As is my habit these days, I spent the journey up the M40 and A46 mulling over the morning's under 12 game. This week was a mixed bag. We came from 3-1 down to draw 3-3, which on the face of it, showed great resilience. The problem was, we really shouldn't have been 3-1 down to start with. Oh well, onwards and upwards for whatever challenges next week brings. A full squad at least, perhaps?
Balsall and Berkswell play at The Triangle just off Lavender Hall Road, the road between Balsall Common and Berkswell on the Western outskirts of Coventry. It's not an area that I am very familiar with although my wife knew of it from her time with the Coventry Telegraph many years ago. The ground is part of the community football grounds and home to Balsall & Berkswell Hornets who provide football for kids from Under 9 upwards. As a coach of junior football myself, I love to see these community clubs providing opportunities to kids from a young age. It is such an important opportunity for their well-being, fitness and growth.
There is a good-sized car park, just off Lavender Hall Lane, which runs behind the goal of the main pitch. I managed to find a spot not directly behind the goal, always a bonus to avoid unwanted dents. On the left of the entrance to the car park is what appears to be a relatively new clubhouse which incorporates the changing areas as well as a comfortable seating area and café (decent cup of tea served here too). They also provide a programme for every home match, which is available in the club house. This is quite unusual, but great to see, for a club at Step 8. It's £2 but, in my opinion, well worth it to put a little bit of money back into the club.
The ground itself does not have any spectator cover at the moment but the pitch looked to be pretty flat and not as heavy as I expected it to be. They do have portable dugouts on the far side of the ground. However, Balsall was suffering from the whiplash of storm Malik this weekend. Nowhere near as bad as Scotland or the North but certainly gusty enough to lift temporary dugouts off the ground. After a little battle between the Balsall coaching staff and the weather, Mother Nature triumphed. One of the dugouts was carried over to the club house, out of harms way. The other was, so we thought, safely wedged into the trees behind the ground. However, we did have a short delay in the second half when a particularly powerful gust threated to blow it across the pitch. It too, was removed to the safety of the lee of the clubhouse.
I liked this ground. There are no real features to comment on but the car park was big enough to cope with the crowd, the clubhouse was friendly and it had a sense of community to it.
This is Balsall and Berkswell's first season in the Midland League structure after moving up from the Coventry Alliance Premier League and, so far, it's been a successful transition for the club. Coming into the game Balsall & Berkswell sat eighth whilst their visitors, Sutton United, were tucked into second spot behind runaway leaders, AFC Coventry Rangers. The sides met at the end of October where goals from Sutton's Joseph Delaney and Leighton Hines were cancelled out by Balsall's Pete Bailey and Daniel Biddle. The Hornets were also coming into the game on a good run of league form. Since defeat to Central Ajax on the 4th of December they had notched up four consecutive victories including a resounding 10-0 win at bottom side Bartley Reds last week. Sutton's recent form also looked very good. Since the 2-2 draw with today's opponents they had won six on the bounce until last week's 3-1 reversal at the leaders. This run included back to back December wins over Birmingham Tigers, 12-0 on the road and 6-2 at home.
Sutton started the game brightly and, even playing into the face of the wind, seemed to settle into the game much quicker than their hosts. However, despite looking the brighter of the two sides, Sutton were almost the first to concede and it would have been entirely of their own making. Trying to play out from the back on the quarter-hour mark, they made a real mess of it it, allowing George Ginn to steal the ball inside their own penalty area. The Balsall striker's cheeky backheel was just about blocked and the visitors had survived.
By this time, although the blustery wind was making things difficult, both teams had adapted to the conditions quite well. Sutton still looked the more dangerous of the two but Balsall seems to have weathered their opponent's initial barrage. That was until the 25th minute when Sutton took the lead. Joe Delaney used his pace down the left flank and gave himself enough room to drill a low, hard cross into the six yard box. Home keeper Kieron Reynolds managed to get a hand to it but could only palm it into the path of Jonathan Grigg who slotted home to make it 0-1. Sutton's tails were up now and they came very close to doubling their lead just three minutes later when Reynolds was forced into making a good save from Tom Hughes.
