Roughly six months to the day since the 2019-20 season came to a shuddering halt, Leek were finally back in competitive action. And how the ring-rustiness showed!! Although Leek won the game 2-1 with goals from Jack Wakefield and Matt Bell with Kieron Whittaker reducing the arrears, they were given many problems by a team playing its fourth competitive game of 20/21. Indeed, had the visitors possessed a player with the ability to find that final telling pass then it may well have been Sporting Khalsa who made progress in the Emirates FA Cup rather than the Blues.
The first half was a drab affair and the opening goal came like a shaft of sunlight that suddenly appears in a leaden sky. A near-post flick by Tim Grice saw Wakefield fire home from close range for his first senior goal.
Leek started the second half brightly. Despite fading later in the game, Rob Stevenson had caused the visiting defenders problems with his pace from the start and felt he should have been awarded a penalty when sandwiched in the box. He and Grice combined to dispossess a defender but impressive Lions’ keeper Sam Arnold went down smartly to his left to save and Arnold was later to deny Leek’s record goal-scorer with a double save shortly afterwards. Grice was sent clear and believed he would score his landmark goal but the keeper stood tall to parry an attempted lob before clutching the follow-up attempt.
The Blues’ second goal came from a sweetly-struck free-kick. Wakefield was fouled some twenty-five yards from goal and Bell swerved his dead-ball effort around the wall and into the top corner. Grice then had a further headed attempt cleared from the line by Matt Fulloway
The second goal should have killed off the contest but Sporting hit back with the best goal of the three. Whittaker was allowed to make progress through Leek’s midfield and fired his side back into the tie with an early shot that had the venom to leave Danny Roberts motionless as the ball flew past him.
That signalled the start of a harrowing closing chapter to the match. The visitors had been fluid in their approach work throughout but the intensity increased in the closing stages. It was full credit to the Leek defence – who had dealt throughout with some dangerous set-pieces in imperious fashion – limited their opponents to two attempts from outside the box that were comfortably dealt with by Roberts.
At the final whistle the Lions’ Manager Ian Rowe had strong words with the match officials and left the pitch in high dudgeon. Maybe he was upset that a rash challenge by Bell that caused a minor melee had gone unpunished. Or perhaps it was frustration that a chance to take an FA Cup scalp had gone begging for his Midland League outfit.
Following the game Leek Manager Neil Baker spoke exclusively to Moorland Sport. He said “These games are never easy. You could tell they had played more games by their sharpness and fluidity but I didn’t feel that – apart from set-plays- they would cause us a lot of trouble. I couldn’t put my finger on why we were so ring-rusty. Wakefield did ok. He has ability and stamina and will get better. What he did do was get in at the back-post for a tap-in. I’ve been trying to get Stevenson to do that for three years!!! One of my staff remarked about what a good bench we’ve got. To be honest if I could have made more substitutes today then I would have done. Midway through the second half I wondered whether I needed to change the formation or did I need legs. I changed my mind. But we got there. We just about got there.”