It was an afternoon to forget for West as they succumbed to a 3-0 defeat at the hands of lowly AFC Darwen at the Anchor Ground.
Manager Steve Settle was forced into a major reshuffle ahead of kick off as West were without Matty Kay, Richmond Botchey, Anthony Potts, Paul Socha, Carlos Mendes Gomes and Nia Bayunu. There was however a major boost as Scott Mason played for the first time since breaking his nose at home to Irlam in October. In addition, Settle handed starts to Rob Black, Ben Woods and Jonny Poizer meaning that half of the 14 man match-day squad were aged 22 or under. There was also a reunion as Dan Russell made the bench for Darwen, having joined them from West in December.
Despite the changes it took just two minutes for West to create their first chance as a Mason cross from the right found Nic Evangelinos at the far post and he volleyed just wide. Four minutes later that was followed up by Rick Gleave also firing just wide from the edge of the penalty area.
Darwen responded with a chance of their own as it took a Ben Woods goal-line clearance on 10 minutes to prevent the home side taking the lead from a corner. It was a warning sign that West would later fail to recognise. Seven minutes later Mark Rogers was called into action with a superb header from another corner before the rebound was volleyed over the bar from the edge of the area.
West went close from successive corners themselves as first Joe Shaw headed wide at the far post before he was quickest to react from a flick on from a Darwen defender at the near post turning the ball just wide at the far post. On 26 minutes West went close again from a corner as it was worked to the far post with the Darwen goalkeeper Ben Proctor making the initial save before making another good save with his feet from a Jonny Poizer shot on the turn.
It was therefore perhaps fitting that the deadlock was broken from a corner on 30 minutes when West failed to pick up Kiel Lonsdale’s run and he headed home unmarked at the near post. Three minutes later West were almost undone again as another corner reached the near post, was flicked on and but for a greater connection from the boot of a Darwen forward might have made it 2-0. On 37 minutes Darwen created the best chance from open play of the first half as a long range effort bounced in front of West goalkeeper Dean Williams forcing him to parry but only into the path of Lonsdale forcing Williams into a superb block with the rebound.
West finished the half brightly as first Scott Mason bent a free kick just wide of the post after Evanglinos had been brought down from behind through on goal resulting in just a yellow card. On 43 minutes Gleave then ghosted past three players, the ball hit a bobble but he was able to divert it into the path of Evangelinos who forced a superb save from Turner at his near post. This was followed up by West’s best chance of the half as a superb Mason cross was whipped to the far post but Poizer could only take it off the head of Kevin McGrath at the far post with an open goal in front of him. Evangelinos was again denied on the stroke of half time as his shot was blocked at point blank range after Poizer had done well to hold off the West centre half.
The second half was three minutes old when Mason again opened up Darwen on the right hand side sending in a hard low cross which Poizer just failed to get on the end of. West’s best chance of the second half came on 53 minutes as a superb move on the right saw Mason and Gleave combine as the latter was played into the box, drew the keeper, rounded him but could only fire his effort into the side netting from the most acute of angles. The managers at half time had had the desired effect as Evangelinos chased an errant Darwen back pass but Proctor again came up with a big save in the Darwen goal from the West striker.
However, West’s fightback was undone on 61 minutes when Williams kicked a free kick straight to Darwen’s Karl Turner, who took a superb first touch to control the hard kick, rolling it in front of him, before rounding Williams and slotting home to double Darwen’s lead. Williams made amends on 68 minutes as he came up with a big save at his near post to deny Darwen a third as West continued to push players forward. Two minutes later McGrath was called into action to clear a cross off the line,
The games turning point came on 73 minutes as Gleave played in substitute Saul Henderson with a superb through ball and the West striker coolly slotted past Proctor only for the linesman to have adjudged Henderson to be in an offside position despite appearing to have been played on by the Darwen right back. West continued to try to find a way back into the game as Martyn Andrews hit a superb 35 yard cross field pass to Mason on the right who in turned played in Evangelinos who fired just over the bar on the half volley turning towards goal.
Despite Henderson twice forcing the home goalkeeper into hard saves it was Darwen who added a third in stoppage time as a huge punt from Proctor was superbly flicked on into the path of Liam Cole and he fired home to give the home side a flattering but not underserved victory.
West almost snuck one back at the death as Gleave pounced on a rare mistake from Proctor but his toe poke on the line came back off the inside of the post to spare the Darwen keepers blushes. It result stretched West’s winless run at the Anchor Ground to four matches, and the third time they’d failed to score there.