Ashridge Park 1 Rotherfield Utd Colts 1
Ashridge scorer: Dan Baker (57')
Star Player: James Roberts
We returned to league action this morning, more than a month on from our win at Marlow, with another visit from Rotherfield Utd, whom we had beaten narrowly in the first round of the cup early in October. With the cobwebs hopefully blown away in our cup loss at Hurst last week, we were looking forward to another cracking contest, especially as we were able to welcome Joe back to resume in goal after five weeks out of action. With only Dillon missing this week, we had plenty of options to play with.
As we had conceded in the first minute of our previous meeting, it was important to get off to a solid start this week, and the team did just that, edging the early exchanges in midfield and creating some moments of promise around the edge of the Rotherfield box. It was good to see some simple and constructive passing throughout the midfield four of Jamie, Will, Marcus and Bertie; and with Reg and Dan both making some incisive runs, the Rotherfield defence found themselves stretched early on. The away team had good pace and strength at the back, and were able to clear their lines; and when Ashridge did find space in behind through some good linkage between Reg and Bertie, the final pass went astray. At the other end, Rotherfield had some good moments too, with the right flank player showing some impressive skills to get past Bertie, Tim and Mattie at various times, and it often took a combination of all three, plus some reinforcements from James Riley to see off the danger. James Roberts was also in the thick of the action, shutting off all Rotherfield's attempts to progress on the opposite flank, and also getting in a good headed clearance from a dangerous looking cross. For all the endeavour - of which there was plenty - there were few chances even approaching clear-cut in the first half; whilst Ashridge had the upper hand in possession, a snatched shot wide of the left post from Reg after a good exchange of passes with Dan was the nearest effort on goal from the home team, whilst their best moment of all - a break set up by a quick pass from Jamie into Dan - was pulled up just as Dan had set Reg free on goal because Dan had strayed offside. Rotherfield could look back on one long range effort rising over the angle of post and crossbar, and one break through the centre which was tidied up by James Riley, who came off emphatically the better against his smaller opponent in a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge on the edge of the box. Goalless at half-time.
If Ashridge had shaded possession in the first half, it was to be the visitors who came out the stronger in the second. With Matty having to go off injured at the break, Marcus was drafted into the defence and Dan dropped back into midfield, where the battle remained intense. However, the home team's midfield unit wasnt quite as compact in this spell, and space started to open up in the centre for the Rotherfield players to exploit, and Ashridge were pushed back. The back line now started to come to the fore with some excellent defence; Tim and Marcus played their part over on the left, and James Riley was always on hand to step in when required, however with most of the play developing on Rotherfield's left flank, it was James Roberts who really stood out, with some great covering and tackling, and an encouraging willingness to pause and use the ball when he could, in order not just to relieve the pressure but to move us back on to the attack. Ashridge's best outlet was now on our left side, where Alex was being left in acres of space, and he and Reg started to link up with increasing frequency to get us up to the edge of the Rotherfield box; however the support was lacking, and Rotherfield's defence were able to marshall the danger effectively. Just as the balance of the game was beginning to even up again at the mid-point of the half, the visitors struck on the break. A high ball was played into the penalty area, dropping into no-man's land between the back four and Joe, and the Rotherfield forward nipped between them to head over Joe and into the centre of the goal to put them 1-0 ahead with just under 20 minutes to play.
A final re-shuffle from the home side saw Dan move back up-front in place of Mason, with Jamie now slotting into the centre of midfield and Bertie now on the right. The dynamic shifted again, with Ashridge now pressing forward looking for the equalizer, and it came quickly. Will and Jamie began to get a foothold again in the central areas, and a promising move was blocked off by a crude challenge from the Rotherfield central midfielder, who was then yellow-carded for kicking the ball away after arguing with the decision. James Riley's floated free-kick was headed goalwards by Dan, the ball rebounded from the keeper's block, and Dan was quickest to the loose ball, bundling it over the line just inside the right post to level things at 1-1. The game then opened up for the first time as both teams looked for a winner, Rotherfield coming closest initially having slipped their way in on the right side of the box, but the cross-shot beat both Joe and the left post. Ashridge responded, with Dan slipping Reg in just left of centre, Reg took his shot perhaps one stride too early and pulled it wide of the left post from just inside the penalty area. Rotherfield then opened Ashridge up on the left, but made a bit of a mess of the shot, which went well wide of the right post; before Dan got in on the right of the Rotherfield area, and in a move reminiscent of the one which won him a penalty in these team's last meeting, slipped past two players on the by-line, but chose to shoot from an impossible angle rather than cutting it back, the ball inevitably ending up in the side-netting. With the clock ticking down, Ashridge looked for all the world to have won it following a great break out of defence from James Riley, who took it down the left flank to just inside the Rotherfield half before lofting a well-judged ball over the back line, and Reg raced on to it, just beating the keeper to it, lobbing it over him, but agonisingly wide of the right post. The last meaningful action, and in the end a fair result on two hard-working teams.
Not quite the flowing football that we saw in the first game between these sides, but certainly just as even a contest, with either side looking capable of edging the result as had been the case back in October. Quite probably both teams had learnt a bit from the first match, and the defences coped better with the threats the other side posed. From the Ashridge perspective, it was most pleasing to see that we looked more solid at set-pieces than was the case last week, with quicker anticipation and reaction to the loose ball. Indeed this was to pay dividends at the other end as we profited from a free-kick of our own, winning the first and the second ball. Lots of effort from everybody, but individual performances worthy of a special mention came from James Riley, whose defensive work we all recognise as high-class, but who is now judging his passes both short and long with much greater skill, and in this game came up with the assist on the goal as well as creating the late chance which could have won the game; also to Dan, whose sharpness in all areas of the pitch caused the visitors lots of problems, and who thoroughly deserved his goal today. Star player this week goes to James Roberts, whose fearlessness in defence has long been admired, but who is now looking much more assured on the ball, choosing the right moments to clear and to carry or pass the ball forward. In today's game he was the key man for us in the one spell where Rotherfield were truly on top, winning almost every challenge and helping us to stay on terms in the match.