Haye vs Bellew wouldn’t be the only heavyweight slobber knocker occurring on 4th March 2017. 28 days since their last meeting, Hampstead welcomed Spencer to their West London home for what would surely be the league decider.
The previous game had featured professional players visiting from the US. This led to an explosion of discussion on the SEMLA Facebook page with both Spencer and Hampstead coping a fair amount of obloquy from people on either side of the argument. Were Hampstead bringing the game into disrepute? Were Spencer throwing their toys out of the pram? Were Hampstead growing the game? All of the above certainly made the winner take all more rematch a tantalising affair.
Spencer undoubtedly had the mountain to climb, they not only had to win but had to do so by 7 goals as the SEMLA rules favours head to head in the event of a tie on points. Nonetheless, the wolf climbing the mountain is more hungry than the wolf on top… An early blow for Spencer was the loss of the dynamic Resh Panesar in midfield. The bone fixer by day, bone shatterer by weekend, pulled a Hamstring the week before while Spencer dispatched a spirited but ultimately ineffectual Blues side. Panesar would be a huge loss and their woes were worsened after confirmation of Dominic Sandy breaking his thumb in the same match.
On the Hampstead side, there were no Lizards but if the helmets were anything to go by The Men in Black had been up to their old tricks of drafting in MLL Players, this time in the form of Reagan Harding. The former Durham masters student had played for Hampstead the year before and had been drafted into two professional leagues; for the Ohio Machine in the MLL and the Saskatoon Rush in the NLL. A possible sign of the times was the fact that few batted an eye lid at the site of Reagan. Either way, as the teams locked eyes for the lines up the pitch seemed far more full than usual; Hampstead had 19 players, Spencer 15 and even 4 referees! Despite the fact Spencer had a mountain to climb, from the opening whistle they seemed like sherpas who knew the vast rock face like the back of their hand. The precocious Tom Carver opened the scoring nestling a shot sweetly in the top corner, after getting away with an illegal substitution the CBO didn’t spot. From there the Spencer team playing like men possessed were absolutely all over the home team. Stout defence and Rick Bone’s cat like agility gave the Spencer attack a perfect platform. Will Walker had certainly come to play and bagged a first quarter hatrick; including one crafty, box-esque backhander on a man up play. Spencer’s electric start caused the panicking Hampstead bench to burn their only time out of the half. Any tactical adjustments were futile as the crimson tide continued to swarm all before them and were 5-1 up going into quarter time. Could the growing crowd be about to witness a game for the ages?
The second quarter began much the same way as the first did, Spencer’s Nick Acutt dominating the faceoff. A testament to Acutt’s prowess at the X was the fact Hampstead went through 4 faceoff men in their attempts to thwart him. The change of ends served to open the game up somewhat. Hampstead had more of the ball and were beginning to look more threatening; the men in crimson were up to the challenge though. Time and time again the Spencer poles doubled at the perfect moment, won the ground ball battle, and got the ball up field. Even when they failed, they had Rick Bone in goal who somehow managed to keep the Hampstead shooters at bay, including deliberately moving his head in front of the ball at one stage and taking a shot which would have left teeth rattling and brain cells scrambled. With the boys at the back playing so well, the attack were spoiled with possession and were beginning to turn the screw. Rob Holmes got his second of the game on a sweeping cross crease cut where he caught, faded away and let rip a left handed shot which could not have struck the opposite corner any sweeter. The Hampstead team began to get frustrated and an egregious illegal body check gave Spencer another goal on man up. With the Hampstead team calling for a stall warning on the next Spencer possession (and the crowd shouting back that this wasn’t the MLL..), Paddy Atkinson began a long, arching, crescent moon shaped, dodge towards the goal. To see Paddy bearing down on the Hampstead goal was cruel twist of fate for The Men In Black, the Nottingham Trent University product had played for Hampstead the previous year but had crossed The Rubicon over the summer. He buried a hard overhand shot into the back of the goal. It may as well have been a stake in the heart of each Hampstead player.
Amazingly, Spencer went into half time with the 7 goal lead they needed. Although many would have questioned if they could win at all prior to the game, let alone by such a large margin, they now stood 40 minutes away from serving up an emphatic reminder of how good a team they are. Sport is often a cruel mistress though and reminds people constantly of the danger of getting ahead of oneself.
Against the run of play, Hampstead won the first face off of the second half and charged straight towards the opposition goal. Neat passing led to a quick shot and a score for Will Hardy. After an infringement on the next face Hampstead had the ball once more and only another Rick Bone 5 hole save kept the ball out. Thoughts of the momentum turning were postponed temporarily after Hampstead were caught offside when Spencer were in possession. After working a shot from the crease which was saved, Hampstead’s LSM, a newly arrived, erstwhile Loyola Greyhound, popped Joe Darkins hard. With the box international writhing on the ground, the refs ruled the infringement worthy of a two minute penalty. While serving his penalty another of Spencer’s Trent contingent snuck behind a Hampstead player with a backdoor sneak; wrapping a shot calmly around the outstretched England international Henry Coote who had stepped between the pipes at half time.
