Berks County Pumas 5 Ashridge Park 5
Ashridge Scorers: Reg Ryan (10', 14'), Dillon Malabon (50'), Bertie Wilson (52'), Dan Baker (60')
Star Player: Will Marten
Another visit to the astroturf behind Bracknell Leisure Centre, a pitch on which Ashridge have not had the best fortune in the past, picking up only one point from two games against the other Berks County side in our age group, the Jaguars. Ashridge narrowly won the reverse encounter at St Crispins back in November, but went into today's match without any of our first-choice centre backs - Marcus and James Riley on Duke of Edinburgh Award activities, whilst Jack C was unwell. James Roberts again stepped in to deputise, this time accompanied by Jack G. This in turn required Will to deputise at full back, and Jamie to move inside into centre midfield alongside Dan. The Pumas had their own problems, with their usual goalkeeper watching on crutches on the sidelines.
Both sides had a taste of the early possession with Berks seeing plenty of the ball in the central areas and trying some angled balls into the runners in the wide areas; whilst Ashridge were finding some joy moving the ball down the flanks before trying to release the front pairing of Reg and Antonio. The makeshift Ashridge back line did well, with Jack G breaking up play, and Tim getting in some good challenges, and both clearing with confidence up-field. There was one early alarm as the Pumas found a good angled pass to a runner, and the ball momentarily broke free as Joe advanced, but the visitors had sufficient numbers on hand to scramble the ball clear. On ten minutes, Ashridge struck first; a well-flighted ball from deep from Jack G found Reg on the shoulder of the last defender, and our leading scorer easily outstripped his man and finished low across the keeper into the bottom left hand corner. Four minutes later, a similar move this time from the left, with Tim clipping the ball in behind, and Reg took the ball on the bounce and finished to the keeper's right for a 2-0 advantage.
The rest of the half saw the Pumas edging the possession, though Dan and Jamie did begin to get a foothold in the central midfield areas. Whilst some of Ashridge's play was quite neat and tidy, they were finding the astroturf surface a little quicker than they were used to, and having worked some good positions, the final pass was frequently overhit, leaving Reg and Antonio with little to work with; a couple of off-target efforts being the most they had to show for it. There were a couple of scares at the back as Pumas runners got into good positions out wide, but failed to profit with accurate deliveries into the danger area; generally Ashridge were closing down well on the edge of the box, with James Roberts, Will and Jack G all well supported by Jamie and Dan. With half-time rapidly approaching, the home team were given a lifeline: turning over possession just inside the Ashridge half, they moved the ball well in the left channel to the edge of the box, the shot came in, Joe dived to his left and pushed the ball away, before it was turned in by a Pumas forward following in from an offside position. The assistant's flag was raised immediately, but the referee controversially decided to overrule and give the goal, to the obvious indignation of the Ashridge players and support. No further incidents of note in the first half, and Ashridge with their noses in front at 2-1.
An early onslaught from the home team in the second half saw a couple of half-chances created but dragged off target, but Ashridge quickly quelled the flames and began to get a measure of control on proceedings, with Jack G pushing up to support the midfield and launching some good passes out to the wide areas where Tayseer and Reg were to be found sniffing for opportunities, with Dan and Jamie both offering support. As in the first half, Ashridge were to find a double strike ten minutes into the half. As the Pumas defence began to look stretched, some ill-timed challenges began to fly. First Tayseer was taken out on the left of the penalty area as he looked to turn past the covering defenders; from Jack's free kick the ball was half cleared to the edge of the box, where Dillon was on hand to stab the ball high into the net. Two minutes later and this time Dan was up-ended just outside the box; Jack G again with the free kick, curled low to the left post where the keeper parried, but Bertie quickly followed in to work the shooting chance and slot home for 4-1. Ashridge apparently cruising now, but once again a controversial call from the referee let the home side back in; this time a long ball to the right edge of the box, where James Roberts arrived just fractionally after the Pumas forward. Contact appeared to be wide of the penalty area, but the Ashridge players were outraged to find the referee pointing to the spot. The kick was converted to reduce the deficit with 25 minutes still to play.
Ashridge responded well to the setback and pushed on in the central areas. Dan was sent flying by another poor challenge, and again the referee failed to see things visitors' way, initially allowing play to continue before bringing play back to ensure Dan was ok as the Ashridge number 11 remained prone. The red mist nearly descended as Dan lashed the drop ball at goal, but he re-grouped and drew energy from the incident, and it was fitting that he was the one to restore the three goal advantage on the hour mark; a ball in from the right allowing Dan to challenge with the keeper, and he was first to the loose ball to slot home from close range. Unfortunately, Ashridge couldn't maintain their form and shape over the last 20 minutes and the home team started to chip away at the lead; this time a good goal from a surge down the left, the ball taken around Joe and slotted home from a tight angle. This time it was the Pumas who were to strike twice in succession, within a couple of minutes working a chance on the edge of the box and a low shot drilled past Joe into the right corner. Just over ten minutes left now and only one goal in it 5-4. Ashridge came close to another as Jamie tricked his way through the covering defence before flicking the ball out to Reg to his right, but the shot skewed wide of the right post. Ashridge were stretched and often outnumbered now, and Will was doing a heroic job breaking up numerous raids on the left, but the equalizer did finally come three minutes from time, a corner from the right swinging in to the six yard box and flying into the net as a number of players converged on it. Any fears of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory were thankfully dispelled as Ashridge spent the final moments deep in Pumas territory, with Antonio putting in a major effort on the right flank to try to find a way through. It was not to be, however, and both teams had to settle for a point.
Given the significant absentees today, and the resulting reshuffle leaving us with several players playing out of their best positions, we can be satisfied with the point gained, especially given the amount of possession Berks had in the game. It is nonetheless disappointing to think that but for the referee's errors we could have been 5-0 up on the hour rather than 5-2 - it is hard to imagine the opposition finding any kind of response from that scoreline. A good shift put in by all today, but I think that despite the number of goals conceded, the major mentions must go to our makeshift defence. Tim had an excellent game on the left playing up against a lively opponent, and he was rarely bettered. James Roberts gave his customary full-throttle performance, getting in many key blocks and challenges; whilst Jack G, despite being slightly out of position a few times as would be expected from a midfielder filling in, was commanding, and used the ball really well throughout - including his three assists. He was just pipped to star player today by Will, who always seemed to be in the right place to stem the tide, and whose decision-making was excellent throughout, playing out with short crisp passes when possible, but clearing the danger decisively when nothing else was on.