HEAD Coach Dan Hart believes his Buckland Athletic side showed ‘too much respect’ to 3-1 winners Willand Rovers in the Devon St Lukes Challenge Cup semi-final on Tuesday night.

‘I really didn’t see the best of our team tonight,’ he said. ‘I think we looked jaded from Saturday [2-2 draw at Ilfracombe Town] and I think that it took us until half-time to reevaluate our place in this game. 

‘I think we showed them way too much respect in the first half and were allowed them to score two very sloppy goals, the second of which is not one that I want to see from our team – it’s an incredibly soft goal. We’re really disappointed with that as a unit. I didn’t need to tell them too much at half-time other than the fact that this is a cup semi-final with a final just down the road at stake.’

Buckland Athletic 1-3 Willand Rovers
(Iain Morland)

Hopes of a Homers Heath upset were dashed with only three minutes on the clock as Willand’s Josh Baker timed his run perfectly in behind the defence, approached the goal from the left and squeezed home – with the help of the woodwork – a blistering near-post effort from an acute angle.

Nine minutes later the advantage was doubled. The Southern League Division One visitors saw a throw-in flicked over the defence, which talismanic striker Owen Howe latched onto and buried underneath onrushing goalkeeper Tyler Coombes.

‘It’s incredibly frustrating [to concede so early],’ admitted Hart. ‘I’ve spent the best part of the weekend watching footage of Willand and trying to get to grips with how they play and how we can put our plan together to counteract that. 

‘I think they set up in a slightly different way tonight but two of the things we highlighted were their ability from set-pieces and how direct they were, and, particularly in the first half, I don’t think we dealt with either of those well enough.’

Buckland Athletic 1-3 Willand Rovers
(Iain Morland)

The Bucks woke up – albeit with a mountain to climb – and saw a pair of chances go amiss. Western League top-scorer Jared Lewington was the beneficiary of a fortunate bounce and found himself in enough space to pull the trigger but Willand custodian George Burton answered the call with a strong, low save.

The woodwork was shaking seven minutes from the break when Sam Stayt rolled a clever ball through for sprightly forward Ryan Bush, who eluded the defence but thundered his effort off the crossbar.

But Buckland’s luck would turn 10 minutes after half-time. A Sam Morcom free-kick was repelled from the busy penalty area but not sufficiently cleared, and Stayt was able to pick up the pieces 25 yards out. He looked to swing a delivery back into the melee but instead caught Burton wrong-footed as his cross-cum-shot sailed into the top corner at the far post.

‘Sammy’s a young boy with huge potential,’ said Hart, ‘and someone that I am a big fan of and will continue to push. I think this year has been a bit of a learning curve for him and he perhaps has suffered because of the way that we’ve defended and the lack of attacking play that we have had. 

‘He is also the victim of being a very good substitute and an impactful player form the bench. If he plays like that he’s going to start more games, and he’s doing very well playing with his university team at the minute. 

‘He knows he’s got a place here and belongs here, and the fact that he stood out tonight – particularly out of possession – is because he was willing to work as if it was a semi-final. 

‘Perhaps not enough of our players really wanted to earn their right to play in a cup final this year.’

Buckland Athletic 1-3 Willand Rovers
(Iain Morland)

Six minutes was all it took for Willand to restore their two-goal cushion. A corner was not cleared and the ball fell to Callum Laird – his first shot was blocked but the rebound found its way through the crowds and past a hapless Coombes.

‘After half-time – for 15 or 20 minutes – we get ourselves back to 2-1 and it looked like the gradient of the game might change,’ Hart explained, ‘but then we concede from a corner. 

‘We’ve got to show ruthlessness in both boxes, and that third goal, from a corner, there were two opportunities to clear the ball; the first contact and then when it bounces off our knee on the second contact. If you’re not going to do that against these types of sides that live on set-pieces – and we highlighted that before the game – you’re going to wind up losing the game.

‘Until that point it looked it looked like a game that we might be able to chase from behind and get something from. I’m a little bit disappointed with some of the individual performances and I’m a little bit disappointed with how we performed out of possession tonight.’

The defeat – and thus elimination from the competition – sees the Bucks miss out on a chance to go toe-to-toe with Ilfracombe Town in the final in May. The Bluebirds booked their spot after victory over Newton Abbot Spurs last week.

‘It leaves a real sour taste,’ Hart admitted. ‘I would be a fool to say that this was a comfortable or an easy semi-final but for us and how highly I regard our players – I regard a lot of them as players who could play at that level – tonight will be a learning curve. You’ve got to work hard; it’s not enough to have ability on the ball, you have to have desire. 

‘I’m hugely disappointed that we won’t be stepping out there in early May with the opportunity to earn silverware against Ilfracombe at the venue that we train at, on an artificial surface on which we could knock the ball around and play our football.’