The end of season Championship Play-Offs are almost upon us once again. Last year, Reading edged out East Grinstead with an Andy Watts penalty corner goal after the final whistle. The semi-final line-up promises to serve up a feast of entertaining hockey and plenty of drama at Sonning Lane this weekend. The Top of the D takes a look at the contenders. First up, Reading and Beeston, who face off in first of the semi-finals.
The Bees have established themselves as the team to beat this season. Having added to their ranks over the summer Beeston have assembled a strong squad with very impressive strength in depth. They have the right blend of youth and experience with talented rising stars like Ben Arnold, Harry Martin and Oliver Willars lining up with the likes of Martin Jones, Adam Dixon and George Pinner making an exciting attacking line-up built on solid foundations defensively.
The Nottinghamshire side had top spot sewn up back in February after an impressive season where they lost just once before Christmas (to Brooklands MU) scoring goals at will. Since securing top spot they have lost twice more, once to Surbiton, (who they could still meet in the Championship Play Off final) and Reading, their opponents in this weekend’s semi-final.
Despite those two losses their form is still very good, as they have won four of their last six domestic games and progressed to the Euro Hockey League KO8 where they were defeated by Dutch Masters HC Bloemendaal, no disgrace in anyone’s book.
Beeston will have to be most people’s favourites for the title due to their total dominance in the league, however as Hampstead and Westminster showed in the EH Cup, The Bees can be beaten in a one-off knock out game. It’ll take one hell of a performance, though.
Final League Position: 1st place.
League Record: P: 18 W: 14 D: 1 L: 3 F: 82 A: 38 GD: 44 Pts: 43.
Simon Egerton has scored 23 goals this season, 11 from open play, 10 from penalty corners and 2 strokes. His goal tally makes him the leading scorer in the Men’s Premier Division by five goals. Although he has struggled to recapture his blistering early season form due to injury it is fair to say Egerton can still be the match winner for Beeston this weekend. A potent penalty corner threat and a natural finisher from open play, the former Bowdon man will only need one chance.
Adam Dixon is an experienced player at domestic and international level. His use of the ball is first class, his energy breaking from midfield and defence and his goal threat from penalty corners (8 league goals this season) make the Bees’ captain a standout performer. He leads by example and will be central to their hopes of taking home the trophy.
Reading finished fourth in the regular season, booking their place in the end of season Championship Play Offs by virtue of a superior goal difference to that of fifth-placed East Grinstead. Their final game of the season, a 2-1 win over Beeston meant they had managed enough points to leave East Grinstead needing a cricket score to stop the Sonning Lane side from defending the title they won last year.
Reading have seen some new faces come in this season, Craig Peel who joined from Conference West side Fareham in the summer has had an excellent season and chipped in with his share of goals (seven league strikes.) Tom Carson has earned himself a place in the Great Britain training squad due to his performances this season, Darren Cheesman has started to recapture the form that saw him named Premier League Player of the Year in 2008 and of course, the Mantell brothers, Simon and Richard show no signs of letting up.
Reading’s form is impressive, winning four of their last six games, losing just once. Their last domestic game was a win over their playoff opponents Beeston. They also held their nerve to overcome an excellent Rotterdam side in the Euro Hockey League on penalties before succumbing to their old foes KHC Dragons in the KO8.
They may have “only” secured the final play off place, but you can guarantee, as they showed with their dramatic finals win over East Grinstead last season, when the big games come along, Reading always seem to pull a performance out of the bag.
Final League Position: 4th place.
League Record: P: 18 W: 8 D: 5 L: 5 F: 56 A: 46 GD: 10 Pts: 29
Players to watch: Reading’s top scorer is Richard Mantell with 10 league goals, all from penalty corners. In addition to his goal threat, Mantell is a huge presence at the back with his telescopic reach, his physical presence and his incredible range of passing. He is a colossus who keeps things tight defensively, but who also uses his long passing to release their pacier, skilful players to hit teams on the break.
James Bailey has become an important player for Reading. In his first season at the club after joining from Bath Bucaneers, the 21-year-old goalkeeper has caught the eye of Great Britain coach Bobby Crutchley and been included in the training squad for the Rio Olympics. Bailey, the hero of Reading’s Euro Hockey League penalty-shootout win over Rotterdam has made the No.1 spot his own, stepping in to replace the retired Nick Brothers. With Beeston’s unquestioned firepower, Bailey’s performance could make all the difference to the Sonning Lane side’s efforts to retain their Championship.
Both of these sides have undoubted big game pedigree, so this match promises to be a fantastic spectacle.
The Top of the D’s preview of Canterbury vs. Surbiton will follow tomorrow.