ROCKS REVIEW: Rocks 3 Worthing 1
Jason Prior's third successive hat-trick shot the Rocks to within one win of the Ryman one south title as Worthing were beaten 3-1 in front of more than 1,300 at Nyewood Lane.
The Met Police also won - 4-0 at Corinthian Casuals - but the Rocks’ victory keeps them two points in front - so a win at Chatham on Saturday will secure the title and automatic promotion. Anything less and the Met will be ready to steal the crown.
The Rocks welcomed Dan Beck back into the starting line-up on an afternoon which they knew could see the title won, but on which they didn’t really expect it to be settled.
They began the day two points ahead of Met Police, both teams having two games left.
Conor Wilkins was the man to drop out of the starting line-up but he was on a strong bench. Worthing included former Rocks loanee Billy Franks in their XI.
The first action of any note saw Ben Johnson pick the ball up on the left touchline against his old side and go on a mazy run which took him into the six-yard box but ended with a shot that Tony di Bernardo saved comfortably.
The Rebels were enjoying plenty of possession but neither side could make an impact in the final third.
Dan Beck found Dan Royce with a high ball to the edge of the area and he headed down to Luke Nightingale, whose volley was blocked by a defender’s leg.
Prior wasted a free-kick 25 yards out when he sidefooted it weakly past the wall but straight at di Bernardo.
Dan White thought he was in with a sight of goal for Worthing but Tim Bond slid in perfectly to divert it for a corner. Callum Saunders’ second attempt at a cross after his kick was cleared caused Craig Stoner a nervous moment but he gathered it at the second attempt.
Kane Wills curled an ambitious shot high and wide after Prior won a chase for a through-ball and square-passed to him on 17 minutes.
Ex-Pagham striker George Gaskin had a lecture from the referee after leaving a foot in on Stuart Axten, who went down clutching his ankle but was soon okay to resume.
Johnson was seeing plenty of the ball down the left but was being tightly-marked by Ryan Timms. Johnson and Nightingale combined for the winger to go through but the pass was too strong and the keeper was there first.
There was just a hint of nervousness in some of the Rocks’ play as passes that have been going to feet for much of the season ran a little short or long.
Mike Huckett had a shooting chance for the Rebels when a loose ball fell to him 25 yards out but it was well wide.
Then the Rocks enjoyed a brief spell of pressure with good build-ups down both flanks, but each ball into the box was dealt with.
Steve Metcalf went down poleaxed by a James Crane that hit him full in the face. He was dazed but was okay after a couple of minutes’ treatment.
Huckett had the Rocks worried on 33 minutes with a fierce drive that beat Stoner but hit the side netting.
Then there was a sniff at the other end when Nightingale flicked on for Prior, who did well to get a boot to the ball before a defender but could only direct it at di Bernardo.
Prior got away down the left and played it inside to Johnson, but his rising shot after jinking into the area was weak by his standards.
News that the Met Police were leading 2-0 seemed to have left the home fans a little quiet.
On 38 minutes a Johnson free-kick on the left which followed a foul on Prior almost fell for two different Rocks players in the area. Eventually, though, Beck fired over. Axten was hurt in the scramble and needed treatment in the Rebels net. He was soon back on.
In the final minute of the first half, Prior wasted a free header from a Johnson corner, sending it well over the bar.
The last action of the first half saw Rebels left-back Metcalf yellow-carded for a late foul on Royce. HT 0-0
The half-time news from Corinthian Casuals was a 2-0 lead for the Met, which would give them and the Rocks an identical number of points and goals scored and conceded were the two scores to stay the same.
Two minutes into the second half, the Rocks took the lead – from nowhere.
An innocuous-looking forward pass down the left from Whitehead put Nightingale in and his cross was just strong enough for Prior, who hammered in his 35th league goal of the season – and the Rocks’ 100th – to the relief of the fans massed behind the clubhouse goal.
It was nearly two by the same route two minutes later as Whitehead beat his man and crossed for Nightingale, whose near-post shot was brilliantly turned away by di Bernardo.
A 51st-minute change saw the Rocks apparently attempt to stiffen up the midfield with Perry Ryan replacing Royce.
The crowd was revealed as 1,319 – almost double the previous best crowd in the division this season, which was 681 for the Met Police’s visit to the Lane.
It was 2-0 on 52 minutes and again it was the same combination of players who did the business. Whitehead swung in a right-footed cross from the left, Nightingale got up superbly at the far post to nod it back into the centre and Prior did the rest.
The double strike had lifted the tension around the Lane but the Rocks now had to make sure they didn’t do anything silly to let the Rebels back into it.
Johnson tried to get in on the act with a shot from all of 40 yards on the left touchline which went over the keeper but beyond the far post.
Prior tried to return the compliment with a pass to put Nightingale through but he was offside.
The Rocks looked a different team and were getting forward with confidence. A Crane cross from the right was aimed at Prior but he was outjumped by his marker.
A couple of Worthing changes were aimed at changing the course of things. John Lansdale replaced Franks and Mark Pulling came on for Gaskin.
But it couldn’t stop the Rocks progress immediately and Wills forced di Bernardo into a low diving save from an acute angle.
The Rocks made a change on 67 minutes with Dean Maynard coming on for Beck, who may have been tiring in his first start after several weeks out with a knee injury.
Whitehead was looking for a third assist on 72 minutes with a low cross into the box from the left, then Nightingale ought to have made it 3-0 but beat the far post as well as the keeper after being played in by Ryan.
Prior was a whisker away from his third successive hat-trick with a beauty of a free-kick from 30 yards which di Bernardo tipped over. Then the Rocks were vainly claiming a penalty when the resultant corner appeared to hit a Rebels hand.
Nightingale spotted the keeper off his line in the 79th minute but hit his audacious chip wide.
Seven minutes from time, Prior completed that hat-trick by running on to Ryan’s flick-on, outmuscling his marker and poking the ball past di Bernardo.
With five minutes to go, Prior was replaced by Conor Wilkins – presumably because he hadn’t followed up his three and four-goal shows with five on this occasion. He got a fantastic ovation from the crowd and it was confirmed no-one in the club’s history has scored three straight hat-tricks before.
Wills and Maynard teed up Johnson with two minutes left but it was high and wide.
Whitehead and Prior were named joint men of the match by the sponsors.
Wills picked up a booking in stoppage time for kicking the ball away after the whistle.
Worthing scored a consolation goal in injury time as White broke free in the box and drove past a helpless Stoner.
But even that late goal couldn’t hide the home crowd’s delight at a result which leaves the Rocks one win from the title.
The Rocks had an on-pitch huddle after the game, which they hoped would be their final appearance at the Lane this season. The only thing that can force them back into action at home will be finishing second and facing the play-offs. Every player and member of the backroom staff circled the exterior of the pitch to salute the fans for their support this season, and the thanks were returned in equal measure.
Now they’ll be out to make sure that threat of play-offs doesn’t happen by finishing the job at Chatham on Saturday – knowing that a draw will not be enough for top spot if Met Police win at home to Merstham.
Rocks: Stoner, Crane, Whitehead, Wills, Axten, Bond, Royce, Beck, Prior, Nightingale, Johnson. Subs: Wilkins, Maynard, Ryan, Turner, James.
Worthing: Di Bernardo, Timms, Metcalf, Lawley, Franks, Farmer, Saunders, Huckett, Gaskin, Manton, White. Subs: Pulling, Lansdale, Dodd, Burton, Fernandes.
Ref: J Taafe (Godalming).