South Berkshire Bombardment
"If we win the second half 2-0 we'll win the game" - A.Holdaway (2016)
Following a pretty dire performance against Henley 2s the week before, Ashford Men's 2s found themselves travelling to newly-formed South Berkshire HC for a tough fixture against their 1s who, until recently, had been leading the MBBO Division 1. Quite apart from the teams' differing form, Ashford were without a number of established regulars through unavailability and injury. They made the journey with a bare XI having enlisted Stephen Forster, Andy Holdaway and Roman Kiwi from the previous week's 3s squad. Traditional playing positions were also discarded as Ashford lined up with Ryan Croxon in goal (previously left half) and Pavi Aulakh and Rob Grant as holding midfielders (normally forwards). So low was the expectation going into the game that the team talk from Captain Croxon focussed on simple possession hockey and having fun.
The match itself began as expected. South Berks threatened with pace and trickery and Ashford countered and frustrated their opposition with discipline, holding their shape and keeping the ball for decent lengths of time. Eventually though, the home side went ahead with a well worked move that culminated in an injection from the right and a tidy finish. 1-0.
As South Berks searched for a second, however, Ashford continued to frustrate, defending resolutely and limiting their opportunities. A reflex save from Croxon saw a reverse hit shot clatter on to the post but the home team didn't create much more in the way of clear cut chances before an Ashford counter attack saw a penalty corner awarded after good work from Aulakh and Holdaway. It was to be the first of three consecutive corners, the third of which was dispatched with aplomb into the bottom left corner by Sam Betts. 1-1. Looking back, this was the goal that changed the game. It removed any lingering air of invincibility from South Berks and, even though they were to concede again within minutes of the restart, Ashford began to believe.
Going into half time 2-1 down, Ashford were able to reflect on a positive first half. They had worked tirelessly for each other, remained focussed and executed their game plan well. More of the same was needed if they were to stem the South Berks tide but they were enjoying themselves far more than expected. They came out for the second half buoyed by the prophetic words of Holdaway: "If we win the second half 2-0 we'll win the game". And so it proved.
Ashford defended narrow and tracked back from the front line to the increasing frustration of their opposition. Grant, a constant thorn in South Berks's side, hassled, harried and intercepted in the middle of the park whilst the back line of Forster, Stephen Law, Adam Husband and Matt Sutch snapped into tackles with renewed tenacity and vigour.
As in the first half, when Ashford did regain possession the emphasis was on ball retention. The slow build up served not only to frustrate a South Berks side who clearly thought they deserved to be further in front, but it enabled Ashford to built steadily and progress up the pitch as a collective unit. Indeed Ashford would go on to win the two short corners that decided the match in exactly this way: the first dispatched by Aulakh at left slip, his shot deflecting up off a defender's stick and looping over a stranded goalkeeper (2-2), and the second from Betts was a carbon copy of his first half strike (2-3).
Somewhere in amongst all this Grant and Aulakh earned themselves green cards - Grant seeing his upgraded to yellow (for verbal abuse) whilst still off the pitch! In spite of these setbacks Ashford were a dogged, determined unit. Shane Smith trod a fine line with the umpires on a number of occasions, at one point being warned for overly aggressive play as he sought to break up South Berks moves and be a general irritant in a deeper-than-usual role. Willing running (embodied by Kiwi and Holdaway) and strong positional sense across the team would see out the game but it was not without drama. Grant and Husband both came away with facial injuries from ball and stick respectively whilst, in the goal mouth scramble that saw Husband injured, Croxon produced a goal line save with his bare hand after he lost his glove in the mayhem. Yet Ashford survived the South Berks onslaught and, despite a late flurry of short corners from their hosts, emerged exhausted but elated. As Smith would later remark, pint in hand, "games like today are exactly why we play sport".
MoM: Ryan Croxon
DoD: Rob Grant
Written by Shane Smith