The second week of the T&F Friday Football League season was an intriguing prospect, pitching as it did The Kickin KittEms, led by new co-captains Emma Wilson and Kitty Jansz, against seasoned 5-a-side veteran Dan Hartley’s Hartleypool Utd. Would either side suggest they have the credentials to claim the title?
When ref Cooper’s whistle sounded, it seemed to do so only for the team in black, Utd starting off like a famished lion encountering an asthmatic three-legged gazelle. Hartley had already shot wide and smacked the bar following good skill from Gibbons when his surgically precise through-ball presented Varley with the opportunity to open the scoring. Hartley himself promptly doubled the advantage with the foot most of us thought was only for standing on.
With the KittEms’ defence too often asleep or astray, their early display was epitomised by Fry sprawling prostrate to the floor. They weren’t exactly being blessed with good fortune either, Meier doing well to keep out Hartley’s shot only for the ball to be returned with interest.
3-0, then, and at last the KittEms had a chance of their own, Kelly saving Fry’s shot. But the danger at the other end was ever-present, Cragg holding the fort while Varley ventured forward, slipping as he eyed up the target. Fry tried once again to break the KittEms’ duck, but could only watch as an opponent also with the bit between his teeth, Hartley, galloped through to complete his hat-trick.
A couple of hefty clearances out of defence from Virjee started to settle the KittEms’ nerves, and a pair of clever one-twos between Fry and Cousins impressed the crowd but brought no end result. Utd though had their own duettists, Hartley and Gibbons twice combining neatly to threaten a fifth.
A tremendous save from Meier fired up the KittEms and Fry, their likeliest scorer all half, finished off a fine run with a goal that gave them some hope - only for Varley to blast home at the other end and ensure a lop-sided 5-1 score at the break.
Utd took the opportunity to freshen up their entire outfield team after the interval, but it seemed to unsettle them and the first chance of the second period fell to Dubber, Kelly forced into some fancy footwork to keep his shot out. Owen’s marvellous block to halt a Lockyer shot was the precursor to a battle that would rage throughout the half, but the striker was soon on the scoresheet, outpacing the Utd back line to a loose ball.
Defences briefly got the upper hand - Stevenson marshalling the KittEms with calm assurance, and Owen the very definition of no nonsense, searching out and accurately finding Row Z - but there was still an attacking threat from Utd, Rose twice bedazzling her opponents with her multi-coloured socks to set Cox up for efforts on goal. The next goal, though, came from Lockyer, an easy finish after a mix-up between Cox and Owen. 5-3: could the comeback really be on?
Determined to atone for their mistake, Cox and Owen both gave Meier something to think about in the KittEms’ goal, but Lockyer was continuing to make a nuisance of himself. Kelly pulled off one save, but the fleet-of-foot Lockyer wasn’t to be denied his hat-trick long, lofting the ball cheekily over Rose before applying a cool finish into the bottom corner. And within seconds of the restart, the KittEms - against all the odds - were level, the luckless Cox’s underhit pass presenting the ball to Lockyer, of all people.
Hartley had seen enough and reintroduced himself to the fray, lining up for the first time against both opposition captains Jansz and Wilson. And the Utd skipper it was who was instrumental in the decisive goal, his shot rattling back off the post and bouncing in off a desperately unlucky Meier.
There was still time for Rose to prod inches wide with Meier well beaten, but the final score gave Utd the win by the narrowest - and most fortuitous - of margins.
So, in the first clash, Lockyer won the battle - with four goals to Hartley’s three - but Hartley won the war. Which of the two hotshots would emerge triumphant from the second match?
With Hartley starting quietly and Lockyer effectively shackled by Varley, the early goal threat was carried by other players, Fry slicing narrowly wide for the KittEms and Cox denied from close range for Utd. It was looking as though the deadlock would only be broken courtesy of a mistake - and, unfortunately for Kelly, it was his, Lockyer pouncing on and punishing a misdirected throw.
That stung Hartley into action, and he had one effort blocked before driving home past an unsighted Meier. But Utd were only level for a matter of seconds, Lockyer and Fry rampaging through from the kick-off for the former to score. This time there was no immediate response from Hartley and Utd, instead Lockyer bamboozling Owen to notch his second hat-trick of the day. Hardly surprising, I suppose - as a keen darts player, he’s used to finding a much smaller target than a 5-a-side goal.
Varley was the next to be embarrassed with some exhibition skill, Lockyer starting to pass to himself off the walls. His teammates, meanwhile, were enjoying themselves too, Dubber twice trying his luck from long range and Stevenson dragging the ball just wide after Cox had been deceived by a bouncing ball.
As half-time approached, though, the balance of play swung back in Utd’s favour, Meier making a superb stretching save to repel Cox’s strike as his goal was peppered with shots.
The teams having changed ends, only an alert Kelly prevented Owen’s looping header from finding the back of his own net, while equally adept goalkeeping from Meier saw him claw Gibbons’ shot away from the top corner.
The KittEms then resolved to kick ‘em while they were down, Fry outmuscling Owen and Lockyer finishing tidily for their fourth and fifth. Spirits in the Utd side were visibly sapped and there was so much steam billowing out of Owen’s ears that his head was like a boiling kettle.
Kelly at least was providing sterling resistance, deflecting one effort from Cousins and tipping another onto the post to prevent the gulf in the scoreline from yawning even wider. Inspired by this display of defiance, Utd rallied, with Cox, Cragg and Gibbons combining well in attack. Wilson did well to halt Gibbons' run, while Meier showed good reactions to get in the way of a firmly struck Gibbons free-kick, awarded after Fry’s scything tackle on Owen, who had gone to ground as though he’s been watching Platoon.
A rogue red bib on the floor briefly stopped play, much to Varley’s frustration - which he then proceeded to take out on the KittEms, denied once by Meier but then pulling a goal back thanks to Kelly’s visionary assist.
Cragg managed what few of her teammates had by dispossessing Lockyer, but Cousins was continuing to look sharp on the right wing, and after Cox had shot over and once again adopted his head-in-hands position, Lockyer rounded off the scoring with his fifth of the game.
Sadly, the game finished on a low note, man-of-the-match Lockyer’s devastating display brought to an end by an ankle sprain sustained in an innocent challenge. As Cooper blew for full time, Owen grimaced: ‘I could have marked him now’...
Honours even over the course of the two games, then, but if the KittEms can get Lockyer back to full fitness it’ll be the champagne and not his ankle that’ll be on ice.
Hartleypool Utd 6 - 5 The Kicking KittEms
Hartleypool Utd 2 - 6 The Kicking KittEms
Lockyer 9; Hartley 4; Varley 3; Fry 2; Meier (og) 1
Dan Hartley; Andrea Gibbons; Sam Cragg; Vikki Rose; Gail Carter; Dave Varley; Mike Kelly; David Cox; Dave Owen
The Kicking KittEms
Kitty Jansz; Emma Wilson; Ali Meier; Barry Fry; Alec Dubber; Bev Cousins; Ewan Stevenson; Khanam Virjee; Dean Lockyer