BERKHAMSTED RAIDERS 4 HARVESTERS U13 NORTH 3
By Hugh Sprowson
SHAME THIS WASN'T A CUP FINAL!
I have appended the above tagline because although this was not a cup final it certainly felt like one. Two teams really going for it, end to end action. Lovely stuff. The match was so chock full of incident, had it been a sofa and incident its contents, it would have burst all over the living room, showering it with detritus.
Berkhamsted are a superb attacking force. They have scored 61 goals already this year - an average of 3 1/2 a game. No one else comes close. They are 18 goals ahead of the next team. Another way of measuring this is that we have the 4th best defensive record in Red Division and have only conceded 27 goals in 16 games - but 9 of those have come in our 2 League matches against this team. So although it is tempting to look afterwards at the severe pressure our defence came under - and they struggled at times - this is no surprise. Berko left 3 up front, including by a distance the League's top scorer, and they tend to defy other teams to score more than them at the other end. Man, we came close.
As the temperatures dipped again so the dial was firmly pointing at 'unfeasibly cold for this time of year' we looked out on the gnarled and largely uncut Ashlyn's pitch which even the Berko manager issued pithy complaints about and advised us they were moving next year as they were so fed up with the quality of it. In such circumstances, you would think it would be difficult for a match of any quality to break out, but to the delighted eyes of all who witnessed it, we probably saw the best match of the season Harvesters have been involved in.
Again, we started as fast as a cheetah on speed. After just 6 minutes, Sam forced his way into the box and although the ball ran away from him like a recalcitrant bride who has just found out her intended has a predilection for West End musicals, Aidan picked up the loose ends and poked in past the keeper. 1-0. Sam was prompting in the hole behind Aidan and making much of the play. George G and Stan were getting tempted forward a bit too much for our liking at times but were winning battles and spreading the play as we had asked. And George E, well, simply he was magnificent in this match. He showed all of his usual touch and coolness on the ball, but he won every challenge, tracked back, played insightful passes and probably won Junior Masterchef during the halftime interval.
Out of nothing, on 20 minutes, with Harvesters looking quite comfortable, a long ball was raked from the Berko left back position which curled invitingly around the back of our defensive line like the lazy unwinding of a cobra about to strike. It evaded our defence and after a deft first touch their striker slotted home. 1-1. Berko tails were up. Suddenly, play switched to our end and the pressure was relentless with balls flying over our bar and past the post. Ethan pulled off another unbelievable one-handed save onto the post at 23 minutes but the inevitable happened. Their left winger, who was small but who had a bag of tricks as voluminous as a monkey with ADHD, wriggled his way past Louis. Louis had little choice but to impede him, and although it would have been a penalty had he gone down, to his immense credit their player stayed up and crossed and suddenly it was bundled in for 2-1.
From dominating the first 20 minutes, in 5 minutes the game had turned on its head, but that will happen against good sides. The question was: could our boys respond? You betcha. I have noted a growing steeliness within this team over the past few weeks and a refusal to lay down which is great to see. On 28 minutes, Steward, looking once again fit and free of his myriad injuries at last, chipped over the defence, Kobi picked up the ball and squared a great cross but Sam was just beaten to it rushing in to finish. Then, with a couple of minutes left in the half, Kobi managed to muscle his way past 3 challenges and out of nothing beat the keeper at the near post. 2-2 and half time. Breathless stuff.
Berko came out for the second half with their tails up. Again, for 5 minutes our box resembled Custer's Last Stand as wave upon wave of opposition attacks somehow broke upon the shore of our six-yard box without ending up in the net. I am still not sure how. I do remember their top scorer ending up all alone on the back post with effectively an open goal and Ben appearing from nowhere to nudge him off the ball and clear. An exemplification of the effort our boys expended this day.
Buoyed by surviving the onslaught, we finally got up their end and on 45 minutes Kobi had a shot saved but their keeper could only parry to Aidan who coolly took a touch and sidefooted in with his left (a first Aidan!?) to bring his tally to 6 for the season in the League just behind Kobi's 8. 3-2.
We enjoyed another good spell, playing some lovely football and Stan fired a rocket over at the end of one intertwining passing pattern involving 7 or 8 of the team.
Then, a critical moment. On 53 minutes, Sam, who had influenced proceedings considerably from his No 10 position, wrestled with their defender and was clearly fouling him. As the referee correctly awarded a free kick against Sam, in retaliation their player clearly kicked out at Sam striking him on the knee. Again, it is a shame I have to write that we were once more robbed of the services of a quality player as Sam was unable to continue, whilst their defender got off Scott-free and also got to keep the free kick. As I have said of the Maccabi incident involving Oscar, one never wants to see it, but this was a red card offence and their player should have walked. I understand referees' reticence to do so at this age, but if the law is not applied these boys are old enough now to understand that they can get away with more and more heinous infringements if they are not curtailed. It was also disappointing that in the aftermath of this incident, I had to remonstrate with their Coach about having words with Oscar on the pitch. I appreciate feelings run high, especially in a tense battle like this, but there is no excuse for kicking out at an opponent, nor for adults (whether coaches or parents) trying to intimidate the children on the field.
Anyway, back to the game as that is what I would rather focus on. It was turning into a real cracker. Although chances continued to flow at both ends, with just 5 minutes left Steward could not reach a ball as it came across the midfield and suddenly their midfielder was in space. He fed the aforementioned left winger who again tormented Louis and in desperation Louis mistimed his tackle and brought him down. Definite penalty. We cannot expect Ethan to maintain his 100% save rate for spot kicks and this one flew straight down the middle. Ethan got a hand on it, but in it went. 3-3.
It would have been fitting for it to end this way but fate has a way of kicking you in the guts. With just a couple of minutes left, Oscar stepped into midfield to win the ball and although he was successful initially, the second ball was picked up by a Berko player and with ruthless efficiency whipped to the feet of their top scorer who had deftly slipped into the space Oscar had vacated. As Charlie tried to close him down, he turned and twisted and found room for a shot which he dispatched past Ethan. 4-3 and despite our best efforts at a rally with a couple of scrambles in the Berkhamsted box, the game was over.
A few of the boys came off distraught, feeling they had let themselves down. Nothing could be further from the case. They were magnificent against a quality side and on another day would have prevailed. The upset was born of frustration and disappointment that the effort had not produced a positive result, but they should remember how well they played and they have to try and produce this every week. They should all feel very proud of themselves and we should hope they bring this level of endeavour to the Cup Final on Sunday.