WHAT a difference a year has made for AFC Totton.
This time last season, the Stags were about to be pummelled 4-0 at Sholing in the FA Cup – an uncomfortable defeat considering they were two divisions higher than their then Sydenhams Wessex neighbours.
But nearly 12 months on Totton – newly relegated from the Southern Premier Division – are sitting proudly aloft Division One South & West after beating Sholing 2-1 at a rain-swept Testwood Stadium this afternoon.
Craig Feeney was once again the star of the show, burying his third brace in the space of a week to make it three wins on the bounce for the Stags.
Sholing, in contrast, are licking their wounds after three straight defeats – an unaccustomed feeling for a side that enjoyed four good seasons at Southern League level prior to dropping down last term and pulling off a glittering Sydenhams Premier/FA Vase double.
While Totton’s vibrant young side are thriving after some harsh lessons learned at Premier level, Sholing are having to get used to life without the experience of Tyronne Bowers, Lee Bright and Marc Diaper and the energy of young guns Lee Wort and Mike Carter who have stepped into the Conference South with Gosport.
And it was one of their new arrivals, Nathan Lynch, who caught the eye for all the wrong reasons yesterday, wasting a glorious chance to put the Boatmen ahead moments before Feeney made the 15th-minute breakthrough.
Played in by a great cross from TJ Cuthbertson, Lynch was foiled by ex-Saints academy goalkeeper Steve Mowthorpe from close range.
Moments later, Feeney showed him how to do it, finishing off good work by Drew Bridge and Jamie Blackburn with a sumptuous strike from the edge of the box.
With the terrier-like Liam Gilbert competing for everything in midfield, Totton had most of the early play, but Sholing were dangerous on the break and it needed another good intervention by Mowthorpe to turn away Lynch’s curling blast.
But on 31 minutes the red mist descended for Lynch as he was given his marching orders for shoving and then kicking out at Gilbert by the stand-side touchline.
After teeing up Jamie Bulpitt and Zac Mouland for shots that weren’t far off target, Totton’s new American midfielder Kyle O’Brien skilfully turned and delivered a 37th-minute cross which just missed Feeney’s outstretched boot.
Three minutes later the ten-strong visitors pulled themselves back on terms when Bryon Mason delivered from the right for debutant Kane Crisp to crash the ball home off the underside of the bar against his old club.
Then, as the half spilled into stoppage time, Feeney was at it again, stroking the ball calmly past Brown after Gilbert had stolen possession and calmly played him through.
Although Totton had chances to extend their lead after the break – notably through Bridge, Mouland and sub Nathaniel Sherborne – Sholing never gave up the ghost.
Marvin McLean got the ball tangled in his feet when free in the box, Stuart Mott sent a back-post header narrowly off target and skipper Byron Mason bulldozed his way through but came up short with his finish.
Victorious Totton manager Steve Riley said: “Last season we got beat 4-0 in the FA Cup and did ourselves no justice against a Sholing side that had that bit of know-how.
“Sholing did really well with ten men, but the sending-off was key. It can’t have helped them to play 60 minutes with ten men – especially after a game on Saturday.
“We could have gone 3-1 or 4-1 up if our finishing had been more clinical, but I was pleased with how we managed the game and discipline was important for us. I told the lads not to get drawn into anything.”
Boatmen’s co-boss Mick Marsh said: “You can’t play with ten men at this level for 60 minutes against a team in the top-five, but we did extremely well to stay in the game.
“We rode our luck a bit, but we also had a couple of chances to nick a point.
“I can’t fault the character and workrate and I didn’t think Totton overran us in any way, shape or form.”
AFC Totton: Steve Mowthorpe, Liam Hibberd, Jamie Blackburn, Chris Onoufriou, Rob Flooks, Liam Gilbert, Jamie Bulpitt (Nathan Hurst, 71), Kyle O’Brien (Taylor Edwards, 84), Craig Feeney, Zac Mouland, (Nathaniel Sherborne, 65), Andrew Bridge. Subs: (not used) Ellis White, Conor Thorne.
Sholing: Matt Brown, TJ Cuthbertson, Kane Crisp (Dan Mason, 60), Stuart Mott, Dan Miller, Alex Sawyer, Marvin McLean, Byron Mason, Nathan Lynch, Barry Mason, Nick Watts (Braiden Hamilton, 71). Subs: (not used) Kev Brewster, Danny Cox, Taurean Manders.
Referee: W Bull. Attendance: 315