In a reunion of AFC Uckfield Town management teams past and present at Saltdean United, the first league meeting in a new rivalry produced all the passion, intrigue and drama to be expected, while a late home equaliser ensured neither could claim early bragging rights, reports Will Hugall.
With both sides coming off strong midweek performances at Little Common and Steyning Town respectively, just one change apiece saw Callum Ridley return for Alex Plummer in the Uckers midfield, while James Hull replaced Ellis Cormack in the Tigers frontline.
At a resplendent Hill Park, the conditions were certainly set fair for an exciting afternoon between two sides unbeaten in the league. Even after a comic delay to kick-off caused by the lack of any Uckfield kit, 20 minutes after 3pm the issue was solved and the action got underway with both sides looking sharp.
The majority of the early play, in fact, could have been described as scrappy, but there were chances nonetheless, as Joe Shelley headed a Dean Stewart-Hunter cross to Jason Tibble, Matt Black narrowly overran with the ball on the left of the box and Paul Rogers fouled Tibble while heading back to James Hull at the Uckers’ far post.
Indeed, it proved to be a testing first half-hour for the Uckers as the more physical and abrasive Tigers built momentum, with Regan Smith particularly prominent in the chances. Either side of a Phil Hawkins save to cut short a good Uckers move between Sam Carrington and Dan Perry, the former Uckfield winger went close as Stewart-Hunter played a cross just beyond him, and then struck frustratingly wide when one-on-one with Tibble, having stolen possession from Nathan Hover.
Ives and Mintrim’s side responded well, though, and made the game into a more open one until the end of the half, even having a slight advantage in the remaining chances. Morgan Vale headed a Black cross to Hawkins first, while Black whistled a shot from the left of the box just past the far post, and after Smith and Rogers had both smashed shots narrowly over the Uckfield bar, Jack Samways had the best of three late headers as he made Hawkins dive to his right to save a looping one from a corner.
That spell meant little as the second half began, however, and Anthony Storey and Bryan O’Toole’s hosts were straight on it as Stewart-Hunter twice had openings on the right; clipping a cross into the box where Smith committed a foul, before hitting a shot that deflected out for a corner.
Opportunities came out of inventiveness too, and Carrington went close with a speculative half-volley from 25 yards for the Uckers, while Smith stretched the limits too far when handballing a fine cross into the Uckfield box, and soon after also fired two dangerous passes into the box.
When the deadlock finally was broken though, it was a far simpler move to make the difference. In the 64th minute, finally the home defence had a lapse of concentration, and the combination of Vale and Perry made them pay; the former picking up possession in a pocket of space in midfield, and the latter integral to the ensuing one-two with movement to eliminate both centre-backs, allowing Vale to sweep a finish across Hawkins into the bottom-right corner.
That lead could have only lasted four minutes had it not been for Uckfield’s defence making a vital play next, as Tigana Quebé – another former Uckers man – had a shot charged down by Hover, and as the rebound fell to him again, Tibble extended his right leg to deny the forward’s close-range attempt.
With the all-action Smith taken off but the hosts still in command of possession, the next few minutes saw a change in tactics from both teams to set up a grandstand finish.
That meant a return to the scrappiness of the early first half, and with the majority of chances coming from set-pieces, the Uckers had to be alert in the air as Tibble saved from a Shelley header, while from the ground Hover got a block in to deny Matt Rodrigues-Barbosa when steaming in on the right of the box.
Having survived those waves, it looked as if the Uckers were set to take all three points home at one of the main title-contending sides. As the clock ticked into added time though, the aerial bombardment finally took its toll, and as Leon Grieg received possession on the right he impressively found Rogers with a swirling cross, which only needed nodding back to Quebé to fire into the bottom-right corner for an equaliser that couldn’t really be begrudged.
One last push from Saltdean to grab victory was well denied though, and though the Uckers may have been anguished to be pegged back late on, given pre-match expectations, it seemed to be the hosts that were more frustrated at full-time.
The Uckers return to The Oaks for their next test in league action, hosting an under-the-radar Langney Wanderers side this Tuesday night, kicking off at 7:30pm. Maximum attendance will once again be 300, so we would love to see you down there for another exciting game.
Saltdean United: Hawkins, Roddy, Rodrigues-Barbosa, Shelley, Hickman-Smith, D. Hull, Stewart-Hunter, Grieg, J. Hull (Quebé, 40’), Rogers (C), Smith (Sabino, 70’)
Unused: Heyburn, Storey
AFC Uckfield Town: Tibble, Turner (Duncan, 56’), Zabadne, Ridley, Hover, Cash, Vale (Page, 76’), Samways (Clarke, 81’), Perry (C), Carrington, Black
Saltdean scored to make it 1-1 in the 88th minute
Uckfield goal scorer Morgan Vale