A Point apiece despite sin-bins and Storming Norman
Having led the game twice, Hertford lost their 100% home record on Saturday, rescuing a 3-3 draw against unbeaten Saffron Walden 2s in a tie where both sides could feel lucky to get a point, and unlucky not to get all three.
Having scored 15 goals between them in the first eight games of the season, the unavailable goal-scoring South African duo of Greg Page and Ben van Rooyen were always going to be missed in this fixture. Marcus Stirling was drafted in for his second appearance of the season as midfield cover with Nick Downer and Michael Branford providing options up front.
A wet morning had quickened the Simon Balle pitch which gave the contest - at times - a frantic pace.
The hosts marginally had the best of the opening minutes, moving the ball confidently across the back and waiting for opportunities to appear, but there were few openings in a well-structured opposition.
When the visitors did gain possession they played an expansive and skilful style of hockey of a calibre Hertford hadn't faced in previous months, demonstrating the benefits of being a club with a team in the Premier division of the East leagues.
The hosts were put under pressure, but were holding out well, springing a counter-attack to take the lead in the 17th minute. Simon Halfacre won the ball off a forward on the left-flank and played a long pass on his reverse stick to find Darren Norman on the left-wing. Showing a clean pair of heels to his marker, Norman headed for the top of the circle, rounded a second defender and took an early shot which was past the left foot of the onrushing goalkeeper before he could react, taking Norman into double figures for the season.
Undeterred, Saffron Walden remained on the front foot, and thought they had a route back into the game. A straight-strike from a short corner was deflected by Ian Pledger sliding out form his goal, but only into the path of Jamie O'Sullivan guarding the line. The penalty appeals were turned down with only a long-corner awarded.
The pressure was telling, and the scores were soon level. Hertford had several chances to clear from the top of the D, but were punished as they failed to do so. Halfacre couldn't get the ball beyond the first man, and then Ben Tootell couldn't control the ball before Ian Dunnett's attempted turn was too cute, having his pocket picked by a probing forward, who took the ball on a few yards and finished clinically with a reverse stick strike into the bottom right corner.
The second half started similarly to the first, with Hertford seemingly refreshed from the break, and having the better of it. A well-worked move from a free-hit at the top of the circle restored the lead. Dunnett jinked one way and then the other to ensure the five yards had been covered before feeding Downer near the baseline. The player-coach manoeuvred to gain some space, drawing the keeper off his line, before threading a pass through a crowded goalmouth to Norman. With the keeper out of position Norman pushed the ball goal-bound, with a final defensive touch unable to stop it from crossing the line.
The final twenty minutes had a bit of everything as both sides pushed for a positive result.
Firstly Ciaran Begg exhibited some deft dribbling skills on his way into the attacking third only to be rudely halted from behind, with the offender shown a yellow card for his troubles.
Hertford were unable to make the most of the penalty corner, and then despite the one-man advantage, conceded the lead. The hosts lost the ball on the edge of their own 23-yard line when trying to play out of defence, gifting a two-on-one to Saffron Walden with the forward calmly drawing out Pledger and playing a weighted pass for a teammate to reverse sweep the ball up into an empty net.
Although back on terms, the visitors were unable to keep their calm, and were reduced to nine men. A deliberate trip on Dunnett, which he didn’t hesitate to bring to the attention of the umpires - and anyone within surrounding earshot - with some vigour, saw another yellow card produced.
The home side were unable to take advantage of the numerical mismatch and paid for it when Walden were restored to their full contingent as they went behind for the first time in the game.
The visitor’s younger – and possibly fitter – team continued to press and spread the ball effectively from side-to-side. An overlap down the left saw O’Sullivan scrambling across to cover an unmarked man, conceding a penalty corner in his eagerness to make up the ground.
Another straight-strike routine glanced off the leg-pad of the logging Pledger and up into the net, with the goal awarded despite Hertford’s protests about the height of the attempt.
With only seven minutes left Hertford sacrificed a defender, pushing an extra man forward, trying to apply some pressure of their own, and with a third yellow card being dished out to a Saffron Walden player, this time Hertford did manage to capitalise.
Downer forayed forward down the right flank and played a strong cross in, finding Norman in a good position one more, near the penalty spot. Man of the match Norman managed to control and shoot, seeing his effort ricochet off both legs of the goalie, with the ball coming to rest behind the netminder, tantalisingly two yards away from goal. Arthur Twyning was quickest to react, bundling the ball over the line with a reverse stick prod, holding off some significant pressure at his back for his fifth of the season.
With only a few minutes left there wasn’t time for either side to muster a final chance, with the encounter ending 3-3.
The draw keeps Hertford top of Division 3SW, now only 2 points ahead of Harpenden who comfortably dispatched West Herts 4s. This weekend Hertford will want to return to winning ways as they travel to the always competitive Bedford 3s.
Hertford: Ian Pledger; Elliot Barling, Ben Tootell, Simon Halfacre, Jamie O'Sullivan; Ian Dunnett, Nick Downer, Chris Vincent; Arthur Twyning, Darren Norman, Ciaran Begg. Subs: Marcus Stirling, Michael Branford