Ryman League Premier Division,
The glorious 16th. The opening day of another football season. One wonders at what future trials and tribulations as well as days of joy await us over the coming eight months. Manager Mark Butler has down-played any talk of going ‘one better’ this season and making the play-offs, but, the players seem in confident mood, a far cry from the corresponding day last season, and showed that in their display at Hastings, while not hitting the heights, was enough to encourage the supporters into believing that a play-off place is very achievable.
With skipper Gavin Bamford serving the last of his 4 match suspension incurred the previous season and Scott Todd recovering from his summer knee operation missing from the squad, Mark started with Adam Logie the holding midfielder in a 4-4-2 formation along side Ricky Wellard, acting skipper Paul Johnson with Warren Harris wide right. Craig Ross continued between the sticks while his four man defence consisted of Vinnie O’Sullivan and Ricardo Josephs. In central defence Stuart Bamford was paired with Billy Jeffreys while Byron Harrison and Scott Harris provided the attack.
On a very nearly perfect day for football and with the pitch, as you would expect for this time of year, looking superb, the visitors kicked off and immediately settled into the ascendancy with Hastings forced into some desperate defending.
Harrison had a golden opportunity in the first minute, latching onto a long ball by Bamford but only tamely heading into the grateful arms of Chris May but, after weathering the early storm, Hastings hit back with chances of their own. Milton Miltiadou sent a measured pass down the left into the path of Frankie Sawyer but Jeffreys was well placed to clear the danger.
A speculative effort from Johnson flew over May’s bar, with the keeper well out of position, before Hastings had a good chance of their own to open the scoring. The lively Antonio Gonnella wriggled his way clear of Joseph and crossed to Sawyer, but the striker contrived to head wide from close range. Shortly after, Jeffreys provided a curling cross to the far post to where Johnson was arriving, Johnson nodded the ball into the path of Warren Harris but May managed a fine save from the young winger.
Another chance went begging for the hosts, in the 14th minute. Gonnella’s driven free-kick being headed wide, this time by Scott Ramsay then, 6 minutes later, it must have seemed that the gods of ill-fortune were looking down on Hastings as a tremendous shot from Sawyer rebounded out after hitting the underside of Ross’ bar.
Scott Harris (left) and Byron Harrison both went close from crosses by Warren Harris shortly after before Ashford took the lead. The visitors forced a corner which was swung in by Warren Harris to where brother Scott out jumped his marker to head home via the underside of the bar.
Harris very nearly took his and his sides’ tally to two soon after, heading Logie’s pass wide from a Johnson free-kick.
Hastings suffered more bad fortune just before the break when right back Danny Spice was forced off with an injury to be replaced by Paddy Cody.
An astute pass by Johnson found Josephs in space on the left who cut inside and crossed low to Warren Harris whose usual poise and deadly eye deserted him and he missed the ball completely with only May in front of him.
The Middlesex side increased their lead on the hour with a stunning second goal for the older Harris. Warren Harris ran on to a good ball out of defence and took on his marker before passing inside to Harrison who calmly beat his man and laid the ball in to Scott Harris. Harris allowed the ball to run wide, drawing May off his line, before turning and curling a superb shot into the back of the net from just inside the penalty area.
Harris had a good chance for his hattrick, five minutes later, but headed Johnson’s free-kick over then, Wellard found Harrison with a well weighted pass, the tall striker cut inside and fired just past May’s near post.
Hastings young side seemed to have run out of ideas and started to look a little tired, a situation not helped when Nathan Russell was stretchered off after tangling with Harrison, leaving the Sussex side with ten men having used all their substitutes, but deep in injury time, and against the run of play, they pulled a goal back. A weak pass in the centre of midfield by Wellard was intercepted and pushed hopefully forward to substitute Marc Whiteman. A mix-up in defence and a fortuitous deflection saw Whiteman in space with the ball at his feet and he poked the ball past Ross.
After the match Mark Butler proclaimed his satisfaction at the work rate and passing for the majority of the game from his men but, as expected, was disappointed with the ratio of chances taken against chances created and the surrendering of a soft goal at the end of the game.
Pluses for Ashford were the solid central defensive partnership being forged by Stuart Bamford and Billy Jeffreys, both of whom enjoyed excellent games, while O’Sullivan and Joseph looked difficult to beat and used the ball intelligently all match. Warren Harris continued to excel on the flank, Johnson pulled the strings in midfield, Logie protected the defence with a solid display, the strikers Scott Harris and Harrison combined flair with muscular refusal to be beaten and 18 year old Craig Ross continues to show great promise in goal while Ricky Wellard has enjoyed better games but I am sure it won’t be long before he reaches the form he showed last season.