GAME OF THE WEEK: Needham Market 1 Great Wakering 0
PUBLISHED: 09:24 11 August 2014 | UPDATED: 09:24 11 August 2014
After last season's revolution ended in agonising fashion, redemption is now being sought at Bloomfields.
And if Saturday’s performance offered a glimpse of how Needham Market’s campaign will unravel this season – an entertaining display teeming with creative attacks, smart interchanges and street-wise defending – then manager Mark Morsley can be confident of securing another play-off position.
But more work is needed. Too often a cross would sail harmlessly wide, or a flair player would be outdone by his own extravagance, or a lofted long ball would enter no man’s land and either bounce out of play or trickle back to the goalkeeper.
What must also be a concern was the finishing. Needham should have won this game by a comfortable, and perhaps an intimidating, margin which could have sent out a message to their rivals.
But one-on-ones were not converted and goal-mouth scrambles were not forced home.
In the end, Luke Ingram scored directly from a corner to settle matters with 10 minutes remaining. It was wind-assisted, looping and curling over the impressive Adam Seal in the Great Wakering Rovers goal, and may have been subject to a deflection or two either on or beyond the line, but it was a hugely relieving breakthrough for the home supporters.
The game had that familiar feeling where, if that goal had come in the opening 10 minutes, then Needham would have loosened up and relaxed, and the floodgates would have opened.
As it was, the chances went begging. Captain Kem Izzet, who admitted afterwards he was lacking a bit of match sharpness, saw his powerful effort, teed up by striker Ryan Crisp, palmed away by Seal in the second minute.
It precipitated a deluge of strikes on the visitors’ goal. Izzet soon returned the favour and Crisp was away, bearing down on Great Wakering’s number one. However, in the most underwhelming manner possible, he violently scuffed his left-foot shot, and it was easily captured by Seal, prompting groans in the stands.
Next to have a go was Sam Newson; the skilful, roaming attacking midfielder. But his shot from the edge of the box never threatened to cause alarm.
Ian Westlake, the former Ipswich Town starlet, went closer from a similar distance, but his low effort went just wide. The 30-year-old partnered Izzet, 33, in the engine room, and provided an energetic attacking dimension to the midfield trio anchored by Keiran Morphew, the guardian of the Needham galaxy.
Moments later, Seal produced the first of his two “worldy” saves, as one Rovers coach would later describe them. Danny Cunningham, the summer recruit from Bury Town who is playing under Morsley for the third time in his career, was the victim. Newson and Crisp led a swift counter-attack. The ball was curled to the back post. Cunningham dived in, beat his marker and headed across goal. But Seal, sprinting to his left and jumping to his right, made a superb one-handed save, resulting in a corner. The whole play was rightly rewarded with a sustained round of applause.
Meanwhile, at the other end, newly-promoted Rovers pieced together some fine moves of their own, augmenting their reputation after winning the Essex Senior League last season. Chris Hogg, the Needham centre-back, made a crucial block when a fizzed cross looked menacing.
The defender later thought he had opened the scoring when heading home a corner. However, he had used his marker as a launchpad, and it was correctly chalked off.
Rovers returned and Jay Nash left the crossbar rattling after smashing a half-volley against it from a defence and goalkeeper splitting cross.
Needham responded and Seal pulled off his second spectacular save. A Cunningham cross from the right wing, full of pace and precision, was flicked on by Newson. It was destined for the top left-hand corner before Seal intervened, springing to his right and sending it clear with an outstretched hand.
After the interval, Needham were once gain hell-bent on attack. Morphew chipped into the box, Cunningham headed back and Newson fired a shot narrowly over.
But like the first-half, these attacks, while pleasing on the eye and featuring intelligent movement, were marked by a lack of penetration. At one point, Hogg ended up in the goal, but his headed attempt did not.
On the hour mark, Rovers should have snatched the lead. For once the Needham defence was breached and Billy Radley, the number seven, was clean through. He lined up his shot but Andrew Plummer, the Needham goalkeeper, was more than equal to it, saving low to his left.
The match did not pass without some comic relief though – a treat rarely enjoyed in the upper echelons of modern football. Newson was released down the left wing and his cross was blocked by James Pugsley, going out for a corner. Newson was adamant Pugsley had used his arm, and demanded a penalty. Pugsley, aware of the uproar, then enjoyed his own Rivaldo moment, grabbing his face in ham-acted agony. Referee Nigel Phillips was unmoved by the fiasco. Pugsley eventually got up and received some choice words from the home fans as he made his way to defend the front-post, half-heartedly clasping his face.
He was not laughing moments later though, when Ingram scored directly from the corner.
After last season’s heartbreak in the play-offs against Witham Town, the victory was the first step on the long road to redemption.