Leamington FC Trophy

MATCH REPORT: Senior Challenge Cup

Solomon Brown, Student
Leamington survived a spirited Stourbridge comeback to retain the Birmingham Senior Challenge Cup at Villa Park on Wednesday evening.

In a game of high-quality, Leamington’s Devon Kelly-Evans and Stourbridge’s Reece Styche traded worldies but it wasn’t enough for the Glassboys as goals from Dan Turner and James Mace brought the trophy back to Warwickshire for the eighth time in the Brakes’ history - a record for a non-league team.

One could hardly have asked for a better 135th Final for England’s second-oldest Cup competition than Leamington vs. Stourbridge. Leamington were looking to retain the Cup that they had brought home in two of the last three editions - the winner in the intervening year, one Stourbridge FC. The links between the clubs made for an interesting background to the tie as both Stourbridge managers - Leon Broadhurst and Stuart Pierpoint - had previously represented Leamington while rumbles of a Brakes Cup hoodoo against Stourbridge grumbled through the concourse’s pre-match. In their last two knockout matchups, Stourbridge had knocked Leamington out of the 2017 FA Trophy and the 2018 FA Cup and, despite Leamington’s promotion to the National League North reducing the frequency of meetings between the sides, there was a confidence to the Southern League Premier Central side that a neutral observer may have felt unwarranted for a side punching a division up. The teams entered the contest in hugely different positions. For Leamington, the Cup Final represented the third match in a four-game week to end the season. Excellent wins away at Curzon Ashton and at home to Kidderminster Harriers had dispelled an injury-laden run of form that had taken Leamington from dark horse playoff-chasers to occasional nervous glances over their shoulder at the teams fighting for survival. Before Curzon, the Brakes had gone seven games without a win - they hadn’t tasted victory away from the Your Co-Op Community Stadium since the beginning of November having cruised to the Senior Cup Final on the back of home wins against West Brom, Tamworth and a strong Burton Albion side. In addition to their struggles away from home and their fixture congestion, Leamington were without star man Kelsey Mooney, tough midfielder Simeon Maye (both injured) and a number of mid-season acquisitions that were either cup-tied or not registered in time for the Final.

By contrast, Stourbridge had brought their season to a close the previous Saturday with a thrilling 4-3 win over third-placed Coalville Town. The Glassboys had their sights set on the silverware they had claimed at St. Andrews in 2018 and, while on paper the underdogs, knew that there was a possibility that they might outwork the fatigued Brakes and hit them on the counter with Ben O’Hanlon and James McQuilkin bombing down the wings. As always, they could count on a noisy Black Country reception from the travelling fans that had seen them through a tough tie against Aston Villa in the Second Round of the Cup and three three-goal away wins over Tividale, Hednesford Town and Alvechurch over the course of their dream run to the Final. The Black Country outfit were also missing players, however, as Cup specialist Jason Cowley, who had hit five goals in the previous two rounds, was unavailable and Daniel Gyasi could only make the bench.

Team Line Ups

Leamington FC: Jake Weaver, Dan Meredith, Steph Morley, Joe Clarke, James Mace, Jack Lane, Joe Parker, Adam Walker, Dan Turner, Jack Edwards (C), Devon Kelly-Evans. Subs: Callum Gittings, Junior English, Jack Sang, Manny Olaloko, Josh Beeson

Stourbridge FC: Charlie Price, Lee Vaughan (C), Ben O'Hanlon, George Forsyth, Lathaniel Rowe Turner, Reece King, Ethan Moran, James McQuilkin, Reece Styche, Darryl Knights, Jack Wilson. Subs: Demico Burton, Tyler Smith, Elliot Ball, Harry Lewis, Daniel Gyasi. 

