Hot sun, cold beer and shade under the parasol. It couldn't have been any better today down at Eynsham Park. That is of course if your were cheering from the sidelines. However, the 28 degree heat in an early afternoon kick off was never going to be easy on the players and thus the refs allowed for water breaks at 25 and 65 minutes.
Going into the game, North Leigh still had their pre-season record in tact with 2 wins and a draw from their previous 3 games. A record that took the remaining 9 games of last season to accomplish. Today's opposition though was a different side altogether to teams they had already played. Currently applying their trade in the non-league 4th step Isthmian South Central Division. They were more skillful, more used to the physicality of non-league football and most importantly, the majority of the team will have played together for years whereas only a mere 3 individuals have been re-signed into the first team from last season.
Despite the heat, both teams were fast out of the gate as clearly each wanted to assert their dominance on the game and control the tempo. Seven players from North Leigh's registered team were unable to play due to injuries, work commitments or Country File Live coming to town. The list included Captain and centre back Ben Brown, legendary goalscorer George Seacole, ex Oxford City youngster Henry Landers and midfield playmaker Eddie Stevens. This presented an opportunity for the likes of Dan Newman, new signing Will McEachran and Nathan Simms to start. Dan would have a particularly high amount of responsibility filling the CB role in place of the Captain. They needed to start strong and start strongly they did. However the midfield battle was clearly being won in the tackles and 2nd balls and the young team have not quite become accustomed to the style of football required to win those battles. Where the Millers were out bullied in the midfield, they made up for in determination on the wing. Noah Alabi and last weeks Man of the Match Roger James were too much to handle and consistently broke through to allow for a cross but to no prevail each and every time. Just too high, a little too late, a runner offside. The early signs were there but the chances were not being capitalised upon.
Now the Southern League may be too low down to get featured on FIFA 19, but if it was then Mr. Alabi would probably be at least 3, maybe 4* rated for his skill moves and every week, he gives the fullbacks a headache (although I think the Sun may have helped today). And in almost identical circumstances to the Abingdon friendly, he grafted a chance on the corner of the box beating the defender 1-on-1 and firing hard and low towards the far post. Hit with such perfection was this ball that again, his efforts were rewarded by the crackle of the upright but no goal.
Going in at half-time, you couldn't separate the two teams. There was the occasional misplaced pass or player out of position but the attacking pressures were being subdued by well organised defences on both halves of the field. We just hoped that the half time oranges did their job again as North Leigh have looked stronger in the second half in every game so far.
Credit to Darren and Rob at the break, their instructions seemed to be doing the trick as the chances began to flow again. Roger James had another fantastic game rushing the wing and regularly fizzing a low cross past the face of goal that just needed a slight touch to divert it goal bounds. Then there was an acrobatic save from a Dec Sheppard volley rebounded gleefully straight onto the head of the ever waiting Martin Griggs. Just like that, 1-0 North Leigh. Or at least it was until the celebrating fans noticed the linesman's flag up for offside. Perhaps another missed opportunity and this was only 5 minutes into the 2nd half. Would they end up paying for not making the most of it.
As the game reached the hour mark, a couple of rolling subs were made to keep the legs fresh and the momentum in our favour. But maybe the swaps came at the wrong moment. Left unmarked on the edge of the box, a trialist at Egham was given time to compose himself and blast a must see 'top bins' goal. Luke was helpless between the sticks and short of a miracle saving stop, it was the only black mark on an otherwise good day at the office. This is where the young team would be tested though. It was the first time they have gone behind in a game. Could they come back fighting.
The effort in the first half and the strains of attacking up hill seemed to really slow down the game in the last quarter of an hour. Maybe the fitness would come into question if not for the blistering heat. And the strong guard of returning CB Brad Chalmers and new singing Dan were regularly pressed on the counter attacks with the crossbar saving them from going further behind.
Ultimately, the game ended what had been a fairly successful pre-season campaign but the lads held their own for most of the game and it is just a matter of time to really gel as a team holding them back from playing top quality football.
Full time at Eynsham Park with visitors Egham Town winning 1-0 against North Leigh.
The next game for them will be a week today at home again to recent rivals Cinderford Town which will be another 3pm KO.
You can find the match photos on our website as well as the post match interview with last weeks Manager's MotM Roger James on our YouTube channel. Roger's standout player was none other than decisive debutant Will McEachran for his calmness under pressure and well timed tackles to keep their strikers at bay.