Westwood Wanderers Hoops 2 Ashridge Park 5
Ashridge Scorers: o.g. (16'), Dan Baker (22'), Reg Ryan (29', 46', 65')
Star Player: Dan Baker
As luck would have it, our trip to Tilehurst (one of the few longer trips in our itinerary) not only coincided with a busy shopping weekend, but also with the closure of the M4 beyond Theale for roadworks, and therefore potential road chaos in the area. Sure enough, at the scheduled meeting time half an hour before the game, Ashridge had a grand total of 2 players on the pitch, whilst a full squad of players in green and white hoops were already warming up at the other end! With Matty having tweaked a hamstring in last week's draw with Rotherfield, Jack now out of action until after Christmas with a damaged wrist, and last week's star player James Roberts out with illness, we could ill afford latecomers, and the coach was anxiously counting the team off as they arrived in dribs and drabs. Gradually all 12 did put in an appearance, and we were all set for the off.
With two of the regular back four missing this week, we started with three at the back; Marcus dropping in on the right beside James and Tim, with Jamie and Alex providing cover from wing back. Ashridge got off to a lethargic start, allowing Westwood to break forward a few times, particularly down the right flank; good cover from Alex and Tim resulting in the ball being run out of play more often than not. Despite dominating the central areas in the first ten minutes, Westwood could not find the right weight on the pass to release the forwards, and Joe was able to collect, or watch the ball behind for a goal kick. Ashridge then began to stir, with Dan starting to snap into the challenges in midfield as we have come to expect, and forming a good partnership with Will who was often on hand to pick off the loose ball. The first signs of progress came down the left flank, as Bertie and Alex began to link up well; the latter able to push on ahead of the former on a number of occasions, and both began seek out Mason and Reg in the forward-lying positions. Just after the quarter hour mark, a period of territorial advantage culminated in the opener for Ashridge; another move developed down the left with Alex and Bertie, the ball breaking for Mason in the box, and after he was crowded out Dan took command, holding off his marker before turning and trying an effort on goal, which was turned past his own keeper by the unfortunate Westwood defender.
Ashridge now gained a stranglehold on proceedings, and Jamie started to join the party, working well with Will, whose pass set him up with a shooting chance on the right of the box, but his snatched effort skewed five yards wide of the near post. The second goal was not long in coming, however, and again it was Will who created the chance with a delightful chip over the back line to find Dan marauding into the box for a simple finish to the keeper's right. Westwood tried to rally, but the midfield were tireless in their closing down of the man in possession - Alex particularly noteworthy in this respect in all areas of the pitch - and on the few occasions Westwood did break past them, the back line were able to cover; and often dong more than that with some intelligent clearances into good spaces, allowing Ashridge to break forward again. Indeed it was from a James Riley long ball that Ashridge struck again before half-time, the defender's attempt to head the ball falling behind him, allowing Reg to sprint on to the ball, break into the box from the right channel, and slot past the keeper. 3-0 at the break and Ashridge looking comfortable.
Always a risk to change a successful formula, but in order to give those deputising in unfamiliar positions a chance to play in their more accustomed roles, Ashridge switched to 4-4-2 at the beginning of the second period; Will and Alex dropping into the full-back roles, Jamie and Marcus picking up the reins in central midfield, with Dillon to the right, whilst Dan pushed up front with Reg. The visitors were clearly thrown out of their stride; with Dan and Will's influence in midfield being most missed as Westwood pushed forward from the word go. Alex and Tim on the left also took a while to sort out how the new partnership was going to work, and with James often drawn over to try to sort things out, there were sometimes three players going for the same ball and gaps were being left. Westwood got themselves a lifeline within three minutes, a corner was half cleared out to the right side of the penalty area, where a Westwood player was in space; both Will and Alex tried to close down belatedly, but had clearly lost their bearings as they left a direct line to goal open; the shot came in, and James further added to the confusion by moving to clear it and then leaving it at the last moment, only for the ball to fly in (bizarrely finding a ball-sized hole in the net) just inside the left post, with Joe not having moved. Despite the chaos at the back, it was clear that Ashridge's front two were still posing a threat, as Dan turned over possession before hitting a slightly disappointing effort straight at the keeper; whilst Reg also broke clear on the left side, before putting his shot wide of the near post. Westwood continued to pile forward and soon won a free kick centrally 25 yards out after Alex just caught his opponent in the tackle. More mayhem from the free-kick which again found it's way through the same hole in the net, via some defensive boots, possibly a bit of post, and Joe's attempt to keep it out. 3-2, and a game which had been well under control was suddenly back in the balance.
Fortunately it did not take long for Ashridge to restore a cushion; with Jamie and Marcus now starting to get more of a grip in the centre, and Dan also dropping back in to help win the ball back; the breakthrough came when Reg latched on to a ball forward just right of centre, advanced into the box before sliding it past the keeper into the centre of the goal. The home side were deflated, and although they continued to push forward, Ashridge now seemed to have the measure of them; Alex got to grips with the left back role and covered tirelessly for the remainder of the game, breaking up all attempts to get down that flank; whilst Will was similarly obdurate on the right. James was at his imperious best when all else failed, snuffing out any attacks before frequently beating his man, and continuing up-field, sometimes releasing the ball to other players who were well-placed, but most notably, setting off down the right wing leaving Westward players trailing in his wake before winning a corner when his cross was cut out. Ashridge had several opportunities to extend the lead: Reg twice more breaking forward on the left, but under pressure from some speedy defenders, taking the shot on his left foot, and not finding the connection to trouble the keeper; whilst Dan was also denied his second when his cross-shot from the right side of the box drew a fine full-length save from the Westwood keeper; who then also denied the same player from a narrower angle, turning the ball behind for a corner with his feet. Ashridge did finally get the fifth five minutes from time, when Dan put Reg through in the right channel, the latter advancing and smashing the ball past the keeper from close range to complete his hat-trick. Few alarms at the back, and a comfortable enough win closed out.
Barring an iffy start to both halves, this was a decent performance, especially given the absences in our defensive line. Thanks to those who deputised in unfamiliar positions: Marcus had a solid first half on the right of the back three, although he needs to curb his desire to beat his opponent in more risky positions, whilst Alex - barring the ten minute wobble at the start of the second half - had an excellent game, covering the ground well and breaking up many attacks. Alex and Bertie on the left in the first half exemplified how to work with a wing back and a wide forward, with some great interchanges and swapping of positions which their opponents struggled to read. Will also deserves credit today, he was a lynch-pin in midfield, and his pass into Dan for our second goal was a lovely piece of vision and skill; he also played his part at right back in the second half. Good to see Reg back amongst the goals, but for star player in this game we can look no further than Dan; his competitive spirit really galvanised the team after a slow start; he was at the heart of our first goal, scored the second and created the fifth; and his energy in midfield and up-front was always the key to us controlling the match. Next week an interesting test as we visit second placed Spencers Wood, whose results to date have borne a striking resemblance to our own!