Just past the half hour mark Balsall's task became a little harder when midfielder Connor Smith managed to talk himself into a 10 minute sin-bin. Some of the refereeing decisions that had gone against Balsall had niggled the players but this referee was standing for nothing and when Smith continued his dissent the yellow was quick to follow. Two minutes after that they were almost made to pay when A Tom Massey strike had Reynolds at full length but the ball whistled just wide. However, undeterred by being a man light, The Hornets went up the other end and created an opportunity of their own. Tommy Harris tried his luck from well outside the box but, with George Harrington scrambling across his goal the ball flashed just wide and a little too high, or "Wover" as Palmers FC would say. Smith returned just before the half-time whistle but there was no further scoring.
HT Balsall & Berkswell 0 Sutton United 1. Despite having the wind blowing in their faces, the visitors adapted better to the conditions. Maybe the wind was hindering Balsall's play, making it very difficult to judge balls played forward, many of which flew way too far for the forwards to latch onto.
The game was now really open and on 68 minutes, five minutes after going behind, Sutton were back level and playing Balsall at their own game, scoring from a corner. The ball came in from the left and was bundled over the line, making it hard to see who got the goal. At first it looked the an OG but Sutton credited it to their captain Yousef Semlali. 2-2.
It was just a matter of minutes before the visitors were back ahead. Once again it was from a cross, although this time not a corner and from the right flank. Tarique Hunter stooped low at the near post and his header seemed to loop over Reynolds and into the net. 3-2.
With ten remaining Balsall threw on Nathan Jones and it almost turned into a master-stroke as, with his very first touch, he got his head to a cross only to see his effort go agonisingly wide.
Then, with three minutes left on the clock, there began one of the most incident packed endings to a game I have seen for a long while. First of all Sutton were awarded a free-kick just inside their own half. Semlali took it, lofting it high towards the Balsall penalty area. The ball caught on the wind and completely deceived the home keeper, taking a bounce high over his head and into the net. 4-2. Two minutes after that, something I had never seen before, Connor Smith managed to get himself sin-binned for the second time in the match. The incident happened on the opposite side of the pitch but was sparked by the referee not giving the home side a decision. Then, as Smith was walking away, the assistant on that side flagged to call the referee across. After a brief discussion, the referee went over to George Ginn and showed him a red card. Presumably something else was said, but I honestly could not hear or see from my position. Soon afterwards the referee brought matters to a close and the three points were on their way back to Sutton Coldfield.
FT Balsall & Berkswell 2 Sutton United 4. Credit to both sides for putting on an entertaining display in such testing conditions. I think it is fair to say that Sutton adapted better in the first half but, in the second it was quite an even affair. When Balsall went 2-1 up it looked as the momentum was with them and I could see them going on to win it at that point. Sutton were having none of that though and, eventually, deserved their win. Great entertainment though and another cracking example of why I am so pleased to have dipped into the Midland League this season, especially Divisions 2 & 3. The result keeps Sutton's faint hope of catching Coventry Rangers alive but, with Rangers winning again to maintain the 12 point gap, it's going to require a big collapse from the leaders. Next up for Balsall & Berkswell is a trip up to Hadley Stadium to face third from bottom Birmingham Tigers. Sutton are back at home as they welcome second-bottom Continental Star to Hollyfield Road.
Best of luck to both sides for the remainder of the season.
Balsall & Berkswell: Reynolds, Arnold, Smith, Black, Kinsella, Smith, Thomas, Hatfield, Povey, Ginn, Harris. Subs: Biddle, Gane, Jones, Clark
Sutton United: Harrington, Hunter, Dowdall, Whitty, Bannister, Massey, Grigg, Semlali,(c), Hughes, Skinner, Delaney. Subs: Beveridge, Cox, Hines
Ground Number: 304