Highwaymen pull off smash'n grab raid at soggy Polo Farm
Canterbury Friars 2 BEHC Highwaymen 3
If the majority of the season so far has been epitomised by the Highwaymen having much the better of games but failing to put teams away, then this was the exact opposite. Canterbury Friars' current great mix of young and old(er) players gives them a potent blend which is likely to see them do well this season, particularly at home, and they will feel justifiably aggrieved not to have salvaged something from a game in which they once again dominated territorially, but ultimately failed a test of sheer will against obdurate opponents from Southeast London. Far from squandering a plethora of presentable chances, BEHC had relatively few, but most importantly made three of them count.
The Polo Farm is not generally a happy hunting ground for the Highwaymen, although Saturday's 3.00 pm fixture saw them promoted to the main Clubhouse pitch generally populated by national league hockey players rather than those plying their trade in Kent Open Division 3. Had the team come onto the pitch to musical accompaniment, then either the Eurythmics' "Here comes the rain again" or Gene Kelly's "Singing in the rain" would have been particularly apt choices, although given the bouncy nature of the water-based pitch (a sharp contrast to the previous week's slick grit-bowl at Blackheath) it really was a question of T.F.I. raining. A more appropriate rendering of this, however, might have read T.F.I. "reigning", as the match could easily have been headlined "Tom Farrant is reigning ... supreme", as he was ultimately the key difference between two well-matched sides. It was an inspirational move by match-day manager Mark Ainley to put Tom Farrant, generally a defender by trade, out on the left side of midfield to give the team greater width and attacking potency down both flanks, as this bold move paid rich dividends.
After an even opening quarter a catalogue of blunders down the Highwaymen's right wing led to the Friars' opener via a smartly taken reverse stick shot, which actually meant it was the first time all season that the team had fallen behind and not scored the opening goal. This was a real test of the team's mettle, particularly following the late withdrawal of Ali Burnett due to injury, but the midfield four and front three stepped up to the plate accordingly, with Graham Green and Chris Bernard as ever busy down the right, and fit-again Ravi Wickramasuriya making his trademark runs down the middle. Up front Pat Gainey and captain Stephen Gilbert battled gamely on pretty slim pickings against some accomplished defending, the latter somehow staying upright after a bullet of a clearance from a home 16 for once failed to bounce and nearly severed his foot as a result.
But cometh the moment, cometh the man, and Tom Farrant was both the catalyst and the executioner. Picking the ball up on 25 minutes just inside halfway his driving run into the D was well-supported by the as ever excellent Greg Dowse and brilliantly finished by the adjacent sammy chana who had just been introduced to the action and made a great supporting run which the home defence failed to cover. 1-1 at the break and against the run of play 10 minutes into the second half, Tom decided to get onto the score-sheet himself via an exquisite reverse stick shot from the left of the D to the far corner, possibly the best individual goal the team has seen all season. His second - and the team's third - represented yet another rare break-out into the opposition's half, where some good work down the right led to an opportunist finish to give the Highwaymen some well-needed breathing space.
A special mention must nevertheless go to a superb defensive performance in terms of guts, resolve and pure cussedness, if not always as regards aesthetic beauty. The triumvirate of Phil Kinch, Richard Cleall and Steve Miller threw sticks, bodies and literally anything else that came to hand in the way of what at times resembled an Alamo-type siege of open play attacks and short corners. It was stirring stuff indeed, particularly in one frantic incident where at least three red shirts converged on a loose ball with one visiting defender on the ground also doing a passably good impression of a circus act stick swallower. The Friars smacked the ball into the top corner of the net on the reverse after one short-corner, but the "goal" was correctly disallowed as it was the first shot, and then returning keeper Tom Conway came to his colleagues' collective aid with a smart save via his pads which deflected the ball past his left post. The home team did eventually get some reward for their endeavours when an effort from yet another penalty corner dribbled past the unsighted keeper to reduce the arrears, but the Highwaymen held firm for the remaining three minutes without too many alarm bells ringing.
The players squelched off the pitch at the end to see that a couple of the other leading teams in Division 3 had failed to win, so this was indeed a valuable victory in less than promising circumstances. By no means a vintage performance from a flowing hockey perspective, there will nevertheless be fewer better examples of a "smash'n grab" style team performance, where mutual encouragement, insatiable desire and a collective focus more than compensated for this.
And then of course, there was Tom Farrant ..........
Tom Conway, tim walters, Steve Miller, Phil Kinch, Chris Bernard, Richard Cleall, Ravi Wickramasuriya, Greg Dowse, Tom Farrant, Pat Gainey, sammy chana, Graham Green and Stephen Gilbert (C).
Tom Farrant - no vote was necessary, as he had a direct hand in all three goals and played a blinder.
Both from the home side, one a young German guy from Canterbury University, the other a more seasoned Canterbury veteran. Things were generally fine throughout until the last quarter when the home side were awarded more than ten penalty corners and everyone was getting very hot under the collar as a result, including the umpire himself. But it all passed with no cards or lasting acrimony.