The season is rapidly drawing to a close and there are vital games at the top and bottom of leagues all across the country. On Tuesday evening the hottest ticket in town was the big South Midlands Division One clash between third-placed Harpenden Town and the team just above them, Baldock Town. The league has been a three horse race for some time now with Biggleswade holding the aces in top spot and these two hanging on to their coat tails.
A few weeks ago I watched a thoroughly entertaining 3-3 draw between Biggleswade and Baldock in which the Greens scored a last minute penalty to hang on to top spot. Could that have been the turning point for the title race?
Since that game Baldock have stuttered a little, drawing two of the next four in a tough series of games. Biggleswade have won all three of their games since and now have a four point lead at the top. Harpenden have also been on a good run, winning six and losing one of their last seven games.
With Biggleswade at home to bottom side Arlesey Town Reserves, the game this evening was pretty much a shootout to see who could remain in the title race or, should the game end all-square, it could all but hand the title to Biggleswade. Earlier in the season Harpenden had come away from Roker Park with all of the points after a 4-0 victory. This evening was always going to be a much closer game than that.
Rothamsted Park is situated just outside Harpenden town centre, on the edge of the park and next to the town sports centre and tennis club. Parking is in the sports club car park (note: pay and display applicable until 6:30pm) with the ground being a short walk away up a narrow access road. The club house is separate from the ground but, once you have paid your entrance fee, you are free to move backwards and forwards. The ground itself is almost completely surrounded by trees. There is a small covered spectator area on the near side with the dugouts opposite. Hard standing surrounds the rest of the playing area.
After a quick visit to the bar to get a cup of tea, have a brief chat with Baldock media man (and more) Lee Rusbridge, and jot down the starting line-ups it was almost time for kick-off.
The game was only three minutes old when Harpenden made the initial breakthrough. A throw-in was chested down into the path of Kyle McLeish just inside the right-hand side of the Baldock box. The striker took a touch and fired a shot across Reds keeper Bennett into the far corner. 1-0.
It was just the start that Harps wanted and, almost immediately after going a goal up, there was a noticeable change of tactics from the home side. They clearly wanted to take the pace out of the game and prevent Baldock from getting any momentum going.
It became apparent that there were only three match balls available. Now, to be fair to Harpenden, I had not noticed if this was the case right from kick-off or if this was a deliberate tactic after going a goal up and I not condemning them either way. As with most grounds at this level, the ball can often be sent over trees or way out of play. A limited number of match balls ensures that there is always a slight break in play when the ball goes out. It's not illegal and, in this case, had it's desired effect.
Baldock certainly had the lion's share of possession for the next 30 minutes or so but didn't manage to stretch Sansom in the home goal aside from one Lee Harman effort that the keeper got well behind. In fact, it was Baldock keeper Bennett who had to be alert when a long-range effort forced him into a fingertip save to push the ball over.
Just after the half-hour mark we had a little delay when one of the referee's assistants went down with an injury (later reported as a fractured
wrist. We wish him a speedy recovery) and had to be replaced after consultation with both benches.
Just before half-time Baldock had their best opportunity to equalise. A misplaced defensive header fell straight to the unmarked Lee Harman on the edge of the box but, with the keeper scrambling across his box, the striker got his shot on target only to see the keeper make a good save.
It's all very easy to comment from the sideline but I think the striker will be disappointed that he didn't score.
HT Harpenden Town 1 Baldock Town 0. All in all a fairly even half. Baldock edged possession but Harpenden defended very well and looked dangerous when they did attack. Ultimately, the game had swung on a very good finish from McLeish.
The second half continued where the first had left off. If anything, Baldock had even more possession after the break but still could not force Sansom into any serious action.
As the half wore on tension certainly began to rise not helped by some contentious refereeing decisions and the aforementioned scarcity of match balls. Harpenden were more than happy to break the game up. They used every trick in the book although I stress, nothing illegal, to make life frustrating for Baldock and it was certainly working.
The Harpenden defence has to be credited at this point. In the second half and, especially in the final 15 minutes, Baldock through everything at them but they stood firm. It was a defensive display that the famous Italian teams of the past would have been proud of. Baldock did finally make Sansom work a little and there were one or two last ditch tackles or blocks in the box.
However, Harpenden saw the game out and took a very hard-earned three points.
FT Harpenden Town 1 Baldock Town 0. Frustrating for The Reds but credit to Harpenden for a resolute display after scoring very early on.
Biggleswade also ran out 4-1 winners against Arlesey which means that Baldock can no longer win the the title. Harpenden can still mathematically overtake Biggleswade but, in truth, it would take a miracle.
I want to finish this blog with a comment on a subject that has been bothering me for a while this season. That is the level of abuse that referees and assistants get these days. I said earlier in the report that tension in the game wasn't helped by some of the official's decisions.
In my opinion, this is true but I certainly do not think the referee deserved the torrent of swearing and abuse that came his way. I'm not going to say which side the abuse came from because it was hard to tell, it could have either side or even both. Frankly, it doesn't matter. I will say that I believe it was supporters not team officials that were the culprits.
We all get frustrated at refereeing decisions, especially when so much is at stake. We should also be able to expect more consistency amongst officials. However, where would we be without them? We would not have a game to watch at all. I wish people would respect this and respect the officials more. They expect comments, they expect people to disagree with them. That's part of the game and comes with the territory of being a referee or assistant. What supporters need to understand is that decisions have to be made very quickly and, whatever decision is made, one side will probably not be happy with it. It concerns me greatly that, if this abuse and threat is not stamped out, we will soon be in a position where there are not enough officials to go around. Games will get postponed and, lower down the pyramid, we may start to lose leagues.
I know that clubs are all signed up to the Delete that Expletive initiative which is great. However, how does it get enforced? I don't have the answer but I hope that we start to see some changes soon before it is too late.
One final word. Although I have brought this subject up in this blog, I am in no way trying to say that either of the clubs involved are to blame for any of the abuse. I am sure that both clubs do everything they can to prevent this kind of thing from happening. I have seen and heard abuse in some form at many games this season.
Harpenden Town - @harpenden_town
Baldock Town - @baldocktownfc