Belper come back down to earth

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Sheffield Hallam 5

Belper Hockey Club 1sts 3

It was a very sunny Sunday afternoon as Belper travelled the short distance to rivals Sheffield Hallam for the latest fixture in their England Hockey Conference North campaign.

Travelling on the back of three successive wins in the league, the side was confident that they were going to Abbeydale with the ability to cause Sheffield serious problems.

The return of Ben Inshaw and Steve Batten to the squad meant coach Duncan Woods had a fully-fit squad to choose from. The unseasonably warm weather meant it would be likely that all members of the squad would be utilised in an effort to keep ‘fresh legs’ on the pitch as much as possible.

Previous encounters between the sides have yielded some spectacular goals and score lines in previous seasons as both sides look to play more open attacking hockey. This game appeared to be no different and the selected squads said as much. The back four remained unchanged from the previous week’s efforts. The midfield trio also remained the same with Ebbage and Lingeswaran retaining their places on the left and right flank respectively. Kitchen remained the rock in the middle of the Belper team with a frontline of Cassidy, Walton and Morris rounding off the line-up.

The opening exchanges of the game were very frantic with both sides looking to impose themselves on the game. The Sheffield forward line made no secret of their tactics for the day with frequent overloads causing all of the Belper back four to be marking Sheffield players and being pulled out of position.

Despite this, the first opportunity of the game fell to Belper in the shape of a penalty corner. The initial flick from Blackwell was well saved as was the subsequent follow-up from Cassidy but the rebound fell into a melee of defenders and attackers around the penalty spot.

Lingeswaran was the first to react and managed to claw the ball away from the baying Sheffield defenders and deftly reverse flick the ball towards the home goal. It was a delightful piece of skill and was rewarded with the first goal of the game and Lingeswaran’s first in eth league for his new side. 0–1 after six minutes.

For the next ten minutes, Belper really turned the screw on Sheffield with the home side having great difficulty in getting the ball moved between their lines. This was in part due to the fantastic workrate of the midfield trio denying the Sheffield side the space to play the passes they wanted to.

Unfortunately, chances were at a premium and Belper failed to seriously threaten the Sheffield goal during this time with only Morris and Innocent getting efforts on target.

As can be expected at Sheffield, they rallied and were soon probing the Belper side to try and identify where they could get the ball forward. They were limited to hopeful balls being hit in to the circle and received little reward. However a small mistake eventually led to Sheffield winning a soft penalty corner. Unfortunately for Belper, their usually reliable defence was unzipped by a powerful low flick from Phil Roper that went in with the aid of a small deflection to make it 1–1 in the 26th minute.

Belper looked to try and remain compact and tight after this slight setback but Sheffield had their tails up and were now dictating the play. They were rewarded with another penalty corner after a Sheffield forward pushed the ball past Jake Bullock and ran into him. He was unlucky to concede the corner as on another day play may well have been waved on. Phil Roper took the opportunity to add his second of the game with a high flick that rattled in off the post to make it 2–1 after 30 minutes.

Belper would have been forgiven for allowing their heads to drop but coach Woods rang the changes introducing Inshaw and Walton back into the fray.

This was rewarded with some more pressure being put on the Sheffield defence moving forward. A fantastic cross from the right from Innocent evaded the entire Sheffield defence to be finished off by Walton at the far post to draw the teams level after 34 minutes.

Belper went straight back on the attack from the pushback, harrying Sheffield into a turnover and gifting possession to Belper. From this attack, Innocent found a Sheffield foot in the circle and Belper were awarded a penalty corner. The half-time whistle was blown and Belper players congregated around the circle to try and eke out an advantage.

Two variations were tried but each was only rewarded with a re-award of the corner. At the third attempt Mark Lamb thundered a strike in that lifted off the ‘keeper and into the roof of the net much to the visitor’s delight.

It was Lamb’s first goal since his return to the side this season and was well-deserved.

Belper were warned at half-time that the two goals just before the break had been a bonus and that they still had to work hard and compete to remain in the match. With this in mind, coach Woods asked his players to make the next step and take the game up a notch in pace and quality.

Immediately after the break, Belper started to dominate play and enjoyed ten minutes of relative comfort with Sheffield only having the odd counter attack. Unfortunately, Belper were unable to take advantage of their ascendancy as Cassidy saw his effort saved by the home ‘keeper. As this period wore on, Sheffield grew in confidence and a lax turnover led to Brendan Creed being able to walk into the Belper circle, evade a couple of tackles and calmly finish past an unsighted Slane in the visitor’s goal. It was a tough blow to the Belper side who had worked so hard to be in the ascendancy.

What developed next was a period of scrappy play that saw both sides vie for supremacy with lots of effort being made all over the pitch. This period saw three yellow cards dished out by the umpires to both sides as James Blackwell, David Goodfield and Phil Roper spent some time on the sideline.

Eventually the pressure told as Sheffield won another penalty corner and Mike Shaw was able to finish low past a flatfooted Slane to give his side the lead in the 50th minute.

Belper were being stretched and dominated by the Sheffield front six and did well to defend a couple of pacey counter-attacks. Belper threatened on one occasion when Lingeswaran made a brilliant reverse stick pass into the circle for Batten to spectacularly dive to control the ball before swivelling and firing his shot narrowly wide of the post.

Sheffield sealed the game in the 56th minute after a challenge by Hawkes was deemed deliberately heavy by the umpire. On this occasion, the Sheffield routine did not work smoothly. But such was Belper’s luck that Gareth Furlong still managed to get a shot away that found its way into the net after 56 minutes.

Sheffield controlled the remainder of the game, easily seeing time out with only a couple of half opportunities coming Belper’s way. Belper were visibly tiring by this stage of the afternoon and a couple of Sheffield attacks were denied by some excellent tackling from Luke Davies and Mark Lamb.

Skipper Hawkes was pragmatic after the full time whistle. “We probably didn’t play well enough for long enough today to warrant getting a point. We were sloppy on occasion and paid the price for poor circle defence through conceding too many penalty corners. We will be taking those lessons on board as we head to Khalsa next week.”

Coach Woods was upbeat about his charge’s prospects.

“This was a good barometer for where we are now, but this also shows that we have the ability to grow and become better in certain areas of our game. If we can do this, we will be able to play at the same level as Sheffield have done so today.”

Belper travel to Warwick on Saturday to take on Khalsa.