Blues start 2024 in style with impressive victory

Old Tonbridgians 1st XI
2 : 3
Old Harrovians 1st XI
  • January 6th 2024, Harrow School 4G Astro, 10:30am
  • Division 1
  • Referee: Mohammed Shohel
  • Weather: Cloudy
  • Pitch: Astroturf
No. Starting XI Goals Yellow & Red Cards Subs On/Off
1 Yunus Sert
2 Stan D'Angelin
3 Ed Beecham (c)
4 Ciaran Jordan
5 John Koutalides 14'
6 Jamie Jordache
7 George Gould
8 Murray Barr
9 Arthur Leney 71'
10 Jasper Gray
11 Oli Acar 81'

The OHAFC 1st XI began 2024 just as they had ended 2023: with a hugely encouraging victory that extends their impressive recent run in Division One of the Arthurian League. Saturday’s victims, in a game switched from waterlogged pitches in Kent to the Harrow School astroturf, were the Old Tonbridgians, who prior to kick-off sat in second in the table having suffered just a solitary League defeat this season.

The nominal home side enjoyed a bright start to the game, taking the lead inside ten minutes. But the Blues levelled five minutes later, John Koutalides prodding home from close range on his season debut following a George Gould free-kick. The remainder of the half saw both sides spurn chances to score, stand-in Harrow keeper Yunus Sert making several excellent saves to keep his side on level terms. By comparison, the second half proved rather dull, until the game suddenly sparked into life in the closing twenty minutes. Arthur Leney earned the Blues the lead, again prodding in from close range after Koutalides’ shot from the left deflected off a defender. The defining moment arrived ten minutes from time: Tonbridge crashed a shot against the bar but Harrow cleared and raced upfield, Jasper Gray squaring to Oli Acar and he dragged the ball past the last defender before firing past the keeper with a powerful left-foot shot. Although the Tonbridgians pulled a goal back with a couple of minutes remaining, the Blues held on, securing three valuable points that lifts the side into fourth in the table and just four points behind their vanquished opponents in the second promotion place.

For skipper Dan Firoozan, watching on from the side, this was further proof that his hard work in galvanizing his squad throughout the season is continuing to pay off. Three university students made their first appearances of the season, with Koutalides starting at right wing-back in a 3-5-2 formation that was en vogue in the early weeks of the campaign before being dropped for the more familiar 4-3-3. Jasper Gray partnered Oli Acar up front, with Arthur Leney playing at left wing-back. The midfield trio contained the familiar faces of Murray Barr, Jamie Jordache and George Gould , although the latter was feeling under the weather and unsure as to whether or not he could last the ninety minutes. He was actually left with little choice, the change of venue robbing Firoozan of Kent-based keeper Rory Craig, thereby forcing the OHAFC to utilise Yunus Sert as a makeshift keeper and – for the third game running – name a bare eleven for a Division One fixture – hardly ideal in the winter months when injuries seem more prevalent. The one glaring absentee was winger Will Payne, who was laid low with a stomach bug.

Despite the late change of venue, it was pleasing, if slightly perplexing, to welcome a number of Tonbridge supporters and their coach to the Harrow astroturf for the 10.30am kick-off. Cloudy skies and a cold breeze greeted those who had made the journey, but it was the Tonbridgians who shook off their Christmas excess first, looking sharper on the ball inside the first ten minutes and quickly exerting pressure on the Harrow goal. Sert was relatively well protected and had actually barely touched the ball when he was picking it out of the net after nine minutes, a precise build-up that started at the feet of the Tonbridge keeper before being swept out to the left wing and an early, first-time effort from the corner of the penalty area was curled just inside the far post with exquisite precision.

Even at this early stage, a repeat of the 3-0 defeat suffered to the Tonbridgians on the other side of the Hill in mid-October – the game in which promising youngster Nic Blinoff unfortunately snapped his Achilles – looked a distinct possibility. But within five minutes the hosts had levelled and from that point on the momentum ebbed and flowed throughout the remainder of the game. The Blues won a free-kick midway inside the Tonbridge half and Gould, the man fouled, curled the ball beyond the far post. Beecham challenged and the ball landed perfectly for the waiting Koutalides to prod home from barely four yards out.

