So.. to the last game of the season, Peckham away at the “Menace” arena with only our hosts or Sevenoaks in with a shout of picking up the division honours.
With three forwards and one CAM unavailable this was always going to be a difficult fixture, but, with the support of parents and injured players in attendance everyone involved was determined to give it a good go and enjoy the occasion.
An early morning warm up in the tranquil surroundings of a quiet corner of Dulwich Park belied the challenge and intensity that awaited in the “arena” (not quite Gladiator but you get the picture !).
Hats off to our hosts who made the occasion a final in every sense, as the ref lead both teams onto the pitch amidst a bellowing musical fanfare with tracks from Only Fools & Horses and the Boys are Back in Town by Thin Lizzy. Probably lost on the boys (it was a lifetime ago –yes 1976 !) but appreciated nonetheless as it added to the atmosphere and drama to come.
Both sides were a little anxious in the first half as expected in a very tense affair with the home side having more possession but with Oaks seemingly creating the better chances. With the game being played out like a chess match, the game shifted from one end to the other without either keeper being fully tested, so 0-0 at HT was probably a fair reflection. In truth this was better for Peckham as a draw kept them in the race for the league with one to play, but this was never their intention.
They were physically very strong and quick and rotated their players more as the game wore on to provide fresh impetus and energy. Unfortunately with just the one sub and an injured player succumbing to the inevitable, our options were limited and the 11 on the field with 30 minutes to go would require deep reserves of energy and focus, if not a little luck. As we approached the final 20 minutes it looked increasingly likely that the game would probably be settled by a single goal of sheer brilliance or an error.
Defensively from front to back Oaks formed a solid unit as our keeper remained largely untested as we got players behind the ball and relied more on the counter to make forays into the opposition half and then a press to try and get the goal we desperately needed. We could hold them but could we score.
Into the final 20 minutes, following a press, with Peckham playing out from the back our forward pounced on a defensive mix up (their only mistake in the entire match) cooley keeping his composure to slide a low shot past their keeper. Was this to be the winning goal ? Emotion was mixed.. excitement, a relief to score, but plenty of time to concede and miss out on winning the league, perhaps in dramatic fashion. The scenarios play out in your head and one could almost sense how it might unfold and with every passing minute, with every corner defended, every shot blocked & tackle made, we wondered, could the boys do it. We’ve probably all been there.
They certainly deserved to, they had beaten every team in the league, had remained unbeaten at home (as had Peckham incidentally) and this was the last 15 minutes which would define their season. A last minute (any minute) Peckham goal would have consigned us to second and abject disappointment.
…Was it ever in doubt with this great bunch of U16’s…they had tamed the Menace and emerged from the arena as Champions. A fantastic achievement. Full credit to our hosts who despite their own bitter disappointment were magnanimous in defeat, reminding us all, that it’s only a game.