Highwaymen gallop away with title with two games to spare
Maidstone Men's 5s 0 BEHC Highwaymen 3
The stuff of dreams.
The delayed end-of-day 4.30 pushback (after the usual accumulated hold-ups during the day) meant that the floodlights were already starting to take affect during the warm-up to what was the Highwaymen's biggest ever league match. With Herne Bay winning at home earlier in the day and keeping the championship race open, the Highwaymen were going to have to get the vital last three points on the pitch the hard way, against a very impressive and well-coached Maidstone development side. Most Premier League footy matches had therefore reached injury time and England and France not even contested their first scrum when the visitors lost the toss and the umpires gave the usual two-minute warning. The pre-match speech was stirring stuff indeed, and apparently at least two of the squad remained awake for most of it, whilst match-day manager, Mark Ainley, just about held it together tactically and factually, whilst struggling to come to terms with both substitutes being called Robinson, yet being unrelated. Game on ...
Once again, it was a tremendous match between two very good sides. The hockey has been excellent in Division 3 this season, with very little between the 10 teams, and with some - at times - decent quality stuff on view, and this was no exception. In the absence of centre-back Steve Miller, Matt Wilde once more stepped into the breach and never put a foot wrong, despite having his finger taped up by the part-time physio shortly before the start. Greg Dowse was back again on the left side of midfield after a one-match-absence, and was his usual unflustered, hard-working and highly-effective self, whilst Chris Bernard started on the right and put in some telling passes, doubtless happy not to be banished to defensive duties for a change. With Graham Green tirelessly patrolling the midfield, and Peter Robinson proving a highly-effective impact substitution form the bench, the midfield was a strong unit even without its other two stand-out performers: Chris Hall covered just about every proverbial blade of grass (or inch of shag-pile astro) in his endeavours for the team, whilst Ravi Wickramasuriya looked like he had just returned from the Winter Olympics, slaloming down the right wing at full tilt and literally launching himself into the D at every opportunity. The team is a completely different entity with a fully-fit Ravi firing on all cylinders and ripping up the right wing. It was no surprise that it was his cross after half an hour of numerous near-misses that lead to the team's second goal 10 minutes after half-time and - at last - offered some breathing-space to the men in red.
Not surprisingly, it was the resurgent Pat Gainey, a key factor in the team's improved fortunes in 2017-2018, who netted both the first and second goals, before Chris Hall got some reward for his multiple endeavours on the hour-mark by bundling in a near-post effort amongst a tangle of limbs and body armour with the home keeper. Matt Robinson's introduction from the bench brought a huge burst of pace into proceedings, and he very nearly scored the goal of the season with a screaming first-time shot that only narrowly cleared the crossbar.
The defence does not always get the plaudits it deserves, but once again they were immense yesterday, conceding not one solitary short corner during the full 70 minutes. Phil Kinch put in yet another massive performance - metaphorically, and literally - breaking up opposition attacks at will and setting up counter-attacking plays from the back on numerous occasions, while the evergreen Richard Cleall kept the door bolted firmly-shut in front of the back three, as always cleverly disguised in non-regulation kit and naked of shins. Special mention once more must go to the team's perennial Saga Tours rep, keeper Tom Conway, the only member of the squad whose age begins with a "2", rather than the customary "4", "5", or "6". He has been wonderful all season, pulling off saves, kicking, directing and generally keeping everyone amused during his conscious moments, but joking aside ... the Highwaymen's excellent defensive record owes no small debt to Tom's commitment, consistency, good reading of the game, and the ability to do all the unspectacular things so well, which may go unnoticed further up the field, but not by his defensive colleagues. And that is quite apart from the odd blinding save. His voice even reached the level of two decibels at one point this season when he was particularly agitated.
The final ten minutes were played out with no major alarms, just the customary Highwaymen bravado, as imploring shouts of "possession!" and "run the clock down!" from the back four were happily ignored by the rest of the team, who carried on attempting the impossible, attacking with cavalier abandon, and handing over possession to Maidstone time and time again. But what was indeed different on this occasion was the fact that the team both started and ended well, matching their young and worthy opponents for energy, stamina and endeavour. And in between they just happened to score the three goals that mattered.
The final whistle was greeted by a rather odd sense of calm ... and disbelieving grins, especially amongst the squad's journeymen, as they were brought into a huddle (what? again?) by manager Mark Ainley, himself a virtual ever-present and essential ingredient during a brilliant season. For some of BEHC's rather eclectic squad, previous pinnacles of competitive excellence had been restricted to scratch-cards, bingo halls and the odd pool opponent inadvertently potting his own cue ball, so this truly was a moment to reflect and savour a significant achievement - they don't come around that often. Even the mercurial Mr. Wilde was happy to see the Club maintain its record of at least one promotion per season for the men's section, whilst fighting off WhatsApp taunts of being the new John Terry, dropping a division (or three) for the sake of silverware. Most unfair, that is ... John Terry is not a scouser!
But the final word on a historic day goes - somewhat ironically - to two significant absentees, the two Steves. The first, Steve Miller - one of those whose age begins with a "5" - has never actually won a trophy in his playing career, a surprising omission which has now thankfully been rectified. And the other ... the unique and inspirational team captain, Stephen Gilbert, to whom the league trophy morally belongs as the team's spiritual leader. A true Club man who always puts team before self and does so much unseen work on both sporting and commercial fronts for BEHC. Without him there would be no Highwaymen, and without him there would have been no season 2017-2018 to celebrate. Club management already has contracts ready for Gilbert and Ainley to sign for 2018-2019, as the duo build on their Brian Clough / Peter Taylor reputation.
As the Club motto says: "Be Proud, Be Worthy". And my, oh my ... we are, and yesterday all 14 of them most certainly were.
Tom Conway, tim walters (C), Matt Wilde, Phil Kinch, Richard Cleall, Ravi Wickramasuriya, Chris Bernard, Graham Green, Greg Dowse, Peter Robinson, Pat Gainey, Chris Hall and Matt Robinson.
A fierce three-way battle between Mssrs. Dowse, Hall and Wickramasuriya, who were all magnificent, was eventually decided by bribing the correspondent, as Highwaymen are always up for a spot of felony - so well done, Greg, and thanks for the drink!
Maidstone's umpire and BEHC's Rob Hughes both had great games and kept the game flowing. Hats off to both of these gentlemen for whistling the "graveyard" dusk game (the last fixture and the only one of the day requiring floodlights) whilst showing what great club-men they are, particularly Rob, who travelled a long way to officiate a game several levels lower than his own standard. Fantastic stuff - thank you.