League leaders Hillcroft played out a thrilling 9-9 draw with Blues as SEMLA’s 2016 programme got beat the deluges.
Only two games were played – both on astro – with Reading getting the better of East Grinstead with a hard-fought 6-5 victory in Sussex.
Hillcroft and Blues was a crowd-pleaser. The lead see-sawed in Mitcham with both teams enjoying periods of supremacy but not sustaining enough to pull away and claim the points. (Match report below)
Keepers Stuart McGregor Dallas, for Blues, and Hillcroft’s Matt O’Leary produced some top class saves with standout 1 v 1s and sharp positional play.
Brian Potter grabbed a hat-trick for the home team and Blues’ leading scorer Pete Ross also notched three.
The draw keeps Hillcroft on top with Blues moving second but both have played three more games than champions Spencer and four more than the much-fancied Hampstead.
Both teams were frustrated by the result but the stalemate did please the watching Spencer players, whose game at Hitchin was called off because of a waterlogged pitch.
Reading are 3rd and East Grinstead skipper Andy Price admitted his side struggled to get back into any rhythm after the Christmas break. “It was a typical low scoring EG vs Reading encounter and with a combination of scrappy play and good defense by both sides causing a lot of turnovers,” he said.
“Unfortunately we weren’t able to get into our full stride this week and the Christmas break looked to have taken a bit of a toll. Hopefully we can put this one behind us and step up our performance next week for a tough game against Spencer.”
Blues have another tough fixture with the fast-improving Hitchin heading for Banstead with the other big fixture at the Westway where Hampstead play only their 6th game of the season with Cardiff the visitors.
Hillcroft 9 – 9 Blues
The second half of the season got off to a pulsating start as league leaders Hillcroft and Blues clashed in an entertaining game in Mitcham.
Hillcroft started the stronger but Blues hauled themselves back into contention and edged in front only for the home side to surge back. Goals from James Kidd and Welsh international Ryan Walker were need for Blues to level it in the closing minutes.
Oli Barrett got the party started with a superb goal from the first face but Hillcroft then dominated possession, probing for chinks in the Walcountain wall, which kept the chances to a minimum. When they did get through, they found captain Stuart McGregor Dallas was in fine form.
But there was a scare early on after he crumpled to the floor after saving a close range shot that hit his shoulder at the point of a recent reconstructive operation.
He managed to continue after a brief delay and was in the firing line as Hillcroft turned up the heat. Hillcroft opened their account when Tom Paton was the sharpest to react to a rebound off the post to hoover up the ground ball and place his shot neatly on 15 minutes.
Blues were on the back foot as Hillcroft put together some incisive interchanges and continued the softening up process on a hard-worked defence. But the quarter closed with the impressive LSM Barrett slaloming up field and hitting hit the post with a powerful shot.
Hillcroft had enjoyed 75% of the possession but both teams looked slightly rusty and a lot of the play was deliberate rather than decisive.
Blues started Q2 with a bit more intent and built on Matt Birkett’s almost inevitable face-off domination and Hillcroft contributed to the mood swing by running up a big penalty charge sheet.
They did take the lead when Thom Gilbrook picked up a ground ball in broken play and somehow emerged from a haze of punishment to run clear and feed Brian Potter who had found space for a clear shooting lane. But the euphoria was short-lived as Birkett won the face off and located James Kidd who unleashed a fierce shot to level it.
Blues had established possession parity but, although both teams squandered chances with stray passes and sluggish movement, there was a feverish intensity building.
Hillcroft continued to chalk up penalty minutes far too frequently and were playing two men down for 90 seconds, which Blues capitalized on with a crisp passing move that released Pete Ross to score for a 3-2 lead with five minutes left in the Quarter.
They doubled their lead with just ten seconds left with Dave Howie initiating a 1 v 1 from wide left of the goal, powering into the danger zone and dancing clear of the cover to fire a sling shot to give Blues a 4-2 half time lead. Hillcroft were stuttering and badly needed the break.
They emerged with more fluidity and a plan to spoil Birkett’s mastery and force their way back into the game. Zak Jordan came close with a cheeky back-flick but
Blues extended their lead when Howie drew a double and found Ross on the doorstep for his second.
Nabeel Chaudhry was causing problems with his direct dodging at pace and Ewan Wilsmer fizzed one past the post after a clever link up.
Hillcroft were ruffled but they dug deep and hustled their way back into contention with an intercept of a Blues pass and dart through transition by skipper Eoin Dunne who connected with Potter who scored despite pressure to make it 5-3.
A fresh energy pulsed through Hillcroft and they went on a scoring spree with Duncan Trenholme firing in on a Man-up and Alex Twiss bringing the teams level after Matt O’Leary had saved well from Chaudhry and initiated a rapid attack.
Blues hit back with Wilsmer getting a strike from a tight angle for 6-5 with six minutes left in the quarter.
O’Leary saved well again and after a broken clear Zak Jordan won the ground ball and ran an intelligent line to dislocate the defence before feeding to Trenholme who grabbed his second with three minutes of the Quarter left.
The scoring see-saw continued with Ross getting his 3rd after Kidd won possession and pushed it to Walker who picked out the killer pass.
Hillcroft almost derailed themselves again with a flurry of penalties as Q4 opened and the intensity simmered. But a superb reffing display from Gregg Irwin and Glyn Morris ensured the game flowed and stayed under control.
O’Leary was busy again, saving well from all angles and then Jordan took matters into his own hand with a remarkable solo goal, charging in to X from wide GLE and almost circling the entire goal while eluding buffeting attention before firing in low to level it again.
Blues came straight back as Kidd found Ross in space but O’Leary saved again as the visitors chased the victory but Hillcroft regrouped and D-man Andy Hopkins motored through traffic to feed Potter who had sneaked from X for an acrobatic finish to give Hillcroft the lead. They now had the force and a sharp passing move came to Gillbrook who slotted home neatly on the crease to provide a two-goal cushion with the clock ticking down the final minutes.
Blues now looked the sloppier but again showed resilience to weather a sweet move from Hillcroft after a time out and then Birkett linked up with Kidd who lasered one in top shelf with 5 minutes to go.
Blues then took a time out and, with less than 3 minutes left, Chaudhry fed Ryan Walker who punched in the equalizer.
Both teams had tough chances to grab the winner in the last minute of a pacy final Quarter but the teams finished level.
Q Scores: 1-1 / 2-4 / 6-7 / 9-9
Hillcroft: Brian Potter 3 Duncan Trenholme 2, Thom Gillbrook, Zak Jordan, Alex Twiss , Tom Paton
Blues: Pete Ross 3, James Kidd 2, Ewan Wilsmer, Dave Howie, Oli Barrett, Ryan Walker