Sheppey United 1-4 Walsall - I'm going to look back at this day forever, says Sheppey United goalscorer James Bessey-Saldanha

Friday 03rd November 2023
Sheppey United 1 – 4 Walsall
Location Holm Park, St Peters Close, Queenborough Road, Halfway, Sheerness, Kent ME12 3BD
Kickoff 03/11/2023 19:45

The Emirates FA Cup First Round
Friday 3 November 2023
Stephen McCartney reports from Holm Park

PROUD Sheppey United manager Ernie Batten says his side acquitted themselves very well as their FA Cup journey came to an end in front of a worldwide television audience. 

Sheppey United – the lowest ranked side in the First Round – gave ITV4 viewers exactly what they craved when left-winger James Bessey-Saldanha, 27, scored his first goal of the season to give the Isthmian League South East Division hosts a 21st minute lead, in front of a record all-ticket 1,450 sold out crowd at Holm Park.

However, Mat Sadler’s side levelled just 11 minutes later through a clinical finish from striker Douglas James-Taylor, who punished a mistake.

Walsall continued to dominate during a one-sided second half with winger Tom Knowles finding the far corner, before attacking midfielder Ross Tierney swept in a third, before winger Isaac Hutchinson slammed in a controversial late fourth.

“Very proud. I thought we acquitted ourselves very well,” said Batten, whose side created three chances agaisnt a side four levels and 92 teams above them.

“It’s always difficult against a full-time, professional team. The fitness levels are much higher but I thought overall we did well, especially in the first half where I think we matched them over the park.

“They were always going to have a lot of the ball. It was how we kept our shape and made sure that we tried to nullify them as much as possible and I thought we were very good when the ball came in to our box in defending.

“Our two centre-halves, in particular, were very good and I thought it limited their amount of clear chances.  They had a few half-chances but overall, I thought we defended really well in the first half.

“To see us on TV and all the interviews.  The schools had a non-uniform day today and things like that. It’s just absolutely incredible and I’m very proud of the Isle of Sheppey at the moment.

“I’m very pleased with everything. Sheppey’s been put on the map tonight. To have the cameras here, it’s quite emotional actually because to think we’re we’ve come from eight or nine years ago to where we are today, is fantastic. Although we’ve lost that game tonight, everybody’s got a smile on their face.

“Like every week, they’ve (my players) given us everything that they can. We was in with a shout first half and we got the goal and we got our noses in front. 

“I think it was an error from us actually. We gave the ball away centrally, which handed them an opportunity to score the equaliser.  But we got to half-time and the second half the boys couldn’t have given any more and we was up against a professional team and the fitness levels did come into play.”

Batten’s side went into their maiden First Round tie sitting in fourteenth-place in their league (the eighth-tier of English football), having picked up eight points (two wins and two draws) from their six league outings.

The Ites started their FA Cup journey on 19 August, by beating Sussex side Midhurst & Easebourne 3-0, before going on to beat Ashford-based Kennington (3-1), their league rivals Burgess Hill Town (3-0), before pulling off a couple of upsets.

Batten’s men came away from Welsh side Merthyr Town with an impressive 4-1 win in the Third Qualifying Round, which set up a tie against Isthmian League Premier Division side Billericay Town.

Sheppey United put in an impressive performance in a 1-1 draw in Essex, before beating Gary McCann’s side 4-2 on penalties here, on a memorable Tuesday night, after another 1-1 draw.

Mat Sadler’s Walsall, meanwhile, arrived at Holm Park sitting in fifteenth-place in the League Two table, having picked up 20 points (five wins and five draws) from their 16 league outings.

The Saddlers reached the Fourth Round last season, losing at then Premier League side Leicester City by a single goal.

Walsall produced many passages of good passing football on the artificial pitch and went close to taking an eighth minute lead when Ryan Stirk played the ball into James-Taylor, who drilled a deflected drive past the foot of the near post.

Stirk floated Walsall’s first of 10 corners in from the right and holding midfielder Osin McEntee rose at the far post to steer his header across goal and past the far post.

