Belper Hockey Club Men’s First 1
As the Midlands were hit with wintry weather at the weekend, Belper entertained Doncaster in their penultimate England Hockey National Conference North home fixture of the season.
This tie promised an exciting fixture with Doncaster having won the earlier game between the sides earlier in the season.
Belper were keen to arrest the dip in form that had seen the side lose their previous two fixtures, against Wakefield and Khalsa.
The Belper side was able to welcome back Mark Lamb after a head injury the previous week had curtailed his efforts to train during the week.
Lamb was a welcome returnee to the side as skipper Sam Hawkes was rendered unavailable due to illness. This led to some changes in the starting line-up of the side.
David Ebbage was installed at left back with Jake Bullock and Mark Lamb in the middle and Ben Inshaw in his now customary right back slot.
The midfield trio consisted of Steve Batten on the left, Richard Kitchen in the middle and Adrian Palmer on the right. The front three consisted of regulars Cassidy, Lingeswaren but were supplemented by James Blackwell in the centre forward position.
This change in line-up allowed Mark Lamb to take over the captaincy duties in the absence of Hawkes.
The changes worked almost instantly with Belper making much of the early running, Blackwell and Cassidy going close and only being denied by smothering saves from the Doncaster ‘keeper.
Elsewhere across the pitch, Belper looked much more comfortable when in possession of the ball and played some of their best hockey of the season in patches, particularly when moving the ball out from the defensive 25.
David Ebbage was excelling in the left back role and was able to move the ball at pace under control to frustrate the Doncaster forwards’ attempts to intercept passes across the back four.
Steve Batten and Adrian Palmer were also in good form with their tricky skills allowing them to turn and move the ball early to the forwards. This passage of play lasted for 15 minutes and Doncaster’s defence was beginning to creak a little as they were limited to hopeful aerial balls out from the back.
This passage of play resulted in Doncaster sinking deeper back and putting all 11 players behind the ball.
This made things more difficult for the Nailers as much of the space they had been exploiting was no longer available and allowed Doncaster to counter-attack much more effectively.
From one such counter-attack, Doncaster created an overload on their left flank that saw Lamb left exposed to two forwards.
The Doncaster forwards played a neat interchange of passes, allowing Redfern to get a strike off on target but he saw his shot well saved by the outstretched leg of Slane in the home goal.
There was little more action for the remainder of the half as Doncaster sank deeper still, allowing Belper the lion’s share of the possession. Belper were happy to keep the ball and the half-time whistle sounded to draw the half to a close.
Coach Duncan Woods was happy with his side’s early performance but warned them against falling into old habits and trying to play Doncaster on the counter-attack rather than holding possession and exploiting the gaps in the opposition defence as they appear.
Doncaster were keen to alleviate their precarious position in the league and knew that the next 35 minutes could hold the key to avoiding the dreaded play-offs. With a belly full of fire, they came out at Belper early in the second half and pushed very hard to put the Belper defence under pressure.
The back four of Lamb, Ebbage, Bullock and Inshaw held firm and were ably assisted, when required, by substitute left back Ash Blakemore.
Belper generated a few more chances but the final ball was missing on each occasion with a couple of chances narrowly missing the target. With Doncaster pushing forward and with their captain and playmaker Tim Shelley dictating play, they slowly began to get on top. Kitchen was instrumental in the middle of the park in denying Doncaster several good attacking opportunities.
The inevitable happened as a quick Doncaster counter-attack down their left flank resulted in a penalty corner being conceded as the attacker found a defensive foot. Doncaster worked the routine well with the slipped flick being fired wide of the goal for a deflected shot from Marcus Hooper to find the backboards. The Doncaster celebration was jubilant as they could just see the three points they craved.
Belper reacted in a positive manner and once again began to control the play, albeit from a slightly deeper position than before.
The passing and movement was excellent with high ball speed where required and a more delicate touch where not. Blackwell started to run the front six as a single unit and this resulted in play that Doncaster could not get close to and induced another defensive rear-guard action from the visitors.
The breakthrough came in the 64th minute after some excellent controlling play from Belper allowed Batten and Palmer to exchange passes before slipping the ball left to Blackwell, who had found space on the opposite side of the circle.
Just as Blackwell was about to shoot he was challenged by a covering defender but he was able to pull the ball back onto his reverse and fire a reverse stick shot under the ‘keeper.
The ball thundered off the backboards, much to the delight of the home side and their long suffering fans.
Doncaster’s dismay was palpable as they lost their confidence in the remaining part of the game. Belper were presented with an opportunity to win it with the last play of the game through a penalty corner but the routine was not slick and the Doncaster defence cleared the danger.
Coach Woods was happy with his side’s performance for much of the game. “It was important to pick ourselves up today and start to do the simple things well after the last two weeks and I think we did that. However, we need to make a real concerted effort to finish the season on a high with two tricky games coming up.”
Stand-in skipper Lamb was also proud of his charges’ efforts: “It was great to be skipper again today and I am very proud of how we came back from a goal down and pleased at how we moved the ball for the majority of the afternoon.”
Belper take on the University of Durham on Saturday in their final away fixture of the season.