Westwood Wanderers Greens 2 Ashridge Park 3
Ashridge Scorers: Reg Ryan (22'), Dan Baker (42', 57')
Star Player: Reg Ryan
Our second visit of the season to Denefield School in Tilehurst, this time to play the Division 5 leaders, Westwood Wanderers Greens. Conditions were kinder than for our match against the Hoops, with no vicious wind howling down the large playing area, and the gentle slope seeming much less of an issue as a result. Our opponents had put on an impressive display of possession football on their visit to St Crispins in September, when two late penalties sealed a 4-1 victory; and they had gone on to rack up nine wins and a draw from their eleven matches to date, and were still boasting a 100% home record. Ashridge went into the game without two of the preferred back four, James Roberts and Jack Clayton, so Will and Marcus again dropped in to defence to deputise.
The home side began in similar fashion to the first meeting, looking to pass the ball across the midfield and utilise the wide areas. Ashridge kept their shape well, and Westwood were unable to penetrate as a result. After a five minutes of sparring, it was Ashridge who made the first decisive move with a ball in behind the defence allowing Reg to burst through and bring a full-length save from the home keeper. As the visitors' confidence rose and they pushed further forward, the game then opened up and we had a spell of end-to-end play with opportunities coming at regular intervals: first Westwood countered swiftly down the right with a shot drifting across goal and missing to the left; then Ashridge came within a whisker of opening their account when Reg beat the keeper to another ball in behind, lobbing it over him, only for it to hit the post and be cleared to safety by a retreating defender. Westwood then had a header narrowly wide, before both sides took breath and got back into a more disciplined shape, and the battle in midfield became really absorbing.
Just past the halfway mark the first moment of controversy arrived: Dan won possession in the middle, fed Jack G on halfway, and Jack threaded a superb pass between two defenders, with both Antonio and Reg lurking. Antonio was slightly ahead of the last defender as the ball was played and the linesman started to put his flag up, but then withdrew it as Reg surged onto it before it reached Antonio; Reg raced in one-on-one with the keeper, only to be pulled back because the referee had already blown his whistle. After checking with the linesman the error was noted and play resumed with a drop-ball, but the chance was gone. Within moments, Ashridge struck the first blow; another incisive move was brought to a halt with a clumsy challenge 25 yards out; James Riley's delivery from left of centre crashed against the left post and the rebound fell to Reg in the centre of the penalty area, and Reg found the net with ease. The remainder of the half was an absorbing contest, with Westwood's attacks coming up against some determined covering from the back four and the whole of the midfield; whilst Reg and Antonio also worked tirelessly to put pressure on a rattled-looking defence by chasing numerous seemingly lost causes. The main incident before half time was another controversial one, as a ball over the top of the Ashridge defence saw James retreat to deal with it, only to slice his attempted clearance straight towards his own goal, requiring Joe to handle it to keep it out, a move which the referee chose to interpret as a back-pass. Fortunately for Ashridge the effort from the resulting free-kick was skied over the bar and justice was served; Ashridge reaching the interval with a deserved 1-0 advantage.
Now playing down the slope, Ashridge piled forward from the kick-off and extended the lead within two minutes. Some more good work from Jack and Dan in the central areas saw the ball moved quickly up to Reg with his back to goal on the edge of the box; Reg cleverly dummied his marker and turned past him on the left, getting a shot away which was blocked, but the rebound fell to Dan who took a moment to control and pick his spot past the retreating defenders. Ashridge continued to press well in forward and midfield areas, but the Greens did start to enjoy a bit more success in the wide areas, firstly tricking their way through on the left before whistling a cross across the face of the goal, and then finding space on the right, only for a poor shot to miss the goal by some distance. Ten minutes into the half, the home team got themselves back into contention, winning a corner on the right; Ashridge were caught napping as it was taken short before the visitors were settled, a delivery to the back post cleared everyone, but a shot from the edge of the box, although not entirely cleanly hit, crept in at the left post to reduce the arrears to 2-1. Ashridge quickly overcame the surge of belief flowing through the home team by returning to the attack, and got well on top of their opponents for the next quarter of an hour; Jack and Dan getting the upper hand in midfield with good assistance from Tayseer dropping in from the forward line and Dillon, Bertie, and later Jamie and Alex in the wide areas.
Ashridge's reward came just prior to the hour as Dan was taken out as he advanced on the penalty box just right of centre; another delivery from James into the box beat the first defender and bounced dangerously close to the penalty spot, and Dan was quickly on to it, beating the keeper to it and heading the ball past him into the back of the net to make it 3-1. Ashridge continued to look the more likely, with even Alex trying his luck with a left footed drive from 30 yards drawing an admittedly fairly comfortable save from the keeper! Then more controversy as Reg raced on to another forward ball, reaching it ahead of the keeper some five yards inside the box, heading it over him before being laid out by the keeper's missed punch; not deemed a foul by the home ref. As the match went into the last quarter more and more calls seemed to be going the home side's way (including a "back pass" similar to the earlier one against Ashridge, but not awarded, and a sliding tackle that went straight through Reg's standing foot to get the ball loudly deemed a "good challenge"), and they began to build up a head of steam. Five minutes from time the gap was closed again as an aerial ball to the edge of the box saw Alex and Reg both converge on it to try to clear, with Alex momentarily distracted, his header looped up into the air and was met with a well-controlled volley from the home no 10 to find the top right of the net. Still time for another corner to be knocked over the bar, but on the whole Ashridge saw the game out well, knocking the ball deep into the corners of the Westwood half and chasing down everything to prevent the home side fashioning any further chances.
A fantastic team effort and a thoroughly merited result, which could have been by a wider margin but for the intervention of the woodwork and some odd calls by the official, and whilst the home team may have had greater possession overall, Ashridge always looked the more penetrative of the two sides. Reg's goal means he has now scored in ten successive games; and it was also good to see Dan back on the scoresheet; he now has six for the season, a good return considering how often we use him in central midfield. All fourteen on show today deserve a lot of credit, and the advances they have made in terms of fitness, confidence, determination and teamwork are all too evident seeing the difference today from that match in September when we could barely lay a glove on these opponents from an attacking perspective. As well as the general work-rate of the midfield and defence, a particular feature of today was the pressure applied by the forward line when not in possession - both Tayseer and Antonio were willing to chase lost causes, and showed a great turn of pace in doing so that consistently rattled an opposition defence that had previously only conceded 12 goals in 11 games. Today's star player recognition goes to the leader of that line, Reg, who showed the way in putting that pressure on the back line, and who showed some nice skills and intelligent lay-offs in possession and was also willing to work back and support the back line when needed, particularly late on in the game.