Unbeaten run ends with only 10-men for Ashford
Shane Smith bags a brace to cap dogged display by tireless 10-men of Ashford
Availability greatly hampered captain Chris Lunn's preparations for this visit to MBBO Div 6 pace-setters South Bucks. With several players missing from the side that drew with OMTs, the 3s welcomed backed Cameron Dare in goal, Chris Mather in defence, David Merchant Jnr in midfield and Harrison Jefferies making his 3rd XI debut up front. Despite an extensive, last-ditch recruitment drive, Lunn was resigned to fielding only 10 players, though on the day he did his best to reduce the numbers further by sending a couple of the players to the wrong postcode!
Aware of the challenge they faced, the 3s made a collective decision to set up as tight 3-3-3. Their aim to maintain a solid core from front to back defending any direct route to goal while allowing the opposition to play down the wide channels left and right. In attack, retaining position remained the priority.
First half - up for the challenge
As expected South Bucks started strong with a series of attacking aerials launched from the left back pocket. Within five minutes SBs took the lead with a well-worked goal from open play - Ashford players still familiarising themselves with the team setup and their own individual responsibilities. From this reporter's experiences, an earlier setback such as this for a team of only 10 men can be its undoing: heads can drop immediately and a long game ensues. However, there was no sign of resignation from this Ashford outfit.
Soon the Short Laners setup was functioning well across the pitch. In possession, David Merchant Jnr was particularly sharp to exploit any free-hits and gain ground by carrying the ball forward. Meanwhile, when without the ball, the forward line of Shane Smith, Harrison Jefferies and Lewis Baber worked hard to pressure the South Bucks defence. Again, aerial balls continued to be SBs pressure release but skilful take-downs by Chris Mather, Gordon Smith and Chris Lunn nullified these threats. Ashford even started to return aerials in kind - Gordon Smith surprising himself with these effective outlets.
Ashford continued to grow into the contest, now directing and managing the SB attacks down the flanks as planned. Ashford's attackers often worried the SB defence but with little return in the way of pen-corners or shots on goal. That was until 20 minutes in when an Ashford excursion into the SB D ended with Shane Smith popping up outside the left post to show great composure as he finished with a well taken lift over the diving keeper. Scores level, all to play for and Ashford on the front foot.
Possession and chances in the remainder of the first half were shared by both sides. Ashford had Cameron "Double" Dare to thank for several good saves. At the other end of the pitch, another clever aerial by Gordon Smith was met with sublime control by Shane Smith (no relation) who showed good instincts with a square ball across the face of goal to pick out Harrison Jefferies ghosting in at the back post. Unfortunately, Harrison's (and the first half's) final touch just went wide of the mark.
Second half - a man too few
Rattled by this scare and the sustained resistance shown by Ashford in first the 35 minutes, South Bucks came out hard in the second half to catch the visitors cold within two minutes through a lapse in Ashford's disciplined defensive setup, 2-1. Undeterred Lunn's men continued to play with confindence. Youngsters Lewis Baber and Harrison Jefferies in particular worked hard to chase down play and hold the ball up while in possession. However, a well-executed short corner routine extended SB's lead to 3-1.
Once again, Ashford would not lie down and struck back immediately from a pen-corner: Shane Smith deflecting a well-hit strike by James Berressem over the keeper's pads for his second score, 3-2. South Bucks continued to press on, forcing maximun effort from each and every Ashford player to repel their attacks. To make matters worse 60 minutes in the 10 men were down to nine for two minutes when James Berressem, having conceded a pen-corner, uncharacteristically allowed his emotions to get the better of him. The home umpire wasted no time in reaching for the green card.
Although SB scored from the resultant pen-corner (4-2), the nine men of Ashford saw out the two-minute penalty for no further deficit. Even in the dying moments of the game this Ashford team, to a man, fought on tirelessly - exemplified by Adrian Hewes brave last ditch tackles. Another successful SB pen-corner routine took the final score to 5--2, which at a glance does not reflect the true value of this spirited Ashford display. The result also ends the 3s six-game unbeaten run.
Rarely will a team produce a performance that its players can take so much pride in and confidence from. In a show of solidarity, and in recognition of each player's extra effort, this week's MoM award is shared across the Ashford team.
Next week the 3s host Tring at Short Lane, 3.30pm pushback - please let Lunny know through Pitchero or text by Tuesday evening if you are available.