Ashridge Park 2 Pinewood Panthers 3
Ashridge Scorer: Reg Ryan (13', 19')
Star Player: Will Marten
Sponsor Performance Rating*: Korma - plenty of endeavour but failed to make it count
(* in recognition of our shirt sponsors, the Sultan Balti Palace)
An early start on a bright September morning for our first game in two years against these familiar opponents, who spent last season in Division 6. Marcus was away on Duke of Edinburgh award activities, whilst Jack C remained on the injury list, but otherwise we had a full turnout.
From the off it became apparent that our opponents were not quite at the same level as the teams we had played in our opening three games, with plenty of misplaced passes and lots of balls simply whacked high, long and hopeful. Ashridge began to dominate possession in the central areas, and with large spaces available behind the back line, Reg was prominent as a threat, though intiially the passes trying to find him were not quite on target and forced him wide, allowing the defence to get in some blocks and clear into touch. On six minutes, Pinewood had a rare break up field, winning a throw on the left close to the penalty area. The throw was taken short, and a "Hail Mary" ball played into the box, finding just the right trajectory to clear Joe and loop under the crossbar to give the visitors a surprise lead. Ashridge pushed on, and got their own lucky break when a Pinewood player under pressure near halfway played the ball back towards his own keeper, allowing Reg to race on to it and lift it over the goalie to level things up. The Pinewood coach running the line attempted to flag this offside - the first of a number of such incidents which created a sense of mistrust throughout the game - but fortunately the referee had his wits about him and over-ruled. Five minutes later and the home side completed the turnaround, a move down the left flank putting Reg in behind once more for an emphatic finish high to the keeper's right.
The remainder of the half saw Ashridge pushing for further goals with only rare forays from Pinewood. Another break down the left saw Reg cut inside and evade a challenge before Mason took over but shot straight at the keeper. Jamie then sliced open the Pinewood defence with a delicious through-ball, putting Reg in the clear once more, however this time the ball bobbled as Reg was about to shoot, and sliced away to the right of the goal. Antonio delivered a number of dangerous corners and one free kick into the box, all of which caused a measure of panic in the visitors' defence, but Ashridge couldnt quite find the decisive final touch. Reg also fired a free-kick just over the bar after being fouled on the edge of the area. At the other end, Pinewood were confined to one further effort on goal when Jack G conceded a free-kick for a mis-timed tackle, but a tame shot was easily gathered by Joe. 2-1 at half-time, but a sense that Ashridge could and maybe should have been out of sight at this point.
The second half followed a broadly similar pattern, but Pinewood did adjust their defensive line at the break, sitting a little deeper to try to restrict the space Ashridge had been exploiting in the first half. Despite this Ashridge still had a number of lively breaks, many of which were cut short by the flag-happy linesman. The quality of the play suffered, becoming congested and scrappy in the midfeld areas, with players struggling to find accuracy with their passes, and both sides often resorting to just hoofing it forward. What chances there were were still falling to Ashirdge, and primarily to Reg, who had one shot turned round the post by the keeper, before another break saw him take the ball around the keeper on the left, only to see his shot well turned away by a recovering defender. Alex almost enjoyed a slice of luck when his corner from the left was miscued too close to the goal, and his normal inswing took the ball just over the bar with the keeper stranded. Antonio and Dan both enjoyed good breaks on the right but again good covering work was to deny them just as they looked likely to fire home.
Inevitably with so many missed opportunities there was a sense of foreboding that this could just turn into one of those days, and so it was to prove. Mid-way through the half, a long punt up-field saw James Riley sweep up, but as he tried to turn past his man he was tackled, the covering clearance was miscued straight to the Pinewood forward who then burst through before squaring to a colleague who turned it into the empty net to level things up. With ten minutes to go, worse calamity followed when Joe came out to collect another overhit pass, and inexplicably took his eye off the ball, allowing it past him and leaving the Pinewood striker to walk it into the net. Ashridge pushed forward for the remaining time, but Pinewood had all hands to the pump to protect their lead, and chances were hard to come by. There were two key ones: first Dan was felled on the edge of the box as he worked a shooting opportunity, but Antonio's free kick cleared the angle of post and crossbar; then in the dying moments, a free kick from Tayseer was flicked into the danger area by Alex; turned goalwards, and then bundled over the line by Jack G - unfortunately he was (this time) indisputably offside, and the goal was chalked off.
Hard to fathom how we managed to lose this one, but a hard lesson on what can happen when you dont make full use of the advantage that you have in a game. More clinical finishing would have helped, but one has to take into account the state of the pitch before really levelling this criticism at the side - and Reg in particular deserves credit for getting into these positions in the first place. The team currently lacks a second goal-scorer, with many of those playing up-front alongside Reg not quite having the instincts or confidence to have the impact needed. At the back, much of the play is competent enough, but today a strange mixture of over-confidence and rushed clearances presented Pinewood with opportunities that they could not make on their own, and these ultimately proved costly. A difficult call for star player today as no one was truly at their best, but the nod goes to Will, whose reading of the game in the central areas complemented the more physical game of his partners in that area, and was a big part in maintaining the high proportion of possession that we enjoyed today.