The last few weeks of the football season often throw up some really interesting fixtures, not least because the light nights make it possible for teams lower down the pyramid to play midweek games. There are also a number of cup competitions that run on into May that sometimes throw up some really intriguing match-ups. This Tuesday was a case in point, with a number of games in steps 7,8 & 9. One in particular caught my eye. A Peterborough & District League Cup Quarter-Final final between Sawtry and Whittlesey Athletic Reserves. I'd never seen Sawtry play or been to their ground before and, although I have never seen Whittlesey's Reserves play, I did spend a very pleasant evening out in The Fens watching Whittlesey's first team take on Downham Town at the start of last season (Up Market).
On May 4th, Sawtry lost 2-1 at Whittlesey and sat 11 points adrift of leader Stanground Sports, albeit with three games in hand. Fast forward just 9 short days. Sawtry, after wins against Holbeach United Sports and Peterborough Polonia, now sat in third spot, two points adrift of Whittlesey and three behind the leaders. However, both first and second had completed their seasons and Sawtry had a game remaining, away at Stamford Lions, needing a win by at least 2 goals to secure the title. This they duly achieved, winning 7-0 to take the championship on goal difference.
What gives this quarter-final extra potential is the fact that, although Sawtry won the league, Whittlesey were only a single point shy and did the double over Sawtry this season. As stated above, earlier this month goals from Jack Carter and Kyle Hibbins cancelled out Matthew Church's effort to give Athletic all three points. They reverse fixture, played towards the end of April, saw Whittlesey win 4-0 with goals from Ben Cattanach, Jack Fryett, Matthew Heron and Caleb Sargent. Athletic can boast the tightest defence in the league having only conceded 31 goals in 26 outings. Interestingly, the tally of 31 goals in 26 game is identical to the record of the league's leading scorer, Sawtry's Matthew Church.
This evening's game was a League Cup Quarter-Final. As far as I could see, neither side has won this competition in the past. However, Whittlesey's first team have twice won the trophy, a 1-0 defeat of Langtoft United in 2016 and a 4-3 victory over Moulton Harrox in 2019. To get to this stage Sawtry received a bye in Round's 1 and 2 before defeating Pinchbeck United Reserves 9-8 on penalties after a 0-0 draw. They then were awarded an away win in their tie with Holbeach United Sports before beating FC Peterborough 1-0 away from home to set up this quarter-final.
Athletic also received a bye in the first two rounds. They then won 5-2 at Eunice Huntingdon before beating Peterborough City 5-4 on penalties after a goalless game. This was followed by a 4-2 win at last season's winners, Deeping Rangers Reserves.
Tonight it was first against third for a place in the League Cup Semi-Final and, for Whittlesey, the chance to reach a third cup final of the season, having already beaten Outwell Swifts 4-1 in the Cambs North Cup and and lost 5-4 on penalties, after a 2-2 draw, with Gamlingay United in the Cambs Junior Cup Final
Sawtry's Greenfields Sports Field is situated to the East of Sawtry centre, separated from village by the six lanes of the A1M. The contrast between the tranquillity of the sports field compared with the busy motorway is stark. Straight Drove, which leads to the football pitches, ends with a view over seemingly endless and very flat fields and big skies (something the East of the country is famous for). There is a reasonably large car park alongside the main football pitch, adjacent to the changing facilities and clubhouse, where drinks and snacks can be purchased.. There is also parking available just outside the car park on Straight Drove and Red Drove. Aside from the main pitch, there are also numerous small-sided pitches used by junior club, Sawtry Colts.
Although you can't expect this to happen every time you visit Greenfields, just prior to kick-off we were treated to the rare site of a Lancaster Bomber flying past the ground, on it's way to the Spitalgate, the first of the former RAF site ply-pasts scheduled to mark the anniversary of the Dambusters raid.
