After plenty of additional training, the day had finally arrived and, having negotiated the challenges of the M25, the boys were ready for the Regionals. In a tough pool including last year's National winners, Canterbury, we knew we had to start strong against Reading to calm the nerves and set down a marker.
And that the boys did, in some style - Ben scored from a short corner after 1 minute, after strong and direct play from the push back. Another goal soon followed from Ben off a deflection at the next short corner, which chipped the keeper. Then a goal followed that warmed the coaches hearts, straight off the last training ground routine of widening the goal: Ben driving into the D and passing to Jack wide for the deflection into goal. Caspar continued to press and chase their defenders down, scoring the 4th and 5th as a direct result of the strong pressure placed on their ball carriers. 5-0 was a fantastic way to start, but we knew we had to increase the ball speed against Canterbury, who were up next.
We tried to play with speed, but Canterbury pressed us as we did Reading, forcing us to play too narrowly and pass loosely under pressure. Their good play told when Scott saved a shot with his leg off the line, leading to a P flick. Oscar stood resolute in goal but luckily wasn't really called into action, as the normally lethal Canterbury centre forward duffed his flick and Oscar gladly swept it away. Oscar did then make 4 great saves afterwards as Canterbury continued to push hard as we struggled with their movement off the ball. But we couldn't hold out and 1 missed Velcro mark allowed their player into the D and Oscar's goal was finally breached. We did have some attacks as we pushed back and passed wider, but they came to nought and we had lost 1-0.
The boys were down and knew that, if we won our next few games, we still faced a harder route to our goal of reaching the finals and the Nationals. But we had drilled them into taking each game as it comes and the last pool game against Trojans needed to be won to even make it out of the group. But we started sleepily and let them come at us, with their skilful right half causing us trouble. Josh bravely dived on the prickly Astro to intercept a great cross that was flashing across goal, earning himself a severe Astro burn down his left arm. He saved a probable goal as their centre forward was about to pounce, but unfortunately it signalled the end of his tournament due to the injury - a big, big blow to the team who would miss his marauding runs into the opposition. But we eventually offset some of Josh's sacrifice, with Ben scoring from a melee in the D and then sealing a hard fought victory with a great short corner strike into the corner. We had won ugly but had made it through to the quarter finals, into the knockout stages.
Sunbury & Walton were the worthy opposition, but Caspar was in determined form and scooped the 1st 2 goals, the first from a great drive into the D by Scott who picked out Caspar expertly with his cross. Ben A struck again from a short corner to make it 3-0 at half time and a just reward for some quality hockey. Sunbury got a goal back from a shortie and a few nerves crept back in as they upped their ball speed. However, Sammy showed what a versatile player he is, moving from defence to attack and slotting in 2 goals. The second in particular was pure class - beating 2 people at speed and then rounding the keeper to tap it in on the reverse. A 5-1 score line probably flattered us a bit but was a good reward for the defensive discipline shown by James and Scott, and strong running down the wings from Jack, Henry and Sam.
So it was Surbiton in the semis between us and a berth in the Nationals. We started with more poise and possession than against Canterbury, but struggled to generate enough ball speed to unleash Caspar down the lines. Surbiton managed to build pressure through more possession, but found Scott cutting down many of the attacks and Sammy posting up to interrupt their flow. However, a superb 1st time strike from their centre forward found the corner of our goal and soon after a short corner just managed to get through Oscar's defence and we were 2-0 down at half time. A rousing team talk, with the boys leading most of the discussion, unfortunately didn't stop a hard and fast attack from the restart and before we knew it, we were 4-0 down. To their great credit, the boys never stopped pushing and heads didn't drop. A formation change to 2 up front, with Scott holding the line at the back on his own, resulted in more pressure. With 4 minutes to go, Sam got a bouncing ball into the D and expertly despatched it on the half volley, slamming into the right hand board of the goal. Ben grabbed the ball from the goal, sprinted back to halfway and from the Surbiton restart we pressed hard and regained possession. Sammy dribbled into the D and smashed the ball into the right corner:4-2, could we do it?! We pressed and probed, Surbiton were rattled, but we did run out of time and the boys slumped to the ground, exhausted. We hadn't reached our target for the festival, but the boys knew they had played with spirit and their character and teamwork had helped them through tough periods.
So to the dreaded 3rd/4th play off, but could we end up with a medal as a just reward for our quality play and hard work? Winchester had just pushed Canterbury to a draw (and loss on flicks) so we knew it would be tough, but the boys started with speed and kept possession well. Jack marked his dangerous player out of the game and Henry finished off a mazy dribble into the D by Caspar with a great poacher's goal to make it 1-0 at half time. Ben scored early in the 2nd half to give us breathing room, but Winchester didn't stop attacking and a long through ball to their centre forward brought it back to 2-1. Caspar calmed our nerves with his 5th of the tournament but we were tiring, with Scott another walking wounded at the side of the pitch, exhausted from being the only player we hadn't substituted all day. Winchester brought it back to 3-2 with a lovely flick over Oscar and just before the end snuck in another goal to make it a 3-3 draw - dreaded penalty flicks was going to be the lottery to decide our day's hard work.
After the first barrage of 3 flicks it was 2-2 as Ben and Sam's strong flicks neutralised Winchester's similarly good flicks, so to sudden death. Ben dispatched his again, without nerves, and Winchester's flick was gleefully saved by Oscar: we'd got the bronze medal!! The disappointment of the semis was mainly forgotten as the boys leapt on Oscar to celebrate.
The feeling of the bronze medals around the necks was, we think, a good balm for not quite getting through and was, in reality, a fair result for our efforts over the day. It showed to us how narrow the margins are when playing at this level, and how we deserve to challenge for it. And 3rd in the South of England is pretty good!
The coaches would really like to thank the boys so much for their positive attitude, their happy demeanour and superb quality of hockey. They have been an absolute joy to coach this year and we thoroughly look forward to watching them develop and challenge for many more medals in the years to come.