Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Sun 11 Mar: Abbey Rangers (A) W 4-2

And so, back to Abbey Rangers. Teddington’s 101st game took place an the adjacent pitch to where their first did, 1,645 days previously. Among the players on that day in September 2013 were Amy Hallett, Emily Coulson and Millie Theobald. They’re all still going strong, and came back to Addlestone determined to win.

Abbey have proven tough opponents over the years. Further season-openers here in 2015 and 2016 saw the home side well-drilled, physical and ultimately victorious. In 2016 Rangers finished third, two places clear of a Teddington side not entirely adapted to the 11-a-side game.

It’s fair to say Teddington have caught up since, finishing third last season to Abbey’s fifth, even if this season has been harder for both teams. Indeed, they came into this game – Abbey’s final fixture – knowing they would definitely finish above their old rivals, but wanting one last game against them. With this season’s competition thickened by champions Crystal Palace and possible runners-up QPR, fifth position is the ceiling of Teddington’s possibilities, and they went into this clash knowing that a victory could put them there, for now at least.

Sadly, the build-up to the game was anything but smooth. Teddington had only played one game in the previous six weeks, and attendance at training has become increasingly sparse, to the point where coaches are forced to roll the squad in with the younger age-groups. To their credit, the loyal attendees have borne this with good grace and sisterly affection, but it hardly prepares them for a league battle.

Things were no better for Abbey. No fewer than four of their players have suffered long-term injuries, and they were unsure right up until kick-off how many they would be able to field. In the end, it was nine, and those nine were a great credit to their club.

Teddington were also understaffed, as ever. Saskia Brewster and Emily Bashford were busy with other sporting endeavours and top scorer Ella Bothamley has been ruled out for at least the length of March, if not the entire season, with back and shin problems. That left a core 11, for the sixth time in 13 fixtures.

On this occasion, Teddington opted to start with just 10, partly in deference to their decimated opponents but also in consideration of Annabel Taiwo’s bad cold, whioch had kept her away from training. She started on the bench as Teddington, somewhat denuded of wide players, switched to a 3-4-2 formation.

Jen Neves agreed to start in goal, with the caveat that she’d need to come out for the second half for coursework-filming purposes. She was protected by Sarah Dillamore, Millie Theobald and Amy Hallett, augmented by the energy of wing-backs Frances Clark and Carla Novakovic. Liz Kriebel and Giulia Clini held down the midfield while Emily Coulson buzzed between them and centre-forward Ella Dodd.

That was the theory, but the practice ended up somewhat more chaotic. The defensive triumvirate were often spectators in the early stages, with Abbey understandably entrenched as Teddington sought the early goal.

It might have come within the first couple of minutes. Giulia won the ball and, as per established pattern of play, sent it down the wing into the sort of space where Boz normally roams. In absence of the sort of high-width player so typical of Teddington down the years – from Sinead Morris, Phoebe Head and Sadie Day through to Boz, Bash and Fran – Doddsy diligently and intelligently ran the channels all day, finding the spaces for her friends to pass to her. And so, collecting Giulia’s alley-ball, she crossed towards Emily on the penalty spot; she couldn’t connect but the ball fell to Fran, also on an excellent supporting far-post run, who fizzed a shot just wide of the upright.

Soon after, a Doddsy back-heel out on the right set up Carla for a cross that didn’t come off, but the ball was retained and reworked via Emily and Giulia to the other flank where Fran sent it across the six-yard box but just in front of Doddsy.

If the attacking unit was slowly grinding into life, the defensive unit was clanking. Five minutes in Abbey had their own first effort, somewhat gifted by poor passing out from the back. Centre-back stalwart Millie T started, by her own admission, half-asleep (her word was “awful”) and her pass in the general direction of Amy to her left was easily intercepted, allowing Abbey to run through and forcing a sprawling Jen to push the shot wide.

Teddington had the majority of possession but didn’t do an awful lot with it in a game which frankly didn’t look worthy of the county’s premier division. It took 15 underimpressive minutes for Teddington to hit the target, the goalkeeper kicking away Giulia’s snapshot from Fran’s cross after Em had been sent haring down the left by Liz. The American looked the visitors’ most likely source of inspiration, principally because she was the one who most readily realised she had enough time on the ball and quality with it to force the issue.

Collecting the ball from her defence after an unusually neat interplay of passes therein, Liz turned and drifted 40 yards forward toward the Abbey goal. Challenged after a heavy touch, she regained the ball via a one-two with Giulia for a left-footer clipped just over the bar. Then she got another on target via a one-two with Emily just outside the penalty arc, shortly before Doddsy fired in three shots in five seconds: a right-footer blocked by a desperate defender, a left-foot rebound blocked by another Abbeyite and a final right-footer squeezed just wide. 

