WINDS OF CHANGE???
By tim walters
Highwaymen blow away January blues
Folkestone Optimists Men's 7s 1 BEHC Highwaymen 2
It would be fair to say that the "Match of the Day" cameras would most likely have given this fixture a swerve, or at least planned on showing the heavily edited highlights once most viewers had switched off the TV and gone to bed. This was the "Clash of the Constipated" … the home team that had not won a league match for over three months, against the visitors who could match that feat for two, whilst failing to find the back of the net for the past 2½ hours. Something had to give for one of the teams to remove the blockage, and it was apt that the game was played out in heavy gusts blowing in off the Channel coast. No one could quite put their finger on why the Highwaymen had struggled so badly since finishing the first half of the season as table-toppers, but perhaps the answer, my friend, was blowing in the wind, as the team seemed to thrive in the awkward conditions, particularly in the second half with the howling south-westerly in their backs.
The line up constituted a bare twelve shorn of one or two of the regular stalwarts, but it represented a strong and reasonably balanced squad nevertheless. Chris Bernard continued his good form over recent months with a fine performance on the right hand side of midfield, despite showing a complete inability to understand the neat pre-match PowerPoint presentation side explaining the team's rather unambitious 4-4-2 formation. The team's Mr. Consistent, Greg Dowse, along with the enterprising Sammy Chana fared better in this regard - possibly due to higher levels of IT skills - and slotted seamlessly into their allotted midfield berths like USB sticks, whilst the returning Ravi Wickramasuriya made a significant difference to proceedings once he sprang from the bench midway through the first half, his hamstring injury appearing to be well on the mend.
The defence once again performed very well indeed, with central linchpin Steve Miller turning in another stellar performance, his second-half edge-of-the-D collision with Folkestone's muscular frontman apparently catching the attention of NASA's satellites. As ever, Phil Kinch kept the right-hand side of the defence nailed down too, while Richard Cleall mopped up the customary plethora of loose balls and lost causes just in front of the back three. His cameo mazy run in the opposition's heavily congested D late in the game was reminiscent of a quick lap round the Elephant & Castle gyratory system - utterly magnificent, but sadly leading nowhere.
Needless to say, the visitors started poorly and somewhat hesitantly, something of a trademark in recent weeks, as passes were misplaced and all the pre-match plans were quickly blown off course as the team played into the breeze and squinted towards the setting sun. It came as no surprise, therefore, when the hosts deservedly took the lead following a needless turnover on the edge of the D followed by a slightly "topped" shot which flew up high and spinning into the net to put the Highwaymen behind for the fifth match running. It was already clear that the team's hopes would soon be gone with the wind without a change of fortune, and that they would have to win this game the hard way, or not at all.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Hats off to young Ben Baker, who, given a free roaming role up front on the right alongside regular striker Matt Robinson, decided to grasp the mettle - or even the composite handle of his hockey stick - and turn things around for his team-mates. Not only did he work tirelessly for the team throughout the entire 70 minutes, he also scored one of the goals of the season, somehow managing to cap a superb right-wing run with a reverse-stick bullet from the right-hand side of the D into the far corner. Game on.
Folkestone are a far better side than their league position suggests. Their team contains skilful individuals who play some lovely passing hockey, whilst they try to stretch the game by playing one or two strikers very high. They also play the game with a first-class attitude too, so this was indeed an entertaining affair. However, it was the visitors who had by far the better of the second-half, both territorially and in terms of possession, although in truth the suspicion remained that perhaps the only goals of the game had already been scored. But midfield anchorman Graham Green had other ideas, capping another highly industrious performance as the Highwaymen's centre-field creator/enforcer with a technically superb arrow of a shot from the centre of the D with eight minutes left on the clock. For once, the team was the beneficiary, rather than the victim, of a late goal to pick up the full three points, coming from behind to win for the first time in over a year.
The last word has to go to the team's "top cat", aka TC, Mr. Tom Conway, who just seems to be getting better and better. It was not a game where he had loads of shots to save, but the sign of a great keeper is one who talks all the way through the 70 minutes, and performs to his optimum level whenever needed at critical moments. His shoulder save of a deflected shot in the first half and sprint to clear with his right boot in the second were typical examples of this, keeping the team in the game at crucial times. His croaky post-match voice too was ever so slightly reminiscent of Toad in "Wind of the Willows", but that just made it all the more appropriate given the meteorological circumstances.
So for the first time this calendar year, the team did not drop a league position, although the next two testing fixtures at home to Gillingham and away to Marden Russets will give a better indication as the which way the wind is blowing in terms of league placings. Nevertheless, the team can be proud of the way they represented both themselves and the shirt on one of their longest away trips of the season - well done all round!
Tom Conway (GK), Tim Walters, Phil Kinch, Steve Miller, Richard Cleall, Greg Dowse, Graham Green, Ravi Wickramasuriya, Chris Bernard, Ben Baker, Sammy Chana and Matt Robinson.
Tom Conway deservedly won the award by a mere wisp from Ben Baker, the team's two youngsters both putting in mature performances and thoroughly deserving the matchday headlines.
Both of the home umpires from Folkestone did an absolutely excellent and impartial job in a sporting contest that was a credit to Kent Open Division 2.