Extraordinary finale as US Portsmouth beat Bemerton on penalties to reach their first-ever Wessex League Cup final
‘Que sera sera, whatever will be will be, US Portsmouth are going (back) to Portchy, que sera sera … que sera sera!’
Ok, it’s not the song they wanted to sing, they’re not going to the ground they would have preferred, and it’s not the final they would have chosen to be playing in next Saturday, May 22.
Glenn Turnbull’s history-makers might have suffered a cruel FA Vase semi-final defeat to Binfield on penalties at the Victory Stadium, shattering their Wembley dream in the process.
But USP are through to the Wessex League Cup final, for the first time in their history, after an extraordinary success against shell-shocked Bemerton Heath Harlequins.
A week on from the raw emotion of the Binfield tie, here was another home semi-final that produced a late equaliser leading to the lottery of penalties once again.
But this time the late leveller was REALLY late, and this time USP held their nerve to progress to a final at AFC Portchester’s Crest Finance Stadium against Hamworthy United next weekend.
It will be USP’s fourth visit to Portchester this season, and they have won on their previous three visits - Vase ties against the Royals and Bournemouth Poppies and a friendly win against Dave Carter’s new-look Portchester last month.
Now, in his last match in charge before replacing Carter at Moneyfields, Turnbull will attempt to become the first ever manager to lead a second tier club to Wessex Cup final glory.
But however dramatic next weekend’s showpiece occasion is, it almost certainly won’t be anything like the victory over Bemerton.
Down to 10 men following a red card for defender Harry Birmingham, USP trailed 3-1 when Ronan Clancy fired in the rebound after keeper Tom Price had beaten out Justin Bennett’s 88th minute penalty.
For all the world, it seemed as if the most incredible era in US Portsmouth’s history would end with the spectacular anti-climax of back-to-back semi-final losses.
For all the world, it seemed as if the squad which has been the talk of Portsmouth area non-league football for the past month would break up on the back of two Saturdays of ‘ifs, buts and maybes’ - the international language of football’s losers.
But no. Remarkably, incredibly, no. This wasn’t the last chapter.
As the clock ticked into injury time, sub Tyler Moret struck a low shot into the bottom corner of Patrick Creese’s net.
Surely just a consolation, though?
Yet USP immediately won a free-kick and keeper Tom Price was waved forward. From the set-piece, the hosts won a corner. As both sets of players tried to get their head on the flag kick first, the ball ballooned into the air …
.... and there was US striker Andrew Todd rising highest in a crowded goalmouth, to get in a header …
…. and there was Moret, almost stood on the goalline, to apply the finishing touch.
Cue bedlam on the home bench.
Less than 20 seconds later, referee Tom Copping blew for full-time.
Honours even, a pulsating 3-3 draw. Mentally, however, there was nothing even about the teams - USP now held the advantage heading into penalties. By all rational explanation, they should have lost by now. Yet here they were, well used to penalties - this was their third shoot-out in five weeks - holding all the psychological aces.
So it proved. Though Danny Young put Bemerton ahead, Todd confidently levelled.
Price then dived the right way to beat out Danny Finnegan’s spot-kick, and Moret was calmness personified in converting his.
Bemerton talisman Justin Bennett, a man who hardly ever misses penalties, then squandered his second within a manic 10 minutes - firing wide of Price’s right-hand post.
It capped another miserable trip to Portsea Island for Gosport Borough’s record scorer, who was sent off for violent conduct when Bemerton were shot down by a James Franklyn hat-trick in a Wessex 1 fixture in October 2019.
As he had done in high pressure Vase shoot-outs against Christchurch and Binfield, Price then stepped up to score from 12 yards. 3-1 to USP now.
Josh Hoey had to score for the visitors, and did, but that just set the scene for skipper Tom Jeffes - as he had done against Christchurch in the Vase fourth round - to step up and fire home the winning penalty.
As the USP players sprinted to celebrate with their captain, it was easy to forget how they could, perhaps should, have been beaten inside the first 30 minutes of normal time.
Bemerton took a sixth minute lead, Harvey Clark sidefooting in from eight yards after left back Brandon Mundy was allowed too much space to run into the penalty area.
The visitors piled on the pressure, forcing six corners inside the opening 22 minutes, with Price forced to make good saves from Young and Ronan Clancy.
It took US until just before half-time to move out of first gear, and when they did they equalised with their first shot on target.
Right-back Jack Chandler - one of the unlucky ones to miss from 12 yards against Binfield - was far more accurate with a left-footed shot from just inside the Bemerton penalty area that sailed past Creese’s despairing dive and into the top corner.
James Franklyn then bore down on goal, after a neat pass from Dec Seiden, only for Creese to push his 45th minute shot aside for what was the home side’s first corner.
USP had a let off in the first 30 seconds of the second period when Clark, in acres of space on the right, set up Clancy who fired over from 10 yards out.
A prolonged period of scrappy play ended with Bemerton retaking the lead on 65 minutes. After Price had come for a cross without success, Clancy forced home the loose ball from close range after USP had failed to clear.
After Turnbull had thrown on subs Moret and Josh Hazell, things went from bad to worse five minutes later when Birmingham was sent off for his second yellow. Though he could have had few complaints about his first booking, the second - which will rule him out of the final - did look harsh.
Chandler scooped a shot over the bar and Jordan Pile fired over from 25 yards but, in truth, US didn’t really look like getting a second leveller.
Instead, it was Bemerton who struck next. Bennett, trying to waste a bit of time by a corner flag, produced a neat backheel to Clancy who was scythed down by Jeffes for an obvious penalty.
Bennett, one of the most prolific strikers in Hampshire/Wiltshire non-league football history, saw his spot-kick saved by Price diving to his right, but Clancy reacted quickest to net the rebound and USP’s cup hopes were shattered for the second time in eight days.
Or so we thought.
USP: Price, Chandler (Sibley, 84), Turnbull (Hazell, 69), Birmingham, Harnett-Balkwill, Jeffes, Pile, Glen, Todd, Seiden (Moret, 69), Franklyn.
Bemerton: Creese, Rayfield, Mundy, Smith, O’Keefe, Burden (46, Gunstone-Gray), Young, Clarkl, Clancey (Finnegan, 89), Bennett, Roach (Hoey, 87).