THE hidden demons that lie with footballers came to the fore for Ryman One North leaders Rocks in their clash at second-placed Needham reports the Essex Enquirer.
Where, in recent matches on their 12 match run of successive wins they were free-flowing, enterprising and unafraid, on Saturday they were tentative, inhibited and cautious.
That still didn’t stop them enjoying the lion’s share of possession in a first half that they dominated, but they rarely tested keeper Danny Gay and were caught out in the last minute of the half when Needham, who played their normal physical, counter-attacking and direct game, grabbed the first goal.
And though Rocks started the second half well the momentum was well and truly turned in the hosts’ favour when top scorer and play maker Kris Newby was sent off ten minutes into a fractious second half for a poor challenge on Lewis Pemberton.
Ten men Rocks reshaped and still looked dangerous but the game was killed off on 63 minutes when their fallibility at set pieces allowed Bradley Barber to rise at the near post and glance a header in off the far post.
Needham are far too good a side to let a lead like that slip and they added a third from Sam Newsom nine minutes from time as a trademark counter-attack caught Rocks, who had thrown all options up front, exposed.
It might all have been so very different had Rocks taken the first chance of the match which came inside the opening seconds when a move from the kick-off threaded Kye Ruel through with just Gay to beat but the keeper raced off his line and pushed the ball wide of the post.
From then on Rocks saw plenty of the ball but were unable to prise many openings against Needham’s well organised defence.
Piers Wixon had a half chance on 21 minutes and then a better, more clear cut one three minutes later when, in a rare moment of real fluency, Stanley Muguo, Joe Keith and Ruel set up a great opportunity but the young striker side-footed a volley just wide.
While credit was due to Needham for their organisation, they were also cynical when required, never-more-so than when veteran fullback Kevin Horlock smashed Newby into the hoardings with a wild, reckless challenge that had at least one foot well off the ground. Mr Hardie didn’t even blow for the foul until his assistant flagged it up and he didn’t even speak to Horlock, never mind issue the yellow, or possibly even red that that the challenge deserved.
In fact the official showed a remarkable leniency to the home team. Four times in the first half he played advantages in Rocks’ favour – normally something you would say was a tribute to him – but he gave away any credit by not even speaking to the Needham players when play eventually stopped. Two of the challenges were certainly worthy of yellow cards.
It was this leniency which was eventually to create the volatile atmosphere in the second half, but that didn’t arrive until Needham had established an advantage.
They gave notice to Rocks of what might happen on 40 minutes when Barber sprang the visiting backline and fired a low hard cross shot that brought a fine save from Richard Wray.
Rocks got back on the attack and won a corner in the last minute of the half which came to nothing and Needham broke quickly. Rocks had lost their shape as they backtracked and left back Keith was drawn into making a challenge on the right hand side of the halfway line which he couldn’t complete and the ball was played into the space he would normally have occupied, allowing Needham a strike at goal which Wray gratefully pawed away for a corner.
When it came in Rocks had chance to clear their lines as Muguo rose to head the ball but he miscued his effort and succeeded only in knocking the ball back into the six yard box where a scramble ensued and Barber forced the ball home.
It was probably undeserved, but credit Needham for their tenacity and ruthlessness, a quality they have shown in abundance in setting up a string of narrow victories to keep the pressure on Rocks at the tope of the table.
Rocks came out in determined style on the restart and immediately put pressure on the home side but the play became stilted with a large number of fouls and an increasingly confrontational atmosphere on the pitch.
Mr Hardie let a couple more Needham fouls go unpunished, though players from both sides were accusing him of losing control. He responded with quick bookings for Muguo and Marketman Conor McClosky . By now the tackles were flying thick and fast and Newby lost the ball and then his head as he tried to recover it with a high, studs up challenge that felled Pemberton. He was undoubtedly hurt and the straight red was deserved, though it was disappointing that those in the right position caught the Needham player’s grin and wink to his physio that suggest he wasn’t quite as badly damaged as suggested.
It is not the first time this season that Newby has lost his cool and the freescoring youngster faces a heavy suspension, during which he will need to ponder on his temperament, not just in curbing his anger but also in how he faces up to big tests of his undoubted ability against better players. He went into his shell for this game and rarely touched the form that has made him such a match-winner this season.
With a man missing it was always going to be a difficult task for Rocks, but they still enjoyed more of the possession, but were unable to tease any openings of note against a steadfast defence.
And the hill they had to climb became a mountain when Bradley rose unchallenged to drift his header in off the far post just after the hour.
Rocks still pushed on, bringing all their more attacking options off the bench in Leroy Huggins, Simon Peddie and Steve Harrison and they did see Rhys Barber head a Max Cornhill header off the line before Newsom finished of a speedy counter by slotting the ball past Wray to finally kill off any hopes of a visiting revival.
In the closing stages Horlock scooped another Cornhill header from about a foot behind the line but it would have been too little, too late for Rocks anyway.
They will need to regroup and brush off this disappointment. Their 12 match winning run has gone, but they have a quick chance to start another with a home game against Harlow on Tuesday, while Needham, who have now enjoyed five straight successes themselves, go to Brentwood.
With many games to go there is certainly no resolution to the title race in sight but you would think both these sides will be in the mix and it sets up an enthralling prospect when Needham go to East Thurrock on April 9 when Rocks will hope they can prove a point by playing their normal game.