Ashridge Park 2 Laurel Park Tornadoes 1
Ashridge Scorers: Reg Ryan (22'), Bertie Wilson (42')
Star Player: Reg Ryan
A huge contrast in the weather from our last game at St Crispins with the blizzard of a month ago replaced by warm and bright conditions, albeit with the pitch still very heavy in the goalmouths and centre circle following the recent rain. Our opponents today, Laurel Park Tornadoes, were one place and one point above us in the table at the start of the day having played a game more, and their record against other teams has been generally similar to our own, so a tight contest was on the cards - a prospect backed up by our match last season in Division 4, where we were edged out by the odd goal in three. After a couple of games with a threadbare squad it was good to see an improved turnout today, albeit reduced from the full 15 with Tim dropping out on the morning with illness and Jack electing to step down after returning from holiday the previous day. On the plus side, Antonio's broken wrist had healed, allowing him to make his return to the side a couple of months later than planned.
The early exchanges were relatively even with both sides able to advance to the edges of their opponents' penalty areas, but both defences remaining equal to the task. Marcus, filling in for Tim on the left of our back three, was put to the test early as the Tornadoes tried to exploit the right flank, but he proved more than equal to the task, matching his opponent for speed and strength, and with a bit of help from Alex coming cleanly away with the ball to return us to the offensive. Ashridge too, were looking to use the flanks, with Antonio showing some nice touches to get past his opponent, and also linking up well with Jamie behind and Reg on the inside; whilst on the left, Bertie was working his usual short passes with Will and Alex, and opening up the channels for Reg to run into. Indeed it was Ashridge who started to create the more clear-cut openings, with Reg always prominent, first breaking past the defence on the left before dragging his shot across goal, and then latching onto Dan's pass on the right and putting a dangerous ball into the box, where Antonio held off a challenge to set up a glorious chance six yards out, but couldn't find a solid connection on his left foot and the keeper was able to smother the shot.
Ashridge broke the deadlock just past the mid-point of the half. Good work from Will in the centre to turn over possession, allowing Dan to break forward towards the box, and his ball forward found Reg timing his run perfectly from on the shoulder of the last defender, before calmly finishing to the keeper's left. The game remained even for the most part thereafter, though Laurel Park had a strong five minute spell where they created two good opportunities in similar fashion; the central striker dropping deep and drawing James Riley out with him, before laying the ball off to his left putting the no 16 in on goal. Joe came to the rescue both times, gathering the first shot cleanly, before pulling off a good parry to a better-struck effort with the defence mopping up the rebound. The first signs of fatigue following the Easter break were already beginning to show, with Jamie coming off to rest a tight hamstring, and others beginning to struggle to get up and down the pitch. Nonetheless, Ashridge reached the interval with the 1-0 lead intact.
Ashridge began the second half with Antonio dropping into the centre of midfield alongside Will, allowing Dan to move to the right side of the attack. Laurel Park began to enjoy a little more of the possession, but Ashridge were obdurate in the central areas with Will always in the thick of it, and remained a significant threat on the counter. Dan played a delicious shaped pass in behind the defence for Reg to latch onto, but Reg was driven slghtly wide by the recovering defence and his effort was safely gathered. Seven minutes into the half, the home side did strike again, and this was a well-crafted move seeing the ball worked through the central midfield areas to release Mason on the left of the box, Mason winning through one challenge before feeding it back to Reg; Reg's effort broke back off a defender to Bertie who found the net with a first-time shot from the edge of the box.
The Tornadoes were to look the more dangerous side for the bulk of the remaining time; however Ashridge settled into a good shape with the four in midfield providing good cover in front of the defence, who in turn managed to win the bulk of their battles. The greatest threat was coming down the Laurel Park left where the number 16 was showing some nifty footwork and good strength, often requiring a combination of two or three Ashridge players to snuff out the danger. Ashridge were reprieved when the opposition broke swiftly through the left channel, getting in behind the Ashridge defence, the ball chipped over Joe and coming back off the crossbar before being headed into the empty net, only for the goalscorer to be ruled offside. Jamie returned to the action, only to be sent flying the first time he picked up possession - it turned out subsequently that he broke his wrist in the fall (a recurring theme is seems this season) though he carried on for the rest of the game without a hint of the discomfort. Laurel Park pulled one back midway through the half with a well-struck long-range effort from their central defender who began to make some threatening forward runs in the latter stages; Joe got a hand to it but couldnt keep it out. Ashridge remained under pressure, but few further chances came for the visitors, whilst in the latter stages there were several chances for the home team to settle matters - Reg put Antonio through again on the left, but again his shot was miscued; Jamie brought a full length diving save from the keeper with another crisp first time effort which was heading for the bottom corner, and Reg also had a couple of decent efforts just miss the target. Not to be outdone by his opposing number, James Riley also started to forage up-field, one notable run saw him break from deep in hos own half down the right channel to the edge of the box, though his final pass was cut out. The final couple of minutes saw Ashridge defending deep in their own half, but the visitors could not find any way through, and finally the referee's whistle brought proceedings to a halt.
A satisfying win - this is the first time we have beaten these opponents in four meetings - and a good effort from the whole team in tiring conditions. A special mention for Jamie for carrying on (and playing very well) with what turned out to be a significant injury, showing his absolute determination to help us win the game - probably not a course of action to be copied though! We wish him a speedy recovery, and will certainly miss him for the rest of the season. Also callouts for Marcus who again impressed playing out of position in the back three, where he showed good speed and strength allied to the natural ability he has on the ball. James Riley and Will in the spine of our team were both immense in terms of the workrate and the number of tackles they put in to deny the opposition the space to create danger, and they were well supported by all those around them. Great to see Antonio back in the side, his ability on the ball gives us another dimension in the attacking areas; if only he could finish!! Star player recognition today goes to Reg, often quite isolated as the spearhead of our attack against a four man defence, he nonetheless gave them a really tough time, and used the ball well in addition to the direct threat he posed on the opposition goal.