Ashford make a perfect start
HISTORIC VICTORY: Men begin life in Southern Premier Division with battling win against tough Purley side
THE WAITING is over and a historic day at Ashford Hockey Club’s Ball Lane ground rounded off a spectacular debut in the Southern Premier Division, as Ashford held on for a massive moral-boosting victory.
Facing the London outfit who were relegated from the division above, this was a really tough opening game for Jen Wilson’s squad.
A midweek blow was news that star striker Mike Wood may miss a chunk of the league season due to knee problems.
Wood has carried the attack forward for many years, but he is a big character and is sure to come back and play a major part in this crucial first season for Ashford in the top flight.
The home fans, as usual, offered great support and Ashford clicked into top gear almost immediately as Smith fed the right side of midfield, Cheap did well to eliminate a player or two before he found Handley in space, Handley’s quick vision found Hill in the area, and Andy Hill’s clever first-time touch guided the ball past the keeper on 55 seconds.
The stunned visitors realised then that Ashford were determined not to just make up the numbers.
The first half was dominated by a home side bursting with confidence and the energy and unity shocked Purley.
Before they could find their feet Sam Handley had run onto a through ball, turned quickly and chipped the ball over the advancing goalkeeper for 2-0.
Chris Smith found the sort of range with his passing that devastated the Regional League last year and the newly reshuffled forward line of Cheap, Hill and Handley looked a real handful.
Handley, at centre forward, has improved tremendously and took on the mantle of leading the line.
Purley found their feet 20 minutes in but squandered good opportunities and Keir Starley saved from close range and Purley failed to convert as the ball ran across the face of goal.
On half time the visitors pulled one back with a short corner deflected and just creeping in.
This was a game of two halves where, in the first, Ashford’s energy and slick attack had given Purley little room to get into the contest, but Ashford found themselves up against a very verbal and fired up Purley team, soon reduced to 10 men for dissent. The game opened up when Handley burst through and the fabulous combination with Hill ran the Purley centre backs ragged. The same pair then combined down the left and Handley swivelled and smashed home the third, sending Ashford into dreamland for a second, but reality was soon upon them as Purley were restored to a full complement.
They built wave after wave of attacks, forcing a double save from Starley and some pretty brave defending from Oscar Hummerstone, who had his best game in an Ashford shirt since signing from Canterbury, and Toby Clifton Holt grew into the role at centre back, dominating and marshalling the back line and leading by example.
The match turned when Purley scored a second after four successive short corners, Starley beaten low to his right.
Ashford then saw Dan Wells harshly sin-binned for a fifty/ fifty challenge that ended in a collision and Purley had a very fast deflection tipped onto the post by Starley.
Ashford held on to take the win and there were many fine performances over the field with skipper Chris Smith inspirational in the middle , Handley was menacing and clinical, Hill creative, Hummerstone committed and brilliantly efficient while Starley made big saves at the death.
Newcomer Paul Cheap also looks to be bedding in nicely since his transfer from rivals Folkestone.
Credit must go to the team’s double Olympian South African Jen Wilson whose preparation and her ability to instil belief went a long way on the day.
Ashford look to avenge their play-off defeat of two years ago with their trip to London Wayfarers on Saturday.
Danny Wells drives in to get in his challenge against Purley on Saturday