Slade squeezed out on season opener
First game of the season ends in defeat, but loads of light at the end of the tunnel
When you’re a kid growing up, September was a significant part of the year, which usually meant the start of school was just round the corner. Now we’re all grown up (except maybe for Patryk), September now indicates the start of the Park football season! It’s no different here, as Portslade Athletic started the 2018/19 season full of change and optimism. Slade were pleased to welcome Ansty to The Theatre of Wet Dreams MkII.
But the start of a new season not does happen all by itself, and as if all by magic we all start kicking a football around on the 1st September. Much work has been going on in the background throughout the summer which has almost transformed the club as it was seen at the back end of last season. The 2017/18 season closed off with a series of heavy defeats, a club which was looking a little out of love with football. With the uphill task of a first team without a manager, a home ground with a worrying degree of maintenance, and a squad becoming disillusioned with our beautiful game.
As we stepped away from 2017/18 season and stepped almost immediately into the 2018/19 season, the club’s committee got straight to work. With the stepping down of Paul Norris, a mainstay of first team management over the last 4-5 years, step forward first team coach Jack Larkham. Despite taking on the responsibilities of a new baby arriving over the summer, was enthusiastic enough to take on a step up from coaching to managing the first team full time. From the start of pre-season, Jack has implemented a clear philosophy, which has seen a significant improvement on shape and defensive integrity.
Next? Despite spending 69 years at Victoria Rec, the decline in conditions over the last three years, which generally saw us turn up to the opening game of the season with the grass not cut, lines missing, or tiles falling off the walls, it was time to draw a line. Slade took little time in contacting local boys, Soutwick FC who were one of the few clubs in the local area to rival a rich history, such as our own, and set out a partnership which would see Slade playing their home games at the County standard surroundings of Old Barn Way.
I think a new season full of optimism wouldn’t be complete without some new match day apparel. With some help from our latest clubman, Mark Sanders, the club was able to secure new sponsors and get a new kit ordered. The new sponsors, who we will be able to fully thank on arrival of the new kit, are Magic Man, a company who specialise in surface restoration and kitchen renovation. We should expect to receive the new kit in the next 2-3 weeks. Keep your eyes peeled.
Finally, and by no means least, all these niceties are not worth squat, unless you have a squad of players to back it all up. With the eventual retirement of Sean Trend after a season of travelling from London, the transfer of Paul Westgate and Darren Tai to local rivals Montpellier, the transfer of Daniel Garcia and Liam Reyland to new partners Southwick FC, Slade were in desperate need to not only bolster a limited squad, but really to inject some much needed youth. This has started with 11 new signings, with an average age of 22. Great start, but by no means the end of our recruitment ambitions.
Without further ado, onto today’s game. Ansty are not familiar opposition to the first team, but were a team which stood in the way to the reserves achieving second place in Division five in the 2015/16 season. Ansty’s first team have been long term residents of Division one, and have more often than not been mid-table finishers. With the number of new faces, how did Slade line up today? Well with the big blow of losing the best keeper in the clubs history, Paul Westgate, the club was lucky enough to welcome ex-semi pro Greek player, Michael Pantelis, at the green age of 49. Manager Larkham had opted to go with a 4-2-3-1 approach with last season’s captain Dan Rahaman, joined by new signing Dan Munro as the centre back partnership. Familiar and reliable full backs were in the shape of clubman Mark Sanders, and Smith Cup winner Ben Graves. Old boy Neil ‘Bison’ Shelley was joined by some more young blood in the shape of the talented Joe Pickles in the anchor midfield roles. The men in front of this defensive unit included 16-year old Patryk Popczyk on the right who’d shown strength and composure which belies his years, Nick Samuels on the right, who’s composure sometimes belies his years in the complete opposite way, and Tamil Tiger Kavian Kulasabanathan who had shown glimpses of brilliance in the games leading up to the season. The lone striker role, in the absence of Steve Mould was Charlie Brown, who’s enthusiasm and industry which epitomises everything this club stands for. On the bench, 19-year olds Adrian Bajka and Sol Coghlan joined by the returning Jordan Nicholls after a season away from the club.
With the club as defensively tight as a second hand colander at the back end of last season, the players had been set up to ensure players behind the ball to protect the goal, and use the pace and enthusiasm of the front four to punch holes in the opposition. Some may say that it is not the most aesthetically pleasing style, but my goodness is it effective. Larkham barking instructions from the side of the pitch, ensuring that young team are organised, and well positioned to frustrate and suffocate the opposition. This was proving to be a very effective ploy, as the visitors were reduced to probing long balls which were picked up by the watchful defence and turned back the other way. Play going the other way was a little intermittent, and possession a little wasteful, which was making the threat onto the opposite goal a little restricted. With the first half looking like it would play out to a 0-0 at the break, the visitors got the decisive breakthrough. A ball from midfield was playing into Slade’s right hand channel, in between Graves and Rahaman, but it seemed that the striker would be squeezed out, as he had been numerous times before in the half, but he managed to find a yard of space, a small sight of goal, and squeeze a shot low to the keeper’s right, nick off the inside of the post and into the goal. GOAL 0-1.
