After the disappointment of a hard fought exit from the cup in the previous week the big question on the minds of supporters, would they see the winds of change for the Rovers as they took on 4thplaced Scorpions?
The mood from the home crowd was positive, as whilst results have not gone the way of the Rovers, many are beginning to see the green shoots of self-belief and confidence in the boys, guided by one of the most positive coaches in the modern East Berks era.
After failing a late fitness test the home supporters were disappointed to hear that George S was side-lined with a niggling injury but were instantly lifted by the news that Gemma would still be providing half time home cooked hot sausage rolls, and remain hopeful that these will force themselves into a regular half time feature.
With players 15 available for selection and buoyed by the confidence taken from last week’s performance the boys were raring to go. The conditions could not be better with a perfectly watered pitch from overnight rainfall, the emerald green carpet like pitch was glistening in the early afternoon sunshine, the scene was set for the team to turn on the style and provide the crowd with a pulsating match on a glorious autumnal afternoon.
Could the team perform with the same expansive style of play and dominate the opposition, as it had done against higher league opposition in the previous week or would the Scorpions provide a sting in the tail?
The game was preceded by a minutes silence for remembrance day and the boys gathered side by side, as a team, as brothers in arms, focussed and ready to unleash total football on the Scorpions. This brief moment of pensive calm created an air of anticipation that the crowd were going to witness a classic today. Whilst the teams remembered those who fought 100 years ago, they waited like two tribes ready for battle in the sporting arena.
In the brief instant between the end of the minutes silence and the start of the supporters applause there seemed to be a pause, only momentary and barely noticeable but a short, sharp breeze stirred and whilst we couldn’t be certain it seemed to whisper……… ‘its coming home’……… come on Rovers!!!
The teams took up their positions and with the smell of wet grass in the air, the distant sound of spectators roaring voices of encouragement the ref blew his whistle, ringing out that familiar short symphony that signals the start of a perfect Saturday afternoon at the home of football.
In the opening minutes of the game something was missing, there wasn’t the rhythmic sound of leather on ball, the ballroom like elegance of pass and move or the tikka taka that had been witnessed in the previous week but more of a hurried approach as the Rovers were swarmed upon by the relentless pressing of the Scorpions in small swarms restricting the Rovers to short flurry’s of rather scrappy possession.
After surviving a couple of early scares the Rovers settled a little and began to find their passing range with some nice moments of build-up play but found it difficult to penetrate the Scorpions well organised defence.
The Scorpions then began to enjoy more of the ball and the Rovers began to tire a little as they had to continually chase in an attempt to recover the ball. With this the Rovers had unknowingly compacted in shape into the central passage of the pitch, whilst they sought respite and recovery time, which left the flanks exposed for the Scorpions to exploit in pincer movements and inevitably they broke into the Rovers box.
Here they fired their first shot across the bows and but for a last ditch block by Jake M, reminiscent of Nemanja Vidic, they could have scored, but wait…….the block only provided a split second of relief as the ball then ricocheted directly into the gaping goal at almost point blank range forcing Luke C into his first real test of the day with a full stretch dive and strong hand he palmed the ball over the bar into safety, reproducing the iconic save made by Gordon Banks in the 1970 world cup…..but at the expense of a corner. That moment seemed to awaken something in the boys and rallying calls rang out in unison with fists thumping palms as they organised themselves for the corner.
The game continued with the balance of possession and goal scoring chances just tipped in favour of the visitors and then it happened, as the Rovers tried to play out from the back, a brief moment of indecision on the ball and the relentless pressing of the Scorpions meant the Rovers were caught in possession 20 yards outside their penalty area. Then a quick and optimistic punt forward by the Scorpions, they played in one of their strikers between two Rovers defenders who turned to give chase. The Rovers defence afforded a fleeting glance towards the linesman hoping to see a raised flag flapping in the breeze to relieve them of their anguish but it remained firmly by the linesman’s side which left the running Scorpion one on one with the keeper and like a deadly predator he struck the ball past the helpless on rushing keeper………0-1.
