Ashridge Park 3 Hurst Twyford Hurricanes 4
Ashridge Scorers: James Riley (24'), Reg Ryan (51', 65')
Star Player: Tim Wyper
We returned to action this morning following a six week break as the weather had wiped out our December fixtures. The promised overnight frost had not bitten as deeply as expected and the pitch was in decent condition though still somewhat uneven following the mudbaths of November. This was our fourth meeting with Hurst Twyford Hurricanes over the past three seasons, and we had been well-beaten in the previous three, with 2-5 being the closest margin to date, so we knew we would be in for a tough battle. To make matters worse, regular keeper Joe was unavailable, so Alex stepped in with the gloves for the first time in two years (also against Hurst!). Stalwart right back James Roberts was also missing, but otherwise we had a full turn-out.
Ashridge found themselves on the back foot from the outset as Hurst started at a high tempo in the central areas, and tried to develop play down both flanks. Tim was to the fore early getting in some fine tackles and clearing the danger commandingly; whilst our deputy right back, Will, was doing in equally good job of covering on the other flank, with some notable support from Jamie on the right side of midfield. Hurst developed a good spell of pressure, but Ashridge were able to close down the shooting opportunities through the combined efforts of both Jacks and James in the centre, meaning that Alex was not called into any meaningful action in the first ten minutes. Ashridge were unable to hold possession for long however, with Reg and Antonio isolated and outnumbered by the Hurst back four, and the midfield either hurrying clearances or taking too long to release the ball and losing the opportunity to break. Eventually the pressure was bound to tell, and on thirteen minutes the opener came; a corner from the Hurst right was met with a firm header back across goal from the back of the six yard box, and although Alex got two hands to it, he was unable to keep the ball out. Hurst were close to a second five minutes later when another ball in from the right was deflected goalwards off James Riley, and with Alex beaten it took a great header from Jamie on the line to clear the ball over the crossbar. Ashridge then got a lifeline against the run of play, having broken downfield and won a corner, Antonio's delivery from the left was half-cleared by the Hurst defence, but Jamie retrieved possession to the right of the penalty spot and laid it back to James Riley five yards outside the box, and James unleashed a terrific strike which arrowed over Hurst's giant keeper and nestled in the top left-hand corner to level the game at 1-1.
Unfortunately, this was to provide only the briefest respite for Ashridge in a one-sided half. Hurst regained the lead within three minutes after Marcus had cleaned out one of the Hurst midfielders centrally some 25 yards out; the free kick was well struck and heading for the top right-hand corner until Alex got a hand to it and tipped it onto the bar, but as it looped up and back into play he couldn't recover, and no other Ashridge player reacted as three Hurst forwards converged on it to knock it over the line. The last ten minutes of the half became virtually a siege on the Ashridge penalty area as a series of corners and long throws were delivered into the box, and the home side - a little tentative in attacking the ball directly - struggled to deal with them. Two scrappy goals followed, both from corners on the left; the first saw Alex block the initial shot with his legs, but following a couple of further ricochets it was stabbed home from close range; the second saw the ball deflect directly in off Jack C's shoulder as the Hurst forward levered him subtly away from the flight of the ball. 4-1 to the visitors at half-time.
With Alex having had little fortune in the first half we elected to change keeper at the interval, with Antonio an enthusiastic volunteer. In the event this was to matter little as Hurst (who had no substitutes available) were unable to maintain the pace they had set in the first half and Ashridge went on to dominate the second half to the extent that Antonio only had one intervention to make all half, coming to punch away a corner about 15 minutes from the end. More significant was a switch in the back line, where Marcus dropped back in alongside Jack C; the pair of them once again working as an excellent unit with Jack's strength and tenacity complementing Marcus's excellent positioning and reading of the game, meaning that all threats from the Hurst forward line were repelled with relative calm. This also allowed us to release James Riley into more attacking positions, initially from right back, and later in the game in central midfield, where he became a significant influence. With more time and space available, Ashridge finally began to get the ball down and play some simple passes to players in space, and in turn those players were able to find some more incisive passes to create goalscoring opportunities. Initially we had trouble with the offside trap; Reg breaking on to a nicely shaped pass from Dan on the right but going a fraction too soon (and shooting just wide anyway); and he was caught a couple more times before finally beating it, breaking on to a nicely weighted pass from Tayseer in the left channel and slotting past the keeper to give the home side hope. Tayseer then himself broke onto a through ball from Reg but was denied by an excellent recovery tackle from the Hurst defender. With fifteen minutes to go the tense finale was properly set up as Ashridge worked a lovely goal; play being spread to Jamie on the right, Jamie breaking past one challenge, then taking another out with a neat pass inside to James Riley, who then bisected the last two defenders with a superbly weighted ball which Reg tucked first time past the keeper to make it 4-3.
There was a brief lull in the action as both teams gathered themselves for the final push. Hurst had a couple of rare forays upfield, but the Ashridge back line remained resolute and rapidly returned the home side on to the front foot. A number of corners, throws and free-kicks came and went as Hurst resisted - and the tension mounted as the visitors started to dispute decisions, earning them a yellow card into the bargain. Into the last five minutes and the golden chance for the equalizer arrived as Reg burst on to another excellent through ball which bisected the visitors' defence, he dummied the keeper and went round him on the left, turning the ball back towards goal as the defence desperately tried to recover, only for the ball to hit the outside of the post and go behind. Into the final minute now and the chance seemingly gone, but Tayseer again worked some space on the left and squared for Reg in the area, and Reg was bundled over by the defender as he shaped for the shot - penalty given! Reg took the kick, putting it high to the left corner, but the keeper had guessed correctly, and sprung to catch the ball cleanly - a great effort, and a fitting climax to a really exciting game (a shame that another Hurst player couldn't see it that way and earned another yellow card for continuing to berate the referee after the final whistle).
So very much a game of two halves, with Ashridge just unable to claw back the damage done in the first half, but probably just about able to claim that they deserved a point from this. Certainly, if we continue to play the way we did in the latter stages we will continue to be competitive in the remaining games - great composure at the back, good use of the ball spreading play to players in space, and particularly the weight and placement of passes that enable our pacier players to prosper. We must, however, learn to defend the aerial ball better as teams are increasingly able to exploit this as the boys reach maturity. Call outs today for Marcus and Jack at the back (another shut-out for the period they played together), for Reg and Tayseer's incisive running, and for the creative work of Jamie on the right, particularly in the latter stages. James Riley deserves specific mention for his wonderful strike in the first half, plus his good use of the ball in the second, most notably the excellent assist for Reg's second goal. Star player today was a straight fight between our two full backs, Will and Tim, both of whom did sterling covering work in a difficult first half against a team who love to attack from the flanks; on this occasion Tim just edges it as I cant think of a single occasion when he lost a challenge! Another difficult game next week as we visit the current league leaders, Westwood Wanderers Greens.