Afan Lido reaped the reward of a third Welsh Premier League Cup Final success, with goalkeeper Craig Morris having a massive involvement as to the destination of the silverware, following a five star performance against Newtown at Aberystwyth’s Park Avenue. (reports Robert Clement).
With the shot stopper having played a vital role in the 3-1 two leg semi-final against Neath, he once again rose to the occasion, producing a superb series of shoot-out saves following extra-time, for the trophy to take up residency once again at the Marston Stadium clubhouse.
With the Seasider’s having previously sampled glory in the competition twice in successive seasons, following the formation of the League of Wales in August 1992; firstly having edged out Caersws, also in a spot kick decision outcome, which was then followed with a 1-0 victory twelve months later against Bangor City, with both finals being played at Aberystwyth.
Meanwhile Newtown were making their debut appearance in the final following victory over The New Saints courtesy of the away goal ruling.
Both starting team line-ups showed one change each following progress from the semi-final, with Afan Lido full back Kristian James replacing Liam Hancock, and for Newtown Robbie Millington took over from Steve Blenkinsop, who was one of the named substitutes.
It was Newtown who attempted to make a 5th minute breakthrough, gaining a free kick following a push by Carl Evans on Luke Boundford, but Jamie Prices’ left sided delivery was cleared in the Lido goalmouth by Craig Hanford.
Soon after Lido responded, displaying purpose and style, with Leon Jeanne engineering a left sided attacking route forward, and it was the support of Andy Hill which allowed the former Neath frontrunner to send a twenty five yard shot flying over the crossbar.
Despite that lively threatening option, the chirpy Robins were looking bright eyed and eager when a low pass from Max Penk was snapped onto by Nicky Rushton, the Wrexham loanee player beat Morris, only for the ball to curl narrowly wide of the upright.
The Seasider’s were offered hope of a breakthrough after nineteen minutes, with former Swansea City youth product Anthony Finselbach intelligently advancing forward before releasing Mark Jones; he shook of the attention of Newtown’s Andy Jones to then drill an angled shot from twelve yards just beyond the far post.
Lido began to come more into the picture and their best chance of moving ahead arrived during the 38th minute with Daniel Thomas delivering a superb lengthy cross-field which Jeanne seized upon, the former Queens Park Rangers and Cardiff City midfielder then had his goal bound shot blocked by Shane Sutton, which allowed Carl Payne a chance, only for his rising shot to fly over the top.
The Aberafan Beach outfit, clearly encouraged by that crack at taking the lead applied additional pressure three minutes before the interval.
It was Payne who made a spirited start, unselfishly laying the ball off to Daniel Thomas, he then embarked on a swift break forward to apply the perfect pass, with Mark Jones onto it in a flash, to connect and despatch a quality right footed finish past stunned Newtown goalkeeper Nick Thomas.
Lido threatened to show grit and determination within seven minutes of the turnaround, when a Daniel Sheehan throw was nodded on by Hill; unfortunately Mark Jones was unable to get his execution quite right, with an overhead kick going narrowly over the top.
Newtown gradually moved the momentum up a gear gaining a corner, with a Rushton cross deflecting off the heel of Evans, but Price’s flag kick was then hurriedly cleared off the line by James, following a confident shot from Blenkinsop.
The Robins were threatening to gain the upper hand when skipper Matthew Cook appeared to get a lucky break, only for his well timed shot to be direct straight into the hands of Morris.
Midway into the second half, substitute Liam Thomas, a replacement for Daniel Thomas almost made a swift impression, only to send a goal bound effort on target, which Nick Thomas did well to gather.
With four minutes remaining, Finselbach played a key role delivering a perfect pass into the path of Alex Rickett, for him to almost find a gap in Newtown’s armour, but it was the alert Andy Jones who intercepted and halted the goal threat.
Just when it appeared that Lido had done sufficient to claim the trophy once again, the Robins swooped to produce a stunning equaliser to take the tie into extra-time.
It was the reliable Cook, who hoisted a delightful through ball from half-way, Sutton reacted instinctively to see his ferocious shot blocked, and Rushton’s alert reaction was to seize upon the golden chance, to give the Powys side a stunning lifeline with an electrifying last gasp equaliser.
During the opening period of the additional thirty minutes, Lido were denied a second goal when a rasping shot from Payne skidded off the outside edge of the crossbar following a goalmouth clearance by Price.
In the second session, Newtown applied a series of promising threats, with the best from Sutton whose purposeful shot flew inches over the bar, following a Penk free-kick.
