Drag flicker extraordinaire
When you reach the business end of the season, thoughts of the big prizes at stake invariably add that extra frisson to the final fixtures. And prizes don't come much bigger than the contest for sixth place in East Men's League Division 4 (North-West). Yes, it was for the prospect of crunch games such as this that we had hauled our tired limbs back to the astroturf for another year in the far off halcyon days of autumn.
The start of the day found the Men's 3rd XIs of Cambridge South and Bourne Deeping locked together on a hefty twenty-eight points, with South sitting in the top half of the table only by virtue of goal difference. A seven point gap above us to fifth place, a nine point gap below to eighth; truly the season was poised on a knife edge for both teams. Who would be the ones able to quieten the jangling nerves, screw their courage to the sticking place and claim the victory and the glory?
Those of us gathering at Long Road had arrived within a mere fifteen minutes of captain Kern's appointed meet time, and had even managed to remember we would be playing in yellow. In fact, Ollie not only had socks (mustard - close enough) but also jacket (yellow) and stick (yellow), but sadly shinguards (none). Fortunately, Matt found some spares in the team holdall, and their XXXL size also meant that only one would be needed to cover both of Ollie's legs. Despite our slightly delayed departure, we still arrived at Glinton comfortably before Nev's car, our vice-captain apparently still, at this late point in the season, yet to locate third gear as he pootered along unconcernedly at the head of a line of frustrated tractor drivers.
To the game, and after our past few weeks of slow starts and conceding early goals, the message was to come out of the blocks strongly and give ourselves a platform to build on rather than a mountain to climb. The team harkened, and the start was duly positive. With MSG in goal and a pairing of Neil and Ash A in front, Pash and Chris providing pace and width outside, the captain screening behind the midfield duo of Joe and Ollie, Ed and Ash D flanking Dan up front, and Nevin and Tobias waiting to come on, it was a strong and balanced side.
The visitors looked the more threatening in the early exchanges, putting pressure on the Bourne twenty-three, but the hosts held their line well and fended off the South attacks without conceding anything in the D. The breakthrough eventually came midway through the half when Ed knocked a shot home from close range in a crowded D to give the away side the lead. Joe also had the ball in the goal but one of the umpires had spotted an infringement and, after a consultation with his colleague, the goal was chalked off and a sixteen awarded.
It seemed that South might take a one goal lead to half-time but Bourne levelled the scores shortly before the interval, the first short corners of the game giving Bourne's powerful striker a chance to fire off a cannonball of a shot that flew six inches above Neil's stick and inside the right post to pound against the backboard. South had had a warning of the potency of this strike immediately beforehand when Ed had charged down the preceding short corner, taking a shot full on that produced a nasty bleeding gash behind his shinpad. Other incidents of note were Ollie getting repeatedly warned by one of the umpires for holding his stick the wrong way (the curved end goes at the bottom, mate) and Dan similarly cautioned about not retreating five metres - his protests that he was just slow (in the head or the feet was not clarified) left the official unmoved.
While we grabbed a drink and some Tangfastics on the sidelines, Matt exhorted us to rediscover the pace and intensity of the opening period of the half. Paying all the attention we usually give to our captain's instructions, we duly conceded again shortly after the break, another short corner routine producing a near-post deflection from the second ball to give the home side the lead.
Bloodied (Ed, anyway) but unbowed, we regrouped and worked our way back into the game. Bourne were pressing their attacks down our left flank but we kept our composure and played it cool, most notably Ollie, who seemed chilled out to the point of incipient hypothermia with a clearance square across the top of our D that evaded the onrushing Bourne sticks by inches. But as Ollie pointed out, the key word was 'evaded' and we all breathed again.
As the half wore on we began to look more threatening. Toby was causing his usual problems in the attacking third, committing opponents and opening up play, while Nev, Ash and Dan were holding the ball and looking to bring teammates in. A typical clever upgrade by Nev won our first short corner of the game, and Ash A and Toby set themselves on the top of the D to receive it. The ball was teed up perfectly for Toby, who dragged it high to the keeper's right to bring South back on terms.
The goal seemed to give South a new lease of energy and more attacks soon produced another short. This time Ash A received it and as the runners closed him down, he slipped a pass under his arm square to Toby, whose low sweep arrowed home to put South ahead for the second time in the game.
With fifteen minutes still to play, the match was far from over. Bourne's heads didn't drop and the contest remained tight. The midfield were having to work hard, with Chris in particular covering every inch of pitch in a demonstration of ceaseless running, passing and tackling. The defence by and large held steady, with the focus on denying Bourne's centre forward another chance to unleash his thunderbolt shot. At one point he seemed clear on goal and about to strike, only for a last-gasp saving tackle from behind by Neil, who jabbed the ball away just before his shot could connect.
South closed out the remaining minutes without further scares, to take the palmarès and preserve our placing in the upper half of the table. Match teas were, as usual, at the Bluebell in Helpston, and definitely not at the Bluebell in Easton, as Ash A's car duly discovered. To be fair to Ash, there are six pubs called the Bluebell within a twenty minute radius of Glinton; originality in pub naming obviously isn't their strong point in south Lincolnshire. Nev's car also failed to appear for match teas, but it was unclear whether that was because he had gone directly home or was still driving the three miles from the pitch by the time we all left.
We returned to find that the M2s had grubbed out a two-one win over Bourne 4s at Long Road, to give us a double victory in the day's double-header. Just two matches left of the season now, both in Cambridge, including the tasty prospect of a final evening derby fixture against the M2s. Bring it.