So the morning after the night before…
Well the club has now been without its second team for a few weeks, but the aftermath was always going to have a really gutting sensation. After much soul searching, the club withdrew the reserves from the league after the challenge of getting two teams reached unprecedented levels. Despite the negative outcome of the withdrawal, the club had an opportunity to be re-born, pack the match day squad with players that love the club and play with their heart on the Portslade sleeve, and most importantly get back to winning ways.
Truth be told, propping up the bottom of the table is always an indicator that things have just not hit the right notes, and the worst winter in recent memory meant that irrespective of the clubs best intentions, putting together some winning form was always going to be on the tough side. That being said, this club is full of footballing talent, buckets of spirit, and at times put some excellent displays on pitch. The problem is, in a league like the Mid-Sussex Premier League, there is no such thing as an easy game, and every week you have to be really on your game, or you could be walking away with your tail between your legs. Today, Slade made the very challenging trip to Cuckfield, as they take on high flying Cuckfield Rangers.
Cuckfield Rangers prior to this game had been on an impressive run of form which saw them win their previous 9 games, which included a 5-2 win over Slade a little over a month ago at Buckingham Park. With the best attack and defence, and Slade themselves only managing to find the back of the net 20 times in 16 league games, Slade needed to find someone to grab hold of the initiative and take the game to our illustrious opposition. Step forward Liam Reyland.
Spending much of the last few seasons trying to re-invent himself as a left back, using his excellent straight line (and sometimes backwards) speed to nullify the threat from the opposition wingers, whilst using the work rate of a Japanese beaver making him an effective player on the counter attack. That said, Reyland’s aspiration to player at the sharp end of the formation never subsided and any opportunity to don the number 9 shirt would no doubt be grabbed with both hands. With the pick of a 25 strong squad, Slade were able to choose not only a strong starting XI, but a strong squad of 14, albeit with an average age of around 57. Big Bear Westgate continued in between the sticks off the back of goalkeeping clean sheet / hatrick in the most recent inter-club game, clocking up his 300th game in Portslade colours. Slade continued to operate with a back three with the welcome sight of a returning of Kevin Bradburn, flanked by Captain Dan Rahaman and Adam Steele. Ben Graves was given an outfield opportunity in right wing back in the absence of Harry Smith, and Jack Larkham at left wing back. A strong midfield three of natural anchor Neil ‘Bison’ Shelley supported by the dynamic duo of Sean Trend and Spaniard Daniel Garcia. Matt ‘super-sperm’ Hornsby was given the freedom of Cuckfield, supporting Liam El Rey up top, today wearing the most expensive boots in park football. A strong bench made up of Jon Stubbs, Nick Samuels and Daz Tai.
After the weather had once again played its part in the submission of numerous fixtures over the weekend, and the league offering a financial reprieve to hire alternative facilities, today’s hosts moved this fixture to Warden Park Academy, which boasted a great 4G playing surface. With the excellent surface, and the personal on show for today’s game, there really was no excuse. With little over 9 games to go, manager Paul Norris challenged the squad to start their push for a strong end of season here, and to go out there with the determination and application which has been expected all season. Slade did not disappoint from the kick off as their intelligent pressing, organisation, and protection of the ball was not making an easy afternoon for the hosts. The presence of Bradburn, back in the heart of the defence, was immediately evident, bringing an air of control. Despite the game being in very much in the balance, it was also a very scrappy affair. The midfield three were industrious off the ball, but struggling to make inroads with it. Reyland was doing his bit up top utilising his engine and endeavour to make possession for the back four as uncomfortable as possible. Graves almost made an early breakthrough from out of nowhere, as a rash clearance by the erratic Cuckfield goalkeeper found its way to the utility man. With a good first touch, from the right hand side of the goal, the wing back could only lift the ball onto the upper side of the crossbar. Chances did not stop there though as Slade were keen to make the most of the Cuckfield high line, and well placed and well timed balls into the space behind pushed them right back into their own half. There was a moment when we thought Trend might have made an outrageous breakthrough, but after his well-timed run, could only send his overhead kick tamely into the keeper’s hands. Unfortunately the visitors were dealt an early blow as Larkham was hit with a bruised rib after a heavy fall. Stubbs entered the fray, with Hornsby dropping to left wing back, and Stubbs taking up the supporting role up front. Truth be told, this allowed Slade continue their control, but whilst imposing a different challenge onto the hosts. Stubbs, as we all know, knows how to handle himself in the air, which meant that we were able to recycle lots of second phases of play, once again putting Cuckfield on the back foot. It would be however, that diminutive Essex boy that would make and score the early breakthrough. Once again the Cuckfield back line was put under pressure from the menacing striker, eventually recycling possession in the opposition third. After some excellent interplay between Trend and Garcia, it would be Stubbs who found the space to find the quick movement of Reyland in behind the Cuckfield defence, who took a good first touch, composed himself and expertly dispatched past a stranded keeper. GOAL 1-0!
