Westwood Wanderers Hoops 2 Ashridge Park 4
Ashridge Scorers: Reg Ryan (46',59'), Jack Gillingham (49'), Dan Baker (66')
Star Player: James Riley
Sponsor Performance Rating*: Dopiazza - hard-working and robust performance topped off with a spicy finish
(* in recognition of our shirt sponsors the Sultan Balti Palace)
With some substantial rain having fallen on Saturday night, it was a pleasant surprise to arrive at Denefield School in Tilehurst to find the ground in pretty good condition. The day was blustery, however, and the sun low in the sky, and both these hazards turned out to be an additional handicap to the team playing up a significant slope on a full-size men's' pitch - as will be seen below, this turned out to be a highly significant factor in the match. Hoops started the day level with us in the middle of the table, having won three and lost four of their games to date, so a tight match was expected. We went into the game with Jack C a late withdrawal, and Mason having been left on standby from the 17-man squad.
The home team began the game playing down the slope and with the wind at their backs, and fairly rapidly penned Ashridge back in their own half, playing some neat football, but perhaps lacking an incisive presence through the middle. Early threats came down both flanks with crosses into the middle being well dealt with by the Ashridge back line of James, James and Tim, and the follow-ups being quickly closed down by a hard working midfield of Jamie, Jack G, Will and Alex. Whilst clearing the danger, Ashridge found it exceptionally difficult to gain territorial ground despite some good efforts to string some passes together, as having created space for a forward ball, the passes would hold up in the wind and be picked off by the Westwood defence and midfield. Having said that, Ashridge came closest in the early stages when Reg put the Westwood centre back under pressure before picking his pocket and running through on goal; the keeper did very well, however, in closing down the angle and smothering the shot when it came. For all of Westwood's possession, the only substantial threat came from some well-delivered corners, one of which found a Westwood head that narrowly cleared the bar. Ashridge had another moment of their own, with Dan and Reg working a good break and this time Tayseer being put in the clear, but he too was unable to find the target, missing narrowly to the right of the goal.
Ashridge dropped deeper and deeper as time went on, with the forward line all working back to help out, and they held out until the half hour mark, when James Roberts was involved in a battle for possession some five yards outside the box on our right, but was adjudged to have fouled his man. The free-kick was struck firmly at goal, and whilst Joe got his hands on it he didn't manage to deflect it from its path into the back of the net. Westwood then quickly added a second when a ball from the right of midfield was deflected high into the air by an Ashridge boot, then broke off another Ashridge challenge right into the path of the Westwood striker by the penalty spot, and he was able to finish comfortably past Joe for 2-0. Ashridge enjoyed a good last five minutes of the half, with the high energy of Dan and Reg putting some pressure on the home team, and with Jamie and Jack also able to join the attack, but no clear openings came, and half time arrived with the home team apparently in a comfortable position.
The advantage that the conditions offered to one team became quickly apparent as the second half opened. Westwood had appeared a confident, able and strong side throughout the first period, but just as Ashridge had, they found it almost impossible to clear their lines and get over half-way playing against the wind and the slope. Ashridge pressed forward from the off, and with James Riley able to pick off almost all of the balls played up to half-way, Joe became pretty much a spectator in the Ashridge goal. The visitors needed to get back into the game quickly, and it took only six minutes for the first strike to arrive; Reg picking up possession on the right side of centre and trying his luck from just outside the box; the keeper got finger-tips to it, and all but stopped the ball's momentum, but falling backwards he was unable to recover his ground as the ball crawled over the line. Within three minutes the scores were level as Jack G took his cue from Reg, picking up the ball on the left of centre, swivelling and hitting a fierce effort which flew high before dipping and ending up a little fortuitously in the top left-hand corner with the keeper having no chance whatsoever. The home side were rattled now and the game began to get a little feisty as tackles flew in, but Ashridge were now fancying their chances at every turn; indeed Jack G almost repeated his trick, lofting another shot even higher and watching it land just behind the goal on this occasion. Tempers then frayed as a rare Westwood break on the left saw Marcus shielding the ball near his own goal line from a robust attempt by the forward to knock him off it; the referee opted not to intervene as the ball became less and less relevant to the challenges going in, and Marcus responded to an elbow in his back by kicking out at his opposite number. A stern talking to followed, before Marcus was withdrawn to calm down; Alex taking over at left back with Tim moving inside next to James Riley.
Fortunately as the football was allowed to take back over again, Ashridge seized full control of the game. They got their noses in front for the first time on the hour when Reg was bundled off the ball on the edge of the box, and his free-kick found the target, but probably should have been saved; the keeper letting it slide through his legs and into the bottom left-hand corner. The visitors continued to press, and looked like grabbing another when Alex swung in a great delivery to the far post from a corner on the left, but it evaded all Ashridge attempts and was scrambled behind again by the grateful defence. Dan then settled matters with the goal of the game, fizzing a great strike from 25 yards into the top left-hand corner with the keeper grasping at thin air. More goals could have followed: another great corner from Alex was headed against the outside of the post by Reg; Jack G fired another strike from the edge of the box towards the top-left hand corner where it was superbly tipped around the angle of post and bar by the (replacement) keeper; Reg sliced a shot wide when played in on the left of the box (having been slightly put off by Marcus closing in on it); before in the closing moments the same two players worked a further chance, with Reg laying it inside for Marcus to finish from eight yards, but what looked like a certain goal was superbly prevented by another flying save from the keeper who managed to tip it over the bar. Time ran out with Ashridge 4-2 winners.
A good all-round effort from the side today, with the victory coming (in hindsight) from two key aspects: firstly how compact and determined the boys were when under pressure in the first half so that the deficit was kept to a minimum at the break, then how well they used the conditions to pepper the home team's goal with shots in the second period. I could name pretty much the whole team here for some contribution or other, but key call outs would be for Reg, Dan and Jack G who all showed massive energy and determination to win the ball and drive us forward at key moments. At the back James Roberts and Tim both had very solid games, with the latter looking more confident than he has at any point in the season to date. Jamie sacrificed his normal attacking game to some degree to provide great cover on the flanks; whilst Alex, asked to fill in at left back in the second half, showed great positional awareness and got in some good interceptions (not to mention those dangerous in-swinging corners)! A tricky call for star player, but based on the defensive efforts of the first half, and some well-judged interventions and forward runs in the second, it goes by a whisker to James Riley, our ever-dependable centre back.