Semi-final Cup Special:
There was an extra-special crackle of excitement in the air this week as the Lions were up against a very solid Littlehampton Town Youth side in the semi-final of the Cup.
The semi-final was played at The Sportsfield at Littlehampton - home of Littlehampton FC - with its stands and wide, expansive pitch. Both sets of supporters were located in the stand behind the dugouts and once again the Lions were boosted by a fantastic turnout of loyal supporters.
This Sunday’s squad was: Eron; Rory, Mags, Fraser and Joe in defence; Harry, Louis, Max, Ben and Freddie in midfield; Hamish up front; Tom L, Tom M and Daniel to come on.
The match kicked off at 10.00am in cold, crisp conditions and straight away it was apparent that Littlehampton’s tactic would be to utilise the channels for runners on the big, wide pitch, and that players in midfield would need to work very hard to cover additional ground and to close down opposition players in possession. It was noticeable too that the pitch was very soft and heavy in the middle which made it difficult in some areas to move the ball quickly.
Littlehampton started the match stronger with early attacks down the flanks which Rory and Magnus did well to repel. In the middle Joe was committed and solid and won many vital challenges in the air and on the ground to shut out the Littlehampton strikers. Beside him Fraser was strong and courageous with the ball, shielding the ball in possession, and dribbling past players before distributing the ball effectively through midfield. Eron made a few early blocks and was quick off his line to beat the opposition strikers to the ball.
After a fairly frantic opening 15 minutes, a Littlehampton attack resulted in a shot from just inside the area which Eron saved again to his left, but the striker followed up to smash the ball home low into the corner. 1-0 Littlehampton.
The Lions responded quickly taking the game to Littlehampton and Tom M replaced Freddie in an early change due to an injury. Minutes later Hamish swivelled to hit a pass wide to release Ben who beat the full-back round the outside, before firing over a cross which the Littlehampton keeper palmed out, but no Lions player was able to apply a finishing touch.
Shortly after the Lions worked the ball on the left through Max; the ball fell behind Harry on the edge of the box but Harry adjusted and turned to hit a high looping shot which sailed through the air, and looked to be going in, but unfortunately bounced off the top of the bar to great sighs of despair. Great effort and quick thinking from Harry.
Louis, Harry, Tom M, Max and Ben were all working really hard to win the ball in the middle of the park and Joe, Fraser, Rory and Magnus were pushing up the pitch to close down the space.
Up front Hamish was a constant danger for the Littlehampton defenders closing them down and holding the ball up to bring others into the game. With a minute to go Harry did well to find Hamish on the edge of the box to the left. Hamish controlled the ball on his thigh, lifted the ball over the defender’s head and then waited for it to drop on the the other side, before hitting a dipping volley over the keeper and into the back of the net. The cheers could be heard as the ball hit the net. Fantastic piece of skill and sublime finish. 1-1. Game on!
Half a minute later the referee blew his whistle for half-time. A great time to score and the Lions ran off the pitch to hit the energy drinks already fuelled by the adrenalin of the equaliser.
The hardy Lions stayed out on the pitch in the cold while Littlehampton opted for the warmth of the changing rooms. A subtle statement of fortitude and doggedness that translated easily. The Lions were lined up ready and waiting for Littlehampton when they returned to the pitch. The key message to the Lions was to match Littlehampton’s physical approach and be faster to second balls. In addition we needed to be calmer on the ball and more creative using width. Tom L replaced Max on the left, Daniel replaced Ben with Tom M moving to the right midfield, with Rory inside and Fraser in midfield.
The first period of the second half was even with both sides working tirelessly to win the ball and launch attacks on goal. Littlehampton broke clear on four occasions but on each time they were halted as either Rory, Louis or Magnus sprinted back to win the ball from the advancing player. Brilliant examples of the Lions' determination and spirit not to yield. On the right Daniel did very well to use his speed and power close down dangerous attacks.
In midfield Fraser, in particular, was making driving runs forward through the middle which inspired those around him. On one occasion he fought off three challenges to make his way up the left before being barged to the floor by frustrated opponents. Tom L followed suit with some great runs off the touchline launching attacks inside, and Louis ran in all directions to track-down opponents and wrestle the ball back for his team. Tom M was now offering more space and increasing options on the righthand side, while Joe continued to shut down any breakaways with solid tackles at the back in a super display. Harry pirouetted away from two midfielders courtesy of a "Maradona turn" in a show of growing Lions confidence. As we entered the last 15 minutes of normal time there was a growing feeling that the Lions were building towards something and that there could be a goal looming.
Freddie replaced Harry for the final 10 minutes as the Lions chased a winner and 2 minutes later he picked up the ball on the the left, dribbled past two players before rolling the ball to Tom L who had run off his shoulder. Tom L played the ball across the D to Hamish who ran right before slipping the ball between 2 defenders for Tom M to run on to. Tom hit the goal-line before delivering a fabulous, chipped cross to the back-post for Freddie to tap home to ecstatic roars and fist pumps from the Lions' supporters. A brilliantly worked team goal and huge credit to every player involved in the five man move.
Could the Lions close-out the match in the final minutes to secure a place in the cup final?
Hamish curled a free-kick just wide. Louis somehow ran even faster to smash into tackles. Magnus and Tom L stretched every sinew to head danger away. Corners were forced away from goal. And balls were retained by players with a mixture of strength, intelligence and skill.
In the final seconds Hamish smashed the ball into the stands and as soon as the ball was back in play the referee blew the final whistle to send the Lions into the final. The players punched the air in delight and the supporters clapped and cheered. The boys had once again come from behind to win with yet another display of character, spirit and substance. What a team! Full credit too to Littlehampton who fought all the way to make it a fantastically competitive and exciting cup semi-final.
Thanks again to our fabulous supporters who were magnificent again - see you at the final!
Players of the match: All the boys were absolutely terrific on the day and the result was achieved by the strength of the fabulous Lions team.
There were two players on the day who deserve a special mention for their boldness, energy and total commitment to the cause from the first minute to the last: Fraser, with a real captain’s display of courage on the ball to lift the players around him, and Hamish, who led the line superbly from the start; a constant threat as illustrated perfectly by that goal.