Once again, weather had played its part in ensuring that the majority of park football fixtures would fall victim to the wet conditions. However, with Willingdon’s new pavilion not quite ready to host a Mid-Sussex Premier League fixture, were resorted to finding alternative facilities. Fortunately, the backup was on 3G, which generally holds up well in the rain, so this week, Slade and its faithful followers made their way to Eastbourne looking to continue on their progressive league form.
Willingdon, ever present to Slade, with the reserves already falling short to their 3rd team in the cup earlier in the season have so far had an above average season, especially in comparison to their runner up performance last year. Lying in fifth position, but on a good run of form as of late, picking up four wins and a draw in the last six games. Slade themselves had to pick themselves up from a lacklustre performance last week falling 4-1 to Championship Copthorne in the cup, but a resurgence in league form with a last minute Neto winner against second placed Balcombe, and fighting back from 2-0 down against fellow strugglers Rotherfield to gain a draw gave us encouragement for the match ahead.
As has been the pattern in recent weeks, it has been a challenge to get games ahead and teams out, which is making hard work for both team managers, but with the reserves game being called off for a waterlogged pitch, first team manager had his pick of a full squad of players. Big Bear Westgate looks like he might be over his injury problems now, as he wears the gloves for the second consecutive game. A welcome sight, not only because of his new slim physique and his sharp haircut, but for his experience and presence between the sticks. Slade keep with the three man defence with Neil ‘Bison’ Shelly marshalling, supported by captain Dan Rahaman and last year’s players player Adam Steele. The team were very pleased to welcome back Sean Trend, fresh after his engagement (congratulations!) joined by second team stalwarts Matt Hornsby and Jon Stubbs. Ben Mason makes his first team debut as left wing back, and Harry Smith continuing in his yo-yo form as right wing back. Slade opt for two up top, which is somewhat contrary to the usual Norris way, as Steve Mould is joined by the returning John Boddy after being away the last two fixtures. A strong bench of utility man Ben Graves, 4-goal hero from last week Andre Neto, and everyone’s favourite mad dog, Marc Sutton.
The games kick off was moved to 1pm to accommodate the hosts booking, but meant that the days footballing endeavours would be done and dusted earlier than normal. The lads took on a warm up on the mud before migrating to the playing surface just before kick-off, but spirits high, it looked like the group was up for today’s challenge. Before the game, Norris instructed the players to really get up for today. Last week was uncharacteristically poor, although at times putting together some of the best spells of football this season. The back three needed to stay close together, as was the same for the midfield three. Do not give the opposition the luxury of space all-round the pitch and squeeze them. On the other side, the strike paid had to work together and be clever about how they operated. If one comes to the ball, the other has to stretch the back line.
From the games I have watched this season, the team has been a little suspect of starting slowly, and today was unfortunately not too different. From the kick off, Willingdon were on the half press, forcing early mistakes, which was putting a fair amount of pressure on the back three. Fortunately, in Bison, Rahaman and Steele, you have a very competent trio, who were managing the situation very well. The ball was however coming back with too much regularity, as midfield were struggling to take control of the game, and Willingdon looking to stretch the defensive line. At the other end of the pitch, attacks were a little too sporadic and unthreatening, as Mould and Boddy were really struggling to impose themselves on the opposition defence. Willingdon were to make the breakthrough midway through the half, as a ball into the right hand channel was picked up by the pacey winger, and as he got a yard on Steele fired into the roof of the net from a tight angle whilst on the run. GOAL 0-1.
Despite being relatively comfortable in the game, the number of times Willingdon threatened the Westgate goal was infrequent, so to some degree the goal a bit of a sucker punch. Slade did respond to going behind, and did start to develop some pressure into the Willingdon half, but the final ball or shot was just not coming off. Boddy was drawing fouls in key positions, but free-kicks from Trend and Boddy were failing to threaten the Willingdon goal. The hosts were forced into some desperate defending at time, on one occassion with Mould sending a less than athletic overhead kick just over the crossbar around the half hour mark. With the game approaching the half way point, the game became a little stretched as Slade almost found an equaliser. The second phase of a corner was picked up by Hornsby, finding a yard of space on his unfavoured right foot, firing a shot towards the far corner, where Mould almost was able to flick through his legs, only for the keeper to make a good stop on the line. Just before the half came to a close Mason, who worked tirelessly on the left hand side throughout the half, found his range with a cross-field raking pass to Boddy on the far right side, whose shot was deflected wide for a corner. A few corners for either side came to nothing, and both teams head in for orange slices and Jaffa’s for a half time breather. HT 0-1.
Truth be told, it was not a bad half of football, and at 1-0, still very much in the game. Of course there was still plenty of constructive discussion had. The midfield unit was being stretched across the pitch which was making it a little too easy to play through. There was also on occasion a bit of panic in the play, or trying to do too much than play the low risk pass, which saw pressure just coming back onto the defence. Boddy was guilty of holding on to the ball in key areas a little more than he should of when passing options were on. A fast start could bring us back in the game, and an early goal would give us the platform for victory. Unfortunately wind and rain swept into the area, which to some degree reflected the opening 10 minutes of the second half too.
