Marvellous Miracle Okafor struck a brace to give Halesowen an impressive opening day victory in the Southern Premier League (central) against highly-rated Leiston, writes David Johnson.

Yeltz Manager Paul Smith summed up Halesowen’s successful return to Step 3 football. “We were very good for 94 minutes in a dominant performance and I was pleased with the work-rate. There were lots of good performances, we have a young, fit side and I thought Todd Parker was first class. Today was a tough test, but the defence marshalled itself and goalkeeper Dan Platt was hardly touched. It’s just one game but it bodes well.”

Leiston last visited the Grove in March, 2019 and finished third last season, so presented a potentially stern test on Halesowen’s return to the Southern League Premier Central.

Parker soon earned a sixth minute corner for the Yeltz in a competitive opening on a wet, slippery surface but Leiston showed their credentials as Josh Hawker blocked for a 9th minute corner and Ryan Wynter cleared Wyatt Hill’s cross two minutes later.

Okafor burst through and turned the last defender after 13 minutes but his goalbound shot was blocked and Jak Hickman could only blaze the rebound over the bar. Dangerous Okafor was blocked again on the turn after being supplied by Jack Holmes in the 20th minute.

The Yeltz made visiting goalkeeper Sam Donkin look vulnerable and Okafor just failed to force the ball home in the 24th minute after Donkin initially failed to gather. In yet another good move Josh Ezewele’s cross was turned away for a 28th minute corner following a neat passage of play and Hawker charged down a clearance from Joe Marsden to earn a corner.

Halesowen took a 36th minute lead when Wynter challenged Donkin to Hickman’s corner and OKAFOR smashed the ball home from eight yards out. On the stroke of half-time, Holmes was then set free on goal but Chris Casement made a great saving tackle.

Okafor doubled Halesowen’s lead just two minutes after the interval when Casement’s short back-pass put fans’ favourite OKAFOR free to slot past goalkeeper Donkin with a tremendously cool finish to claim his second goal of the game. The Yeltz went close again in the 51st minute but Holmes’ effort from the right was deflected into Donkin’s arms.

Halesowen defended well when needed and looked comfortable into the latter stages, taking the sting out of Leiston’s game, although home goalkeeper Platt saved low down from Spencer Keller after 65 minutes and Jamar Loza struck a low 74th minute shot past Platt’s post. McKauley Manning then curled over the bar at the end of a neat 79th minute Halesowen move across the park.

Leiston pulled a goal in the fourth minute of added time when Marsden slotted the ball through for former Norwich City professional LOZA to beat Platt.

Final score: Halesowen Town 2 Leiston 1

Halesowen Town:  Dan Platt (c); Josh Ezewele, Reece Mitchell, Josh Hawker (Caine Elliott 60), Ryan Wynter, Kieran Morris, Jak Hickman (George Cater 75), Todd Parker, Miracle Okafor (Ryan Boothe 81), Jack Holmes, McKauley Manning. Subs Not Used: Luke Redfern, Jac Redhead.

Leiston: Sam Donkin; Wyatt Hill (Jake Spooner 88), Seb Dunbar (c), Ollie Saunders, Chris Casement (Eddie Jackson 90), Ross Crane, Zach Dronfield (Ryan Jarvis 75), Jamar Loza, Joe Marsden, Spencer Keller, Rossi Jarvis. Sub Not Used: Adam Bailey-Dennis.

Referee: Andrew Sheppard                   Attendance: 819

Booked: Crane (22), Holmes (63), Mitchell (73)

Tulleys Print HTFC Man of the Match selected by The Big Pet Store: Miracle Okafor

Non-League Paper Man of the Match: Miracle Okafor