Dale Saves City at the Death

Gathering at a rain-sodden Da Jia pitch on a blustery, cold day, while the Peacock opposition waited in their cars, Dan announced a 4-4-2 formation of Dale in goal, Matt Wharton at right-back and Dapper Wilkinson at left-back, with Alastair Frost and Alan Murray providing the bolster in central defence. In midfield Danny Weir on the right and Luis Mayorga on the left provided thrust, while Ebu fed and Christie sat in central midfield; up front Alex schemed in the hole behind Malcolm as the last man. Coach Dan left the sweet boot of Lionel Gonzalez and also veteran Golden Boot Dan Calvert on the bench.

The pre-match line-up and shaking of hands being delayed until 5.15, the Peacocks failing to shift from their cars until 5 – and even then being tardy about it – the Taipei City players had time to discuss which end of the pitch to attack first in case they won the toss. In the event, Captain Alex did win the toss and followed the consensus by attacking the less rain-affected end. At this point, the clay pitch was still quite firm underfoot even in the places where the ponds were forming.

The Peacocks are a team of quick, clever players, good in one-on-one situations. However, in this game Taipei City started strongly and the Peacocks needed to be sharp to withstand the first City assaults. It was never an onslaught, but Taipei City undoubtedly had more possession and put more pressure on the opposing goal in the first half hour. Ebu and Alex sprayed some excellent passes in these opening stages to create clear scoring chances. Malcolm was clear from an Alex through-ball only to be brought down by the last defender. (This was the first yellow card for the Peacocks. Possibly the defender in question was lucky not to have received a red.)

Unfortunately, the first half was marred by some arguing. City had two yellow cards very early in the game. While these may not have been deserved the referee was not disposed to stand around arguing and it was this bad atmosphere that threatened to derail the Taipei City challenge. One moment of comic relief came courtesy of the Peacocks’ goalkeeper who, for reasons only known to the Lord, decided to play ‘come and get it’ with Luis Mayorga. Luis’s challenge left the keeper in agony for a few minutes. Thankfully, the Peacocks’ number 1 got up to receive further punishment from Malcolm and again Luis later on.

At half-time Coach Dan said that the first half-hour was the best he’d seen City play this season. In defence the Frost-Murray partnership was strong. Dale had little to do in the first half except keep vigilant for the occasional long shot skidding toward goal, or gather a hopeful long cross. Matt and Dapper at full-back both managed to work passes down the flanks and, though the conditions weren’t ideal for switching the play quickly, the defenders and midfielders often combined with effective, simple passes. Alex was also busy, always an extra midfielder, linking up the play and probing for openings. Malcolm provided an excellent outlet even though he was surrounded by Peacocks. When City broke with pace the Peacocks’ defence was stretched. It’s also true that when City’s approach play was slower the Peacocks defended en masse and it was difficult to work openings. (The Peacocks are always worth playing against because they know how to defend.)

Towards the end of the first half City slowed down and allowed the Peacocks to put some pressure on the City back line. Still, with the City back line firm and determined, the Peacocks managed no clear cut chances so City thought they had every chance of getting a win as the teams headed off at half-time.

The second half began with some promise for City. Both Alastair Frost and Alan Murray often brought the ball out from defence with authority and poise. In the opening stages of this second half, City looked most likely to score. However, while City had no trouble getting the ball into the Peacocks’ half, the erratic behavior of the ball caused by the deep puddles there made it difficult for the City forwards to attack the penalty area. The best City could manage was often a hopeful shot from outside the box. And as the minutes ticked by, the pitch cut up more and more so that City legs got heavier and heavier and the ball became by degrees fickle, treacherous and treasonous. City never gave up and Alex and Malcolm in particular covered themselves in dirt and glory for the cause.

Early in the second half, Dan took Matt Wharton off and put Lionel on. Danny Weir moved to the vacated right-back berth so that Lionel could occupy right midfield. Then a little later, Dan took Luis off and put himself on. In doing this, Dan moved Malcolm to left midfield, so that Dan would be the target man.

The City substitutions didn’t change the character of the game too much. Also in the second half the Peacocks made three substitutions so they were just as fresh as City. Danny Weir did well at right-back even though it’s not his preferred position, and Lionel was game in right midfield. Dan was strong up front, and Malcolm was just as strong in left midfield, but by now the game basically was bogged down and City, who had arguably expended more effort besieging a team of Peacocks able to soak up pressure, gradually tired.

The Peacocks now began to enjoy more possession and forced some corners. Not for the first time in the game, the wind was a factor as a succession of Peacock corners seemed destined to arch into the danger zone and then fly harmlessly over the cross bar out of play.

With fifteen minutes to play, the Peacocks began to turn the tables on City. One high ball necessitated Dale to advance off his line and jump for it against some Peacock forwards. The slippery ball fell behind him, however, and looked to be going into the empty City net, and would have done but for a last ditch clearance by Alastair Frost. The resultant Peacock corner was well-taken and Dale had to punch it over the bar. The next Peacock corner was also well-taken, and this time Dale needed to punch it outside the box. Unfortunately, the ball fell to a Peacock who was able to volley a lobbed cross onto the head of an advancing forward close to goal. The header was virtually point blank and it looked a certain goal but Dale magically got down and stretched out his right arm. This was a top-class reaction save. Furthermore, Dale’s hand was strong enough to push the ball sideways. The ball eventually rolled out for another corner. Denied by a piece of goalkeeping genius, the Peacocks were not done yet! This time they took a short corner before crossing it in. The ball was cleared but this time the waiting Peacock on the edge of the box let fly with a thunderous volley, surely a contender for goal of the season against any other goalkeeper than Dale. However, Dale somehow bounded and leapt at extraordinary speed to tip the ball over the bar. This was incredible eighty mile per hour goalkeeping, and the second top-class save of the game.

Just a few minutes later, the referee blew his whistle to end the game. What had looked like a probable Taipei City win in the first half had become, by the final whistle, a near brush with defeat, avoided only by goalkeeping genius of the highest class.

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