By Chris Ponter:

Ledbury Town ended the 2022/23 Herefordshire Football League Premier Division season with the very definition of ‘bittersweet’, defeating Wellington Rangers 3-0 in a final rearranged league encounter of the season at a packed-out New Street on Coronation Day, although being left to rue what could have been as formidable league newcomers Sporting Club Inkberrow scored a comprehensive win away at Holme Lacy to take the league title from Ian Merrick’s men by a single point. 

After last weekend’s crushing equalizer scored by goalkeeper Daniel Hughes at the end of Ledbury’s dramatic penultimate league clash of the season against mid-table Welland at the Upton Hill Community Centre, following first-half Town goals from Rares Micula and Tom Boyle with James Lush and Sean Smith on target for the hosts as Williams found what visiting supporters believed to be their winner on the 67thminute, only for hearts to be broken thirty seconds from time, the likelihood was that Merrick’s squad had effectively shot themselves in the foot in terms of taking the silverware. 

While not impossible, a second victory of the season over Wellington, after a Ben Febery brace and a goal from Ryan Pugh, sadly suffered a season-ending dislocated shoulder during the second period of the same game secured Ledbury’s first win of 2023 over at The Kensal Ground in early February, had to be accompanied by Inkberrow either losing or drawing in their final league fixture played that same day at an earlier kick-off time if Town were to pull off an unexpected turnaround. 

In fact for a very brief period there was the slightest flicker of hope as news filtered through of Holme Lacy grabbing a goal back to make it 2-1 at half-time at their village-based ground, with Ben Miller and Febery both having found the net during the first period of a fixture which had to take place more than a month after its original date due to a waterlogged pitch at New Street at the very end of March. 

Despite home man of the match Tyler Weir later going on to cement a final three points for his side, it soon became clear that Merrick’s valiant squad were going to have to settle for the runners-up spot for a second consecutive season as reports reached the glum faces of the Ledbury committee that the other title contenders had triumphed 6-1 to become champions. 

Watched by a terrific turnout of supporters in spite of the ongoing royal celebrations and gloomy weather that day, a last league encounter for the black and white shirts began with their tangerine and blue counterparts providing the early scare, putting the ball just wide of the target as Town keeper Alex Goode voiced his frustration. 

Tensions were soon eased when Miller volleyed home a superb cross from Lewis Williams to take the lead at just eight minutes in, with two home players coming down injured over the course of the next five minutes although with both being able to continue playing. 

Cosmin Micula nodded clear an opening Rangers free kick struck from near the centre-spot, before a first corner ball from the visitors was punched clear by Goode on the 20thminute, with the same new Ledbury signing this season again being on hand to make the follow-up clearance. 

The opposition launched a sustained counter-attack following the set-piece which concluded with Goode making a relatively comfortable collection at the near post, before a corner from Miller up at the far end was headed over the near touchline by a Wellington defender before Town’s forwards could do anything with it. 

A defensive error from the hosts on the far wing back downfield nearly allowed Rangers to draw level if not for Goode scrambling off his line to successfully recover the ball in a one-on-one situation with a visiting striker, before Febery came on for Matt Tristram in a first Ledbury substitution of the day. 

A solid challenge from Town captain Joel Skyers on the half-hour mark won a free kick for Goode towards the far sideline, before a rush of adrenaline from Williams saw him make a great run up the same wing, only to fire the ball over the crossbar. 

Febery saw more success barely two minutes later, volleying home beautifully to a jubilant celebration with Merrick, before a superb header from Williams was denied only through an equally-superb save from the opposing keeper in leaping up to palm the ball just over the bar. 

Febery battled doggedly on the near sideline to win the ball against two Wellington attackers, only for one of them to trip the latest home goalscorer up in the process of playing the ball back upfield as assistant referee Geoff Banham gave a Rangers foul, raising the flag again soon afterwards for an offside infringement committed by the visitors as another of their efforts travelled wide of the woodwork. 

