Westleigh Park, Havant
In terms of competitiveness, you can’t argue with the Conference South this year. Not in terms of who’s going to win the title and go up, of course. That’s probably between Salisbury, Welling and maybe Dover. WHO ! CARES! What is exciting is that all important race for seventh place. Yeah, gets the pulse racing just thinking about it, eh?
As I type this out, only seven points separate Farnborough, currently holders of the 7th place yellow jersey, and Eastleigh in 21st place. That’s everybody’s-pre-season-tips-for-the-title Eastleigh. And just to be clear, that’s them in 21st place, bottom but for basket-case Truro and their points-deducted as-good-as-relegated malaise. We’d be unwise to crow about this too much though as there might be eight teams between us and them in the table but only three points. If it’s like this come late March, this league will be squeakier than a family of mice in a gymnasium wearing their Christmas brogues.
So, even though we’re a long way from the finished article under Lee Bradbury, and those three points from being the de facto bottom position continues to clang alarms bells, there has been considerable improvement. Our squad is being streamlined and we’re closer to understanding what our most effective XI is.
Sadly as part of clearout, we’ve lost Tony Taggart, hero of our first big FA Cup scalping at Notts County. Returning in the summer of 2012 after four years away, Taggs’ legacy was never tainted during our early season slump, displaying an exemplary attitude when others around him were not showing the same courtesy to the paying customer. He goes to Hampton & Richmond Borough due to work and travel issues, and Ryan Moss has followed him there. Mossy’s also taken his banjo with him, but the cows of south west London were reported as saying they didn’t feel this was any cause for alarm.
Also, exiting have been Sam Page to Staines, keeper Matt Pegler is currently spending some game time with Walton Casuals and loanee Stefan Hamilton-Forbes has to the manor returned. However coming in through the door have been further loanees Dan Butler who, to our great delight, has had his loan extended until the end of the season by Portsmouth, while Dan Strugnell is being granted another month to enjoy our hospitality by AFC Bournemouth. In addition Harvey ‘Lemonade’ Whyte has been recalled from his loan spell at Bognor. The deck is being shuffled, fancy croupier style.
However, we continue to experience ups and downs, our hefty defeat in the Trophy at Grimsby being followed by an away win at a wind and rain swept Eastbourne on Boxing Day, but then a 3-2 home defeat to the same opposition on New Year’s Day. Trailing 0-3 with a couple of minutes remaining, a couple of late goals by Sahr Kabba and Dan Strugnell was, in the context of that fixture, ultimately futile.
Clearly however, we brought some of that momentum into this game against AFC Hornchurch, that and the concept of a late doors goal rush. Winning a number of free-kicks early on, the pressure eventually told after quarter of an hour, with Chris Arthur’s kick being met by Dan Strugnell’s head on the edge of the penalty area. It was a superb bit of work, the ball’s trajectory being as balletic as a balançoire at the barre, curving like the earth to loop between the lackadaisical efforts of keeper Joe Woolley and the woodwork.
A minute later Christian Nanetti broke into the box and got busy with the fizzy, his shot sadly steaming over the bar. Christian was buzzing about all game, albeit well handled by Alex Bentley who has always had good games against us, and often from within poor teams, as was the case here. Another hassling presence was Sahr Kabba who, after trouble with injuries, is starting to show us what made Weston-super-Mare so aggrieved to lose him. This is in terms of his work-rate, his hassling of opposition defenders, and also in front of the onion, striking all of his three league goals this season in the last four games.
On the 28th minute came that third Kabba goal. Being put through by the red-hot Chris Arthur, Sahr took on Woolley and rounded him easily, but his shot was badly scuffed. Thankfully there on the line to welcome it was covering defender Elliot Styles. Now, John Arlott once described a Clive Lloyd stroke as being that “of a man knocking a thistle top off with a walking stick”. Styles attempted clearance reminded me of the same man, but drunker, and instead of a thistle, it was a tipsy swat at a fly with his right leg; the fly actually turning out to be a speck of dust on the man’s spectacles. As his foot hung out limply following the mistimed swing, the ball bobbled on through and into the net. The subsequent reaction behind the goal was part cheer and part chortle.
This wasn’t it for the half either, Ollie Palmer rounding Woolley in the same direction as Sahr just before half-time, hitting a more powerful shot with less leg to beat but from a much tighter angle. A good finish, in short.
It’s not often we take a lead into half-time, let alone a three goal one. Indeed, I’m told that in 2012 we only won three Saturday home games. Clearly our new year’s resolution is to do more of it, and we’ve started well. Not without a wobble though. The match was coasting along fairly serenely until a burst of four goals in the final ten minutes.
Midway through the second period we made a double substitution, conserving legs for games to come, with Steve Ramsey replacing Eddie Hutchinson and Harv Whyte’s Lemonade coming on for Chris Arthur. Harvey looked a lot stronger for his time away with Bognor, however we looked a lot weaker in midfield overall. When Hutch first arrived at our club, we were promised a strong presence in the middle and I remember him opening up his breaker’s yard in the centre circle in a game against Salisbury and thought him to be excellent. Today was the best performance I’ve seen from him since then, and we really noticed his absence after the substitution, especially given he had been replaced by a chap whose season has been all about looking absent, despite actually being there. Steve Ramsey’s cold-sweat-nightmare of a campaign continues, I’m sad to report. Ranking eighth in our all-time appearance makers, one retains a soft spot for him but if any player needed a change of scene to rejuvenate them, it is him.
With Hornchurch afforded more space to create, Lewis Smith struck home via Ed Harris, and we are not yet so confident that we could dismiss it as mere consolation. However, rather than be rocked, our chaps responded within two minutes, re-establishing a three goal cushion, Ollie Palmer flicking home with some assistance from a defensive leg.
Hornchurch, disappointed that their efforts had been so quickly cancelled out, just as rapidly reduced the deficit once more, making it 4-2 virtually straight from the kick off as our defensive unit went to sleep at the same time, like a box of puppies weary from over-excitement; Wayne Gray being as unmarked as a mint condition collectable to head home Hornchurch’s second.
Not that it was overly nervy, Hornchurch were being flattered by this scoreline considering what they had put into the fixture, and our dominance was underlined by a fifth goal for us and a third for Ollie Palmer in the final minute. Christian Nanetti’s free kick speared through the defensive wall, but was saved low at the near post, only for the prowling Ollie to follow up. He is now the top scorer in our league and, like James Taylor and Rocky Baptiste before him, is a re-assuring presence up front for us; knows where the goal is, calm with his finishing, and can sniff out opportunities with an almost canine-like sense of smell.
So we climb five places, not that that means too much given the spread of teams on a similar amount of points, many of whom have not played as many games as us. Thus the job is far from over, but this game shows what can be done if we press hard, score first and don't waste the opportunities we create. Can only be good for the confidence.
At this level, cutting out those silly mistakes early on can make all the difference, and with the greater discipline that is clearly being instilled in the side by the management team, there’s every reason to feel positive about what happens next. With four league fixtures in the next fortnight, this would be an ideal time to put a run together. To pull out of this pack sooner rather than later would be the ideal.
Previously, on DHVDW
06oct12: AFC Hornchurch 2 H&W 2