Southgate vs University of Bristol, Sunday 19th March 2023
England Hockey National League, Division One South
Report by Alastair Whatley
3-3 draw. Goals West, Hamilton, Burkin
Southgate Men secured promotion to the Premier division in a mad-cap 30 minutes of on and off the pitch action in a day to remember at The University of Bristol.
The promise of a decade long campaign to return Southgate to the top flight lay quietly in the shadows as Kwan Browne and his side made the long journey back to the South West after their 6-0 win at Bath last weekend.
The maths was plain enough a win or a draw was needed combined with Old Loughtonians either dropping a point (and Southgate winning) or more unlikely Old Loughts losing to Teddington and Southgate securing a draw or a win against Bristol who are currently sat at the bottom end of the table fighting for survival.
One team with everything to lose, one team with everything to win- and a game destined to never be easy for Southgate. So it proved. Kwan travelled with just 15 players as Ramshaw, Schilling, Gill, Lum, Allister and more besides suffering from injuries after a long campaign which has taken its toll.
Kwan briefed his side to expect a tough fight on a challenging surface and so under sunny skies and on a sticky pitch the game pushed back to roars from the student home support and the more solitary but nonetheless enthusiastic shouts from the Southgate away supporters parked right on the centre line for optimum impact.
Yet Bristol immediately showed their intent on ruining the Southgate party by slotting away a well worked corner routine that slipped left and then deflected well by Phillip Barnet to send Bristol 1-0 up after just 4 minutes of play. Subsequent exchanges saw Southgate struggling to adapt to the pitch with balls getting stuck on the turf, injections missed and balls mis-trapped as Bristol exerted pressure and showed their determination to maintain their place in the league next season. The one corner Gate managed to get away was run down well by the Bristol defence and other attacks were swiftly extinguished with some courageous work in the D and good saves from Oliver Evans in the Bristol goal.
Will Shepherdson who was making his 1’s debut immediately asserted himself on the pitch looking assured and soaking up pressure and distributing well down the left channel. Having made a name for himself in the 2’s, Shepherdson looked immediately at home and continued to impress as the game wore on. Bristol came inches away from extending their lead when a break down the left saw a ball fizz across the P spot with the deflection passing Savvas Hadjigeorgiou in the Gate goal colliding with the far post with a clattering thud as the scoreline remained unmoved.
Harry Haynes and Charles Hamilton worked tirelessly with Teague Marcano creative as ever in the middle but It took until the final whistle of the first half for Southgate to break the deadlock with a well taken PC defected into the roof of the netting by Dan West to resounding cheers from the mid-line Southgate supporters.
The third quarter was not pretty from a Gate point of view as despite sustained periods of pressure and yet more dogged Bristol defence, a counter down the left saw Southgate’s right flank exposed as a ball found its way across the P spot and clinically finished by Tom Harris to put the students 2-1 up. The lead was further extended by another well worked corner routine this time Tom Smith getting his name on the scoresheet. 3-1 with time running out as the whistle blew for the end of a tumultuous 17.5 minutes of play.
Ripples of excitement went around the ground at the start of Q4 as Kwan Browne pulled off Savvas in the Gate goal in a gamble to turn the fortunes of a game that was looking like slipping away from the visitors. The gamble immediately seemed to pay off as despite the open goal to their backs Southgate led by captain John Sterlini piled on the pressure, the ball rarely leaving the Bristol 23 as wave after wave of attacks down right, left and centre channels were rebuffed in increasingly impossible saves and misses bringing choruses of gasps from both home and away supporters. The pressure eventually broke through in the 54th minute when Charles Hamilton first timed a ball redirected by Jose Hurtado over the goal line with dogged determination closing the gap to 3-2.
It took a further 9 minutes for the Gate to get back to parity when Drew Burkin nailed his 10th goal of the season with a fine flick that parted the red sea of Bristol defence and gave Southgate 5 minutes to secure the much needed 3 points.
Those 5 minutes were filled with yet more drama with steely determination on show for both sides as Bristol and Gate players fought tooth and nail at both ends of the pitch for the winning goal. Bristol defended heroically for much of it, soaking up endless pressure and foiling attack after attack with Southgate players unable to find their way through a heavily congested D. A yellow card to Bristol goal scorer Tom Harris amplified the Southgate advantage but still the students held out as a final call for a Gate PC was rejected by the umpires as the game ended in stale mate at 3-3. Players on both sides pulled up exhausted as mixed emotions flooded the field.
It had been a strong final quarter from Southgate yet from the dejected body language of the players coming off for all the world it looked and felt like defeat and struck this Southgate supporter as a low ebb in a long season.
Yet all was not done. As the supporters huddled together to catch their breath and manage their spiking heart rate, attention was drawn to a message sent from the Teddington sidelines which suggested the afternoon offered yet another twist.
Rumour reached debutante Will Shepherdson via familial connections that Loughts had fallen short to the Teddies which was minutes later confirmed by Kwan as the 4-2 result from West London landed like Apollo 11 at Coombe Dingle Sports complex. In echoes of Hermione’s magical awakening from stone in the denouement of Shakespeare’s The Winters Tale never has a mood ever shifted so suddenly and completely as something lost was found and suddenly pandemonium erupted. The forlorn Gate dressing room overcome with jubilation, hugging, grabbing and men in varying states of undress all realising that their collective ambition had been met in stunning and remarkable fashion.
Sometimes the scripts write themselves, fact being stranger than fiction.
The bottom line is Southgate are back in the premier division after almost a decade in Division One. Congratulations to the whole squad and coaching staff. A monumental effort and a dream realised.
The party comes home this weekend as the Men look to be crowned champions on home soil. Do come along and watch a happy slice of Gate history being written.