Manderwood Pembrokeshire League Division 1: Merlins Bridge 1-5 Monkton Swifts

It was an emphatic statement, and one which sends a clear message to those who questioned the credibility of Monkton's title challenge.

Because following freezing rain, a Ben Steele hat trick, two red cards and a frantic final 15 minutes - it was The Swifts who ended the unbeaten league run of Merlins Bridge with a 5-1 win at The Racecourse. And in doing so, Joe Lewis' team gave the strongest indication yet they are ready to regain the title last won by the club in the 2006/07 season.

It wasn't as simple as the eventual score line suggests though, as after Steele's brace put his side in control in a first half which also saw Martyn Carroll and Adam Hawkins sent off, the Wizards responded.

Joe Leahy pulled one back after the break and then the visitors had to withstand heavy pressure before cutting loose late on with James Russell, Steele again, and Thomas Powell scoring.

A swift start:

To the credit of both sides, they defied some treacherous early weather to attack with real purpose.

And it was Monkton who drew first blood. Just 10 minutes in Ryan Griffiths broke free on the right and his diagonal ball into the box put Steele through on goal, and the forward produced a clinical side footed finish into the far corner.

Bridge almost levelled immediately as Leahy and Will Haworth teed up Nathan Greene - but his first time shot was palmed away by Thomas Doyle.

The end to end stuff continued. Leahy drew another save from the Monkton keeper, before the striker was slipped in by Hayward but could only blast over from a tight angle.

Matthew D'Ivry's side blew another chance to level things after Doyle, replacing regular stopper Michael Murray, misjudged a Jordan Thomas cross but Will Haworth couldn't capitalize, skewing his shot off target from point blank range.

Greene also headed wide from a Leahy corner but Monkton too were having their chances. Twice home keeper Gary Thomas had to gather at the second attempt as efforts from Davies and Steele caused problems and then five minutes before half time, the away side doubled their lead.

First came a flashpoint as Bridge winger Hawkins shoved Carroll to the ground and the left back, perhaps unluckily, was adjudged to have reacted in kind by ref Alan Boswell and red cards to both were shown.

From the Monkton free kick that followed, Griffiths swung in a cross from the left wing and prompted a goal mouth scramble, with Steele eventually scoring via the post.

Bridge bounce back:

The Wizards came out second half like a side hell bent on getting back into it though.

Just moments in, it was Leahy who found space in the area and curled a sublime shot into the far top corner. Game on.

The same player then went clean through but his low shot was blocked by Doyle - and Greene was thwarted in identical fashion before also seeing a low shot deflect inches wide. The forward broke free again in the area but his cross-shot just evaded sub Leon Pemberty.

Amidst all that though came a warning at the other end as Steele pounced on a fumble by Thomas, only to see his follow up effort brilliantly blocked by Jordan Thomas.

And sure enough after weathering the storm, literally and metaphorically, suddenly it was Monkton who looked the most threatening.

Monkton's clinical finish:

Home frustration grew as both Richard Hughes and Greene received needless yellow cards for late barges and on the 75 minute mark it was 3-1, Steele crossing for sub James Russell who showed great composure to bring the high ball down, cut inside Hughes, and fire into the net.

And moments later the contest was over, and again the goal came from a counter attack which ended with Steele driving a low right foot shot across Thomas and into the bottom corner.

Still Bridge tried to throw men forward but skipper Shaun Jones and Jake Seaton were outstanding in dealing with what came at them, and the Swifts continued to break at will as both Thomas Powell and then Russell went through one on one but both wasted their chance.

But the two made amends to combine for goal number five. Chris Richards, who filled in admirably at left back after Carroll departed, cleared downfield and it set up the attack from which Russell laid off Powell to fire high into the net.

Joe Lewis (Monkton manager): "It's a very good result for us

"It was a tight first half and we under pressure at the start of the second half but we made the most of our chances on the break.

"But in terms of challenging for the title, we have to keep going and maintain this form now."

Matthew D'Ivry (Bridge manager): "At the end of the day goals change games and we didn't make the most of the chances we had today.

"We had a 20-25 minute spell where we should have scored more and paid the price."

Man of the match - Ben Steele:

What would have pleased Lewis is this was far from a one man show.

One dodgy moment in the first half aside, Thomas Doyle proved an adequate replacement for Michael Murray in goal and when he did have to re-shuffle his back four, Chris Richards filled in ably at left back. 

And whenever Monkton counter attacked they threatened. Thomas Powell, Ryan Griffiths and Dylan Davies were all prominent, as was James Russell when he came on.

But Steele gets the nod. His finishing for goals one and three in particular was spot on and his all round movement was excellent. He constantly pulled defenders out wide and when things opened up late on, it played right into his hands.

Circumstances meant he was often deployed as a full back by Hakin last season. But as yesterday proved, up front is where he belongs.

And he's a key figure in Monkton's title challenge.

Turning point in the title race?:

Anyone who assumed Monkton's rise this season was a flash in the pan will think differently now. Since Christmas they have won convincingly against both Hakin and Bridge and next week, will go back top should they beat Clarbie.

Like anyone else up there, they have a hell of a lot to do yet but they have the quality and depth in their squad to win the league. It wasn't one way traffic over the 90 minutes yesterday and Joe Lewis will know that, but under heavy pressure yesterday, his side worked extremely hard and when the chances to break came, they were clinical.

For Bridge, that's now seven points dropped in four league games and the pressure is now on to win their games in hand on the four sides above them.

They will feel the score line was misleading yesterday. Had either Greene or Leahy scored after going clean though at 2-1 we could have been looking at a different contest.

But their heads seem to drop as soon as Steele made it 3-1 and in the end they can have few complaints.

Now they must respond and it's West Wales Cup for The Wizards next week and then Narberth away.

For varying reasons, both are now must win games.

Merlins Bridge: Gary Thomas, Richard Hughes (Ben Davies 78), Chris Ormond, Jordan Thomas, Andrew John (Gethin Roberts 50), Adam Hawkins, Luke Hayward, David Davies, Will Haworth (Leon Pemberthy 67), Joe Leahy, Nathan Greene. 

Monkton Swifts: Thomas Doyle, Ben Nicholas, Jake Seaton, Shaun Jones, Martyn Carroll, Blake James (Josh Richards 86), Thomas Powell, Chris Richards, Ryan Griffiths (James Russell 61), Dylan Davies, Ben Steele (Rhodri Davies 81).