v Virginia Water (12 September 2020)





Given that they had gone three seasons without a win on the opening day of a Hellenic League Premier Division season it was perhaps no surprise that Tuffley Rovers returned from their long trip to face Virginia Water without any points, but their opening day performance will have given their Caretaker Manager, Rich Cox, reasons to be positive about their fortunes for the season ahead.

An opening day draw at the same venue 12 months previously had seen the visiting side recover from being two goals down at half-time, when a late equaliser restored parity for Rovers. On this occasion, it was a late goal for the hosts that ultimately determined the destination of the three points, as Dale Wright’s finished sealed a 1-0 win for the hosts.

Cox picked a side that saw centre-back pairing Jacob Geddes (16) and Toby Lawrence (17) handed Premier Division debuts, in a defence made up of three players who were under 20 years, alongside Antoine Thompson who was a relative veteran at 33 years of age.

The remainder of the visiting side was made up of players aged 22 and under, with the exception of Rovers’ captain Warren Mann, who is now 32, having made a first team debut at the age of his two debuting team mates and now starting his sixteenth season at the club.

Rovers’ hosts started strongly – as much a fact, as a reflection on their performance, as they were a much bigger side physically – without necessarily troubling their opposition but Cox’s side, showing a keenness to move the ball quickly, bringing wide players Joe Shutt and Jack Beardsell into the game as often as possible, grew into the contest and had the first efforts on goal, albeit distance shots from Dominik Kent and Jake Rhodes that went wide of the Virginia Water goal.

Genuine chances were proving few and far between, but the hosts carry a potent weapon in the form of several players capable of launching a long-throw into the opposition penalty area and Rovers had to defend well on a number of occasions to keep The Water at bay.

The best chance of the first half-hour came 27 minutes in, when Shutt ran through onto an excellent Henry Birkett through ball and crossed but Lewis Bainbridge hit the covering defender, from six yards out, when he might have scored.

Virginia Water then had a golden chance of their own, but Geddes did well to clear the ball off the Rovers’ line, before the teams traded chances, as Birkett shot narrowly wide and then Jake Baker’s diving header drew a save from Luke Merchant, the Rovers keeper.

Half-time came without any score but almost straight after the re-start Geddes once again intervened to good effect, as he made a terrific block tackle when the hosts seemed set to score.

Rovers then went on the attack and Beardsell did wonderfully well to beat his man and produce a cross that was only just beyond the reach of Shutt, running in at the far post. Then Jack Rhodes had a free-kick that cannoned off the hosts’ wall before spinning onto the roof of the net, with The Water’s keeper backpedalling furiously.

Merchant then produced a stunning one-handed stop from a free-kick, to keep the scores level, but Rovers were now looking stretched and Cox made a double-substitution, with Harri John and 17-year-old Rudi McKinnon introduced for Shutt and Beardsell in an effort to freshen things up. McKinnon immediately caused problems for the Virginia Water defence, beating his man with ease before seeing his cross volleyed wide by Bainbridge.

With a little over ten minutes remaining, however, the decisive moment of the fixture arrived. The Water had a throw-in on the right of Rovers’ penalty area and very nearly scored, only to be denied by an excellent block from Merchant, before the ball was cleared onto the opposite side. The second long throw-in that followed was then launched in and for the first time all afternoon Rovers failed to stand up to the physical challenge and the ball dropped into the path of Wright, who finished with aplomb to make it 1-0.

Cox then made his final substitution, introducing another youngster, 17-year-old James Sunley, who had starred in the club’s excellent midweek FA Youth Cup win, and although the performances of the youngsters gave plenty of cause for optimism, they were unable to create a clear opportunity on goal and the hosts were able to celebrate a three point haul, whilst Rovers left Stag Meadow with the sort of result that seems to have become their standard opening day fare, yet buoyed by the performances of several promising youngsters that offer promise for a brighter future.