Having conceded 13 goals in their previous two games, Burridge come within five minutes of knocking Wessex League opposition out of the Hampshire Intermediate Cup on Saturday afternoon, which begs the question: why can't they perform to this level every week?
It's pushing thirty degrees in the car. So, what would normally be a half-hour drive down the M27 and A338 to Christchurch, becomes a slog through traffic bound for Bournemouth beach. My ankle is still stiff, so I am here to watch. On arrival I cool off in the shade of the stand, where two men in their fifties are sat a few rows behind me, watching us warm-up. “That them?” asks one, taking a large bite from his hot-dog. The other man nods, then makes an observation; “One or two of them look a bit chunky.” Both men seem to be under the impression we play several leagues higher than we do. “So, if we don't win today?” Asks the first man. The other looks a little irritated he's not focusing on anything other than a comfortable victory, and says; “Lock 'em in the bloody changing rooms, that's what.”
The main stand and far goal at Hurn Bridge Sport Club back onto rows of tall pine trees. It's a picturesque setting. I share this with a man with a northern accent who people in the ground seem to know. He's the club chairman, who tells me they are one of the few Wessex League teams who don't have a budget for players. To put this into context, fellow Wessex Premier league side, Winchester City are rumoured to have £3k a week to pay players with. He asks me how much I think it costs to run the club a season, and imagine I look surprised when he tells me it's £45k. They don't own the ground, making them council tenants in much the same way both Milan and Internazionale are at San Siro. Their focus this season is on developing players their players in the Wessex League - a level that Burnley's Charlie Austin was playing at only a few years ago. So essentially, Christchurch are widely expected to win today, irrespective of our recent form. Our 10-1 defeat to Southampton Premier League champions, Bush Hill may have been a blip, but the arguments during the second-half of last week's 3-1 loss to White Horse suggest today's task could be made even more difficult. I secretly worry that we might take a pasting.
Christchurch take the lead after 15 minutes from a back-post header. Kristian Hewitt leads the appeals for a foul on Ryan Hurst, but the goal stands, confirming my worst fears. Despite this setback there is no downing of tools on our part. Up front, Ben Rowe is willingly mobile, covering stretches of forty yards at a time in both directions. Like the majority of the team, he is unrecognisable from last week. Rowe then picks up possession on the half-way line, wriggles free of a chasing pack of opposition, and slices Christchurch's defence in two with a measured through ball into the path of Chris Pye, who scores. Manager, Paul Dyke goes berserk in the away dug-out.
Christchurch now realise that stroking the ball amongst their back four is no longer a winning strategy, especially as they are now giving the ball away - sometimes under very little pressure. After slicing the ball off for a throw-in, their right-back looks down accusingly at the grass beneath his feet. They are clearly rattled. Their manager, too; who calls Kristian Hewitt a 'fatty' - accusing him of having a hamburger hidden in his shorts. Dyke doesn't appreciate this, and when Hewitt skips free of one or two younger opponents, Dyke makes a point, seemingly for the benefit of Christchurch's manager, by giving Hewitt the thumbs-up and telling him his hamburger will be ready at half-time. I protect myself against disappointment with a dose of half-time realism. Surely we would run out of steam in the second-half. Christchurch choose to take advantage of the heat and have their half-time team talk in the shade of the pine trees behind the far goal. I cannot hear what is being said, but their manager is using his hands to get his point across.
We continue to play progressive football in the second-half. Ryan Hurst steps out of defence, makes a strong tackle on the half-way line, and plays an early ball up to Rowe, who having completed a remarkable seven day transformation from Emile Heskey with a tranquilliser habit, to something approaching Duncan Ferguson, takes the ball in his stride, side steps a defender and drills the ball low past the goalkeeper's left. A man with an enormous camera lens takes lots of pictures. Dyke goes berserk again. (NB You can see photos of the game at Christchurch's website, by clicking here.) The rest of the second-half is end to end stuff. Chris Pye brings the best out of Christchurch's keeper from an eighteen yard shot. Christchurch have their moments too - the ball squirming out of Jones' hands from a corner and fortuitously past the post; Dan Allen then chases and clears a loose ball off line.
There are five minutes left when Christchurch equalise. We're slightly over run at the back and a cross from the right is volleyed past Jones. Their tails are up now and we do well to take it to extra time. Christchurch then take the lead in the opening minute of extra time – getting a run on our defence and shooting low across Jones. Spectators behind the dug-out choose this moment to tell Dyke his team talk did a fat lot of good. Dyke is keyed up, and therefore unable to detach himself from any derogatory comments. He's not quite foaming at the mouth, but every bit the budding Joe Pesci circa Goodfellas, as he gives them a piece of his mind, reminding them of the gulf in divisions between the two teams. His detractors know better than to offer him any more grief, even when it becomes 4-2; an attack is cleared only as far as the edge of the box, the resulting shot is hit powerfully past Jones. Christchurch pay us an unintentional compliment by celebrating the goal greatly. There's now a danger of the score running away from us. Kristian Hewitt pulls the trigger from outside the penalty area. It's not one of his best strikes – hitting a tangle of legs around the penalty spot, but Christchurch fail to clear their lines, and Ali Ingram is quick to tuck the ball away for 4-3. Jones continues to makes it interesting, with a fine reflex save from a corner which draws a round of applause. But there are no further goals.
Christchurch described their win as unconvincing, (click here to read their thoughts on the game). So where exactly did our resolute and enterprising performance come from? Martyn Barnett claimed that large and well maintained pitches, like Christchurch's, suit our playing style better say than Green Park in Millbrook. There is an element of truth to this, but to isolate the quality of the pitch would be to discount a significant part of our performance, namely the team's re-acquired desire for tireless running without the ball. This is a quality that theoretically, could be replicated to any playing surface. Of course, we may have been seduced by the rare sight of rows of plastic seats – some of them occupied, the floodlights, and all the other trappings that come with a higher standard of football. However, having responded well to two different, but equally painful defeats, Paul Dyke will be demanding that today's musketeer spirit of guts and determination will be repeated on Saturday, in a sequence of four consecutive home games.
4-4-2: GK: Ryan Jones, LB: Marc Judd (Paul Andrews), CB: Kev Willsher, CB: Ryan Hurst, RB: Sam Hewitt (Dan Allen), LM: Daniel Esfandiari, CM: Martyn Barnett (c), CM: Kristian Hewitt, RM: Ali Ingram, CF: Chris Pye, CF: Ben Rowe (Lee Fielder)