Just 27 seconds later, Walsall left-back Liam Gordon played a pass up to Hutchinson, who played the ball inside to James-Taylor before Stirk fed Tierney, whose right-footed drive from 30-yards screamed past the far post.

Bessey-Saldanha admitted it was a struggle to keep the ball against League Two opposition.

He said: “They are quick, they’re so quick.  The amount of time you get on the ball in that game, compared to a normal Saturday for us, it was a big difference, a really big difference.

“First touch of the ball, three of them are on you within like less than a second.  You notice it and we’re a team that like to play football. We pass it out quite a lot and even today with them pressing us like they did.  We tried to play football and teams in our league, they don’t press you like that, so it was hard but we stuck to our guns, we still tried to play our game.”

A long ball out of defence by Walsall’s right-back Joe Riley was played in behind Sheppey United’s centre-back Olamilekan Majoyegbe and McEntee cut the ball back from the by-line for James-Taylor to sweep his first time shot, which was held by Aiden Prall, to his right.

James-Taylor played a one-two with Hutchinson before cutting into the box down the left-hand side and his shot was blocked by Prall’s legs.

The 25-year-old former Charlton Athletic and Corinthian goalkeeper excelled in front of the television cameras and put in an outstanding first half performance.

Stirk released Gordon, who cut into the box down the left and Prall got down swiftly to his left and used a strong left-hand to keep out the low angled drive, before his centre-half Connor Wilkins cleared the ball towards safety in the 17th minute.

However, Sheppey United grabbed the lead – totally against-the-run-of-play – with their only chance of the first half, timed at 20 minutes and 26 seconds on the clock.

The goal was a trademark Sheppey United sweeping move – on the deck.

Sheppey United’s right-back Mamadou Diallo pressed Gordon, the ball was worked to Daniel Bradshaw, who played the ball to Jacob Lambert in the middle, who swept the ball to Bessey-Saldanha, who cut inside Walsall right-back Joe Riley, before drilling a sublime right-footed shot into the top left-hand corner from 25-yards, giving goalkeeper Owen Evans no chance.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Bessey-Saldanha, when asked about his special strike.

“The ball came to me, the goal was there, I had to shoot in that position. I couldn’t pass in that position and it flew into the top of the net.  I don’t know what to say – it was just the best feeling in the world, honestly.

“When it went in, I was shocked more than anything to be honest.  You can tell by the celebration, all the boys, it meant so much.

“I’ve played in this competition since I was 18, played in the preliminary rounds, never got to the first round, never been able to play against the pro clubs and scoring and it’s the first time I’ve done that, is just, yes, it’s the best feeling in the world.

“I left my phone in the car but the boys have been showing me the goal (after the game).  Honestly, it was a good strike – I’m very, very pleased with it.

“We’ve got to get back to the league now and focus on that – but I’m going to look back at this day forever.

“I can’t go out (tonight) – I’ve got to work tomorrow. I’m a digital marketer.  I won’t be able to sleep. It will be hours and hours before I will be able to sleep. The feeling will stick with me for ever, for hours, honestly, days, months.”

Batten said: “It was a good move. They’re the types of moves that we’ve been producing this season. Unfortunately, tonight we couldn’t produce a lot of them but that was sort of a trademark goal for us.

“James has been hitting the cows at the back of the field for most of the season.  He’s struggled to find the target but how he made up with that one – it was a great goal!  It was fantastic and it gave us a great platform in the first half.”

The impressive Hutchinson linked up well with Tierney, before James-Taylor curled his right-footed 22-yard effort around the far post, as the Holm Park faithful believed that they were going to witness a giant-killing act.

However, Walsall’s attacks kept coming and Prall was beaten by James-Taylor’s shot but Wilkins was behind him to ensure the ball was cleared away, before Walsall’s dominance was rewarded with an equalising goal with 31:08 on the clock.

