The sun was setting beautifully over the Wembley Arch this Saturday as Hilltop hosted Larkspur Rovers at Ark Academy in their first taste of league action since the end of the second nationwide lockdown.
The Stonebridge side took home all 3 points when the two teams met last season. A 2-0 win that hopefully was sitting at the forefront of Larkspur minds coming into this game. The scene was set, the skyline was stunning, it was time to get down to the real business.
Hilltop started the game in their usual fashion, with much of the possession held by the blues. The opening minutes were admittedly uneventful, but the boys were comfortable and in control, with Gregga at centre-back arguably seeing more of the ball than the front 3. Patient football. The home side were treating this as a game of chess, biding their time, waiting for the right time to create opportunities.
And the opportunity came, as it always does. Ilyas I played a perfectly weighted ball into the feet of Jamz, who was one-on-one with the goalkeeper. The number 9 had all the time in the world to pick his spot, but he opted for power over placement and the ball smacked the inside of the crossbar and bounced agonisingly back out of the goal. You would expect him to be finishing that but I guess there is such a thing as “too much time”.
Another passage of build-up play led to a second clear goal scoring chance in quick succession and this one was expertly dispatched. A loose ball out of the box following a corner was played by Sharp into the path of Glasses, who cut inside and opened up on his left foot to beat the keeper with ease. 1-0 Hilltop.
The floodgates had opened and the chances came rolling in, most of which came off the right boot of Kamal in midfield. A through ball from him into the channel was met by Ilyas, who fizzed the ball in low, leaving Jamz to do the rest. A composed first touch and an even cooler finish from him, making up for his earlier miss. 2-0.
Deep into the first half, Jamz went from the goal scorer to almost grabbing an assist, squaring the ball to Ibz who was arriving late into the 18-yard box. Ibz, wearing his favoured number 20, took what seemed to be an unnecessary first touch before winding up for a shot that was blocked by the recovering defender.
With half-time looming, the boys uncharacteristically let their concentration slip. The away side triggered a counter attack and after a quick sequence of passing, the Rovers’ striker was in. The Hilltop defence was frozen, waiting for the assistant to flag for offside but the flag did not come, though it should have. The striker only had the keeper to beat and he did so, guiding the ball into the corner of the net. The score was 2-1 and that was how the first half ended.
The second period started with another spell of possession for the Blues. 10 minutes in, a misplaced pass from Zak in goal handed the ball straight to the pressing Larkspur striker. He squared the ball to his oncoming teammate who passed the ball into the home teams empty net. All square in Wembley Park. 2-2.
The Hilltop bench is always star-studded and this week was no different. The gaffer looked to his bench to see if he could steer the game in their favour and there was no better player to call upon than Luqman, another Hilltop veteran, now entering his 5th season at this club. His first few touches of the game provided the instant impact the manager hoped for by bringing him on.
The ball was played into the number 5 outside of the opposition box, who took a singular touch out of his feet and hit the ball as SWEET as you like. The connection was heavenly. And off the back of Luqman’s boot, the ball was never heading anywhere but the back of the net. The crowd swamped him. Clearly a fan favourite. 3-2 Hilltop.
The game needed to be killed off here and so the manager once again looked to his bench, to see the ever-smiling face of Hussein. A quick counter found Hussein with the ball at his feet at least 25 yards from the goal. Shouts from the sideline to chip the retreating goalkeeper were answered immediately. Hussein opened up his body to dink the ball over the Rovers’ Jordan Pickford lookalike and ran off into the crowd to celebrate with his 10 year old brother, who came to watch him. A heartwarming moment. 4-2 to the lads.
It wasn’t all roses and rainbows though, as Larkspur Rovers weren’t looking to hand the game over just yet. A long throw was flicked on at the front post and the ball was guided into the net by the player sliding in at the back stick. 4-3 and the game opens up once more.
The away side had one last chance to even up the game in the dying moments, as they won their final corner of the match. Their keeper sprinted up the pitch, eager to get in on the action. And it was indeed the Rovers’ number 1 who was the target of the cross. But his header flew agonisingly wide.
Hilltop hearts rest easy though as the final whistle blows and the team breathe a collective sigh of relief.
A special shout-out this week has to go to Kamal in the middle. The midfield maestro was pulling all the strings throughout the game, rightly ending the game as MOTM. Undisputable really.
Should’ve been a little more comfortable than it was but a win is a win. The Blues move to 5th in the league and look ahead to a challenging fixture next week away to top of the league Brentham. We go again.
Final score – Hilltop 4 – 3 Larkspur Rovers
By Iqra Ismail