Pontypridd Town moved up to second in Welsh Football League Division Two with a 2-1 win away to fellow high-flyers Risca United in torrential and blustery conditions at the Centre for Sporting Excellence (CSE) in Ystrad Mynach.
Second-half goals from Danny Hooper and Luke Gullick were enough to give The Dragons the points in a game they dominated for large periods as the home side seemed to struggle with the conditions. Tom Berry did get a late consolation for The Cuckoos and they may have snatched a point at the death. Ponty were worthy winners though and on another day would have scored more.
Both sides harbour genuine promotion aspirations and have started the season well. Going into the game Risca sat second in the table, while Pontypridd – leaders earlier in the season – had slipped to 5th after a home defeat to Aberbargoed Buds last weekend.
There was little to speak of in the opening exchanges, both sides trying to figure out and adapt to the conditions brought in by Storm Brian. The intensity of the rain meant even the 4G pitch at the CSE was struggling to cope and there were puddles of standing water in a couple of places around the halfway line; while the swirling wind meant any long or high passes were subjected to the whims of the elements – both keepers certainly had one or two awkward moments trying to clear their lines into the wind.
It was Ponty who seemed more at ease in the conditions, however, and it didn’t take long for them to start playing the type of football they have become renowned for – passing through midfield, using late runs from deep to cut through the lines and a lot of fluidity in attack with forwards comfortable interchanging positions.
Ponty’s short passing game created the first real chance in the eighth minute. Good build up and interplay between Hillman, Jamal Easter and Gullick led to a chance in the middle for James Hill, but he didn’t get a good contact on the ball and failed to convert the chance. A couple of minutes later, Andy Smith released Matthew Hibbs with a wonderful ‘round the corner’ pass. Gullick burst forward in support, but Hibbs cut inside and decide to go alone, his tame effort saved by the outstretched foot of Risca goalkeeper Angelo Rovaretti.
Risca’s first effort at goal came in the 16th minute, Tom Berry trying his luck from distance but unable to keep his effort down. Pontypridd should have been ahead, though, shortly after. A fine through pass by Hibbs released Gullick and exposed Risca’s risky high defensive line. It looked certain Gullick would score and he did everything right, showing composure to round Rovaretti, but he couldn’t slide his effort at goal inside the post. It was a staggering miss considering the form the Ponty top scorer has been in this season.
Ponty continued to dominate and created most of the chances: Gullick was denied a tap in, after excellent work from Andy Smith, by Tom Pratt’s brilliant last ditch interception; Smith forced a good low save out of Rovaretti; right full back Scott Hillman tried his luck from 30 yards and wasn’t too far away from the top corner.
While Ponty weren’t taking their chances at one end, there were worrying moments of potential self-harm at the other end. Goalkeeper Dave Burnett got a clearance into the wind horribly wrong, the wind driving the ball back to his own goal and creating a 50/50 between him and Risca forward Berry, but the keeper was able to get his hands safely back on the ball. In a separate incident there were a few hearts in mouths of the travelling fans when Dave Allen deflected the ball behind for a corner and it looked momentarily like the ball was heading for goal.
As the wind and rain eased temporarily around the half hour mark, Risca also seemed to find a bit more of themselves in the game. Jordan Rathbone keeping Burnett honest, forcing him into a low save at his near post with a left footed strike from the edge of the box. However, the weather wasn’t away for long and it was probably a relief for the players to hear the half-time whistle and escape the tempest for fifteen minutes.
If Risca United had done well to weather two storms in the first half, they couldn’t have got off to a worse start to the second half. Inside forty seconds, Ponty were inside the Risca penalty area and a clumsy challenge by Dwaine Bailey on Andy Smith resulted in a penalty award.
It came as no surprise that Ponty’s number nine was the source of the breakthrough as he had been a complete menace to the Risca backline up to that point: dropping short or running in behind as required, tenacious against bigger opponents and surprisingly effective with his hold-up play, while brilliantly aware of those around him. It was almost a complete centre forward display from Smith – if he’d got a goal it would have been a 10/10 performance for sure.
From the penalty spot left back Danny Hooper made to mistake with strike that wouldn’t have been saved even if Rovaretti had dived the same way. It was the perfect start to the second half for Ponty and on balance of play a deserved lead.
With the advantage, the visitors didn’t sit back, instead they pressed for a second goal. There were more chances for Gullick and Hill before Hooper almost caught out Rovaretti at his near post with an audacious corner kick from the right. Risca were looking all over the place at this stage with mistakes at the back and in midfield almost costing them, the worst of which saw the home side guilty of overplaying in the area of the pitch where there was standing water.
A quick switch to the left by Ponty put James into acres of space and a free run at goal. He probably had too much time in the end, pushing the ball too wide and giving Rovaretti an advantageous angle to make a decent double save.
This period of domination was capped in the 64th minute with a goal that summed up Risca’s start to the second half. Long punt up field by Burnett should have been routinely dealt with by Risca’s centre backs, but neither did and let the ball bounce. Smith was quicker and more alert than Bailey to control the second ball, showing again his awareness by squaring to the better positioned Gullick, who lashed home left footed from the edge of the penalty area.
With a two-goal advantage Ponty were happy to sit back and let Risca push forward as they had to, opening up The Dragons’ rapid counter-attacking game. The home side kept going, without creating too much, and found themselves back in the game with six minutes to play.
A mistake at the back by Ponty gave an opportunity to Tom Berry; he couldn’t take his first bite, but was emphatic with his second. It was hardly believable that Risca now had a chance at taking something from the game considering how dominant Ponty had been for practically the entire match; however, it was a situation entirely of the visitor’s making.
Risca pressed and almost got their reward in the second minute of injury time. A deep cross from the left found Berry, who got above his marker and directed a header towards goal. It was a decent connection but not quite close enough to the corner and Burnett was able to make a fairly comfortable save. There would be no further chances for Risca as Pontypridd held on for a deserved victory and the three points.
The clubs meet again next weekend – this time at USW Sports Park – in the third round of Welsh Football League Cup.