Sheppey United’s holding midfielder Josh Wisson attempted to play a 20-yard pass back towards Majoyegbe but the ball failed to find his team-mate and was intercepted by James-Taylor, who strode towards Majoyegbe, cut into the box and placed his right-footed shot across Prall’s outstretched right-leg to find the bottom far corner.

“If you make an error like that and nine times out of 10 you’re going to get punished,” admitted Batten, who was then asked how Wisson was feeling in the dressing room.

“He was ok. He’s a great lad. It didn’t affect him.  He kept going and kept trying to drive the team forward but he’ll be disappointed but these things happen in football.”

Prall – a tree surgeon who revealed that he was working at 10:30 this morning – pulled off a brilliant save the 33rd minute.

James-Taylor and Stirk linked up well outside the box before Hutchinson unleashed a right-footed drive which was destined for the top right-hand corner from 25-yards, only for Prall to dive high to his left and use a strong left hand to push over the crossbar.

Batten said: “He is highly-rated. I’ve said many times, he’s showed what a good goalkeeper he was tonight. He’s an excellent goalkeeper. We’re very pleased that he’s here.  To have success in football, you need a good goalkeeper, you need a good back four and that’s what you build your side on.”

Wilkins attempted to play a cross-field pass out to left-back Frankie Del Morgan, but the ball was intercepted by Knowles, who cut inside and cracked a left-footed drive from 25-yards, which forced Prall to fly to his left to push another shot around the post.

Prall continued to impress and continued to thwart a dominant Walsall side and pulled off another brilliant save in the 40th minute.

Playmaker Stirk and Gordon linked up before Stirk cracked a 25-yard drive towards the top right-hand corner, only for Prall to claw the ball out with his right-hand, diving high to his left.

Prall’s heroics ensured Batten’s side went into the interval on level terms.

“We just said keep going because I thought we competed well and thought we nullified them a lot, although Aiden did make some saves, I thought we defended well.

“I just thought if we could produce more moves like we did for the goal and work the ball out to try to keep the ball a little bit longer, build the play a little bit quicker then we’ll have another opportunity to get a goal.”

Sheppey United missed a glorious chance to double their lead - on the counter attack -  just 119 seconds into the second half.

Winger Danny Leonard picked the ball up inside the Walsall half and with four Walsall players back, picked out Del Morgan with a sublime crossfield diagonal ball, right to left, in a four-v-two raid.

The left-back whipped in a great deep cross towards substitute striker Alexander Willis, who lacked composure and poked his first time shot past the near post from six-yards.

“Goals change games, as they say, If one of them goes in then we’ve got our noses in front and it could be different,” admitted Batten.

“It was a good chance, it was a good chance. It was a great ball from Frankie. He’s spotted him on the outside there and it was an excellent chance and a real shame that he couldn’t convert it.”

Willis replaced talisman seven-goal striker Daniel Bradshaw, who lasted 44 minutes before hobbling off with a hamstring injury, having pulled up after scoring in the two previous FA Cup ties against Billericay Town, after rushing back too early.

“Very much a gamble. I think the thing was he played against Billericay and got two goals (in two games), both times he was struggling a little but we just took another chance on him tonight.  We had nothing to lose really. He’s been having a lot of treatment and he did come through training on Wednesday night, so it was a gamble that we thought was worth taking,” said Batten.

Walsall regained control, however,  and Prall was called into action shortly afterwards.

The impressive Stirk fed Hutchinson, who cut in from the left and curled his shot towards the far corner, forcing Prall to fly to his left to make another save.

Sheppey United created their third and final chance of the game in the 51st minute.

Knowles was penalised for a foul on Del Morgan down the left and Richard Hamill floated in a left-footed free-kick, which visiting goalkeeper Evans flapped at and Wilkins sliced a half-volley past the near post from 16-yards.

“Connor was carrying a little bit of an ankle injury at that time.  Maybe if he could’ve been a little bit fitter, he may have finished that but it was a decent chance,” added Batten.

