As a fan of cup football (early plug – I even recently wrote a book on it) I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to witness the semi-final of a cup contest I had yet to see in the flesh – the Wessex League Cup.
Compared at least to the Hampshire Cup and Russell Cotes Cup, The Wessex League Cup is a relatively young cup competition dating back thirty years to the 86/87 season. Created to supplement the newly formed Wessex League (the thinking being that every league needs a cup) it is currently contested by teams from across the two Wessex League divisions, the Premier and Division One.
The very first winners of the Wessex League Cup were Road Sea Southampton -a team who came from nowhere and reached some dizzying heights, before then disappearing just as abruptly as they had arrived.
Despite their lack of longevity the Road Sea Southampton side of the era can claim a spot among the Southampton local football hall of fame. Other legendary local sides include the Sholing Sports sides of the 1970s and 1980s and I’d also argue Dave Diaper’s Sholing. Quite aside from the FA Vase triumph of 2014 Sholing have consistently been among the top local semi-pro sides stretching back well over 10 years and have been unlucky not to claim more honours than they have.
Part of the reason for Sholing’s sheer consistency is the success they have had in keeping their side together. It’s almost unheard of for players at this level to clock up over 400 league appearances, yet Sholing have four players at the club who have achieved this milestone and another three who have exceeded 200. This couldn’t be in greater contrast to their opponents Team Solent who are the men’s side of Solent University. Made up of students, many of whom study on the sports related degrees the university offers, Solent’s personnel is subject to natural churn as students graduate and leave the institution.
Despite this difference in approach Team Solent have enjoyed a great deal of success on the pitch and arrive at Sholing’s Universal Stadium as holders of the Wessex League Cup. The university have also invested a significant sum – said to be in the region of of £600-700k – in the clubs Test Park facility and the team are managed by local footballing legend James Taylor, whose goals for AFC Totton helped edge Sholing into second on more than one occasion a few years back.
I’m actually quite familiar with Test Park as my daughters team play in a youth league which uses the facilities. Sholing themselves field a number of sides there, part of their admirable youth set up, so it’s worth making the point that both clubs have been a tremendous force for good to the local football scene. Another example being that Sholing’s match report is being compiled by a Solent uni sports journalism student who sits in the stand with his laptop.
With both clubs putting out good strength sides I was optimistic about the prospects of seeing a good game and the early signs were good. Nicknamed ‘the sparks’ Team Solent began with a zippy, electric urgency which stretched the Sholing defence. Immediately standing out was Solent’s number 10, team captain, Jesse Waller-Lassen who signalled just how dangerous he was with a wickedly arcing free kick which went just over the bar. His pace later earned him a golden opportunity to put Solent ahead as he skipped around his marker; Through on goal Waller-Lassen shimmied before sending a shot curling towards the top right corner. Sholing ‘Keeper Ryan Gosney was however, equal to it and stretched a long arm upwards to send it out for a corner. Gosney saved Sholing again later when he was well positioned to claim a close range header which again looked an almost certain goal.
At the other end Sholing generated chances of their own, coming close with a powerful header from a corner which arrowed just high and wide of the top-right corner of the goal, but having seen Sholing a few times over the years, their main characteristic to me seems to be resilience. Sholing can simply soak up pressure. In part I put this down to the teams stability – these are players who for years have done battle together on pitches across the whole of the south of England, who know each other and all their strengths and weaknesses inside and out. Is it a surprise that under pressure they just dig in and get on with the job?
Their reward came just before half time when Lee Wort was tripped in the area and confidently despatched the spot kick. It was perhaps a little harsh for Solent to be going in one goal down as were it not for Gosney they could rightfully have expected two goals of their own, but as the teams left the field there still appeared to be all to play for.
A goal for Solent was all that would have been needed to spark the second half into life, but it seemed as if they had lost a little of the zing which they had displayed in the first half and it was Sholing who claimed the second goal of the game when, on 76 minutes, Sholing sent a low ball into the box which was palmed away by the Solent ‘keeper at the near post, but only as far as the feet of Sholing’s Jamie Bulpitt who was left with a simple finish from close range.
As the game approached its final conclusion Solent belatedly begin to lay siege to the Sholing goal, but once again the Sholing defence effectively closed ranks and Gosney mounted an effective last line of defence. 2-0 to Sholing. The final, against Baffins Milton Rovers, awaits.