While Penarth Hockey Club’s promotion bid continued on two fronts last Saturday, there was also the minor distraction of chasing a place in Europe to consider over the weekend.
Penarth travelled to Merthyr on Sunday for the culmination of the Welsh Indoor Hockey season, and were extremely unlucky not to come away as national champions.
Following relatively easy wins against inexperienced sides from Gwent (15-0) and Swansea University (8-1), the Bears renewed old rivalries with 2016 runners-up Swansea City.
In a tense and high-paced game, Penarth eventually triumphed 4-2 to set up a ’winner takes all’ contest with reigning champions Cardiff & Met.
The contest of the day saw Penarth dominate for long periods in a closely-matched and emotionally-charged game, but it was the opposition who seized a vital advantage.
Having conceded an early lead, a combination of bad luck and the experienced Cardiff & Met side taking full advantage of their limited opportunities when ill-discipline reduced Penarth’s numbers saw the Vale side turn around facing a 3-1 deficit, having closed the gap just minutes before the interval.
Despite the half-time scoreline, this was still a game Penarth could - and should - have won, as they dominated the second half, hitting the post twice in a matter of seconds.
However, despite their intense pressure, they were unable to breach the Cardiff & Met defence again and the 3-1 final scoreline did disservice to the immense efforts of the Seasiders.
The disappointment of finishing second – and narrowly missing out on the opportunity to represent Wales in Europe next season - was palpable on the faces of skipper Marcus Powell, coach Ben Croxall and all the Penarth players and support team.
However, while it will, perhaps, be viewed as an opportunity missed, the performance was another measure of just how far Penarth have progressed in their short time back in the indoor version of the game, and as a club on the whole.
Penarth 5, Swansea City 1
The first XI’s stop-start resumption of the 2016-17 GoCrea8 campaign continued, after the previous weekend’s game in Swindon was frozen off, against old rivals Swansea City.
Welcoming their foes to the ‘Bears den’ at Stanwell School, Penarth were looking to maintain their pursuit of a second successive promotion, this time from Conference North – a bid buoyed by favourable results around them either side of the Christmas break.
Swansea arrived lacking several senior players, but brought a team full of youth and, with plenty of running, made the better start to proceedings. Orchestrated by stalwart Jonny Gordon in midfield, the visitors caused Penarth problems and created several chances early on, forcing the home side to call on goalkeeper Simon Comfort to make some smart saves and keep them in the game.
The Bears were clearly struggling to find their shape and rhythm after a week off but, with pace to burn in attack, still looked dangerous on the counter and eventually began to create good chances of their own. Tim Urlings got in behind the Swansea back line on more than one occasion, particularly when fed by from Ben Croxall’s searching aerials, but was repeatedly denied by the superb Swansea keeper.
Having found themselves on the back foot for large parts of the first half, Penarth’s extra penalty corner practice paid dividends, as Laith El-Khatib fired his second effort of the afternoon low to the ‘keeper’s right to give the Bears the lead against the run of play.
As expected, however, Swansea refused to give in, and quickly replied with a penalty corner routine of their own that, despite Comfort getting a foot to the ball, was enough to bring the scores level.
Just as the game looked like heading into half-time all square, Penarth won another penalty corner right on the whistle and, while El-Khatib’s initial effort was saved, the rebound fell to Urlings, who fired in on his reverse to maintain a remarkable goal streak since joining the club.
After a half-time pep talk, Penarth came out the blocks with much more intensity second time around and immediately put their opponents on the back foot.
The pressure resulted in a crucial third goal early in the half, as El-Khatib, finding himself with time in the ’D’, lined it up and smashed it home to put the Bears in control for the first time in the game.
Where Swansea’s youthful energy was their strength in the first half, their inexperience proved a weakness in the second. Picking up several cards for cynical challanges and back chat took the game away from them, and Chris Baker took full advantage of the situation to score the pick of the afternoon’s goals.
Receiving the ball in his own half from a 16-yard hit out, Baker beat several players on his way to the opposition ’D’ before playing his own game of ‘keep ball’ and flicking high into the net to put the game to bed.
El-Khatib would bag another before the end to round out his hat-trick, this time picking up the rebound for his own first effort and making no mistake second time around, again flicking the ball high to the ‘keeper’s left to give Penarth a 5-1 victory.
A workmanlike performance from Penarth saw them carry on their march down the promotion trail, but Swansea had a lot more to be proud of than the 5-1 scoreline suggested.
Clearly lacking several senior players, the visitors’ youth more than stepped up to the late, causing problems for Penarth throughout and playing with great spirit, with only for a few indiscretions denying them a much tighter game.
Swansea City A 3, Penarth A 3
Penarth’s second XI made the opposite journey, to Swansea, knowing that a win could potentially take them up to second place in De Cymru 1.
However, it was a much-changed pack of Bears who made the trip west, with over half the usual team unavailable.
With several key players missing, Penarth were forced to call a number of third and fourth XI players into the squad, and started the game with only 11 players and two strikers playing in the back four, with last season’s league-winning captain Matt Birch filling in at centre back and fourth XI protege Tom Griffiths occupying the left back role pending the arrival of James Davies from umpiring duties.
