After their superb win the previous week against Sheffield Hallam, Belper Hockey Men’s 1sts faced an altogether different proposition with a trip away at Staffordshire rivals Leek in their latest England Hockey National Conference North fixture.
Belper have traditionally struggled to get a result at Leek with their previous three visits ending in defeat. However, the Nailers have grown considerably this season in belief and stature, leading the side to be looking forward to this fixture.
The build-up saw the game in doubt due to forecast inclement weather. Fortunately, this did not materialise and the game was able to proceed without any delay. The surface at Leek was slick after an amount of rain and the squad spent the warm-up ensuring they had sound footing. The squad was suffering a couple of notable absences with Tom Sherratt unavailable through injury and Ben Walton and James Blackwell missing through work commitments.
These absences saw the starting line-up change in places with the back four consisting of Hawkes, Lamb, Bullock and Inshaw. The midfield trio remained unchanged with Kitchen remaining in the centre of midfield and Ebbage and Batten on the left and right flanks respectively. The front three consisted of Dave Woolford, Nick Morris and Rich Cassidy.
Leek started the game the brighter team and immediately took the game to Belper with some direct attacking play. That almost paid immediate dividends but Mark Lamb was able to avert the danger at the expense of a penalty corner. The Belper corner defence team did their job and were able to clear the ball after an initial flicked effort from Leek.
This shocked Belper into action and they were able to mount a number of their own attacks down their right flank with Inshaw instrumental in creating numerous moves during a period where Belper grew from being comfortable to being the dominant side in the game.
Frequently, these moves on the right side found Nick Morris, who was able to shoot or cross into the middle. Unfortunately, he found Mark Brazier in the Leek goal in good form and Leek were able to shore up their defences on their left side.
This forced Belper to use their left flank in an effort to try to make a breakthrough. Ebbage and Cassidy were able to combine well and allowed Belper to enjoy significant amounts of possession inside the opposition 25.
From this pressure, Belper won a penalty corner after a deflected ball was stopped above shoulder height by a Leek defender. The Belper routine was not as slick as it could have been with a couple of key players off at the time and the chance was lost.
The remainder of the half was a deadlock with both sides trading counter attacks but with Leek having the higher penalty corner count but unable to convert any of them thanks mainly to Bullock and Lamb’s excellent clearances and calmness under pressure.
At half-time, coach Duncan Woods was keen to point out that the Belper style of play was inviting Leek to play on the counter and that this was a risk that could be mitigated if Belper looked after the ball more and rushed less.
In direct contrast to the first half, it was Belper who dominated the opening exchanges and dictated play. Belper did not have to wait long as some excellent movement and flowing hockey from Belper allowed Sam Hawkes to carry the ball up the pitch without too much pressure being placed on him by a very deep defence. Sam was able to enjoy the space given to him before delivering a thundering cross that evaded a well set Leek defence. The ball arrived at the back post for Morris to dive in at full stretch to touch the ball home to give his side the lead. It was a superb finish that personified the Belper spirit of the game so far.
Leek were frustrated at going a goal down at home and started to leave a striker high at all times in an effort to stretch the game out. This succeeded as Belper were forced to work very hard in an effort to ensure the Leek forwards were starved of useful possession. Leek were starting to gain another foothold in the game but were pushing forward and gaps were appearing in the defence.
From an excellent piece of work by Dave Woolford, he stole the ball from a hesitant Leek centre back and his accurate pass found Morris unmarked and just five metres from goal. Morris was able to move the ‘keeper and have him scrambling to stay upright. Morris then flicked an effort towards the bottom corner but was again denied by a superb stick save by Brazier in the Leek goal to keep his side in the game.
Leek managed to weather the storm being waged by Belper and started to recover, gradually getting their high forward more of the ball.
After a few minutes of strong attacking play, Leek were able to win three consecutive free hits on the edge of the Belper circle. It was from the third such free hit that Belper were outmanoeuvred by Leek, who created an overload at the back post allowing Edward Stanhope to get a snap shot at goal off before the Belper defence could react. The effort crept past Slane in goal to bring the sides level in the 63rd minute.
The remainder of the game passed with Belper generating a final penalty corner opportunity only for Mark Lamb to see his strike cleared from the line by the final defender. With this chance gone, Belper were forced to accept just a point from the game.
Coach Woods said after the game: “We should be happy with the point we have got today. There are very few teams in this league that will be able to travel here and win, so we should take the positives from today’s performance.”
Belper continue their England Hockey National Conference North campaign next week with a fixture against Olton & West Warwicks at the Meadows on Sunday, February 17 at 2pm. All support is very welcome.