STEVE Riley was delighted with new signing Liam Gilbert’s AFC Totton debut against top-of-the-table Hemel Hempstead Town on Saturday.

Although the Calor Southern Premier pace-setters ultimately had too much firepower for the relegation-bat tling Stags, Totton’s 4-1 margin of defeat was a marked improvement on November’s 8-1 hammering by the Tudors in Hertfordshire.

And with Gilbert adding bite in midfield, Riley is a long way from throwing in the towel with 18 league games still to play.

Gilbert had been playing Wessex League games for Horndean after returning from a four-year stint in America.

“He covers the ground well, gets tackles in and is very tenacious,” said Riley.

“We had Nathan Hurst playing alongside him in place of Lewis Ross, who’s out with a knee infection, and we had 17-year-old Zac Mouland playing up front by himself and brought 16-year-old Dan Beckles on at centre-half for the last 20 minutes.

"The lads are working ever so hard.”

Ben Mackey did the damage for Hemel with a well-taken hat-trick but, to Totton’s credit, they trailed just 1-0 at half-time after Mackey had jinked his way through and fired home from 12 yards.

Mackey then added two in the space of four minutes – first netting a simple header from Keiran Murphy’s cross and then racing onto a route one ball to bury his 24th goal of the season.

Substitute Dave Pearce added the Tudors’ fourth and it was left to Stags’ Luke Roberts to have the final say with a wind-assisted cross-shot.

“I was disappointed with the three second-half goals we conceded. One was a free header which the lad didn’t even have to jump for and that can’t happen,” said Riley.

“The other two were route one balls in behind the defence which we should have dealt with.

“I think and hope our lads will have gone away a bit disappointed at the manner in which the sec ond-half goals were conceded.

“But I can’t fault the effort and commitment. “At their place we were dead and buried by half-time at 6-1 down, but we’ve come a long way since then. We didn’t give up the ghost today even when we were three and four goals behind.

“Hemel’s strike force is full of experienced players who’ve played at a good level and yet, apart from the goals, our ’keeper Steve Mowthorpe hasn’t had a save to make.

“Last week we lost 2-0 to second-placed Chesham, who didn’t score their second until the last kick of the match, and today we’ve made the leaders work hard for three points.

“Hemel aren’t top by chance, they’re there for a reason and you’ve only got to look at their bench to see the amount of depth they’ve got. They’ve got threats all over the park.

“I played against their manager Dean Brennan and he’s a nice fella and I hope they go on do it this year after missing out in the play-off final (to Gosport Borough) last season.

“Hemel play the game how it should be played, pass it well and work their socks off. They’re an honest team as well.”

Bottom club Bashley narrowed the gap on Totton to three points with a 1-1 draw at Burnham.

The Foresters fell behind to a Josh Webb strike just three minutes in, but drew level with ten min utes remaining when former Sholing and Brockenhurst centre-back Dave Marden struck from a corner.

Bash can edge ahead of Totton on goal difference by winning the first of their two games in hand at home to Jason Matthews’ Weymouth tomorrow.

Totton return to league action at Biggleswade Town on Saturday.