Disappointed the Rovers picked themselves up and restarted the game but were still unable to find the possession and samba like tempo that they were looking for. Spells of control came and went, Sam F jinking between their midfield players like a vintage Paul Scholes got the crowd up on their tip toes but still Scorpions swarmed and pressed the Rovers and quickly succeeded in breaking down any creativity the Rovers could muster.
Then a neat and tidy passage of play along the left flank as Lucas S striding out from the back with the ball found a simple pass inside to Lucas C who played the ball first time to Sam F who then linked up with Harrison B on the touchline 40 yards from the Scorpions goal. In that instant Harrison B evaded the Scorpion full back with an audacious Cruyff like turn which increased the decibel level of the home supporters with a rapturous roar of approval (mainly Keir), the sound of which cracked like a whip and dispersed nearby nesting birds in their hundreds into flight.
As the Crowthorne Messi gave the Scorpions the slip and dashed towards their box the Rovers were handed a moment of hope, could this be the moment for a Rovers reply, no, the Rovers were again quickly closed down.
This was followed by a brief spell of midfield success as Lucas C found his passing range and with Pirlo like calmness and accuracy he began to send slide rule passes between and behind scorpion defenders for the tireless Nathaniel, James, Jake and Alfie to connect with but to no avail as the alert goalkeeping of the Scorpions stopper kept the Rovers at bay. James and Alfie continued with forays into the wide areas of the Scorpions half but the final ball, the decisive link up pass kept eluding them.
Still the Rovers persevered and with an innocuous looking free kick, awarded for offside, Kam with the vision of a long range sniper, clipped a beautifully flighted ball into the stride of Nathaniel’s well timed run which kept him onside but sent him into the Scorpions box beyond the last defender. Fresh from practising his finishing in exactly same scenario in the pre match warm up he struck a firm shot across the keeper and towards the corner of the goal and with that action time seemed to almost stop into a matrix like slow motion moment as the sweetly struck shot sliced through the air, goal bound. The supporters all held their breath anticipating the satisfying sight of the white net bulging under the impact of a football and the beaming smile of the celebrating striker as he reels away looking for his team mates.
In the same moment the Scorpions goalkeeper took flight, springing to his right and throwing out his right arm fully extended, at the end of which seemed to be the hand the size of a rowing paddle, which connected perfectly with the ball and like a perfectly choreographed save time returned to normal speed and the ball was diverted from its goal bound course with the only reward for the Rovers being a corner, albeit with a hint of encouragement.
Half time and down a goal the Rovers came off to re-group and take on board some tactical changes from the manager. Rehydrated and re-motivated the Rovers took to the pitch. Could the second half bring a change in fortune or would the Scorpions continue to show their unwavering resilience.
More of the same followed but as both teams tired the game became stretched and the Rovers enjoyed a few more chances although these were counter acted by more defending to do as the game swung back and forth like a relentless pendulum.
Chasing the game the Rovers changed tactics to a more direct style of play, looking to turn the Scorpions defence. The Rovers utilised their secret weapon, the long range throw of Sam T who, like a trebuchet, hurled the ball deep into Scorpions territory like a flaming projectile in the hope that it would breach their defence.
With the Rovers attack also now led by AJ, he tried to use his power and strength like a raging bull to batter the Scorpions defence into submission but with the swarming style of the Scorpions defence he was constantly overwhelmed and any hint of a Rovers chance evaporated like the morning mist.
The sands of time were running low, ebbing away, painfully counting down and seemingly gathering momentum like the doomsday clock. As the Rovers hunted and pushed forwards for that elusive equaliser they simultaneously walked the tight rope of conceding a second goal from which there would be no Rovers Return. Mirroring the Rovers fortunes over the course of the game the weather had turned from a bright and optimistic afternoon gradually becoming overcast, slowly darkening as the Scorpions tightened their grip and almost as a sign that the last flame of hope of any Rovers resurgence would be extinguished by the Scorpions the skies opened into a downpour, but it couldn’t dampen the spirits of a resilient Rovers.
