Our promising start to the season was rudely interrupted once again by this ongoing pandemic, which led to another four weeks of lockdown and no football. I was hoping that the enforced break did not disrupt the fine work that the boys had done during September and October, and today would be another test of how far we have come.
We were due to host Newbury District in our second Southern Counties League fixture, but due to an administrative mix-up we found ourselves, for the second time this season, having to play this as an away fixture – so thank you to those that travelled. Unfortunately, due to self-isolation rules, we would be without two key players today in Zach and Conor leaving us with a small squad of just ten players. The situation got worse when horrific traffic delays through Reading, due to the M4 being closed for two junctions, caused a number of players (and the coach!) to arrive extremely late, and Blake McTigue never arrived at all - leaving us with the bare nine players.
Our opponents had played two tough fixtures to date against a very good Dacorum side and Wycombe too, which both ended in defeat. But you can never work out District results as you never know the circumstances, what boys were available, were teams missing key players etc and so all we can do is make sure that we prepare thoroughly ourselves and ensure that the boys can deal with any situations out on the pitch as they arise. Fortunately, we managed to squeeze in one training session to get the boys working together again ahead of this game, and I have to say they did some good work on Wednesday though it was clear that most (especially the coach) needed the blow out.
We started (and finished!) with John in goal and the returning George, Louis and Freddie at the back. Tom moved up to play with Muno in midfield with Elvis and William on the wings and Alfie asked to play up front.
The pitch today was quite narrow, which wouldn’t suit our play, and the grass was quite long leaving a very bobbly surface – though it would be the same for both sides. We started brightly enough, we had several efforts that were either saved by the keeper or hit the post/bar as well as being fired wide or over. Talk on the touchline was that this was “one of those days….” and this seemed to be borne out by the fact that Newbury went ahead from close range with only their second attack (the first had been well saved by John).
Newbury, buoyed by the opening goal, had a good period after this and scored twice more to lead 3-0 with five minutes to go before half time. But strangely, I didn’t think that we were out of the game, I hoped that we could get a goal back before the break to give us a lift, however what happened in the final two minutes of the half was outstanding. Elvis was already causing a few problems down the left and when he beat a defender on the edge of the area, he fired home to get us that goal. However, seconds later he then fed a through ball for Alfie who strode into the area and side-footed past the keeper for 3-2. Tom Palmer, who has been impressing us with his strikes from distance in training, then hit the goal of the game from distance right on the stroke of half time to make it 3-3!
We didn’t need much of a team talk at the break, we reminded he boys that we had to move the ball quicker (we were having too many touches on a small pitch and getting caught) and to try and be positive with the passing (e.g. could they get their head up and pick out a forward pass first). The second half was pretty much one-way traffic, Tom added a second from close range and Alfie scored with a splendid free kick from outside the area. The industrious Elvis was causing mayhem down our right (switching with William for the second half) and he scored another two (one deflecting off of a home defender) to leave the score line 7-3 to Stevenage.
To be honest, the substitute keeper for Newbury performed heroically to prevent an even greater score line, pulling off a string of good saves. It wasn’t a great start to the day, but we went home happy in the end!