In a much anticipated fixture between two title chasing sides, Hartley travelled to Epsom on a chilly but fine evening. Credit to the Epsom ground staff who had prepared a great surface for the game and, despite it turning out to be quite a physical battle, it was a pitch that enabled both teams to display patches of good quality football.
It was a tough game, a real spirited battle between two sides who were strong, both in physical presence and also footballing capabilities.
Epsom started the brighter in the early exchanges of the game after Hartley lost immediate possession from kick-off and conceded a foul thirty seconds into the game. Although it came to nothing, it set the tone for the opening ten minutes as we struggled to get a hold of the game. Epsom continued to commit bodies forward and take advantage of their early pressure, but they came up against an in-form Craig Atkinson who kept them at bay with two fine early saves.
Twenty minutes in and Hartley began creating our own chances after gaining good ground up the pitch and having sustained periods of possession. Adam Everiss worked hard to regain possession and delivered a cross but we couldn't keep the header down. Evo's workrate has been superb, even more so over recent weeks; his pace is a tremendous asset in attack, but also in his defensive work as he is able to track players who already have yards on him.
Duff and Everiss had swapped wings in a bid to enforce Steve Duff to drive passed players on his more natural side. On 24 minutes Hartley benefited from the switch as Duffers, in his normal train-like fashion, drove down the left-hand side, flying passed their right back and delivering a cross into the box. Adam Everiss promptly showed the clinical side to his game in front of goal, when he pounced to meet the cross and steered a shot beyond Epsom keeper, Michael Eacott, after taking a touch inside.
It was a bit of a let off. Although we were pleased to take advantage of our short dominance during that 5-10 minute spell, we needed to improve dramatically if we were wanting to go home with a win. Although we became a little more settled, we were still making seemingly obvious errors and making life hard for ourselves, with too many touches in and around our own box.
Liam Eagle and Steve Noakes dealt with the Epsom aerial threat for large proportions of the game. The hosts then continually tried to play long diagonal balls and isolate full backs; we managed to combat that by being a little braver in our pressing game, and also getting bodies around the drop down, ready for the second ball.
We went in at half time with the message that we needed to eradicate the unforced errors and improve our decision making. Half Time 1-0.
Pleased to say that the boys took the message on board and produced a much improved second half performance. Epsom were not without their own chances, which included a terrific save from Atko when a long range effort seemed destined for the top corner.
We added Joe Paris and new signing, Dan Akinwande, into the fold. 'JP' was a great substitution as he bolstered our midfield ranks with his instinctive defensive attributes; he plugged the gaps that Epsom were beginning to find. He was on the receiving end of a moment of off-the-ball madness from Epsom's number 11, Matt Ferdinando, who was sent off, with both linesmen in agreement with the ref's decision.
For those who are yet to see Dan Ak's qualities, you will soon learn. A great addition to our squad who is a constant aerial threat and strong in a challenge, with a workrate to match.
Another new signing, Dean Stow's entrance into the match added a calmness and quality to our game. One of his many qualities is his ability to take the ball in tight areas and still find a yard of space to bring other players into the game.
It was something we lauded after the game, to be in a situation where we can look to our bench and know that every person on there can make a positive impact on the game. Even Jake Maddock - I say 'even' because the only element of doubt you may have is down to his age - has proven to us, every time he's been called upon, that he is more than capable of stepping in.
It was a tough game, a real spirited battle between two sides who were strong, both in physical presence and also footballing capabilities. Our man of the match would have to go to Atko (Craig Atkinson), but I also thought Shane Hollamby was superb. He started the game up front with Sam Argent and the pair linked up very well once again, but due to an injury he then played at centre half; he was cool, calm and collected and most of all decisive in everything that he did.
We saw out the game with strong and resilient defending and intelligent play going forward. It wasn't the prettiest of wins, but a game of this magnitude was always going to have an element of grit about it. As I've said all season, there will be no let up, we have a desire as management and as a squad in our quest to continue to get stronger.
It could have easily been a draw and I am sure Epsom feel hard done by to not come away with anything. I think we shaded the overall performance on the night, certainly in the second half, but it's a results industry and we are very pleased to have taken all three points. A great win. [DB]