On 25 minutes, Teddington took a lead they deserved on the balance of play, if not its impressiveness or incisiveness. Fittingly, it was Emily who broke the deadlock, mere yards from where she had scored in Teddington’s first-ever game. On this occasion she collected the ball just inside the area, calmly switched from foot to foot and finished left-footed inside the near post.

Liz might have doubled the lead immediately thereafter but it struck the bar and bounced down on the muddy side of the line. Then Teddington switched it up on the half-hour.

Patiently waiting on the sideline, Annabel had produced some increasingly promising performances up front. Down the other end, the visitors were fielding a back three that was so underemployed it threatened to eliminate their statistical advantage. The solution, then: send on Annabel for Millie, ruefully shaking her head and genially apologising for her surprisingly under-par performance, and revert to a back four with the full-backs pushed right up.

Trouble is, Abbey promptly equalised. However, this was far from a swift counter-attack rampaging through the open meadows of Teddington’s depleted back-line. Instead, the visitors ribbon-wrapped a gift from their own goal-kick, when Liz was dispossessed on the edge and the gleeful Abbey striker shot disbelievingly past Jen.

For all that the equaliser was a despised surprise, the scoreline was far less upsetting than the performance, as rusty and rotten as a half-sunken barge. Manager Dave Waldron was so disheartened that he pointedly spent some of his time watching the kids’ game on the adjoining pitch, where it all had began, before delivering the most visibly disappointed half-time talk of his five years at the Teddington helm. What happened to the superb start to 2018, when the girls had played with such vim and zip? Are lessons so easily lost?

As agreed, Jen emerged from goal. Typically, Doddsy was the first to put her hand up to don the gloves, so Jen went straight up front alongside Annabel.

And Annabel it was who scored, 15 minutes into the second period. The squad’s newest recruit has been playing increasingly impressively, showing good touch and awareness, and her goal was welcomed warmly by her team-mates. It came from Em sending Fran down the left, her perhaps fractionally overhit pass forcing the whizzing wing-back to lengthen her stride and hit a first-time cross which zipped across the edge of the six-yard box. Jen couldn’t quite turn it home but Annabel, correctly positioned just inside the back post, calmly sidefooted home to fulfil her manager’s prediction that she would score.

In doing so, she becomes Teddington’s 10th goalscorer of the season, and the 20th among the 26 players who have worn the shirt down the years. The 21st different scorer almost arrived just before the hour, when Jen hooked a shot goalwards from Liz’s right-wing cross but the goalkeeper parried well before outmuscling the hovering Em.

Just after the hour, Teddington mixed up the personnel again. Millie came back on to replace Dillers, who took the gloves off Doddsy, who went up top with Jen switching to the right, Carla going into deep midfield and Emily adopting the left-flank role of the substituted Fran.

Clarky didn’t enjoy being withdrawn, taking it as an unfair indication of personal failing. It wasn’t; it never is. As a fast-moving, hard-working player, Fran sometimes needs a rest mid-match, even if she doesn’t think so, and if the management believe it will benefit her and the team than the change will be made. As it happens, Fran was one of the better players on the day, bouncing up and down the entire wing with typical tenacity.

Emily nearly doubled her tally for the day with an excellent dipping volley, but the third goal came from Doddsy with a cracking volley 11 minutes from the end. Since the break Teddington had been getting better – to borrow Lennon’s response, they couldn’t get much worse – with Jen threatening down the right while Liz wafted in shots from hither and yon.

That third goal might have cracked a weak team, but Abbey responded immediately to make it 3-2. Weaving down their left wing, the No.11 grew with confidence at every half-tackle she evaded and finished by lashing high past Sarah.

Back on came Fran for Emily, and the sub’s clip-run-cross from the left immediately caused a right old to-do in the Abbey box. Giulia hit the post and any one of at least four visitors might have scored; Liz, having had about a dozen shots, somewhat curiously opted to pass sideways to Giulia, who had another effort blocked, and in the subsquent melee Annabel and Doddsy were both hacking away trying to force it goalwards before an Abbey clearance.

With two minutes left, Doddsy put the game beyond doubt by finishing a fine little clip over the top from her old mate Carla. The forward’s celebration was muted, and understandably so. This match was never going to pass into legend, but it almost slipped into embarrassment.

Thankfully, it didn’t, for that might have soured the happy memories that these girls and others have worked so hard to provide. Let’s hope that by the time their final game rolls around, at home to Fleet on April 15th in what could effectively be a fifth-place play-off, they will be sharp enough to end their Teddington careers on a suitable high.

TEDDINGTON ATHLETIC Jen Neves; Sarah Dillamore, Millie Theobald, Amy Hallett; Carla Novakovic, Liz Kriebel, Giulia Clini, Frances Clark; Emily Coulson (1g), Ella Dodd (2g). Sub: Annabel Taiwo (1g).