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Southern Premier League Play-Off Semi-Final

Merthyr Tydfil

Steins (49)

Hednesford Town

Barrow (26) (penalty)

(0) 1

(1) 1



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Lee Barrow



Chippenham Town (A) 7.5.05

After Extra Time | Hednesford win 5-3 on penalties

 The Pitmen held their nerve in tonight's play-off semi-final to beat hosts Merthyr Tydfil in a tense penalty shoot-out to reach the Southern Premier League play-off final and a clash with Chippenham Town at Hardenhuish Park on Saturday afternoon

Saturday had seen Chris Brindley's men leave it late to earn their place in tonight's semi-final after scoring twice in the final ten minutes to beat Dunstable Town and claim the three points needed to finish in the top five. Brindley made three changes from the side that had started at the weekend as Andy Bell returned to the side in place of Paul McMahon and left-sided Grant Beckett replaced youngster Steve Brannan to add more experience to the midfield for the Pitmen. He was, however, without the influential Lee Williams after he had picked up a knock towards the end of Saturday's game and was replaced by Marlon Walters

Merthyr - top of the table for a good spell of the season despite ongoing off-the-field issues, had remained in the top five for most of the second half of the season and had beaten relegated Solihull Borough on the final day of the season to finish in third place, just behind Chippenham in the table. Manager John Relish kept faith in the same XI for tonight's game as he looked to make the most of the home advantage that finishing above the Pitmen gave them for tonight's semi-final

In front of a slightly disappointing crowd of 655, the Pitmen started well as they looked to carry the momentum from Saturday's thrilling win into tonight's encounter; in the third minute, Anthony Maguire assumed responsibility for the corner kicks in Williams' absence and swung in an early sighter to the near post that was glanced over the crossbar by Lee Barrow

Three minutes later, Walters was brought down to the right of the Merthyr penalty area by Steve Williams, allowing Ross Adams to swing in a free-kick that was headed back across goal at the far post by Barrow and into the path of Richard Teesdale. the centre-back failed to make a clean connection on the ball and scuffed his shot straight into the hands of Merthyr's highly-regarded goalkeeper Ashley Morris

A minute later, Merthyr launched their first attack of the evening as Paul Keddle made a move down the left and crossed for Gethin Jones, only for the midfielder's downward header to drop wide of goal

Veteran defender Jeff Eckhardt - fast approaching forty years old but still an integral part of the Martyrs' defence - headed over for the hosts on twelve minutes as he beat old rival Brindley to a chipped cross from Jones but firmly headed over the crossbar and into the Merthyr fans gathered on the large open terrace behind Ryan Young's goal

The Pitmen seemed to be getting plenty of joy down the right through Adams and Maguire, with the pair once again working the ball down the flank in the sixteenth minute. Maguire took on Andrew York and stole half a yard to cross to the far post. Eckhardt and Jon Holloway appeared to get in each other's way as they challenged for the ball and only succeeded in clearing the ball as far as Leon McSweeney, whose snap-shot from twelve yards out was just wide of Morris's right-hand post

Four minutes later, the visitors felt that they had a legitimate shout for a penalty kick as Walters sent Bell clear of the Merthyr backline with a fine defence-splitting pass. Eckhardt struggled to get back in front of the young striker and appeared to push Bell over a yard or so just inside the penalty area. Despite McSweeney and Walters' protests, referee Mr Buck waved them away and the game continued

Midway through the first half, Walters and Chris Holloway had a coming-together in the centre of the pitch, prompting a bout of pushing and shoving between both sets of players that had to be broken up by Mr Buck, who gave the pair a dressing-down but failed to show either a yellow card for their part in the clash

The referee continued to be the centre of attention as he awarded the Pitmen a penalty kick on twenty-six minutes; Bell was once again on the move in the penalty area as he raced onto a pass from McSweeney before he was sent sprawling by Jon Holloway's mistimed challenge. Mr Buck had little hesitation in pointing to the spot, which Barrow took responsibility for after the defender's recent purple patch from twelve yards. Morris tried as much gamesmanship as he could reasonably get away with, prompting Mr Buck to get Barrow to re-spot the ball as he felt it was not placed correctly. Barrow shrugged off the delay in taking the spot-kick to fire confidently past Morris and give the Pitmen a vital lead

