Bideford are rising to the Southern League challenge
THE SIGNS have been there for several weeks and this result confirmed it – Bideford have arrived as a force in the Evo-Stik League Southern premier division.
Perhaps more important than the result was the manner in which it was achieved.
Facing league leaders Hemel Hempstead Town for a full 45 minutes without one of their key defenders, the Robins pulled off a remarkable 3-2 win.
Down to ten men when Dominic Rivans was sent off two minutes before half time with the teams locked at 1-1, it appeared damage limitation would be the order of the day.
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Yet Bideford played the second half with a passion and positivity that belied their lack of numbers.
Time after time they sprang out on the counter-attack, leaving the visitors' back four on the verge of disarray.
Two goals from Kevin Squire and a thumping strike from Richard Groves had home fans cheering a result that some have suggested is their best in the league.
Praising his team for a "tremendous" performance, Sean Joyce was not joking when he suggested "3-2 flattered them".
"I thought we were worth more than that," said the manager.
"If we had taken our chances, it could have been six or seven.They couldn't live with us."
At least Hemel had started the afternoon looking like a team with serious ambitions about winning promotion.
Jordan Parkes split the defence with a perfect pass and Dave Pearce scurried clear to poke the opening goal past Paul Hider.
The goalkeeper also did well to deny Danny Talbot with his feet as Hemel worked a short corner.
But with Groves at the heart of everything in midfield, Bideford always looked capable of fighting back.
When the former Weymouth player whipped over a corner, goalkeeper Sam Beagle could only fumble under pressure and Squire reacted clinically, hooking a volley into the roof of the net.
The same combination almost brought the second goal minutes later, Groves sending in a right-footed free kick from which Squire narrowly missed contact.
And Groves proved equally effective delivering a cross with his left foot as Sean Downing flashed a header just over.
Bideford had started with a three-man defence of Rivans, Aaron Harper-Penman and Rob Farkins and all were required to stand up against the physical might of Matt Nolan.
The target man was involved in the game's controversial moment just before half time as Rivans was sent off for leading with his elbow in an aerial challenge.
Joyce insisted it was an accidental collision, which meant the striker needed to be replaced at half time.
"I'm disappointed because the big lad up front put himself about all game," said Joyce.
"Do you just stand back and let him bully you?
"They have both gone up for the ball, he's screamed louder and the referee bought it.
"He's a good referee usually but I thought he was disappointing today.
"Dom is not that kind of player and we are not that kind of team."
Whatever Joyce said at half time to lift his players, it certainly had the desired effect.
Any thoughts of sitting back and protecting a point were dismissed during a frenetic second half.
Again a wicked free kick from Groves had Squire, Farkins and Downing queuing up for an elusive finishing touch.
Matt Andrew then released Downing who escaped from an increasingly vulnerable defence but could not bring the ball under control.
When it arrived, the second goal summed up all that was good about the home performance – a combination of tenacity and quality.
Downing, covering the heavy surface with the energy of a cross country runner, won a sliding tackle on David King in the corner of the area. The ball was shifted across to Groves who cracked the sweetest of shots beyond Beagle from 20 yards.
Bideford's desire to win back possession was key for the third goal, too, with Downing chasing a lost cause and forcing Beagle to slice the ball out.
If that scuff left his face almost as pink as his goalkeeper's jersey, Beagle had further cause for embarrassment from the resulting corner.
Matt Hockley picked out Groves after the initial cross was cleared and he sent the ball back in to cause mayhem in the box.
Beagle made a mad dash from his line, Downing beat him in the air and Squire grabbed his second goal to send the Sports Ground wild.
Inevitably, there were some nerve-shredding moments at the other end, particularly after the introduction of Victor Osobu.
Described by Joyce as "the quickest winger I have ever seen in my life", Osobu made it his mission to run at a tiring defence.
Yet Bideford stood firm. Ian Sampson threw himself at the ball for a vital block and Hider took a knock from King who was cautioned for the challenge.
The desperation of the visitors was illustrated when long-range shots from King and Peter Holmes landed nearer the corner flag than the goal.
Finally they pulled one back nine minutes from time, Joe Bruce scoring at a corner after Bideford's claims for a foul on Sampson fell on deaf ears.
With the game being played at a frantic pace, the Robins had further chances to kill it off.
Squire broke clear but was denied by that age-old footballer's excuse, the ball taking a bobble. On this occasion it was genuine as the ball visibly changed course as he went to strike.
Twice Andrew got beyond the last man only to be denied by Beagle and, in stoppage time, substitute Ellis Laight was thwarted by a last-ditch block.
Hemel's frustration was compounded when King was dismissed for a second yellow card.
As the visitors were left outside for a post-match debrief in the centre circle, Bideford were celebrating their third win from four games.
Ten points from a possible 12 have eased relegation fears and shown they can take on the division's best.