First and foremost, I'd like to thank everyone involved at the club that managed to get this game on in the first place. There was a mini army working on the ground all week in a bid to get the match played and, with a little help from the weather gods, we managed it.
Hartley further increase their record breaking campaign in the FA Vase by beating Bradford Town 3-1 in the 4th Round.
We were without formidable centre halves Shane Hollamby and Liam Eagle for Saturday's FA Vase clash against Bradford Town. It demonstrates the depth of quality within our squad when we can replace them with the returning Steve Noakes and Julian Sills.
We'd done our homework on Bradford, they are a combative team who like to play football in high areas of the pitch. They also posses a very good striker in Sam Jordan, pacey and direct, and we knew we had to be on our game to keep him quiet.
It took Hartley too long to get started and find our rhythm in the game; loose balls and failed clearances meant that Bradford dished out sustained pressure for the opening exchanges. It was a failed clearance that led to the opening goal of the game. Jordan made us pay for an error at the back and managed to slot the ball past Atko.
Despite the goal, it didn't really change the dynamic of the game. Bradford didn't become defensive and we were still attempting to get our footing in the game anyway. There was a relative state of calm, as we knew we had the quality to get back in the game, we just had to show it!
Hartley created a number of chances, Cook picking up some valuable fouls in higher areas of the pitch, but we could not convert our chances into a goal. That was until Sam Argent's clever through ball to Duff allowed him to break through the Bradford line. He was faced with just the keeper to beat and, with their number 1 going to ground quite early, it allowed Duff to finish calmly into the open space created.
Hartley dominated for the large proportion of the first half from that point on. Bradford were forced into playing on the counter attack but Sills and Noakes managed to deal with their striker, who was becoming increasingly isolated.
Noakes had a glorious chance towards the end of the first half when a lovely cross from the wide right position floated in, but the sun didn't allow Noakes a clear view of the ball and he mistimed the header. Half Time 1-1.
We were adamant that we'd get more chances in the second half. As with many games this season, fitness really plays a part, and as games begin to open up we tend to be that little bit brighter and more clinical in the closing moments of the game. The confidence in that knowledge allows us to play with patience whilst still maintaining a tempo on the ball. The message was clear, to get the ball to the strikers and wingers early, allow them to cause the damage.
Bradford started brightly and were keen on establishing a similar start to that of the first half. It was pretty level pegging, but they probably edged the opening 10 minutes. As we knew, Bradford were comfortable in possession and had technically gifted players across the park. Pace was always going to be our major asset when attacking and that certainly was the case. Ross Cook broke through on a couple of occasions, once where he managed to round the keeper but was kept out by some brilliant last ditch defending on the line.
Ross had another opportunity not long after when he was put through on goal, but unselfishly tried cutting the ball back for his strike partner, Argent. Cook couldn't quite wrap his foot around the ball enough to cut it back and just missed Sam at the back post.
At the other end Atko made an incredible save from point blank range. It seems a strange thing to say, but as the rest of the crowd thought they were about to witness a certain goal, there was an unwavering sense of faith that Atko would make the save no matter what was thrown at him. The ball fell neatly to their striker in the penalty area, who lashed a fearsome strike to Craig's left hand side; he palmed the ball away to safety with lightning reactions. If that goal goes in, it changes the whole dynamic of the game. Before the game, I highlighted the importance of understanding everyone's role in the game and that they shouldn't underestimate the details in specific moments that could become match winning moments. Atko produced one of those moments. Should that go in, the whole dynamic of the game changes. Brilliant piece of goalkeeping.
Everiss and Duff were continually driving down the wings, with Parfitt and Jones linking up play nicely. Sturdy performance from our entire back four. If there was going to be a winner, as the game went on, it looked increasingly as though it was going to be us.
There was a spell of ten minutes where we failed to keep hold of the ball. Our attempts of clearances kept finding Bradford Town's well organised and well positioned players. We had to ride out the storm with a defensive grit and determination. We managed to do that and, as we approached the final 15 minutes of the game, we began to create chances on a pretty consistent basis.
Bradford were still playing well and we were aware of their threats, but we wanted to push for the winner. Cook was released by a flick on from Argent and with just the keeper to beat, he fired home! At that point in the game it felt well deserved, but we knew Bradford had the quality to get back into the game. We made a couple of changes in bringing on Joe Paris and Toby Jannaway; despite them both having valuable attacking qualities, their real qualities are within their defensive work. There is a risk in making such a change in that you can almost invite the pressure and find your team sinking nearer to the goal, but they played the situation very well. We also introduced Jack Coventry to the fold, who is like a magnet to the ball; he was influential in our ability to keep the ball in the final stages. Were it not for a last ditch interception, he could have had a goal to himself.
Our third goal did come, as Cook was released by Jannaway with a perfectly timed through ball. Cook raced past their last defender and slotted the ball neatly past the keeper! We needed that breathing space in the remaining final few moments. It can create a sense of uncertainty with only a goal separating the two teams, especially in cup matches, as the other team has nothing to lose in throwing bodies forward. We wanted to see out the game properly, we refocussed pretty quickly so that we took no chances in the closing stages.
The great support from Hartley cheered as the final whistle blew. It was a good game of football on a pitch that wasn't necessarily built for the greatest of games. Credit to both sides in that it was well spirited, professionally conducted and respectful. Those types of games can lead to heated battles where the football element almost comes secondary, but there was too much quality on the pitch to allow that to happen, thankfully.
With Hereford FC winning against Leicester Nirvana, we now face them on the 30th January in front of what is expected to be a bumper crowd. We enter the game as well documented underdogs - I've absolutely no problems with that. We can, however, enter that game full of confidence when it comes about. It will be a great occasion for the club and another opportunity to display the wonderful spirit our club possesses.
We now turn our focus to Wednesday when we travel to Guildford City FC. It's a completely different outfit to the side we played at the start of the season, so we go into the game with little knowledge of their style, we just know they have an abundance of quality individuals.
A huge thank you to everyone who played their part in Saturday's win - whatever your contribution, it's hugely appreciated by us and the boys. Special thanks to Bill Mitchell for his generosity after the game. [DB]