One would be forgiven for being shocked for the early score line, but there was no doubt on the back of early momentum, that it was a score line well deserved. Cuckfield were relatively anonymous in attack with Bradburn bossing things in the air, and Rahaman and Steele sweeping up in behind. The best thing though, there was no panic. The team have been suspect in the past for going long too early. The back three were hanging on to possession diligently, pulling Cuckfield out of shape. It was almost like watching a game of chess, which Slade were duly winning. ‘Bison’ and Garcia were operating as a useful outlet for the defence with Trend given more license to roam beyond the half way line. The away side almost doubled the lead through a mistake from the Rangers stopper, who had his wobbly moments in the game, as a rash clearance only went as far as Garcia, who swept goalward first time, just missed the target from some 45 yards. Slade were to eventually convert this continued pressure onto the score line, and duly double the lead. Too much time and space in midfield meant that Trend was able to pick the pass, and despite the pass having perhaps a little too much weight on it, Reyland was on to it in a flash, showing bravery as he beats the keeper to the ball, with the keeper giving it a meaty fresh air kick, allowing the ball to run through. Open goal, one touch, two touch…..Liam kick it in….three touch, four touch…..f*ck sake Liam!! Kick it!.....five touch, six touch……..GOAL 2-0!!
Reyland doubles the Slade lead, and Slade on easy street. Although it was a score well deserved, Cuckfield did press and probe, but the Westgate goal remained largely unthreatened. The Cuckfield right winger the most likely to provide the breakthrough, who was tricky throughout, but Hornsby, who probably has elbow fluff older than the young winger, using his experience to suffocate him. Cuckfield threw a bit of a curve ball to try galvanise their boys, by taking a basketball style timeout, maybe to try re-issue the message from the coach, or to disrupt the Slade momentum, although manager Norris was less than entertained. Fortunately, the disrupted re-start made little difference, as Slade played out the half with little trouble.
From personal memory, I cannot remember the last time the team came in two goals to the good, but whatever happened in the first half, the game was only half complete, these guys were top for a reason. The message was much more to keep doing the same things, stay patient, and do not get complacent in the opening 10 minutes. There was still two quality subs on the bench that could and would be utilised before the game was up, so make sure you leave it all on the pitch. Before play would resume though, the thought on everyone’s mind (except Norris – 3 points is the only thing on his mind – ever), can Reyland go out and get the hatrick!? The players head out to keep things tight in the opening 5 minutes of the half, but in true Portslade fashion, the lead was cut down by one before you could get back to your seat with a pie and a brew. The defensive line had throughout the game operated admirably, but a player on the far side was played onside by an unorganised defensive line, and a deep cross to the back post found a Rangers free header into the corner of the goal. GOAL 2-1.
There was that sickening feeling that a lot of hard work from the first half could be quickly undone, but the visitors showed no nerves, and responding in perfect fashion. Once again, the Cuckfield defensive line was left wanting, with Reyland pulling them all over the place, eventually finding far too much space in the middle, and was picked out by another well timed ball from the impressive Spaniard, Garcia. Reyland on for his hatrick, his first in Portslade colours. He duly rounds the keeper leaving him in no man’s land, and calmly slotting into the empty goal. GOAL 3-1!!
What a turn of events, and what a response. Hatrick for the Essex man, and one step closer to the three points. It probably worked out to be the best case scenario, as conceding the goal no doubt sharpened the senses so quick after the start of the second half, and then to go on and restore the two goal advantage. Truth be told, Cuckfield were arguably the better side in the final 20 minutes, but an organised, disciplined and hardworking Slade just stifled any further ambitions of the hosts to get into the game. Cuckfield did manage to peg another one back, as another cross from the left found his man, but despite the desperate swipe from Westgate, who could only parry the ball a few yards, the Rangers striker duly obliged by nodding into the empty goal. GOAL 3-2. There was only a few other half chances of real note, which were excellently repelled by Westgate, and the result never felt in danger. The introduction of a fresh Samuels for Graves and Stubbs being removed, despite coming on as a sub (he actually played well, and was struggling with blisters) for the reliable Tai helped further arrest control in the final stages of the game. Only a couple of weak appeals by the hosts for penalties, and a few times looking threatening on the wings, but once again, the endeavour by the defensive unit, and the enterprising work done by the midfield meant that they probably could have played until midnight and not got an equaliser. Full time 3-2.
Whilst Man of the Match will be one of the easier decision this week, some special shout outs to the returning Bradburn, who organised and beefed up the defence, on occasion just letting a couple challenges go, just to let the opposition know he’s there. Daniel Garcia, star of the club inter-game, once again showed his worth, with an array of excellent touches, outrageous strength for a smaller guy, and genuinely bossed the space in and around the centre circle. And finally Liam Reyland, today’s MOM, bagging three goals, the match ball, and ultimately three points. Long awaited return to the number 9 position, and a return in my opinion, well worth waiting for.
This old ding dong with Cuckfield Rangers is far from over, as the two will meet again in the next few weeks in the cup, and I can assure you they will go a long way from underestimating this group a second time. However, next week Slade are back on home turf, this time entertaining Willingdon, over on the 3G pitches at The University of Brighton. Willingdon another team that the club have enjoyed competitive games against, whilst going down 4-2 only a couple of weeks ago, but full of confidence going into this game. Victories in this league don’t come around easily, so another display like today is paramount. I look forward to seeing how the team respond, and add another three points to the tally as we target a late surge into middle of the table.