Cardiff & Met 6-2 PENARTH
The Firsts promotion to the GoCrea8 League Championship division for 2017-18 not only positioned them two steps from National League hockey, but also meant elevation to the highest tier of cup competition within the Principality and, despite having appeared in back-to-back Welsh Trophy finals in the last two seasons, all involved knew that this latest adventure would require another step up in performance.
Despite having qualified courtesy of their new-found league status, the Bears entered the semi-final stage as the outsider, their most recent promotion ranking them behind both Whitchurch and Championship rival Swansea University, as well as top seeded Cardiff & Met, who would provide the biggest hurdle to another Finals Weekend appearance for the men in green-and-white. Their opposition’s National League status – and their need to fulfil rearranged game obligations - also prevented the fixture from taking place alongside the other cup competition semi-finals, setting up a Thursday Night Lights encounter at the Welsh Institute of Sport at Sophia Gardens which, despite its unfavourable scheduling, still attracted a sizeable crowd to cheer on the combatants.
Although the Cardiff side was missing several key players due to Commonwealth Games commitments, they still presented the stiffest test of Penarth’s recent progress since last season’s trip to the Ukraine, and the early exchanges being played almost exclusively at the Vale side’s end of the pitch only served to confirm what the Bears were up against. Some resolute defending, led by captain Tom Haran, kept the favourites at bay, however, allowing Penarth to gradually find their feet and play their way into the game.
The resistance could not last forever, though, and, midway through the opening period, the inevitable breakthrough came for the Cardiff side, with a well-taken goal putting them into a deserved lead. The Bears, however, refused to buckle under unceasing pressure and again looked to hit Cardiff on the break, with Ben Croxall using the aerial ball to good effect as he sought out the pace of Chris Baker and Ollie Burland further up the field. Quickly switching the play from one end to the other allowed Penarth to create chances throughout the remainder of the opening quarters, although these largely came from penalty corners rather than open play, and were comfortably dealt with by the Cardiff defence.
Just as it appeared that the sides would go into the break separated by a single goal – due in no small part to a fantastic triple save from Penarth goalkeeper Scott Fulton-Brown and despite Penarth harshly being reduced to ten men – the Bears suffered the cruel blow of conceding a second right on the stroke of half-time, increasing the scale of the obstacle they were already looking to surmount in the second period.
Far from being dispirited by the strike, however, Penarth returned for the second half in fighting mood, determined to take the game to their opponents from the first whistle and enjoyed the better of the opening passages of play. While morale was clearly never in doubt, it received a definite boost when, minutes after the restart, the deficit was halved by a sweet strike from the right side of the Cardiff D by Croxall that took a kind, if unneeded, deflection at the far post, with Matthew Stollery waiting to pick up the pieces had the ball not already nestled high into the net.
Boosted by the breakthrough, Penarth continued to press forward in search of the equaliser and, even when undone by a quick penalty corner reply from Cardiff that made the score 3-1, hit back almost immediately when Croxall grabbed his second of the game. If anything, this was even better than his first, a reverse stick strike from the left of the D that had one spectator subsequently describing it on social media platforms as ‘UNSTOPPABLE in every country, every cup and against any goalkeeper in the world!’.
Buoyed by closing the gap for a second time, Penarth had their higher-ranked opponents rocking and, with Laith Khatib engineering possession in midfield, created openings that might have brought the scores level. Cardiff, however, weathered the storm and, with key decisions going their way, eventually returned pressure to the other end. There, despite the best efforts of the impressive Haran and Joe Thomas, they quickly demonstrated their clinical finishing touch to add a fourth and leave the Bears chasing the game into the closing quarter.
Again, Penarth gave as good as they got but, in having to throw caution to the wind in search of goals, left themselves open at the back. Allied to another brace of yellow cards, seemingly awarded with little in the way of provocation, the Bears ended the game with nine men and on the end of a 6-2 scoreline that no-one present could have accepted was representative of the true nature of the encounter.
The game was always going to be a great test of Penarth’s potential, but the entire team stepped up to the challenge, setting themselves up for next season, when they will face opposition of a similar calibre in the GoCrea8 Premiership. Knowing what lies ahead, and despite the small matter of one outstanding league fixture, the club is already making preparations to be stronger and fitter for 2018-19, with a big pre-season programme - including some overseas games - currently being put together.
Goalscorers: Ben Croxall (2)
Weather permitting, Penarth’s GoCrea8 League schedules should finally be completed this weekend, with the 3rd XI entertaining Bridgend at Stanwell (noon start) in their bid to secure third place in De Cymru 2. The Firsts, meanwhile, will bring the curtain down on their season with a belated trip to face City of Bath on Sunday as they look to end the year on a high.
Penarth Hockey Club always welcomes new, old and returning players, umpires, supporters, friends and helpers regardless of age and ability. Training resumes in September and will take place on Wednesdays at Stanwell School, with the juniors on the pitch between 6.15pm and 7.15pm and the seniors between 7.00pm and 8.15pm.
Updated 12:40 - 13 Apr 2018 by Richard Bromiley
Anyone interested in joining the club at senior or youth level can contact club secretary Dave Stevens (firstname.lastname@example.org) for further information.