As the calendar year winds down, and the Christmas period draws ever closer, Portslade Athletic have one final chance to put points on the board in what has been a very difficult 2018. Slade were given the difficult challenge of taking on one of the leagues in form teams in Chagossian & Mauritius Association at Old Barn Way. The form book suggested a comfortable win for the visitors…
I think if you were to capture 2018 in a snap shot, it would be something along the lines of ‘good effort’. The kind of thing your teacher would tell you at school, which essentially meant plenty of endeavour, but overall a bit rubbish. Since the summer came round, there has been many changes for this great club, which included an almost unrecognisable squad, a new manager and a new look kit and home ground. It was always going to take a little bit of time for the team to find some footballing rhythm, which would eventually translate into winning score lines. Manager Larkham has been adaptable in his first managerial role, and has been pragmatic with the players at his disposable. As the season has gone on, there has been an evident evolution, a clear improvement and perhaps even confidence, which really was only short of results. Today was just another step in that development. Now can we back up a performance with a win?
Chagossian were a team sitting pretty in third before today’s game, winning 8 of their 11 games so far this season, which included a 9-0 mauling of AFC Varndeanians. A team that boasted the best defensive record in the league, only conceding 13 goals in the opening 9 games. Considering Slade’s inability to find the net, only scoring four times in as many games, meant that the stars were aligning for a very difficult afternoon. With large quantities of the wet stuff falling from the sky 48 hours before the game, the likelihood of the game going ahead was under real risk. A pitch inspection the morning of the game revealed a damp albeit a perfectly playable surface which has held up well under the conditions.
Last week a makeshift Slade weathered the persistent wind and rain to be dealt a footballing lesson from BSMS (away), losing 3-1, goals conceded from 3 different set pieces, a scoreline which was perhaps a little generous to the visitors. Today Slade were able to return to the familiar surroundings at Old Barn Way, where in the last home game, produced arguably the best performance of the season, eventually being squeezed out 1-0 against Ardingly. In that game Slade were able to field possibly their strongest side of the season. Today would be no different. Adrian Bajka continued between the sticks protected by a strong back four. Ben Graves returned to his more accustomed centre back position after a central midfield cameo last week, partnered by one of the signings of the season in Dan Munro. Mark Sanders continued in the left back slot, with Matthew Randel making his club debut whilst home from Oxford University for Christmas, in the right back spot. With the return of Neil ‘Bison’ Shelley and Captain Joe Pickles, the midfield had a more familiar look about it. Ringham returned to the left wing from centre midfield, with Charlie Brown dropping onto the right. After last week’s well taken goal, Nick Samuels takes up the number 9 slot, with Andre Neto returning after a long injury lay off in the number 10 position. A strong bench was made up of Harry Smith, Patryk Popczyk and Kornilios Plouti.
One thing, which has improved week on week, is the application during the warm up. I think back to Ansty away, with the players wildly hoofing the ball over the cross bar instead of getting on with match preparation. Since that day, there has been a steady improvement in match day preparation. Today was arguably the best yet as the players went about their business with focus and concentration. In fact, the squad was through their warm up well before today’s opposition even showed up. I guess they thought all they needed to do was show up. Prior to kick off, the message from manager Larkham was clear. Last week did not happen, and we use the momentum of the last home game against Ardingly. We return to the passing philosophy, we be brave and press high up the pitch, and we use the difficult windy conditions as an equaliser. Chagossian were late arrivals, they would be starting the game cold. We needed to make that count.
From the kick off, it was clear that the visitors had a number of very talented footballers in their ranks, who were quick as they were nimble, and had a fair few tricks up their sleeve to boot. This was immediately evident as in the opening minutes as the Chagossian number 14 put Sanders on his backside before delivering a teasing cross, which was eventually cleared. It did mean that the defence and midfield had to be very concentrated in the opening quarter hour. There was certainly elements of the passing, which had returned to the Slade game, and was giving an element of control but the Chagossian possession were very positive, hitting both wings quickly and taking advantage of the pace of their forwards, with slide rule passes. Fortunately, the Slade centre back pairing in Graves and Munro were very watchful, with Bajka quick off his line to sweep up the generally over hit passes. Both sides were enjoying good possession in the opposition half, albeit Chagossian arguably shading things ever so slightly. With corners being a little bit of sticking point last week, Slade were given the chance to rectify things as the visitors chalked up a series of corners. Albeit for a few scares, the scoreline remained. Chagossian were not having things all their own way though, as the front four were very effective in the press, and the opposition back four were very nervous when under pressure. Some good link up play between Samuels and Brown on the right, and Neto and Ringham on the left resulted in a series of home corners. After the first few corners dropped a little short, or being whisked over the cross bar by the swirling wind, a peach of a delivery from the boot of Brown brought the first goal of the game. Perhaps a little contentious on who actually got the ball over the line, and definitely one for the dubious goals committee. The corner was delivered to the front post, which was half kept out by a flustered goalkeeper, not before bouncing around on the line off the shins of a few Chagossian defenders, eventually bouncing off a Neto knee and over the line. GOAL 1-0!
