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Stamford AFC are beaten by Belper in the Northern Premier League Midlands Division play-off semi-final

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Play-off anguish struck Stamford for the second time in five seasons as the Daniels were defeated by Belper in Tuesday night's play-off semi-final at the Zeeco Stadium.

A crowd of close to 1,000 saw an action-packed ending to each half ultimately decide the Northern Premier League Midlands Division contest.

Stamford fell behind to Brodie Litchfield's 40th minute opener before suffering a further setback a minute later when centre-half Marshall Willock was red-carded after collecting his second caution.

Marshall Willock wins a header. Photo: Rob O'Brien (56313279)
Marshall Willock wins a header. Photo: Rob O'Brien (56313279)

Kyle Dixon then looked to have secured the Nailers' place in Saturday's final against Chasetown when he doubled the visitors' lead in second half stoppage time.

However, Cosmos Matwasa threw Stamford a late lifeline but they were unable to find another way through the Belper rearguard who had been outstanding all evening.

Stamford had gone into the game on the back of a nine-match winning run and two victories already this season under their belts against the Derbyshire side.

Dan Haystead returned in goal for the Daniels after missing the last two games while Willock came back into the centre of defence in place of James Blunden as Stamford made two changes to the starting line-up from Saturday's win over Carlton.

And the Daniels nearly got off to a dream start as inside the opening 30 seconds they made a rapid raid on the Belper goal and Jonathan Margetts thumped a shot against the inside of the post.

Lady luck had shone on Stamford during their streak of victories with a couple of fortuitous goals and that stroke of misfortune was to follow the Daniels throughout the opening half.

They were unable to prise open a stubborn Belper rearguard while having to be alert in their home area to repel the flurry of aerial raids.

Sam Muggleton's long throw had been highlighted by manager Graham Drury as the visitors' main weapon and he launched a series of balls into the box but Stamford stood strong.

The visitors forced a number of free-kicks in dangerous places but were unable to find a way through.

Harry Vince goes down in the box. Photo: Rob O'Brien (56313283)
Harry Vince goes down in the box. Photo: Rob O'Brien (56313283)

Stamford's best move of the opening half saw Tendai Chitiza leave the Belper defence trailing in his wake before crossing for Margetts whose first-time shot brought an excellent reaction save from Lewis Gwilliams.

The game then turned in Belper's favour in the space of a couple of minutes as the half drew to a close.

They took a 40th minute lead when a misplaced clearance from Haystead was swept forward quickly and Litchfield showed good skill to wriggle his way into the box before firing home a low shot past the Stamford goalkeeper.

Matters then got worse for the Daniels when Willock was sent off after collecting a second caution following a flurry of first half yellow cards.

Willock could have no complaints about his first booking after a late challenge but his strong aerial battle with the equally physically Riece Bartram saw him bundle into the back of the striker while winning a header.

It was a challenge that the Daniels defender would have made numerous times in his career and probably most have been without a caution.

However, referee Ben Cooke decided otherwise and the dismissal left Stamford with a mountain to climb but they came out with all guns blazing after the break.

And they had a great chance to equalise within five minutes of the restart when Margetts was bundled over in the box for a penalty.

However, Harry Vince saw his spot kick saved by Gwilliams who was also in the right place to gleefully smother Margetts' headed follow up.

Jake Duffy evades a challenge. Photo: Rob O'Brien (56313281)
Jake Duffy evades a challenge. Photo: Rob O'Brien (56313281)

Stamford continued to push for an equaliser and Jack Duffy fired a hurried shot wide after a powerful surge forward before Chitiza had a great chance to equalise but put his effort wide with the goal at his mercy after Cosmos Matwasa had headed the ball into his path.

The Daniels seemed to lose their momentum as the half wore on and resorted to a more direct attacking approach which played into Belper's hands.

The visitors' game management also shook Stamford out of their stride despite visiting boss Grant Black being red-carded late on after collecting his second caution for time wasting.

As Stamford pushed more men forward in search of an equaliser, the 10 men were vulnerable on the break and both Haystead and Sean Wright collected cautions for fouls as Belper looked to spring rapid raids.

It was from one such burst that they looked to have secured their final place when Dixon fired home a low finish deep into injury-time.

However, there was still enough time for the never-say-die Daniels to halve the deficit as Matwasa lofted a nonchalant drive into the top corner of the Belper net.

It sparked a frenzied finish but, despite getting into a couple of promising positions, any balls into the box were nullified by the Nailers to leave the Daniels devastated on the final whistle.

It was again a case of so near, yet so far for Graham Drury's side who are resigned to another season of step four football.

It was ultimately a lack of consistency before the turn of the year that stalled Stamford's progress this term as they battled a series of injury problems.

Their form since the start of 2022 though has been top-drawer and the performances served up at the Zeeco Stadium has seen the crowds continue to swell.

They now need to feed off this brilliant backing and enthusiasm around the club to re-energise themselves during the close season ready for another crack at netting their goal of promotion.

Stamford: Haystead, Burgess (Blunden 46), Bartle, Vince (Morgan 63), Wright, Willock, Chitiza, Jake Duffy, Jack Duffy, Margetts (Frew 76), Matwasa. Subs not used: Armstrong, Wallis (GK).

Belper: Gwilliams, Rhodes (Woodcock 74), Muggleton, Wilson, South, Jordan, Robson, Mancinelli (Curtis 66), Bertram (Peterson 62), Litchfield, Dixon. Subs not used: Wright, Benjamin-Potts.

Attendance: 984.

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