Laurel Park Tornadoes 0 Ashridge Park 0
Star Player: James Roberts
The last game of the winter term saw us travel the short distance to Lower Earley to play Laurel Park Tornadoes - not a happy hunting ground for us with the three previous matches seeing us beaten on each occasion by margins varying from one to six goals (although we have enjoyed better fortunes at St Crispins against this team). Like ourselves, the Tornadoes have lost a few key players, and found themselves just above us in the table with four points from their opening six games. Ashridge went into the game with a full-blow defensive crisis on their hands, with Marcus away, and both Tim and James Riley declared sick on the evening before the match; this also left us without substitutes once more. So with only James Roberts available from the recognised back four, Alex and Will deputised for the umpteenth time at full back, whilst we sacrificed Jack G (himself only just off his sick bed) from the midfield to give us more physical presence at centre back. With Antonio and Felix both under the weather as well, there was understandably a sense of nervousness on the sidelines as the game began.
Ashridge began relatively positively, with signs that the recent work on moving the ball is becoming a bit more engrained in the side; some sensible passing was seen to retain possession, and territory was gained into the bargain. Jamie and Felix were prominent in the central midfield battle, and Harry got himself into some good areas on the right of midfield. Most of Ashridge's attempts to penetrate foundered on the rocks of Laurel Park's centre back, probably the most able player in their side. In particular Ashridge twice managed to create an overlap on the left of the box to get Dillon in on goal, but the defender not only recovered to close down the shot, but came away with the ball, beating a couple of challenges and then distributing well to set up a counter-attack. Ashridge's defence was solid throughout: Jack showed good judgement as well as his usual strength in the tackle and regularly picked off the passes to the forwards; Alex kept the right flanker well-shackled, clearing into touch when needed, but also getting the ball forward for Jamie, Bertie and Dillon to work with when the chance arose. On the right, Will did an equally good job to repel any advances; whilst at the heart of the defence, James Roberts was once again in the thick of the action, winning numerous tackles and clearing the ball with authority throughout.
In truth, chances were few and far between at either end. Ashridge had a couple of shots which didn't trouble the keeper unduly, although one did have to be turned behind for a corner, and also half a shout for a penalty when Felix went down under a challenge in the box, but the referee was probably right to say that there wasn't enough in it to award the kick. Felix had to come off feeling unwell immediately after this, leaving Ashridge a man short for ten minutes, but fortunately he was able to return to the fray before half-time. Antonio struck a free-kick over the bar after a foul on the left edge of the box, and both he and Felix showed some nice touches on the ball, which caught the eye of the visiting coaches and supporters, but for all that there was not much end-product. Laurel Park's best moments were late in the half, after a speedy forward player was brought into the game, and he broke into some dangerous areas on three or four occasions before finally being dealt with, most often by the irrepressible James Roberts. The closest shave came close to half-time when Antonio brought this same player down on the edge of the box, the free-kick would have found the target but was turned on to the bar by Joe before being scrambled to safety by the Ashridge back line.
The second half proved to be more of the same - plenty of admirable effort, particularly from Ashridge given the patched-up side on display, but little in the way of goal threat, especially in the early stages. With the wind at their backs, Ashridge were able to gain the territorial advantage initially and give the back line a bit of respite. Again both Felix and Antonio were prominent with some great individual skills - the most notable occasion saw Felix get past three Laurel Park players - despite being fouled four times in the process - and battle his way into the box in the left channel, only to find himself penalised for an innocuous looking challenge when finally dispossessed. For all this, the clear-cut opportunity was still not there, and the most aggressive effort on goal came when Jack G advanced from centre back and, after his first shot was blocked, hit the rebound wide from 25 yards. A couple of great through balls - one from Bertie and one from Antonio - almost got Dillon in on goal, but the Laurel Park defence did well to intercede on both occasions. As the half wore on Ashridge began to tire, and the midfield lost its shape, allowing Laurel Park to make progress and create some opportunities. Their preferred avenue was down the Ashridge left, but Bertie and Felix both gave Alex good support, which, together with a tendency by their opponents to try to beat too many players, allowed Ashridge to hold them at bay. A couple of half chances saw shots dragged across goal and wide. Ashridge responded with a sweeping move from left to right, which saw Jamie with an overlap, he brought the ball back inside and a challenge came in as he unleashed his shot, which saw the player sent flying in the box, but probably enough contact on the ball to justify no penalty award. With time ticking down, Laurel Park broke quickly through the centre and got the forward in on goal, but Joe came up with the save once again to preserve the point. The final whistle arrived, and along with it Ashridge's second point of the season, and only their third goalless draw in the past eight seasons (the others being at U9 and U10)!
By no means a classic, but given the shortage of fit players a very welcome result. All of the eleven should be applauded for their efforts, but particular recognition to the deputies in the back four: Alex and Will who are becoming almost accustomed to the role; but most particularly Jack G who did really well filling in at centre back. Jamie and Felix were both excellent and hard-working in the centre of midfield, with the latter picked out by the opposition afterwards for the threat his tricky runs were posing. Antonio also impressed with some neat skills at times; whilst Joe came up with a few key saves to keep us on level terms. This week's star player recognition goes to the stalwart at the heart of the defence, James Roberts, who always seemed to be there with the vital challenge and did perhaps most to ensure that we kept the clean sheet today.