NPL First Division South East
Tim Grice scored a hat-trick as Leek Town secured an emphatic 4-0 win against Carlton Town at Stoke Lane.
The Blues inflicted only a second league defeat of the season upon the Millers, and it was the first time Carlton had failed to score. The visitors’ impressive display merited the margin of victory and, but for some fine saves from home goalkeeper Jack Steggles, it could have been an even greater scoreline.
Tommy Brookbanks and Mark Harvey made four changes from the side which drew with Cleethorpes in Carlton’s last game, three weeks ago. Out went Daniel Fletcher (ill), Aaron Opoku (away) Oliver Robinson and Luke Smithson. In came Tyler Johal, Toby Moore, Tyler Blake and for his full debut over a decade after his last full debut for Carlton, Daryl Thomas.
Leek came into the game second in the table, with Carlton one place behind, but the Blues had played on each of the previous two Saturdays when Carlton’s games had been postponed.
That initial rustiness showed as Carlton struggled to string passes together and keep the ball while Leek started much the better.
Niall Davie had to be alert to make a superb goal line clearance after a cross from the left was met by William Reeves, before Steggles made the first of his saves, tipping a goalbound free kick from Oliver Harrison wide of the post.
Matthew Bell was next to try his luck at the Carlton goal, only to be thwarted by Steggles as Leek coped much better with the heavy surface.
Bell should have scored on 22 minutes when he had a free header from six yards after a run and cross by Robert Stevenson but Steggles was once again equal to the effort.
Carlton’s first opportunity came shortly afterwards as Davie’s free kick to the near post was heading into the net until Daniel Roberts got across to save.
The Millers were awarded a corner but Leek broke quickly following the flag kick and Grice opened the scoring on 25 minutes, running onto a clever pass and firing low past Steggles from the left corner of the area. There were some claims for offside by the Millers but the goal had clearly been coming.
Leek had control of the midfield, with Stevenson and Marc Grocott influential, and Carlton were struggling to keep the visitors at bay.
Grice headed against the top of the crossbar from a corner before Oliver Clark was booked for a poor challenge on Darren Chadwick.
Grice doubled his side’s lead on 38 minutes, cutting in from the right, holding off some weak challenges and rifling home across Steggles.
He should have had his treble three minutes later when Bell sent him clean through on goal, but Steggles dived at his feet as he tried to go around him and saved the day.
Steggles then pushed a shot from Louis Short onto the post as Carlton were relieved to get to the break just two goals behind.
Eli Baku was brought on for the second half and he impressed as Carlton looked much improved. Davie had a run and shot just wide of the post before another Davie run led to Baku hitting a curling effort from the left edge of the penalty area that flew inches wide of Roberts’s post with the keeper stranded.
Carlton still missed Opoku’s ability to hold onto the ball and Steggles was back in action making another fine save from Grice as Leek weathered the storm and came back at Carlton.
Stevenson made it 3-0 on 80 minutes, running at the Carlton defence and firing home from inside the area.
The visitors completed the scoring in added time when Grice took advantage of a slip in the area to round Steggles and tap home to secure the match ball.
The margin of defeat against a side who are genuine title contenders will lead to some questions about Carlton’s ability to sustain their impressive start to the campaign. Perhaps today was simply a blip against a very good team who looked a cut above anything Carlton have played so far this season. Alternatively, it may provide a more realistic assessment of where Carlton stand in this division.
Answers may be provided in the next couple of weeks when the Millers’ schedule includes difficult trips to promotion contenders Belper and Ilkeston. In the meantime, the team needs to lick their wounds and get back at it.
Carlton Town: Steggles, Brown (Smithson 66), Johal, Ball, Moore, Maddison, Elliott (Baku 46), Clark, Thomas (Akaunu 63), Blake, Davie. Unused substitutes: Fletcher, Robinson
Goals: Tim Grice 25, 38, 90, Robert Stevenson 80
Carlton Town Supporters Club MOTM: Niall Davie