STAGS STUMBLE TO CREATE LAST DAY DRAMA
By Ian Dunnett
Hertford Men's 1s slipped to their first defeat of the season at the hands of a skilful Saffron Walden side on Sunday, being edged out 2-1 thanks to a brace of set piece goals.
Vice captain Jamie O'Sullivan was unavailable, so Marcus Stirling made his 4th appearance of the season in midfield, and Greg Page returned to the squad for his first game since October following a complicated hand injury.
Due to weather-affected fixtures Hertford hadn't played competitively since early March, whereas their opposition had only had one week off. A fact that was patently obvious in the play. Despite having the best of the early exchanges, Hertford's control and speed of execution across the pitch was far short of the standards they had been setting for themselves for most of the year.
Arthur Twyning and Ben Van Rooyen got in good positions high up the pitch, with chances to shoot, but both hesitated and lost the opportunity.
The hosts - spurred on by a boisterous sideline - grew into the contest, spreading the ball with good pace in the wet conditions, making Hertford work hard from side-to-side.
It was the hosts who took the lead. A penalty corner effort was drag-flicked to Ian Pledger's right, who dived, but was impeded by his own defender and couldn't make it across to cover the shot.
Hertford could have responded almost immediately. Good harrying from Darren Norman won the ball in the left corner, feeding van Rooyen almost on the penalty spot, but the South African wasn't able to get the ball out of his feet to get a strike away before a recovering defender could get a stick in.
The hosts then could have doubled their advantage. Another penalty corner attempt, very similar to the goal, looked to be heading on target, only to be denied by the crossbar, with the visitors hurriedly clearing the danger.
Hertford continued to work hard with their efforts being rewarded as they levelled before half time. More good work on the forward press from Norman took the ball away from the centre back, squaring for van Rooyen. His shot was well stopped by the diving keeper's stick, but the rebound fell kindly for van Rooyen to strike a reverse stick shot up into the net for his 22nd of the season.
The lack of match-fitness took its toll on Hertford in a second half where they put under a tough examination for extensive periods. However, with the best defensive record in the league, the visitors were not going to give in lightly. Pledger and Simon Halfacre seemingly in the way of everything, and Ben Tootell aptly distributing away from danger.
Hertford were limited to playing on the break, but were not able to get the numbers forward in support when they did.
Their job was made more difficult for them when van Rooyen tracked his man into unfamiliar territory, making an ill-advised tackle from behind and being sent to the sinbin.
Hertford saw out the 5-minutes being a man down, but were making poor decisions as they became more physcially and mentally tired, continually giving the ball away when trying to work their way out of defence. Nick Downer had his pocket picked with a good jab tackle in a dangerous position, but the Saffron Walden forward spared Downer's blushes, inexplicably shooting wide from ten yards out.
With only 3 minutes to go, the pressure eventually told. A crash ball into the D from the top of the circle was deflected up in the air, being mis-controlled to concede another penalty corner as it came down. A slick switched routine was slipped left and then slung to the back post for a waiting attacker to deflect the ball onto the backboard.
Despite pushing extra men forward there wasn't enough time - or energy - left for Hertford to react with the entertaining encounter finishing 2-1.
Hertford can guarantee promotion with a draw in their last game of the season at Welwyn Garden City on Saturday, and can secure the Division 3SW title with a win, however, if they lose, and Saffron Walden 2nds can beat Luton Town (a side they lost 4-2 to back in December), turning around a 7-goal difference deficit in the process, then Hertford could still finish outside of the top two by the narrowest of margins for the second season in succession.
Hertford: Ian Pledger; Elliot Barling, Simon Halfacre, Ben Tootell, Mike Branford; Ian Dunnett, Nick Downer, James Rollins; Ciaran Begg, Darren Norman, Ben Van Rooyen. Subs: Marcus Stirling, Greg Page, Arthur Twyning.