Walsall were a threat down the left with Hutchinson and he cut inside past Diallo before drilling his right-footed shot flashing just past the foot of the near post.

Walsall’s dominance paid off as they took the lead for the first time with seven minutes and 17 seconds on the clock.

Wilkins gave the ball away in the build-up, before Hutchinson played a 20-yard diagonal pass through to Knowles, who took a touch before clinically finding the bottom right-hand corner with a right-footed dipping drive from 25-yards.

“It was disappointing. Again, if you lose possession of the ball in those areas against quality players, they’re going to punish you,” said Batten.

Walsall’s seventh corner saw Tierney play the ball short to Hutchinson, before Tierney floated in a cross towards the edge of the six-yard box, which was met by James-Taylor’s glancing header, which just cleared the crossbar.

Gordon joined another Walsall attack when he played the ball to Stirk, who dragged his first-time shot across the keeper and past the far post.

Gordon then whipped in a cross on the hour-mark into the box, the ball was knocked down by Hutchinson but Tierney’s shot on the turn was smashed over the crossbar from eight-yards out.

Hutchinson cut in once again and Prall made a more comfortable save before Walsall killed the game off with their third goal, timed at 18:03.

Centre-half Donervorn Daniels drove forward before playing a 20-yard pass into Hutchinson, who swept a first time left-footed shot across Prall to find the bottom left-corner from 12-yards to score his eighth goal of the season.

“I think at that stage we were starting to tire a little bit and it was hard to get out,” admitted Batten.

“We were allowing them to run at us, to run to the edge of our box and to play their football, whereas in the first half we managed to stay up a little bit and prevented them getting to our box.

“It’s just the fitness levels, the way that they move the ball quickly and move you around and we were working extremely hard to keep in shape and keep them at bay.  As the game grew on, the fitness levels started to take it’s toll.  They were always going to have more space in there.”

Dominant Walsall kept knocking on the door and Prall made a comfortable save down on his knees as Knowles stroked a left-footed drive towards goal from 22-yards in the final 13 minutes.

Batten made a double change in the final seven minutes, bringing on defender Daniel Birch and attacker Oladipo Durowoju and decided to go for it, ditching the policy of keeping 10 or 11 men behind the ball and switching to a brave 4-4-2 formation.

Walsall right-back Joe Riley stroked a shot past the near post when he got in behind Del Morgan after being played in by Knowles.

Walsall scored a controversial fourth goal, timed at 41:56 on the clock, when Prall had two hands on the ball as he bravely smothered at the feet of James-Taylor, before Hutchinson took a couple of touches before steering the ball into the back of the net.

“I’m disappointed with that one,” admitted Batten. “I thought the referee may have given a foul for that.  I’ve seen it back on the cameras and Aiden’s got both hands on it. It’s the referee’s call, isn’t it.  A lot of referees, they do protect goalkeepers nine times out of 10.  You would’ve thought he would’ve blown for that but there you go.

“I think 4-1 was slightly harsh. I think the last goal was a foul on Aiden but I think he made some good saves as well but I thought overall it was probably a fair result.”

Sheppey United’s players received a deserved standing ovation from their fans at the final whistle, as they took the acclaim as they walked around the pitch.  It was a night for everyone to be proud off.

“Just the reaction there from the fans, it was as if we won the game. They’ve really come in their numbers and supported us and I think we could’ve sold at least 3,500 tickets, so it’s been fantastic,” said Batten.

“It’s magical, it’s absolutely fantastic to get a capacity crowd. I thought the crowd really helped us, they kept going, they kept cheering for us, even when things were getting tough and at the end they’ve given the lads a standing ovation, I’m really pleased with them.

“I think the highlight of the run was getting to this sort of stage, beating Billericay in the replay and the dramatic penalties that we had.  I think that stands out and tonight was always going to be the reward for that and if we had pulled off the miracle, great, but I think it was a night to enjoy what the club have achieved.”

Attention now turns to the bread and butter of Isthmian League football – away from the glare of the national media - and a visit from bottom-of-the-table side Beckenham Town to Holm Park next Tuesday night (19:45).

