Ashridge Park 4 Rotherfield Utd Colts 2
Ashridge Scorers: Reg Ryan (22',56'), Mason Bennett (47'), Dan Baker (61', pen)
Star Player: James Riley
Attention switched to the U14 Plate competition this week as we played host to fellow Division 5 outfit Rotherfield United Colts in the first round. Our opponents had strengthened their squad since our last meeting with the return of some of their former players, and had made an impressive start to the season with two wins out of two, racking up fourteen goals in the process. Ashridge also came into the game with renewed confidence following a win last week, so all was set fair for a good contest.
With Tim and Jack missing this week, the home side reverted to 4-4-2, with Matty slotting in beside James Riley in the centre of defence, and Marcus taking up the reins at left back; whilst Bertie started up-front with Reg. Ashridge were pushed straight on to the back foot as Rotherfield looked lively and inventive from the off, progressing down their left flank and winning an early corner. A good delivery was met with a flicked header at the near post, and the home side found themselves a goal down before even setting foot inside their opponents' half. Now brimming with confidence, Rotherfield continued to hold sway initially, with two or three of their players showing some nice touches on the ball, and their passing game looking neat and well-organised. Ashridge had to be on their mettle to avoid further damage, but thanks to some good blocks and interceptions from Matty, and some impressive skills and composure from James Riley, we began to hold our own, and gradually battle our way back in to the game. By the ten minute mark the tide was turning, as Will and Dan started to win more ball in the central areas, and we started to make progress on the right through Jamie's strong running and tricky footwork; whilst some good short passing began to open up spaces on the left for Alex and Marcus (the latter frequently surging forward ahead of the former, whose covering work was impeccable throughout) to link up with Bertie and Reg up-front. Chances began to materialise - Reg was played into space on the right of the box, but was well-hounded by a relatively speedy back line, and had to go wider than he would have liked before getting in a shot that was comfortably saved; then a carbon copy move saw him strike a better effort narrowly wide of the left post. Rotherfield were creating danger moments of their own at the other end, and Joe pulled off a smart save from a well-struck effort on the left of the box.
At the 22-minute mark, Ashridge's spell of pressure got its reward, as the ball was played forward from the central areas into the box, and Reg was first to the ball, hooking it home with his left foot from an awkward height to level up the score. The remainder of the half saw both sides continue to probe for the next goal, and the quality of football remained high, making it one of the most enjoyable games to watch that we've had. Both defences remained resolute, however, and the game was looking likely to stay level at the break, when Rotherfield lit up the morning with a stunning goal: after some skilful runs around the edge of the box had been met with well-timed tackles, Ashridge appeared to have cleared their lines, when the ball was struck first-time from well outside the box on the right, the ball arrowing into the top left-hand corner of the net leaving Joe (or indeed a much bigger goalkeeper than he is) with absolutely no chance of getting near it. 2-1 to the visitors at half-time in a truly absorbing contest.
Half-time changes saw Dan rested from the centre of midfield, and Marcus move forward into his place alongside Will who was able to resume after taking a nasty knock in the first half; whilst Alex took over at left back. As in the first half, Rotherfield made the early running, with some neat passing opening up spaces on the left flank, which James Roberts did well to repel. Again, Ashridge began to work their way back into contention, with Jamie looking the most likely threat: first leading a counter-attack from within his own half, leaving two players trailing in his wake with some lovely footwork, before being unceremoniously brought down in the centre circle as he looked set to release Reg through the middle; then a few minutes later breaking past two challenges on the right flank, before putting a dangerous ball into the box, where unfortunately Reg had strayed offside. Nearing the quarter hour mark, Ashridge were back on terms once again as another good break saw Reg hold the ball up on the edge of the box, before feeding it into Mason's path as he made a good run in the left channel; Mason just getting to the ball ahead of the advancing keeper, and poking the ball home just inside the left upright. 2-2 and all to play for in the last twenty minutes.
The game continued to be end-to-end as both teams looked to get their noses in front. Joe was called into action to gather a couple of long-range shots, and the defence and midfield as a group covered manfully to close down any spaces and keep the visitors at bay. And it was Ashridge who were to strike next; a Rotherfield move broke down as one of their players in trying to avoid one of his team-mates ran headlong into Marcus; Ashridge were first to the loose ball, and moved it swiftly up-field, where Reg latched on to it, rounded the keeper to his right before slotting into the empty net to give Ashridge the lead for the first time. Rotherfield pushed forward again, but the blue line held firm, and the visitors' tempers began to fray a little in their frustration as they began to appeal for fouls at every turn. Ashridge were looking lively on the break with Bertie and Reg linking up well on the left flank, with the latter's shot from a narrow angle being well struck but comfortably saved by the keeper. With Dan back on for Mason up-front, the pace of the Ashridge forward line was now becoming a problem for the visitors' defence, and Ashridge were to extend the lead with a little over ten minutes left; this one coming from a wonderful solo run from Dan, who worked his way past two opponents on the right before getting to the by-line, cutting into the box and beating a third player who brought him crashing down in the process. The referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot, and it was Dan who picked himself up to take it, placing the ball expertly into the right-hand corner for a 4-2 advantage. Ten minutes left, and Rotherfield pushed forward, winning a number of corners which Ashridge just about managed to clear; then came within inches of pulling a goal back, when the left-sided midfield player got in behind the defence, tricked his way past James Roberts before trying his luck from a narrow angle; the ball smacked into the near post and rebounded into the centre of the area, where enough Ashridge bodies got in the way, before finally Bertie got in an excellent block to clear the ball out of play on the left. Gradually Ashridge relieved the pressure and took the ball back to the Rotherfield half, and came close to a fifth when Bertie played in Reg on the left flank; Reg took it to the by-line then cut in and squared a lovely ball across the six-yard box to Dan, who miscued his attempt straight into the relieved keeper's grasp. The last chance of note as the clock ticked down, and Ashridge secured a place in Round 2.
A cracking contest between two evenly-matched teams, with the result in doubt until deep into the game. The boys can take a lot of pride in their play today, as they didn't allow a dreadful start to deflate them, and they defended superbly against a lively outfit. Furthermore the link-up play in midfield and up-front went up a notch today, some simple short passing allied to some more expansive passes at the right time; and this coupled to the other qualities we know we have in the team - Jamie and Dan's ability to beat players; Reg's pace and eye for goal to name just a few - are beginning to bring up the number of chances created to the level required to win these games. All thirteen did well today, but particular mention to Joe for pulling off some key saves when we were under pressure early in the game and for his generally solid handling; to Matty, who impressed at centre back, always being in the right place to get blocks and tackles in when we needed them; to Alex for his excellent awareness and positioning when covering for his defence, and to the aforementioned Jamie and Dan for the skills they displayed to put the visitors' defence under severe pressure at times. Today's star player (who could equally well have been star player in the three proceeding games) is James Riley; always strong in the tackle and athletic on and off the ball, today he was almost faultless in his decision making, which has sometimes been a weakness. He displayed some good skills to enable him to clear the ball under pressure, or to run the ball out of defence; he made good choices in when and where to pass the ball, and equally when to just hoof the ball into a neighbouring garden(!), and he was absolutely at the heart of great Ashridge defence in this game.