MANAGER Keith Whatling believes Hamworthy Recreation are every bit as good as reigning champions Portland United – despite leaving this season’s title tilt too late.

The Magna Road outfit kept pace at the Dorset Premier League summit as 28-goal top scorer Luke Stone’s 35th-minute penalty secured a 1-0 win over Bridport reserves on Saturday.

Fellow challengers Weymouth reserves were held to a 2-2 draw by Parley Sports, while Merley Cobham Sports kicked their heels.

However, Portland edged up to second and to within a point of the summit having played fewer games than any of their rivals with a 4-1 home success over Blandford United.

The result kept Rec three points behind Gary Bailey’s men having played a game more and, while Whatling insisted his side, strengthened by a wave of Wessex League players in mid-season, had been in imperious form, he conceded United were still clear favourites.

Assessing the four-horse race for the crown, Whatling told the Daily Echo: “Weymouth reserves and Merley have done really well to get themselves up there but I think it will be too much for them.

“Portland will be at least six points clear if they win their games in hand and we are still challenging for it but, if I’m honest, it’s theirs to lose.

“They have slipped up against the likes of Cranborne and Blandford along the way, so anything could still happen but they have remained in front of us so it would take a big effort. We would probably have to win every game.

“Our biggest problem was taking too long to get together our side. Too many players had their heads turned by Wessex League clubs at the start of the season and it took a couple of months for them to come back.

“In that time, we threw away some stupid points but, since then, we have won 11, drawn one and lost one. The race would have been a hell of a lot different had we started at full strength.

“I had a spell at Portland and have a massive amount of respect for them. They have some very good players but I would say that we are on a par with them.

“We’re both in the semi-finals of the League Cup this weekend and I hope we meet them in the final because it would be a cracking game and a great chance to test ourselves against one of the strongest teams in the league.”

On the Bridport victory, Whatling added: “It was very one-sided but we just didn’t click in the final third. It was a definite penalty and, thankfully, Luke Stone took it very well.”

Rec: Knights, Sands, Hatchard, Bartlett, Walden, Ross, Willis, Wilcock (Manuel, 64), Purdy, Stone (Mulvey, 75), Andrews.