Another loss, but signs of life
The Heathens' Frankenstein hockey corpse twitches and opens its eyes: not dead yet
After two dreadful performances since Christmas, the Heathens arrived at Avery Hill hopeful of improvement. With a mid-table position putting any hopes of a top finish out of reach, resuscitating the Heathens' hockey mojo was the main priority.
Pre-match talk was all about setting a short passing pattern and working hard in defence. A focused warm up augered well too, but once the game got underway the initial signs were not promising. The skippy Avery Hill pitch sets a tricky challenge for a team low on first-touch confidence and multiple turnovers in the early stages meant it was all Old Willies.
At first the Heathens were indebted to Jonny Lewis, Mike Earnshaw and goalkeeper Seb Zane baling them out on numerous occasions, but eventually another cheap turnover left a three on one that even Jonny Lewis couldn't fix. 1-0 to the visitors.
In this initial period the Heathens allowed themselves to be distracted a little too much by some heavy handed tackling. Beyond the odd shoulder and stick, Old Willies played some classy hockey too, with a number of youthful strong ball carriers, intelligent movement and sprinkling of experience ensuring good use of the ball. It was a little curious that such a strong side should find themselves nearer the bottom than the top of Kent Open Prem B. On the positive side for the Heathens they continued to keep encouraging and prompting each other: an important development to replace the standard anti-team sniping. Unfortunately, while the Heathens started to create some opportunities of their own, Old Willies then scored a second. The pass and move from Old Willies was decent, but a number of Heathens players had let runners simply drift away from them.
While this second nail might have sealed the coffin in previous weeks, the Heathens now quickly learnt their lesson and started to close down their opposite numbers much more effectively. Inspired by Alex Muntus
at left half, assured in possession and busy in defence, a little mongrel from Tom Cleall (eventually a green card) and skipper Paddy Ferguson
's best game in some time a foothold was finally established in the game. Now Stuart Horsbrugh's willing running started to test an uncertain Willies defence, while Charlie Nelson began a virtuoso display of touch and workrate to both create and profit from some dangerous positions.
From their first short corner the Heathens got themselves back in the game. From the top of the D skipper Ferguson found Nelson, who finished neatly from his position lurking at the right post - exactly as planned! Now the home side finished the half ascendant - the other members of the midfield Fenno Outen
and Dave Forsyth came to the party, while Harry Southgate
added some invention to the forward line and Andy Moore some steady link-up. As the half drew to a close another short corner was awarded. Again (unusually) this also went to plan, but Outen's lifted effort was too close to the keeper. At the same time Jonny Lewis was limping from the fray, the first victim of the early, abrasive stage of the contest. Luckily the Heathens could rely on Stuart McDonald to deputise ably.
Half-time 1-2 down. Chat was focused on keeping up the defensive work-rate and offering leads for short passes.
For once the half time chat was put into practice (another positive). Ball retention wasn't perfect, but much improved on previous weeks. The ball spent more time in the centre (one of our performance measures), although getting the "tanks on the lawn" will require longer and recycled periods of possession. MIdway through the half, some neat ball movement from left to right put the skipper clear down the right wing, from where his crashed early cross provided his second assist and Charlie Nelson's second goal via an excellent deflection that beat the keeper for pace. 2-2.
Now however it was Willies' turn to be stung back into action, perhaps aided by tired legs (the Heathens haven't really played at match pace since before Christmas...) and dwindling numbers (Moore was now down to one good leg, as well as Lewis), the visitor's pacy ball carriers were able to exploit the space that began to open up. For a time Alex Muntus
's imperious display and Mike Earnshaw's willingness to wear a hockey ball on every part of his body meant that the rearguard held out, but gradually a few short corners were coughed up. Finally, with about 5 to go Willies made one count. For the neutral it was worth the wait - a ripper of a drag flick into the very top left corner. A goal that could deservedly have won games a few divisions higher. Ho hum. I guess if we want to get better, we may as well play against the best players we can.
In the end, after a spicy opening period, the game was played in a good spirit. Both umpires deserve credit for negotiating the difficult early stages.
Next week a trip to high flying Cobdown for another tasty challenge. Will the Heathens' Frankenstein finally cut loose?