The Prague effect
Earl of Lonsdale 6 PFFC 1 (cup semi-final)
In celebratory mood after a record consecutive championship wins in the Grafton Millennium League, we met – within the M25 for once – in a bid to make it a league/cup double. “We’re ninety minutes away from suits”, as our Cornishman quipped before the game. However, it turned out that we lost the game before getting on the pitch, by turning up with a squad weakened by injury and suffering from key absences. This is what some of us had seen in Prague two years before, that you simply can’t turn up to a match with a weakened squad to play a decent side and hope not to be humiliated; our championship defence had been based on the most solid defensive unit in the league, but it wasn’t present as a unit today. And this team certainly proved capable, far more organised than any of the teams we have played in the Grafton League; we hadn’t been pressured like this before, and even Puskas, who has been so commanding during the season, was forced in to a couple of errors in this match – errors which were swiftly punished by Earl of Lonsdale. The midfield – a poetic line-up of Al, Ally, Kieran and Keir – were hassled so much that very few balls got up to Gibbo and Richard up front, and those that did were mostly hopeful and cleared up by their sure defence.
It was another blustery day in Chiswick, the ground on which we had beaten Dukla Holloway in an earlier round of the cup – although this match was played on the ‘stadium pitch’, the stadium being a crumbling, fenced-off grandstand to one side. The crowd, disappointed by the lack of the pie and Bovril man, took up their usual place on the touchline.
The Gafferino, Filippo, had to make the best of the squad he had, and had to put some players in unfamiliar roles. His first decision was to appoint Owen skipper-for-a-day, a reward for loyalty and some gritty performances, and an attempt to get a disciplined performance out of him. Owen called for total commitment from everyone. Rich, indeed, had heard the call and travelled down from Leeds, giving us much-needed presence up front in the absence of Neil.
Injury was obviously going to be an issue. Rob the Cat growled between the posts, imperious in spite of continuing back trouble and a lingering virus. Brian was hobbling; Fil himself wary of his knee trouble. Within 20 minutes we had had to use both our subs. However, Raj was on the bench for the first time in nine months, making a Dion Dublin-like miracle return from major surgery, and Fil had brought another Italian from his seemingly limitless supply of Mediterranean treasures – Lele, whom he hadn’t seen play before, but who proved his worth with his first couple of headers, and who slotted well on to the team and helped calm things down a bit.
Lonsdale started as they meant to go on. They were clearly a team who played together often, and had their main side out. Whenever they got the ball they gave themselves time and options, and passed to feet in some well organised moves. When we managed to get the ball we showed little composure, and panicked in to getting rid of the ball, too often straight to the opposition. They dictated the pace – fast, and it suited them. We quickly got flustered, allowed them a few shots within the first few minutes, and soon a scrappy goal-mouth struggle resulted with the ball in the net. One-nil down after six minutes, it didn’t look good. They kept up the pressure and had three more clear chances within the first ten minutes. Thank you, Rob.
After 13 minutes, we had our first decent attack: Keir ran through a couple of defenders and got a shot in, but it went straight to the keeper, who cleared up safely. A quick release led to a blistering counter-attack and our defence left standing: 2-0. Three minutes later and another accomplished attack by the Earl’s men ended with a ball kicked straight at Owen’s face. His attempt to defend his features (not worth the effort if you ask me) was adjudged to be handball in the area. In spite of our protests, a penalty was given and calmly slotted past Rob: 3-0.
At this point both Brian and Filippo had to come off, bringing on Raj and Lele, both of whom, although not fully fit, put in spirited and important performances and lifted the team. However, before they were able to get a look-in, Puskas, last man in defence, was hassled and lost the ball. It was passed straight to a runner, who put it home for a 4-0 lead. Four-nil down with 65 minutes to play; how much worse would this get?
However, these days red heads don’t stay down for long. The final 15 minutes of the first half were our best of the match, and saw us turn the tables and pressure them. We found some shape and confidence from somewhere. An attack up the right brought a cross from Al that the keeper should have collected. However, Richard used his height to challenge for the ball, and steered it home: 4-1. His challenge, although fair, led to the keeper leaving the field – later seen lurking behind their goal with his arm in a sling. Three goals down, plenty of time left, and now a substitute keeper in their goal. Could we test him out and find him wanting? We would try: a few minutes later, Gibbo performed a delicate back-heel to send Ally on a run down the left wing. His cross forced a corner. Al’s delivery troubled the defence, who cleared it only as far a Richard. He had the presence of mind to return a deft chip, unfortunately just over the bar.
At half time, Filippo changed the formation, playing three in midfield with Al in his favoured libero role, Keir dropped back as a 60s style sweeper and Gibbo on the left flank. Kieran and Ally – who had battled constantly with great skill and spirit – stayed in midfield, with Raj pushing up behind them. Owen said more words of encouragement, and Philosophy took the field. It took some time to get used to the new formation, time that Lonsdale were not prepared to give us. They came straight back at us from the whistle, and Rob pulled out two magnificent saves – one rivalling Seaman’s marvel against the Blades in the FA Cup – to keep us at least somewhere in the picture. As we started to work the new system, we looked a lot better, and although they still had most of the possession, we continued to put more pressure on them. Kieran stayed back a bit, winning important balls and starting attacks.
The wind proved a big factor in the match: now against us, it helped on lofted balls forward. Unfortunately, Lonsdale played a passing game – they won almost every ball in the air and then kept it on the ground, so they weren’t affected by the change of ends. All was more or less even – at least, we can pretend so – until a poor clearance on 69 minutes gave them the ball in our half. Intelligent players, they passed around rather than going straight for goal, and went 5-1 up. Three minutes later, Rob was again called to impersonate Seaman – unfortunately, this time Seaman’s performance against Macedonia. A Lonsdale corner went straight over his outstretched fingers and into the far corner: 6-1, and now we were playing for pride. Both Lele and Raj started to fade a bit, but both continued to put in important and committed challenges and make great passes.
We kept up the fight and urged each other on. Not always advisedly: at one point Keir virtually stopped the game with an superbly entertaining rant against people telling him to push up. As if to calm him down, Puskas then took a goal kick which hit him firmly in the wedding tackle. As they say, he speaks with his feet! The ball rebounded wide of Keir, Puskas picked it up and passed to Rich on the half-way line. He knocked it wide to Cornish Al on the right, who put his head down and hared past the defence, only to put the ball just wide of the post.
So the whistle went on Philosophy Football’s 2002-03 season: an anti-climax to another triumphant run. There was a lot of philosophising after the match. About how this was a reality check for what we can expect if we do move to a higher league in order to get more of a challenge next season (Earl of Lonsdale are second from bottom in their league). About how both Keir and Gibbo had excelled in the new roles given to them for the second half, and did a lot to stem the flow of goals. About how our new, improved attitude got its first real test, and as the Gafferino said, no one gave less than 101% throughout the match – enough, indeed, to prevent him storming off the pitch as he had done in the corresponding fixture last season!
Let’s look on this match as a very early pre-season friendly, a chance to see what we’re likely to face if we move up a league. It was a good to have a taste of what’s ahead before we make our decision at the AGM on 7 May.