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Sunday, 21 June 2015 20:15

STM into Welsh League after play-off drama

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SATURDAY 13th JUNE: Cardiff City Stadium - cool and rainy
PONTLOTTYN 1 STM SPORTS 4 (SWFA Promotion Play-off)
Sixteen hours after leaving the scene of a famous Welsh victory, I'm back at the same venue. But today there won't be 33,000 passionate fans in the stadium, and the players won't be millionaire superstars. For this is a match to decide whether the champions of the South Wales Amateur League (STM Sports of Cardiff) or the Senior League winners (Pontlottyn) will take their place in the Welsh League Third Division next season.

Mid June is a very strange time for a domestic football match: all competitions in Wales are forced to complete their fixtures by the end of May, and indeed this game should have taken place four weeks ago, But initially it seemed that a play-off wasn't needed (STM's facilities had been rejected by the Welsh League). Pontlottyn believed they were up, but now they've been dragged back to earn promotion with one more win, after STM won an appeal. The timing, roughly a month after their last games, is hard for both sides, but for Pontlottyn it's compounded by the absence of the two players dismissed in the CW Bruty Cup final.

A miserable, cool June day hasn't deterred several hundred fans making their way to Leckwith today; they're a mixture of followers of the two clubs, and plenty of neutrals, both local and less so, getting a rare mid-June football fix. Just a couple of sections of the ground are open, but the fans still have room to spread out.

We have a full pre-match routine - lines, handshakes etc. - which must increase both the sense of occasion and the pressure for these players. Who will adapt better to the odd timing, the big stage, the need to lift themselves one last time this season? From my previous observations of these two teams - who coincidentally I saw contest the SWFA Senior Cup semi-final at Taff's Well - STM play the slicker football but can be knocked out of their stride; whereas Pontlottyn have resilience in spades - they never accept they are beaten.

No great surprise then that STM's pacey attack - Reffell, Conteh and Gordon - catch the eye in the opening minutes. They get on top, just as they did at Taffs Well, and force the first breakthrough - again as they did then: a corner on the left, Reffell rises highestof the bundle of players who meet the ball as it arrives in the box, and it flies into the net.

I expect Pontlottyn to battle back from this setback, and they do respond as expected, though they are already picking up yellow cards. After half an hour, STM come close to doubling the lead, but Josh Graham is forced wide and Richard Davies's saving tackle leads to a corner. Play switches to the other end, STM fail to clear and at the third attempt Pontlottyn's Colbourne forces the equaliser. They are back in the game and, just as in the previous meeting, looking more likely to score next, a good save denying them a half-time lead.

As the teams emerge for the second half - Pont first, pumped up and eager to get the job done, STM more relaxed - I think the Senior League champions are still the more likely winners, but all that changes in the next ten minutes: firstly, STM once again start positively, passing neatly and releasing their front-runners - they look at home on this good surface which allows them to play; two minutes into the half Josh Graham is set clear and keeps his composure to slide the ball past keeper Llewellyn. Four minutes later comes a decisive moment. STM threaten down the right again, Llewellyn races off his line and catches the striker outside the box. Free-kick certainly, but referee James brandishes his cards (seemingly yellow first, then red) and the talismanic Llewellyn is off - a desperately sad way for his season to end after playing a major role in Pont's double successes. Pontlottyn re-organise, introduce a substitute keeper for an outfielder, but the first action is the delayed free-kick, and when it is swung into the box, Chris Worsley steals in unmarked at the far post to make it 3-1 to STM.

Pontlottyn still have 35 minutes to rescue the game - and their season - but the odds against them doing it have just lengthened considerably. And they seem to know it. STM can now play expansive passing and running football on the wide, tiring stadium pitch, their enemy cramp as much as their depleted and shaken opponents. They create chances, especially through Conteh and Graham on the right, but it isn't until the 83rd minute that they succeed in adding to the lead - another move on the right, pulled back and driven in by Colbourne.

The remaining seven minutes, plus four added, are academic and only prolong Pontlottyn's agony. The final whistle goes and the Cardiff contingent can celebrate, pose on the pitch and prepare for Welsh League football next season. The losers in these promotion play-offs have always deserved sympathy, and especially this year, to have done your league and cup double, believed you were all but confirmed as promoted, and then to lose it a month later is especially cruel. But the Rhymney Valley club will, no doubt, be back to try again, in the new South Wales Alliance League, next season.

For all of us, that really IS the end of 2014-15. The thing is, 2015-16 starts in two weeks' time...

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