A stunning performance from goalkeeper Michael Duggan and a pair of classy finishes from striker Lewis Leckie inspired Oakham United to their first ever Jelson Homes Leicestershire County Cup final on Tuesday night.
The Tractor Boys made a piece of club history with a 3-1 victory over East Midlands Counties side Aylestone Park, played at the neutral Barrow Town ground. Ben Easson also got on the scoresheet on a night when the Rutland side looked back to their best at times despite missing a host of key players.
Even a farcical own goal from Richard Nelson minutes before half time could not deny Oakham a place in the final.
United’s management trio of Wayne Oldaker, Andy Bailey and Darren Edey had to select almost a completely new back five for the key match because of players being unavailable.
Midfielder Stu Lambie moved to right back, Dan Jenkins partnered Richard Nelson at centre back with both Matt Holland and Gav Cooke missing, and Kris Kefford dropped in at left back.
Perhaps the key change was Spalding United’s dual registered keeper Duggan coming into the side, replacing Andy Colin, who picked up a knock at the weekend, and himself was cover for the injured Simon Dalton.
Duggan was quite simply sensational, making a host of stunning stops to keep his side in the match.
With Eddy McDonald and Robbie Pearce missing in midfield Adam Rothery partnered James North, with young guns Sven Hart and Ewan Crawford providing pace down the wings. Both were excellent. If the match had finished at half time Crawford would undoubtedly have been named man of the match after a game changing performance, playing a central part in both the first half goals. He faded in the second half but his teammates followed his lead.
Ayleston Park started brightly and Duggan had to make two early saves, the second requiring the keeper to spring athletically to his left to palm it wide.
Jenkins, who had moved over to centre back from his normal full back position, was an absolute rock at the back. But Oakham’s lack of height in the middle of the defence was a disadvantage and a glancing header looked to be heading into the bottom corner before Duggan pulled off a magnificent save to keep the score at 0-0.
Then Oakham scored with their first serious attack of the match. Crawford broke down the right and crossed the ball into the centre, an Ayleston defender only managed to glance the ball away with his head and it fell to Easson, who played a quick one-two pass with Leckie before firing it low at the near post. The Ayleston centre back was incensed Leckie wasn’t flagged for offside, but the referee was unmoved by the protestations.
Oakham’s second goal came shortly after and was pure class. United released Crawford down the wing and at full tilt he delivered a peach of a cross for Leckie to attack and the Cannonball doesn’t turn down chances like that - burying it with his head for 2-0.
United’s set-piece defence was still creaking, as it has all season, and Park’s big centre back would have scored against most teams but Duggan sprung out a strong hand to save a powerful header.
When Duggan finally was beaten it was by a stunningly powerful, pin point header into the top corner. The only problem was it came from Oakham skipper Nelson who looked to be trying to put the ball out. If he could take that one back he certainly would. His error saw United go in at half time with a slender 2-1 lead.
Oakham made an exceptional start to the second half and really should have given themselves some breathing room.
Sven Hart chased a lost cause down the wing and delivered a wicked ball to the back post for Crawford, who rose high but couldn’t quite get over his header, putting it high over the crossbar.
Rothery then had the ball in the back of the net, finishing with a neat lob over the keeper but the linesman could not see past Leckie who started in an offside position when the initial through ball was played, but made no attempt to play the ball.
The game opened up and Aylesbury were only denied an equaliser by another brilliant Duggan save.
Minutes later Easson fired over from some nice play by United and then some neat interplay allowed Rothery a curling shot which was comfortably saved.
Leckie held up the ball superbly all night and when he got clattered and earned free kicks some cultured deliveries from Stu Lambie had the reds in trouble. From one such free kick Jenkins just put a header wide.
Midway through the second half Aylestone all but ended their chances of a comeback, when their best player, the towering 6ft 6in centre back and captain Kieran Neat, talked his way into the book for a second yellow which earned him an early shower. Referees really don’t like being told to “p*** off.”
Leckie had a late chance to seal it - he went through on goal from a Rothery pass, with only the keeper to beat, but a well timed push from the defender sent him off balance and crashing into the keeper.
Despite being a man down Park remained a threat. A late whipped cross was inches from being converted by Aylestone to spoil the party.
However Leckie started the celebrations early with a beautiful second goal, his 27th of the season. The ball was played long down-field from Duggan and it found the striker 25 yards out wide on the left, seeing the keeper off the line he lobbed him to make it 3-1.
Moments later Easson was close to putting the cherry on top but his firm strike left the crossbar rattling. In the end it mattered little as Oakham march on to the final, which could be the first time a Rutland team has contested it.
They will meet either Burstall United or Hinckley AFC who play their semi-final on Tuesday.
Oakham United: Michael Duggan, Stuart Lambie, Richard Nelson, Dan Jenkins, Kris Kefford, Ben Easson, James North (James Dalby), Adam Rothery, Sven Hart, Lewis Leckie, Euan Crawford.
Substitute unused: Ben Cox
Aylestone Park: Rich Edwards, Luke Batson, Sam Hankin, Cameron Laywood, Kieran Neat, Lee Tyres, Luke Winfield (Goncarlo Santos), Liam Donaghy (Andy Fell), Rich Lewis, Gary Vizzard (Jim Smith), Carl Benson.
Substitute unused: Nino Gomes and Luke Dalby