In front of a crowd of over two thousand fans, all in good voice, Stourbridge got the Cup Final underway as it returned to Villa Park for the first time since 1995. The Glassboys set up in a flat 4-4-2 formation, allowing Reece Styche and Darryl Knights the freedom to square up to the Leamington defence and inviting McQuilkin and O’Hanlon to cause trouble on each wing. Leamington, meanwhile, played their typical fluid formation which involved captain Jack Edwards playing as the most advanced player in a midfield three with Joe Clarke and Adam Walker while a front three of Devon Kelly-Evans, Joe Parker and Dan Turner looked to unsettle the Stourbridge backline. The opening exchanges were dominated by Stourbridge both on the pitch and in the stands, as waves of red and white spilled forwards for early attacks. Styche had a couple of half-chances but miscontrolled in the box after five minutes and then dragged his shot wide of the near post two minutes later. By the quarter-hour mark, however, Leamington had started to assert themselves into the game and Walker rolled a shot wide from the edge of the box after Edwards’ sumptuous lay-off. Then, twenty-six minutes in, the Brakes got the breakthrough and it was the winger who has taken over as their main man in the second half of this season that scored it. Stourbridge failed to clear a corner and it was worked back to Devon Kelly-Evans on the right elbow of the Stourbridge penalty box. Kelly-Evans dropped the shoulder and came inside on his right foot, making only a slight opening for himself from a full 25 yards out. He curled the ball on his right foot and, despite slipping as he made contact, bent his shot around two defenders and into the postage stamp in the far side top corner. If Stourbridge had played two goalkeepers, they still wouldn’t have got near it. The sea of gold and black on the north side of the Trinity Road Stand erupted and as Kelly-Evans slid away from the Holte End on his knees, a chant of ‘doo-doo-doo Devon Kelly-Evans’ began to the tune of the conga.

Leamington FC

Image by Focus Dunn Sports Photography

It’s an old adage in football that you are at your most vulnerable when you have just taken the lead and Stourbridge came close to proving this timeless wisdom correct. Almost immediately from kick-off, O’Hanlon was sent through over the top and brought the ball down well only for Jack Lane’s recovery run to take the ball off his toe. Stourbridge must have thought they had found the equaliser when, on thirty-four minutes, a lovely through ball put Styche through on goal only for him to scuff his shot straight at the grateful Jake Weaver in the Leamington goal. From the ensuing counterattack, Dan Turner forced a defensive lapse and poked the ball around goalkeeper Charlie Price but overhit his touch allowing Lee Vaughan to get back and clear. This breathless period of the first half became increasingly ‘Route One’ and both number 9s saw chances that they should have put away. On forty minutes, Stephen Morley swung a great ball into the Stourbridge box and Turner evaded his marker brilliantly, only to direct his header wide of the Holte End goal. It felt as if the next goal would either put this game out of reach or make for an excellent second half but, as Knights fired over a free kick from twenty yards out to end the half, it became apparent that the stands would have to wait to see which way the momentum would swing.

If the first half started with the energy of a kids’ play area, the beginning of the second had all the enthusiasm and daring of a group of children who had been told to sit down and be careful. Neither team wanted to commit men forward, knowing that to concede could be fatal in terms of putting the tie out of reach or shifting momentum irrevocably. Eleven minutes in, Leamington won a corner on the right-hand side, which was cleared comfortably by Jack Wilson. The loose ball ran through to Jake Weaver who had come out to near the halfway line and mishit his clearance along the ground towards the advancing Stourbridge defence. What should have been an easy clearance for George Forsyth was pounced on by Dan Turner (adjudged by the linesman on the far side to be onside) who made up for his first half misses by calmly rounding Price and slotting home with all the composure of a highly trained assassin - a stark juxtaposition to the one thousand Brakes in the Trinity Road Stand who rose as one to let out a cheer that signalled that they thought the Cup was secured.

Stourbridge knew that they had to be scrappy to claw back into the game and two minutes after Leamington doubled their lead, they had their first chance to get stuck in. Jack Edwards’ challenge on O’Hanlon was late and provoked a scuffle in the middle of the pitch. The first cards of the game were issued to O’Hanlon, McQuilkin and Leamington’s Dan Meredith for their role in the pushing and shoving. The challenge left O’Hanlon injured and, despite trying to play on for a few minutes, he was withdrawn just after the hour mark for Tyler Smith. Stourbridge needed to be aggressive and take the game to Leamington, but this left precious little room for error in possession, as Stour learnt when Parker pickpocketed their midfield and sent a ball into the middle which Vaughan tried to hook away but only as far the middle of the box. Turner leapt brilliantly to meet the ball from close range and thought he had directed his header into the bottom corner only to see it cannon off the bottom of the post, bounce across the line and be cleared away by Vaughan. On another day, Turner might have had a hattrick and by the look on his face and the start of a celebration he thought he had nabbed his brace. Leamington continued to probe for a third on the counter and on seventy minutes Meredith picked up a loose Stourbridge pass in his own half and beat three defenders but, bearing down on the Stour box, he could only send his shot cannoning into the North Stand lower tier.