Despite being denied the chance to warm up properly due to some unnecessary watering at their end of the pitch, the weaker team on paper did not show it on astroturf, and started the game well, with Dave Watkins dispossessing the Swansea centre back before being unable to convert the chance. The Vale side had a few more half-chances, but it was Swansea who eventually took the lead, against the run of play.
A controversial penalty corner was initially repelled by the Penarth defence, but the home side pinched the ball back in the final third and, after a square pass was wildly swung at - and missed - by the player at the front post, it was converted at the back post to put the hosts 1-0 up.
Penarth protested that the wild swing was dangerous, but their complaints were waved away and the goal stood.
To compound the setback, the lead was soon doubled, this time via an excellent goal as the hosts moved the ball all over the pitch before firing in a good cross that was slapped home, just out of goalkeeper Adam Putt’s reach at the back post.
Penarth refused to let their heads to drop and kept attacking, eventually being rewarded by pulling a goal back shortly before the break. Continuing to press the Swansea back four, the Bears won possession by dispossessing the right back, before some neat passing allowed Chris McCarthy to find debutant Griffiths, who showed excellent composure to flick the ball in off the post.
Penarth could have been level before the interval, as McCarthy continued to create chances, this time for skipper Sam Chick, whose dink over the onrushing keeper was well saved.
The rebound was then hit goalwards, but crept wide after deflecting off a Swansea foot. No penalty corner resulted, leaving the sides split by a single goal at the end of the half.
Despite the half-time talk being about starting the second period quickly, it was the hosts who had the first chance, only for some fantastic last-gasp defending by Davies and Craig Llewellyn to repel the threat and set up a Penarth counterattack that eventually brought the sides level.
Andy Strong carried the ball from the edge of the Penarth ‘D’ into the opposition half, beating several men before finding McCarthy, who himself left opponents in knots before smashing the ball home on the reverse to make it 2-2.
Not content with a draw, Penarth kept attacking and, with Sam Salisbury and Jack Jopson particularly influential in the build-up - as they were all game - were rewarded with a penalty corner just minutes later. Receiving a perfect feed, Strong’s shot was well-struck, firing into the bottom corner to complete the comeback and put the Bears ahead for the first time.
Penarth could well have extended their lead as they remained dominant for the majority of the half, but were to pay for their wastefulness in the final minutes.
Andrew Hornby, who had been a rock all game, was unduly penalised for a tackle on the edge of the visitors’ ‘D’ and, to rub salt into the wound, the free hit was subsequently upgraded to a penalty corner following a conference between the umpires.
To complete the inevitable, the corner was flicked home to deprive Penarth of a well-deserved three points.
Although captain Chick would have accepted a share of the spoils before the game, given the squad he had travelled with, the pain of missing out on victory was amplified later in the afternoon when it became apparent that second-placed Bridgend had lost their game, gifting the Bears a chance to draw level on points had things gone their way.
Gwent B 3, Penarth C 0
The ‘C-Siders’ travelled to Cwmbran for a morning encounter with their fellow ‘Men of Gwent’ and, despite finding their hosts bolstered by the inclusion of several second XI players, produced the usual close encounter between two well-matched teams.
Eager to secure a result that would close the gap on their third-placed opponents, Penarth began strongly and were dominant throughout the first half with man-of-the-match Rhys Meddins and Morgan Salisbury featuring prominently.
It was only some exceptional goal-tending from the young Gwent ‘keeper that kept the scoreline blank at half-time.
Gwent came more into the game following the resumption, and this time Penarth ‘keeper Luke Williams had to be the equal of his more experienced counterpart to keep the home attack at bay.
Williams could do little, however, when, following a sharp save from a Gwent penalty corner, the rebound fell to another attacking player, who forced the ball home.
Penarth needed to alter their formation in order to try and find a way back in to the game but, with skipper Nick Pratt proving oddly off colour and ineffective in attack, it was the Gwent side who were able to create more chances, two of which were converted to secure a strangely lop-sided 3-0 scoreline.
The result sees the ‘C-siders’ travelling to face Swansea City side equal on points with them at the foot of De Cymru 3 in what must now be a ’must win’ game in the battle to avoid the wooden spoon.
This weekend sees all four Penarth sides in action for the first time in 2017, with the first XI heading to Devizes for an early start and the seconds hosting De Cymru 1 leaders Cardiff University at Stanwell (noon start) in what will likely be the toughest match-up in their promotion bid.
The 3rd and 4th XIs, meanwhile, are both in De Cymru 3 action, away at Gwent and Swansea City respectively.
Penarth Hockey Club always welcomes new, old and returning players, umpires, supporters, friends and helpers regardless of age and ability. When the regular season resumes, training will take place on Wednesdays at Stanwell School, with the juniors on the pitch between 6.15pm and 7.15pm and the seniors between 7pm and 8.15pm.
Anyone interested in joining the club at senior or youth level can contactclub secretary Dave Stevens (email@example.com) for further information.