A funny one this. The Ravens latest fixture at the Bowl last night resulted in a thoroughly dominant victory in temperatures that can only be described as viciously cold, helped by a heavy dose of a blustering westerly 40 mph wind.
While the victory was fully deserved, the game was probably over by half time, as the hosts raced into a two-goal lead within five minutes, an advantage they had doubled by the break. The second half in contrast was arguably pedestrian to say the least.
Even with an enforced two-week break, Chris Bass’ injury headaches have started to rear their ugly heads again. The Saviour of the BernaBowl, Furo Davies was ruled out following a injury picked up in that very game against Maine Road. With Chris Cannell still recovering from his knock, Bass’s selections were compounded by the unavailability of ‘Man on Fire’ Sean Doyle and the dependable Ash Higginbotham. Then on the eve of the match, our own ‘Benjamin Button’, Chris Bass jr withdrew from the squad through illness. As we would see, if Bass sr was concerned at these absences he needn’t have been.
While there was a list of absentees there was also some returnees. Skipper Jack McVey returned after missing the Maine Road fixture, as did the ‘Rockstar’ Michael Williams. Both slotted into the midfield, alongside Sam Baines who replaced Bass jr.
The biggest news on the team sheet though was the full debut of veteran defender Alex Harrison. Since suffering a serious injury just prior to last season’s prestigious friendlies against Guernsey FC, ‘Albo’ has faced a long long period of rehabilitation. And while he made a cameo appearance at St Martins last month, his patience was finally rewarded as Bass sr give him the number two shirt. Having witnessed what Alex had gone through to get to this point, everyone at the club was delighted to see him back. He would go on to have a debut to remember.
Harrison joined Alex Maitland and Ryan Burns in the back three. With both Doyle and Davies out, Luke Murray was pushed upfront to his favoured striking position, and Ste Whitley moved from his usual right wing position to join him up top. Dan Simpson and Adam Mealin manned the flanks.
The Ravens went at the Bullets all guns blazing from the get-go, and an opening minute Whitley cross from the right found Simpson unmarked in the penalty area. ‘Simmo’s shot was true and sure but Alsager ‘keeper Dimeji Willan saved superbly away to his left. From the resulting corner Harrison made his first dent in the game as he met Whitley’s corner with a powerful header that forced Willan into another save, but the latter could only push the ball out to the onrushing Murray to score easily.
The first five minutes of the game were just a procession of Ravens corners, and it was from another such set piece that Murray scored his second. Heading in unchallenged on the near post.
The opening salvos had been one way traffic, but the second Ravens goal seemed to provide the visitors with a jolt into action, and their top scorer George West nearly hit back immediately, forcing Dean Kearns into a terrific save down to his right.
While Burns was marshalling the right winger well, West was undoubtedly Alsager’s best player on the night. Half way through period, he went on a mazy, right to left run, but as he went to unleash a left foot shot on goal, he inexplicitly miss-kicked and fell to the ground. The impressive 1,166 crowd who had braved the weather loved that!
However, West’s misfortune summed up a period of the game when neither team were that impressive. The ever-increasing wind was making it difficult for both sides to keep possession for longer than three passes.
On 25 minutes however, the best phase of football of the half resulted in a third Ravens goal. Murray, dropping into the midfield picked up a simple ball from McVey and picked out a lofted pass to Williams on edge of the penalty area. While the ball was in the air, Ste Whitley sensed an opportunity and Mike’s beautifully cushioned header into his run couldn’t have been better. Whitley beat one opponent and passed the ball past Willan for number three.
The goal knocked the stuffing out of Alsager, and the Ravens were now fully in control, and it was only a matter of time before the hosts scored again.
In the run up to half time the Ravens created chance after chance. Murray’s glancing header from another set piece nearly secured his hat trick, while Whitley’s cute turn and shot from the right-hand side of the box forced a superb save from Willan. As the game moved into stoppage time at the end of the half the hosts did get the fourth goal their overall dominance deserved. From (another) corner, the debut man Harrison found himself completely unmarked just outside the six-yard box, and his powerfully guided header found the top right-hand corner of the net.
With such a commanding lead, it was always going to be a challenge to maintain the same intensity in the second period. And so it turned out to be.
Alsager certainly came out with a better organised approach, and they had the first meaningful chance of the second period, after Maitland lost out in a 50/50 tackle on the edge of the box, the resulting effort was brilliantly tipped round the post by Kearns.
Thereafter, both sides largely huffed and puffed their way through the half, seemingly both aware that the game, as a contest, was already over. There were the odd moments of an increase in tempo and while a last ditch tackle denied Whitley the opportunity for his second goal with just under 20 minutes to go, the Ravens were largely dependent on long shots or forcing more corners.
Alsager, despite playing man to man against our back three never really threatened and were caught offside more often than not. However, with six minutes remaining, a sustained period of pressure on the host’s penalty box resulted in a consolation goal, as a recycled phase of possession from the left resulted in a through pass to the Bullets captain Jordan Stafford. Two Ravens defenders stepped out to force another offside, but one player had lingered slightly too long, and Stafford was in to score with ease.
Two minutes later there was more Ravens heartache. A long through ball from the Alsager half resulted in a foot race between the pacey George West and Ravens Al Maitland. As the pair reached the edge of the penalty area Maitland made his move and seemed to have touched the ball away from the Alsager player, but amidst a serious of appeals from the visitors, the referee viewed the challenge as a foul and added to Maitland’s misery by issuing him a red card.
It was the last meaningful incident of the game.
Overall, it was an impressive Ravens victory despite the tepidness of the second half. It’s three points that keep the club well in the play off hunt and while manager Bass was full of praise for the first half performance, he was as equally unimpressed with the second half display of his team.
“Yes, it’s another three points,” he said. “A very good first half, but I was disappointed with the performance in the second. We just slowed the tempo of the game too much. Once you drop the intensity it’s very hard to pick it back up again. I was expecting us to go on and get five maybe six, but we just seemed to drift through the half.”
In conclusion it should be mentioned that Luke Murray picked up the Match Sponsor’s Man of the Match award and returning to our earlier theme of returning players it was pleasing to see Cam Avery back in action off the bench for a fatigued Harrison after 60 minutes. In addition, flashing winger, and no doubt star of the future, Charlie Higgins also returning from injury, came on as replacement for the last twenty minutes. With Doyle and Higgy both back available next week, Bass may finally get a near full squad to pick from.
Kearns – Harrison (Avery), Maitland, Burns – Mealin (Higgins), Baines, McVey, Simpson – Williams – Murray, Whitley (Cardy).