Nick Stern saluted his players after L'Equipe came close to pulling off what would have been one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Cyril Anekstein Cup against holders North London Raiders A.
It all started at 9am with a few heavy heads as L'Equipe entered the coldrum of the Ark 3G pitches to face the reigning league champions in the shadows of the famous Wembley stadium. A dedicated plan had been drawn up by coach Mark Smith and all 14 members of the squad knew what their tasks were, but even the most optimistic members of the squad knew that they were in for a long afternoon.
Under glorious sunshine and having had their boots expertly checked by the ref, L'Equipe started the first half with a classic centre, Andy Smith to Mark Smith, a crossfield ball to the electric James Mandell which result in a throw-in to Raiders. That may have been the only time something went wrong all morning.
L'Equipe's plan was to stifle the NLR midfield - led by the brilliant Jonny Kay - and sit back and absorb all the pressure that they ultimately knew would come up against them. Twenty minutes went by and L'Equipe were looking comfortable. Mark Singer, Julian Bohm and Mark Smith were working their socks off in the middle of the park and though isolated, the front three of Andy Smith, Mandell and Rob Simmons were tracking back and putting challenges in that they didn't know the could do. The plan was working.
The back four of Gideon Chain, Ian Baron, Dave Prager and player-manager Nick Stern were looking solid, nullifying all the threats posed, as well as David Dinkin up top. However after 30 minutes the first goal was conceded. A sloppy free-kick on the end of the box was given and Raiders captain David Rhodes rose above Singer to head home at the near post. At this point many of the crowd (of eight) thought that the floodgates would open but how wrong they were.
L'Equipe kept on battling until half-time, with keeper Mark Glucksman just a bystander as the defence and midfield cleared all that came their way. 1-0 at half time and a very happy L'Equipe team walked off the pitch for a well-deserved drink and a sit down with heads held high. L'Equipe were very much still in the game and their plan was working.
The team went on to the pitch for the second half thinking anything was possible. Then within 15 minutes of the restart the unthinkable happened. L'Equipe levelled, spark scenes of wild pandemonium. Manager Nick Stern told JC Sport: "To be honest, I wish I could describe exactly what happened but all I can say it was bloody brilliant and Andy Smith kept his cool to slot home past the Raiders keeper. Rather than go wild there were a lot of fist pumping a few high fives and even a chest bump but the boys knew the game was far from over!"
Raiders were officially rattled after what can only be described as a horrific collision between Andy smith and the Raiders keeper. Raiders took the opportunity to regroup, knowing that they were in a match.
L'Equipe made a couple substitutions, bringing on Dan Finegold and Jeremy Newton and the battle recommenced. They then enjoyed a 10-minute spell where they were on top. Passes were finding their men, Prager and Singer were winning every header and Gideon and Ian Baron were marauding down the wings. However that elusive second goal never came.
Then, against the run of play, disaster struck. Glucksman had just pulled off a world-class double save before he was finally beaten as Raiders restored their advantage with L'Equipe tiring.
However, in true L'Equipe spirit, and after one final throw of the dice to bring on John ‘Flick-on’ Kay, they scored again. Andy Smith collected a delicious 50-yard ball from Baron beat two men and slotted home.
Could a miracle happen? L'Equipe kept on pushing but sadly they could not find an equaliser. L'Equipe boss Nick Stern told JC Sport: "The game ended 3-2 but I think what was most amazing was the reaction at the end of the game. Raiders acted as though they had already won the cup, and we walked off the pitch as warriors all 14 giving everything.
"Some Raiders players led by Jonny Kay, and David Rhodes showed their class and congratulated myself and a lot of the players on a brilliant performance, something that was applauded by all in Orange.
"In summary, all 14 men were brilliant. Though a moral victory is not something I normally count, coming so close to beating the reigning champions on their own pitch certainly counts as a victory in my eyes. Everyone who turned up should be proud of themselves and put in a shift like never before.
Alex Kaye and Jordan Marks scored NLR's other goals.
NLR boss Rob Richman told JC Sport: "We weren't at our most convincing today and a lot of credit must got to L'Equipe for that. I was however always confident we had enough to make it three wins from three this season and secure our passage to the next round of the cup.
"Our match sharpness still isn't quite there and that will come with games but I'm confident that we will improve as we move to the winter months."