It's been a while coming. In fact, Barlows Park has been on my list of grounds to visit for a couple of years but, this Tuesday evening, I finally managed to get to a Tadley Calleva home game. Not a bad one to go to either with the visit of second-placed Baffins Milton Rovers.
The game would feature the leagues top scorers, Baffins, who already had chalked up 120 goals this season. The league's three top individual scorers would also be on display. Baffin's Ryan Pennery (45) was leading the chart with Calleva striker Brett Denham (31) second and Rovers' Tyler Moret (30) in third. However, with the exception of leaders Hamble, we would also be seeing two of the tightest back-lines in the league. Tadley were also coming into the game on a run of seven league games without conceding a goal.
With this in mind and the fact that the reverse fixture in December was decided by a single Baffins goal, I was not expecting a goal-fest despite having so many leading scorers on show. What I did expect, and what I got, was a very tightly contested game between two quite evenly matched teams.
Barlows Park is a relatively new ground, only built in 2007, and is situated on the edge of Tadley. There are plenty of parking spaces right outside the clubhouse and also on the long driveway that leads up to the ground from Silchester Road. All of the facilities are on the car park side of the ground with the playing surface being accessed up a small incline from the facilities. There is a small covered seating area on one side of the ground with the dugouts directly opposite. The pitch has no noticeable slope to it and looked in pretty good condition.
It was apparent almost from the kick off that this was going to be a close contest. Baffins fired the opening salvo, with an early shot that didn't really trouble the keeper, but apart from that the first ten minutes of the game was very even.
The main talking point of the match happened on the ten minute mark. A Tadley attack broke down in the Baffins half when a Rovers player used his hand. The referee missed the handball and Rovers broke upfield quickly. When the ball was played through the Calleva defence keeper Tom Hindmarsh was quick off his line but could only manage to fell the onrushing Rovers striker. It was a clear penalty offence but, luckily for the keeper, there were just enough covering defenders to prevent the red card coming out.
Tyler Moret stepped up and put Rovers in front. 1-0.
Four minutes later Tadley should really have been level. Top scorer Brett Denham was put clean through but, with just the keeper to beat, he screwed his shot wide. The game was still fairly even but, in truth, it was Tadley who were making the better chances. Once again, just before the half hour mark, they got beyond the Rovers defence but the shot was blazed well over the bar. Anthony Male in the away goal then kept his side in front with a very good save just on the stroke of half-time.
HT Tadley Calleva 0 Baffins Milton Rovers 1. Rovers quite fortunate to be ahead. Although the penalty decision was correct the referee should really have spotted the handball in the build-up. Tadley also had a number of opportunities to equalise but were a little wasteful in front of goal.
The Tadders were putting together some nice passages of play but time and again could not find the final ball to call Male back into action.
Whilst the game was being played predominantly in the Rovers half, they were leaving two players up most of the time meaning that Tadley always had to be wary of a break. Just after the hour mark Ryan Pennery almost benefited from one such break but fired his shot wide of the mark.
As the half drew on Tadley stepped up the pace again and almost grabbed an equaliser after 80 minutes but, once again, Rovers had their goalkeeper to thank for keeping their noses in front.
To be fair to Baffins, they defended very well and were equal to most things that Tadley threw at them. When the home side did manage to break through the Rovers defensive line they either found Male equal to the effort or could not quite find the target.
FT Tadley Calleva 0 Baffins Milton Rovers 1
Harsh on Tadley who had much more of the ball than their opponents. However, football is about goals and Baffins took their chance whereas Tadley failed to convert any of their efforts.
The win, combined with leaders Hamble drawing with Shaftesbury, leaves Rovers just three points off top place albeit having played two games more than Hamble. The Monks still have to travel to The Kendall Stadium on the penultimate weekend of the season, which could yet prove to be a title shoot-out. Whichever way that game goes, it increasingly looks like the same two teams that rose from the Hampshire Premier League last season will also be climbing up the ladder to Step 5 this season.
Tadley Calleva - @tadleycallevafc
Baffins Milton Rovers - @bmrfc