The players on and off the pitch were sent into raptures (these moments need to be savoured) as if it was a last minute winner in the FA cup final. This match certainly had plenty of life left in it, and the visitors clearly had plenty in the bag to give us problems over the next hour. It didn’t take long for Chagossian to strike back, but it was done in the most controversial circumstances. The referee was a little pernickety on free-kicks as Slade on a number of occasions tried to take free-kicks quickly, only for the referee to bring it back. However, just after the half hour mark, Chagossian were awarded a free kick 10 yards into the Slade half, but with the ball was quickly delivered into the right channel, before being pulled back to the edge of the box, where the well struck shot from the Chagossian midfielder found the bottom corner. GOAL 1-1.
As soon as the ball struck the back of the net, the Slade players were surrounding the referee for some explanation as to why the free kick was allowed to be taken quickly, when we had been denied all game so far. Throw into the mix that the ball was still in motion, and taken a good 10-15 yards further up the pitch, it certainly felt like a low blow. To be honest, I think the referee realised very quickly his mistake, but unable to do anything about what had already happened. To make matters worse, 90 seconds later, Slade were 2-1 down. From the kick off, Pickles looked to hit a long diagonal out to Ringham, but as the wind picked up, the ball dropped short, and a mis-control meant that Chagossian were immediately on the back four. Despite having a good 10 yards head start, the number 14 charged down the loose ball down the Slade left, leaving Sanders in his dust, before rifling the ball into the bottom far corner. GOAL 1-2.
Nightmare. Small margins. That’s how quickly you can go from a winning position to a losing position at this level, and the Slade cage was well and truly rattled. It was now very important not to completely capitulate, and at least to get to half time at the same score. Slade did re-establish their composure, and did continue to press hard up the pitch, which was working a treat. It did mean though when the press failed, there was a lot of space to play in to, which the visitors were enjoying. That being said, the defence was equal to anything Chagossian could throw at them, and the half finished at 1-2. The players trudged into the changing rooms a little p*ssed off that a good half was overshadowed by a couple poor decisions. On the upside, and this very well positioned by the manager, is to use the injustice in the first half to stoke the fire in the Slade belly. The wind will very much be in our favour the second half, and the visitors will find it much harder to get up the pitch. We just needed to drop 10-20 yards deeper to nullify their pace, and be more intelligent on our pressing.
Slade entered back in the fray all fired up, and prepared mentally to take the game to the next level. From the kick off, Slade were immediately on the front foot, as they pressed high up the pitch, leaving the visitors no time at all to settle. It took only 5 minutes into the half for the home side to carve open the best opportunity possible to get back on level terms. Mark Sanders is not necessarily well known for his offensive qualities, but during this high press, he found himself deep beyond enemy lines. The ball was fed into the left channel, and as it looked as though Sanders was shaping up for the shot, he was clumsily bundled in the back by a Chagossian defender. PENALTY! Sanders probably went down a little on the eas y side, but if you’re a defender, you have to tread lightly in the penalty box, and it was pretty clumsy all round. After some delegation, Brown took on the responsibility of taking the spot kick. Unfortunately, it won’t be one to remember, as well as it was struck, it was high and wide and the visitors let off. If the missed penalty didn’t bring us level, I certainly think it galvanised the team further as a mesmerising comeback was soon on the cards. Slade were starting to look very lively in the final third, as Chagossian were losing some of the composure they were showing in the first half, and the home side were pushing hard for the equaliser. The home side thought they got there after an excellent run by Samuels on the Slade right hand side eventually pulling back to the vacant Pickles on the edge of the 6-yard box. With the goal gaping, it almost felt like a case of waiting for the net to bulge. Unfortunately, an odd bounce resulted in the shot being flashed just wide. The influence on the game by some of the key Chagossian players were starting to become more and more anonymous and the momentum more and more with the home side. Slade soon made that break through and got themselves level, as Neto doubled his tally for the afternoon. The ball was played into feet, just inside the box with his back to goal. With no shot on, Neto expertly swivels on the spot with his left foot shot takes a wicked deflection off the defender and over the diving keeper. GOAL 2-2!
A true striker’s goal, perhaps something we have been missing quite a bit this season. It was certainly a goal which the performance deserved, but the game was just starting to warm up. More enterprising running by Pickles, this time into the left channel, was hauled down by a very erratic Chagossian keeper, and could well have been given his marching orders for a professional foul. The keeper probably correctly presented the yellow card, and Slade were given an excellent chance to sneak their noses in front. Joe Pickles stood over the free-kick, can he shoot from here? Well a less than convincing keeping performance so far, means a shot on target might cause all kinds of problems. Pickles strikes the ball well across the goal and it nestles in at the back post! GOAL 3-2!!
