ROCKS REVIEW: Rocks 4 Walton and Hersham 0

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A Jason Prior hat-trick and a Luke Nightingale goal kept the Rocks in pole position in the Ryman one south title race.

Two goals in a minute just before the break put them on their way to victory over play-off chasing Walton & Hersham and Prior boosted the goal difference with two more in a second half in which he also missed a penalty.

One worrying sight came when Nightingale limped off after pulling up with an Achilles injury late in the game. Afterwards joint boss Jamie Howell appeared hopeful he would recover by the time the Rocks go to Sittingbourne next Saturday.

The Met Police’s 4-1 win at Walton Casuals kept them two points behind the Rocks with three games to play and with a goal difference that’s better by one, although the Rocks have now secured a top-three finish which means at worst a home play-off semi-final.

The Rocks started with the XI who finished the win over Whtyeleafe a week ago, which meant a recall to the starting line-up for James Crane at right-back.

They were up against a Walton & Hersham side battling with Burgess Hill to claim fifth spot and the final play-off place.

There were four minutes on the clock as the Rocks threatened for the first time. Ben Johnson ran on to a pass down the left and floated a cross to the far post where Prior just failed to connect.

An attack down the other flank saw Crane play in Dan Royce for a cross that a defender had to hack clear for a corner. Johnson’s delivery was headed out to Royce on the edge of the area but he smacked his volley well over the bar.

Johnson had a go himself next but didn’t hit his shot cleanly after a one-two with Nightingale and keeper Gareth Williams gathered easily.

W&H’s first meaningful pressure came in the 13th minute when the Rocks struggled to clear a free-kick lofted into the box. When it fell to Sean Bradley on the right, his deep cross had Craig Stoner back-tracking frantically but it went out.

An inswinging Johnson free-kick from the right after a foul on Royce skimmed off a defender’s head for a corner.

The Rocks were knocking at the door but not getting in, with Johnson seeing plenty of the ball but being well-marked.

A Matt Whitehead cross found Nightingale at the far post but he couldn’t get a strong enough header in and it went out for a goal kick.

Johnson took a return pass from a short corner and floated a curling shot just high and wide.

A quick counter attack involving Michael Birmingham and Prior put Royce in down the right but his cross was too near Williams. Then Johnson teased a cross in for Prior but again Williams was quickest to react.

Johnson was the main threat but nothing was going for him. On 36 minutes he cut into the area and tried to curl a right-footed shot round Williams but it struck a defender and cannoned back off the winger and out for a goal kick.

The Swans’ Ryan Adams earned the afternoon’s first yellow card for a late challenge on Birmingham as the Rocks tried to break from in their own half.

The visitors threatened from two successive corners and the home fans – again present in excellent numbers – began to get a little edgy.

Kane Wills found himself in an excellent shooting position just outside the area after Prior chested down Whitehead’s ball forward but his weak shot trickled wide.

The Rocks took the lead in the 42nd minute and it was the deadly duo of Nightingale and Prior who the Rocks had to thank. Nightingale chased a long ball forward from Whitehead into the area and touched it down for Prior who smashed a shot past the helpless keeper.

Less than a minute later it was 2-0 as Nightingale chased a pass from Tim Bond, lifted it over his marker and steadied himself before volleying past Williams to leave Hersham shell-shocked.

The double strike was more than enough to send the majority of the 555 crowd off happy for their half-time drink.

HT 2-0

There was a change for Hersham at the break, Ashley Quashie replacing Jean-Michel Sigere.

There were a couple of half-chances for the Rocks as they began the second half on the front foot, but each came to nothing.

They almost had an own goal to celebrate on 52 minutes when Hersham’s James Nicholas headed a corner towards his own goal, but Williams held it on the line.

Bradley went into the book for hacking down Whitehead as the Rocks tried to make progress down the left.

Prior made it 3-0 on 56 minutes with the easiest of tap-ins after a Birmy special free-kick from 25 yards had beaten the keeper and come back off the post. Royce had won the free-kick with a surging run that was cut short by foul.

That made Prior the top scorer in the division ahead of Leatherhead’s Greg Andrews – and with Met Police 2-1 up in their game, also meant the top two had identical goals-for and goals-against records at that point of the afternoon.

Conor Wilkins replaced Royce on the hour and W&H made a change with George Griffiths replacing Kieran Knight.

Johnson tested Williams with a fierce shot from 20 yards that the keeper did well to keep out of the top corner.

The Rocks missed a chance to go 4-0 up on 64 minutes when Prior crashed a penalty against the bar. It was given after Johnson went down in the box, seemingly after he had lost the ball.

The Rocks clearly weren’t going to settle for three and Wills was next to get away down the right, but his cross-come-shot was miscued.

At the other end Stuart Axten was booked for stopping Griffiths as he ran through. Chris Wales hit the free-kick cleanly enough but Stoner held it without breaking sweat.

Stoner had a stroke of luck a minute later when he slipped as he tried to boot the ball clear from an Axten back pass. He was relieved to see his mis-hit clearance hit Reis Stanislaus and go out for a goal-kick.

Nightingale sent a half-volley from 25 yards whistling inches the wrong side of the woodwork with 18 minutes left.

Birmingham was replaced by Phil Turner with 14 minutes and received a great ovation from the crowd.

The two Rocks subs combined on 78 minutes but after Wilkins played in Turner and he cut inside his marker, he scuffed a weak effort at the keeper.

There was a worrying sight for the hosts with ten minutes left when Nightingale went down clutching his ankle. Dean Maynard was brought on as the striker limped off, with everyone hoping his injury - later said to be an Achilles problem - was not going to rule him out of any of the run-in.

Johnson’s cheeky chip from 22 yards was just too high with six minutes left.

The Rocks were attacking in numbers looking for a fourth but the final ball was starting to lack quality and it seemed it wouldn’t come. But finally it did as Johnson carried the ball from inside his own half and played a perfectly-timed pass to Prior, who took a touch and poked a shot from just inside the box past Williams for his 30th league of the season.

As injury time began there was a delay while Stanislaus was treated after going down under a challenge in a rare W&H attack.

The matchball was sponsored by the Bognor Observer but it was Prior who went home with it (as pictured above by Tommy McMillan) after his treble, which put him one goal ahead of Andrews in the division’s scoring table.

Rocks: Stoner, Crane, Whitehead, Wills, Axten, Bond, Royce, Birmingham, Prior, Nightingale, Johnson. Subs: Wilkins, Marzetti, Maynard, Turner, James.

W&H: Williams, Adams, Elliott, Wales, Nicholas, Matthews, Sigere, Kiri, Knight, Stanislaus, Bradley. Subs: Griffiths, Bojang, Quashie, Betancourt, Ceesay.

Ref: B Knight (Waterlooville)

Next up the Rocks go to Sittingbourne - with many believing the Met police’s continued winning form will mean the men from Nyewood Lane need to win all their last three.

STEVE BONE