On a cold Saturday afternoon at Jubilee Park, Henley 2nds, in fourth place in MBBO Division 2, faced much fancied top of the league Thame.
This match was always expected to be a face-off between two very different teams. Prior to this match, Thame maintained their leading league position with an impressive goal scoring record, having notched up 44 goals in 9 previous games.
In comparison Henley had only scored 11 goals, but their miserly defence has maintained the amber-and-blues’ unbeaten record, having conceded only 7 goals, thus leaving Henley in touching distance of the league leaders.
In his team talk Captain Alex Price emphasised the need for caution against a strong attacking side. However, it was Henley that started off more briskly, and quickly recognising that the strength of Thame’s attacking play could be nullified by typically robust defending, Henley grew in confidence and started to take the game towards the visitors.
Having changed to a 4-4-2 formation for this game, Henley looked more comfortable in the midfield with Alex Price and John Boumphrey marshalling their troops around them. Price gave excellent service with his pace, workrate and tough tackling. Boumphrey, to the right of Price, showed his experience with solid decisionmaking and quality distribution to the forwards. Throughout the first half, Henley demonstrated some episodes of high class hockey, working the ball with pace and precision across the field.
Up front, Henley have had a challenging season, evidenced by their goalscoring record. However in this game, Henley had the lions’ share of chances with the forwards looking fast and dangerous, attacking the Thame area and winning a number of penalty corners, which again went unconverted. Jeremy Hughes-Burns showed impressive skills and twice unleashed strong shots from the edge of the D, coming very close to beating the Thame goalkeeper.
It was an excellent move that led to Henley’s opening and only goal, after 20 minutes. Price slipped the ball to Boumphrey, who showed impressive pace to drive down the right hand side of the pitch, skipping past tackles, before slipping a smart pass to Guy Harmer square on his left. Harmer controlled a tricky ball skilfully, before slotting the ball calmly past the goalkeeper, to Henley’s jubilation.
This was clearly not the game Thame were expecting, and with bickering between the players it was clear that the visitors were becoming frustrated. Playing with a little more freedom given their slender lead, Henley were winning many more of the 50-50s, with some extremely committed hockey and tough tackling.
Used to dominating up front, Thame’s attackers were being nullified by the tightest defence in the league. Roberts, Austin, Clarke and Wiseman worked as a well-oiled unit to stifle the attacking threat, and were assisted with a strong work rate and uncompromising tackling from the midfielders. While Thame did secure several penalty corners, lightening fast running from Harmer charged down the threat remarkably effectively.
Though the second half started in similar fashion, Thame started to find more of their attacking form and with the pace of the game increasing, both sides started to become stretched. Henley countered this resurgence impressively, with Wiseman’s long aerials proving extremely difficult for the visitors to defend. James Wood terrorised the right hand side of the pitch, constantly robbing opposition players and driving with pace and aggression at the Thame defence.
The pressure of maintaining a slender lead against a strong attacking unit started to tell for Henley, with nerves starting to appear, evidenced by some poor passes and a spell where possession became scarce for the home side. Legs started to tire on both sides, with more space being created, leading to numerous attacking chances for both sides. Again Henley repelled wave after wave of attacking play and resulting penalty corners.
When it came, Thame’s equaliser was unlucky for Henley, with some scrappy play resulting in a lifted ball across the area, which evaded goalkeeper Foggoa and the stick of Wiseman, reaching Thame’s Joe Robinson who made no mistake.
Robinson’s goal celebration was not a good example of sportsmanship, particularly given his anonymity throughout the rest of the game. In spite of a tense final five minutes, Henley held on for yet another draw – their 6th of the season. Either side could have won this tight match, though it was probably Henley who would have deserved to have won, having played the better hockey. Having been held to a draw, Thame have now yielded their leading league position to West Hampstead 3rds.
On paper there should have been a gulf in class in this match – illustrated by the fact that Thame’s leading goal scorer, Robinson, has personally notched up more goals this season (21) than have been scored by both home and away sides in the 10 matches in which Henley have played so far this season.
The amber and blues will relish the return fixture, particularly given some choice comments from Thame on Twitter. Thame will have a tougher time in the second half of the season as other sides (like Henley) devise methods of neutralising their attacking flair. Equally, Henley have had the measure of many opponents in this half of the season and will enter next year confident that more points are at their mercy once the forward line find their goalscoring form.