Ashridge Park 5 Berks County Jaguars 2
Ashridge Scorers: Reg Ryan (6',11'), Dan Baker (24'), Jack Clayton (60',67')
Star Player: Alex Ayton
After a six week break from matches due to poor weather and the Christmas holidays, we finally returned to action on a grey but dry morning at St Crispins. Our opponents, Berks County Jaguars, have been something of a bogey team, with three prior meetings over the years resulting in one draw and two defeats despite our opponents being lower in the league than us on each occasion. With our own tendency to start poorly after a break in the matches, and with Will and Matty absent with injuries, there was therefore some caution in our optimism going into the game.
The early proceedings backed up all of these initial concerns, with Ashridge passes going astray on the slightly uneven surface, and Berks pressing forward in response. Joe was called into action with an early block, and a further effort went wide of the left upright. Gradually the midfield found their bearings, with Alex leading the early renaissance with some neat footwork down the left, and some good interchanges with Dillon ahead of him, and Dan and Marcus inside. A corner was won on 5 minutes, and a good delivery from Alex was cleared back to the left edge of the box, where the same player retrieved it, hitting a low shot to the near post which was turned behind for another corner. This time a wicked inswinging delivery to the back post took the keeper out of play, and Reg ghosted in to deflect the ball over the line to give Ashridge the lead. Bouyed by this the home team really began to find their rhythm, and some of the excellent short passing we saw before Christmas began to emerge once more. Reg was a constant danger for the home defence, breaking onto various through balls in the right channel, and the home defence was hard-pressed to deny both Jack and Dan from taking advantage of the resuting crosses. It was no surprise when Ashridge extended the lead on 11 minutes, as a James Riley ball from the back eluded the home defence allowing Reg to advance into the area and side-foot home to the keeper's left.
Ashridge continued to hold sway for the rest of the half, with further opportunties being carved out: Jamie sliced a shot wide of the right post from the right side of the area; Reg had another shot straight at the keeper, whilst Alex's corners from the left continued to cause havoc in the visitors' penalty box. The Berks keeper was called into action regularly, and showed some good handling under pressure both on the ground and in the air. Ashridge's pressure did finally tell, a lovely flowing move starting from the back and being worked from left to right across the midfield, teeing Jamie up on the right angle of the penalty box. Had Jamie struck this as we know he can it would have been a contender for our goal of the season; however, he stumbled at the critical moment, and his shot then cannoned around the six-yard box before finally being stabbed home by Dan. 3-0 at half-time, and the home team looking comfortable.
The team-talk focussed on how we could expect the visitors to come out with greater urgency and tempo at the start of the second period, and how we should look to absorb that and hit back on the counter, then steady the game down by just doing what we had done in the first half. Our expectations of our opponents were fully met, as they started with some intensity; but the Ashridge response was disjointed. With Marcus having to go off with a knock, Jamie tucked in to the centre with Dan, but for all the effort, the fluent passing of the first half was not there, and each time we did advance into forward areas we had a tendency to run into blind alleys. Berks were mainly playing a very direct long-ball tactic up to the strikers who had a little more pace than our back line, and with James Riley often pushing further up into the vacant central areas, we were often in danger of being caught out, and James Roberts and Tim were both forced into some very hurried clearances. The visitors got one goal back ten minutes into the half when a corner from the right went unchallenged and was stabbed in at the near post from six yards out. A second followed half-way though the half, when a lay-back from Mason deep inside the Berks half by-passed our midfield and set up a counter attack; Jamie got back to try to retrieve but was beaten in the challenge, and the Berks player was allowed to advance down the centre before trying his luck from 25 yards, and with Joe off his line anticipating the through-ball, the ball cleared him comfortably and dropped into the unguarded net.
Berks continued to press for an equalizer, and another simple ball over the top caught us out once more, but this time Joe was quickly out to narrow the angle and pulled off an excellent stop. There were some signs of Ashridge coming to life now, as Bertie went on a mazy run down the right beating a number of Berks players (indeed some of them twice); however he missed the opportunity to slot Reg in on the right of the box, and instead his pass inside to Jamie was gobbled up by the defence. Reg also started to find space on the right, and blazed a couple of dangerous crosses across the box, unfortunately out of the reach of the other Ashridge forwards, and also had one golden chance which he struck a fraction too early and cleared the crossbar at pace. As the tensions continued to mount, Ashridge struck the crucial blow with ten minutes left; Dan picked up possession on the right of the box, worked his way past one player on the by-line before firing a ball across the six yard box, where Jack was on hand to turn the ball in at the back post. The visitors were visibly deflated, and Ashridge had time to grab a fifth as a neat pass from the central areas outside the box, found Jack in the left channel, who deftly slipped it passed the last defender before finishing with a neat chip over the on-coming keeper.
A decent enough result, and some very nice football played at times - mainly in the first half. The second half-performance was sluggish and some of the teams in this division would have punished us severely; however we rode our luck and could justly claim to have done enough over the 70 minutes to merit the result. We undoubtedly missed Will's steady influence in the centre of midfield, and Marcus's ability to link play was also much missed in the second half. Dan and Jamie both put in a great shift, but both are essentially attacking players, and the hole in behind them had to be filled by others - with Alex in particular doing a great job in this respect, coming over from his left flank station to pick off the loose ball. Good to see Jack back after his wrist injury, and by the end, he was back up to speed with a couple of good finishes; equally another fine showing from Reg, with his two goals bringing him to 18 this season from 10 games. The back three all worked hard, and looked excellent in the first half; but the line became ragged as the game wore on - something that I'm sure will improve as we get back to regular games. A special call-out to Joe today, as he made two or three vital saves, and commanded his area very well throughout. Today's player of the match recognition goes to Alex, who above all sought to keep the team organised and enthused when the energy levels were dropping; he filled in when others got out of position. In an attacking sense he is showing more willingness to take defenders on, and his passing game remains among the best in the team; whilst his corner delivery is now creating real goal-threat for us as amply demonstrated by our opener today.