A classy first-half performance saw Walton Casuals extend the play-off gap between opponents Phoenix Sports to double digits.
With Walton’s 3–0 victory back in Barnehurst hailed one of their best performances of the season, the pressure was on with a win potentially securing their place in the play-offs by extending the gap to 12 points.
Youssef Bamba opened the scoring early on before Sean McCormack added his sixth of the season 15 minutes later. In-form Bamba sealed the win shortly after the hour mark, with Sports’ rapid response unable to hinder the hosts.
However, it could have been a very different afternoon when defenders Max Hustwick and Harry Mills were caught out in a moment of confusion inside five minutes. Allowing Kweku Ansah a chance inside the box, they had Dominic Ogun to thank when his goal-line clearance kept the scoresheet blank.
Phoenix frontman Jeff Duah-Kessie, who was highly rated by the traveling supporters, was contained by centre-back Joe Hicks from the first minute and made his frustrations known early on.
But the Stags also looked better in the final third, with Josh Kelly breaking through the defence and being halted only by the offside flag after 10 minutes. His next attempt to beat the defence proved more successful, as Sports’ Danny Young struggled up against the young striker throughout the game.
After collecting a through ball from the right wing, Kelly beat his defender with ease and rolled the ball across the box. With Bamba on-rushing to join the attack, his strike from 18 yards sailed past Steve Phillips to put the Casuals in front.
Having lost just one game since moving into the Elmbridge Xcel Sports Hub back in September, Walton showed no signs of letting their record slip. Phoenix were unable to cope with the attacking onslaught of Kelly, Bamba and Sean McCormack, and were forced into handballs and rash challenges in quick succession to prevent a second.
In his first game since being named the club’s January Player of the Month, Kelly looked to add to his personal tally after battling with Young. The strength and size of the defender proved just too much for the Maidenhead United prodigy as his shot was lifted over the bar, but four minutes later Kelly got the better of him to claim his second assist of the afternoon.
With a move starting from goalkeeper Denzel Gerrar, a pacey break from Youssef Bamba allowed the Frenchman to find Kelly charging at the defence. Rushing towards the Phoenix goal, he selflessly played the ball across to fellow loanee McCormack who could shield off his defender and find the net from six yards.
Filled with confidence from his goal, McCormack danced through the defenders out wide as the Stags looked to increase their lead. Christie Pattison was forced into feigning injury to avoid a card after a late challenge on Bamba, and the Casuals could be considered unfortunate to only be two up heading into the break.
Walton didn’t quite possess the same attacking prowess after the restart, but still proved more dominant in all areas of the field.
Gerrar was forced into a good save from Gil Carvalho’s 49th minute free-kick, and another counter resulted in Kelly being denied an opportunity by Phillip’s acrobatic clearance after rushing out of his box.
The third goal eventually came in the 64th minute and was well worth the wait. Bamba’s bulleted strike into the roof of the net from distance left the goalkeeper helpless, and wouldn’t have been stopped by the very best.
Phoenix’s response came unexpectedly just three minutes later, with Pattison’s explosive free-kick leaving Gerrar stunned from 25 yards.
Walton almost issued an even quicker response and could have had their fourth less than 30 seconds later. A poorly-timed backpass left Phillips scurrying to palm the ball off the line, and the nature of the incident left the officials unsure of whether the ball had crossed the line.
With no goal given, the hosts continued to control possession and had claims for a penalty waived away after 76 minutes. After the tenacious tracking back of Kelly forced an interception, the ball fell to Bamba who cut in from the wing and was taken down in the box.
The Stags saw out on the match comfortably, and after a halt in play to allow Sonny Black treatment for a kick to the head, one final break from Kelly forced Phillips to make an impressive save with his legs.
Walton remain in fifth place with 13 games to go, but see the gap between the top six narrowed to just six points. Next up for Anthony Gale’s side is a league outing at Sittingbourne on Saturday 10 February.