THERE was yet more play-off heartache for Evesham United as a penalty shoot-out defeat to Swindon Supermarine sentenced the Robins to a third semi-final exit in four seasons on Wednesday.
Despite being the more threatening side for most of the 90 minutes and extra-time at the Jubilee Stadium, Paul Collicutt’s side were held to a 1-1 draw before being beaten 5-4 on spot-kicks.
Player of the season and top goalscorer Adam Mann was the only player to miss in the shoot-out as he dragged Evesham’s third kick wide of the target and departing United keeper Kevin Sawyer was powerless to keep out any of the visitors’ superb five penalties.
Evesham had fought back from conceding an early goal to former Robin Bradley Gray to equalise through the prolific Matt Liddiard but, despite creating numerous good chances, they were unable to find a winner and it was the visitors who progressed to visit Wimborne Town in Monday’s Southern League West final.
Collicutt, whose side had clinched fourth place thanks to Liddiard’s goal in Saturday’s 1-0 home win over AFC Totton, had nothing but praise for his side.
“Football is a cruel game and yet again that’s the case for us in the play-offs. We were the better team over the 90 minutes and in extra-time, we created the better chances, but could not take them and it’s come back to haunt us,” said Collicutt.
“Adam Mann has been our player of the season and unfortunately he’s fired his penalty wide, whilst they’ve taken five brilliant penalties.
“There’s absolutely no blame attached to Manny whatsoever and he’s inconsolable to be honest. It’s very hard to take another play-off defeat, once again in heart-breaking circumstances.”
Gray headed Swindon ahead in the 17th minute and they retained that lead until half-time despite Evesham’s best efforts, including a one-on-one save to deny Olly Mehew.
United drew level two minutes into the second half through Liddiard’s emphatic finish from a set-piece, but that was the end of the scoring despite a barrage of Evesham pressure.
In fact, it was Swindon who came closing to breaking the stalemate when Zak Westlake crashed a header against the bar from close range in the third minute of stoppage time at the end of normal time.
Further pressure from the hosts brought no reward in the extra period and, despite successful penalties from Liddiard, Garyn Preen, Ewen Dunbar and Andy Lewis, United’s promotion hopes once again ended at the first play-off hurdle.
Collicutt added: “Preen, Mann and Mehew all had good chances that on another day they’d put away, so it’s hurting badly.
“Their keeper has made an incredible save to keep out Garyn (Preen) with the strike which he’s tipped on to the bar and post and, at the other end, I can’t really remember the big man (Sawyer) having to make a big save.
“There are some positives though. At one point, some people had written off our chances of making the play-offs but we produced a fine run to reach them.
“Everyone has got to take stock for a few days now and let this sink in, but at the moment this is all very hard to take.”