‘Teams are now starting to fear us’ – US Portsmouth’s remarkable FA Vase run continues with penalty shoot-out success
So it goes on, this extraordinary FA Vase run which has firmly placed US Portsmouth on the local footballing map. And as boss Glenn Turnbull revealed after a penalty shoot-out victory took the club a step nearer English football’s Holy Grail - Wembley - his squad’s reputation is fast growing outside of PO postcode areas as well.
A 4-1 spot-kick success ensured Christchurch became USP’s fourth higher division scalp in this season’s FA Vase - added to a list already containing their Wessex Premier rivals AFC Portchester, Bournemouth Poppies and Brockenhurst.
US’ other victory en route to the last 16 was against a Millbrook side who won 10 and drew one of their 11 step 6 league games in 2020/21.
Add all that into the mix and you can see why rival Vase managers are taking note of a club some Portchester fans have (in jest) claimed ‘you’re just a bus stop near Gunwharf’!
Christchurch arrived at the Victory Stadium with the best points-per-game record of any Wessex Premier club over the last two pandemic-wrecked campaigns.
Earlier this season they knocked two divisions higher Dorchester Town out of the FA Cup (2-1). And showing that was no one-off, they then dumped out three divisions higher Gloucester City on penalties in the next round. Yes, the same Gloucester City who were top of the National League North when the sixth tier was abandoned in mid-February.
Ollie Cherrett’s Priory then took Hawks’ NL South rivals Dulwich Hamlet to penalties, before finally bowing out.
Christchurch had also drawn with Moneyfields’ Southern League Division 1 South rivals Sholing in last September’s Russell Cotes Cup semi-final, before also losing on spot-kicks.
In short, they are no mugs. Their striker, Will Fletcher, had scored in the FA Trophy for Poole Town in December while Luke Delaney (Poole) and centre half Kieron Douglas (Winchester) are two other Southern League dual registrations who started against USP.
Despite that, though, Cherrett still decided to switch his system to combat the lower division club’s threats.
‘It was a massive mark of respect that they changed the way they set-up from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 to mirror us,’ said Turnbull.
‘They have good players there - guys signed on from higher division clubs. That’s just another huge positive for us.
‘It tells you all you need to know - teams are now starting to fear us rather than us being fearful of others.’
Asked what his own tactical plans were, Turnbull replied: ‘What was the game plan? Not to hoof it long like we did!
‘It was just to keep it very similar to the other games, try and get at them early. And I thought we did that until we scored. After that we became a bit insular and we didn’t look confident in ourselves.
‘It was similar to when we played Petersfield a while back. They smashed it long so to try and counter them smashing it long we smashed it long.
‘There certainly wasn’t a lot of football played.
‘One of the best quotes of the day was when Barto said ‘their (Christchurch) signing on fee must include a neck brace!’
‘Cally Glen spoke to one of their players who said ‘we’re just the dogs in midfield who do all the running - we don’t see a lot of the ball.’
Priory could have taken a ninth minute lead when Fletcher was left unmarked eight yards out, but directed a header wide of Tom Price’s left-hand post.
With their first on-target effort, US took a 22nd minute lead.
Harry Sargeant - only playing due to Jordan Pile serving a one-game suspension - broke from central midfield, surging past two opponents before slipping a through ball to James Franklyn. The US talisman ran on before firing a low shot across Lewis Gunstone-Gray and into the corner.
In a tie of few clear openings, Price was forced into a double save on 38 minutes - beating out a Nick Swann shot before saving Ash Pope’s follow-up with his feet at the expense of a corner.
US came under increasing pressure as the second half unfolded, and it was no surprise when Christchurch levelled on 62 minutes.
Harry Birmingham’s attempted pass from his own byline was intercepted and, when Tom Cain could only half-clear a cross, Ben Satterley thumped a shot from just inside the area into the roof of the net.
At that point, it looked like US’ Wembley dream could be coming to an end. But they showed a resilient side to their game which at Wessex 1 level they don’t often have to produce.
Skipper Tom Jeffes, his side’s most experienced player, superbly marshalled a three-man central defence with Tom Cain on his left and Harry Birmingham on his right.
Wing-backs Jack Chandler and Josh Hazell didn’t get forward as much as they would have liked, as US struggled at times - certainly in the second period - to keep the ball out of their own half.
When Cain was subbed off on 70 minutes - a mixture of tiredness, cramp and a foot injury suffered in the first training session back after lockdown restrictions were eased - young Sonny Harnett-Balkwill comfortably dealt with the most high pressure situation he has ever faced.
‘People have said to me they know we can play football, but can we grind out wins - I think we showed we can do that,’ said Turnbull.
‘Elliott (Turnbull’s son) heard one of their players saying after we scored ‘come on, they’re only a Wessex Division 1 team’.
‘They are the best team in the Wessex structure, so we have to take a lot of credit.
‘We were never going to dominate them, they are the best team in their league.’
The boss added: ‘We looked very tired, particularly after their goal. Had they scored again the floodgates could have opened.
‘I said to the players ‘that was why I was begging you in February to make sure you kept your fitness levels up.’
‘I don’t think I’ve seen us look so tired, though we seemed to get a second wind with about five minutes left.
‘I don’t think they stung Pricey’s hands too much - there was the double save in the first half.’
US’ ‘second wind’ should have given them an 89th minute penalty, when Andrew Todd was clearly bundled over by Douglas. To virtually everyone’s surprise, including the Priory contingent, referee Gary Parsons waved play on.
Had US then lost the subsequent shoot-out, they would have had good reason to feel aggrieved.
As it was, they kept their cool, kept their composure, and wrote another chapter in a history-making season.
Turnbull wasn’t surprised the shoot-out panned out the way it did.
‘I was very confident when it went to penalties, I don’t know why,’ he remarked.
‘I said to my mum last Thursday that we’d win on penalties!
‘I just felt confident - it was a good, strange feeling. I was ultra confident - I was confident in the players I’d picked and in the order.
‘I just said to the players ‘you smashed them (penalties) in at training, now go and smash them in again’ - but I know that’s easier said than done.’
He added: ‘I’m just really proud of the boys and also really proud of the work we did as a management team - especially Fraser (Quirke, assistant) and Barto (coach Paul Barton) with all their prep.
‘I just want it to keep going, I don’t want this to be the pinnacle.’