A NEW year started superbly for the Rocks as they cemented their place in the Ryman one south play-off zone with a comprehensive 4-1 home victory over Sussex rivals Burgess Hill Town.
After the home side raced into a two-goal first half lead, the visitors pegged the Rocks back early in the second half before two goals in the last three minutes finally secured the points in front of Nyewood Lane’s biggest crowd of the season so far, 468.
In the Rocks’ first home match for more than a month, there was a return to the starting line-up for the influential Michael Birmingham, coming in for Kane Wills, while Jon Marzetti replaced Matt Whitehead from the side that drew their last match at Worthing.
Craig Stoner was serving a one match ban, with on-loan Brighton youngster Josh James taking his place and putting in a competent performance between the sticks.
The visitors started confidently, with the Rocks rearguard soaking up what the Hillians had to offer in the final third of the pitch, before on-loan youngster Perry Ryan was injured in a challenge which required treatment from the physio.
In the 12th minute, Dan Beck opened the scoring for Bognor against his former club, receiving a lay-off from Luke Nightingale on the right, before unleashing a powerfully-struck low shot, which beat keeper Joel Harding on his near post.
The lead was doubled just seven minutes later when a trip on James Fraser saw referee Mr Lavelle point to the penalty spot.
The veteran Birmingham duly obliged with the spot-kick, sending Harding the wrong way.
Back came the Hillians and on 28 minutes, Rocks keeper James was called upon to beat Steve Harper in an aerial challenge after James Crane had miscued a clearance, with the ball eventually being scrambled clear.
Three minutes later, the youngster was on hand to deny Harper again, bravely diving at the feet of the prolific striker to claim the ball.
The Rocks defence were caught napping soon afterwards when the unmarked Lloyd Cotton arrived at the far post from a free-kick, to send his first time effort across the face of the goalmouth, although the assistant referee flagged for offside.
In the 36th minute, Hillians captain Leo Day found himself in the referee’s notebook following a crude challenge on Ben Johnson, but Birmingham’s direct free-kick was no problem for Harding in the visitors goal.
In first half stoppage time, the Rocks almost extended the lead further when fine work from James Fraser saw the midfielder lob his effort over the head of Harding, but the visiting custodian recovered in time to prevent the ball from crossing the line.
Five minutes into the second half, the Rocks were on the hunt for further goals and good work on the left from Johnson saw the ball arrive at the feet of Beck, whose 30-yard effort forced Harding into a fine stop, palming the ball away from danger.
Marzetti then won a battle on the right, sending in his low cross but this eluded the on-rushing Rocks forward line and the ball was cleared.
However in the 55th minute, Burgess Hill found themselves right back in the fixture when they halved the deficit. The ball fell kindly for Cotton, who stroked the ball home from point blank range after the Rocks defence had failed to clear.
Within a minute, the hosts almost restored their two goal cushion when neat work from Johnson in the centre, set up Nightingale but he screwed his first time shot on the turn, wide of Harding’s left hand post.
With the visitors in the ascendency, they produced a nervy moment for the home fans when Harper raced goalwards with Tim Bond, forcing James to come rushing off his line, bringing the striker down on the left hand side of the field.
The teenage goalkeeper will have been relieved to escape with only a yellow card.
In the 65th minute, Phil Turner came off the substitutes’ bench to replace Marzetti, making his first appearance for two months following his hamstring injury.
And the local lad soon found himself in the action, threading the ball to Crane who in turn set up Nightingale and with just Harding to beat, he composed himself before firing a low shot that the keeper managed to push onto the post and off for a corner.
Skipper Birmingham left the field to a rousing reception from the Rocks faithful, when he was replaced by Wills.
However, persistence finally paid off with two late Rocks strikes to finally put the game to bed.
In the 87th minute, Nightingale was faced with another one-on-one situation with Harding, this time coming out on top to drill his low effort into the bottom corner of the net, scoring for the fifth consecutive match.
Seconds later, Harding found himself picking the ball out of the net for a fourth time when Johnson curled the ball over from the left, just creeping in at the far post, becoming the second Rocks player of the afternoon to score against his former club.
The Rocks management duo of Darin Killpartrick and Jamie Howell - who were also both previously at Burgess Hill, with the latter also having a spell there as manager - withdrew Turner, giving Charlie Marshall a run-out, and the youngster almost immediately had a sniff of the visitors goal but saw his effort blocked.
The visitors came back for one last strike at goal, with James making a fine double block to deny Harper from close range.
The victory sees the Rocks unbeaten in their last six league games, with Walton Casuals visiting the Lane for another Division One South clash in just two days time, before next weekend’s Sussex showdown away to new league leaders Whitehawk.
ROCKS: Josh James, James Crane, Jon Marzetti (sub Phil Turner 65, sub Charlie Marshall 90), James Fraser, Perry Ryan, Tim Bond, Dan Beck, Michael Birmingham (sub Kane Wills 77), Jason Prior, Luke Nightingale, Ben Johnson. Unused subs: Matt Whitehead and Matt Wood.
Report by Rob Garforth