Perhaps a little unfair as the Slade goal had remained largely unthreatened up until that moment, with the shape thoroughly restricting proximity to the goal. However, Slade did have an excellent opportunity to strike back almost immediately. Another excellent run from Popcyk on the right hand side, after ‘Bison’ picks him out with a raking pass. Popcyk getting the run on his defending and sending an excellent cross across the 6-yard box, picking out Brown who made himself a yard of space. With time for the ball to bounce, and sit up nicely for the half volley, and only the keeper to beat, his feet were glued to the floor, as he could only poke the ball wide. Let off for the visitors, and they sneak into half time 1-0 ahead.
A bit of a game where each team essentially cancelled each other out, but with Ansty gaining the advantage, Slade would have to think of how we would get ourselves back into the game, and ultimately back into the points. Unfortunately the home side had been hit with an immediate set back as the Slade number 10, Kavian, had suffered an elbow injury, which was later reported as a dislocated elbow. Ouchie. Coghlan comes into make his debut, heading over to the left hand side, with Samuels coming in a more central position to support Brown. From the kick off, there was immediately more intent from the home side, who were being more adventurous, with much of the excellent work coming down the Slade right through Popcyk, who was causing Ansty all kinds of problems with his positive running. Slade were hit with a second set back as goalkeeper Pantelis was hit with a recurrence of the thigh injury sustained in pre-season friendly two weeks ago. Fortunately, we found ourselves an unlikely hero to step into the fold in Adrian Bajka. Bajka diminutive in stature, and not necessarily the first person you would think of to stand in, but with excellent composure, excellent set of hands, and quick off his line, we could well have found an understudy who can step in to fill the void whilst the veteran Pantelis recovers.
As the game went on, there was an increasing sense of urgency, with Slade looking to get the ball forward with some purpose. On the opposite side, Ansty were looking to slow the game down at all costs. Either that being through the keeper hanging onto the ball as long as possible, or sending the match balls into the stratosphere (or into Mrs Jones garden). ‘Bison’ was a one man battering ram in the middle of midfield as Pickles pushed on to help support the attack. ‘Bison’ regularly breaking up play, prancing through two or three challenges like a Ronaldinho in his prime, and then pinging a 60 yard pass into the channels for the Slade wingers. In fact it would be via the Slade right channel that most of the luck was coming through, again through the engaging runs of Popcyk. However, it would not be all Slade’s way, as Ansty themselves were looking to push into the Slade half against the run of play whilst the home side were pursuing an equaliser. The visitors got themselves into two very good positions, but the young Pole was equal to their efforts, with one point blank save from close range, and one acrobatically diving save to his right, to palm out a good effort.
Unfortunately despite Slade’s best efforts, the home side were unable to get past a dogged Ansty defence, and when we did get behind, the final ball was lacking just that bit of quality. The end result, a tightly fought 1-0 defeat, but as far as new season openers, there was certainly lots to be positive about, and lots more to come too. Not to mention a number of key players still missing, with Mould out with chicken pox, Andre Neto away in Portugal, new signing Blu Pannell-Hughes only come back from holiday earlier that morning, and Ingham spending the afternoon carrying a baby around. Throw into the equation that a number of players in this squad either have not played much adult football, or been away for a little bit of time only coming back this season.
That being said, lots of excellent performances from debutants, not only for excellent performances themselves, but also because of excellent attitude and commitment. Patryk Popcyk with his excellent running of the wing, never giving up on any lost causes. The step in goalkeeper, Adrian Bajka, who acquitted himself excellently throughout, not only showing excellent handling and concentration, but also excellent attitude to an unfamiliar position. Finally Dan Munro, out of the 11-side scene for a little while, getting his opportunity, grabbing it with both hands, showing defiance and commitment to the cause. However, this week’s man of the match is awarded to one of the old guard in Neil ‘Bison’ Shelley. Not only an excellent performance in the first half, but taking on more responsibility in the defensive third in the second period to ensure that Slade could push on in search of an equaliser, and a couple of customary, yet cheeky nut megs to boot.
Next week Slade are on their travels to Ardingly, who opened their season with a 3-2 defeat at home to AFC Acorns. If you find yourself out of the squad at the moment, or you’re desperate to make a claim for yourself as a starter, training is on as usual, Wednesday, 18:30 at Victoria Rec in Portslade. Don't you dare miss it!
Fantasy Football Watch – With a season ending offer of free beer from the chairman, we’ll be keeping a close eye on those who are in contention, and those making a late dash to get on the prizes! At the moment, Charlie Joergensen, formerly of Portslade leads the way, with a lead of only 2 points ahead of Smith Trophy winner Ben Graves. Matt Whittaker, Regan Rider and Charlie Brown make up the chasing pack on 203-204 points. But with the international break coming in, might be a perfect opportunity to contemplate your wild card! If you're not yet involved, and you wish to, please don't hesitate to ask for the league code.
See you all on Wednesday.