The Magpies returned from their victory over Eastbourne United at the weekend to get their home league campaign underway with the visit to The Nest of Three Bridges who, following relegation from the Isthmian League last season, were making no secret of their ambition to return there at the first attempt. The hosts had to contend with the absence of captain Byron Napper (replaced by Adrian Todd), Joe Holvey still not being fit enough start and Ross Swaine serving the 2nd game of his 3 match suspension, but Alfie Gritt was deemed to be fit to make his first start since the final day of last season, which meant Gary Pritchard was on the bench as he continues along his route to full fitness.
It’s fair to say that the visitors had the best of the opening exchanges as they applied early pressure, playing directly into the channels and then pressing highly to stifle any counter-attack. Despite that there was very little in the way of goal scoring opportunities created as the Magpies back line held firm and with that gradually enabled the hosts to gain a foothold in the match. In fact, it was they who had the first clear chance of the game when in the 16th minute a deep corner was met by Joel Colbran at the far post but his sweetly timed volley came back off the crossbar with Kieron Thorp in the Bridges’ goal well beaten.
Mere seconds later the visitors found themselves up the other end with former Magpies Academy player Mitchell Casselman getting away inside the left-hand channel before unleashing a fierce drive which cannoned back off the near post. The game had now sprung into life and it looked for all the world that the Magpies had taken the lead in the 22nd minute when Michael Wood found Gritt, who volleyed towards goal, but somehow Thorp stretched to tip the ball onto the bar and curtail the celebrations. Moments later Wood was at the fore again when he skipped past Matthew Whitehead before being brought down by the covering Jay Conroy in the area, but much to the bemusement of all concerned only a corner was awarded. Regardless, the Magpies should have been ahead with 10 minutes of the half left when Colbran delivered a free kick from the right and Todd ghosted in at the far post but his guided volley went just the wrong side of the post.
They were just as nearly made to pay the price for their wastefulness two minutes later when the ever-dangerous Nathan Crabb got away down the right before firing across the advancing Sam Smith but the ball evaded the far post. It was then the turn of the hosts to find joy down the right-hand side when Andrade laid the ball off to Wood who created space for himself in the area but could only shoot straight at Thorp who smothered the effort. That proved to be the last meaningful action of the half with both sides going in feeling that they could well be in the lead.
As with the first period, the visitors started the second half the stronger forcing the Magpies to defend deeply with their somewhat direct approach, but again the fortitude of the hosts was equal to the task and despite the clear territorial and possession advantage, Bridges weren’t creating anything more than half chances and they nearly suffered a sucker-punch when Adam Williams cut inside from the left before delivering a perfect ball to the back post that just evaded Whitehead but the awaiting Wood couldn’t react quick enough to take advantage with the goal at his mercy.
The visitors did finally create a clear opportunity just after the hour mark when John Lansdale evaded the assistant’s flag to run onto a through-ball from Jensen Grant but Smith stood up well and blocked the drilled effort with his legs. This sparked a further period of sustained pressure by Bridges with several corners at the centre of it, but again the Magpies’ defence held firm with a combination of strong challenges and towering headers led by Eddie French and Tom Familton. Skipper Jamie Crellin came closest to breaking the deadlock when he rose beyond the far post to head a deep corner back across goal, but Familton was on hand to flick the ball off the line and over the bar to safety, much to Smith’s evident relief. Liam Collins was next to have sight of goal when the ball eventually found its way to him 25 yards out following a deep throw-in from Lansdale, and whilst he got a good contact on the ball, the shot was fairly straight at Smith and the ‘keeper comfortably fielded the effort.
It was becoming evident that a moment of brilliance was going to be required to end the stalemate and it arrived in the 83rd minute. Todd delivered a deep corner that Connor French couldn’t clear as he’d have hoped under pressure from Gritt and although the ball went straight to Tom Familton around the edge of the area there was little apparently on. The Loxwood centre back soon changed that though as chested the ball down into enough space where he calmly waited long enough for the ball to come down before thrashing a volley past Thorp who had no chance as the ball thundered in off the crossbar sparking jubilation amongst all concerned.
Inevitably this sparked an offensive from Bridges that consisted of long balls into the box from deep and via the hands of Lansdale from the touchline but it brought little more than a tame flicked header from Grant a couple of late challenges on Smith that were rightly penalised and although there were in excess of 7 minutes of added time played, the Magpies remained resolute to the last and secured a second set of three points in four days to ensure a perfect first week to their league campaign.
Focus now turns back to the FA Cup as they make the trip to Banstead Athletic of the Combined Counties League this Saturday, with a place in the 1st Qualifying Round the prize for the winner, a stage that the Magpies have never reached before.