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Evo-Stik Northern Premier League

Stafford Rangers

Charles (3), (57), (67), Cuff (40)

Hednesford Town

Howard (6)

(2) 4

(1) 1



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Nathan Fox




Witton Albion (H) 22.12.18

The Pitmen's recent downturn in form and confidence took another huge hit this afternoon, as local rivals Stafford Rangers completed a league double over their Chase rivals as Francino Francis's side were outplayed, outthought and outfought in all areas at a wet and wild Marston Road


Caretaker/manager Francis - arriving at Marston Road off the back of two league defeats - was once again hamstrung by decisions taken elsewhere by other players and teams; he had seen senior players Sam Griffiths and Joe Fitzpatrick depart the club to join Halesowen Town, leaving the big man with very little time to recruit replacements. He had pulled off the significant coup of bringing back former club captain Ben Bailey to the club from Newtown, although International Clearance from the Welsh Premier Club was yet to be passed to enable Bailey to play in this afternoon's game. Francis had also moved to bring in Boldmere St. Michaels midfielder Ryan Shaw to add to his options, with Shaw coming straight into the side as one of two changes as Romario Martin was handed a first-ever start for the club in place of Joel Logan


Steve Burr's Rangers had also had a spluttering, inconsistent season to date, lying below the Pitmen in seventeenth place in the table ahead of today's play. Former Hednesford captain Tom Thorley was the only ex-Pitman in a forever-changing Rangers side, who had thrown away a lead at home to Stalybridge Celtic last weekend to draw 2-2


The weather forecast had promised wild conditions for the area during the latter part of the day, with heavy, sleet-like rain falling almost from the onset and throughout the game. The notorious Marston Road pitch dug up in many areas and made any passing game almost impossible as the match progressed


The Pitmen's fragile resolve was almost immediately taken apart by the hosts with the first meaningful attack of the game, as Thorley slipped the ball into the path of Andrew Haworth, whose run into the area saw him drift past two Hednesford players and drive in a shot towards goal that Josef Bursik did well to save at his near post. However, the ball fell kindly to Jake Charles, who had the simple task of turning the loose ball home from six yards out


Rangers went close to adding to their early lead a minute later, as a Thorley corner was flicked on by Charles and fell to the feet of Josh Green, who lifted his shot high over the bar from an excellent position


The Pitmen, to their credit, refused to bow under the pressure and got themselves back on level terms in the sixth minute; Bursik's long goal kick somehow found its way all the way through the centre of the pitch to Michael Howard, who showed great composure to run clear of a static Stafford defence and turn the ball past George Sykes-Kenworthy in the Stafford goal from twelve yards out


Stafford's Joe Cuff was looking dangerous down the left-hand side for the hosts, giving young right-back Kieron Dawes a hard time with his pace and trickery. On eleven minutes, he showed the Birmingham City loanee a clean pair of heels to skip past him and Rudy Misambo before firing in a low shot that came back off the foot of Bursik's near post


A rare mistake from Nathan Fox on nineteen minutes saw the left-back lose the ball in a dangerous position and gift the ball to the in-form Theo Bailey-Jones, whose cross was lashed well wide by Haworth


Dawes tried his luck along the soggy ground midway through the first half, driving a low shot straight into the hands of Sykes-Kenworthy after Jack Hallahan and Shaw had teed up the right-back


A terrible error of judgement from skipper Charlie Gatter handed Rangers a glorious chance to re-take the lead on twenty-five minutes, as he miscued a square ball across his own penalty area and inexplicably played in Cuff, who blazed a shot over the crossbar with only Bursik to beat. Another huge let-off for the Pitmen


A minute later, Bursik did brilliantly to deny Cuff after Bailey-Jones's through ball found the forward in behind the Pitmen's static defence, only for Cuff to take a heavy touch at the crucial moment and allow Bursik to make a smothering save


A moment of drama went the way of the hosts on thirty-one minutes, as a speculative low shot from twenty-five yards out from Martin squirmed out of the grasp of Sykes-Kenworthy, with the ball dropping behind him and rolled towards the goal-line. Dan Cockerline was alert to the mistake and appeared to force Sykes-Kenworthy into taking the ball a good foot over the line for an own goal. To the amazement of the away supporters, both the referee and assistant on the far side failed to spot the clear goal and play continued with Stafford breaking quickly. A staggering mistake from the match officials and one that was to cost the out-of-luck Pitmen dearly in the remainder of the game


