With the four teams making up the Championship Playoffs now known, attention switches to the relegation battle as Loughborough Students, Cannock and Sheffield Hallam are all still fighting tooth and nail to avoid the dreaded drop. Hampstead and Westminster are still not out of the woods, either.
In probably the biggest result of last weekend, Loughborough leapfrogged Sheffield Hallam and closed the gap to Cannock with a fine 2-0 win over Wimbledon. Ian Sloan bagged both goals from penalty corners to secure the three points. The Students are now on ten points, just one behind Cannock and two ahead of Hallam. Whilst their opponents this weekend, Beeston, are far from a walkover, Loughborough ran the Bees close last time out, going down 3-2.
“This is always a hard fixture, with it being a local derby, but no doubt it will be made even harder this week with them seeking 3 points to make it back to back wins to fight for survival.” said Matt Taylor, Beeston’s Coach. There is no doubt the Students will be raring to go in this one and Beeston will need to be at their best to see off their threat. The Bees kept alive their hopes of top spot with a 3-0 win over Hampstead last weekend.
“I thought we played pretty well against a resilient Hampstead team.” said Taylor, “Having controlled possession for the majority of the game we didn’t really get the rewards we deserved, however they defended very well indeed. The game did highlight some areas that we need to sharpen up on, more hard work needed on the training ground this week.”
Hallam are now rooted to the foot of the table after they succumbed to Reading 2-0. Vicky Joel’s side are entering the last chance saloon now and will have to go for broke against a Canterbury side with little to play for. Canterbury’s outside chance of a playoff place evaporated on Sunday as they went down 6-1 away at Surbiton.
“We simply didn’t turn up to the races, but full credit to Surbiton who were excellent on the day and took full advantage of a lacklustre performance on our behalf.” a disappointed Canterbury Captain Michael Farrer told The Top of the D. “They were always dangerous going forwards and very clinical from open play. They could have scored more had it not been for Diccon Stubbings.”
“We will prepare for this weekend’s game against Sheffield as if we were still chasing the top four. We respect the league and know the teams fighting for survival will be expecting us to beat them.” He added: “Whilst they haven’t made Abbeydale the fortress people thought it might be at the start of the season, you can see from the results that teams have had to really fight for their points and with the added determination that league survival brings we’re expecting a really tough game.”
Cannock battled bravely against East Grinstead last weekend, eventually losing 3-2 thanks to a 68th minute winner from the Sussex side’s Simon Faulkner. A win would not have ensured Cannock’s safety but would have made them favourites to maintain their premier league status. As it is, they now face a massive game with Surbiton, who have booked a return to the Championship playoffs with their convincing win over Canterbury last week. Todd Williams, Surbiton Coach is keen that his side does not take their foot off the accelerator despite their playoff place being safe:
“After a very pleasing performance against Canterbury, a no-doubt tough encounter against Cannock will be a great test of our resilience, consistency and composure. Everything was in our favour last weekend – home pitch, home crowd and the chase for play-offs. Now with none of those relevant the challenge will be to try and keep to the same standards we set against a team that we know always work very hard and have been showing plenty of signs of good form and goal scoring ability in recent weeks.”
Hampstead went down 3-0 to second placed Beeston at the weekend, meaning they are still mathematically not safe from the relegation playoff slot. Tom Kavanagh’s side need two points from their remaining two games to ensure they avoid the pressures of the relegation play offs. They start that quest with a tough game against Wimbledon at Paddington Rec this weekend. Wimbledon’s playoff chances ended with a surprise defeat to Loughborough Students but Ben Marsden’s side have impressed many with their exciting brand of hockey this season and the Wombles will surely be keen to end their first season in the top flight on a high.
That just leaves the clash of the titans at the top of the league as old rivals East Grinstead and Reading go head to head at Saint Hill. The sides played out a remarkable 4-4 draw in the first half of the season. East Grinstead raced into a three goal lead only to be pegged back by four goals from Simon Mantell. The Great Britain striker’s fourth, in the 63rd minute seemed certain to be the winner, but Wes Jackson popped up just two minutes later to ensure both sides had to settle for a point from an incredible game. They will be looking forward to another close fought battle, with Charlie Seccombe, Reading’s Coach under no illusions about the importance of the match:
“Both teams will see this week as a bit of a potential league decider. We believe if we beat East Grinstead we can go on and win the league. I think they will probably feel the same. We’re confident going into the game. We’ve been starting better which has been a big focus for us. We’re trying to make sure we’re up to speed from the first whistle and we hopefully won’t give them the head start we did last time.” He continued: “Our preparation doesn’t change just because it’s a big game. We get ourselves in the best shape possible to compete with EG and see where that leaves us. We want them to worry about us not the other way round. Obviously we’re aware of certain players they have and their strengths but on the whole we’ll be concentrating on what we do.”
Mark Pearn, East Grinstead’s Player-Coach is also relishing concluding the season with some high-profile games against top quality opposition, saying:
“It is good that we are being tested ahead of the last two league matches and the playoffs rather than being allowed to coast through to the end of the season. We have shown recently that even when we are not at our best we will fight to the end to win close games, either by coming from behind or scoring decisive late goals.”
“As a squad we are really looking forward to the next two matches against Reading and Surbiton as an exciting challenge ahead of the league playoffs. We are still a little way off from the consistent levels of performance we need to win the league again, but at this stage of the season it really is all about winning matches.” He added “We are not shying away from targeting the top spot and we know we will need to win both games to achieve this, but our home form is very good at the moment, so we go into the weekend with plenty of confidence. For the next month if we can nail our individual defence and maintain our defensive structures under pressure then our variety of goal scoring threats will make us tough to beat.”
With both sides still vying with Beeston for the automatic European place that comes from finishing top of the league, East Grinstead vs. Reading promises to be every bit as dramatic and action packed as the previous meeting between the sides. With matters at the wrong end of the league still yet to be fully resolved this weekend could provide us with yet more twists and turns and plenty of drama.