Football: Higgins hits Hungerford for hat-trick

FA Trophy 1st Round

DESPITE an array of fireworks exploding in the skies surrounding East Thurrock’s homely Rookery Hill ground Tuesday’s FA Trophy replay proved a literal damp squib for Hungerford, who left Essex with a sense of injustice and of what might have been.

The match started in heavy drizzle that was to graduate to a near monsoon but the visitors made light of the conditions in the early stages and through the game’s opening 15 minutes looked the likelier of the sides to progress to a meeting with Arlesey in the next round.

Yet they failed to make the most of early supremacy and a taste of what was to follow came on 13 minutes when David Bryant’s cross picked out home striker Sam Higgins whose close range header was palmed away by the flying Paul Strudley.

The keeper had saved his side and Dean Stow had a chance to make the most of that with the following counter attack but he sliced his shot when well placed.

Higgins was proving a real handful against a rearranged Hungerford defence, though his frustration at failing to create an opening brought a caution for dissent on 24 minutes. The striker had made news when it appeared he was ruled out of his side’s forthcoming FA Cup tie at Hartlepool on Saturday by a pending suspension but the home club had miscalculated. He will lead the Rocks’ line on Saturday but this latest incursion into a referee’s notebook will mean he would miss any replay.

But Higgins didn’t let thoughts of that worry him and just after the half hour he linked up with fellow striker Lewis Smith to pass their way into the Hungerford box and draw a challenge that ref Garry Maskell deemed worthy of a penalty. Hungerford protested but Higgins picked himself up to smash a fierce 33rd minute drive past Strudley.

And the Higgins-Smith combination drew another reckless lunge from a defender five minutes later as Smith tumbled and Mr Maskell again pointed to the spot. Strudley got his hands to Higgins’ strike this time but the power proved too much and the net bulged again.

If both the opening goals were created by clever tricky in the build-up, there was nothing sophisticated about Rocks’ third on the stroke of half time. A route one hoof down the middle should have been dealt with by Gary Horgan but the ball was allowed to bounce and with a trademark show of strength Higgins eased him aside to smash the ball at Strudley, who was mortified as the low shot squirmed through his hands and body on the rain-soaked turf and dribbled over the line.

A three goal gap between the sides was a distortion of the balance of play and belief still ran through the Hungerford players as they came out for the second half, but much of their energy dissipated as the clocked ticked on.

Charlie Mpi, who had scored in the first encounter on Saturday but rarely looked a threat this time, did have a half chance that went begging with a miscued shot and then skipper Mark Draycott forced an excellent close range save from David Hughes with an angled header at the keeper’s far post. A scramble ensued from the following corner and Hungerford players had several stabs at goal but, as is often the way, East Thurrock eventually cleared their lines and broke through David Bryant who slipped a perfect pass into the path of Higgins who won the sprint with defenders and Strudley and prodded the ball past the onrushing keeper for his fourth of the night.

By now the cascade of fireworks that had illuminated the first half had finished and with the rain lashing down Hungerford could have been forgiven for giving up but they showed great spirit and lit the blue touchpaper of a possible recovery when a shot from Rocks’ Reece Harris was little more than a pass to Strudley whose quick release saw Hungerford sweep down the field and James Clark nipped in front of Hughes to touch the ball into the net.

And the spark of a recovery exploded into a sparkling possibility as Hungerford piled on the pressure and sub Harry Goodger forced home a second, pouncing on a parry from Hughes to slide the ball into the net with four minutes of normal time remaining.

The force by now was with the visitors and East Thurrock were clearly back-pedalling and worried. They got an enormous break when home sub Tom Anderson handled the ball in the box as Hungerford pressed hard and Hungerford were rightly incandescent as Mr Maskell dithered and then waved away their appeals.

There was still time for the aggrieved visitors to have one final chance but, having worked space for himself in a crowded box James Rusby lifted his shot over the crossbar. With that, Hungerford’s bolt was finally shot and several added minutes ticked way without real incident.

Report courtesy of Thurrock Enquirer.

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