One week on from the 3rd XI having their promotion from De Cymru 3 confirmed, Penarth Hockey Club were able to celebrate another notable achievement as the 1st XI secured not only promotion from Conference North, but also their second consecutive GoCrea8 League divisional title.
PENARTH 3-2 Firebrands 'A'
There was plenty on the line as Penarth welcomed the famous hockey name of Firebrands to the Bears Den at Stanwell on Saturday, knowing that a single point from the top-of-the-table clash would be enough to secure a second successive promotion.
The home side, however, wanted much more, not only looking to exact revenge against only the second team to beat them in the season’s earlier reverse fixture and stretch their Conference North winning streak to eleven games in the league, but also to add to a two-year unbeaten run at home and claim the divisional title.
‘Fortress Stanwell’ had seen the Bears rack up 19 wins and a single drawn game since the start of last season’s league and cup ‘double’ campaign, but Firebrands would be no pushover and, right from the start, the game exuded quality and intensity not seen so far this season as the two top teams in the division went toe-to-toe to see who were top dogs.
Firebrands enjoyed the majority of possession early on, moving the ball around the defence and midfield with purpose as they pushed hard for the early opener that had marked the teams’ first meeting. Penarth, however, showed great discipline and shape as they navigated the early storm without any major scares.
As the half drew on, the Bears were happy for Firebrands to have the ball as it was their own pace on the counter-attack that started to swing the game in their favour. Having alredy created chances for the home side, one such break down the right caused panic in the visitors’ 'D', resulting in a penalty corner that Laith El-Khatib despite with pinpoint accuracy from the top of the 'D' into the bottom right corner.
With Penarth tails up, Firebrands began to struggle with the pace of the home side’s attacks, and the Bears went for the kill before the half was out. Again, the high tempo down the right flank caused the damage, as Penarth worked their way into the visitors’ 'D' and committed the on-rushing ‘keeper before slipping the ball to El-Khatib to fire in his second at the back post. Penarth were not finished there either, with one last penalty corner before the half-time whistle giving Ben Croxall the chance to step up to convert for a commanding 3-0 lead at the break.
Despite the scoreline, it was clear from the restart that the experienced Firebrands team were not about to capitulate, and they continued to play quality hockey. As the visitors again began by moving the ball around, Penarth remained disciplined and well-organised as they looked to sit on their three-goal lead. The tactic, however, proved to be costly as Firebrands were finally rewarded with the goal their play deserved, working the ball down Penarth’s left before firing it to the back post, where an attacker arrived to tip in first time.
At 3-1, the game was still very much alive and Firebrands clearly had hope of a comeback as they piled on the pressure. The weight of the occasion was perhaps taking its toll on the Penarth players as, for the first time all game, a sense of panic began to creep in. This allowed Firebrands to grab a quick-fire second goal as a scramble in the 'D' saw the ball slipped under goalkeeper Adam Putt to make it 3-2 with plenty of time on the clock.
With the home team rattled, Firebrands continued to mount their assault, and Penarth had Putt to thank for a string of fine saves that preserved their one-goal advantage. As time ticked by without the visitors finding a third goal, however, the Bears began to settle down and manage the situation as they moved away from playing on the counter and began to hold possession to see out the clock.
Gradually, the game started to turn back in the hosts’ favour and, with no further goals for either side, they were able to secure a hard-fought 3-2 win and secure promotion as champions. In Firebrands, Penarth could not have wished for better opponents on such a momentous day and the game, played at a standard befitting of many leagues above, made the achievement all the sweeter. With two games remaining on their Conference North schedule, Penarth can now enjoy an extended victory lap before continuing their march up the GoCrea8 League tables.
Goalscorers: Laith El-Khatib (2), Ben Croxall
Neath 2-3 PENARTH ‘A’
The 2nd XI travelled to Neath knowing that anything less than a victory would more than likely see them relinquish their second place position in a closely-contested De Cymru 1 table.
Playing at Neath’s ‘new’ home pitch at Baglan Bay School, the visitors could be forgiven for thinking they were playing on Baglan Bay itself, given the copious amount of sand underfoot. A few seasons ago, this would have felt like a home from home for the Bears but, since moving from the sand-covered pitch in Barry to their new facility at Stanwell School, the side has become accustomed to a quicker more predictable pitch and Saturday’s playing surface proved to be something of a leveller between the teams.
Hampered in their efforts to play the expansive hockey which has served them so well this season, Penarth’s passing moves were often broken down by an erratic bobble of the ball, but it was the away side who started better, countering quickly but proving unable to take any of the chances that came their way early on. As the half wore on, the Neath side found their feet and started to exert more and more pressure on the Bears’ defence, with goalkeeper – and man-of-the-match - Simon Comfort making several outstanding saves to keep the scores level.
Reassured by Comfort’s presence between the posts, Penarth continued to press, eventually grabbing the opening goal midway through the half. Phil Lane added to his season’s impressive tally of assists by driving through midfield and finding Dave Kidby, who slipped the ball through the ‘keeper’s legs to break the deadlock.
The half ended with the Bears still 1-0 up, but knowing they had their goalkeeper to thank for the lead and that they needed to regain control of the game if they were to take the full three points. Despite the warning, however, it was Neath who scored next, a well worked attack finding an unmarked player at the far post to finally breach Penarth’s resistance and level the tie.
