Spencers Wood Hurricanes 2 Ashridge Park 4
Ashridge Scorers: Dan Baker (5',40'), Reg Ryan (24',57')
Star Player: James Riley
A crisp but fine morning saw us take the short trip into the Berkshire countryside to take on second place Spencers Wood Hurricanes at the Swallowfield Recreation Ground. Kick-off was delayed by 35 minutes as the designated referee for the morning had called in sick and we had to wait for the U16 game to conclude, but the entertainment whil we waited was non-stop as that game ended 10-6! The anticipation was high for a number of reasons - several of the boys on both sides being classmates at The Forest School; this being the first meeting of these sides in four years; and the realisation that our results over the past 18 months have been strikingly similar. Both sides went into the game in good form, with the home team on a run of four successive wins, whilst Ashridge had remained unbeaten in the league since the opening day.
With Marcus ill, and Jack still injured, we set up in the same 3-4-3 formation that had proved successful in the first half at Westwood last week; with James Roberts fit to return on the right of the defence, and Dillon taking a turn to start in the centre of the strike force. Ashridge were quick out of the blocks with Jamie, Will and Dan all getting on the ball early on; and Bertie and Alex finding good space wide on the left. The home side were stretched, just managing to see off half-chances for Reg and Bertie, whilst Dillon also found his way in on goal, only to be flagged offside. The reward was not long in coming, a beautiful move starting with Jamie on the right and also involving Will, before Dan took up possession, laid it off to Reg on the right edge of the box, and Reg slotted the return through a gap in the defence before Dan unleashed a shot which took a deflection on its way into the net. Ashridge remained on top, with a refreshing brand of football in evidence, and frequently exposing holes in the home defence; shots came in from all directions: Bertie and Dan both having efforts wide of goal, and Alex also testing the keeper with an effort from the edge of the box, before having another shot from range clear the bar. When Spencers Wood did respond the backline of James, James and Tim all cleared their lines emphatically, with James Riley more than willing to step up into the midfield areas and spray some intelligent passes into the forward line.
Just past the midway point in the half, the home team almost got back on level terms with a rapid break. Possession was turned over on the Ashridge left flank close to the penalty box, and ball moved swiftly down the flank; for the first time getting in behind the Ashridge back line. A good ball was put into the centre, where James Roberts put in a desperate challenge on the edge of the box, and being a fraction late, brought the forward down. Hearts were in mouths as the referee, a little distance behind play, pointed initially to the spot, but full credit to him, he then consulted the linesman who confirmed that the challenge was outside the box, and the decision was corrected to a free kick. Ashridge cleared the danger, but a good spell ensued for the home team who won a series of corners and throws, one of which was cleared off the line by Jamie, and all of which had Ashridge scrambling to get bodies in the way and before getting the ball clear. Having absorbed the pressure, Ashridge then struck on the counter, James Riley stepping up once more before playing the ball over the top; the Spencers Wood defender could only flick it on, allowing Reg to race through just left of centre, and finish emphatically into the right hand corner. With the cushion in place, Ashridge continued to threaten, with Dan firing into the side netting from a narrow angle, before Jamie just failed to set Bertie in on goal with another incisive pass. The home side rallied again late in the half as Ashridge tired a little, getting in behind on both flanks, but most notably putting a couple of very dangerous balls in from the right which were knocked over the bar by the incoming striker. Nonetheless, Ashridge reached the break with a deserved 2-0 advantage.
In order to bring Matty into the game, and with some thought to deal with the emerging threat on the Spencers Wood right flank, we reverted to 4-4-2 at the start of the second half, with Alex making way. A similar change had proved disastrous last week at Westwood, so the team was especially on its guard to start well in the second half. An early glimmer of a chance came as Will turned over possession and linked with Dan who fed the ball up to Mason in the right channel, but the home centre back was too quick and strong and snuffed out the danger. As in the first half, Ashridge struck early, and this was a contender for our goal of the season. Dan was at the start, middle and end of this one; picking up possession centrally some 25 yards out, advancing to the edge of the box, and as the home defence looked to close down all of the possible passing options with which they had been so exposed in the first half, Dan simply side-stepped his way past three men before rifling the ball high past the home keeper for 3-0. There followed an extended period of end-to-end play, with both defences doing well to keep the respective strikers at bay. For Ashridge there were some good interventions from Matty, who returned the ball (often on the volley) with interest when it came his way, from James Roberts, who broke up numerous moves on our right side and even ventured forward on a counter of his own, and from Tim, who stuck well to the task of keeping the speedy right sided player from getting in behind. Most notable, as ever, was James Riley, who frequently began to break forward having won possession, and initiated a number of attacks; even having one effort of his own on goal, unfortunately drifting some way to the right of the target. Most of the visitors' opportunities were breaking to Mason now, but he struggled to overcome a solid and swift opponent despite his best efforts.
With just under a quarter of an hour left, the visitors extinguished any remaining doubt about the result. Another goal starting in the central areas, where Will and Dan were continuing to put in some immense work; this time managing to find Reg on the edge of the box; Reg worked a shooting space, the keeper got a block in, but the ball ran behind him, and Reg was able to get there first and roll the ball into the empty net. 4-0, and Ashridge emphatically in control of the game. So it was to remain until just over five minutes from the end, when the supreme efforts of the previous 60+ minutes began to take their toll, and the Ashridge midfield line began to get a little ragged. Spencers Wood pressed forward in numbers, and after a throw from the left was half-cleared a long range strike went high over Joe to narrow the deficit. With the clock ticking down, another break on the right saw the flanker outpace Matty and get to the ball just before it crossed the bye-line, and an excellent pull back was met with an equally fine volley into the right-hand corner of the net. Any thoughts of a remarkable comeback were quashed as Jamie made another excellent break forward on the right touchline before being brought crashing down. Ashridge took their time over the kick, and almost extended the lead when Reg's knock down fell to Will, whose side-foot looked to be heading for the top corner, but missed the left post by a fraction. The referee's whistle then brought the curtain down on a thoroughly entertaining game.
An open game which suited our style very well, enabling the boys to turn in one of their best displays. Really good to see some of the recent work in training translating so well on the pitch, from the simple but accurate short passing that continually opened up gaps in the home defence to the willingness to try shots from range, and indeed the improved placement of those efforts. A good number of the boys could have laid claim to the star player nomination this week, but particular recognition to Reg for his willingness to play the team game today as well as for the accuracy of his finishing; to Will who stamped his authority all over the central areas; and most of all to Dan who was involved in most of our best moves and three out of the four goals, including his very special second. The result today depended most of all on us being able to restrict our opponents at the other end of the pitch - they are the second highest goal-scorers in the league behind runaway leaders Laurel Park Hurricanes - and yet we were within a few minutes of shutting them out entirely. For that reason, today's star player award goes to James Riley, who ruled the roost at the back, winning out in all one-on-one duals, and demonstrating great skill and athleticism in bringing the ball out and setting up a number of attacks, including our key second goal. I fully expect that before the end of the season he will round off one of his excursions from the back with an equally cracking finish, but in the meantime he remains one of the key reasons why we are pushing on at the right end of Division 5.