Showing no after-effects from a month’s weather-enforced absence, AFC Uckfield Town made a statement in their Peter Bentley Cup Quarter-Final by recording a decisive 3-1 win at Eastbourne United, fittingly led in spirit and success by returning striker Callum Smith, who bagged a fine brace in his first appearance for six months, reports Will Hugall.
Coincidentally playing consecutive games at The Oval, the Uckers made three changes from the side which beat Little Common 3-0 in their last outing in early February as Matt Rodrigues-Barbosa and Jack Samways returned, while the attention was on the recovery of Smith from an ankle injury sustained at Horsham YMCA in late August.
An essential figure in manager Anthony Storey’s tactical set-up in 2018-19, Smith hinted early on that he could have the same impact at the start of a busy run of matches for the Uckers, playing an important role in providing constant energy from attack as the side began confidently on the whole.
Certainly, the better of the chances came from the Uckers’ ability to string together quick-thinking moves at this stage, as a Rodrigues-Barbosa cross was crucially cut out, Smith drove wide and Samways also fired a shot narrowly over the United crossbar as the hosts were pinned back.
Eventually, this pressure – even at a relatively early stage – proved too much for a United defence with only one clean sheet in their previous 11 matches, and in the 24th minute, it was Samways who blasted the Uckers into the lead in the tie, picking up on a delivery causing chaos in the hosts’ box and beating Jordan Hawkins for a well-timed first goal of his Uckers season.
Just three minutes later, Uckfield’s emphatic follow-up would be to double that lead from an unfortunate defensive error, with Smith’s awareness and instinctive poaching ability allowing him to seize on the loose ball and slot home past Hawkins, usefully banishing any pressure from an immediate return to scoring form in the process.
As the Uckers consolidated on their quickfire double, the hosts found a response hard to come by after the half-hour mark, and in the few chances that remained before half-time it was still Storey’s side who enjoyed the greatest threat; Smith heading an effort wide of the post from a teasing delivery late on, and having to settle for his one goal going into the break.
With the interval coming at the right time for the hosts, their opportunity to regroup made a visible difference after the break as an attack featuring all three Crabb brothers began to find their rhythm, providing more issues to the Uckfield defence.
As with the Uckers’ first-half spell, United’s pressure mounted as they gained confidence, and around the hour mark, Phil Hawkins was first noticeably tested in the Uckers goal – preventing Sam Crabb from slashing the visitors’ lead in half with a strong stop to his right.
Matt Crabb’s side did not stop there, and sensing that a goal at such a stage could be pivotal, Sam Crabb once again went close just minutes later with a header from Kane Penn’s corner; flicking narrowly past the post to give Uckfield something of a wake-up call in defence.
The Uckers, finalists in last season’s edition of the cup, showed their steel to hold on throughout the extended period of pressure, and as Hawkins was drawn into another fine save to deny a downward header from close range home desperation grew.
With the hosts having to commit, something had to give, and in the 83rd minute that set-up worked exactly in the Uckers’ favour; Smith taking advantage of space to demonstrate he had truly returned, turning the home defence and applying a devastating finish from a tight angle for a memorable match-winner.
While the result was confirmed, however, the hosts to their credit did not allow Uckfield an easy last few minutes, and in the 89th minute, their efforts were rewarded with removing the gloss of a potential clean sheet; substitute Dominic Cole drawing back a consolation for the first goal of his stint.
The Uckers saw out added time, regardless, and in setting up a home Semi-Final tie against Peacehaven & Telscombe – scheduled for later this month – also secured the impressive record of reaching their fourth last-four spot in the last two seasons, with consecutive appearances at such a stage of both the Peter Bentley and SCFA RUR Cups.
Storey’s side will have little time to ponder that statistic, though, as they face Tye in their other last-four meeting this week, travelling to Piddinghoe Avenue this Thursday (Kick-off 7:45 p.m.) for a place in the SCFA RUR Cup Final in what is sure to be a memorable contest.
Eastbourne United AFC: Hawkins, Headland, Murphy, Ball, Roddy, D. Penn, N. Crabb, K. Penn (Cole, 76’), Rogers, S. Crabb, M. Crabb
AFC Uckfield Town: Hawkins, Rodrigues-Barbosa, Cooper, Hull, Hickman-Smith, Welch (C), Samways (Ovenden, 88’), Maclean, Smith (Scott, 84’), Cormack (Okojie, 58’), Camara