Written by Stefan Taylor (1XI coach)
When I was asked by our chairman to write a blog about our season & how we gained promotion to National League, I was a little daunted by the prospect. Not just because the request came only a few hours after the celebrations had finished & I was struggling to string a sentence together, but also knew it was going to be extremely difficult trying to encapsulate everything that was involved in achieving our success.
Going back to before the start of the season & hearing England Hockey’s plans to restructure the league system, meaning 4 teams from East Prem A would gain promotion to national league, was a huge opportunity for Men’s 1XI but timing wasn’t ideal - 4 senior players were leaving the club, and we don’t have the financial resources other clubs in our division do, to pay new recruits to play for them - so as our competitors strengthened their squads, we had to build from within and draw on old friends.
There was a real buzz at the first preseason fitness session in July (which was surprising considering they knew what was in store) with a great turnout, as players were eager to be in shape to compete for a starting place when the league started in September.
The guys continued to impress at the various tournaments they attended, and when the league got underway we stormed out with 3 back to back wins, and things were looking good...but then it all changed, first a heavy loss to St Albans who showed why it's so important to be clinical in front of goal, and then two further defeats against promotion chasing rivals put us on the back foot. We bounced back with a much needed win and clean sheet against Cambridge Uni, but a disappointing loss against another of our rivals in the final game before the Christmas break saw us well off that coveted 4th spot - down in 7th place and a distant 6 points behind the pack for promotion.
Credit has to go to the squad at this point; lesser players would have faltered - questioned themselves, each other, the tactics...or even the coach! But they returned to training as positive as ever, and confident their qualities can overcome the deficit as we came in to the business end of the season.
The first game we came up against one of our promotion rivals St Albans, was the first glimpse of how the tide was changing - disappointment of a draw was overshadowed by the positives of such a dominant performance. A side that exploited our weaknesses before Christmas, were put under such intense pressure that they celebrated that point as a win.
Positives could even be taken in defeat to eventual champions Wapping, where again conversion of our chances could have seen quite a different outcome. But the loss meant any more dropped points would likely see us miss out on that promotion spot for another year!
Next up West Herts, sitting in that coveted 4th spot - a game we must win, and win we did, the 2-1 score line did not do justice to another commanding performance but the way the boys closed out the game in the final few minutes would be something they could draw on for future games...experience that would be needed. But still, we were 7th with 6 games to go.
The next major test would be a visit from Harleston Magpies, who were on a run of 15 wins in their last 16 games, and showing form that would be worthy of league champions. I'd have preferred different opposition at this stage of the season!
We knew that we would have to pose them questions that they may not have come up against before, so we adjusted how we played...and the boys played it to perfection! Even going behind 3 times in the game didn't change their attitude, levelling each time before getting that decisive lead with 5 minutes to go and holding firm until the final whistle! Could a game get more exciting, with more riding on it than this...
Err, yes! Next a trip to Chelmsford and on the back of last weeks performance, momentum should be on our side. But going in 2-0 at half time wasn't part of the plan and maybe nerves were finally starting to show. Again lesser sides may have not trusted their ability, but these boys fought back strongly and went 3-2 up with 10 minutes to spare...job done right? Wrong, a rare mistake at the back saw Chelmsford score with a minute left on the clock...vital points dropped? Wrong again!! We get a short corner on the final whistle and put away the chance for that winning goal, and bring about wild celebrations!
The run of wins, and the teams around us faltering, saw us leapfrog our rivals taking 4th and leaving Cambridge Uni as our only real challengers with 2 games to go. And who was up next? Cambridge University, who had to avoid defeat knowing they had a game in hand and superior goal difference - we just had to win - and both sides knew exactly what was riding on it.
Once again we found ourselves 2-0 down at half time, but I believe that the experiences of the previous weeks really counted for a lot at this moment. There was a calmness amongst the squad and sheer determination that we could overcome this deficit. Quickly 2-0 became 2-2 but Cambridge were always a threat going forward and got a 3rd to go 3-2 up. We fired back shortly after, and made the score 3-3 with 20 minutes still to go. We now had the initiative and began to lay siege at heir goal, but Cambridge still had the ability to hit on the counter. After no change in the score after a further 15minutes of play and time slipping by, nerves were rising, it looked like the chance to get the vital winning goal was running out. With the draw not enough, we had to make the call - take off our goalkeeper and replace him with a forward - all, or nothing time!!
The clock continued to wind down with us no closer to getting that vital goal; then 70 seconds from full time it happens - a ball played into the D, forward finds space and gets that vital touch to deflect it past the keeper - ecstasy!!
70 seconds to hold out - we put our keeper back on, they take theirs off - but we do it, the final whistle goes for a 4-3 win and the sense of achievement was at the forefront of the celebrations as we now promotion was back in our hands, we just had to win our last game.
So Cambridge City were the opponents, and despite some hairy moments (and a crowd of students intent on putting us off our game) we came through with a 4-1 win, sealing promotion and ensuring National League hockey for next season.
The way they ended this campaign highlighted that promotion was something that these boys thoroughly deserved, they won their last 7 games in a row which included 3 of their promotion rivals, and an even greater achievement was that no other team in the league scored more points in 2019. So when the pressure is on, these lads stand up to be counted in order to achieve their goals.
You may have spotted I've tried to avoid mentioning names in this blog, as I felt mentioning one name would mean I would need to mention them all as each and every person connected with the 1s squad had a hand in the achievement on promotion either directly or indirectly, and missing one name would be unjust. 27 players were involved in the 1s squad this season and each one can feel they had a part in this, plus every other player involved in the 40 strong performance squad who made for competitive training sessions week after week. The coaching team that organise and run the sessions, not to mention the work they do on a Saturday. The support received each and every Saturday, does not go unnoticed & the bigger the crowd the better we played...it meant a lot! Then there are the guys behind the scenes that do those little things, helping to provide the right environment for the boys to succeed...every little positive action is a step towards success.
I must also mention the junior coaching set up, as we had 3 players who are U18 and were a vital part of our playing squad. I'm always looking to challenge these young lads to push themselves beyond what they think is possible, not only because they will surprise themselves, but also am safe in the knowledge that the rest of the players are just as desperate to see them succeed. Bedford's junior section is stronger than I have ever seen it, and I already have my eye on future men's 1XI players...but can't wait to see the next group come through. It's because of our junior set up, I know Bedford HC is in the best place it has ever been.
I'm proud to say I'm part of Bedford HC and believe having the men's 1XI in the National League is only going to make the club stronger.
Men’s 1st Team Coach