An early goal from Bailo Camara was enough to earn AFC Uckfield Town a half-time lead against fifth-place opponents Saltdean United, but two emphatic finishes by the Tigers at the start of the second half meant the Uckers never recovered despite a dramatic finish, reports Will Hugall.
The Uckers made two changes for the visit of a side they had been chasing in the league table for several weeks, knowing that only a victory would leave them with the realistic opportunity to close an eight-point gap, as Tayler Maddock and Dee Okojie returned.
Expecting their chances to be limited against a side with the joint-third best defensive record in the division, the Uckers made a positive start, and the game was only three minutes old when they opened the scoring. Striking first against an uncharacteristically lax backline, Bailo Camara took advantage to reach a through-ball and lift over goalkeeper Nathan Stroomberg.
Saltdean, still with an outside chance of breaking into the top four, steadied the game, although confident Uckers defending ensured Alex Harris was untroubled after an early free-kick save.
A series of promising chances followed for the Uckers, as Okojie and Camara lifted several crosses just beyond their targets, and Richie Welch’s corner deliveries asked questions of Saltdean defending. The spell’s best opportunity fell to Callum Smith, as Welch found the striker with a chipped pass to the left post, but Stroomberg got a fingertip to a rising effort.
Saltdean winger Bailie Rogers was fouled by Emerson Guimaraes on the edge of the Uckers’ box as the Tigers had the final significant chance of the half, but Curtis Gayler’s free-kick was cleared.
As the Tigers hit the ground running from the restart, within minutes they were level. Released in space on the left of the Uckfield box, Rogers wasted no time in thrashing a finish across goal, finding the bottom right corner in the 50th minute to consign the Uckers to an unwanted record – their second run of 13 league matches this season without a clean sheet.
While Uckfield momentarily responded, as Camara squared to Matt Maclean, only for Matt Hurley to block, and a ball from Maddock to Smith saw the striker fire over, in the 59th minute Saltdean swiftly took the lead through another clinical finish. With Jamie Brotherton hauled down on the edge of the box, Gayler again stepped up, and made no mistake in firing low, around the wall, into the bottom right corner.
Uckfield frustration was palpable as the match entered its final 30 minutes, and Maclean and Smith both shot prematurely after hard work to create opportunities. Bursting through the heart of the away defence, Camara was then cut down and appeared to have a penalty, but a free-kick was instead awarded, resulting only in several blocks.
Aside from Brett Patton’s smart block with Brotherton through on goal, the Uckers dominated but were running out of time, without creating anything of great threat.
In a desperate late stage, however, substitute Shaun Loft was twice found amidst pinball in the box, as Maclean lifted a smart cross into the unmarked striker, only for Stroomberg to make a stunning save, and in a final agonising move a Camara cross ran under Loft’s boot, leaving the Uckers empty-handed.
This Saturday, the Uckers look to kick on in the first of their final five league matches when they host a Shoreham side desperately battling for points to avoid relegation, kicking off at 3PM.
AFC Uckfield Town: Harris, Guimaraes, Rodrigues-Barbosa, Maddock, Ryan Welch, Richie Welch (C), Okojie, Patton (Loft, 86’), Smith, Maclean, Camara
Unused: Cooper, Williams, Mici, Storey