Sat 9th Feb - AFC Henley Hotspurs vs Finchampstead Rovers
After a positive early pitch inspection, the Finchampstead Faithful travelled to Henley this week for a rematch against AFC Henley Hotspurs. The reverse fixture just two weeks ago ended in a tight 1-2 defeat for Rovers, but could they turn it around with two of their top goal scorers unavailable…?
It was clear from the off that conditions would be a major factor in how this match would play out - a powerful, gusting wind traversed the pitch from one goal line to the other. Combined with a ‘less than perfect’ playing surface, this was never going to be a classic, quick passing encounter - it was destined to be a battle of wills!
Finch were against the gale for the first half, but that didn’t stop them putting together the first meaningful attack of the match... Sam T sent one of his trademark long throws down the line from within the Rovers' half to find Ajay. With the ball at his feet, he stood strong against the Henley challenges, and managed to slip the ball down the line to winger George. Also battling against incoming defenders, George forced his way to the goal line, and at the second attempt delivered the ball into the box where Sam was reading and waiting. He flicked the ball up and volleyed goal-wards, and although he the Henley keeper gathered comfortably in the end, it was a promising team move to keep the Henley back line honest.
The wind factor was perfectly demonstrated moments later as Henley took a speculative shot from some 30 yards out - although off target it still arrived with pace, and Finch would need to be very aware of the danger from distance.
Moments later one of the Henley forwards got down the left wing, turning one defender then another, but crucially he wasn't allowed to cut inside and could only hit the top of the post from a tight angle.
The next attack was from Finch again. Leo broke down the wing and fired an early, diagonal cross into a crowded penalty area, but none of the Finch forwards could quite get a shot away in the pinball that ensued. Ajay took the resulting corner, which somehow went right across the penalty area towards a grateful Lucas C who connected well with the rising ball only to see it drift over the bar in the headwind.
Another run by George down the right was next, fighting past defenders and getting a great cross into the danger area, but again the ball held up in the wind for the keeper to gather in front of the onrushing Finch strikers.
Sam played a crisp one-two with Kamran, picking up the ball again and running all the way to the penalty area. He was eventually dispossessed, but the resultant corner, another good delivery from Ajay, found Sam again and the Henley keeper could only parry his powerful shot. Rovers were still looking dangerous, but the match remained goalless.
Henley preferred the direct approach, firing balls down the middle of the park for their quick forwards to chase with the wind at their backs. Jake M was critical to the Rovers defence throughout the match, using his pace and strength to nullify this threat on numerous occasions, as was keeper Luke who had to be quick off this line to close down the approaching strikers. Alfie had come on at right back by this point and was equally dogged in defence.
But eventually Henley played an early ball over the top of the high line of the Finch defence, and this time the Henley striker wouldn’t be caught, stroking his shot low into the right corner for 1-0.
Rovers were clearly disappointed to get caught out, but they held on until half-time and, given the conditions, the Faithful were still positive they could pull it back in the second half.
During his post match summary, coach Simon (today without the rest of the management team who were away on international duty) revealed he had delivered the proverbial rocket at half time, demanding 100% from each and every player, right to the end. And what a reaction he got from the boys…
Jake Mac was putting in a typically battling performance down the left wing and really came alive in the second half, taking on 3 or 4 defenders at times (including a notable nutmeg!), with Lucas S overlapping from left back to great effect.
Long throw specialist, Sam T, was sending bomb after bomb down the pitch for Rovers to chase, and eventually the pressure told with Henley conceding a free kick some 20 yards out.
Ajay stepped up, and although a decent strike it was just high and wide of the top right corner.
Henley were still breaking though, and one their strikers found himself in space running across the edge of penalty area next - fortunately his shot was high, and Luke had it covered, but Rovers couldn’t afford to relax for a moment.
Jake M had been moved into central midfield for the second half, and forcing the keeper to tip his long shot wide, he showed exactly why he’s a danger in that position.
Sam T, now back in central defence, along with Oliver made some crucial tackles to snuff out the Henley attacks, it was edge of the seat stuff at times. At right back, James took up a slightly deeper position under the guidance of coach Simon, which gave him the extra yard to catch the Henley wingers, poking the ball out from under their feet on a number of occasions. On the left, Lucas S was similarly finding a good balance between defence and attack, looking menacing when bringing the ball out of defence.
Then a great piece of skill from the Henley left winger saw him first beat James and then Jake M to get the goal within his sights, but Luke was up to the challenge and charged out bravely, diving at the attackers feet to block the shot. Another deep breath from the crowd, who knew Finch really couldn’t afford to go 2-0 down at that stage.
There was a strong (but respectful) penalty shout from Finch crowd as Jake Mac seemingly got taken down in the box as he was laying the ball off… but not given. However, finally the effort and patience was to be rewarded, as Jake M picked up ball in a central position outside the area, took two steps to his right to give himself some space, and bang - he struck the ball high into the right corner giving the Henley keeper no chance. 1-1 at last.
It's fair to say the game got a bit niggly towards the end of the second half, but with calming words from coach Simon ringing in their ears, Finch were the more disciplined, and it was Henley that gave away a free kick in a central area as the clock ticked into extra time. It was a long way out though, and a direct shot from there would require some power. After the usual suspects exchanged glances, somehow a decision was made and it was big Sam T that stepped out of defence to take responsibility, his teammates taking up advanced positions ready for the loose ball.
The crowd knew this was likely the last chance to snatch victory, and they held their collective breath as Sam struck the ball high over the Henley defence.... would the prevailing wind carry it over the bar... for a moment it looked like it might, but no, the ball dipped and nestled exquisitely in the top right corner beyond the outstretched keeper!! And the crowd went WILD!!! (whilst maintaining full respect for the opposition and their supporters, remaining behind the respect line at all times, and remembering that it's not all about the winning, of course).
Sam charged back down the field, arms outstretched, pursued by his cheering teammates, but there was barely time to reset for the kick off as the ref blew for full time. What a result!
As we knew at the start, this was never going to the prettiest football match. Rather it was all about effort, desire and playing for the team, and for that the boys of Finchampstead Rovers should be very proud of themselves. Those watching from the sidelines certainly were.
AFC Henley Hotspurs 1 - 2 Finchampstead Rovers