Williams became involved in a spot of argy-bargy with an opposing midfielder in the centre of the pitch as the match started to become that little bit more heated under the light rainfall, boiling over into a first yellow card of the game received by Skyers for a physical challenge on the far wing. 

Goode performed a much cleaner challenge of his own in the box to deny a Wellington attacker of a late first-half goalscoring opportunity, as a final corner ball of the opening period of play from Rangers also failed to provide them with a badly-needed first mark on the scoresheet. 

With Ledbury’s players clearly eager to get this concluding league encounter of the season wrapped up, emerging back out on to the field well before the visitors unaware that the league title was now all but out of their reach with Inkberrow having surged 5-1 ahead at Holme Lacy, the second period saw Boyle go straight for goal from the off as his long-range effort snuck only narrowly wide of the far post. 

A free kick from the top Town goalscorer, looking likely to take the third place spot in the league’s top marksmen table this season four goals behind Declan Green of Inkberrow in second and six behind Josh Bowen of Clee Hill United at the top, provided the opposing goaltender with an easy recovery at the near post, before a more threatening strike from the hosts was blocked by both palms of the Wellington keeper. 

An opening free kick of the second period from Rangers again met the defensive head of Cosmin Micula, as some commendable Ledbury defending further upfield saw Goode charge out to claim the ball on the ground. 

Merrick chose to bring both Skyers and Williams off the field in exchange for a returning Tristram as well as Nathan Ince while an injury to one his players was tended to by physio Carl Wildig, before the latter of these two substitute players soon made his presence on the pitch felt through putting good pressure on a visiting forward advancing down the near wing. 

Boyle rattled the far post to see a potential 25thgoal of the season go begging, before a very-much-unlucky thirteenth minute of the latter half of play for Rares Micula saw him fire the ball against the back of an opposing defender in painful-sounding fashion at the edge of the box. 

Ince performed a cross-shot in plenty of space coming down the near wing which flew wide of the far post, and, after Miller was swapped for Josh Burns with half an hour to go, recent Town newcomer Dean Lee leapt up against a Wellington defender in the box as Burns’ corner ball struck barely a minute after he entered the action skimmed the top of both their heads. 

Burns voiced his disapproval at Banham over the linesman raising his flag in favour of Rangers as the latest home substitute player dug in against one of their defenders on the near sideline, before Weir picked up a second booking for his side over his part in a brief fracas between the two teams in the centre-circle. 

A corner ball from Cosmin Micula was dealt with through a clearing header from a visiting defender surrounded by bodies in the box, before Ince tried his luck in lunging in against the opposing goaltender as the Wellington keeper went on to make a fairly simple save with fifteen minutes left on the clock for his side to salvage something from their second-to-last game of the season. 

A further spot kick from Boyle was easily blocked by the Rangers defensive line stationed a few yards from the edge of the box, before a good ball from the prolific Ledbury striker was neatly flicked on to Ince by Weir to see the shot from the reserves-turned regular first team player this season being caught by the visiting goaltender. 

Boyle then squandered three final consecutive chances to net a quarter-century of league goals this season, putting the ball wide of the far post after receiving it from Ince who won back possession in front of his own dugout, before Rares Micula ran in from behind an opposing defender and successfully intercepted him to again pass the ball on to the top Town target man, whose tap-in was denied by the Wellington keeper. 

Boyle then knocked the ball inches over the woodwork in the process of a Rangers defender sliding in against him after he received a neat back-pass from Weir, before the assisting player himself gained the honour of scoring his side’s final league goal of the season, beating the visiting goaltender and slotting the ball squarely into the bottom right-hand corner of the net as protests from an aggrieved defender, believing Weir had been offside at the time, were ignored by Banham. 

Ince was forced to blast the ball over the bar as he was put under similar pressure to Boyle earlier in being brought down right in front of goal, before a final corner ball of the game was mis-struck by Cosmin Micula into the side netting. 

