MATCH SPONSOR: LINDEN HIRE
By Ian Ridley
After suffering the loss of Tom Whelan, Whites manager Steve Claridge is now sweating on the fitness of Justin Bennett ahead of tomorrow’s big play-off against Evesham United at the Ray Mac (Wednesday April 26th, kick-off 7.45pm).
Tom’s serious calf injury sustained in the 1-0 win at Bideford on Saturday has ruled him out of the Whites’ midfield and Steve is now waiting to hear if Justin has recovered from his hamstring strain before he settles on his side and formation to take on the Worcestershire side.
“Tom is a massive loss, I can’t deny that,” Steve lamented. “He gets us playing and has been one of the best players for us this season, if not the best. Everyone around the squad knows what a loss he is.
“It means I’m still considering options and a lot depends on Justin. We won’t know what’s what until just before kick-off so it’s really a waiting game until then. It’s a question of getting the balance of the side right without Tom.
“It’s a real shame,” added Steve. “A week ago, we thought we finally had a full squad ahead of the play-offs after a terrible season for injuries but then this happens. There are some big decisions to be made.”
Better news for Steve has been the full recovery of Brian Dutton and Callum Hart from flu, which they were both still struggling with in the win at Bideford, a result that clinched the remarkable finish of a runners-up spot in Evo-Stik Southern South and West behind Hereford after Whites were mid-table before Christmas.
In addition, Eddie Perrett has recovered from a head injury and Sam Roberts came unscathed through the Development Squad’s fine 2-0 win at Sholing in the semi-final of the John Stimpson Memorial Shield last night.
Evesham, who finished fifth in Evo-Stik Southern South and West, come to the Ray Mac on the back of a 4-2 win at AFC Totton on Saturday. They will also be without a key man in defender Liam Harding, their player of the season, who recently sustained a long-term cruciate ligament injury.
Whites beat an obdurate Evesham at the Ray Mac on opening day with a late Tommy Wright goal – the first of his 50 in all competitions so far this season - but were beaten 3-2 at the Jubilee Stadium in November, a defeat which came just before the team finally hit the form that produced 21 wins from their last 24 league games.
In that spell Whites conceded just 15 goals and in finishing second in the table ended up top scorers in the league with 118 goals.
“A lot of things have changed over the course of the season and those two games,” said Steve.
“They’ve brought in a lot of players and have plenty of options after doing some business around deadline day. It’s a very different side to the one we played on opening day.
“I felt we should have got something at their place. We should have been two up early on but then the defensive problems we had in early season resurfaced and we gave them a three-goal start. Even then, we had a great chance to take a point right at the end.”
Thus is the stage set for another epic encounter, with the nine-point gap between the two sides in the final league table counting for nothing.
And Steve wants another big and supportive home crowd to help get Whites into a play-off final that would also take place at the Ray Mac if they win, next Monday at 3pm.
“We need everybody to be there to help us get over the line,” said Steve. “We may have got the home tie everyone wanted but Evesham are dangerous, make no mistake. It should be some game and some night.”
*Gates and bar will open at 6.30pm. Please note this game is all-pay and season tickets are not valid. If they so wish, season ticket holders will be allowed into the ground at 6.15pm to claim their usual seats.
MATCH SPONSOR: LINDEN HIRE