NOW: Pensions Men’s Premier League: Week 15 Preview.

With just four games to go in the NOW: Pensions Men’s Premier League matters at both ends of the table are still to be resolved. The weekend’s results threw up some surprises and some familiar stories as no less than 34 goals were rattled in across the five fixtures.

Beeston maintained their stranglehold on top spot this weekend, although they were made to work hard for their 3-1 win by bottom side Sheffield Hallam. Hallam led through Liam Ansell until the 49th minute when James Blackwell drew the sides level before goals from Tim Whiteman and Sam Ward (who else?) in the last ten minutes wrapped up the points for the Bees. Coach Matt Taylor told The Top of the D:

NOW: Pensions Hockey League“It was an interesting game against Sheffield. We were disappointed to find ourselves 1-0 down at half time but bounced back well in the second half to eventually run out 3-1 winners. I was pleased with a cracking performance from England & Great Britain’s Tim Whiteman who really seems to have stepped up since his involvement in the Centralised Programme.”

The Bees travel to Polo Farm to face Canterbury this weekend. Taylor knows his side are in good shape, but is taking nothing for granted:

“We welcome back our captain Adam Dixon from his travels out in India but we’ll no doubt face a tough task down at Canterbury who seem to be in a real goal scoring mood.”

As Taylor has alluded to in his comments, Beeston’s opponents this week, Canterbury hit five past Wimbledon last week, with Liam Foster notching a hat-trick. Captain Michael Farrer was optimistic, albeit cautious after a stunning win over one of the division’s form sides:

“Wimbledon provided a difficult challenge. We knew it was going to be a tough game given their recent form. We started well but failed to make the most of our early possession and then they scored which put us under pressure for the remainder of the half. Fortunately, we came out with renewed vigour in the second half and having drawn level twice we did enough to take the game away from Wimbledon with some well-taken goals. As always, we’re scoring plenty of goals but we’re disappointed with the way we defended and had Wimbledon made more of their circle entries the result could easily have gone the other way.”

With the league leaders in town this week, Farrer is characteristically quietly optimistic:

NOW: Pensions Men's Hockey League Finals Weekend“We always relish the challenge of taking on the league’s top sides so Beeston at home this weekend is a game we’re looking forward to. They’re under a quite a bit of pressure with Reading and East Grinstead chasing them down for the top spot. We need three points too to keep our slim hopes of 4th place alive. Obviously we hit the match full of confidence after a good run since Christmas but we’ll have to tighten up at the back if we want to take anything from the game.”

Hallam, as already mentioned put up a brave showing against Beeston but remain bottom of the table on goal difference. After their recent win against fellow strugglers Loughborough Students, they have the chance to pick up points against another of the teams at the wrong end of the table, Cannock. The teams drew 2-2 the first time around but the  Nockers will go into this clash as slight favourites after they moved three points ahead of the bottom two with an 8-3 demolition of Hampstead and Westminster. David Beckett grabbed a hat-trick to take his tally to 12 league goals for the season and his side will look to him to give them a vital advantage over the bottom two with more goals this weekend.

Loughborough, themselves only off the bottom on goal difference have a chance to take advantage of dropped points by Cannock or Hallam but they face a stern test as they go up against play-off chasing Surbiton. The Students were beaten 2-1 by East Grinstead last week, thanks to a 69th minute winner from Niall Stott. Loughborough will know they cannot allow Cannock to extend their advantage if they are to avoid the relegation play offs.

Surbiton, their opponents this coming week were brought down to earth with a bump by a second half blitz from Reading, who ran out 5-3 winners. Having beaten the league leaders the week before, Surbiton were aiming to tighten their grip on fourth spot, but were left looking over their shoulders still after Reading dominated.

Todd Williams, Surbiton Coach was philosophical, telling TTOTD:

“After playing well the week before we were well off the pace today. I was really surprised to go in 1-0 up at the break; We tried to fix what we thought wasn’t working but they got the jump on us with a good goal from Andy Watts to get them level and then a second straight after. We need to lick our wounds and learn some lessons from today which we will, but obviously we have to give a lot of credit to Reading who were excellent.” He added: “It’s always a concern when you concede five goals. My issue is that I wasn’t happy with what we did when we had the ball, which had an impact on how easily they got it, which exposed our defenders a lot. We need to take a look at that and the pressure it puts us under.” Williams continued: “Given we’ve got Europe to come; there is plenty to play for. We’ve got to get the group right and work out who wants to go through the tough periods and who’ll stand up and be counted. Those guys are the ones who’ll get us where we want to be and I’m confident we have enough of them in the group.”

