Hadleigh United march on at the top

HEADS UP: Paul Donnelly wins an aerial battle
HEADS UP: Paul Donnelly wins an aerial battle

THURLOW NUNN LEAGUE PREMIER DIVISION: Hadleigh United 3 Cambridge Regional College (CRC) 1

With the weather wiping out most of the division’s games, Hadleigh took advantage of getting theirs on to open up a 16-point gap at the top.

CELEBRATION TIME: Duane Wright (centre) enjoys the aftermath of his goal

CELEBRATION TIME: Duane Wright (centre) enjoys the aftermath of his goal

After a hit-and-miss start, which saw Hadleigh let their Cambridgeshire opponents test them on the break, three first-half goals from the hosts in a blistering nine-minute spell sent them on their way to their seventh straight win.

It is hard to see Stuart Crawford’s side relinquishing top spot on their first-half performance, but the second 45 gave an indication that their Achilles’ heel may actually be themselves.

The foot certainly came off the gas after James Akintunde’s glancing header just before the break had given the Scholars something to cling on to in the dressing room.

But for all the visitors’ pretty, intricate football, even when the heavens opened above the Millfield, they could not reignite the game with a crucial second goal.

ALL SMILES: Hadleigh's players celebrate their opening goal from Matt Downing (fourth from left)

ALL SMILES: Hadleigh's players celebrate their opening goal from Matt Downing (fourth from left)

On a day where only games at Brightlingsea, Ely, Felixstowe and Norwich were deemed able to beat the effects of the downpours, there was a late change to Hadleigh’s starting line-up with Liam Jennings feeling an injury re-occur in the warm-up, leading Michael Barwick to be promoted from the substitutes’ bench.

If there were no downpours at kick-off, there was certainly soon a deluge of corners forced by the Suffolk hosts, though to start with there was little reward for it.

The confident swagger in Hadleigh’s early forays forward was almost punished on the break as CRC forced captain Paul Donnelley to put in a good block on the edge of the area.

It led to the skipper’s very audible call for his teammates to up their tempo and the quality of their play in all departments of the pitch.

Goalkeeper Fred Howe had to save with his legs from the lively Akintunde before the Brettsiders began to click into gear.

After Tesfaye Bramble peeled off his marker only to send his header sailing high and in the wrong direction, bright starter Canfer missed a glorious opportunity to open the scoring after somehow steering his volley over the crossbar from close range.

But as there were more corners in the opening half an hour than shots, it was appropriate Hadleigh’s first goal went in directly from an expertly-dispatched flag-kick.

With 28 minutes on the clock, Josh Banthorpe was caught embarrassingly out as Matt Downing’s inswinging left-footed effort curled over his head and a forest of players to drop nonchalantly into the far corner.

Just five minutes later, the same route to goal paid dividends once again, as Duane Wright stretched his neck muscles to direct his header over Banthorpe.

The CRC goalkeeper was the busier of the two and was off his line smartly to block at the feet of Bramble 37 minutes in after Josh Mayhew played his strike partner in, before Canfer’s galloping run was rewarded as he smashed the rebound into the roof of the net.

Staring down the barrel of a potential hiding, CRC – Skrill Conference leaders Cambridge United’s feeder side – responded well with Akintunde’s glancing near-post header catching Howe out and dropping in at the far post two minutes before the break.

Before that, leading scorer Josh Mayhew threatened his 18th of the season with a left-foot curling shot that whistled past the post, but the sides went in at half-time with Hadleigh holding a 3-1 advantage.

Canfer fired just over the angle of post and bar and Bramble’s header went agonisingly close to the target as the hosts looked to be showing no let up in their attacking intent.

But whether it was complacency; more urgency from the visitors or the effects of tiring legs on a heavy pitch, Hadleigh were soon having to do much of their work without the ball.

Donnelly reacted well to a dangerous right-wing cross to Bobby-Joe Taylor to twice block goalbound shots in the area just before the hour mark.

But that was as close as they came to sparking the game back into life, despite some admirable pretty football in fast deteriorating conditions.

The result was comfortable enough in the end for Hadleigh, but the lacklustre second-half display from his side will have caused some concern for Crawford ahead of Saturday’s trip to seventh-placed Mildenhall Town (3pm).

Hadleigh: Howe, Trotter, Wardley, Barwick (Calver 65), Goldfinch, Donnelly, Canfer (Stafford 71), Wright, Bramble, Mayhew, Downing (Chaplin 60). Unused sub: Rose.

Free Press man of the match: Ollie Canfer. At the heart of all the home side’s good play and had to work hard in front of the defence after the break.

* For match stats and more pictures, see Thursday’s Suffolk Free Press print edition.