Pandemonium on and off the pitch and the home side are once again back in front. Question is, could we maintain the lead this time? Larkham opted to make some personnel changes to keep things fresh bringing Smith in for Sanders, but as was heavily discussed at half time, if we were to try and protect the lead again, we have to be a little more canny and not be so open and expansive as we were in the first half. The whole team dropped about 10 yards deeper, and challenged Chagossian to find a way through. At this point, the visitors most influential players had drifted out of the game, and any inroads towards the Slade goal were thwarted by the ever impressive back four. The visitors made life even harder for themselves as an ugly looking challenge by the Chagossian number 3 on Ringham resulted in a straight red card. Mis-placed, mis-timed and generally reckless. Mountain to climb now for the visitors. Larkham made his final two changes, with the hard working, and generally out of breath Samuels bowing out for Popczyk, and Brown taking the slow walk off the pitch for Plouti. If Slade were making the management of the result look easy going, then the introduction of those fresh legs made it even more comfortable. Popczyk putting himself about in the middle of the pitch, taking some nice touches, making the game a little bit of a stretch for the visitors. Plouti showing lots of energy and vigour on the right hand side, well supported by the ever impressive Randel. As the game was wearing on, the Chagossian back line were becoming less and less composed in their shape, and Slade had a couple chances to get some daylight between the two teams. Neto with the bit between his teeth was keen to get on the scoreline once more. After being ruled out by the offside flag, somewhat a little suspect, the Portuguese hitman was finally able to break the back line as Popczyk found some space and lobbed a clever ball into Neto’s path. The striker demonstrated that he could do the job instinctively, or with plenty of time to think about his shot. He shaped up, lured the keeper out, before expertly placing past the hapless keeper and into the back of the net. GOAL 4-2!!!
Slade had gone from scoring four goals all season in the league, to slamming four home in one game. A hatrick from Neto, which I’m sure we will never hear the end of, but to be honest who cares? It’s the game we have been working towards for some time now, and we finally as a team were getting the just rewards for the patience and the faith we were putting in the system and most importantly in each other. The game didn’t have much more life left in it, as the situation was managed expertly. Chagossian still prodded and probed, but were reduced to efforts from distance. Despite one excellent effort slamming against the post, most the speculative efforts were hit high wide and handsome. The game was excellently seen out, and the last game of 2018 saw Slade bag a massive three points.
I don’t think words really justify what this result means to this group, and how deserved the faith by the players was well rewarded. To be brutally honest, we have been on the end of a difficult run, and had some disappointing performances, none more than last week against Brighton and Sussex Medical School. For the squad to continue to, and to some degree relentlessly believe that there was light at the end of the tunnel. Keep showing up to training. Keeping the spirit high before and after the games. The attitude nothing short of first class.
Whilst a game like this there are heroes all over the pitch, goals has been a sticking point for the season, and when someone bags themselves a hatrick, it simply cannot be ignored. Today’s man of the match award is given to Andre Neto. Despite all the best intentions of a squad around you, you need someone who’s selfish enough to take those unlikely shots, and get the goals to win the game. Despite picking up a hamstring injury on Monday, it is hopeful the fitness and form returns in time for the New Year. A very special mention must be made though, to some outstanding performances on Saturday afternoon. Matt Randel making his Slade debut looked like he’d played there all his life. Normally playing in a central position, he showed all the timing and composure of someone very comfortable in a full back position. Today’s captain, Joe Pickles, put in a performance that belies his years. Leading from the front with maturity, not only in temperament, but also attitude and composure. When the team was excited by getting their noses in front, it was his calm head that guided us to victory. Nick Samuels, who had run himself into the ground all game long, sometimes acting as a one attacking machine, as Neto played a disciplined role. Finally, I cannot help but say a word about the centre back pairing of Ben Graves and Dan Munro. With the absence of Dan Rahaman, and Kevin Bradburn coming back from surgery, it felt like a difficult hole to fill. Both of them have stepped up to take on the big challenge, and have done so in excellent style. Unbelievable attitude, temperament, commitment, and a lot of good defensive work. Long may it continue.
As mentioned, this is the final game of 2018, and the squad heads off for a well-deserved rest over the Christmas period. My advice to you, get lots of quality time with the family in, don’t eat too much turkey, and sneak the odd run into your weekly regime, as when we move into 2019 it happens all over again. The football begins, and the momentum we have gathered in this game must be used to start a run which will see us challenge the middle of the league. From Portslade, the manager, and all the committee, we wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a very prosperous 2019.
Fantasy Team Watch
With the football coming in thick and fast before the hectic Premier League schedule kicks off for Christmas it’s still Dane Charlie Joergensen leading the way, although he has another Charlie breathing down his neck with Brown bagging big points, especially with a last gasp equaliser on Monday night from Lucas Digne. Only 21 points between 2nd and 6th, I’m sure we’ll expect to see a completely different top 5 in the start of 2019.
1. Charlie Joergensen 932
2. Charlie Brown 859
3. Jake Hayward 849
4. Matt Whittaker 848
5. Liam Reyland 844
See you in 2019.