Ashridge Park 3 Westwood Wanderers Hoops 3
Ashridge Scorers: Jack Gillingham (11'), Reg Ryan (49', 77')
Start Player: Jamie Cole
A long-awaited return to action following three weekends off for the home side, as a gap in the fixtures followed on from the snow at the beginning of February. Half-term holidays inevitably meant a few absentees, with Bertie, Jack C and Dillon all away; and Will was also missing due to illness. The game was a few minutes late starting as attempts were made to deal with some standing water lying in a small crater midway inside one-half and about ten metres in from the touchline, and whilst it wasn't entirely possible to clear it, agreement was reached to get proceedings underway.
Ashridge started the more confidently of the two sides, and spent the bulk of the first five minutes in the Westwood half probing for opportunities; however the accuracy of the final pass was missing, and little of note resulted. This spell ended with Westwood breaking downfield and drawing a corner on the left; a good delivery into the box was knocked down by a combination of Joe, a defensive head and an attacker, and the rebound was pounced on by a Westwood player and forced home from the left angle of the six-yard box, just inside the near post. Ashridge continued to push forward, and some confident passing moves were to be seen in all areas of the pitch, one of the most impressive of them, involving Jamie and the two Jameses, being rudely interrupted by the aforementioned standing water as Ashridge tried to develop play from their own penalty area. With Reg and Tayseer a little isolated up-front, the most promising moves were coming from Jamie out wide, showing determination in the challenge and his usual good close control, and on eleven minutes this was to bear fruit, as he was blocked off on the touchline as he was about to break clear some 20 yards out. From the free-kick, James Riley swung an excellent delivery across to the back post, the keeper only getting fingertips on it, and Jack G met the ball at an awkward height, doing really well to take enough pace off the ball to keep it under the crossbar and loop into the net for the equalizer.
Much of the rest of the half followed the same pattern, with Ashridge looking relatively comfortable at the back despite some lively Westwood breaks mainly inspired by their useful number 10, but also not quite making the most of the ball in the central areas, nor getting up to support the strikers as well as usual. As the game went on, Reg began to become more influential, stretching the Westwood defence and winning a number of throws deep in their half; and just past the midway point of the half he came within a whisker of putting Ashridge in front; surging around the cover on the left of the box, before placing the ball to the left of the keeper, only to see the ball crash back off the near post, and just elude Antonio's follow-up, allowing Westwood to hack the ball clear. Again, Ashridge were to pay for not making the possession count, as another Westwood corner from the left led to a goal; this time Ashridge did get a head on the ball to clear the initial danger, but as the ball was returned to the left flank, they were slow to close down, allowing a shot to come in; the trajectory drawing a misjudgement from Joe, who tried to come forward to claim it on the bounce, but didn't quite get there, and the ball looped over him and trickled agonisingly into the right hand corner to put Westwood back in front at 2-1. Ashridge almost levelled immediately, as a lofted ball forward was nodded on by Antonio on the edge of the box, and turned in first-time by Reg, but the linesman's flag had gone up against the Ashridge number 10. James Riley fired a free-kick over the bar after Dan had been bundled off the ball just outside the box, but Ashridge couldn't find a way through, and found themselves trailing at the break to the only two chances the visitors had created.
Ashridge switched things around in the second half, partly to give players the opportunity to play in other positions, but also with a view to trying to make better use of possession. Jamie dropped to right full-back with James Roberts moving to the centre, allowing Marcus to try his hand in the centre of midfield; we also pushed Dan up-front to try to give more physical presence alongside Reg, with Antonio and Tayseer now on the flanks in midfield and briefed to provide support where possible. Westwood came out of the blocks more strongly this time, and pushed Ashridge back for the first couple of minutes, with all four of our back line tested early but holding their own. Four minutes into the half, however, Ashridge got the leveller they craved; Jack G picking up possession in the centre-circle and flicking a clever ball over the back line, allowing Reg to out-pace them, and beat the keeper to the ball, lofting it neatly over him and into the net for 2-2. This prefaced a positive spell of pressure for the home side, with Antonio getting into some good spaces on the right and forcing the defence into some last-ditch tackles (one of which bordered on reckless) at the expense of throw-in's and corners. Ashridge had a momentary claim for a penalty when Reg turned and fell over the legs of a prone defender in the centre of the box, but this was deemed to be more a case of a collision than a foul; then after another foul five yards outside the box, Reg's chipped effort from the free kick narrowly cleared the bar.
Westwood weathered the storm, and for the last half-hour or so of the game enjoyed the bulk of territory and possession, as the Ashridge midfield lost its shape a little - Marcus struggled to get into the game; Jack was looking a little leggy (unusually), and neither Antonio or Tayseer were offering the same level of defensive cover as the usual duo of Jamie and Alex on the flanks; all of which was allowing Westwood too much space in between the midfield and defensive lines. The major threat was coming from the number 10, who favoured the left flank, and Jamie (with help from both centre backs at times) did well to keep him at arms length. Ashridge dealt well with the dangers coming from long throws and the occasional corner, and the only real alarms came when the home team did push forward and Westwood were able to counter; one occasion in particular saw the striker get in behind the defence, and Joe did really well to advance and block the strike on goal. Ashridge made further changes to help steady the ship, with Alex returning on the left flank and Tayseer moving up to the forward line in place of Dan, whilst James Riley switched into centre midfield with Marcus returning to the back line. This balance worked better, and Ashridge almost got themselves in front ten minutes from time, when Antonio's cross shot from the right of the box took a big deflection, and the keeper pulled off a really good save, flinging himself back to his left to turn the ball behind for a corner. Three minutes from the end and Ashridge looked to have nicked the points; Tayseer slotting Reg in just left of centre, and Reg finishing calmly low into the right-hand corner to make it 3-2. Westwood were not done, and levelled again with almost the last kick of the game with a strike from some 25 yards - not absolutely clear what was intended, but the ball was sliced quite severely and looped away from Joe, and just inside the right hand post. Just time to kick-off again before the final whistle went.
A little bit of a below-par performance, with Ashridge looking what they were: a team that hadn't played or trained much in the past month. Probably a fair result, as Westwood looked on top for much of the second half, whilst Ashridge undoubtedly carved out the more significant chances. Mentions this week for the whole of the back four who limited the opposition to a handful of opportunities despite long periods of pressure, and at the other end for Reg who after a slightly sluggish start gave the Westwood defence a significant headache, and added yet another brace to bring his season's tally to 25. Star player this week goes to Jamie who was a positive influence in two positions - going forward from the right of midfield in the first half he gave us great impetus, whilst turning his hand to an unfamiliar position at right back in the second half, he played a significant part in stopping the opposition's key man.