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An eventful Sunday afternoon at Eltham involving seven goals, three penalties, two dismissals and a 23 minute hat-trick by Shaun Welford saw Ashford United extend their winning run to ten matches, after returning home victorious over Cray Valley Paper Mills for the second time in five days.
Having progressed to the semi-final of the league challenge cup on Wednesday evening, thanks to a 2-0 win at Badgers Sports Club, they had to overcome the loss of a man, to return to the top of the table after pesky Crowborough Athletic had regained top spot 24 hours earlier.
There were plenty of talking points throughout the 90 minutes, but the Nuts & bolts had to dig deep to produce a positive gutsy response to recover from a goal deficit, immediately after Stuart West had received his marching orders in first-half stoppage time.
In the difficult strong breeze, the Millers took the lead from the penalty spot in the sixth minute, after Rory Hill erred too long on the ball and was disposed by Aaron Rhule. After reaching the by-line his cross then bobbled up and unluckily struck the hand of West inside the box as Referee Christopher Myatt pointed to the spot. Although George Kamurasi guessed correctly the spot-kick from Jason Thompson was well placed into the bottom right hand corner of the goal.
Parity however was restored five minutes later when a slide-rule pass into the six-yard box from Ben Davisson avoided a posse of defenders only to find a lurking unmarked West, who was on hand to find the net from close range.
United had the disadvantage of kicking up the slope against the wind in the opening 45 minutes, but they always looked the better side, gaining the majority of possession, winning five corner-kicks inside the opening 13 minutes. However their normal panache and cohesion in the final third was missing with little on target to test Millers keeper Jordan Carey, with positive opportunities pretty much at a premium.
Ryan Palmer was always a threat, whether on the left or right wing and produced a rare on target effort when he cut inside from the left, but Carey comfortably gathered the low ball. Later in the half a good run from Hill ended with a tame scuffed shot after a neat one-two with Welford.
Just as it looked like ending 1-1 at the break a rash challenge from West on Enoch Adeji right on the edge of the 18-yard box saw him shown his second yellow card in the space of eight minutes and so Ashford were down to ten men.
Then to add insult to injury Thompson scored his second of the afternoon by rifling in a stunning free-kick into the top of the net, to put the Millers into a surprise lead for a second time.
Buoyed by going in front, the Millers missed a chance when Scott Riley headed over the bar, whilst Adrian Stone for Ashford saw an effort deflected wide, but 12 minutes after the break Welford rose majestically at the far post to nod home a well delivered Davisson corner which levelled the scores at 2-2.
Moments later Ashford had Dave Botterill to thank who was on hand to intervene and divert a whipped in free-kick from the dangerous Thompson out for a corner.
It was to prove a pivotal moment in the match as the Nuts & Bolts then gained complete control of proceedings with swathe after swathe of attacks and chances.
After 67 minutes, one of the many talking points occurred when the Referee awarded Ashford a penalty after Stone’s powerful shot had allegedly struck an arm en-route to goal. After a lengthy delay a yellow card was shown to Ryan Fowler, whilst comfortably Millers best player Thompson was sent off for dissent.
Unfazed by a delay of almost five minutes after the incident – which had seen Mr Myatt then speak to the aggrieved home management – Welford fairly blasted home the penalty, giving Carey no chance.
Welford then latched onto a through ball and looked set to complete his hat-trick, only to be brought down by keeper Carey and so for the third time the busy Referee awarded a penalty.
This time however the top scorer smashed a thunderous spot-kick against the crossbar, but Stone was quickest to react to the rebound and stab the ball home for 4-2 under pressure from two defenders after 76 minutes.
A minute later Carey prevented a fifth for the visitors, producing a brilliant finger tip save to thwart a sublime Davisson volley from around 16-yards out.
Welford though seized the opportunity to make it a nap hand and complete his third hat-trick of the campaign, when he muscled his way through a crowded penalty area in true old fashioned striker style and head home a Botterill corner ten minutes from time.
It takes the leading scorer to 35 for the season, with Staurt Zanone’s 47 goal record very much on for the match winning Geordie, whilst his impressive tally now stands at 72 goals in 76 appearances for the Nuts & Bolts.
United were nothing short of brilliant in the second-half, not just going forward but also from the vocal presence between the sticks from Kamurasi, whilst in front of him Ryan James and Pat Kingwell barely gave the hosts a sniff of a chance.
In summary therefore, in the face of adversity the Nuts & Bolts were too strong for shell-shocked Cray Valley who did well to keep the rampant visitors down to only five goals.
The pair meet for a fourth time this season, in the final of the Kent Reliance Senior Trophy on Sunday April 9th at the Gallagher Stadium, Maidstone.
Ashford will hope by then to still be in the reckoning for the league title, whilst there is a chance for further silverware in the yet to be arranged two-legged semi-finals of the league challenge cup versus Sevenoaks Town.
The next match for United is on Saturday at the Homelands when they host Lordswood in another all important league clash.
George Kamurasi Ryan James Frazer Walker David Botterill Stuart West Pat Kingwell Ryan Palmer Ben Davisson Shaun Welford (off 90+1) Adrian Stone (off 84) Rory Hill (off 81)
Brett Ince (on 90+1) Jason Goodchild Dan Stubbs (on 81) Luke Eldridge (on 84) Harry Lavender
Jordan Carey Alastair Gordon Danny Smith Taylor McDonagh Ashley Sains (off 40) Laurence Collins Enoch Adeji Jamie Miller Scott Riley (off 63) Jason Thompson Aaron Rhule (57)
Frankie Griffin Jamie Wood Jamie Miller (on 40) Chandler Kasai (on 57) Austin Gacheru (on 63)
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