EHL Men’s Conference North
Belper 3, Harborne 3
BELPER men showed their character in a game full of contentious decisions to come from two goals down and gain the point which preserves their national league status for another season.
Meeting their closest rivals in the league table was always going to be a ‘six pointer’ with a win making Belper safe and a draw also being sufficient if other results went their way.
The Nailers were forced to make key changes in the line up. Skipper Richard Kitchen was only fit enough for a place on the bench due to a hamstring injury picked up in training.
Keen to banish the poor first half performances that have blighted the later part of the season, Belper prepared thoroughly for the match with a longer warm up. Both sides started the game playing some nice hockey but with neither defence giving much away.
The first chance of the game fell to Belper with David Boddy seeing his flicked shot saved at the near post by the Harborne ‘keeper.
Just as Belper were making headway into the game, Harborne broke away to take a 16th minute lead when the visitors advanced into the circle on the back line from a long corner and a driven pass across the goal for Alex Kotlarzewski to divert in at the far post, just ahead of Chris Hall’s diving tackle.
As Belper tried to move the ball forward some overloads were created and Harborne struggled to get hold of the ball.
However, as Belper pushed higher up the pitch, this created spaces at the back. On one occasion Harborne gained possession and hit the ball long on the counter. Kotlarzewski was presented with an opportunity in the circle but was stopped by a good save from Neill Slane, getting down well to his right and deflecting the ball past the post.
Belper equalised on 27 minutes. They were awarded a penalty stroke for a foul on Sam McCambridge and for the third week in succession Luke Davies again performed under pressure, placing the ball neatly under the diving Harborne keeper for his third goal in as many weeks.
It was at this point that Belper should have stepped up and controlled the game through keeping possession.
However, the game became more scrappy with a number of heavy tackles epitomising both sides’ appetite to stay in the league.
Whilst there was no malice at all between the two sides the umpiring inconsistency created frustration amongst both sets of players.
As the half started to wind down Belper were firmly in possession and were looking to see the half out. With barely ten seconds of the half left, Belper turned the ball over and Harborne broke at pace on the counter. Chris Adams fired a cross towards the Belper goal from the 25 yard line just as umpire Brownbridge was about to blow the half time whistle. As he blew, James Thurtle arrived at the back post and deflected the ball past Slane.
The appeals from the Belper players and bench fell on deaf ears as the goal was awarded and the hosts were 2-1 down at half-time, or just after depending on how you saw it!
As Belper moved out for the second half there was a mood that the squad could overcome the deficit and record a win.
Things did not start well as Tom Sherratt was yellow carded for dissent and sin binned for five minutes.
Belper needed to consolidate their position and did so quite well. When Sherratt was re-introduced to the fray, Belper looked to move forward down the flanks.
Unfortunately the next goal came from Harborne. From a wide sideline hit, Harborne managed to get the ball to Chris Adams on the back line. He passed Luke Davies and Sam Hawkes before moving infield and shooting hard past Slane at his near post and it was 3-1 down on 42 minutes.
Frustration got the better of Belper and play became scrappy. However, the work rate and movement of the home swide improved significantly.
On one occasion as Harborne moved forward, Joe Sharp made a tackle on the halfway line that was perhaps a little rash and the Harborne player certainly made the most of it. As the visiting player got up he made the self-pass and ran straight at Joe who continued to retreat all the way to the 25 yard line before attempting to play the ball.
Sharp was awarded a yellow card for not retreating five metres despite playing the ball a full 20 metres from where the free hit was taken from.
Belper’s frustration at receiving a yellow card for an offence that did not receive any card the previous week, was plain for all to see.
Joe’s frustration was evident and contributed to his longer suspension for the rest of the game. After repeated requests from umpire Stott to be quiet, skipper Richard Kitchen was given a ‘team’ yellow card forcing Belper to withdraw another player from the pitch.
Belper were now down to nine players and 3-1 down. Things were not looking good for the Nailers.
The inconsistent application of the rules frustrated both sides and the Harborne centre back was also yellow carded for dissent.
This brought the game more even and both sides had opportunities. Adams forced Slane to save with his left foot off a reverse stick shot and both James Blackwell and Tom Sherratt saw short corner efforts well saved by the Harborne keeper.
As Belper were restored to ten men in the 55th minute, Tom Sherratt combined well with James Blackwell to pass into the Harborne circle and David Boddy finished superbly into the bottom left corner to draw a goal back at 2 – 3.
Belper began to exert more influence on play and the introduction of Mark Lamb to the back four allowed James Blackwell more freedom in the midfield to probe forward.
More chances were generated and it was surely only a matter of time until Belper equalised. Sam McCambridge went very close with an effort that just cleared the crossbar.
Indeed, McCambridge’s frequent leads caused problems for the visitors as they tried to track the Belper target man across the circle.
From one such lead Sherratt was able to exploit the space generated by Sam’s run and drove down the back line. His pass back to the striker was intercepted by a defender but the ball looped up into the air towards the top of the circle. Chris Hall was the closest Belper player to the ball and he had to jump to control the ball and bring it down safely. Now being at the top of the circle he beat the keeper by sending an unstoppable shot into the bottom left hand corner.
Belper almost won the game when Dave Boddy just failed to make contact.
There was just enough time for another yellow card, awarded this time to Simon McCollum for breaking play down by taking a ball above shoulder height.
News came through of Barford Tigers loss to Leek. Belper were now safe from the relegation play-offs. As the Belper players celebrated, the Harborne squad were visibly very low, having snatched a draw from a very strong position.
They now face the unenviable task of needing to get a result at title-chasing Durham this week to avoid the play-offs while Barford face fellow strugglers Ben Rhydding.
Belper take on second placed and title-chasing Sheffield Hallam at the Meadows this Sunday in the final match of the season.