The Pitmen were very much on top at this point in the game and went close to doubling their advantage on the half-hour mark as Brindley knocked down Marck Branch's long throw into the path of McSweeney, whose left-footed drive was saved by Morris once more

Three minutes later, Maguire and Walters exchanged passes after Walters had picked the pocket of Chris Holloway and fed Adams once more down the right flank. Adams brought the ball inside and laid it off to Walters once more, who shanked his effort high over the crossbar after getting his laces underneath the ball from twenty yards out

Merthyr came back into the game however and created a clutch of good chances to go into the break on level terms once more; on forty minutes, Craig Steins was played through by Keddle's fine pass, thinking his way past Barrow but firing wide with an angled shot after the veteran centre-back had done enough to push him wide of goal

With a minute of a competitive first half remaining, York was fouled by Walters out on the left wing, allowing Keddle to deliver a free-kick into the penalty area that Eckhardt headed back across goal and wide of Young's right-hand post by a matter of inches. Close from the former Cardiff City man

It had been a keenly-contested semi-final thus far, with the Pitmen edging the chances and could probably feel that they deserved to be ahead at the break. Merthyr had been reliant on set-pieces for much of their good play going forwards as they aimed at the giant Eckhardt at every opportunity

Relish sent his side out with purpose at the start of the second half and their early positivity led to an equaliser on forty-nine minutes; Keddle's corner kick was not cleared effectively by the Pitmen as the ball bounced around in the penalty area, allowing the dangerous Steins to pounce and fire into the net from six -yards out. Game on

This gave Merthyr real impetus as they spent the next ten minutes looking to force home their advantage against a Hednesford defence that was heavily reliant on the experience of Barrow and Brindley to deal with the threat posed by the hosts. On fifty-two minutes, Barrow headed the ball over his own crossbar to deny Steins a quickfire double as Kris Whitcombe's cross caught Young out at his near post

Another cross from Whitcombe three minutes later was deflected into the path of former Cheltenham Town man Dean Clarke, who brought the ball under control before turning past Teesdale and firing just wide of the upright

Young was forced into a good save on fifty-nine minutes as Steins held the ball up with Barrow breathing down his neck and laid it off to Jones, whose well-struck long-range effort was pushed away by the Hednesford stopper for a Merthyr corner kick

A rare counter from the Pitmen on sixty-two minutes saw McSweeney spread the play out to the left wing with a fine pass to Beckett. He waited for support from Branch and played the youngster into space on the overlap, whose low cross into the near post was claimed by Morris before Bell could get a toe to the cross and turn it home

Beckett was involved back in his own penalty area four minutes later as he was on hand to clear the danger as patient build-up play from the hosts saw Whitcombe's cross evade everyone as it skipped across the face of the Hednesford penalty area before Beckett completed the clearance

With twenty minutes remaining, Williams picked up a loose ball following Morris's long punt forwards, running unchallenged into the Hednesford penalty area but pulling his effort wide of Young's goal as he scuffed his effort into the ground

The Pitmen made their first substitution of the evening on seventy-two minutes as Brannan was brought on to play on the right flank as Maguire was withdrawn by the visitors

A minute later, Steins was spotted making an early run by Jon Holloway, who executed a fine pass into the path of the striker. The excellent Barrow made an early move across his penalty area and made a superb sliding challenge that took a double-bounce off the shin of the striker before he could pull the trigger and ended up as a goal kick to the Pitmen

Extra-time was starting to loom large for both sides, as neither appeared to have the know-how to find a breakthrough with defences on top during the second period. Eckhardt headed over once more on eighty minutes from a York cross, whilst Brannan's quickly-taken free-kick a minute later played Bell in on goal, only for a tight offside flag against the striker to pull the play back to the edge of the Merthyr penalty area