The next faceoff was Hampstead’s once more though and they answered immediately with another goal. True to the tit for tat nature of the third quarter, it was not long until Spencer scored once more; this time Ed Shee bagging his first of the game shooting from range. Hampstead had the opportunity for the last laugh though as a Spencer penalty had given them the ball and under a minute in the quarter. Although their ball movement and fakes were at times dazzling, the Hampstead man up plays were ultimately ineffectual. Much like Arsenal, they seemed adamant that the only way to score was to pass the ball into the net and they seemed unwilling to take the opportunities from the slight outside which the tiring Spencer D were starting to offer. After one or two wayward shots Hampstead decided to hold the ball to start the final quarter with possession (as the penalty was still serving) and the penultimate period ended in stalemate, each team having added two to their half times scores.
The Spencer players looked tired coming off the pitch, who wouldn’t be? They had gone one step beyond for the entire game and were on the verge of what many thought would be impossible. As the Spencer captain Tom Roche, who led superbly throughout the game, rallied his troops for one last quarter, he told them that their season all came down to the next 20 minutes. If it was a normal game, one would say that a 7 goal cushion would be comfortable, but as the season seemed to hang, teetering on the edge of a precipice, there was the feel of sudden death in the air. Any save, shot, groundball, foul, clear etc. could have a huge impact on the game’s result and how the entire season would be remembered.
Will Hardy was on the score sheet once more earlier in the 4th. Wishing to take the bull by the horns, he uncorked a long range howitzer which even Rick Bone couldn’t stop. 10-4 Spencer. Hampstead were bearing down on the goal once more moments later when they were awarded a man up opportunity. Again though, they seemed unable to take anything less than a one on one shot and Spencer managed to turn the ball over. An errant pass on the clear saw the ball crawl, for what seemed like an eternity, across the Spencer goal, and almost trickle in. Unfortunately for Spencer, it was picked up by the marauding Will Pickett who faked out the outstretched Bone and buried the shot. 10-5 Spencer.
After the ensuing faceoff it wasn’t long until Hampstead were once more applying pressure on the Spencer goal. Now it was time for Bone to make his most amazing save of the match, leaping like a salmon across crease and punching his right hand high into the sky to deny another Hampstead rocket. Where in the first half the Spencer poles had seemed to be the first to scoop every ground ball, the tide now turned and it was The Men in Black who were rampaging downfield adding three more goals to make it 10-8. Suddenly, having seen hope of wrestling back the potential league title slip through their fingers, Spencer were now wondering if they could hold on to the lead itself. A pivotal moment came on an Ed Shee dodge. Moments after holding the ball under enormous pressure from the former Division 1 Ryan Myerberg, Shee lined up an ally dodge on one of Hampstead’s attacking midfielders who looked less than confident in defence. As attacking players often do, the Hampstead midi went for an all or nothing, over the head check and brought his stick crushing down on Shee’s helmet. Amazingly, the referee closest didn’t give the call. The Spencer bench mere meters away from the play, and the partisan crowd behind, were infuriated and a roar for justice went up. The referee on the far side would then overrule his colleague and award Spencer a 1 minute man up play. Agonisingly, the attack couldn’t convert and the ball went the other way. A final bull dodge from Paddy Atkinson extended the lead to three goals but it was not enough.
The final whistle was a strange moment. Spencer had won the game, but not everyone appreciated the effect the scores had on the league. Roars went up from the Hampstead bench, and it was not long until a bottle of Champagne (or at least sparkling wine) came out and was being sprayed. The Spencer players came off the pitch exhausted and dejected; they had played an outstanding game but were not able to hold out long enough and had seen their lead crumble excruciatingly. On the other hand, Hampstead, the champions elect had played like champions so often do, not being at their best but still doing just enough to win, or in this case lose by an acceptable number of goals. In an ode to renowned Hampstead hospitality; both teams, the referees, fans and even Oxford Uni (who had played Spencer’s A team earlier that morning) were treated to pizza, wings and ribs in the Pig and Whistle after the game. For Spencer, some rued the fact that they chased the game in their first league meeting, giving Hampstead the opportunity to score more goals and wondered whether next time they’d do better to settle for a one or two goal lost; a heart breaking conundrum. For Hampstead, there chief concern is getting all of their players eligible for the flags final (players must have played three league games) which will be the third and final instalment of this epic encounter.