Hartley overcome 7th placed Horley Town in a difficult match at 'The New Defence'
Spectators of the game may not quite realise just how soft and sticky the pitch was on Tuesday evening. At first glance, it looked beautifully flat with great grass coverage. The reality when you stepped on top of it was somewhat different; it was incredibly soft and even walking across the pitch before the game you could have easily lost your footing.
...with Hartley down to 9 men, it was a backs against the wall job. The resilience, grit and determination that we'd thought we'd need to gain all three points became even more prevalent.
The game was always going to be a difficult one for a variety of reasons. It was our first game in nearly three weeks and, despite numerous fitness sessions, the rude awakening of your fitness requirements within a game always comes as a shock to the system. Secondly, with the hype surrounding the game on Saturday, the boys could easily have taken their eye off the game and diluted their focus because of it. Lastly and most importantly, in Horley Town we face stiff and difficult opposition.
Despite going into the break one up, it was a relatively even game throughout the first half. It took a while to learn the pitch, which might sound like an odd statement to make, but the surface was very difficult. The sign of a bad first touch was that you thought you'd had a good one, as the ball refused to roll in any areas of the pitch. It was also very difficult to plant your foot to strike through the ball, so the opening minutes were fuelled with a combination of under-hit passes and the ball sticking to the floor. I was pleased with the decision-making of the boys, it was important we didn't overplay in our own half, but we didn't resort to hopeful punts up field where lesser teams would have done.
Cook and Argent were always going to have their work cut out trying to gain the ball in good areas and attack with their usual free flowing nature. Despite the difficulties, they managed to combine on numerous occasions, creating good opportunities within the box. The boys behind them were working furiously in trying to play balls into dangerous areas, but were limited by good defensive work but arguably more because of the conditions.
There were very few chances in the first half. Ross did create a good opportunity when we regained the ball in a high area; he found 10 yards of space and unleashed a fearsome strike but into the arms of the keeper.
A cross was delivered into the box and flicked on by the powerful Liam Eagle. His header was met at the back post by a calm and collected, Steve Duff, who slotted the ball neatly past the keeper. It was an important goal and based on chances, well deserved.
Horley had their own chance not long after, but their striker dragged his shot wide after beating our line of defence. It was a quick lapse of concentration in terms of positioning and we were lucky that they didn't pull level.
Adam Everiss and Steve Duff whipped in some great crosses, Everiss' cross midway through the second half being the pick of the bunch. He stood his defender up, and beat him with explosive speed and fired a low cross in the 'corridor of uncertainty' (between the six yard box and the penalty spot for future reference!).
A penalty decision went against us when Sam Argent was clearly fouled inside the box by the goalkeeper; Sam stumbled and on his third or fourth stride managed to regain his balance but the ball was already running out of play. Upon questioning the Ref at half time, and despite my frustration it was done very calmly, I enquired if the Ref would have given a foul had he gone to ground and he said 'yes'. Apparently him not going down delivers a 'different circumstance' which I am not sure I understand. A second goal would have opened up the game further but it wasn't to be. We went into the break one up.
There was a reminder that we needed to show the grit and determination which had already been on show in the first half and on numerous occasions during the earlier stages of the season. It was also key that we continued to make the right decisions in the right areas.
The second half started much like the first in that the pitch dictated a lot of the play. Sam Argent, who has been suffering from a severe illness all week, was starting to fatigue, so we decided to put on Toby Jannaway to add an extra dimension to our midfield. Noakes was sent off following a second yellow card which meant we had to shuffle the pack again, moving Jannaway to the right back position.
As the game continued, we were coming under continual pressure from Horley, although they were limited to shots from distance which rarely troubled Atko. There was one opportunity, however, where a deep cross managed to find its way to an on-running midfielder following a deflection. The ball seemed to take an age to drop and, with Atko's presence, the midfielder tried taking the shot early, at the ball's highest point, but couldn't get enough power on the shot to beat our number one.
Our now lone striker, Ross Cook, worked hard to close down their defenders in a bid to stop them progressing up the field, but the sticky pitch took its toll and he had to be replaced by Jack Coventry. Those substitutions alone demonstrate the quality within the squad, plus to still have Jake and Joe as unused subs is a fantastic position to find ourselves in at this stage of the season.
Now, I have mentioned above about the difficulties within the pitch.. every player when taking a throw-in needed to wipe the ball for the slightest chance of managing to grip it. This was not a problem for the first 85 minutes, however, the ref decided it was a problem in the final stages of the game when he booked our left back, Tom Walsh, for time wasting. A very strange decision as he'd taken no longer than anyone else during the game to take a throw, both home and away. It was more notable because Walsh received his second yellow moments later when he made a foul on the edge of the box. Couldn't argue with that yellow, but certainly what went before it.
So with Hartley down to 9 men, it was a backs against the wall job. The resilience, grit and determination that we'd thought we'd need to gain all three points became even more prevalent. Fair play to the boys, they dug deep and held on to the victory.
Personally, I think we slightly edged the game considering the chances we created, the penalty decision, the strange sending offs; I think we can walk away pleased with the win and argue that it was deserved. Credit to Horley who are always a well run and well organised outfit. They'll take a lot of points off top teams this year and will be up there themselves come the end of the season. There wasn't an ill mannered tackle throughout the whole game, but the ref created a lot of paperwork for himself. Both teams can take pride in trying to make it a football match, in difficult circumstances, a lot of quality was shown on the night albeit in patches.
We can now look forward to the FA Vase on Saturday. We are expecting a big crowd and a great atmosphere. It's a really good occasion for the club and we are sure the boys will deliver a performance worthy of a win on Saturday afternoon. Thanks for your support. [DB]