With five minutes remaining, Barrow made a move forwards once more to meet Beckett's outswinging free-kick from the left with his head at the far post, but Eckhardt did enough to put the defender off and he could only head straight into the Hednesford fans gathered behind Morris's goal

The rigours of a long, hard season was starting to catch up on the players as the remainder of the game was played out in midfield and chances became a rarity in the closing minutes. So much for a grandstand finish to the tie

After a brief rest and some more encouraging words from both managers, the game moved into extra-time where Merthyr had a great early chance to take the lead as Williams caught Branch out with a move inside from the right flank, cutting in past the full-back but striking his shot into the side-netting when a pass to Steins may have been a better option

A long, searching ball forwards from Brindley in the ninety-fifth minute dropped into the path of Bell, who attempted an early shot at goal from eighteen yards out but saw his half-volley deflected just wide of goal by Jon Holloway for a Hednesford corner kick

Four minutes later, Brannan found space down the right as he took advantage of York going wandering down the flank for the hoists and leaving space in behind him. Brannan's angled pass into the penalty area was aimed at Bell, but was a touch too hard for the striker to get to and the ball ran through to Morris

Jones also went close for the hosts a minute later as he picked up Steins' lay-off but fired over the crossbar with a slightly ambitious effort that Young watched out of play

The final chance of a busy first period came to Eckhardt in the last minute of the first period of extra time as he found Keddle's cross drop to him via a clearing header from Teesdale. However, the veteran could not sort his feet out in time and weakly scuffed his shot wide from eight yards out

The Pitmen went direct in their search for a winner with the first action of the second period as Brindley flicked on Adams' cross to Teesdale, whose low shot was well saved by Morris, diving to this right to push the ball away from goal

In the 112th minute, Beckett played a short corner to Walters, whose looping cross from the corner of the Merthyr penalty area was headed over by Barrow at the far post as the defender attempted to glance the ball back into the danger zone

Four minutes later, and with the real possibility of penalty kicks now looming large, the Pitmen made a second substitution with McMahon replacing a clearly tired Bell up front

The final chance of an attritional 120 minutes came with just a minute of extra time remaining as Merthyr pumped the ball forwards and found Steins, whose mazy run saw him escape the attentions of Teesdale but his attempted shot was blocked by Brindley, with the ball running through to Young

Penalty kicks it was then, with the Putmen winning the toss and electing to take the first kick through Barrow, who once again found the net from twelve yards out. Jon Holloway sent Young the wrong way with Merthyr's first kick before Branch stepped up to fire low into the bottom corner of the net

Merthyr's second kick was to prove to be the key kick of the shoot-out, as Williams stepped up but found Young equal to his low driven effort as the stopper guessed right to push it away from goal. McSweeney netted for the Pitmen with penalty number three before Steins sent Young the wrong way to keep Merthyr in the game

McMahon netted for the Pitmen with penalty number four, followed by Keddle for the hosts. The deciding penalty kick was taken by Beckett, who showed no nerves as he confidently sent Morris the wrong way to send his side through to the final, prompting wild celebrations amongst players, officials and supporters

The Pitmen will not travel to Hardenhuish Park on Saturday to face Chippenham in the final after the Bluebirds had defeated Bedford Town - also on penalties - in tonight's other semi-final. Confidence will be high after four successive wins for the Pitmen and coming face-to-face with a Chippenham side that had blown their automatic promotion chances on the final day of the season and will be looking to take the final step against a Hednesford side that won 1-0 at Hardenhuish Park back in December

Merthyr Tydfil: Morris, Whitcombe, York, J. Holloway, Eckhardt © (Griffiths 105), C. Holloway, Jones (French 115), Clarke (Beale 61), Williams, Steins, Keddle       Subs Unused: Carter, Howells


Hednesford Town: Young, Adams, Branch, Barrow ©, Teesdale, Walters, Maguire (Brannan 72), Brindley, Bell (McMahon 116), McSweeney, Beckett     Subs Unused: Campbell, Anthrobus, Evans