An exciting and enthralling friendly against our ground-sharers at Imber Court.  Esher Colts are a good second division side and in the Cup Final next week, so it was always going to be a hard game for the Sharks.  But once again, when tested the boys proved more than up to the task, and arguably deserved to win the game. But in the end they had to settle for an honourable draw. 

It was a cold and windy day at Imber Court, which made it difficult to play decent football – and the game was very congested throughout with only small glimpses of the good football we’ve come to expect.  Esher are a good side and they pressed well all over the pitch making it very hard for the Sharks to find their passing rhythm.

Again I think the boys have realized that as they move up the divisions and take on better sides, they’ll be up against better players and better-organized teams. The Esher defenders were quicker and sharper than the Sharks have been used to – and the boys had to find an extra level and work extra hard to get round them.

And they did lift their game – and everyone put in a tremendous effort – which was great to see.

We lined up in our usual formation to start, with Jakub in goal, Phin, Alejandro and Martin across the back, Elliott in the holding role and Ben, Wiktor, Sebas and Francis in midfield.

But they found themselves on the back foot for the first 10 minutes, as Esher came tearing out of the blocks.  Only some heroics from the back line stopped them breaking through and everyone had to work very hard indeed for those opening minutes.  The Esher pressing meant it was hard for the Sharks to even get out of their own half, and they were struggling to string more than a couple of passes together.

But they were resilient and determined at the back – Alejandro was superb throughout, throwing himself into tackles, calmly evading challenges and bringing the ball out well. Esher have a very skilful right winger and he was causing all sorts of problems all game.  But first Phin and then Rory showed tremendous tenacity to stick to the task and keep him as quiet as they could.

Martin was having to use all his pace and strength to hold off the left winger and Elliot was having to cover all across the back line.  In goal, Jakub had to make a number of good saves – and had to be quick off his line more than once.

There were a few feisty challenges as both sides battled for control.  Phin got injured and had to come off, followed by Ben, Wiktor and Sebas at various points throughout the first half.

But having weathered the early storm and held firm, the Sharks slowly started to exert themselves. Wiktor and Sebas were winning tackles and finding some room to play – while Francis and Nile were getting in behind the Esher defence now.

They were defensively good though, and just about cutting out through balls when the Sharks would have been clear. And just as it seemed the Sharks were finding their feet, Esher scored a goal.

For once, the Sharks hesitated when a ball came into the area. The Esher striker reacted first and stabbed the ball into the net for a 1-0 lead.

It was a real blow just when the Sharks were looking more comfortable going forward.  But as usual this season, they didn’t let their heads drop.  And they’d soon turned things around completely.

First, Francis found some room on the right wing after exchanging passes with Martin and sprinted clear.  He fed Sebas with a neat ball and he surged into the area and placed a shot across the goalmouth.  It seemed to heading for the post, so Nile, who was arriving from the left wing, prodded it home to make sure of the goal. 1-1 and game on.

The Sharks really found some spark now and were pouring forward with menace.  Two or three times they looked to be in on goal as the midfield combined well, only for an Esher defender to get back or clear just in time.

Then Nile, who worked really hard throughout the match was sent clear after Rory had won the ball back well and played it to Sebas. He played a through ball into space down the wing which Nile chased down and controlled.  Steadying himself and holding off the defender, he sent a good cross into the middle where Ben was waiting to pounce.  Still the defenders made it hard, but Ben just did enough to get to the ball first and smash it past the keeper for a 2-1 lead.

It was a great turn around for the Sharks and it looked as though they’d hold on until half time.  But Esher managed to pull a goal back – after a great save from Jakub fell kindly for one of their attackers who poked it home. Unlucky for Jakub and the Sharks moments before the whistle went.

But they’d shown great fight and spirit to get back into the game and take the lead. There’d been a lot of moving about of players to take into account too and everyone had played their part when called on. Jake had slotted in at right back and showed great determination; Martin had filled in well as defensive midfielder; and Phin had played admirably at left back, defensive midfield and central midfield!

The second half belonged to the Sharks overall and they were desperately unlucky not to win the game.  It was still tough for them, but they really found some space and got their passing game into gear as the half wore on.

Jakub came in at right midfield and was full of running and energy.  Wiktor and Sebas were getting control of midfield – and Ben found himself with room to run on the left, as the game opened up. Alejandro was brilliant second half – winning every tackle, skipping past challenges and setting up moves with calm assurance.  Elliott showed his usual speed of foot and thought to cover and recyle the ball intelligently. And Martin and Phin (and then Nile and Jake) continued their good work at full back, keeping the skilful Esher wingers under control. Rory handled safely and with authority  – and played some excellent kicks into space.

The Sharks got their breakthrough goal after good work from Phin on the left.  He won the ball and played a neat pass to Ben in acres of space.  With some room to attack, Ben sprinted from his own half, round the defender and towards the penalty area.  It was shoulder to shoulder as he surged into the box with the keeper coming out to collect the ball. He got there ahead of Ben – and then everyone fell to the floor in a heap.

As the three players lay on the ground, Ben suddenly emerged with the ball and slotted it into the net.

The Esher players were sure that the keeper had the ball in his hands, but in fact he only had one hand on it, and Ben was perfectly within his rights to play on and score.  He’d also been pushed as he shaped to shoot in the first place, so we’d have expected a penalty anyway.  As it was, the ref checked with Ben and allowed the goal.  3-2 to the Sharks.

So the Sharks were ahead again – but could they hold on?

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, as they conceded a controversial equalizer.

The Colts worked the ball to edge of the area, where Alejandro was waiting as usual to intercept.  It looked as though he was fouled in the challenge and all the Sharks stopped, expecting the whistle. But the referee waved ‘play on’ and the Colts’ attacker smashed the ball into the net, giving Rory no chance.

Of course, it’s a valuable lesson for the boys to play to the whistle. However much they think a foul has been committed, it’s up to the referee to decide and only he can stop the play.  It was a real shame and very frustrating for the Sharks having worked so hard to get into the lead.

But still their heads didn’t go down and they pressed for the winner.

As the clock ticked down, they came mighty close. First Wiktor played a lovely through ball to Ben on the left – and he controlled it and fired home – but the goal was disallowed for offside. A tight call.

Then Sebas worked the ball well with Jakub and slotted a pass through the defence into space on the left.  Running from full back Nile smashed it across the goal, and with the keeper beaten it flashed inches wide of the post.  So close.

And in the final seconds, Jakub found himself free in the middle of the box, but his snap shot was blocked as it was heading into the net.

So the Sharks had to be content with a draw, although they could easily have won the game on their second half performance and chances created.

Once again it was a great test for them against good opposition, and once again they proved they are capable of matching teams who are well above them in the divisions.

It augurs well for next season.

Next up is another friendly against Kew Association on Sunday before our final league game of the season on 29th against Abbey Rangers.

 

Thanks to Nick for refereeing the first half – and thanks to Jim for running the line.