Evo-Stik League Southern Division One Central
New season, new management, new Chairman, new (ish) team and a new challenge. Only four of the players that started on Saturday survived from last year, testament to the fact that, following Jamie Lawrence’s departure, new boss Paul Burgess has wasted no time in assembling a brand new squad that look like they will have no problems in competing at this level despite the fact that four of them were playing this standard of football for the very first time.
Those of us who have known Burgo for a long time will tell of his single mindedness and stubborn streak that kept him at the top of his game for twenty years and nearly 700 appearances at Ashford where, even when Ashford were competing in the Ryman Premier, he was the best and most respected keeper in the league.
Burgo is without a doubt his own man and that, coupled with his other attributes mentioned above, will ensure that defeat will not be tolerated lightly as he strives to take Ashford forward and with former Staines Town and Ashford defender Steve Battams as his assistant and “Coach of the Year” Ben Murray at his side, the future looks a lot brighter for Ashford.
The first chance of the new season for either of these two teams came after just 78 seconds and fell to the hosts when Tom Kanek sent over a curling free kick from the Ashford left that fell to the feet of Mark Bitmead who had two shots blocked by Anthony Russell in the visitors goal, the second bouncing out for a corner.
Just two minutes later and following good link-up play on the right between Jack Mullan and Josh Andrews, Kanek latched on to an Andrews cross to force the ball past Russell to chalk up his and Ashford’s first goal of the new campaign.
The goal seemed to spark Northwood into life and they started to compete a little more with Sam Sharples looking dangerous in midfield. Sharples waltzed through two challenges, in the seventh minute, before releasing to Ben Alexander who rolled the ball wide of Steve Windegaard’s goal but the assistant had his flag up for off-side anyway.
Two minutes later Northwood had the ball in the Ashford net but, after consulting the assistant, who had raised his flag, again ruled that the “goal” was off-side.
The visitors finally equalised, after a spell of pressure a well taken corner from the right curled over defenders and attackers alike to the far post where Ben Alexander arrived unmarked to volley home.
Northwood went very close to taking the lead, two minutes later, Bairoh Conteh was penalised just outside his own penalty box for showing his studs in the tackle, Wayne O’Sullivan stepped up to send a good free-kick over the wall where it struck the bar and bounced to safety. Conteh was at the centre of things again shortly after when he challenged the lofty Northwood striker Oliver Hawkins with the ball coming off Hawkins for a goal-kick. Alexander begged to differ and was cautioned for over enthusiastically continuing the debate.
Kanek followed Alexander into the referee’s book, shortly after, for sliding in with studs raised.
Neither side managed to gain the upper hand and the match went from end to end with neither keeper being unduly troubled. Jim Mann was cautioned for an innocuous challenge before Wayne O’Sullivan threaded a ball through to Lee Grant but the Northwood left back shot wide of Windegaard’s far post.
The game was held up for some time while Russell received treatment then, just after he was pronounced fit to continue, Mann slid in late on Sharples to earn a second yellow followed by a red card.
Six minutes into the second half, the visitors took the lead. Grant got forward from his left back position and played the ball across Windegaard to the far post where it was touched home by Alexander.
The impressive Josh Andrew sped down the Ashford right, two minutes later. Mark Bitmead managed to deflect Andrews cross into the path of Kanek who saw his well taken shot saved at the cost of a corner.
Northwood had plenty of possession but posed little threat to Windegaard’s goal, especially after Alexander was taken off. Their main tactic was to play the ball up to Hawkins to exploit the striker’s height but he was marshalled superbly by young Bairoh Conteh.
Ashford clawed their way back into the game and very nearly grabbed an equaliser when Bitmead cut in from the right and unleashed a vicious left-footed drive that Russell acrobatically tipped over his bar then, after Dan Brown, who had covered every blade of grass, robbed Murray Williamson of the ball with a text-book tackle, the ball was played left to substitute Rob Curtis whose cross was headed over by Bitmead.
Then, in the seventy-second minute, Kiri Takahiro (pictured, left) wriggled past three challenges down the left before being unceremoniously floored by Silcott, who received a caution. Kanek swung in a teasing free-kick that Brown met with his head and despite the valiant efforts of Russell, guided the ball into the back of the net for a deserved equaliser.
Card happy referee Mr Webb was not happy with the reaction to another of his decisions by Northwood manager Gary Meakin and promptly sent him from the dugout, returning shortly after to send Meakin to sit in the stands.
The game looked to be heading for a stalemate when, in the fourth minute of time added on, Bitmead slipped his marker and made his way into the penalty box where he was tripped. Mr Webb, who was well positioned to view the incident, had no hesitation in awarding the penalty. Tom Kanek stepped up to the penalty spot and confidently dispatched the ball low past the diving Russell’s right hand.
There was barely time to re-start the game before Mr Webb bought the proceedings to their conclusion.
Burgo’s boys will meet stiffer opposition as the season progresses but this was a good introduction to this level for those without the experience of playing first team football before. One of those players, Dan Brown, put in a man of the match display with his non-stop running and his well taken goal and he said after the game that he was confident that with some hard work he would cope with the step up in pace and general standard of play and that he will be working to improve his touch and sharpness.