NOW: Pensions Men’s Premier League: Week Nine Preview.

With just three games left before the Christmas break it is all to play for in the NOW: Pensions Men’s Premier League as teams try to squeeze out those all important points to allow them to enjoy the festive period without having to look over their shoulders in the table.

East Grinstead, for the second week in a row are involved in what promises to be an exciting contest as they face fellow top-four contenders Surbiton in an evening game at Saint Hill. The Sussex side travelled to Reading last week for another clash of the titans and despite racing into a 3-0 lead found themselves salvaging a 4-4 draw with a goal from Wes Jackson five minutes from full time. Mark Pearn, EG’s Player-Coach gave his assessment of a see-saw encounter:

“We were really pleased with our performance against Reading. We were able to dictate the play and looked really comfortable at 3-0 up after 45 minutes. Unfortunately we weren’t able to cope with a yellow card and going down to 10 players as we conceded three goals in quick succession. Reading clearly had nothing to lose at that stage of the match and credit to them for throwing everything at us to get back into the running.” He continued: “We showed a lot of character to come back from the disappointment of losing a big lead and finding ourselves 3-4 down, to level it up and then have opportunities to win the match. It is very rare for us to have 6 PCs and not to convert any of them but overall there were lots of positives to build on.”

Pearn, as you might expect is excited about playing against more quality opposition this coming week, saying:

“Naturally we are really looking forward to another big game at the weekend against Surbiton in a Saturday evening fixture under the lights. We’ve had some close battles with them over recent seasons, with plenty of goals scored and I would expect no different this time. They will fancy their chances I’m sure, but if we can keep 11 players on the pitch then I feel we will be very tough to beat at home.”

Surbiton come into the game five points adrift of their rivals, who are in turn, five points behind leaders Beeston. Todd Williams’ team picked up a good 4-1 win over Cannock last week and will be raring to go against one of the form teams in the league.

NOW: Pensions Hockey LeagueBeeston remain the team to beat and have maximum points so far this season. Matt Taylor’s side were made to work hard for their win by bottom club Loughborough Students last week, but in the end their class told and another brace from the league’s top scorer Sam Ward gave them a 3-2 win. Ward now has 13 goals this season and has pledged to donate money to charity for each time he finds the net. His, and Beeston’s success is starting to prove very costly for the former Loughborough striker.

Although Ward is deservedly grabbing the headlines, Taylor singled out one of his teammates for praise after the win over the Students:

“It was a tricky game for us, especially being a local derby. We played poorly but still got the 3 points so obviously that was pleasing, Stephen Lawrence continued the form that he’s shown all season with an excellent performance in the middle of defence.  We need to have 2 much improved performances next weekend if we’re to get a result away at Cannock on Saturday and then away to Teddington on Sunday in the cup.”

Cannock’s form is not as good as they would hope; three losses in their last five games puts them on four points and out of the relegation play-off slot by virtue of goal difference. With the gap to Hampstead and Westminster in seventh place now five points, the Nockers need to put some daylight between themselves and the bottom two. A visit from the unbeaten league leaders is hardly an ideal contest for a side in need of points, however.

Level on points at the bottom with Cannock are Sheffield Hallam. Vicky Joel’s side were put to the sword by Canterbury last week, going down 4-0 to the Kent side with three goals coming in the first half. Hallam go up against Ben Marsden’s Wimbledon whose 4-0 win over Hampstead took them to sixth in the league and was their second consecutive win. The Wombles’ player coach told TTOTD:

Men's Hockey League“We were really good today. We played with freedom and really played the way we wanted to. No disrespect to them but we stepped up a gear and got into our stride fairly easily. It’s been coming for us; we’ve had some hard games, some tough results so to play well for the majority of the 70 minutes is really good.” He continued: “It’s a new group and a step up to a new league, which is a better standard than last year, so it was always going to be hard. I think we’re starting to find some form now, which is pleasing. We asked some questions after some of the games when we didn’t put teams to bed, so we’ve worked hard in training and it was great to see it come together.”

