave only a corner, from which Pierpoint headed both the ball and Lynch into the net with a foul awarded.
With the game becoming more and more open as the Glassboys strived for the second goal they desperately needed, Salford began to exploit gaps that were always going to appear. A mazy run by Johnston on 62 minutes took him into the penalty area, from where he flashed as shot wide of Gould’s left-hand upright, before Stourbridge survived a major scare as a bouncing ball deceived Pierpoint leaving Itela with a clear run on goal. However, Gould came to the rescue, sprinting off his line to block, with Scarr covering to belt the ball to safety. A minute later Gould was not quite so assured, as he missed his punch from a corner, and Seddon could only head wide when he probably should have scored.
Bowerman found himself in space in the penalty area with 69 minutes played but saw his low shot held by Lynch at his near post, and then Luke Clark’s low shot from 25 yards was tipped round the post by Gould at the other end.
It was the visitors who were looking more likely to add to the scoreline by this stage. They had apace to exploit as Stourbridge increasingly went on the attack, whereas the Glassboys were constantly finding themselves crowded out and closed down by the hardworking Salford defence.
And do it transpired on 72 minutes, as the otherwise faultless Junior Smikle was beaten in a tackle 35 yards out, allowing Joe Mwasile to advance on the right before sending in a cross that Itela powerfully headed past Gould. At around the same point, Workington were stretching their lead to 5-0 up in Cumbria, whilst Ashton United were comfortable at 1-0 up at Sutton Coldfield, who were about to see their goalkeeper red carded. Nothing less than a win was going to get the job done for the Glassboys, and that now seemed an unlikely prospect.
With nothing to lose Stour pushed forward. Lait had a glimpse of goal 74 minutes, but was crowded out in what was a rare half chance, whilst Geddes tried a shot from distance that was straight at Lynch.
More than once Salford broke, outnumbering the Glassboys defence. In the final minute of normal time one such move saw Itela look set for his hat-trick, only for Lait to get back and heroically block his shot. With the ball cleared and the danger averted, the Glassboys winger sat on his own in the six yard box gasping for breath after his lung-bursting effort. It was a moment that seemed to sum up the feelings of the vast majority of the 1,827 crowd.
After a yellow card apiece for Hawley and Keiran Nolan after a minor spat, it was Lait who was to have the last word at the other end, his hasty shot poked wide of goal to end an afternoon that just didn’t go the Glassboys’ way.