Chichester City picked up three precious points against Phoenix Sports to leapfrog the London-based club into ninth place in the Isthmian south east division in a game full of drama.
It’s the Oaklands Park outfit’s first win in the league since the second week of September, when they beat current leaders Cray Valley PM away. In the two months or so since that win Chi have been busy with cup fixtures in both the Velocity and FA Trophy competitions, alongside the FA Cup.
Ahead of the trip to Tranmere manager Miles Rutherford made just one change to the side that drew 1-1 at home to Sittingbourne last time out as Kaleem Haitham returned to the XI, with Emmett Dunn on the bench together with Rory Biggs, Matt Axell, Jimmy Wild and Ryan Peake.
Chichester had drawn three successive league games coming into this encounter while the hosts, who finished mid-table last season, had picked up the same number of points in their last three – a win against Faversham and losses to Hastings and Whyteleafe.
A pulsating opening ten minutes set the tone for what was to come. Haitham sent Gicu Iordache scampering down the left. A neat turn by the Romanian got him past a defender but his through ball to Scott Jones was intercepted by the Phoenix keeper Steve Phillips. Then Ryan Davidson pinged a long pass to Gicu only for Davidson’s counterpart Ryan Andrews to tidy up.
Phillips went route one and found Kenny Aileru who brought the ball down nicely, eluded a tackle and fed George Whitelock. Whitelock whipped in a cross that Corey Heath cleared for the first corner of the game. Steve Mowthorpe got a strong glove on this but Chi conceded a cheap free-kick. Ben Allen’s sweetly struck set-piece rattled the crossbar.
Two other chances came and went for the home side in as many minutes. Whitelock picked out Allen but the No10, who hit a hat-trick against Margate in the Kent Cup recently, couldn’t get a decent connection before a timely intervention by Davidson denied Jeff Duah-Kessie. Josh Clack next linked up with an overlapping Rob Hutchings as the visitors probed down the left again. Hutchings’ delivery was turned out for a corner that came to nothing.
Haitham had an opportunity but took a touch too many perhaps before Phillips did well to collect a Clack cross. Chichester were in the game now with Lloyd Rowlatt their stand-out player orchestrating things in the middle of the park. Clack was also getting more of the ball and played Haitham in with an intelligent pass on 26 minutes. Haitham jinked this way and that and got a shot off which Jack Barry blocked.
A poor touch from Duah-Kessie at the other end after a slick move saw a chance go begging for the home side. Connor Cody got on the end of a Rowlatt set-piece but Phillips had his header covered and Aileru had a go with an effort from outside the box following a mistake by Jamie Horncastle.
The deadlock was finally broken just after the half hour when Chi’s top scorer Haitham drilled the ball out of Phillips’ reach into the bottom left hand corner following good work by Iordache in the build-up. And Chichester should have doubled their lead within 60 seconds but Jones couldn’t quite lift the ball over an onrushing Phillips and the keeper managed to turn his lob out for a corner.
Phillips was called into action again diving low to his right to claim a fierce Iordache shot. Allen cracked the woodwork once more as the hosts sought an equaliser. A determined run from Duah-Kessie caused havoc and then a great tackle by Corey Heath and a good bit of defending from his partner Cody helped Chi clear their lines.
Whitelock might have done better with a header as the interval approached before Phoenix were reduced to ten men when Aileru was shown a straight red for a heavy challenge on Haitham just outside the box. Clack’s free-kick, the last kick of the half, fizzed narrowly wide of the post.
The visitors got off to a dream start after the break as Rowlatt headed in a Clack cross past Phillips for a 2-0 lead. Phillips was then almost caught out by Iordache but gathered the ball at the second attempt. Iordache teed up Jones moments later only for his shot on the turn to cannon off Danny Young. The ball fell kindly to Rowlatt whose attempt skewed off target.
The momentum started to shift. A smart pass from Lee Bird to Duah-Kessie gave the striker time to shoot but Mowthorpe saved before Chi were undone after defensive mistakes either side of the hour mark. Duah-Kessie got in far too easily for the first goal and Whitelock pulled the hosts level when the visitors failed to deal with a long throw by Allen.
Chi, cruising earlier with their extra man advantage, suddenly looked shaky. Things were disrupted still further when referee James Simpson had to be replaced by one of his assistants after pulling a calf muscle.
Both sides wasted opportunities to seize the initiative. Phoenix skipper Young headed over and Gicu couldn’t keep a shot down - before Cody grabbed the winner. The Chi captain, who’d rescued a point with his first goal of the season against Sittingbourne, found himself on the scoresheet for the second Saturday in a row, turning in a delivery from the right.
Rutherford & Co changed it up bringing on Peake for Heath, Wild for Jones and Dunn for Horncastle. The last ten minutes were even more frantic than the opening ten and the hosts could have come back for a third time and gone on to take all three points. Another Alllen long throw caused problems; Jack Barry steered a free-kick dangerously into the six yard area; a mix up between Mowthorpe and Cody led to a penalty shout; and then Whitelock missed a sitter – blazing over from close range.
Next Haitham hit the same crossbar Allen had struck twice in the first half before a real VAR moment came and went when a Phoenix shot hit the uprights and bounced down. The visitors managed to hang on to preserve a four-month unbeaten run on the road in their first campaign at this level. The win takes them to within four points of the teams in the play-off spots with games in hand.
Chichester – Mowthorpe, Davidson, Hutchings, Horncastle, Cody, Heath, Clack, Iordache, Jones, Rowlatt, Haitham. Subs – (Wild, Peake, Biggs, Dunn, Axell).
Chichester travel up to the Wirral on Saturday. The second round Emirates FA Cup tie with League One Tranmere Rovers is live on BT Sport on Sunday (3pm). Stick with this website for all the build-up during the week.