Sun sets on unbeaten run
Highwaymen strictly unlucky in table-topping clash
Herne Bay Men's 4s 1 BEHC Highwaymen 0
Even if this first league defeat in 12 league matches stretching back to March was not the ideal way to sign off for the winter break, especially as the result also meant conceding top spot to the hosts for the next couple of months at least, it is just possible that the plucky visitors from SE London may have got more from this match than the scoreline suggests. Stripped of more than half a team of regular talent (Burnett / Rose / Green / Miller / Kinch / Conway and the still-injured Bowles), fielding the walking wounded in the shape of the evergreen Ravi Wickramasuriya, and also down to a bare 12 bodies, the men from BEHC could have been forgiven for facing the division's highest-scoring team on their own patch with severe trepidation. Despite spending about 80% of the match penned in their own half, the Highwaymen could indeed have plundered a point - if not an unlikely win - from a tight and highly-entertaining match, which was ultimately decided when the visitors were pick-pocketed by a fine individual goal from the home side after 55 minutes. Sadly, it was not to be.
The business end of the first half of the hockey season is always concurrent with the latter stages of "Strictly come dancing" on BBC, and the analogies are often numerous. You could almost hear Len Goodman yelling "SEVEN!" as match-day manager Mark Ainley once again pondered his options from a team-sheet that had about as much balance as a dancer with two left feet: three forwards, one regular defender and no fewer than seven midfielders. But his line-up worked a treat and served to frustrate Herne Bay for huge periods of the match. Though ever-reluctant to fill the right-back berth, Chris Bernard once again did so with distinction, with Richard Cleall rounding off another fine first half of the season via a pre-match pint of bitter and an ever-reliable performance at centre back. As was to be expected, the midfield quintet worked their cotton socks off. Greg Dowse, probably the team's stand-out performer since October, covered every blade of astroturf on the sandy seaside pitch, whilst the team's two resident hockey wizards from the sub-continent, sammy chana and Raj Phull did a grand job, keeping the ball at the far end of the pitch to give the hard-pressed defence a breather on the rare occasions when the men in red were able to shake off the shackles and break free from their own D. And Steve Garth too had one of his best games for the Club on the left, making several telling second-half contributions to both break up opposition attacks and set up BEHC counter-offences.
The two players who oh-so-nearly pulled off a shock win were the dynamic duo of Andy Cooke and Pat Gainey. The former missed by a matter of inches with a clever reverse stick effort after waltzing past several defenders into the Herne Bay D, performing a nice little twirl or two on the way, and then just missing to the left of goal. The latter went off on many a heroic quick-stepping solo mazy run to relieve the pressure, and after coming close early on during the first half was desperately unfortunate to see his excellent effort from an acute angle on the right roll agonisingly across the face of goal. A scramble in the home D nearly led to a goal a minute later, so it was rather ironic that the resulting turn-over in possession led to the only goal of the game for the hosts.
Nevertheless, to a man this was a heroic sporting display by the Club and the sun is by no means setting on the Highwaymen's promotion push after this first setback of the season, even though they might have wished it had set a bit earlier on Saturday, as it was certainly not a good toss to lose. The fact that the visitors barely made it out beyond their own 23 for the first half-hour was almost incidental as this just about represented the maximum range of visibility for the Highwaymen's defence. The low-lying glaring sun presented such a challenge that they had to resort to identifying outlines and shapes rather than faces and numbers ..... no wonder the passing was better than usual!
So what does the mid-term report look like for the 2017-2018 incarnation of the Highwaymen:
1) There is no particular team to fear in Division 3 this time around;
There is little to choose between all 10 teams in the league - the lower-placed clubs have played some great hockey with a blend of seniors and youngsters, whilst there are no outstanding teams at the top end of the table as per the last couple of years. It is all to play for in the second half of the season.
2) The team has coped well with adversity;
Despite losing players to injury and other unforeseen unavailability issues, the Highwaymen have proved to be very resilient this season, and they have also been able to squeeze out occasional results and performances without their star players on board. To mount a realistic challenge for promotion, however, they need to get Mssrs. Bowles, Burnett, Green and Rose on the pitch as often as possible from January to March 2018.
3) Every cloud has a silver lining;
One of the major pluses from the autumn has been the emergence (through necessity) into senior hockey of young goalkeeper Ben Wickramasuriya who has been an absolute revelation, letting in only 2 goals in 3½ hours of play - amazing!
4) The unsung hero(es);
That the Highwaymen have such a settled squad and somehow never end up short-handed is down to the inspirational captaincy of Stephen Gilbert and his management team, including the man with the white folder, Mark Ainley. Well done, gentlemen!
In conclusion, the last game of the season could just possibly be very interesting indeed - perhaps the ultimate "dance-off", with promotion or the championship at stake if both of Saturday's teams enjoy a similar second half to the season. It could even be the "Last Tango in Blackheath" .....
Merry Christmas everyone!
Ben Wickramasuriya, tim walters, Chris Bernard, Richard Cleall, Ravi Wickramasuriya, Greg Dowse, Raj Phull, Pat Gainey, sammy chana, Andy Cooke, Steve Garth and Stephen Gilbert (C).
tim walters - stuck grimly to his defensive duties like a dog turd to a shoe on the pavement outside the dance hall. On the one occasion he made it as far as the half-way line he wisely shimmied back to more familiar surroundings.
Apart from a couple of baffling decisions early on, possibly as a result of the limited visibility due to the low sun, both the home umpire and BEHC's Rhys Edwards did a great job keeping a really good, competitive game moving - it was compelling stuff and the time seemed to go very quickly indeed ... usually a good sign of a well-umpired affair. Rhys is also an absolute star for giving up about 7 hours of his Saturday to officiate such a far-flung fixture nearer to France than his own home (... the London one, that is, not the one in Jo'burg!)