Harps Halted as Hertford Hit the Heights
Hertford men's 1st team preserved their unbeaten run at the cost of Harpenden's previously unblemished L-column, pipping the visitors 1-0 in a tense encounter at the Simon Balle ground on Saturday, to reinstate themselves at the top of division 3SW.
Jamie O'Sullivan rejoined the squad at the heart of defence in an otherwise largely unchanged line-up.
Hertford adopted a more defensive formation than has been typical this season, knowingly limiting their options going forwards, but also stifling Harpenden's typical build-up from wide-midfield positions.
Nerves were sent jangling straight from the push-back. When trying to switch the ball O'Sullivan was caught in possession on the top of the circle, but was rescued by Ian Pledger, coming out of his area to win the ball with a diving sweep of the stick.
The match was always going to be tense, with nerves on edge, and it wasn't long before the first disciplinary action had to be taken when Harpenden were reduced to ten men for a poor reaction to a tackle.
The hosts attempted to make the most of the man advantage, crafting some space down the right hand side and feeding Ben Van Rooyen at the top of the circle, but the South African's reverse stick effort was uncharacteristically wide of the right hand post.
Back to a full contingent, Harpenden began to apply some pressure, winning a succession of penalty corners, but some stout defending from Simon Halfacre and two excellent saves from Ian Pledger in the Hertford goal preserved the scoreline.
At the other end Ian Dunnett weaved to create some space down the left, and put in a strong reverse stick cross, only to see it deflected up onto the near post off the outside edge of a defender's stick, with the rebound coming down out of harms way.
Hertford were working hard to cover their players, typified by Elliot Barling who despite being at right-back was popping up all over the pitch when his player received the ball, and Darren Norman - rarely found in his own half this season - winning possession and working the ball out from deep in the left corner.
With neither side ready to commit too much going forwards the half finished goalless.
The second period continued in much the same fashion as the first, with a chess match in midfield and few chances being created.
With such evenly matched teams and resolute defending it was always going to take a mistake or moment of brilliance to break the deadlock, and such a moment transpired as Hertford took the lead. When a switched penalty corner routine was intercepted, Hertford worked back to stop Harpenden breaking. Nick Downer expertly won the ball in midfield with a reverse stick pick, and looked up to see only Ciaran Begg ahead of him. A slide rule pass sent Begg forward, but he still had plenty to do with defenders on all sides. Begg burst beyond two defenders and produced a delicious piece of skill to leave a third standing at the top of the circle. With only the on-rushing keeper to beat Begg kept his calm and slotted his shot past the net-minder's right foot and into the bottom corner.
As was perhaps predictable Hertford set about defending their lead rather than increasing it, with the visitors pressing for an equaliser, however Harpenden didn't help themselves when an over enthusiastic disagreement from one of their midfielders saw them need to see out another spell with ten men. Despite the numercial mismatch the home side were happy to play for territory, sending the ball off the back line down the other end of the pitch any time they won possession.
With less than a minute left Harpenden won a penalty corner after a coming together between Halfacre and his marker at the top of the D. The first routine was met with a match-winning double-save from Pledger, going down to his right to save with his legs from the first effort, and bouncing back up, then diving to his left to palm the follow-up away from danger but only at the expense of another set-piece. A drag-flicked effort from what turned out to be the last action of the game, fizzed past the left-hand upright and was met with the mixed sound of cheers and sighs of relief.
The win moves Hertford above Harpenden by a single point at the top of the table. A position they'll be looking to consolidate when they travel to tenth-placed Stevenage.
Hertford: Ian Pledger; Elliot Barling, Jamie O'Sullivan, Simon Halfacre, Michael Branford; Ben Tootell, James Rollins, Ian Dunnett, Nick Downer; Ben Van Rooyen, Darren Norman. Subs: Chris Vincent, Ciaran Begg.