A pride of bears might not be colloqiually correct, but it certainly summed up Penarth Hockey Club as its maiden foray into international competition came to a close at the EuroHockey Club Challenge in the Ukraine.
Three defeats in the group stage left the Vale team facing off against Danish side Slagelse HockeyKlub in the first of the tournament’s play-off games, with an 8.30am start doing little to ease the soaring temperatures the weekend’s matches have been played in. There was still much to play for for the Bears, not least the fate of Welsh teams in next year’s European season, but above all the desire to come away with a result that befitted their own performances was the primary aim.
Taking the opening pushback, Penarth started brightly, returning to the sort of confidence that marked their earlier encounter with Croatian side Zelina, and their belief was rewarded after a series of Sam Dunstan-inspired near misses when the same player fed Andrew Willemite from a ninth-minute penalty corner. With one goal already on his European résumé, the young forward made no mistake from close range to put Penarth into their first lead of the tournament.
It looked for a moment that the Bears had extended their lead, only for another penalty corner chance to be ruled out for height, but Penarth continued to hold the upper hand through the first period, with Slagelse only getting brief glimpses of the Welsh goal – and finding Simon Comfort in good form between the sticks when they did.
Dunstan continued to create chances, with two going begging before Phil Lane was denied, but the inability to extend their advantage soon came back to haunt the Bears, with Slagelse finally breaching Comfort’s defences with seconds remaining in the quarter. Buoyed by their late success, the Danes almost had another before the hooter, flooding the D on a penalty corner only see the final shot saved.
Penarth started the second quarter as they had finished the first but, once a couple of opportunities had again been squandered, the Danes looked to have put the game firmly in their own pocket, with three quick strikes. The first seemed to stem from a blatant case of blocking at the top of the Penarth D, but play was allowed to continue and took the lead with a shot from the right of the area. The Bears could probably count themselves unlucky just minutes later when a green stick appeared to get the last touch on a hopeful ball into the 23, but the umpires decided, after conferring, that the ‘goal’ should stand. Slagelse continued to dominate, often overwhelming the Penarth defence and, on occasion, forcing Sam Williamson into a double stop behind Comfort as they dealt with multiple Danish marauders.
There was only brief respite for the Welsh side before Slagelse came knocking again and, despite the combined efforts of Joe Thomas and Comfort to deny consecutive penalty corner attempts, the Danes reacted quickest to the loose ball to take a comfortable 4-1 lead. They had the ball in the net again before half-time but, this time, the strike was ruled out and the Bears could retire to the locker room knowing that they only had to chase a three-goal deficit.
Whatever was said during the interval, Penarth came out roaring in the second half, reverting to the sort of possession and pressure that characterised the opening period. A green card for Joyce and another tricky moment for Comfort aside, the Bears regained the upper hand – and quickly gave the growing crowd something to get excited about. Having gone close through Willemite, Joyce’s return to the fray coincided with a drive into the Danish D that resulted in Jack Jopson firing home a goal that his efforts all weekend surely deserved.
That seemed to inspire Penarth to even greater exertions and, within three minutes, Joyce had latched onto a Thomas through ball – gained as he robbed a dithering Danish defender - to round the last man and rifle home beyond the helpless Slagelse ‘keeper. The Bears continued to throw everything at the Danish goal, having an appeal for feet in the D waved away and seeing a typically mazy Chris Baker dribble resulting in a melee and free hit for Slagelse. Frustrated but undaunted, the green tide continued to pour forward, and was eventually rewarded when Jon Lewis found a gap in the defence to bring the sides level at four apiece.
There were further opportunities as Slagelse attempted to weather the storm, but Penarth could not capitalise on their momentum, allowing the Danes to wrest the initiative back, taking the ball downfield and converting from a set-piece to reclaim their lead with a minute left in the third period.
The final quarter began with Slagelse going a man down for time-wasting and Penarth again peppering their goal with efforts to equalise. Each time, either the goalkeeper or a covering defender seemed to deny the Bears at the last and, with time fast running out, the Welsh side knew that something different was needed. Following an exchange of penalty corners that failed to produce any addition to the score, Penarth decided to withdraw Comfort in favour of a kicking back, with captain Haran the man to don the bib with three minutes on the clock.
The move initially proved fruitful as the Bears won a penalty corner but, when it went unconverted, the writing was on the wall. Sure enough, with just over 60secs remaining, Haran was confronted with a 2-on-1 situation that presented the Danes with a simple tap-in to complete the scoring and break the Bears’ hearts.
Once again, as in each of their four matches in the Ukraine, the scoreline did not accurately reflect Penarth’s part in the game and, just as it should have against Zelina, a draw would probably have been a fair result. Instead, the Bears will reflect on a steep learning experience that exposed weaknesses, showed strengths but, above all, demonstrated what Penarth hockey is all about.
“Each game played in the right spirit and with a great deal of pride in the green shirt,” player-coach Ben Croxall concluded, “Without doubt, every single player in the squad improved over the course of the weekend, and will be able to take that improvement into next season. This was a definite step up in the level of hockey we have faced at home, but we reacted positively. There will be more of this ahead for Penarth Hockey Club and, when it happens, we will undoubtedly be ready.”
Updated 10:15 - 5 Jun 2017 by Craig Llewellyn
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