Surbiton show ruthless edge as brave Clifton pull up just short
AS Clifton coach Steve Rixon walked off the Sugden Road pitch on Saturday he had no desire to learn about the results of other matches played on the closing day of the Investec Women’s Hockey League season.
Earlier, he and his players had arrived at Surbiton knowing that if they could pull off a shock victory over the runaway league champions Clifton had an outside chance of climbing into next month’s play-offs.
And that was certainly a possibility at half-time when they held a two-goal lead through a penalty corner from Joanna Leigh and a coolly-taken chance from former Surbiton forward Megan Crowson who outfoxed keeper Louisa Bray in a one-on-one.
Surbiton, however, fought back in the second half and a brace of goals apiece from Giselle Ansley and columnist Beckie Middleton saw them close their campaign nine points ahead of their nearest rivals.
The fact that Clifton only finished sixth in the final table was not at the forefront of Rixon’s thinking. He was anything but depressed that the University of Birmingham and East Grinstead had clinched the final two spots to play at Lee Valley in three weeks’ time.
Instead, he was happy that with a cup semi-final to be played at Beeston on Saturday his players had shown against the best women’s side in the country that they have the ability to make the final.
“We pushed Surbiton very hard,” said Rixon. “They are a very talented team full of internationals. We knew the game would be a big challenge and we rose to it.
“We have done a lot of work this season organising the way we occupy the space behind our attacks – when girls should decide whether to go forward and support the attacks or hang back and make sure they are not exposed by counter attacks.
“And especially in the first half as well us scoring the goals Surbiton did not have many chances. It was only in the second half when they forced so many penalty corners that things changed.
“But the girls can take a lot of this game. It was good preparation for the trip to Beeston.”
The game was 43 minutes old when Surbiton opened their account as Ansley forced home a penalty corner for the first of her two goals, taking her personal tally for the season to 15 – the most by any player in the Premier League.
Middleton opened her account in similar style and when Ansley converted a third penalty corner in 62nd minute Surbiton had their noses in front but they only stayed ahead for three before Aileen Davis hit back with a penalty corner equaliser for Clifton.
Throughout the second half, however, Clifton struggled to cope with attacking play of England’s Hannah Martin who seemed to play a key part in every Surbiton attack and had a hand in winning goal scored from open play by Middleton just three minutes before the final whistle.
“Hannah had her best game for us this season, “said Surbiton coach Brett Garrard. “She was outstanding. And I would say the way we played in the second half was one of the team’s best performances of the season as well.”
Clifton were not helped by the number of penalty corners they conceded which at one stage in the second half saw Alex Danson, Kate Holmes and Hannah Coulson all briefly sent to the sinbin by the umpires in the space of a couple of minutes.
After Rixon had spoken about his side’s growing confidence ahead of their the cup semi-final he still knows that defeat at Beeston would bring the curtain down on his team’s season.
However, in Surbiton camp captain Sarah Hayworth knows that for the next 11 weeks her players will be playing regularly under the heaviest of pressure not only in a cup semi-final, but also the