With the playoffs now looming large on the horizon both Canterbury and Reading have confirmed their places in April’s end of season showpiece but there is still the matter of the two other places as well as who will end up in the relegation playoffs. With the top four going up against each other, Saturday’s games could give us a clear indication of who will grab the automatic place in Europe and who will play who in the all-important championship play offs.
Clifton who are on a superb run since Christmas currently occupy fourth place, four points ahead of Leicester and five ahead of Bowdon Hightown, both of whom they have beaten in recent weeks to strengthen their grip on the play-off place. Steve Rixon’s side turned on the style to beat Bowdon last week 5-2. This week they face a massive game as they travel to Sonning Lane to pit their wits against second placed Reading. Steve Bayer’s side still harbour ambitions of snatching top spot and after bagging five goals themselves, to beat Sutton Coldfield they will go in full of confidence.
“A win against Sutton was very important for us” said the Reading Coach. “After an extended indoor season and the switch from indoor back to outdoor I was happy to get the points. We played like a side that’d been indoor, but I also felt like the girls had another gear if it had been needed. Now we’ve got the first game done and got some training under our belts I fully expect us to be up to speed outdoors again.” Bayer is not giving up the chase for top spot, but recognises they are reliant on other teams at this stage: “Ideally we’d like to win the league but that’s out of our hands now. We have to hope Canterbury slip up and see what that does. We’re happy to play anyone in the playoffs, though. We don’t fear anyone and we’ll be prepared whoever it is.” Attention now turns to Clifton, a side Bayer has a great deal of respect for:
“Clifton are always a good challenge for us. They’re well organised and always give you plenty to think about. Steve Rixon’s got them playing some good hockey and we know they’ll have a go at us. In many ways, our run in is ideal. There are no easy games as everyone wants to win their remaining games but that means we are going to be tested every week, which should stand us in good stead for the playoffs and Europe. Clifton are on a fantastic run so we expect a really strong challenge.”
The other top of the table clash will see Surbiton in third play host to Canterbury, the current leaders. Surbiton have still yet to confirm their place in the playoffs but a point this weekend will do just that. A brace from Abi Robinson helped Brett Garrard’s side to a 3-1 win over University of Birmingham last time out and with league positions dictating the playoff clashes they will be keen to get as many points on the board as they can. Canterbury come into the game in the midst of a scintillating run of form, unbeaten in ten games, stretching back to their surprise loss to Beeston in October, thus far their only league defeat this season. In that run they have beaten Reading, Clifton, Leicester and this week’s opponents Surbiton and have kept no less than six clean sheets. Last week’s 1-0 win over Leicester was crucial, leaving them needing just six points to secure top spot. Player Coach Jen Wilson, who bagged the winner, told The Top of the D:
“We knew not to underestimate them. Their league position doesn’t really reflect the talent they have. They came at us hard and to be honest our goal came against the run of play. Second half we stepped up a gear and were able to open them up a bit more, to use an old cliché it was definitely a game of two halves.” She added: “We try to make it difficult for teams to create chances against us. Leicester, to their credit did manage to create some but on the whole this season we’ve been hard to break down which has been part of the reason for our success. Helen Fagg’s been a brilliant addition to the side. She’s a key part of our strong defence and to be honest although she hasn’t been really busy in every game, when she’s called upon she doesn’t let us down.”
Wilson has stuck to the mantra of “one game at a time” for the whole season, something she has refused to stray from, even though a playoff slot is secure:
“We try not to get too distracted from the job at hand. It’s great to have a place in the playoffs but we need to focus on our game plan each week and get things right. Of course we want to keep improving and of course we want to gather some momentum ahead of the playoffs but all of that is in the back of our minds. We are focused on our game with Surbiton.”
“Surbiton are a quality team. They didn’t get to where they are in the league by mistake. They still have plenty to play for and we know it’ll be a really tough test. We beat them in the first half of the season but that was a long time ago. This game will be totally different and we expect a very difficult game.” The South African star told The Top of the D.
Leicester will be hopeful of a favour from old foes Reading as they aim to try and catch Clifton and snatch the final playoff spot from them. The Pukkas went down 1-0 to Canterbury last weekend but will aim to keep the pressure on with a win against Beeston this weekend. Beeston come into the game brimming with confidence having smashed bottom side Olton 9-0 last weekend. Sophie Robinson kept herself in the hunt for the top scorer prize with five goals, taking her to 12 for the season.
With Olton doomed to relegation there is still a scrap going on to avoid finishing second bottom and having to go through the relegation playoffs. University of Birmingham lost out to Surbiton at the weekend but with Sutton also defeated, the gap remains three points. Phil Gooderham’s side travel to Olton with the hope of a good performance and three points to ensure their survival does not go down to their final day clash with Sutton Coldfield.
Working on the assumption that Birmingham beat Olton, Saturday is a must-win game for Don Vinson’s Mighty Pinks. Bowdon have suffered in recent weeks losing consecutive games to Birmingham and then to Clifton last week to all but end their playoff hopes. Player-Coach Tina Cullen was typically honest after her side’s drubbing to Clifton:
“It was a very poor performance both defensively and in attack. Clifton were very good, clinical, and direct and are playing very well. We probably think play offs are beyond us now but we want to finish the season more positively. Sutton is a crucial game at home which will be tricky after our recent run, however onwards and upwards as they say!”
For some sides, this weekend represents a make or break game in the context of their season. Some matters may be resolved come Saturday evening but matters at the top will surely go down to the wire.
As usual you can log on to the England Hockey website to check the results.