Hurst Twyford Hurricanes 4 Ashridge Park 0
Star Player: Felix Galla-Taylor
Familiar opponents for this match in the last 16 of the U16 Plate competition, and the omens not good for Ashridge as they attempted to register their first success in this fixture (played 5, lost 5, scored 7, conceded 25), and going into the game without leading scorer Jack C, in whose absence the side have not yet registered a single goal this season. After a week of heavy rain (and with the threat of more in the air), conditions under-foot were sticky, but at least we were spared the high winds that made last week's trip to Camberley so particularly unpleasant. Will also dropped out on the morning of the game, and with Bertie and Dan still on the injury list we were down to 12 today.
Retaining last week's 4-2-3-1 formation, but this time experimenting with Jack G as the spearhead and James Riley stepping up into the holding midfield role, Ashridge began strongly. James was influential from the off, giving the visitors a measure of control in the central areas where we have typically struggled in this fixture, whilst Jack also showed well, using good strength to hold the ball up and bring the attacking midfield three of Jamie, Antonio and Felix into the game. The early successes were coming down the left, where Felix unveiled some nifty footwork to advance past the defensive cover and win some good territory for the boys in blue. Hurst were forced into some clumsy challenges, and Ashridge had two opportunities to strike from free-kicks on the edge of the box: Jamie (who had been striking the ball beautifully in training the previous evening) was first to try from a central position, but miscued the ball straight into the defensive wall; before Antonio flighted a better effort from the left corner of the box, which squirmed through the keeper's grasp as he dived to his right, but unfortunately dribbled a foot or so wide of the near post. Ashridge forced several corners, which were well-delivered by Antonio from the left, and the last of these was met by James Riley, but his header flew wide of the far post. Hurst were largely playing on the break, with a particular focus on the right side, where Tim was doing a great job to restrict the speedy forward with some good interceptions, and Marcus and James were always on hand to help out where needed; and with Alex also working well on the right of the defence, Ashridge were largely untroubled in this period.
The game swung just after the 25 minute mark as the home side struck out of the blue. A rapid break saw Ashridge forced to concede a corner on the right, and whilst the initial delivery was dealt with and the ball cleared to the right apex of the box, Ashridge were too slow to close down the space, and a shot came in beating Joe at the near post. Hurst began to come more strongly into the game from this point. Marcus took over from James Riley in central midfield, whilst Dillon replaced Jamie on the right, but with Harry also trying to push forward, spaces were beginning to appear in the centre, allowing Hurst to push on. The defence remained resolute, however, and whilst pressure built there were few moments of genuine alarm; and at the other end Ashridge were still able to generate the occasional chance, the best being as Felix again tricked his way past two challenges into the box, but his shot went straight at the home keeper. 1-0 at the break.
A couple of tactical switches at half-time as Ashridge continued to explore other options to help with the goal drought: Antonio replacing Jack G as the front man, with Jack going back to the holding role he normally plays; whilst Marcus was pushed forward into the central attacking midfielder role. Any chance of seeing if this could bring them back into the game evaporated in the opening seconds of the half, as Hurst won a corner on their left, Ashridge failed to deal with the ball into the six-yard box, and the Hurst striker was able to shield with his back to goal, turn and force the ball home. A hammer blow from which Ashridge never really looked like recovering. As the rain began to come down more heavily as the game went on, the quality of play suffered on both sides, and the match got bogged down in a muddy central midfield battle. Any gains Ashridge made - Harry looking bright and inventive on the right; Antonio showing one or two nice touches as he dropped deeper - were quickly snuffed out as Hurst's speedy and confident defence teamed up to win the ball back and clear their lines. Little to report until the mid-point of the half, when Hurst struck again with a rapid break: a long diagonal clearance to the right flank, some good pace getting them in behind the cover, and as Joe came out, a well directed cross being headed home just inside the left post, beating Alex's valiant attempts to cover on the goal line. Within a minute three became four as the ball was lifted over the Ashridge back line on the edge of the box to find a perfectly-timed run, and the ball volleyed past Joe inside the right-hand post with Ashridge appealing in vain for an offside flag that was never going to come.
To their credit, Ashridge rallied again and had the better of the last ten minutes, with Felix again coming to the fore on the left flank, winning a couple of corners, and troubling the Hurst defence with a good outswinging delivery. In the visitors' best moment of the second half, Felix again beat a couple of defenders to work his way into the box on the by-line before cutting the ball back to Antonio, whose fiercely struck effort was turned behind by the Hurst keeper - a good save. Time ran out, and Ashridge again having nothing to show despite a much-improved performance.
Some promising signs here from the experiments in line-up we tried at various points in the game. Jack G did a good job in the front man role, where he has the physical attributes and ability on the ball to be able to hold the ball up and bring others into play, though we will need to build on his instincts in front of goal. James Riley was a success in the holding midfield role: for the periods we had him there in the game, we were more in control of proceedings. Defensively, Tim had a good game against opponents who have previously caused him problems with their pace in wide areas; whilst Marcus, James and Alex all did good work for much of the game. A more difficult day for some of our "touch" players such as Jamie and Antonio, as the heavy conditions made it tricky for them to make the usual progress; so in this respect today's stand-out effort came from Felix, who continues to impress with his footwork - being able to play with both feet is a major asset - as well as his tenacity and drive. He created many of the opportunities that we had in today's game, and for that reason takes the star player nomination for the second time this season.