Darts rally ends Uckers Cup run

In their landmark FA Cup tie, a capacity crowd saw AFC Uckfield Town take a shock lead at the end of a commanding first-half, but succumb to the inevitable quality of visitors Dartford FC, conceding three late strikes, reports Will Hugall.

After a 3-0 win over Littlehampton Town in midweek, the Uckers made four changes, with each of those who made way from the previous weekend’s FA Vase match reinstated, aside from the suspended Bailo Camara.

After an understandably nervy start in driving rain, Regan Smith almost capitalised as Darts captain Tom Bonner cleared from the goal-line.

Dartford marksman Charlie Sheringham proved his side’s greatest early threat, and was denied by the offside flag after prodding past Louis Rogers, before Steve Hickman-Smith blocked a smart free-kick.

As the downpour first relented beyond the half-hour, Callum Smith forced the first genuine save when drawing a save low at Gibraltarian international Deren Ibrahim’s near post.

In the 42nd minute, a Dee Okojie free-kick was headed back in by a straining Matt Maclean at the far post, and after Matt Black’s overhead kick was blocked, Callum Smith muscled in and finished with composure into the bottom right corner.

With the National League South team reverting to a more direct approach in the second half, consistent pressure followed.

Pinned back inside their own half, Uckfield were ravaged by cramp – forcing Regan Smith’s withdrawal – and a series of aerial threats. The Uckers largely escaped punishment however, as Ben Greenhalgh – no stranger to a cup upset, after his time at Maidstone United – rounded Rogers and shot at Hickman-Smith, before crashing a sumptuous drive onto the goalframe.

After 81 minutes, Darts substitute Tom Murphy broke the Uckers’ six-game defensive shutout from open play, when curling around a packed Uckfield box from 20 yards and beating a stricken Rogers.

Sheringham, the culprit of a number of misfired earlier attempts, then killed hopes of a replay for the tiring Uckers, 87 minutes in; picking the ball up from the edge of the box, turning and burying into the bottom right corner.

A minute into added time, Elliot Bradbrook added a third, and his 137th for the club, when converting into an open Uckers net after Murphy’s far-post header had beaten Rogers.

As the Uckers offered a last-ditch retort, the context of their run was emphasised, and the ultimate gulf in class, which came so close to being defied on this occasion, reinforced.

Manager Anthony Storey underlined the achievement of matching a side three tiers above them, speaking after the match. “To be disappointed to lose this game demonstrates how far we’ve come in these last few weeks. I thought for 70-75 minutes we were the better side, and obviously fitness comes through at that stage. Regardless of the result, I’m delighted with all the boys involved today.

“It’s amazing for the club that the hundreds of fans came down today. As much as the respect in the media’s great though, we’ll get back down to work in the league now, which will define our season.”

Returning to SCFL Premier Division action, the Uckers travel to 15th-placed Crawley Down Gatwick this Tuesday, kicking off at 7:30PM.

AFC Uckfield Town: Rogers, Ryan Welch, Rodrigues-Barbosa, Hickman-Smith, Sherriff, Richie Welch (C), Okojie (Cooper, 71’), Maclean, C. Smith, Black (Loft, 76’), R. Smith (Temba, 60’)

Unused: Norman, Janneh, Storey, Cormack

The All Star Soccer Academy entertained the crown before kick off.

The report on the match to follow.

Images by Ron Hill (Hill Photographic)