Stourbridge were searching for a way back into the game but, for all their possession in the Leam half, they could not fashion a chance. The closest they came was when Smith exquisitely plucked a long ball out of the air, twisted and turned past three Leamington defenders but was stretching for the shot and saw it cannon behind for another entry into a string of Stour corners. It was from one of these corners, in the seventy eighth minute, that Stourbridge found a route back into the Cup Final and it was a truly genius moment from the boot of Gibraltarian international and record goalscorer Reece Styche. Knights clipped a corner in from in front of the Stourbridge fans and for a split second it seemed as though the cross would once again bypass the waiting Glassboys in the penalty box. Styche refused to let that happen. As the ball dipped on the edge of the six yard box, he unleashed a stunning overhead kick that arrowed into the top corner all while holding off his marker. He had no right to even make contact with the ball - let alone score - but he found the back of the net to send the Stourbridge fans by the goal into raptures. It was a goal worthy of winning any Cup Final and it certainly instilled belief into the fans who couldn’t see where a goal would come from. The momentum had shifted and Stour were in fine voice, serenading their players with a chorus of ‘Stourbridge FC, from the Black Country!’

Stourbridge FC

Image by Focus Dunn Sports Photography

For Leamington fans, it must have been hard to know which was louder - the Stourbridge faithful in the south side of the Trinity Road Stand or the thumping of their hearts as the minutes ticked down slowly towards victory. And still they came. Ethan Moran was replaced by Daniel Gyasi as the Glassboys threw everything they could at Leamington. There was a heart-in-mouth moment as, a minute after entering the fray, Gyasi collected the ball from yet another cleared Stourbridge corner, beat two defenders on the left of the box and appeared to be dragged down by a combination of Dan Meredith and Callum Gittings (who had replaced Clarke ten minutes earlier). Referee Tom Reeves, however, was unmoved and signalled Gyasi to get back to his feet as the game continued. Leamington were doing whatever they could to slow the game down and break up play and on one occasion Junior English, who had replaced the fantastic Turner on eighty three minutes managed to hold off three Stourbridge defenders to win a foul on the halfway line. Leamington piled their players forward and won another free kick ten yards into the Stourbridge half, which Stour will have felt aggrieved at as there didn’t seem much in the challenge. The ball was clipped into the box for what looked like an easy catch for goalkeeper Charlie Price but he lost the ball in the air under pressure from Parker and James Mace. There were question marks over a foul on the goalkeeper, but the ball dropped to Mace who adjusted his body well to roll the ball into an empty net from eight yards out. It was a fitting end to this edition of the competition for 35-year-old veteran Mace, who had broken Leamington’s modern-day appearance record in the Quarter Final victory over Tamworth. His goal sealed his third triumph in this competition with Leamington, as well as a third for long-serving manager Paul Holleran who was full of praise for his veteran centre-half after the final whistle.

With two minutes to play until the end of the ninety minutes, Leamington successfully bled the game out without significant incident - the loudest ovation of the night reserved for the substitution of Man of the Match Devon Kelly-Evans in the fifth minute of added time, replaced by Josh Beeson. A minute later, Stephen Morley launched the ball towards the box and Reeves blew the full-time whistle. Leamington had retained the Birmingham Senior Cup, becoming the third most successful team in competition history (behind only Aston Villa and Birmingham City) and the joint-most successful of the 21st century in the process. The Brakes inside the Trinity Road Stand joined in loudly with ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘Celebrate Good Times’ as they played over the tannoy after the whistle, and both sets of fans stayed to applaud their team for a valiant fight and a great Cup run. After the game, Pierpoint and Broadhurst rued the fact that they couldn’t capitalise on the momentum that they had gained but were glowing about the performance and fight that their team showed, and rightly so. It was a spectacular underdog performance, not just from the players but from the supporters, too. They now look forward to a few weeks off before preparation begins for next season. Leamington lifted the trophy in front of their fans and, after a brief parade of the Cup, Holleran spoke about what makes Leamington so expert at winning a trophy that contains so many League clubs. “We take it seriously,” he beamed as his players celebrated another job well done in the background, although he was quick to point out the strong fight that Stourbridge gave and the credit due to them for such a good game. Leamington close the season with a trip to Fylde on Saturday before turning their attention towards recruitment for next season - for Holleran, the aim: “get to the National League and stay there.”

Leamington FC 3

Kelly-Evans 26’, Turner 56’, Mace 87’

Stourbridge FC 1

Styche 78’

Birmingham County FA Man of the Match: Devon Kelly-Evans

You can view the official photographs taken by Focus Dunn Sports Photography by clicking here

Extended highlights of the Cup Final can be watched below: