Curley Park Rangers Spitfires 6 Ashridge Park 0
A briefer report than usual this week, for the primary reason that there was little to write about from an Ashridge point of view. This was our first visit to Curley Park, the teams having met only once previously, in a first round U15 Plate match at St Crispins last season, a game which Curley Park took on penalties after a 1-1 draw. Since then, the teams' fortunes have gone in opposite directions, with Curley Park clearly strengthening their squad and after being promoted last year, now lying amongst a bunch of four teams at the top of the table, whilst Ashridge now languish at the foot of the table, with their lack of goals well-documented on these pages. For this game we had just the 11 players once more, with Tim and Felix added to the absentee list alongside longer-term problems for Dan, Bertie and Jack C.
Suffice to say, Ashridge were not at their best in the first half. Curley Park were quicker and fitter, and gave Ashridge no time on the ball at all; Ashridge responded by giving the ball away with alarming regularity, either by trying to beat one too many players, hurrying clearances and passes straight to the opposition, or hesitating fatally after winning a tackle and seeing the ball pinched back immediately. The biggest problem (and I mean "big") became apparent on four minutes as Curley Park won their first corner: as the sides lined up in the box it was clear that the home team had a height advantage of about four inches per player on average. Sure enough the corner was met with a solid header, which Joe blocked on the line, but Curley Park were quicker and more determined to get to the rebound and bundled it over the line. Corners continued to cause mayhem throughout the period, and when Ashridge did survive it was more by luck than judgement. Mistakes continued to plague the visitors efforts, and Curley Park went 2-0 up on ten minutes after Ashridge got in a tangle on the right edge of their box, and a half-clearance was lashed from range past a startled-looking Joe by an alert midfielder. A poor third followed on 25 minutes when a near-post corner from the left was met with a weak, angled header that seemed to wrong-foot Joe on the near post; then a minute later an even-worse fourth went in with Ashridge putting themselves under unnecessary pressure with clearances sliced backwards, mis-control on the ball, hesitation and lack of communication all contributing to a forward being able to bundle the ball home. The fifth came just before the break: another corner, another header, this one coming back off the bar before again being bundled home from close range. 5-0 at half time, and in truth there could have been more with the woodwork struck twice and numerous other efforts off target.
Half-time messages were about doing the basics better - getting body position right to make sure clearances go where they're supposed to, and playing simple passes where possible; backwards if need be if those are the players in space. To their credit, the boys took heed and started to execute better, and whilst it could never be said that Ashridge were remotely on top, they did at least manage to string some passes together and make the Curley Park defence work a little harder. The defence was much more solid, and whilst there were plenty of shots coming in from range, there was never the same sense that collapse was imminent that had been there throughout the first period. There were a couple of close shaves: Jamie pulled off a brilliant goal-line clearance to thwart another goal-bound effort after a corner, whilst James Riley headed against his own crossbar with Joe just getting fingertips on it. Ashridge managed to get a couple of shots on target through Marcus and Harry, but neither had sufficient venom or direction to trouble the keeper, whilst their other best moments were thwarted by the offside flag after some decent link up play centring around Antonio. Four minutes from the end, Ashridge were denied the second-half clean sheet when a raid down the Curley Park left saw a low cross into the box, which was turned in by a forward from the edge of the six yard box.
Disappointing to say the least, but credit to the home team who put in the strongest performance we have seen for a while, and who should feature in the top-of-the-table battle this season. It should also go on record that their supporters are amongst the best we have encountered - they were full of words of encouragement for Ashridge's second half efforts. If all games were played in this spirit then youth football would be in a great place. Some lessons learned in the second half by the team, and we need to continue to work to put them into practice regularly. No star player award this week; let's hope we can move onto better things next week when Berks County Jaguars visit St Crispins.