SALFORD were crowned champions of the EHA Men’s National League after beating southern rivals Ruislip Eagles in their penultimate clash of the play-offs.
Salford have dominated most of their matches this season, but looked really nervy prior to the clash with the Eagles. A win or a draw would see them take the league title for the first time in almost 20 years. A great deal of responsibility resting on some very young shoulders.
The gravity of the game clearly had an impact on Salford's early performance. Their usual fluency in attack and almost impenetrable defence were nowhere to be seen as the game got underway.
Ruislip on the other hand set off with clinical efficiency as they converted almost all their early chances to open up a five-goal lead by the mid-point of the half. Whatever they tried, Salford were always struggling to recoup that lead. For every goal Salford scored, Ruislip came back with one of their own.
A superb team performance by Ruislip really putting pressure on the league leaders. By half time, Salford had only managed to recoup one goal of the deficit to go in four down at 10 goals to Ruislip's 14.
As the second half got underway Salford came out the quicker, closing the gap to two before Ruislip once again regained the upper hand to take the lead back to three. And so that was to be the story of the half, every time Salford closed the lead Ruislip managed to find a way to open it up again.
Down to two goals, back to three goals then back to two goals by the time Ruislip took a time out at 20 minutes into the half. Things were now on a knife edge, but Salford were gradually gaining the upper hand. Holding the gap to two goals and the momentum was turning. Only slightly, but it was definitely turning.
As the game got back under way it was now Salford putting pressure on Ruislip. Would they buckle or could Ruislip hold out and force the championship to come down to the last game of the season? A herculean effort was called for from both teams and neither disappointed.
As the final 10 minutes of the game got underway, still neither team could be separated. However, Salford managed to grab back a goal and then another to level the game with just a couple of minutes to go. Crucial defending turned over the ball to allow Salford to call a time out with just over a minute of the game left to play.
Clearly, a long attack with retained possession was the order of the day. Play it through and create a good scoring chance would be the instruction from the Salford coaches. Alas, the best laid plans would come awry after just three passes of the restart. A missed pass saw the ball go out of play and possession return to Ruislip.
A long hard period of defence was to follow. Numerous chances to break through were quashed as the Salford defence finally decided to turn up and do what its renowned for - stopping teams scoring. As the final horn sounded, a very relieved Salford celebrated their first championship in almost two decades. The score, a 28 - 28 draw. A result both teams very much deserved.
After the game, Salford Head Coach Bill Baillie said, "I am really happy for everybody involved at the club, we took a big gamble financially to move to three training sessions per week, but now the players have their reward for all the commitment and time they have put in.
"It was a nervy game for the players and it was important that they stayed composed and never panicked. This now allows us to focus on getting to the Cup final in what will be another difficult semi final against Cambridge"
"Thanks must also go to our band of supporters who have followed us in every game, Salford Community Leisure, Salford University and Liverpool John Moores University for all their support."
* Olympia beat Thames 28-25 in a thrilling Women’s Cup clash on Saturday, while in Men’s Plate action, Warwick University won 40-38 against Liverpool Speke Garston.
This weekend, The Men’s EHA Cup resumes with the semi finals. London GD take on University of Manchester at the Sugden Sports Centre in Manchester, while over at the Greenbank Sports Academy in Liverpool Salford will play Cambridge.