Waltham Lions played their first game together for two months on Saturday, in a friendly match in Immingham. And to be completely honest I was blown away by how they not only did not look rusty or slow to get back into the groove, but the boys actually played the best I have seen us play to date.
I must have said, and written, quite a few times now over the last year, that the previous game had been the best performance from our boys so far. I’d hate for this to start to be a statement that begins to lose its meaning or have less impact despite saying it several times. I am always positive with comments and feedback to players, individually and as a team. But it is always 100% honesty too. And when I say I’ve not seen us play this well before, I always mean it and genuinely think it. The fact that I’ve said it quite a few times now only highlights the progress the boys are making and the clear improvements they’re showing.
During last season, the Lions were sometimes slow-starters in games and only got going in the 3rd and 4th quarters. There was no danger of that in this match though, we were great from start to finish.
Oliver Hendry scored a brilliant hat-trick, including another goal with his left foot. Oliver was a constant threat to the opposition and they must have been relieved whenever he came off the pitch for his turn to rest. When he gets a sight of goal and sees a route to get there with the ball, I don’t think a double-decker bus would get in his way. Two of his goals came after picking the ball up and dribbling towards goal before finishing well in the box. The other came with his left foot to smash in a loose ball in the area. Again, it’s very pleasing to see Oliver have a go with his left foot without hesitation, just choosing to use the best foot to use in any given situation, rather than forcing it onto either side. It wasn’t his only shot with his left peg either. He hit one earlier that only just went wide of the target. And after chatting to him after the game, I know he understands why it’s important to be able to use both feet.
Benjamin Harrison also had a good game. Benjamin got on the ball a lot and carried it forward well. He continues to instinctively perform the drag-back turn well when under pressure from the opposition, showing good awareness of when to use this turn and how he can use the different parts of his foot to manoeuver the ball. Benjamin also got an assist for one of the goals, taking a corner and passing it short to the unmarked Lucas Jex on the corner of the box before Lucas shot into the top corner.
Ethan Lowe played 20 minutes as the defender and was a big reason why we were on top of the game for long periods. Ethan must have only let Immingham attackers past him 2 or 3 times, and on those occasions he got back to steal the ball away from them – as if they had the nerve to go past him in the first place, eh. Whenever the opposition attacked, Ethan timed his tackles well and stepped in whenever there was a slightly heavier touch from the attacker. I seem to think he had some involvement in one of Oliver’s goals, but Ethan was definitely the creator of Ben Crolla’s late goal. Ethan drove forward on the right and laid the ball inside to his cousin and team-mate when the time was right.
That final goal was a great team goal really. The opposition kicked the ball into our half of the pitch but Oliver Hendry beat their attacker to the ball. Oliver used his head and passed down the line to Ethan. Ethan had space in front of him but Ben Crolla was by his side. With a defender 10-15 yards ahead of them, it resembled the 2v1 practice game we often do before matches. In the same way the practice is a great exercise of a player’s decision-making, this was a good example of Ethan’s decision-making on the ball. First he carried the ball forward when there was space to attack. Then as the defender came to close him down, he slid the ball through to Ben Crolla who ran onto the ball and went into challenge the goalkeeper as he came out to try and clear it. And the ball ended up in the back of the net.
As well as that goal, Ben Crolla had another action-filled performance. After having a bit of an ankle injury that weighed him down a little bit during a couple of tournaments in May, Ben was fully fit and firing on all cylinders here. As well as getting around the pitch with great energy as usual, Ben also showed us some skills of his own. At one point, Ben turned his man in the middle of the pitch and then turned back again the other way with a nice back-heel turn. As the defender at one stage, he was as solid as Ethan in not letting anyone past him with the ball. And he also controlled where we attacked very well, passing to whoever was in a good position after receiving the ball short from the goalkeeper.
Lucas Jex played with his usual swagger and scored a token Jexy-bomb, as described earlier. Quick thinking between Lucas and Benjamin Harrison worked a short corner to the corner of the goalkeeper’s area. Lucas got his head up and had one thing on his mind – dispatch the Jexy-Bomb. Off it went, from his right foot to the top corner of the net. He then followed this up with the Daniel Sturridge celebration (seen here as done by the Liverpool and England striker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAdL1M0QtLY). Lucas had earlier gone close with what would have been another wonder goal. After receiving the ball in our “right-back” area of the pitch, he beat 3 players on his way down the right flank, ghosting past them as if they weren’t there. He ended up near the goalkeeper’s area and hit a shot that the Immingham goalkeeper managed to save. Lucas got into space, usually on one of the flanks, and ensured we could patiently play our way up the field from goal kicks.
Leyton Bolton played using his brain as usual. He was reading the game and intercepting the ball plenty of times. And when he had the ball he used it well. Looking up to see players in space and playing good passes. In one great passage of play late in the game, Leyton got back to defend and tackled Immingham’s strongest player, turned to start us off on an attack and despite being pulled back (fouled) by the opposition player he still managed to play a great ball forward to Lucas.
Lucas Gill had a good game and again showed good understanding of the game. He was reading the game well and only going to close the ball down when no-one else was. Then, when I asked him to play as a striker late-on, he offered a good option for a pass every time we attacked. He didn’t always get the ball passed to him but I’m happy to see him understanding how to make himself available for a pass. On the ball, he carried the ball forward well and contributed well to us playing the ball out from the back throughout the match.
Rhys Racey had an absolutely solid game, playing mostly as the goalkeeper today, at his own request. He was quick to come off his line when he needed to – rushing out to meet and tackle oncoming attackers on the occasions that anyone got through one-on-one with him. His shot stopping was good and he was safe in that he pushed the ball away from goal when he couldn’t hold onto it. His decision-making and passing from goal-kicks was fantastic as well – playing it simple to the defender, who we know will always have 2 or 3 options from the way we set up.
All in all it was a great morning. As always it was a joy to watch the boys play. But the quality on show was brilliant. Technical ability-wise, I don’t think we saw anyone last season play as good football against us as we put together in long periods here. And as usual, part of the satisfaction comes from knowing that the boys are playing on their own and everything they do on the pitch is their own choice.
Every decision the children make is a learning opportunity, and I’m proud that we (me as the coach and all the parents watching) don’t take any of these learning opportunities away from the boys by telling them what to do. Of course, we give encouragement and praise, but we don’t tell them when to pass, when to shoot, who to pass to, or when to run with the ball. I personally believe we are probably already seeing the benefits of leaving them to play and learn for themselves.
I have to say thanks and well done to the parents for helping me create this playing environment, because it would be easy to want to shout such specific instructions all the time. That way would probably give more immediate results and maybe would’ve got us more wins last season. But my priority is the long-term development of these young players, not treating games as a match on FIFA 14 on the PlayStation controlling their every move so we can win. When it comes to development of players’ psychological ability, our boys will be well-ahead of children in other teams who aren’t being allowed to make their own decisions and problem-solve on the pitch.
I’ll finish just by saying how excited I am to see the team start playing every Sunday again so we can stand back and admire their fantastic football.
Up the Lions.