After a mixed pre-season we came into our first ever official league game looking to send out a message that we are a team to be taken seriously this season, and we did precisely that with a performance we can all be proud of.
It wasn't pretty at times and we had to work extremely hard in hot sunshine against a young, fit and eager side that gave us little time on the ball. This was the game where everything seemed to fit together and we showed we are a proper team that are prepared to work hard for each other for 90 minutes.
The game started at an electric pace with Club De Hill looking to immediately press us from the front and force some mistakes which they succeeded to do a couple of times early on. As with previous games and to be expected their attacks stemmed from wide areas with a couple of dangerous curving crosses being fired in from our left towards the back post that Fred had to deal with.
We were finding it hard to get our foot on the ball and use the whole pitch, with most of our play resulting in a direct ball from the back towards the front three to run onto. A lot of the time we were chasing scraps and failing to stamp any real authority on the game with any quality. It was mostly rushed and panicky, with credit due to our opponents who weren't prepared to give our defence and midfield enough time to get us playing the way we can.
Despite all this, we certainly weren't being outplayed and our opponents whilst quick and up for it didn't really look that dangerous. They put a couple of decent crosses in which our defence dealt with and Tom looked calm and assured. They did have a chance at the back post where Fred had lost his man but the finish was lacking from close range.
Before long, Luis, who had taken a pretty nasty knock before the game during a game of British Bulldog, found himself chasing down a chipped searching pass from Will that the two centre halves were failing to deal with, and through perseverance and determination he forced them into an error and managed to get to the ball before the oncoming keeper whom he rounded and slotted home with a neat finish. The first of many goals for our Latin American striker I'm sure.
The goal seemed to spur us on and rattle our opponents and it was us who looked more like scoring next than them. In fact, Luis had another good chance not long after scoring but he could only find the side netting much to his visible frustration. Rumour has it his screams can still be heard in the beer garden of the nearby Cricketers pub.
Karl and Fred linked up well down the right a few times, and Lee kept plugging away down the left with Will playing him in on a couple of occasions, only for the chance to fizzle out. We didn't really create any chances of note though and it was a fairly even affair...That was until we conceded a throw in next to our 18 yard box and I brought myself on for Rich who looked like he was struggling in the heat with the amount of running he was doing. There was a bit of miscommunication on the marking between Josh and myself and by the time we had established what we were doing the throw had been taken and found its way to the back post where they were presented with an easy tap in to equalise.
Bit of a schoolboy error making a change whilst defending a set piece and something to put on my DON'T-DO list for future matches. I had a chance to redeem myself not long after when I hit a fierce half-volley from inside the area but the keeper made an impressive save to turn it round the post.
Club De Hill now had all the momentum and we were starting to become negative in our chat and were being pulled all over the pitch trying to stop ourselves from conceding again. George lost his head for a while after being kicked out at and admitted he was concentrating on getting vengeance. I completely understand that mindset but its important that it doesn't spoil your focus and consume you. It didn't seem to have affected his performance anyway and he continued his streak of reliable performances. Thankfully half time came and we could regroup and take on some much needed water.
I stressed the importance of us trying to slow our play down and force them into more running and ball chasing instead of going direct so often and risking handing the ball back to them. Despite our opponents appearing to be younger and fitter than us, they could only press us for so long and would tire eventually, leaving gaps for us to exploit. It was also apparent that Will hadn't really made his mark on the game like we know he can so I felt by slowing our play down he'd have more time to find the pockets of space to operate in.
We started the second half looking much more organised and with a much better shape than we'd finished the first. We were able to retain possession for longer and produced some neat triangles to move ourselves up the pitch. Our final ball was still lacking at times and for the second match in a row I tried to play a killer ball with the outside of my boot when a simple pass would have been the better option. One day I'll learn.
Karl and Lee were still full of running, which was just as well as we had nothing on the bench to cover for them. They were playing in the most physically demanding positions on the pitch so we were lucky that they both seemed to have super-human levels of energy and commitment at times. I did catch them both wildly out of position a couple of times in the first half without tracking back when we lost the ball, but given the shifts they put in for the rest of the game it is not something that concerns me.
