CHAMPIONS Sholing warmed up for Wembley by crowning their triumphant Sydenhams Wessex League season with a 1-0 home win over Graham Rix’s AFC Portchester.
There was a carnival atmosphere before kick-off as the 362 free-entry crowd welcomed the newly crowned Sydenhams Premier Division champions on to the pitch for their last league game of the season.
And a huge cheer erupted in the spring sunshine as stand-in skipper Tyronne Bowers was presented with the trophy.
With the title already wrapped up, Sholing were without several first-team regulars – notably the St Mary’s contingent of Byron and Barry Mason, Marvin McLean and top-gun Lee Wort who were at a birthday party.
But, despite bearing no resemblance to the team that will grace Wembley in the FA Vase final next Saturday, it was the Boatmen who raced into a fifth minute lead thanks to the electric pace of NICK WATTS.
The fleet-footed winger intercepted the ball on the half-way line and raced through unmarked before coolly sliding a shot past Portchester’s former Follands goalkeeper Jon Webb.
Even without Wort, Sholing had no shortage of pace up front and Alex Baldacchino very nearly capitalised on an accurate header forward by centre-back Dan Miller, but he couldn’t quite get the ball under control.
The Boatmen continued to boss the opening stages and on 17 minutes Danny Cox’s fierce low blast cannoned off Webb’s legs after Baldacchino had brought the ball down in the area.
Given Sholing’s energy levels, the warm weather and the excellent state of the Silverlake Arena surface, it would have been easy to mistake this for the first game of the season rather than the last.
Sholing should have scored again on 23 minutes when, for the umpteenth time, Watts caught the Portchester defence napping and squared for Baldacchino who, with only Webb to beat, got the ball caught under his feet, letting the visitors off the hook.
With young Miller a dominant figure at the heart of the Boatmen’s defence, the champions ably dealt with the threat of Nathan Lynch and ex-Saint Jake Thomson up front for Portchester.
The flow of the game was interrupted by two injuries in quick succession to Miller and Portchester’s Connor Hoare – the latter unable to continue and replaced by Danny Thompson.
The game had barely settled down again when Webb charged out of his area to cut out another defence-splitting through ball and was accidentally caught by his former Follands team-mate Ashley Jarvis, leaving him too requiring treatment.
Half-time: Sholing 1 AFC Portchester 0
With Miller unable to continue, Lee Bright slotted in alongside sponsor’s man-of-the-match TJ Cuthbertson for the second half.
Sholing had the first chance with Baldacchino unlucky not to get a touch to Bowers’ inviting delivery across the face of goal.
Portchester broke immediately and looked certain to equalise when Jake Thomson burst through one-on-one with Lee Webber, but the experienced keeper denied him with a smart save low to his right.
Marc Diaper wasn’t far away with an audacious bid to beat Webb from near on the half-way line before Webber again denied Thomson, getting both hands solidly behind the No 10’s well-struck shot from distance.
With the hour mark approaching, manager’s son Diaper, who will be hanging up his boots at Wembley, made his farewell to Wessex football, replaced by Southampton University find Sam Olaofe.
Two more substitutions quickly followed with Simon Woods going on for Portchester’s Craig Hardy and Alex Sawyer replacing Sholing skipper Bowers.
The visitors carried more of a threat in the second half, but Sholing still had their chances and Baldacchino, who could have had a hat-trick on another day, wove his way between three defenders in the 70th minute but shot tamely at Webb.
At the other end, Louie Castles rifled the ball low through a crowd of players but Webber had it covered as the shot rolled wide.
Another Portchester chance went begging when sub Thompson launched a free kick well over, much to the delight of Sholing’s noisy Ultras fans who were in good voice throughout.
As the game entered the last five minutes, Olaofe’s enterprising run forward was brought to an end by a Joe Bye shove outside the area at the expense of a booking for the Portchester man.
Kevin Brewster got the free kick on target, but it deflected straight into Webb’s hands.
In the 89th minute Jake Thomson was denied yet again by the excellent Webber after he had taken Castles’ pass, overlapping down the left.
But it was not to be for the former Southampton man as Sholing rounded off a memorable league season with a fourth consecutive clean sheet.