ASH BLOWN AWAY IN THE WIND
By tim walters
Fourth and final away win of the season sets up intriguing finale
Burnt Ash Men's 6s 1 BEHC Highwaymen 4
The second half of the 2018-2019 season will be remembered for the wind-tunnel-like weather which has battered match day matters virtually every week-end, and Saturday's game in the rather bleak and elevated surroundings of Dartford Technical College's hilltop astroturf just about topped the lot. On reflection, this was an excellent result and performance in what was at times a scrappy and disjointed affair, but both teams deserve credit for serving up some occasional bursts of excellent hockey in the 50 mph gusts of wind. It did not look great early on when, once more, the visitors went behind to an unfortunately conceded penalty corner on seven minutes, but that turned out to be the home side's only goal of the game as BEHC's four goal response blew away any hopes of the men from Bexley salvaging points from their final league game of the season.
This was a return to the gutsy Highwaymen of the recent past, finding a way to win in unfavourable circumstances, although in truth this success was down to some stunning individual performances, rather than the smooth functioning of team units on the pitch. The midfield were particularly guilty of some poor marking and tracking of opponents when the opposition were in possession, but that did not preclude a number of memorable tackles and repossessions by both Ben Baker and the returning Chris Bernard, who turned in a fine display on the right-hand side of midfield. As always, Greg Dowse put in a massive shift between both D's and is most people's first name on the team-sheet each week-end. The team's greater fluency over the past six weeks has been due in no small part to the tornado-like tenacity of Ravi Wickramasuriya and his ability to turn defence into attack via some tireless breaks forward, which have often led, directly or indirectly, to goals for the men in red (or yesterday, in white).
The forward line too was not exactly telepathy personified either, but that did not prevent invaluable contributions from those players involved, and it was Pat Gainey, playing a blinder of a first half, who brought the Club back into the game before the 20-minute mark with a sweetly struck shot into the left-hand corner to restore parity. Equally impressive was his cameo five minutes later as he harried and pestered three Burnt Ash players on the half-way line in a classic display of "defending from the front". There was little between the sides at this point, so the next goal was always going to be crucial. It duly arrived via a Christan Manito "thunderbolt" (ahem!) from a short corner routine, which did the defender on the post for pace, resembling as it did a decent leg-cutter out of the back of the hand. 2-1 at the break, and the team had somehow weathered the storm.
A bit of a half-time re-think saw the visitors try to "un-stretch" the game and play a higher line, although this did not stop the home side from mounting a series of dangerous attacks in search of an equaliser, even if the final pass often seemed to let them down. The defence were, however, in fine fettle, with Richard Cleall directing proceedings, leading by example, snuffing out danger, and showing his passion, as one of the team's two elder statesmen on the day, by cajoling and urging his team-mates through to the final whistle. He is a winner by nature, and it shows. Phil Kinch had an absolute barnstormer too, dropping a bit deeper than usual in his right-back berth and taking up some great positions to make vital interceptions and tackles at key moments. And once more, the guesting Matt Southgate put on an absolutely marvellous display in the first-half, before saving himself for Dynamos' action a couple of hours later. His contribution was all the more commendable for playing out of position in the centre, not that anybody would have noticed from his composed play. And behind them all, "Top Cat" Tom Conway continued to make saves and blocks with the minimum of fuss, whilst putting in his own entry for cameo of the day. Clearly taking into account Pep Guardiola's philosophy for "footballing keepers", his second-half decision to not not allow a harmless 50-metre ball from Burnt Ash to run out for a 16 was pure poetry. A neat trap of the ball with his right kicker followed by a pinpoint pass to an away midfielder on halfway was pure poetry, particularly as he knew he had a further two matches to contend with later in the day.
The third goal was a fine opportunist effort from birthday-boy, man-of-the-match and human hurricane, sammy chana, who reminded everybody present what a fine finisher he can be from six inches out. This clearly took the wind out of the hosts - if not out of the game in meteorological terms - and even if the Highwaymen did not exactly breeze through the rest of the game, there were no more major storm alerts to negotiate. The unusual prospect of four goals from four different scorers was duly delivered by top marksman Matt Robinson, thus claiming his 20th strike of the season and rounding off the teams's final away fixture of 2018-2019 in style. The final few minutes were played out with a level of professionalism seldom seen with this team, who are generally to game management skills what Genghis Khan is to the Nobel Peace Prize. Christian Manito slowed the game and his colleagues, and the away team in white ran the clock down via some excellent passing triangles and possession hockey on the left in the home team's third of the pitch.
All of which leaves some exciting end-of-season possibilities for the Club: if the Highwaymen win the inter-club derby against the Dynamos on March 30, they end up as runners-up in their first season in Division 2. However, should the Dynamos win both of their remaining matches, then they end up third in their inaugural season at this level, finishing one place higher than their stable-mates, the Highwaymen. Draws don't help either team, however, only Holcombe 5a's, who have already finished their league programme.
Tom Conway (GK), tim walters (C), Phil Kinch, Matt Southgate, Richard Cleall, Greg Dowse, Christian Manito, Ravi Wickramasuriya, sammy chana, Pat Gainey, Matt Robinson, Chris Bernard and Ben Baker.
sammy chana - "BBC" Sammy - no, not yet another state-funded TV channel, just an acronym for "Birthday Boy Chana" - got the nod from his team-mates for this, though the reasons may have been multifarious. Was it for scoring the third goal in the second half which gave the team some breathing space? Was it for playing for at least five consecutive minutes in the agreed pitch position allotted to him for a change? Was it for actually turning up *on time for a fixture (* "on time" signifies any point in time actually prior to the pushback)? Or was it for being the genuinely nice bloke that he is? And does it really matter??? He won it, he deserved it.
Neither of these teams originates from a Cistercian monastery where a vow of silence is preached, and this is always a fixture with a South London derby feel to it, plenty of banter and the odd "coming together" of bodies on the field of play. Saturday's game was therefore no different from usual in this regard - hard, but fair, and occasionally "loud". It is to their credit that both Mark Ainley and the excellent home umpire maintained a firm lid on proceedings, never coming close to pulling out a disciplinary card of any colour, and keeping the game going in a competitive, yet sporting manner.