Westleigh Park, Havant
Just when you think the lacklustre gremlins of the bad old days have returned to deaden legs and slacken shoulders, a fire catches deep in the belly and the heart is rescued before it too can be brought low. That’s my overwrought one line summary of this tough, eventually well-earned point at home to Salisbury City who are currently swashbuckling away with Welling United at the top to see who will end up as champions.
Last weekend we were away at Welling and they looked every bit as professional and organised as you need to be to escape this league, with their player-manager Jamie Day, once a candidate for our recently vacant managerial seat, leading by example with a superb midfield performance. We lost 1-0, but took great heart from the fact we had played well, just been pipped by the better side.
See, this is the difference, not that long ago, we’d have lost matches like that 1-0 but never really looked in it or interested, hence the exasperation that often sighed from the terraces, but we’re not unrealistic in our expectations, we are not in the position to challenge right now, so we will get results like this. It’s how we hold ourselves in the face of this that is the key.
So, given the recent solid away performances at Farnborough, Welling and Chelmsford, two points taken against good sides with play-offs or direct promotion on their minds, not to mention our two previous home games garnering six points and nine goals, we went into this game against high-flying Salisbury with no fear, and even a tickle of excitement that we might overturn a long standing run of not winning against the sides at the top.
However, despite an opening ten of bustle and initiative, we were fortunate to go into the half-time break without being a goal behind, Clark Masters diving like a bodyguard trying to stomach an assassin’s bullet at one point to paw a shot against the post; one of two Salisbury efforts that hit the woodwork in the first period.
The deadlock was soon broken after the second half kicked off though, as Salisbury took a lead within three minutes, as Dan Fitchett punished a slackness and fired home. Two minutes after that Clark Masters was again required to make like Stretch Armstrong and push a shot away from danger.
Fitchett certainly had his eye in as on the hour he scored again; a superb strike from the edge of the box into the top corner. Two goals behind and all three substitutions having been made, it might have felt like ‘game over’ given Salisbury’s position in the table. Thankfully from that point forward, them Hawks put together the kind of spirited display that we had forgotten had existed until very recently.
Perry Ryan, brought on as a sub for the injured Sahr Kabba in the first half, is by no means a regular in the starting line up these days, and certainly not a man oft amongst the goals. The only way I’d imagine he’d ever be described as a consistent scorer was if he was, week-in-week-out, the only male attendee at his local Grab-a-Granny night. Yet, we have scored three goals this week and he’s bagged them all.
Firstly, within two minutes of Fitchett’s second, our Peregrin was able to follow up when Ollie Palmer headed the ball onto Willem Puddy’s fingertips and the ball spun like a model globe towards goal. Perry, noticing defenders were shaping up to clear, threw himself forward and gave it the Glasgow kiss. Galvanised, our players gathered the ball from the net and sprinted back to the centre circle.
Until this week, Christian Nanetti was pretty much guaranteed a start, but this was mostly it seemed due to goodwill extending over from his extraordinary spell of form at the end of last season. This year, we’ve not seen much of that player, possibly largely in recent weeks due to gloopy pitches meaning his brand of jinksy behaviour tends to grind to a halt in the soggy brown jam.
However, appearing from the bench on a steadier surface seemed to do the trick for Christian. As soon as he appeared, he was that electrifying imp once more, and it was his ability to tangle defender’s legs like an elaborate bow of ribbon on an oversized birthday gift that led to our second goal after 70 minutes. Taking on the retreating defence, he made his way to the by-line, before weighting a cross beautifully, the ball gliding like a dandelion seed on a light summer breeze, to the back post where Perry had once again bombed forward like a loose caboose and was happily in place to head the ball goalwards. Whether he meant it or not, the header was just as perfectly weighted as Christian’s cross, the ball looping over Puddy’s arms and underneath the bar.
The momentum was all with us but seven minutes later, the breath was taken both from the game and the lungs of all those behind Puddy’s goal. Jumping to collect a cross, he raised his knees to the same point at which Scott Jones’ face was fast arriving. With a sickening thud, Scott thumped unconscious to the surface, Westleigh Park falling into a tense, concerned silence save for a few angry shouts in Puddy’s direction. Eventually strapped to a stretcher, he was taken straight to the car-park and a waiting ambulance. He’s apparently okay, but it was a nasty one.
As a result of all this, eleven minutes of injury time, in addition to the twelve remaining, were left to play with us now down to ten men, having used up all our subs, of which Scott had been one. After witnessing such a comeback and such a nasty collision, it would have been demoralising to lose from there, but chances came at both ends and the irrepressible Perry was on hand at the other end to prevent Fitchett claiming a hat-trick. Our boy Pezza seems a player transformed from those uninspiring opening weeks under Stuart Ritchie’s command.
Upon the final whistle, there were exhalations of relief and shouts of delight. This was hard work paying off and although we are just one place above the relegation spots, I think we’ve seen enough fight in this current team to ensure we can go into the run-in confident that a drop back to the Southern League will be avoided