Tristram’s last throw-in after the ball had deflected off the shoulder of Banham was soon followed by referee Mark Hays blowing the full-time whistle, as Merrick and his staff and players applauded their dedicated and lively crowd of supporters during one last emotional exit from their historic ground this season. 

The Ledbury boss had much praise for the many followers who have stuck by his side throughout a fantastic season in spite of the bitter disappointment of being pipped to the league title, recording a 100% home win record with 23 victories in total and just three losses: 

“To all our supporters, I wish to say thank you for your unwavering support this season.” 

“To miss out on the league title by a single point is painful, but the lads have been fantastic all season. Football is ultimately about fine margins, and unfortunately on this occasion we’ve just fallen short.” 

“Congratulations to Sporting Club Inkberrow FC, who are deserving champions this season.” 

Town’s quest for silverware this season is far from over however, having to now swiftly switch their focus to a very real chance of lifting a thoroughly well-deserved and fitting consolation prize in the shape of the Herefordshire FA Charity Bowl cup, facing mid-table Tenbury United in the final at the Herefordshire FA County Ground this coming Wednesday evening (KO 7:45pm). 

This will be Ledbury’s third Charity Bowl final in the space of four years, having last won the cup back in April 2019 under the joint-management of Dean Rutter and Pat Locke, when an 81stminute winner from final substitute player Charlie Docherty secured a memorable 3-2 victory over Holme Lacy at Westfields’ allpay.park venue, following first-half goals from Joe Bullock and Samuel Palmer-Young as Holme Lacy launched an impressive second-half comeback with goals from Jean Alveraz and Jay Spencer. 

Town’s previous final in the same competition ended in disappointment in May last season at the County Ground against Hereford Pegasus Reserves, when a Harvey Evans opener and Saul Thomas brace outnumbered the sole consolation goal for Merrick’s side scored by youngster George Walker. 

The first round of this season’s contest was quite a tussle for Ledbury against none other than reigning champions Pegasus back in late September, during an eventful Friday evening rematch taken to penalties when a brace from Town man of the match Boyle and a further goal from Febery equalled the Reserves’ marks on the scoresheet scored by Corey Ellis, Evans and substitute player Charlie Jenkins. 

A volatile encounter at Old School Lane saw home defender Marc Avery receive a double-booking with Boyle and team-mate Zac Blood also being shown yellow cards by referee Ian Jervis, even if the visitors ran away during the shootout when Pugh, Blood and Febery all put away their spot kicks as some stellar saves from Goode effectively avenged the 3-1 defeat in the previous final. 

The New Street outfit received a home walkover in the quarter-finals in late November when Ludlow Town Colts failed to raise a side, before a 2-0 semi-final victory occurred at home over Clee Hill in early March when Rares Micula found the net from an eighth minute corner ball, even if the Ledbury newcomer this season was shown yellow by referee Stephen Cook ten minutes from time. 

Young visiting defender Freddie Barnes put away an unfortunate own goal past keeper Joe Whiteway five minutes from the interval, as Tom Watkins and Tom Trigg shared the man of the match accolade for a superb defensive shift between them to keep a clean sheet by the end of this penultimate cup encounter. 

Tenbury’s road to the final featured a 2-0 win in the opening round away to Welland the day after Town played Pegasus, courtesy of goals from Matt Kerby and Aaron Morris, even if team-mate Thomas Farr received a booking with Gavin Podmore being sent off by Cook for a incurring a double yellow. 

A 2-1 quarter-final victory resulted at the County Ground in mid-January against Herefordshire League Premier Division newcomers Gloucester City Under 21s, with Declan Bright and substitute player Euan Morgan netting for United as Thierry Shitto found the consolation goal for the young Gloucester side. 

Finally, the Palmers Meadow outfit booked their place in the final stage of the contest through a comprehensive 4-0 win over other league newcomers Coppertops FC at home on the same afternoon Ledbury faced Clee Hill in the semi-finals, with the Tenbury goals coming from Bright, Morgan, Morris and Kerby, coming on as a substitute for United on this occasion.