Pontypridd Town came from behind to pull off an upset in the first round of the Welsh Cup with an extra-time win over Welsh Football League Division One side Cambrian & Clydach Vale at the USW Sports Park this weekend.
Craig Hughes brought his young Cambrian side to Pontypridd Town’s new home on the back of three wins from their last four league matches, yet no doubt wary of the Division Two leaders having been knocked out of the Welsh Football League Cup by them earlier this season. Meanwhile, The Dragons, were looking to bounce back after their midweek extra-time defeat at Welsh Premier League Cardiff Met in the Nathaniel MG Cup.
In a feisty encounter that would see a flurry of yellow cards brandished and Cambrian finish with just nine players on the pitch, Luke Gullick was the Pontypridd hero with the extra time winner. It had looked like Cambrian would avoid a ‘giant-killing’ when Leon Anstee headed them into a 79th minute lead, but Matthew Hibbs’ late strike was enough to force extra time.
Before all of this late action the game was largely a stalemate as both sides managed to cancel each other and keep clear cut goal scoring opportunities at a minimum. On a pristine playingsurface under grey and damp skies, the home side started livelier and were the more assertive and dominant side for most of the first half.
Pontypridd were keen to mix up their build up play: passing through midfield at times, while not afraid to go direct through Dan Hooper’s accurate long-range passing or use right full back Scott Hillman’s charges from deep. Cambrian showed plenty of respect for their confident hosts, happy to stay compact, play risk-free football and try to release Liam Reed, Richard French and Lee Price with balls over the top.
Yet for all the intent of both sides, the opening twenty minutes passed with little in the way of incident. Carn Thomas was booked for a cynical tug on Jamal Easter, while speculative long range strikes that failed to trouble the goalkeepers from Liam Reed for the visitors and Luke Gullick for the home side was the best of the action.
The first real chance came in the 27th minute. Neat build-up down the right flank by Cambrian put Liam Reed into a crossing position, but he shanked his attempted half volley cross and this released Gullick on the counter attack. Pontypridd’s top goal scorer this season released a fellow forward, who rounded Cambrian goalkeeper Dan Bradley, had time to steady himself and work the ball onto his favoured right foot. However, with the angle tight, he could do no better than drive his effort at goal into the side netting.
Ellis Bellamy tried his luck from a range a couple of times, hitting the stantion behind the goal with his best effort and Cambrian suffered a significant blow when Richard French had to be substituted through injury and was replaced by Leon Anstee shortly before half time. That was really the best of the action – if you can call it that – until first half injury time when Pontypridd should have taken the lead.
Again Luke Gullick was at the heart of it, creating some space on the left wing and crossing to find Jamal Easter 10 yards out. The midfielder couldn’t organise his feet in time and his first time effort was horribly miscued high and wide. Had the connection been true it would have presented a stern challenge to Bradley in the Cambrian goal.
The second half started much like the first half ended, with Pontypridd on the front foot. The left foot of Dan Hooper proved a potent weapon for The Dragons throughout the whole game and he almost forced a costly mistake from Bradley, who fumbled a cross but there was no home player nearby to profit. A minute later, Hooper’s whipped corner from the right found the head of Gullick six yards out, but he was off target. Soon after Pontypridd were calling for a penalty when Gullick tumbled under a challenge in the box, but the ref waved away the appeals.
Pontypridd’s failure to take the few chances they had meant Cambrian began to get a foothold in the match. Good wing play in separate moments from Lee Price and Cameron Keetch caused some problems, then some Cambrian produced the most incisive passing move of the match up to that point: Keetch starting the move out wide with a dart inside before a neat one-two saw him through on goal, but he fired his first time effort wide. Cambrian came even closer shortly after when Carn Thomas headed Keetch’s corner against the post.
Pontypridd responded with a charge of their own: released in the inside left channel, Pontypridd’s centre forward showed good pace and strength to get away from two Cambrian defenders and with the angle and time against him, he stabbed the ball goalward past the advancing Bradley but his shot-cum-pass was cleared away by a recovering defender.
As this flurry of activity after the break subsided the game settled into its familiar pattern with both sides defending well and lacking the craft to create a telling chance. Both managers made substitutions in search of a winner and the anxiety of both sides started to show with several strong challenges and yellow cards issued (including Jacob Isaacs for a professional foul), as well as some frustration directed at the man in the middle.
The game burst into life 11 minutes from the end when Liam Reed beat Hooper down the right and crossed for Anstee, who stooped low and headed past the Pontypridd goalkeeper. The home side responded with gusto and they should have been level when a short corner routine gave Hooper the angle to cross. Again he found Gullick unmarked – an even better chance this time – but he headed wide when he should have scored.
To their credit the home side continued to press and another chance arrived: a beautiful first time round the corner flick by Gullick set Hibbs free, who showed great composure to finish low past Bradley with a minute of normal time to play.
Neither side seemed to desire an additional thirty minutes but the chance to win fell to Cambrian. Again it was Cameron Keetch with the opportunity. This time he did everything correct, getting a good connection on his shot from the edge of the box but Pontypridd’s goalkeeper Dave Burnett thrust out a leg to make a vital stop. No winner arrived so with the score level as the ref blew the full-time whistle an additional 30 minutes were required.
Given their midweek exertions it wouldn’t have been amiss to question whether Pontypridd would have it in them to go again, but it was the visitors who seemed to implode in extra time. First Leon Anstee was sent off for dissent after punching the ball away (he was already booked), then Jacob Isaacs was dismissed by a second yellow card in controversial circumstances. Committing to a 50/50 challenge with Pontypridd midfielder Jamal Easter, the theatrics of the home player seemed to sway the official into pulling out the red card.
Luke Gullick struck the Pontypridd winner as he continues his fine goal scoring form this season and with a numerical advantage against weary opponents, the home side held firm to complete a cup double over their Rhondda rivals.