After a considerable level of work by so many both on and off the pitch during the close-season, all involved with the club were delighted to finally see the season get underway at The Nest on Saturday and for the term's opener to bring success in the extra preliminary round of the Emirates FA Cup as it did the year before, but it didn't come without a stern test courtesy of Southern Counties East League opponents, Holmesdale.
The Magpies began the game with a good tempo and it wasn't long before they carved out an excellent opportunity when Adrian Todd and Joe Holvey combined well on the right-hand side before the latter delivered a cross that fizzed through the six yard box but Adam Williams was a shade too late arriving at the back post to tap home with Charlie Martin scrambling in the visiting goal. A mere five minutes later Williams was in the danger area again, this time latching on to a cross from Todd but he couldn't get his header on target.
The pressure continued to mount and in the 14th minute Byron Napper swung in a deep corner that Joel Colbran met at the far post. Although he directed his header downwards the ball popped up and Martin was able to comfortably help the ball over. Despite the opening momentum, the direct approach from Holmesdale meant that it wouldn't take much for them to threaten the Magpies' goal, and so it proved in the 22nd minute when Ishmail latched on to the loose ball and drove towards goal before letting fly from 20 yards, but Sam Smith gathered well on a pitch that had become somewhat greasy following a considerable shower.
This warning shot was well heeded by the hosts and they duly got themselves in front on the 26th minute. Napper delivered a deep free kick into the Holmesdale area and Tiago Andrade rose to lay the ball back to the waiting Ollie Moore who volleyed into the bottom corner from 20 yards. The Magpies might have hoped to kick on from that point, but the game became more attritional as a result and neither side were really able to create much in the way of clear-cut opportunities, unaided by the heavy rain that came again in the latter stages of the half.
The frustration that was brewing spilled over just before the break when Todd and Justiano Junior tangled in the corner and in the melee that followed the latter clearly head-butted Ross Swaine and was duly dismissed for his actions. What wasn't expected was Swaine also receiving his marching orders for allegedly throwing a punch that bemused both sets of players.
The closing events of the half had more of an unsettling effect on the hosts than the visitors and Tyrus Gordon-Young had a good chance to level the tie three minutes into the second half when he shook off two challenges but couldn't keep his subsequent shot down and the opportunity was gone. Holmesdale continued to have the better of the play for the next ten minutes but a combination of a poor final ball and some fine last-ditch defending from Joel Colbran and Eddie French in particular kept the visitors at pay and just after the hour mark they would pay the price.
Holvey showed great energy down the right-hand side again and his subsequent delivery into the box could only be partially cleared by Jordan Eels to Moore who laid the ball into Andrade who dropped his shoulder to get away from the recovering Eels and took advantage of the space to fire left-footed past Martin to double the lead. Holvey presented a golden opportunity for the Magpies to go three goals up in the 70th minute when he drove into the box and was upended by James Nurden and referee Paula Wyatt duly pointed to the spot. Moore stepped up to take the resulting penalty but Martin picked the right way to dive and pushed the ball to safety.
With 16 minutes left the hosts had another good opportunity to increase their lead when Napper picked out Holvey with a well directed diagonal ball and the marauding right back laid the ball back to the awaiting Todd, but his finish was tame. Moments later this wastefulness was so nearly punished. Smith hesitated when a deep free kick was delivered into his area and had the over-eager Ishmail not gone for the ball the resulting header from substitute Victor Sodiende would not have been ruled out for offside. Ten minutes later though there would be no such let-off, Sodiende, who had been a threat since he came off the bench, drove into the area and evaded three defenders before firing the ball across Smith into the far, top corner, giving the home stopper no chance, but simultaneously offering the visitors more than a faint hope of forcing a replay.
However, this time the Magpies responded immaculately to the set-back. They controlled possession straight from the kick-off and patiently moved the ball in and around their right flank before substitute Alfie Gritt linked up with Napper for the latter to slip Holvey in behind the Holmesdale backline and he took the opportunity to fire across Martin and see the ball nestle in the far corner and with it secure passage through to the next round. The exuberance of the celebration saw Holvey suffer cramp in both calves immediately afterwards resulting in his substitution that saw Tom Familton make his first competitive appearance for the club since re-joining in the Summer, but that was virtually the only blip in a man of the match performance from the Magpies' number 2.
Considerable kudos should go to our opponents today who gave a good account of themselves on the pitch and were always a threat as well as being thoroughly delightful visitors off the pitch. We wish them all the very best for the season ahead where they are rightly aiming for promotion to the SCEFL Premier Division and with performances like that they won't be far off.
Despite the result the Magpies would have to wait a full 24 hours to find out their opponents in the Preliminary Round as Epsom & Ewell would not host Banstead Athletic in an all Combined Counties League tie until the Sunday due to a ground-share conflict. It transpired that Banstead won the tie 2-1 with a goal in the last 7th minutes and as such we will visit them on Saturday 19 August.