The competitive portion of Penarth Hockey Club’s 2017-18 season got under way with the qualifying tournament for the Welsh Trophy in Swansea and, once again, the Bears caused the opposition to re-evaluate their potential for the year ahead.
Due to the fact that both Penarth’s 1st and 2nd XIs achieved promotion last season, it meant that the Seconds would be stepping up to the middle tier cup competition for the first time in its current format, but also meant that the Bears were the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, facing a difficult task if they were to progress at the expense of rivals competing several divisions above them.
With a full slate of friendlies for the club’s senior sides, and several regular squad members unavailable for selection, it meant a bare eleven travelled to Swansea with the aim of qualifying for the competition’s semi-finals but, despite leaving Penarth as potential lambs to the slaughter, the side – which would also face line-up changes throughout the day – performed like lions when the pressure was on.
Penarth’s first game saw them facing hosts Swansea City and, knowing that possession would be hard to come by, the Vale side adopted a suitably defensive formation. Despite the unfamiliar line-up, a superb rearguard effort from the Bears saw Scott Fulton-Brown breaking down Swansea play at every opportunity as the back four - marshalled by new captain Andy Strong - held firm for most of the first period. Despite seeing their resistance eventually undone by a penalty flick on the cusp of half-time, Penarth refused to be disheartened, and redoubled their efforts, holding firm through the second half held and even creating a few half-chances of their own, with lone striker Dave Watkins unlucky not to win a penalty corner with the most promising attack.
The game ended with Swansea running out 1-0 winners, but the scoreline remained a credit to Penarth’s outstanding defensive display – a repeat of which would be required in the team’s second group game against Cardiff & Met. As in their first outing, the Bears found themselves heavily under the cosh, but once again the back line produced a sublime performance. Extraordinary defence from Craig Walker and Craig Llewellyn kept most attacks at bay, and supreme exit strategy play from Sam Docherty and Tom Griffiths helped Penarth clear their lines at every opportunity. With Walker departing at half-time, the Bears were reduced to ten men, but the loss failed to trigger a second half collapse.
Although Penarth spent the majority of the period under constant duress, with goalkeeper Simon Comfort regularly called upon to preserve the clean sheet, the Bears’ made their only real spell of pressure count by grabbing the sole goal of the game. Chris McCarthy did well to win a penalty corner, which was dispatched by Sam Salisbury, flicking into the top corner after Dave Kidby’s initial effort was saved by the Cardiff ‘keeper.
The victory ensured that Penarth, against expectation, qualified for a play-off game against Bridgend and the third fixture – with its mid-afternoon start – led to further late absences in the Bears’ ranks. As a result, a somewhat makeshift XI featured a goalkeeper playing outfield, a striker playing his first hockey for 20 years and Matt Birch making a dash from Penarth complete the line-up on the stroke of the first whistle.
Once again, the final game saw Penarth facing 1st XI opposition from a higher division and, as anticipated, the Vale side had to absorb a considerable amount of pressure. Despite conceding a goal late in the opening period, Penarth again produced a composed defensive performance, while finding attacking outlets through young Dan Monroe and father Scott, playing their first game together in extraordinary circumstances. Buoyed by the belief that they could get something out of the game – and even steal a place in the semi-finals at the end of the season – Penarth continued to push forward, but the tactic, and a struggle for early season fitness through 120 minutes of hockey, eventually told as Bridgend rattled off three goals to finish on the right side of a flattering 4-0 scoreline.
Undaunted, and even encouraged, by the day’s events, the 2nd XI will now embark on their maiden campaign in De Cymru & The Marches 2 division of the GoCrea8 League.
Gwent ‘A’ 2-0 PENARTH ‘B’
The 3rd XI travelled to Cwmbran Stadium to take on Gwent in their final pre-season friendly with a team packed with youth and experience under the guidance of new captain and club stalwart James Davies.
The visitors started reasonably well, but it was Gwent who assumed control for much of the first half, eventually penetrated the Penarth defence and scoring two well-worked goals before the interval as they moved the ball far better than their guests and reaped the rewards.
Despite trailing, Penarth’s half-time team talk was constructive, and the second period performance showed massive promise as the Bears came out with a more attacking mentality and pressed the Gwent side back. The visitors moved the ball well through the defence and midfield, getting greater service to the forwards but, despite enjoying the majority of possession, were unable to find the breakthrough that could have changed the result. In the midst of a solid performance from the team as a whole, special mention goes to current 4th XI player of the year Rhys Meddins for an outstanding performance at right back.
PENARTH ‘C’ 1-1 Gwent ‘B’
Penarth’s ‘C-Siders faced Gwent ‘B’ at Stanwell to bring their pre-league preparation to a close and it is a measure of the optimism surrounding the team that the blend of veterans and youngsters came away disappointed with a 1-1 draw against a side only just pipped to promotion last season.
Building on their excellent performance from the previous week, Penarth dominated the first half, creating numerous chances which were only kept out by a combination of bad luck and excellent shot-stopping by the young Gwent ‘keeper.
Iwan Meddins featured prominently for the home side, utilising the space created by the mobile Zayn Zaman, Matt Birch and Joe Ramage. With siblings Tom Ramage and debutant Will Ramage secure in a defence well marshalled by Mark Robinson, and fellow veterans Richard Skone and Adam Morse solid in midfield, the Gwent side were limited to long, hopeful balls in to the D, which the Penarth defence and ‘keeper Luke Williams dealt with easily.
The start of the second half was also a case of deja vu, with the young Penarth side losing their shape at times and the Gwent side capitalising on the space that created. As a result, the visitors were able to take a 1-0 lead when an unmarked forward gave Williams little chance.
As in the previous week, Penarth were able to re-establish their early dominance, with Elys Johnson featuring more and more as confidence grew. It was the excellent Meddins, however, who capitalised on space created by the ever-willing Zaman - in a performance that earned him the Man-of-the-Match award - to feed a rampaging James Davies, who finished powerfully from the right-hand side of the D.
Penarth continued to dominate for the remainder of the game, but were forced to settle for a 1-1 draw – a result that will be reflected upon as they face a weekend of rest before kicking off their league campaign on 7 October.
Updated 09:57 - 18 Dec 2017 by Richard Bromiley
The two senior Penarth sides will be in action as the GoCrea8 League season gets underway this weekend, with the 1st XI returning to fortress Stanwell to take on North Somerset (1.45pm start), while the Seconds continue their road trip with a first competitive game ‘over the bridge’ as they face Lansdown in Gloucestershire.