Unfortunately we again started to lose the balance in midfield and at times were chasing shadows and second to loose balls. I felt we needed to inject some fresh blood into the middle which would hopefully offer a different perspective and mindset and that's exactly what happened when Barnesy came on for Josh. That's nothing against Josh's performance, he was once again reassuringly calm, neat and tidy on the ball and continued to defy belief (including his own) with his levels of fitness - Calling him a cabbage really seems to have done the trick. Barnesy had an immediate impact, he seemed to be in the right place at the right time to put in a challenge and the ball seemed to gravitate towards him, and when he got it his first thought was to remain calm and move the ball on simply and effectively. This seemed to have a knock-on effect to the rest of the team and we began to take a grip on the game again.
Our second goal came from a neat team move that saw the ball calmly passed from the back to my feet, I helped it on to Will who had found space near the centre circle and he found Karl who had timed his run to perfection with an incisive pass through the middle to put him one-on-one with the keeper. He made no mistake and calmly slotted it past the keeper into the bottom right corner to put us in front. It was a lovely move and you could see the dejection on our opponents faces as we lined up to kick off again - The game was there for the taking!
I had a long range attempt at lobbing the keeper go just over the bar after intercepting a pass from their centre back, and that was to be my final contribution as I subbed myself off for Rich to inject some fresh legs in the middle once again as well as to try and manage out the game from the touchline.
We were facing a lot of attacks but held strong and remained solid through the middle. Ryan and Steve were constantly talking and organising and there are strong signs of a quality partnership forming there. Ryan made a crucial goal saving header from under his own crossbar in the first half at a crucial time. Our opponents were now tiring and running out of time and ideas. Tom produced a fantastic double save when there was a bit of scramble in our box, Steve tried his best to smash an own goal in but Tom was having none of it and got his frame in the way. Better luck next time, Steve.
We were happy to soak up all they could throw at us, and the more they did the more they left gaps for us to use when we got the ball back. This was how our third goal came about, the ball found Karl who switched play over to Lee who now had space to attack his full back one-on-one. He did so and put what looked like a lovely cross into the back post area but then suddenly the net bulged and it had gone in! Lee insists he meant it so fair play, it was a delicious finish from out wide, well done lad! All three of our front players had now scored, you can't really ask for more than that.
Fred sustained an arm injury after trying to do a breakdancing double act with a member of the other team and had to go off, so Josh came back on in the middle with Rich switching to right back and putting in a brilliant last 10 minutes where he looked rock solid.
Petch was doing an admirable job as linesman despite receiving some abuse from opposing fans. Now that we had a bit of a cushion I decided to let him have some minutes to try and help on his quest for match fitness. He almost got himself on the scoresheet after doing precisely as I'd asked and just making a nuisance of himself up there and giving their centre backs no time on the ball. He got away with what looked like a barge in the back before stealing the ball but could only find the keepers arms with a shot from his weaker left side.
Club De Hill tried their best to get back into the game, hitting the bar with a nice strike from outside the area and forcing a couple of corners that were comfortably dealt with. Thankfully our determination shone through and we were able to play out for the victory.
It's personally been a while since I played in a team who could beat a good team in the manner we did. I've been trying to drum into everyone the importance of communication all over the park as well as the desire to put in the effort without having to be asked, and in this game I think we showed we are prepared to do it and more. As Ryan pointed out after the game, at this level desire and determination are really what win you the games. We should all be proud of ourselves for the manner in which we won and every single person who was involved made a positive contribution, no one looked out of place and no one hid from their responsibility.
Although I suspect we won't go up against many other teams in the league as good as we played on Sunday, it could be that they are one of the worst and we've got a lot harder tests to come. That remains to be seen, but the fact is we overcame a team that challenged us for 90 minutes and for that we should be proud.
I'm tempted to give 14 man of the matches but I don't want to get too carried away, so I'm going to give it to both Lee and Karl who I thought put in an incredible amount of commitment to give it their all for very nearly 90 minutes, both scoring and Karl also getting an assist. Very well done and big respect to you and to everyone else for your hard work.
Let's take that spirit and determination into our first game at Buckingham Park next week and try and turn it into our fortress. Up the Romans!