AFC Porth’s wretched start to the season continued as they were narrowly beaten by Pontardawe Town in a feisty encounter at Dinas Park that saw the home side finish the match with nine men.
In new manager, Ryan Betteney’s first official game in charge the Black Dragons produced a spirited display, yet they still fell to an eighth defeat from eight league matches this season and remain rooted to the bottom of Welsh Football League Division 2. For the Pontardawe it was a hard-earned victory from a two-goal deficit and keeps them in second place in the table behind Caldicot Town.
It has been a difficult season for the Rhondda-based club that narrowly missed out on promotion to Division One last season, failing to cope with the loss during pre-season of Gareth Morgan as manager to division rivals STM Sports and several of last season’s playing squad. The first seven league games saw seven defeats, most of them heavy, including the nadir of an 18-0 loss to STM Sports of all teams, suggesting relegation is a mere inevitability.
However, in a final bid to salvage the season AFC Porth relieved Stuart Brock from his managerial duties in midweek and announced the appointment of Betteney to guide their young squad on the back of a very successful spell as the manager of Ton Pentre’s youth team.
The signs of Betteney’s positive and immediate influence were there from kick-off as Porth started like a side full of desire and determination. They carved out the first opportunity inside the opening minute when a long throw from the left presented a shooting opportunity to midfielder Nathan Parry, but his hooked effort was off target.
A long free kick aimed at Pontardawe goalkeeper Steve Reeve caused a bit of scramble when he dropped the ball, only gathering at the second attempt. In the melee, Reeve suffered a dislocated finger and after a lengthy stoppage to receive treatment (with some assistance from Porth substitute Nicky Rees too), he was able to carry on.
The break in play seemed to benefit the visitors more as it disrupted Porth’s high energy start and the dangerous Josh Roberts broke through several Porth challenges to find a shooting position at close range. James Lowe in the Porth goal was alert to the danger and saved well at close quarters.
Whether he still affected by his finger or not, Reeve almost gifted Porth the opening goal in the 14th minute when a sliced kick presented an opportunity to Aaron Hughes, but striker’s stabbed effort at goal bounced off the inside post and crept agonisingly across the open goal with no-one on hand to convert an easy tap-in.
That near-miss seemed to serve as a wake-up call for Pontardawe and they began to seize control of the match, Garry Taylor pulling the strings in midfield. Several chances were created, Sam Rose-Brown and Keiron Griffiths notably failing to make the most of the decent opportunities, while a Porth defender almost put through his own goal when deflecting a dangerous low cross onto the crossbar.
On both flanks, Josh Roberts proved a constant menace, his battle with Porth left-back Jack Weaver, in particular, was a fascinating feature of the first half. On a number of occasions, Weaver was forced into stirring or last-ditch challenges to keep the fleet-footed forward at bay.
Shortly after the half-hour, Pontardawe was punished for their profligacy. When their build-up play broke down in midfield, Porth broke quickly from the second ball as Kieran Tann fed Hughes who raced away from the static Pontardawe defence and coolly slotted under Reeve. It was a goal totally against the run of play, but a fair reward for the home side’s incredible work-rate off the ball and desire to counter-attack quickly.
Four minutes later Porth repeated the trick, this time Tom Haley sending Tann flying away down the right flank. With the Pontardawe defence focussed more on calling for an offside flag that would never come, Tann had all the time in the world to pick his spot and beat Reeve with a composed, low finish.
Had Porth made it to halftime with the two-goal lead intact one wonders what might have been. But alas, after such a disciplined and focused defensive effort, the first serious lapse in concentration was punished when Roberts floated in behind Weaver to head home Cameron Harris’ left-wing cross at the back post on the stroke of halftime.
The start of the second half began with a double substitution for Pontardawe in attack, introducing Joshua Dorward and Mark Tancock. The move almost brought an instant reward as Dorward teed up Roberts, whose shot on the turn forced the first of several excellent second-half saves from Lowe.
Ten minutes into the second half Betteney made his first change, introducing Tomasz Krol for Joey Adamo. It was a substitution that would go on to have a big say in the outcome of the match. Before all that, Pontardawe broke through the Porth resistance in the 57th minute. Lowe produced a fantastic close-range save from a Tancock bullet header, but Dorward was on hand to scissor kick home the rebound.
With the game to be won by both sides, the stakes began to take their toll on players on both sides and the tension began to show. First Porth’s Parry was booked – and lucky to escape with just that – after his third heavy challenge wore down the patience of the referee. The frustration among the Pontardawe players was expressed through repeated dissent and there were a number of bookings issued to their players, while the referee was forced into giving a stern telling off following some handbags at the award of a Porth free kick.
The lack of discipline on both sides boiled over in the 67th minute when one of the assistant referees drew the referee’s attention to something said by Krol. A red card was issued for foul and/or abusive language and down to 10-men, it was now a case of Porth trying to hold out for that first point of the season.
Wave after wave of Pontardawe attack followed, Porth defended valiantly and with incredible team spirit that belied aside in their predicament, even offering occasional forays forward on the counter-attack. But chances were inevitable and for almost twenty minutes it looked like Lowe was going to be an insurmountable bulwark to deny the visitors a victory, making a number of saves in the effort of doing so.
But the heroic resistance could not last and it was a special goal that ended it. An 85th-minute corner from the right was cleared by Porth, but only as far as Dorward 25 yards out, who curled the ball beautifully into the top corner with a right foot strike.
Despite the player deficit Porth did try to press for an equaliser but was unable to build any sustained pressure or create a chance to level. In the end, their simmering frustration boiled over when substitute Nicky Rees was sent off in injury time for a second booking, committing a petulant hack on a Pontardawe player after losing possession trying to attack.
The final whistle brought delighted – and no doubt relieved – cheers from the Pontardawe players and coaching staff; on balance of play and chances it would be hard to begrudge them the victory. However, Porth’s courage and work rate arguably merited a point – on another day they may have won. There was plenty of evidence here that under Betteney’s management AFC Porth have plenty of fire in the tank yet.