Jason Huntley’s men have picked up four points from eight games and are suffering second season syndrome after losing 1-0 away to Whitehawk in the play-off semi-finals last season.

“I’ve just said to the boys, we’ve got to turn our attention to the league and it’s all about that now and hopefully we can use this experience to go and have a good campaign,” said Batten.

“I think for a club like ourselves continuing to grow, we have to aim for those play-offs and hopefully we’ll be there. We’ve shown that we’ve got a good outfit here.

“We’re a little thin on numbers with injuries so we probably need to add to the squad but if we can do that successfully and recruit well, then I think we could be in with a play-off shout.”

Goalkeeper Prall, meanwhile, reflected on a career highlight.

“I knew before coming in, you’re playing a higher league opposition so I was going to be busy and at the end of the day we’re proud of ourselves.  We’ve given everything, the players have chucked themselves at the ball and you can only do as well as you can.

“You come into the game, it’s a whole different atmosphere with the cameras here and the crowd and it’s an incredible experience and I think we’ve done ourselves proud.”

When asked about his first television appearance, Prall said: “You forget the cameras are there. When the guy’s lining up a shot from the edge of the box, I’m not going ‘the cameras are on me, sort of thing.’  When the ball goes out for a corner at the other end, you do look around and go ‘this is unbelievable’ and you see the cameras everywhere and it is real cool but I wouldn’t say you give an extra 5%, you go into every game trying to give your best and that’s what we did today.

“I’ve made sure my mum recorded the game.  Thankfully their goalkeeper (gave) me his shirt so that was real kind of him, which I’ll put it in a frame and stick it up somewhere in the house (in Catford, south east London).

“I don’t think I’m going to get any sleep tonight. The adrenalin’s pumping hard.  I’m going to be watching the game back first thing tomorrow and hopefully with fond memories and probably with a big smile on my face.

“It’s been a great day for us, as a club, as a team, as a whole. We’ve done ourselves proud.”

Highly-rated Prall harbours aspirations of playing in the fifth-tier and tonight’s impressive performance in front of a worldwide television audience has done his hopes no harm.

“I’ve always backed myself to be the best in the league and you’ve got to do that as a player. If you don’t have confidence in yourself then no one else is gonna..

“For me personally, I would like to try to push on and play in the National League and play in those sort of crowds every week and get the attention from that, the media and be on tv – that’s what everyone dreams off.

“You can only do as well as you can and if you turn up on the right day and someone’s watching you, you get your move and you impress the right people then who knows what can happen?”

Sheppey United: Aiden Prall, Mamadou Diallo, Frankie Del Morgan, Richard Hamill, Olamilekan Majoyegbe, Connor Wilkins (Daniel Birch 83), James Bessey-Saldanha, Josh Wisson (Maliq Morris 67), Daniel Bradshaw (Alexander Willis 44), Jacob Lambert (Oladipo Durowoju 83), Danny Leonard (D’Jean Spencer 67).
Subs: Jamie Graham, Oscar Housego, Hadley Glock, Jack Marsh

Goal: James Bessey-Saldanha 21

Walsall: Owen Evans, Joe Riley, Liam Gordon, Osin McEntee (Rollin Menayese 90), Donervorn Daniels, David Okagbue (Brandon Comley 77), Isaac Hutchinson, Ryan Stirk, Douglas James-Taylor (Dylan Thomas 90), Ross Tierney, Tom Knowles (Danny Johnson 90).
Subs: Jamille Matt, Joe Foulkes, Taylor Allen, Jackson Smith, Harvey Griffiths

Goals: Douglas James-Taylor 32, Tom Knowles 53, Ross Tierney 63, Isaac Hutchinson 87

Attendance: 1,450
Referee: Mr Tom Reeves
Assistants: Mr Adrian Tranter & Mr Michael Webb
Fourth Official:  Mr Charles Breakspear
Observer:  Mr John Norbury