Despite finding some form, former Great Britain star Richard “Ratman” Alexander outlined the importance of this run of games, in particular the clash with their fellow promoted team:

“We looked at these three weekends as big weekends for us in terms of points we could pick up. We’re under no illusions about our standing in the league and we know our capabilities, we’re a new squad with some inexperienced guys so we thought 5th or 6th is about where we should be. Sheffield away is a game we must get three points from. Luckily we’re a team well capable of doing that. If we play like we have done the last two weekends we should be able to come away with another good result.”

Hampstead, who became Wimbledon’s third scalp in the top flight aim to bounce back with a home game against Canterbury, who sit just three points ahead. Player-Coach Tom Kavanagh was bitterly disappointed with his team’s showing last week:

“Our mental approach and the way we’re going about our hockey at the moment isn’t up to our usual standards and it’s not the way we want to be playing. If you give any team so many opportunities as we did today, you get punished. It’s unacceptable. We’ve had a long discussion about it afterwards to see what we can do to sort it out and ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Despite his frustrations, Kavanagh was not all doom and gloom and is keen to see his side put their mistakes right and return to their good early season showings:

“We’re at a tough point in our season. We had a good start but we’ve had a tough few weeks. Canterbury are around us in the table so this game is a really important one for us. We’re not that far off playing the good hockey we played early on in the year. It’s important we don’t take the Wimbledon loss as a sign of things to come. We need to move on, not look back.”

The Polo Farm side have had an up and down season too, including a 9-1 humbling at the hands of East Grinstead but are on a decent run, winning three of their last five games, including last week’s 4-0 win over Sheffield. Skipper Michael Farrer told TTOTD:

The feeling after the game against Sheffield was odd, we scored four unanswered goals but were disappointed with our performance. We didn’t ever find the rhythm or fluidity in our attacking play that we usually expect. However, we were expecting a tough game and it’s the biggest margin they have been beaten by so far this season so ultimately we are happy with the win and the goals we scored.”

Looking ahead to this weekend, Farrer emphasised the importance of approaching the game in the right way:

“Hampstead & Westminster is one of those fixtures no one seems to look forward to. You find yourself in the middle of a park with all manner of activity going on around the outside of the pitch so getting our preparation right will be key to success this weekend. Having not beaten them for a decade we enjoyed two victories over them last year so we’ll be hoping to continue that run and keep the pressure on the teams ahead of us.”

That just leaves the clash between bottom side Loughborough Students and Reading. As already mentioned, the Students lost out to Beeston 3-2 last week whilst the Sonning Lane outfit came back from 3-0 down against East Grinstead to lead 4-3, only to wind up having to settle for a point in one of the games of the season. The match featured four goals for Great Britain’s Simon Mantell. Coach Charlie Seccombe spoke in glowing terms about his star striker:

“Simon is one of the top forwards in the country, no doubt. I’m sure he’s at the top of Bobby Crutchley’s list when he selects his squad. He missed the London Olympics with injury but he’s come back really firing. He’s managed his body well, put in a lot of hard work and is doing a fantastic job; he’s a great player to have in our squad, something he really showed against East Grinstead.”NOW: Pensions Men's Hockey League Finals Weekend

Although the two sides occupy positions at different ends of the table the Reading coach is not taking anything for granted:

“Loughborough is a big game for us. We’ve drawn our last two matches so we’ve dropped four points, this week it is important we get three points on the board. They are scrapping against relegation so we know we’ll get a tough game. It’s really hard to predict how teams will do based solely on their results. We went 4-0 up against them last year and ended up drawing 6-6 so we’re keen to make amends for that. We’ll be going there trying everything to get a win.”

Seccombe accepts that whilst his squad is packed with talent, games like this week’s against Loughborough do not always go to form:

“We have one of the strongest squads in the league so teams will struggle to live with us when we perform. However, Beeston had to grind out a 3-2 win against Loughborough last week and we know in sport not everyone plays at their best every week. We will try to get as many people firing as possible on the same day, but if we need to, we’re capable of fighting for a result on those off days.”

Last weekend saw 26 goals scored over the five games, an average of 5.2 goals a game. The weather may be getting colder but the NOW: Pensions Men’s Premier League is certainly hotting up. As always, you can log on to the England Hockey website to see all the results and scorers.

About thetopofthed

Columnist for The Hockey Paper and the man behind The Top of the D. Writer, podcaster, goalkeeper and BBC Sport man. Used to work for Great Britain Hockey and have covered the sport at every major tournament.
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