Nail biter: South M4s started the day in tenth position of twelve with the bottom three set to be relegated, meaning an ignominious immediate return to East 6 North West (South) – which, despite covering all points of the compass, is the lowest league that it would be possible for South to play in.
Challenging: We were playing St Neots 2s, who we’d had a feisty clash with earlier in the season with many cards brandished but who had nothing on the line. By contrast the teams in ninth and eleventh, Horncastle and Leadenham, were playing the league leaders who were aiming for an undefeated season and the team in second who needed a win to guarantee promotion. On paper, ours was the easiest of the three games but none of the three teams in the relegation battle could have been expected to win.
Pressure: South are a growing and aspiring club. The Men’s 1st team have already secured promotion to Division 1 and with a glut of players available for a 5th team, having two teams in the bottom division stunts the growth of the club and halts any chance of creating an additional team that will enable us to continue to grow and improve our competitiveness. So not only was personal pride and team shame on the line, the fortunes of the 4s are intrinsically linked to the aspirations of the club.
Everything is meaningless: Prior to the match, Jan had got his abacus out and stated that we could win ten-nil and still be relegated, and yet lose ten-nil and still stay up. The maths of it were that we needed to better the result of Horncastle by two or more goals, and not lose if Leadenham won. Horncastle had the same points as us, one better goal difference and had scored several more goals (like almost every other team). Our game pushed back at 11.30am and the other two not until 1pm so we played in the metaphorical dark, with no idea whether our result would be sufficient.
Shuffling the pack: with the unusual luxury of six defenders available, George W was pushed into midfield and Pete D was given licence to start in the front line. To say he was slightly giddy at the prospect of scoring would be an understatement and he nearly earned himself Lemon for predicting a hat-trick for himself before half time! Jo D turned up having delivered a mystery package somewhere in the vicinity, giving us an additional option in the game.
On your marks…: In glorious sunshine South started unbelievably quickly. Combinations of passing, pressure and running off the ball led to Ollie W and Rob B earning an early short corner. Without the option of JJ dragging it wide, option one was a Jurassic smash, which went wide.
Danger man: Unlike the rest of the defence the Monckosauras recognised the threat of the spritely Danny, so fired a sixteen straight into the opposition striker’s arm. Sadly this neither slowed him down nor reminded the defence of his speed and sharpness in front of goal. Perhaps over-confident with the early run of the game, South pressed too high, giving Danny space in behind which he used efficiently as he slotted in neatly passed a stranded Michael.
Short…on quality: Frustrated to go a goal down against the run of play and in a game we were dominating, Jelley, combining down the left with the commanding Matt in midfield, worked the ball into the D again, earning another short. Devoid of options, the Jurassic smash was employed once more, slightly more accurately but with the same result – no goal. Moments later St Neots broke again, sweeping the ball into the goal. South, hoping for a positive result, now faced not only a defeat but the very real probability of relegation…and worse was to come.
Playing against the odds: The game was evenly contested throughout, both teams looking threatening on the break though with only one team capitalising on their excursions into the D. James H and Simon K thwarted attacks and released the scampering Pete D and Oli W. St Neots developed neatly into the D but Michael, recognising the danger, stepped out, smothering the ball and repelling the initial threat. The ball didn’t go far so Michael continued to shovel the ball away before it was eventually cleared. Somewhat to everyone’s surprise the umpire blew for a penalty flick. Danny happily slotted St Neots’s third, and we weren’t even at half time yet.
Regroup: Half time came. Somehow we were losing a game in which we could have scored three. Symptomatic of our season perhaps. A tactical shift saw the wily John G move to centre-mid and the youthful zip of George W to right mid. We were in the game, we just needed to make the most of the opportunities we were creating.
Peppering: South came out with a bit more zing. Andi and Danny either snuffed out threatening moves or had space to stretch the opposition. George found he had the run on their left back and repeatedly went round him, crossing the ball back into the D and causing havoc. Shot after shot came and went with St Neots holding firm. Then followed a series of shorts.
Short…on scoring: Following the lack of imagination of the first half, Matt decided he’d try and bamboozle the opposition with an injection of all of one metre. That didn’t work. Then we tried letting the ball through the initial stop but that didn’t work. Next a slip right to John G who played an exquisite flick heading in to the top right, past the keeper but not their post man, who plucked it out of the air preventing a certain goal. Back to a couple of straight smashes, which were accurate and hard but kept out by the keeper, who then saved follow up shots. Better quality but the same result… No goals.
Shellacking: Despite sustained pressure and significant opportunities, St Neots always looked threatening on the break. Their fourth goal came when a defensive slip created an overload which they worked neatly and their fifth from another flick, this time somewhat less controversial. A penalty corner strike was heading in and Pete decided hitting the goal bound shot away with his stick was too risky so kicked it away with the calm of a seasoned keeper. Unfortunately he is not the keeper, so it was a flick and he was lucky not to find himself on the sidelines watching on. Five-nil.
Violence: South continued to press though, knowing that at multiple points we had been a whisker from scoring and that five-nil was a poor reflection of the parity of the game. Oli W, known for his large physique and angry temperament, was blown up for violently barging an opposition player to the ground. John G had an interesting conversation with the same umpire over a similar incident when he apparently fouled the opposition. He was given a talking to like a naughty schoolboy, irrespective of his protestations of innocence.
Character: Despite being five-nil down South were still making the better opportunities. As George W rounded their right back for the twelfth time in the half the ball found Jo who nudged it on to Rob, turning as ever on to his reverse stick and…eventually…goal to South. Five-one. A sense of optimism and confidence flowed through the team. Slight naivety in thinking we might be able to score another five, but hope none the less.
Fergie time: Spirits weren’t dampened and South strung together their longest period of dominance in the game, ball after ball getting into the D, rescued by clutch defence, excellent keeping and not much luck. A cynical foot as South were on the break meant a free hit just outside the twenty-three. South loaded the circle as the umpire said twenty seconds to play. Monckosaurus let loose a monster strike into the D where super-sub Jo poked out his stick to lift the ball over the keeper. Five-two. Never before has a second goal in a five-two defeat been scored with such glee and cheering.
Satisfied: As the players came off the pitch, St Neots had won but South had acquitted themselves well, and scoring with the final play of the match left a sense of enjoyment after a messy season.
Unsatisfied: Teas at the Anchor were good…for those that had them. Several players were forced to the chippy as they’d all been eaten by the time they turned up.
Hope: South knew that losing by three goals meant they needed Wellingborough to beat Horncastle by five and Louth not to lose to Leadenham. The first result came through… Wellingborough 6, Horncastle 1: South had moved above Horncastle through Jo’s last second goal!
Relief: South M4s were confirmed as finishing ninth and out of the bottom three, as news came in that Louth had beaten Leadenham. It’s not guaranteed safety as the leagues do their annual shuffle (and no teams are confirmed as relegated as yet) but it looks good. Jan’s complicated equations meant that a five-two loss was the exact result we needed, though we couldn’t have known as we played.