Stafford took full advantage of this glorious stroke of luck in the fortieth minute with what to prove a killer second goal. Cuff picked up the ball out on the left and once again showed the inexperienced Dawes a clean pair of heels as he cut inside and fired home via a deflection off Bursik's glove


Rangers ended the half strongly, looking to kill the Pitmen off with a third goal before the break. On forty-three minutes, Charles drove a long-range shot just wide of Bursik's left-hand post as the hosts broke quickly from their own half and opened up the Hednesford defence down the centre


Bursik did well to divert a header from Rangers left-back Green away from goal in added time, getting enough on the ball to deflect the bobbling, bouncing effort away from his goal. From the resultant corner, Bursik again had to make a save, this time low down to his right to deflect another header from Green against his near post before the Hednesford defence scrambled the ball away from goal


Francis had had no luck with his side in his previous two games with his half-time team talks, as the Pitmen had folded quickly following the half-time break at Workington and against Whitby last week. Unfortunately, this was to be much of the same for Francis, as Stafford emerged far more confident in the second half and went after a third goal to settle matters. Cuff once again got the better of Dawes down the left on forty-eight minutes and sent over a dangerous cross that Bursik managed to punch away from his goal


Cuff's quality on the left-wing forced successive corners for the hosts on fifty-six minutes, with Rangers finally striking home from the second set-piece as Charles was allowed to make an unchallenged run to the near post to tap home a Haworth corner kick for his second goal of the afternoon. Absolutely dire defending from the Pitmen, who had offered nothing since the restart as their energy and morale levels dropped considerably


The Pitmen continued to live dangerously at the back, as a high cross from Cuff caused the Pitmen all sorts of issues on the hour mark, with Bursik and Gatter eventually doing enough to clear their lines as Charles challenged for the bouncing ball


Francis had seen enough and made a bold, but bemusing, double change on sixty-four minutes; Davies and Howard - the Pitmen's two most creative players - were hauled off and replaced by wingers Matt Dodd and Logan


The changes failed to have the desired effect for the visitors, as Stafford wrapped up a comprehensive victory with a fourth goal on sixty-seven minutes. After ramping up the pressure on Bursik's goal with three successive corner kicks, Rangers finally found a way through with Thorley sending over a low cross to Charles, who turned the ball past Bursik at his near post to complete his hat-trick and put to bed any nagging doubt about the result


Shaw had found the going tough after being thrown into the battle of a local derby without any prior experience and was finally taken off for his own benefit on seventy-eight minutes as Reece King came back into the fold after his self-imposed three-match ban


Cuff was desperate to add to the Pitmen's woes as he continued to torture young Dawes down the left, getting in behind the teenager once more on eighty-one minutes and lifting a shot over the head of Bursik, but cleared the crossbar with his optimistic chip at goal


Thorley - not noted for his goalscoring prowess - tried his luck with a long-range effort that flew well wide of Bursik's goal on eighty-four minutes, followed by a tame effort from Hallahan that was, in fact, the Pitmen's first effort of the half on target that was watched over the crossbar by Sykes-Kenworthy


In the final minute of the game, Bailey-Jones also tried his luck with an effort from range, driving just wide of goal after being afforded time and space by the stand-off Hednesford midfield


The mood of the Hednesford supporters matched the weather at the end of a dreadful afternoon's spectating - dark, miserable and cold - as some offered muted applause for their players, whereas others vented their anger at Francis and his staff for a performance that lacked all of the key fundamentals for a local derby - passion, spirit, tactical awareness and conviction. It is unclear as to whether Francis still has a chance of taking the job full-time, but three defeats in a row and a dreadful derby day performance in the final one looks to have closed that door. With Witton Albion visiting Keys Park next weekend, can we expect a new incumbent in the Keys Park hot-seat? And will they be handed both the time and resources to stabilise a club now very much on the brink?


Stafford Rangers: Sykes-Kenworthy, Coulson, Green, L. Jones ©, Burns, A. Jones (Sherratt 45), Bailey-Jones, Thorley, Charles, Haworth  (Benns 77), Cuff ▆ (Reid 80)   Subs Unused: Askey, Banks


Hednesford Town: Bursik, Dawes, Fox, Hallahan Misambo, Gatter © Davies (Dodd 64), Shaw (King 78), Cockerline, Martin, Howard (Logan 64)  Subs Unused: Veiga, Abadaki


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