The goal galvanized the Blues and they enjoyed the next ten minutes in the ascendency, without creating any further chances of note. Tonbridgians, urged on by their coach, saw a volley flash wide of goal before forcing Yunus Sert into his first big save of the match, parrying a shot from the left before scrambling back to pounce on the loose ball just before an opponent could bury it from a yard out. Now it was the Tonbridgians in the ascendency, the Blues unable to hold onto the ball for any length of time and camped inside their final third, Ed Beecham leading the defensive efforts. Sert made another excellent save following a clever flick over the top of the Harrow rearguard, although the keeper then misjudged a corner, fortunately the resulting header flew a yard over the bar.

Back came the men in blue, a swift counter down the right saw Koutalides, Acar and Gray combine on the edge of the Tonbridge area, the move ending with the latter dragging his shot wide of the far post. Although there were still ten minutes remaining to the break, it was to prove the closest either side came to taking the lead, the final stanza of the half rather scrappy and lacking in incident.

Indeed, much of the second half proved just as scrappy, although it was the OHAFC who enjoyed the better of things early on. Several long balls and goal kicks saw Gray and Acar making a nuisance of themselves, the Tonbridge back four looking less than certain in dealing with this dual threat. George Gould, who showed few signs of feeling under the weather as he vigorously charged around the midfield with determination, curled a free-kick around the wall but straight into the arms of the waiting Tonbridge keeper. A second set-piece then saw Koutalides head just wide as he bid to add to his earlier strike.

The Tonbridge supporters’ heckles were raised when they felt they were on the wrong end of a few decisions from referee Mo Shohel, but this perhaps belied a concern that things were not going as planned. But the OHAFC then enjoyed a fortunate escape when Acar carelessly lost the ball in midfield and only a desperate lunge by the retreating Beecham prevented the Tonbridge striker from firing past Sert. The men in white gradually worked their way back into the half, another shot was smashed straight at the Harrow keeper.

With twenty minutes remaining, the feeling grew that a solitary goal would prove sufficient for either side to claim the points. But, somewhat pleasingly for those sheltering from the cold on the sidelines, the match suddenly burst into life and a frantic finale ensued. The Blues took the lead for the first time in the game following another long punt downfield from Sert. Gray charged to the byline and kept the ball in play and then fed the supporting Koutalides. The two players exchanged passes on the edge of the box, the right-back finally trying his luck from the corner of the penalty area. The shot was decent enough, but ricocheted off a defender’s leg and curled to the far post where Leney reacted quickest, racing in to stab home from close range, the deflection having totally wrong-footed the keeper.

Tonbridge then had strong claims for a penalty waved away before Gray then tried his luck from the left, the shot well held by the keeper. Some rather frantic defending from the OHAFC then followed as they desperately worked to hold onto the lead. But the key moment of the match arrived nine minutes from time and would determine the destination of the points. A well-worked Tonbridge move down their right saw the ball cut back to just inside the box and a first-time shot was fizzed past Sert only for the ball to cannon against the crossbar and back into play. Koutalides hammered clear and suddenly the race was on – Gray and Acar against a lone Tonbridge defender. The youngster did well, keeping his composure to lob a pass square to Acar who held the ball up before freezing his man, dragging the ball to the left and firing confidently past the keeper at his near post.

The Blues were aided in their efforts a couple of minutes later when a Tonbridgian was sent off for a second bookable offence, Murray Barr hauled to the turf as he raced down the left wing. Although the opposition would pull a goal back with two minutes remaining when Sert made his one significant error of the day, fumbling a long-range effort and allowing a simple tap-in from the rebound, the Blues held on securely enough, a final Tonbridge cross just evading two men at the far post before the referee brought proceedings to a close.

This was an excellent way for the OHAFC to start the new year and extends their run to four wins and two draws from their seven previous League games – promotion form certainly. But those credentials will be given a stern test next week when the unbeaten Division One leaders the Old Johnians travel to the Hill. The Blues’ fine run of form began with an excellent 2-2 draw against the Johnians down in Hampton in early November and the two sides are likely to be back on the artificial turf next weekend as the OHAFC bid to become the first side to inflict a League defeat on their opponents this season.