Challenge Cup final: Cleary’s early goal wins it for Bridge

Sowerby Bridge after their 1-0 Challenge Cup final win over Hebden Royd Red Star
Sowerby Bridge after their 1-0 Challenge Cup final win over Hebden Royd Red Star

Sowerby Bridge collected a more than adequate consolation prize when they lifted the Halifax AFL Challenge Cup with a 1-0 win over Hebden Royd Red Star at the Shay last night.

Chris Punda’s side had been favourites to win the Premier Division title until the final run-in, only to come off second best to Shelf United over the two meetings.

Their chance now hangs by the slimmest of threads but compensation came in the Skircoat Green Physiotherapy-backed knockout competition with full back Joel Cleary’s emphatic finish early in the contest decisive.

Bridge went into the game as favourites, having beaten Star in the two league meetings, but they had to survive a late barrage as their Calder Valley rivals tried to force penalties.

Punda said his team had set out their stall to be champions this season and success in the cup had made their likely league disappointment “easier to swallow.”

He added: “I’m proud of the players, they gave everything they could.”

Red Star made the brighter start but were rocked by Cleary’s goal after eight minutes. A defender failed to cut out a low cross and Cleary lashed the ball high into the net from just inside the area.

Bridge played the tidier football in the remainder of the first half. Sam Hiley shot wide of the far post after some neat build-up play had left him with only Star ‘keeper and player-boss Chris Garbutt to beat and Damien Watkins smashed the ball against the woodwork after industrious strike partner Lee Wood had robbed a rival.

Star’s Tom Barclay and Max Gale were seeing plenty of possession in the middle of the pitch but their passes aimed at strike ace Lewis Cockroft lacked accuracy.

Cockroft showed lightning pace in one threatening raid down the flank and almost scored straight after the break with a first-time effort from Patrick Thomas’s long throw which went a couple of inches wide.

Wood headed a couple of feet over the bar from a Martyn Bates corner and Gale’s effort from Cockroft’s break sent the ball straight into the arms of ‘keeper Jordan Bolton.

Cockroft ballooned a good opportunity over the bar and Star tried desperately to pull the game out of the fire, with Thomas launching the ball into the penalty area on numerous occasions.

Bridge’s efforts became increasingly desperate but they won almost every important header and held out resolutely with centre back Kai Hadley shading the man of the match award.

Sowerby Bridge: J Bolton, P Henderson, K Hadley, R Brook, J Cleary, S Hiley, A Markham, B Hiley, M Bates, L Wood, D Watkins. Subs: J Bedford, J Jepson, J Wilkinson, M Mee.

Hebden Royd Red Star: C Garbutt, D Lumb, A Dawson, P Thomas, F Ahmed, J Chadwick, J Gormley, T Barclay, L Cockroft, M Gale, T Harris. Subs: W Chadwick, J Speechley, W Boylan.

Referee: P Higgins.