The outcome was then to be decided at the Dias stand end goalmouth, and for Lido it was a disappointing start, with Payne firing over the top following a lengthy delay, Newtown also were unable to establish a lead with Morris stretching to his left to deny Kieran Mills-Evans.
Jeanne became the first player to hit the net, and that was quickly followed with Rushton’s attempt being stopped by Morris, who this time flung himself to the opposite side to save.
Liam Thomas and Penk netted for their clubs; Lido’s Hanford then saw his attempt saved by Nick Thomas, and that was followed with Morris being beaten by Millington.
With nerves of steel required from final efforts, prior to continued sudden death, Hill confidently powered in number three, there was then disbelief for Newtown, with Morris making a third save, this time from Sutton, to snatch the knife edged victory for Lido.
With Afan Lido having won the silverware once again, team boss Andy Dyer provided his thoughts and reflected on the one hundred and twenty minutes along with the nail-biting penalty deciders with Robert Clement.
“The reflections of the game is quite simple, Craig Morris, he’s been fantastic, we’ve had an opportunity to win the game just before the ninetieth minute, and then to be fair to Newtown, they’ve had the opportunity to win it at the death in extra-time, but the day belongs to Craig, he’s made three fantastic penalty saves, and all the boy’s have to thank him”.
It was suggested to Dyer that Newtown were a difficult side to beat.
“Yes, we’ve had four tough games this season, losing twice to them and they gave us a thumping on one of those occasions, so we knew today that it wasn’t going to be easy. To be fair to the boy’s, they’ve stuck in there and I think that it was a bit of an injustice that they got their goal right at the end of normal time, but all in all I think that we deserved it”.
The former Crystal Palace apprentice highlighted the situation that despite Morris having a massive say into where the trophy will reside for the next twelve months, it was also thirteen other players who all contributed in various ways.
“It was a team effort, but when it comes down to a penalty shoot-out, your goalkeeper has got five opportunities, your penalty taker has only one opportunity, and to be fair to the Craig, today he’s stood up, been big and brave, and he’s won the cup for us. Newtown had five good penalties and he’s had to make saves, we’ve wasted our penalties so thankfully he’s got us the win”.
He then went on to comment on the breakthrough from striker Mark Jones.
“It was a fantastic goal and a brilliant finish, being a good move with a real top drawer shot, but what was disappointing is the fact that we should have scored twice before Newtown grabbed the equaliser, with substitutes Alex Rickett and Liam Thomas being very unlucky, but that’s football and when you don’t stick them away, it means that Newtown had a chance down the other end”.
Dyer added, “It’s been a brilliant season with the effort the boys have put in; we were a little disappointed with the last four games, but overall they’ve been fantastic and they thoroughly deserve it”.
Craig Morris then responded to the epic penalty shot out.
“I think that it’s the first time I’ve ever saved three penalties, apart from in training. I was a little disappointed with the equaliser from the last kick of the game, but pleased with the outcome of the penalty shoot-out”.
Newtown manager Bernard McNally then offered his reaction on the evenly contested final, with his players always maintaining a positive approach throughout the game.
“On the whole I think that we played very well for the first fifteen minutes, we looked very tentative we were a little nervous, the players said that at half-time, but after that period we started to get ourselves back into the game and I felt maybe against the run of play Afan Lido scored”.
“The former Northern Ireland World Cup player added.
“Although the goal came late in the half, I said to the players let’s make sure that we don’t feel sorry for ourselves, let’s get out there, keep playing and we’ll get opportunities, and I felt that we deserved to get back into it, so that was very positive, particularly late on with it great to see the ball hit the back of the net”.
“With the tie going into extra-time, I felt that we were by far the better side, they were on the rack with us having three or four great chances, particularly in the final period of extra-time, one that was chipped over the bar, one that was smashed in and we were on the ascendancy, but you just need players to finish with a goal, and then go on to penalties, and to be fair it’s in the lap of the Gods”.
“Unfortunately it didn’t fall in our favour, so we’ll lick our wounds and try to prepare for next season, whichever league we are in; it’s still not cut and dried yet whether we’re down, so finger’s crossed on that”.
He continued. “We’ve needed people to do us favours all season, the harsh lesson is that you can’t rely on that, but now I’m just clutching at straws and hoping that the teams in the MacWhirter League can perform a little bit of a minor miracle for us. So we’ll see, we’ll keep smiling, playing the football that we’re playing, and whether it’s in a lower league or this league we’ll be a far stronger side next season”.