No sequel for the Men in Black
Highwaymen hold on to top spot after Avery Hill debut
BEHC Highwaymen 3 Holcombe Men's 6s 0
Saturday's visitors for the Highwaymen's first home fixture at Avery Hill (and the first home game of any description since November) had thrown the division wide open a week earlier after edging out table-toppers Herne Bay by the odd goal in seven, moving themselves into serious contention for a promotion tilt in the process. In fact, a win on Saturday would have put them level on points with the hosts, but an assured performance by the home side meant that Holcombe, sporting their traditional away kit of all black, were unable to repeat their feat of a week earlier and returned to the Medway pointless and six points off top spot. With more than just pride at stake the game might have been a testy affair, but nothing could have been further from the truth, as both sides played out a hugely sporting and enjoyable fixture which did both clubs enormous credit on a cold and damp afternoon at Greenwich University.
Credit again is due to manager Mark Ainley's shrewd juggling of his squad, which had a distinctly classy look about it at the week-end, or in midfield maestro Andy Rose's words, it almost resembled a "vintage grand crew". The Highwaymen look like they may benefit from the services of the excellent Rhys Edwards for the rest of the season as he completes a long overdue comeback after a protracted two-year injury absence. He is pretty good with a whistle in his mouth, but proved against Holcombe that he is an even more valuable asset with a stick in his hand. The defence oozed coolness and calm with the mighty Matt Wilde guesting at its heart, the Club chairman doubtless happy for once to be reducing the average age of the BEHC hockey team he was representing. But despite having the better of the early exchanges, it was the manager's switching of Steve Miller from left- to right-back which proved to be the catalyst for an ultimately comfortable win. The Highwaymen's less-than-hirsute defender put in a fine shift despite carrying a knock into the match, and the team always looks better and more balanced when he is in the starting XI.
Thereafter it was definitely a question of victory for the hard right, where the hosts simply posed more questions than Holcombe could ever answer, principally as a result of great work by a resurgent Ravi Wickramasuriya and the dazzling stick skills of Steve Bowles who both simply terrorised the visitors left flank. The men from BEHC should have taken the lead earlier than they did when one of several great dribbles and byline pull-backs from the latter was spooned over the bar by in-form striker Pat Gainey, who made no mistake on 22 minutes when some persistence from the former presented him with a far-post opportunity which he buried with glee. Pat's return to full fitness has been a major factor in the team staying the course thus far this season, and it appears that he probably won the man-of-the-match award too, although this contest had more participants than either an Italian election or the Eurovision song contest, such was the genuine "team" nature of the Highwaymen's performance. As ever, both Graham Green and the team's player of the season to date, Greg Dowse, were full of energy and enterprise, whilst Richard Cleall provided the cameo of the day by beating three players whilst rotating 360° within in a space of about one square metre ... truly mesmerising skills which may yet earn him a place on next year's TV series of "Dancing on Ice". He certainly appears to be practicing his routine in the photograph above!
The Holcombe long-ball tactic may have been somewhat predictable, but the men in black nearly took the lead first and only failed to do so thanks to the ever dependable Tom Conway, who swept the ball to safety with his stick from just a foot in front of the line and was otherwise imperious, fully deserving a clean sheet for his endeavours. It also appeared initially that Holcombe had indeed equalised on the half-hour mark from a touch by a visiting player on a long ball into the home D, although the celebrating forward was the only player or official present who was convinced that the audible contact was from his stick rather than that of a defender. Fortunately the home team made it 2-0 on 50 minutes before they were temporarily reduced to 10-men due to a harsh yellow card - perfectly correct for the stated offence, although definitely questionable based on what actually happened. The second goal from Andy Rose which gave the team some breathing space was a sweet strike from a narrow angle on the right, the subsequent celebrations being muted ever so slightly only by the realisation that fox-in-the-box and poacher supreme, Stephen Gilbert, had not actually got the final touch at the far post before the ball crossed the line. But credit is certainly due to the trusty team captain who assembled his squad of elite athletes from far and wide for this fixture ... in this case Catford and Christchurch - the New Zealand one, that is.
The icing on the cake was deservedly provided by Ravi Wickramasuriya's pile-driver five minutes from time to make it 3-0 and cap a team performance which at times may have lacked a bit of fluidity, but never composure or control, especially when the players followed the game plan and used the flanks on the lively Avery Hill surface. The hard-core of the Highwaymen's supporters went home happy too, the usual trusty band of ultras from the Bowles and Rose families being supplemented on this occasion by both Noah Wilde and Ian Conway. They may have added up to a low single-digit number in total, but it would still have been a higher figure than the pitch-side temperature expressed in degrees Centigrade.
And so on to the long away trip to Folkestone next week-end, weather permitting, and the final third of an intriguing season with everything to play for in Kent Open Division 3 ...
Tom Conway, tim walters, Steve Miller, Matt Wilde, Rhys Edwards, Richard Cleall, Ravi Wickramasuriya, Greg Dowse, Andy Rose, Graham Green, Pat Gainey, Steve Bowles and Stephen Gilbert (C).
Pat Gainey - probably ... but deservedly nonetheless.
Very good performances from both the home and away match officials in a game made easier by the positive and honest attitudes of both of the participating teams.