Ashridge Park 3 Rotherfield Utd Colts 4
Ashridge Scorers: Jack Gillingham (3',6'), Alex Ayton (13')
Star Player: Antonio Baciu
Ashridge's wretched luck with injuries continued this week as Harry (broken toe) and Tim (back/hip injury) joined long-term absentee Dan on the unavailable list, and with James Riley also missing, we went into the game with the bare eleven players once more. Will and Alex again picked up the full back roles, with Marcus returning to action in the centre of defence alongside James Roberts. Our opponents Rotherfield still topped the table despite a surprise defeat in their last outing at Binfield.
From the outset Ashridge looked really up for this game with some energy about their movements, and signs that all the recent training work on retaining possession was becoming ingrained, with everyone looking for short simple passes to players in space. The reward was almost immediate, as Felix linked up with Antonio on the left touchline on half way, the ball was recycled via Alex and Bertie to Marcus in space just short of the centre circle, Marcus launched a long ball over the top of the Rotherfield back line, and Jack G out-paced them to reach the ball ahead of the keeper, lofting it first time over him to put the home side ahead. On six minutes Ashridge struck again; more patient passing in the midfield areas worked a space for Jamie on the left some 25 yards out; Jamie drove on wide of the covering defender and put his shot across the keeper, whose parry fell nicely for Jack to roll in his and Ashridge's second. Rotherfield were spurred into a response, and pulled one back almost straight away - solid midfield play worked some space in front of the Ashridge box, the through-ball bobbled around off a couple of attempted interceptions and broke to a player on the left of the box, and the shot across Joe was just out of reach and nestled in the bottom right hand corner. Not dispirited, Ashridge pushed on again, and just prior to the quarter hour won a free kick just inside the Rotherfield half from one of many slightly reckless challenges from the visitors. Antonio's floated ball into the box was met with the merest touch of Alex's head around the penalty spot, and the keeper, unsure whether Jack G would get another touch on it as he bore down on the ball, found himself unable to get to it as it drifted inside the left hand post to make it 3-1.
The entertainment continued throughout the half as the game ebbed and flowed. Antonio was recapturing some of the form he found at the end of last season, most amply demonstrated when he produced a chest trap to keep an over-hit crossfield pass in play before producing a cushioned volley as the ball dropped to lift it over his opponent and launch another attack down the left flank. Jamie too embarked on a couple of sparkling runs, and Rotherfield were hard pressed to keep Ashridge and in particular the pressing of Jack at bay, resorting to hoofing the ball out of play, and in one instance right out of the ground into the neighbouring houses. It almost came as something of a surprise when they narrowed the deficit on 25 minutes, a quick counter-attack on the Ashridge right, a though ball behind the Ashridge defence, and in similar fashion to Ashridge's opener, a lofted effort over Joe and into the right corner of the net. More pressure now followed from the visitors, but Ashridge resisted well initially, keeping them to a couple of speculative shots wide and Joe able to comfortably gather any other attempted through balls. Just before half-time things were levelled up, however: a good break down the right and a cross well-cut out by Alex at the expense of a corner; the delivery flicked off a couple of players on its way across the box before being diverted just inside the left-hand post. 3-3 at half-time in a pulsating game.
Undoubtedly the pace of the first half had taken its toll, and with no substitutes available, those most in need of rest had to be redeployed to slightly less taxing positions, so Antonio moved to right back and Felix up to supporting striker in behind Jack, with Will taking over in central midfield. Rotherfield, clearly concerned about the threat Jack was offering, moved their imposing central midfielder back into central defence. The result was that both teams looked a little more solid, but lost a certain amount of the qualities that had made the first half so dynamic. Chances were far fewer, in fact for the first 20 minutes of the half there were none of any real note at either end. As the game wore on, Rotherfield began to look the most likely, and they very nearly went in front when a break down the right saw the ball crossed into the middle and a touch at the near post took the ball over Joe, only for Antonio to come up with a towering header off the line. A couple of times they got in behind the Ashridge back line, but one shot screwed wide across goal, and on the other occasion, after a midfielder beat three or four players on his way through, Joe was quickly out to nip the ball off his toes and clear. Ashridge had their spells of territorial advantage too, with Dillon breaking a couple of challenges on the right but unable to find a way through to Jack, and Jamie beating five players on the left flank to break from halfway to the penalty box, but Rotherfield had cover in place and drove him wide before conceding the corner. Ashridge's best effort came when Will followed up a clearance from a corner and struck his shot from the right edge of the penalty area, clearing the bar by a couple of yards.
Eleven minutes from time, Rotherfield got the decisive goal after mounting pressure around the Ashridge box; the ball breaking to an attacker on the right of the penalty area, and he turned smartly before placing a shot agonisingly out of Joe's reach into the bottom left hand corner. They might have added another in the closing stages, when the central defender got a powerful header in from a corner on the left, but it flew a couple of yards wide of the near post. Ashridge continued to give their all until the final whistle, but could not find a way through. The mood got slightly tetchy as the visitors started to complain about decisions, but was fortunately lightened in the closing stages when a Rotherfield player cut out a downfield pass on the volley and the ball landed squarely in the pitchside dustbin, drawing cheers and applause from both sets of supporters. Time ran out, with the visitors consolidating their lead at the top of the table.
Whilst it may be another defeat, this match definitely put a smile back on the faces of players and supporters alike. The boys came out determined to play some good football today, and the result was three goals (huge considering we'd managed 5 in the prior 10 league games) and a really competitive match. All 11 deserve huge credit today, and every one was called out after the game for the contribution they had made. Star player recognition went to Antonio - this was the player we saw at the end of last season back at his best - energy, skill, teamwork and leadership all on display in equal measure. If he and the rest of the team can keep this style and add a modicum more fitness, then results will start to flow.