Hampstead and Westminster, reeling from their 8-3 humbling at Cannock could not have asked for a tougher weekend, as they have a double header of a trip to East Grinstead on Saturday before welcoming Reading to Paddington Rec on Sunday. Hampstead, though mathematically not safe, look to be too far ahead to be in relegation trouble, but will want to have a say in the title race and to finish with as many points on the board as they can. However, this weekend will by no means be easy for Tom Kavanagh’s side.

Reading, who Hampstead face on Sunday brushed aside Surbiton in a clash of 2nd vs. 4th last weekend with a very impressive display. Andy Watts reminded the rest of the league what a fine goal scorer he is as he notched two goals on his return from injury as Charlie Seccombe’s side ran riot in the second half, scoring five times. Seccombe was, as you’d expect, very satisfied with his team’s efforts:

“The guys have put in a fantastic performance. I wasn’t worried at half time as I felt we’d controlled the game. We were doing right things and I felt they were struggling to contain us so I said to keep doing the same things and make sure the intensity was high. Once we got the first goal I knew the second would follow. What was really pleasing is that we continued to attack and managed to put ourselves in a winning position.”

Like so many of the coaches in the Premier League Seccombe highlights the difficulty of getting points from Paddington Rec:

“It is always a tricky place to go. You can never underestimate them. We’ve struggled there in the past so we won’t take anything for granted. That said, we’re playing some great 2-3 touch hockey and moving the ball brilliantly. We’re improving game on game at the right stage of the season.”

That just leaves the box office clash between East Grinstead in third and Wimbledon in fifth. If they can pick up two wins this weekend, East Grinstead could be second by Sunday night, right behind Beeston at the top. Wimbledon are still in the hunt for the fourth play-off slot as they trail Surbiton by just two points. The Wombles missed a gilt-edged opportunity to overhaul the Sugden Road outfit last weekend as they lost 5-3 to Canterbury. Ben Marsden, Wimbledon’s Player-Coach told TTOTD:

“Canterbury are a very good team and they played well. They pressed us hard and to be honest we weren’t at our best. They played a smart defensive game and were able to capitalise on that to get the win. We’re disappointed with the result and we have some things to work on in training but to be honest we’re still very upbeat and positive.” He continued: “Surbiton being beaten by Reading does mean it’s a bit of missed opportunity but to be honest we’re trying to focus on ourselves and our performance each week. We’ve got some good results against the top teams so we believe in ourselves and we know we can perform. Playoffs are still mathematically possible and can still happen for us. Whilst you have that chance you are always optimistic. As I’ve said before it’s great to be looking up and not down, if we win every game it could make things very interesting.”

With regards the test posed by East Grinstead this weekend, Marsden told TTOTD:

“We’ve taken great confidence from our long spells unbeaten and there is no reason why we can’t compete with the best teams. We don’t fear anyone in this league. We have a lot of respect for East Grinstead and we recognise what a good side they are but we have confidence in ourselves. The good thing about playing teams of this calibre is that you never struggle to get up for a game like this. These are the games players want to play in so motivating our team is not a problem.”

Grinstead know this is a big weekend for them as they still harbour hopes of toppling Beeston and claiming the automatic European place that 1st in the league secures. Player Coach Mark Pearn emphasised the importance of their narrow win over Loughborough last weekend:

NOW: Pensions Hockey League“With other results going the way they did on Sunday it was vital that we took all three points against Loughborough, to put ourselves in a strong position to make the end of season playoffs. We were not at our best in possession in the first half and therefore we were not able to build up enough pressure on a much improved Students side. Our team and individual defence were both excellent, a big step up from our previous match against Beeston when it was far too loose. We started to find our rhythm in the second half which allowed us to create more quality attacking opportunities. Although we only scored two, including a very late winner, the signs were there that we were starting to find our outdoor feet again after an extended indoor programme.” Pearn is looking forward to the remainder of the season and is hopeful EG can snatch that top spot form Beeston:

“This weekend we have two matches, including our game in hand on those teams around us. Hampstead and Wimbledon both come to Saint Hill on the back of defeats last weekend and will be looking to get their seasons going again quickly. Although it won’t be an easy task we will obviously be aiming to take six points and try to put some pressure back on Beeston for the top spot. The key for us will be how we integrate the players returning from the Indian Hockey League so that their qualities add to what we have been working on over the past few weeks. As a club we have had a very positive winter indoors, but now we are solely focused on making it a successful end to the outdoor season as well.”

With plenty of big games taking place this weekend. There is no let-up in the drama and no telling how many more twists and turns we may witness before all is said and done in the NOW: Pensions Men’s Premier League. Make no mistake, every goal and every point can still have a bearing on the outcome at the end of the season.

As always you can keep updated on the results by visiting the England Hockey Website.

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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