Ashridge Park 1 Curley Park Rangers Spitfires 1 (pens 2-4)
Ashridge Scorer: Reg Ryan (60')
Star Player: Reg Ryan
Sponsor Performance Rating*: Chilli Massala - performance built gradually from a slow start to an intense finish
(*in recognition of our shirt sponsors, the Sultan Balti Palace)
A break from the league programme to take in a cup-tie coincided with a change in the weather; just as we arrived at St Crispins, the rain began to fall, and continued to do so with varying intensity throughout the game. Our opponents were an unknown quantity having transferred from the North Hants League this season - so although they'd been put in the division below us, there was no guarantee that they would be at a lower standard. We welcomed Jack C back to the side after injury and illness, with Tayseer being the one to miss the game this week.
We set up in our usual 3-4-3 formation with Reg, Jack C and Antonio leading the attack initially. The early exchanges were well-balanced, with both sides having opportunities to attack, and the Curley Park forwards showing some nice touches on the ball, and some good pace which kept and Alex and Tim busy on the Ashridge left, and James Riley on his toes to clear up behind them. Ashridge were first to go close, with Marcus feeding Reg on the left, but with angle rapidly narrowing his shot came back off the outside of the left-hand post and out for a goal-kick. Ashridge had plenty of possession in this period, but struggled to create clear-cut chances, with players delaying passes and running into traffic, or when they did release the pass they could not finesse them to find their target with sufficient accuracy. The threat remained at the other end, and became real on 15 minutes after Alex deflected a dangerous cross behind for a corner; a high delivery from the right to the back post found a queue of Curley Park players competing to turn the ball home.
The game remained well-contested for the remainder of the first half. For Ashridge, Reg fired over the bar on the turn after a corner was knocked down by the visitors' defence; whilst Jack G worked his way past a couple of defenders but didn't fully connect with his left-foot shot, which the keeper was able to gather comfortably. Curley Park responded with another sharp break resulting in a further corner on the left, and another good delivery was met with a smart clearing header from Jack G. Ashridge began to crank up the quality with Antonio taking over the right flank from Jamie and beginning to get some better passes into Reg and inside to Jack and Will, who also began to find Bertie in space on the left. An equaliser seemed inevitable when Bertie fed Reg in on the left of the box, Reg drove to the by-line and stood up a brilliant cross taking the goalkeeper and much of the defence out of play, but Mason got underneath his header and missed the target with the goal gaping. A defensive error then nearly let Curley Park in again, but the forward dragged his shot well wide with only Joe to beat; and then another through ball saw the visitors ask for a penalty when a player went to ground as he closed in on Alex's covering work, but the referee rightly ruled that the player had slipped and there was no foul. Ashridge responded again, and once again came close when a cross from the right resulted in a melay in the penalty box, but Ashridge just couldn't force the ball over the line before the keeper gratefully gathered. 1-0 to the visitors in a good contest at half-time.
Ashridge switched formation to 4-4-2 for the second period in order to have another look at the Marcus / Jack C partnership in central defence that had performed so well a few weeks back against Westwood. This allowed us to release James Riley into central midfield in the hope that we could begin to win the battle in that part of the pitch and put some serious pressure on the visitors' defence. So it was to prove, though initially James struggled to adapt to the new role and the restricted space available, and it was actually Dan alongside him who started to push us on to the attack with some good forward surges, whilst Antonio also looked lively getting forward on the right side of midfield. Marcus and Jack impressed again at the back, with Jack's physicality seeing off some of the threat the opposition had posed in the first half, with Marcus's reading of the game complementing this extremely well. James Roberts and Tim looked more comfortable in the wider full-back roles, and Ashridge were able to shut down the supply to the Curley Park forwards at an early stage. With James Riley beginning to impose himself and launch the ball forwards, Reg's pace was becoming a real threat to the visitors, and whilst they saw off a few moves well at the expense of throws and corners, an equaliser was beginning to look like it was just a matter of time. It duly arrived on the hour, as Marcus cut out a forward ball and played a pass over the top of the Curley Park back line; Reg raced onto it and beat the keeper to the ball, slotting it past him inside the left-hand post.
Ashridge really turned up the heat for the remainder of the game. Jamie returned on the left side of the midfield and the passes really began to find their mark; whilst Dan moved up front alongside Reg to give the Curley Park defence another threat to deal with. With Jack G now alongside James in central midfield, Ashridge dominated possession and chances flowed. A nice move developed down the right with James Riley, Antonio, Dan and Reg all involved; the ball finally being cut back to Antonio in space near the penalty spot, but unfortunately he leant back on the shot and blazed it over the bar. Reg tried his luck from the left angle of the penalty area but didn't quite get the height on it and the keeper was able to gather; before James Riley's free-kick from the right eluded everyone before being clawed away by the keeper with a last desperate lunge, with the return ball across the box also eluding everyone and squeaking narrowly wide of the right post. Jamie came closest of all as a slide-rule pass from Reg put him in on the left of the box, he cut back past one defensive challenge before seeing his shot cleared off the line - Jamie still claims it was in, but with no goal-line technology we will never know! Corners and throws came and went, and to their credit Curley Park defended very well under siege, making it to the final whistle at 1-1.
With no extra time, the game moved directly to the penalty shoot-out. Curley Park went first, scoring to Joe's right, before Reg levelled. Joe saved the next to his left, before Antonio placed his penalty high to the right of the keeper's dive giving Ashridge the initial advantage. The turning point was Curley Park's third penalty which thundered down off the crossbar but just had the forward momentum to bounce back up into the top of the net. Jack G couldn't convert Ashridge's third, and Jack C went too high with the fourth, so with Curley Park netting both of theirs the game was done.
A much-improved performance today, in what was a thoroughly entertaining game against spirited opponents, who had a good-humoured following too (always makes the game more enjoyable!). By the end we were utterly dominant, and I think had their been extra-time we most likely would have gone on to win. Clearly we are not quite scoring enough goals and remain very reliant on Reg to get those that we do score, so more work needed on support play and finishing in training soon! Call-outs for all those who took penalties today - not everyone was brave enough to step forward and those that did deserve the plaudits whatever the outcome. For the game itself, Marcus and Jack C impressed again with the central defensive partnership in the second half, and I'm sure we will try that combination again with James Riley beginning to get the feel for the midfield role by the end - just a bit more adjustment needed on the range of passing required there! Antonio showed some good qualities on the ball in the wide areas, but was pipped to the Star Player award by Reg - full of energy, he harassed the Curley Park midfield when not in possession, gave them plenty to worry about when he had the ball, and demonstrated some incisive passing (of the type we were working on in training last night) as well as getting his goal. So, to use a well-worn phrase, we can now concentrate on the league (!), starting next week at Spencers Wood.