Early season top-of-the-table clash goes Hartley's way
A good and deserved 2-0 win and a pleasing performance, though more of a battle at times than a cultured game of football. Ashford looked well up for it and had plenty of pace and skill going forward. Defensively we looked very sound again, with Liam in for the sidelined Steve Noakes doing very well alongside Shane. We did go a little too deep, especially first half as Ashford put a lot of effort in, but we survived that without any real scare I can recall, and it was Steven Duff and Sam Argent at the other end who came closest to opening the scoring, each seeing shots clatter the bar - the first from a 'Duff Special' free-kick, the other when Sam took a pass in his stride, raced into the box and was unlucky to see his fierce shot rebound off the woodwork. Ashford went close at the very end of the half, the ball seemingly hitting Hartley's right-hand post after a scramble, but with defenders covering the line.
More of a battle at times than a cultured game of football. Ashford had plenty of pace and skill going forward.
The referee had a mare of a game in my opinion, never having real control of the game. This was obvious from the very first minutes when Sam was clattered to the ground by two Ashford players and one of them (the wrong one) got just a very mild ticking off. Sam was being singled out for some rough treatment all night - he's one of the mildest mannered players I've known and yet even he was moved to pleading with the ref for some action. Instead the ref took the easy way of booking players for minor nothings and turning a blind eye (or maybe simply not seeing) the naughty stuff. Fortunately, Sam is a player who just gets up and never seems to let that stuff get to him - the last incident, late on, the Ashford player kicked out at Sam as the ball crossed the byline close to me. Sam pleaded for some justice, the ref did sod all. Just isn't good enough.
And then there was the Ashford coaching staff, berating the ref and his officials and mostly getting away with it. In the end even the ref couldn't ignore it any longer and had a word, when he should have sent him off the pitch. In such contrast to the way the game was played and officiated at Merthyr, it highlighted the huge gulf in the ability of officials and the professionalism of coaching staff. The behaviour in the dugouts trickles down to players and supporters - me included last night, I'm sorry to say, because I was so incensed. It may sound old-fashioned and quaint, but this is not how sportsmen should behave if they have any pride in themselves.
But back to the game. The second-half started well for Hartley as the boys picked up the pace straight away. Ashford weren't able to get into the gear they found in the first-half and Hartley began to dominate and it wasn't long before the ball was fed through to Ross Cook who turned on the afterburners and fired a shot from the edge of the box to the keeper's right that nestled in the corner for 1-0. Hartley kept up the pressure, always wary that the visitors had the pace to trouble us if we weren't alert, but the boys kept their focus and continued to create chances until, in the 68th minute, the ball was being juggled across a pack of players on the edge of Ashford's penalty box and came to the feet of Steve Duff who did a 360 degree turn and shot through the pack, seeing the ball beat the partially unsighted keeper for 2-0.
Ashford were still in the game and we needed to defend well and did, but I don't recall them having a serious effort on goal. I thought Callum Eagle had a particularly good second-half at right-back, timing tackles to perfection, and Walshy was as usual clearing up most of the threat down the left. A very good defensive performance all round from the boys, and with the centre-mid pairing of Joe Paris and Ian Jones working very well - lots of effort in there. Joe must have been feeling the effects of the Merthyr game where I thought he was superb, and he was replaced by the returning Aaron Parfitt, with Nathan Nurse coming on for Ross Cook late on, and Adam Everiss having come on for Zac Horkan early in the second-half.
Another excellent team performance where the boys didn't appear to let the events of Saturday affect their concentration, much to their credit and the coaching staff too. This is a huge couple of weeks with the cup and tricky league games, including the Chessy match - so far the boys have negotiated it tremendously well. Milton United of the Hellenic Premier are our opponents in the FA Vase this Saturday and will be another tough test for the boys, but with confidence high I'm sure they are looking forward to it. We will be without one or two players but we have a strong squad this year, with players eager to get out there. We just have to keep our focus, keep our feet on the ground, and continue the recent form. Well done again boys. [KOB]