The opening 5 minutes of the second period much reflected the opening 5-10 minutes of the first half, a little on the back foot, and a little slow out of the blocks. Much of the early pressure was coming down the middle or the right hand side. A dubious free kick was awarded on the Willingdon right, and as the ball was floated towards the back post, an unmarked Willingdon player was able to head home almost unopposed. GOAL 0-2. Worst possible start to the half, which was only compounded as two goals in 5 minutes ultimately took the game away from the visitors. Another cross to the back post from the Willingdon right was to find another unmarked player, but this time Westgate was able to demonstrate the reflexes of a cat to get across his goal and make an acrobatic save. Unfortunately the ball could only be parried to a free Willingdon forward player headed home for a tap in. GOAL 0-3.
Any real ambitions to get back in the game at half time were dealt a crippling blow within the first 10 minutes of the half, and any hard work ultimately undone by a couple of sloppy goals. In general play, the passages were relatively even, with both teams turning over possession regularly, with Slade finding lots of space on the flanks, in particularly the right hand side, but making the space count for good chances was still a real challenge. Norris decided quite early to throw caution to the wind, which almost paid immediate dividends. Both wing backs made way for Neto and Graves, with the former heading up front with Mould, while Boddy dropped into midfield and Hornsby slotting in at left wing back. Graves was a straight swap for Smith. It felt that the tempo of the team was re-invigorated with both Neto and Graves getting stuck in early. Also, with the deficit at three, there was nothing to lose, and gamble a little more. The visitors immediately hit back, with a goal which very much had a reserves feel to it. The ball was delivered into the Willingdon box from the right hand side, but after a couple of lucky ricochets, the ball fell to Stubbs. The midfielder steadied himself, and struck firmly goalward, only for the keeper to make a smart stop down to his right. What the keeper didn’t account for was the fox in the box, Matt Hornsby who read the play well to turn in from a yard at the back post. GOAL 1-3!
All of a sudden Slade it seemed had the bit between their teeth and that look in their eyes when they fancy another dramatic fightback. Willingdon, a team who were relatively comfortable for large portions of the game started to look a little uneasy. The game had become a lot more open, which was perhaps playing more so to the visitors, as playing through the organised and compact Willingdon was somewhat problematic. The Slade fightback was almost dealt another blow as Willingdon had the ball in the net again, only for it to be flagged off for offside. The Willingdon striker slotted home from the ball striking the post, but drifted a yard offside on the original strike, and remained active. Unfortunately, as the game drifted towards the latter stages, and Slade still lacking the cutting edge in the final third, the three-goal margin was re-gained. Slade were applying pressure, but Willingdon were defending in numbers and admirably, and a lack of control and composure in key areas. As Slade were pushing forward, it did leave us a little exposed, and as a ball was speculatively played forward to the lone striker, it seemed as though Steele and Rahaman would take care of things will little concern, but a mix up and a bit of discoordination meant that Willingdon striker would race away with the ball, before finishing expertly past the despairing Westgate. GOAL 1-4.
Truth be told, Slade never ever dropped their heads, and continued to work very hard to get more goals. They went about their business as if they were chasing a winner, which received commendation from the Willingdon faithful on the side of the pitch. Their endeavour was rewarded with about 10 minutes left on the clock as a corner from the right hand side which took a flick off Stubbs, before dropping into the path of Neto. Neto needed little invitation to swivel on the spot, and striker with his left foot and into the goal, aided by a significant deflection. GOAL 2-4!
His second goal for the firsts this season, and his 10th for the club. Slade continued to push forward in a hope they could close the deficit further, and Willingdon still offering a threat the other way, but the score was to remain unchanged. In the end, Willingdon slowed the game down, stretched the pitch where possible, and managed to see the game out, collecting all three points. In the end, Slade were punished for some sloppy goals and a 10 minute spell which significantly reduced our chances of a positive score. One thing I will commend the group on though was endeavour and attitude. Heads never dropped, the team never stopped fighting for one another, and providing we can cut out this silly mistakes, then the results will come.
Man of the match today, where there was shout outs for Bison, as solid and composed as ever, Paul Westgate who pulled off a string of fine stops, but this week is awarded to Sean Trend. His work rate was second to none, and making through 90 minutes unscathed is a bonus for all. In the week his missus accepted his proposal of marriage, he can now also place a bottle of Portslade’s finest bubbly to the mantelpiece of his mansion.
Slade hope to return to The Theatre of Wet Dreams™ next weekend, weather permitting, as they take on second placed Cuckfield Rangers in league action. Another upset on the cards? I think so! Just ask Balcombe. The reserves are hopefully back in action, again at home, as they take on Ifield. Remember, training is on as the per usual, Wednesday evening, start at 7:30pm at Blatchington Mill School, just next to Neville Rec. I know it is wet and windy out, but you don’t get better without the hard graft on training! Look forward to seeing you all there.