US Portsmouth’s FA Vase bandwagon rolls on following a remarkable fifth round victory at Tavistock
US Portsmouth produced the greatest result in their history to take another giant step towards Wembley.
Drawn away to Western League Premier Division big guns Tavistock, USP sent shockwaves through the competition with a 3-1 victory in west Devon that booked a place in the last night.
And the only remarkable thing about the scoreline was that USP didn’t score six or seven.
Glenn Turnbull’s men ran their higher division hosts ragged during a storming first 45 minutes that should have seen them leading 5-1 at half-time.
As it was, they only held a 2-1 advantage and the tie, which should have been dead and buried, was still wide open.
The visitors conspired to squander more gilt-edged opportunities in the second half on a remarkable afternoon at a windswept Langsford Park on the edge of Dartmoor.
But they still managed to book a home tie with Flackwell Heath in the quarter-finals of the FA Vase thanks to three moments which sparked the latest jubilant celebrations from a squad Turnbull has likened to Wimbledon’s famous ‘Crazy Gang’ of the 1980s – a nod to their camaraderie, not their style of play.
The tie was only three minutes old when talisman James Franklyn broke through the middle, collecting a through ball and rounding keeper Tom Watson The USP top scorer’s shot lacked power, though, and was cleared by one of two covering defenders.
Never mind, the tone had been set - this was the tactic that was to continue scything the Lambs’ defence wide open.
On 11 minutes, US took the lead through the unlikely figure of Jack Chandler. After referee Ross Martin had waved play on following a foul on Franklyn, the ball ended up in the path of the right wing-back who lashed his shot in off the bar.
A minute later, Franklyn - played through in acres of space - lifted the ball over the onrushing Watson only for the defence to clear.
On 17 minutes Franklyn was again put through and, after Watson had rushed out to try and clear, the ball hit the US player and span loose for the unmarked Andy Todd to tap into an empty net.
A shell-shocked Tavistock brought themselves back in the tie two minutes later, defender Lewis Daw winning a header and Liam Prynn applying a finishing touch from close range.
US continued to dominate the midfield skirmishes, with Tavistock completely unable to stop Franklyn’s runs.
There followed a barely believable five-minute spell where USP squandered two glorious chances.
Both fell to left wing-back Elliott Turnbull, only playing after USP had discovered to their horror on Thursday night that Josh Hazell was suspended after picking up a second booking of the tournament against Christchurch the previous week.
First, on 32 minutes, Franklyn sent over a low cross from near the touchline where Turnbull was totally unmarked at the back post - only for Watson, scrambling across his six-yard box, to produce a miracle save with his feet from six yards out.
There was a distinct case of deja vu shortly after when Franklyn - for the umpteenth time - found space and again sent a low cross to the back post where Turnbull was totally unmarked once more.
It seemed harder to miss but the defender could only hold his head in his hands after ballooning a shot over the bar.
To miss one of those chances in a season would be hard to take, to miss two in five minutes was truly stretching the boundaries of incredulity to near breaking point.
It wasn’t totally one-way traffic, though, with Tom Price twice turning shots from the dangerous Dave Hallett away for corners.
But the visitors - who had struggled to create anything against Christchurch the previous week - were revelling in the space they were being afforded.
Defender Tom Cain took advantage of Hallett stepping on the ball and falling over, to run forward unchallenged before unleashing a 20-yarder which Watson pushed away for a corner. From the flag-kick, captain Tom Jeffes shot wide.
Tavistock were expected to come out all guns firing after half-time, and Price beat out a fierce Prynn shot on 47 minutes.
Yet US continued to find space, Franklyn again latching onto a through ball and rounding Watson, only for his shot - from a more acute angle than early on in the tie - to roll across the six-yard box.
And still the chances came - Chandler had a shot saved while midfielder Harry Sargeant danced his way through two challenges to find himself clear just eight yards out. Watson, however, stuck out a leg to stop his low shot before the keeper was up quickly to turn Franklyn’s follow up over the bar.
‘How the hell are we still in this?’ a Tavistock committee member commented a few yards away from where I was standing.
It was a good question, and on 55 minutes came the decision which was to ultimately take the tie out of the home side’s reach.
Relief was palpable when Martin pointed immediately to the spot after Crago had handballed from a set-piece, and Dec Seiden kept his cool to convert his third penalty of this historic Vase run.
Seiden had previously netted in the first minute of the third round win against Millbrook, and in the shoot-out against Christchurch seven days earlier. Three high pressure situations, and three goals.
For virtually the first time in an absorbing encounter, the tie briefly fell flat - exactly what USP wanted.
Tavistock picked themselves up in the last 20, however, and Price dived low to stop Josh Grant’s free-kick. Harry Birmingham cleared off the line and Sargeant summed up USP’s determination with a great block from sub Jordan Annear’s shot.
Price, tremendous throughout, showed a safe pair of hands to hold another low Grant free-kick before USP missed another glorious chance in the dying seconds.
The impressive Seiden - another one of Turnbull’s standout performers in a team brimming with them - wriggled his way to the byline before picking out Todd. Eight yards out, again it seemed harder to miss - only for the striker to fire his shot against the crossbar.
In three decades of sports journalism, I have never seen a team miss so many gilt-edged chances. US had enough to not only win this game, but also the quarter-final and to take a 1-0 lead in the semi.
But in the end, thankfully, it didn’t matter. There were to be no regrets, no long silences on the four-hour coach journey home, no ifs, buts or maybes, no recriminations, no replaying of squandered chances over and over again in the mind.
Instead, the USP bandwagon rolls serenely on into the quarter finals of a national cup competition. It has rolled past AFC Portchester, Bournemouth Poppies, Brockenhurst, Millbrook, Christchurch and now Tavistock.
Prior to this record book shredding season, USP had won just six Vase ties in 16 seasons. Now they have won six in seven memorable months.
Six hundred and twelve clubs entered the 2020/21 FA Vase. Just eight are left standing of which only one – USP – are from step 6 of the non-league ladder.
Not bad for a ‘bus stop near Gunwharf’!
Tavistock: T Watson, Cross, Robins, Bentley, Daw, Burns (C Watson, 64), Hallett (Annear, 64), Prynn, Crago, Grant, Elliott.
USP: Price, Chandler, Birmingham, Jeffes, Cain (Harnett-Balkwill, 73), Turnbull (Sibley, 88), Glen, Sergeant, Franklyn (Pile, 78), Seiden, Todd.