A trip to Old Actonians is generally a daunting affair: I always get Bob Dylan’s Oxford Town in my head (appropriately replacing the word Oxford with Acton) when travelling to their nearest tube stop, and – as with the race struggles that Dylan narrates in the aforementioned jaunty classic – we know we may also be on the receiving end of a swift club to the head during our visit, as Harry Thatcher found out for the reserves last year.
Being perennial slow starters, we succumbed to Old Actonians high press straight from the whistle and subsequently struggled to get into any sort of a rhythm, so it was no surprise that they took a deserved lead after about 20 minutes. The WhatsApp group has proved an inconclusive source in trying to find out how the ball ended up with their striker in a fair bit of space and only Mike Bardgett to beat, but everyone can agree that it was a very well taken effort. Things would have gotten a whole lot worse soon after if not for a heroic sliding clearance by Johnny Hammond too, but in the face of all this pressure it was clear that something needed to change if we were to get anything out of the game. Old Actonians play a compact, efficient 4-4-2 which sees the wingers coming in field to congest the centre, and a modicum of width offered by overlaps from the full backs. This seemed to overload the midfield of our much maligned 4-3-3 formation, forcing our creative hub to adopt purely defensive duties. With that in mind, there was a certain amount of consternation which greeted the decision to remove one overworked midfielder from the fray to be replaced by a winger, especially considering the stand-in gaffer’s previous foray into management this season (a 5-3 defeat in the cup which he was at pains to apologise for afterwards). Whether the shaggy cookie duster Dave Mac is currently growing has given him the gravitas to willfully bend us reprobates to his will, or whether he just got lucky this weekend, the formation change was a success; allowing us to track their wily wingers man for man and supplying us with more immediate outlets for distribution. It also helped that the two wide midfielders pivotal in this formation change were Jack Odibiki (who was one of the few players who looked to be playing with any desire in the first half), and the industrious Sam Bolger (who is Northern).
With more of a solid base to work from we looked to put the first half behind us, moving up the pitch as more of a unit. This made our pressing game a little more effective, and eventually led to another moment of football Boggle (as with their goal) which saw their defence sprawled irregularly around the pitch and the goalkeeper somehow lurching back into his area to lay a clumsy two footed lunge on the incredibly elusive Odibiki. Peno. All day long, and with the captains armband around his gangly frame and a hatful of goals already to his name this season, who could deny Tom Spencer the spot kick? Hungover last week, the chap bagged two of the most sublime goals you’re ever likely to see at this level. If you happen to bump into him on Friday please get him tanked for the sake of our season, because his penalty was not good: Like, Tommy Wiseau cult romantic drama “The Room” bad, in which it’s kind of an ordeal to watch but afterwards you can have a bit of a laugh whilst discussing it over a pint. I think we can let him off the hook though, seeing as he bagged us three points last week.
With our talismanic striker trudging off the pitch to be replaced by Mike Hubbard (slowly working his way back up the pitch to the position where he used to score literally effortlessly in previous seasons), Alexandra Park needed a new hero; someone possibly in the shape of Jay Hughes. The club’s international top goalscorer arrived with an air of determination on Saturday: Announcing the purchase of an ostentatious pair of Nike Mercurial Superfly hightops prior to the game via WhatsApp did little to soften the barbs thrown his way in the changing room. But the plucky striker took it all in good humour, retorting “you laugh, but in my mind I’ve already scored”. At about the 70th minute we were all privy to a little glimpse of what goes on in Jay’s glorious mind: Having won a free kick near the edge of the opposition area, the inheritor to the captains armband took it upon himself to line the opportunity up. As the spot was relatively close and reasonably central to the goal, it would take an exceptional shot to trouble the keeper. This was accomplished with some aplomb as carbonfibre sock combined amicably with High Barnet foot to send the ball looping over the wall in a beeline for the crossbar, bending away from the keeper’s desperate clutches and contorting off the underside to nestle behind the line. For anyone interested in how to dispatch such a free kick, Jay was kind enough to point out the sweet spot after the game.
With 20 minutes left, 44 weary legs pushed on like punch drunk heavyweight boxers, knowing that just a brief moment of quality would be enough to secure the three points. That moment almost came as their number 10 – who had been causing all sorts of problems in the space between the defence and midfield – lobbed the ball over me and cut back to leave himself one on one with Bardgett, but could not find a way past the human wall. The AP shot-stopper was the recipient of high praise after the game from the opposition manager, who called him “the best keeper in the league”. It was stops like this (amongst a host of others throughout the game) that led to such deserved praise.
Mercifully, the cost of mugging me off twice and attempting to best Bardgie was all too much for the number 10, as he had to be carried off straight afterwards with an agonising bout of cramp that looked tighter than Santi Carzorla’s Arsenal shirt. With their main threat gone, the game became a lot more subdued and – apart from a few hairy freekicks that whistled either side of the post – the game finished in a stalemate. So a good point earned on the balance of play, considering a very meek first half performance. If we have more leaders on the pitch next week, we wont need another hero.