The equaliser, while unwanted, finally seemed to spur Penarth back into action and the lead was restored midway through the half, this time with Dave Stevens looping his penalty corner strike, somewhat fortuitously, over the prone goalkeeper. While not his best strike of the season, it may have been Stevens’ most important, edging Penarth back ahead in a game which could, at that point, still have gone either way.
The final quarter saw tempers fray, and the home side became increasingly physical, putting in several bad challenges which went unpunished. Penarth, meanwhile, kept their heads under provocation and didn’t react in kind, but continued to press for a goal to give themselves some breathing room. The decisive moment eventually came from Lane, who temporarily ease the Bears’ nerves by smashing home a volley from the top of the ‘D’ after good build-up work from Andy Strong and Rich Baker.
Now two goals down, Neath responded by pushing more men forward, determined to repeat the share of the spoils they had achieved against promotion-chasing Swansea City the week before. With the home side pinning Penarth into their own half, only some stout defending from centre backs Craig Llewellyn and Jamie Davison - plus a few more quality saves from Comfort - maintained the two-goal advantage but, with three minutes to go, Neath converted a well-worked penalty corner routine to make it 3-2 and ensure a tense finish.
The home side had one final chance to equalise, but Davison again made a crucial challenge at the penalty corner to see out the danger and ensure Penarth came away with the win which sees them retain the second promotion spot, confirming their place in a two-horse race that looks increasingly likely to come down to a final day ‘winner takes all’ fixture with remaining rival Bridgend.
Goalscorers: Dave Kidby, Dave Stevens, Phil Lane
PENARTH ‘B’ 4-2 Gwent ‘B’
The Thirds opened De Cymru 3 proceedings at Stanwell, hosting a Gwent side who they had lost to in the most recent reverse fixture a few weeks ago. Revenge for that defeat seemed on the cards from the start and, for the first 15 minutes or so, the Bears dominated possession and territory, creating half a dozen chances which were thwarted either by excellent saves from the Gwent ‘keeper or over-elaboration in the 'D'.
This profligacy was punished when, on their first significant piece of play, Gwent broke on the counter and scored through a fierce strike which gave goalkeeper Mark Harris no chance. Going a goal down seemed to sap Penarth of their confidence and control, and they only kept the deficit at one thanks to a series of excellent saves from Harris, but, following a very ragged 15-minute spell, the home side eventually restored parity, with skipper Dave Watkins levelling from a penalty corner to take the sides into the break on level terms.
A few tactical and positional changes during the interval seemed to galvanise the Penarth team, who then took control of the game. Rob Harrison steadied the ship in midfield, similarly Richard Skone in defence, which left Dave Thomas free to start a wave of Penarth attacks. It wasn't long before the home side started to win frequent penalty corners, the next of which ended with a Simon Wilkinson strike to make it 2 – 1.
With their tails up, Penarth continued to push forward at will, quickly resulting in a penalty flick which, despite being kept out by the Gwent ‘keeper, underlined Penarth’s growing dominance. Another short corner resulted in another penalty flick, this time was converted by Keir Vanner, and, while a rare Gwent attack brought the score back to 3-2 to set up for a nervous last ten minutes for the hosts, nerves were soon calmed by the award of yet another penalty, again dispatched by Vanner to confirm a deserved 4-2 win for the Bears.
Goalscorers: Keir Vanner (2 pens), Dave Watkins, Simon Wilkinson
PENARTH ‘C’ 2-3 Swansea City ‘C’
Despite their best endeavours, the ‘C-Siders’ were unable to make it four wins out of four for the club as they narrowly lost a fiercely-fought encounter with their Swansea City rivals.
The visitors hit the ground running and took an early lead from a well-worked penalty corner and, despite the wake-up call, the Penarth side seemed lethargic and lacklustre, even when creating several clear chances on the break. Buoyed by maintaining their clean sheet, Swansea went on to extend their lead by two further goals before the interval, leaving Penarth with a second half mountain to climb.
The second period, however, was a completely different affair, with the revitalised Penarth side forcing Swansea to defend deeper and deeper, with the ever-improving Rhys Meddins creating numerous chances that the excellent young Swansea ‘keeper had to be at his very best to keep out.
Despite intense pressure and numerous opportunities, the home side could only score two goals - through Richard Cousins and Marc Sawyer – before time expired, and the final 3-2 result meant that Swansea leapfrog over the Bears into fourth place in De Cymru 3. However, with two games remaining, and a game in hand on their Second City rivals, all is not lost for the ‘C-siders’ as they strive to complete their first full season in 20 years on a high note.
Goalscorers: Richard Cousins, Marc Sawyer
Updated 20:34 - 14 Mar 2017 by Craig Llewellyn
This Saturday sees all four Penarth sides in action once again, with the 1st XI beginning their Conference North celebrations against another illustrious hockey name as they host promotion-chasing Robinsons at Stanwell School (1.45pm start). The 2nd XI are on their travels once more with a late morning meeting with a tricky Swansea University side at King George V Field, leaving the Thirds and Fourths to stage the curtain-raiser at Stanwell as they play out their final 'El Classico' encounter of the season (noon start).