As the league table showed, there's not too much between the teams and the opening 15 minutes fully demonstrated this fact. Neither side was able to take hold of the game and neither managed to stretch the opposition goalkeeper. When a half-chance did present itself, it went to the visitors. Jack Bates latched onto a ball down the left, manged to just get ahead of his marker and let fly. His effort took a big deflection off a defender, lopped over Harvey Gargiulo in the home goal, but dropped wide of the far post for a corner.
Just on the halfway point of the first half, Sawtry did get the ball in the net when Matt Church cut in from the left before drilling a low shot off Jonathon Pullan's far post. The rebound was snapped up at the far post but the assistant's flag had already gone up. There followed a short period of tit-for-tat attempts. Matt Heron headed into Gargiulo's arms on 28 minutes and then shortly after the half-hour, Hayden Bream struck an effort straight at Pullan from the edge of the box. Immediately after this attempt, Athletic launched an attack of their own, launching a ball into the home penalty area. Both goalkeeper and a visiting striker challenged for the ball, with the keeper coming in from behind the attacker. When the Athletic player went over, the referee was quick to point to the spot. It did look like some contact was made but it appeared minimal. One of those incidents that sometimes gets given and other times doesn't. This time it did. Matt Heron didn't mind either way as he stepped up to send Gargiulo the wrong way. 0-1
The goal rocked Sawtry for a while and, a few minutes later, they were only a piece of excellent defending away from going two down. When the ball was fired goalward, with the home keeper out of position, Merlyn Gray somehow managed to get back onto the line and get a head to the ball to divert it over for a corner. Superb defending that galvanised the home side and two minutes before the break they got themselves back onto level terms. A nicely weighted through ball found Brian Smith bursting into the left hand side of the box. He struck his shot early towards the far post, possibly catching Pullan out. The keeper got a hand to the shot but could not prevent it nestling in the far corner. 1-1
HT Sawtry 1 Whittlesey Athletic Reserves 1. Overall the score-line reflected the game. Very little choose between the sides and nothing to indicate that either side was going to dominate in the second period either.
They say teams are at their most vulnerable immediately after scoring. Well, you can't get much more immediate than the second Sawtry equaliser. Straight from kick-off they played the ball long. Matt Church chased the ball down, getting between defender and goalkeeper before sweeping the ball into an empty net. 2-2
Unfortunately for the home side, the old adage applies both ways. Less than two minutes after squaring it up, they found themselves behind again when the unmarked Aaron Dunmore was left to smash the ball past Gargiulo. 2-3
The game then settled down. We had the unusual sight, at this level anyway, of a player getting booked for diving when Kieran Hibbins incurred the referees wrath. Then on 71 minutes Bream almost produced a peach of a third equaliser for Sawtry, acrobatically firing goalward with an overhead kick, only to see his effort go just wide. A few minutes later the same player came close again when he flashed a shot just wide of the same post, but it just wouldn't come for the home team. Their frustrations with what they saw as inconsistent refereeing decisions came to a head in the 85th minute when they lost their captain to the sin-bin after some words aimed at the referee following a penalty claim. That just about finished their chances of taking the game to penalties and Whittlesey successfully closed the game down for the remaining few minutes.
FT Sawtry 2 Whittlesey Athletic Reserves 3. A tight game in front of a good-sized crowd, that was decided during five manic minutes in the second half. Athletic make it three wins over the league champions this season and go through to take on Premier League Warboys Town in the semi-final after The Witches beat Ramsey Town 6-2. Moulton Harrox ended pluck AFC Malborne's run with a 7-1 win and will take on either Crowland Town or Oakham United in the other, all Premier League semi-final.
That's the season over for Sawtry but they can look forward to life in the Premier League next season.
Sawtry: Gargiulo, Scarff, Gray, Flanz, C.Smith, Neal, Bream, Taylor, Bohonis, Church, B.Smith. Subs: Pilkington, Dixon, Brown, Schofield, Searle
Whittlesey Athletic Reserves: Pullan, Long, Carter, Gale, Briggs, Saunders, Kyle Hibbins, Stephens, Kieran Hibbins, Heron (c), Bates. Subs: Dunmore, J.Fryett, A.Fryett, Campbell, Sargent
Ground Number: 367