The dynamic midfield duo of Scholes and Pirlo, exhausted, somehow found another gear and looked to see if they could find a decisive pass or a moment of magic. Then a chance fell to the Rovers as Sam F picked up a loose ball and facing the wrong way laid it back to Sam T who passed square to Oliver C, composed and assured on the ball as ever, Oliver stroked a ball forward to Lucas C, who with his first touch played the ball away from a closing defender and then from 15 yards in front of the Scorpions right back played a long diagonal pass behind their left back into the path of the on running Leo just inside the Scorpions box. Again this stimulated the home supporters into roars of encouragement but as the ball arrived in front of Leo he could not quite get the touch he wanted and the ball just drifted away from goal giving the recovering defender the extra seconds he needed to block off the chance and in an instant the chance was gone.
The Scorpions continued to provide a threat and in the last few minutes their left winger ran onto a pass and with the momentum he had gained running onto the pass he looked certain to glide past the covering Lucas S at right back, but steady and composed Lucas S made a wonderfully well timed tackle to gather the ball and then embark on a marauding run out of defence like Cafu in his hey day. With time almost up Lucas S slipped a ball to Kam just inside his own half who then turned and ran, past one he was now in the opposition half, then past a second he was now deep in Scorpion territory, surely he couldn’t keep the run going? A third Scorpions defender then started to close in but with a drop of the shoulder Kam had lost him too and now found himself bursting into the right hand side of their penalty area, but that last touch was a tired and heavy one and the ball seemed to accelerate away from Kam’s control, drawn towards the bi-line like the millennium falcon caught in the death stars tractor beam and with that the ball drifted out for a goal kick.
From the goal kick a scrappy passage of play ensued from fatigued players and the Rovers soon won back possession. The ball was played forward in the final throws of the game and a Scorpions defender opted to concede a corner so he could use these moments to catch his breath. A corner, a chance, the last chance? AJ set the ball down by the flag and purposefully struck it in firmly towards the mass of players jostling for any advantage they could in the box. Taken from the right hand side with his right foot meant that the balls trajectory swung outwards away from the keeper and with masses of players in front of him meant it was unlikely he could navigate his way through to gather it into the safety of his hands.
As the ball floated into the penalty areas air space their first defender could not muster the energy required to leap and make a solid headed clearance but instead it skimmed the top of his head like a scalping blade resulting only in taking some pace off of the ball and diverted it to Lucas C who was prowling just outside the box.
The ball bounced just in front of Lucas C, 20 yards out from the goal, and sitting up provocatively, it taunted Lucas - ‘go on, I dare you, hit me’ and with no need for a second invitation he adjusted his body position and with perfect technique unleashed a vicious volley, struck cleanly with the laces of his right boot and ‘THUMP’ was the unmistakable sound of a ball being hit in the sweet spot. It departed his foot like a Exocet missile and with no back lift, if it was on target, it had a real chance of providing a moment of sheer elation and relief in what would surely be the last real chance of the game. Within milliseconds of the ball leaving Lucas’s boot followed ‘SLAP’ the wincing sound of a well executed belly flop as the ball connected with the unfortunate Jake M as he was trying to evade the shot it hit him square in the torso, the sight of watered eyes of the spectators could be seen as they flinched in sympathy. The chance was gone and then soon after the final whistle.
Whilst the result was disappointing and the performance had not quite been up to recent standards the boys worked hard and pulled out a real gritty display which was just lacking a little cohesion and self belief. This was against a top 4 side and in the end they only lost to a solitary goal which was conceded in a momentary lapse of concentration and so must take the positives from this to go on and string together some consistency to see if they can make a late push in the challenge for honours.