Match of the Week: Rare blank for Pete Smale in North Devon hockey win
PETE SMALE has been one of South West hockey's most prolific scorers, good for 40 to 50 goals a season.
But when North Devon beat Tavistock 10-2 in their latest league match on Saturday, Smale's name did not make it on to the scoresheet.
Two other North Devon players notched hat-tricks, and five in all found the target, while Smale was for once left to admire the finishing skills of those around him.
And it could be some time before the super striker returns to his prolific ways.
For the greater good of the team, Smale has been moved from his forward role to one in behind the central strikers.
"It's all right scoring goals but its stopping them going in at the other end that has been the problem," said Smale.
North Devon are the runaway top scorers in Davis Wood League Southern One despite being fifth in the table and effectively out of the running for promotion.
A sequence of five defeats in six matches from mid-October into December, during which they conceded an average four goals a game, prompted a team meeting to thrash out the issues.
Jay Hall, the captain, said: "We looked at the improvements we needed to make as players and as a team."
Forward Guy Cockcroft was experimented with behind the front two before Smale was moved into that role. The result has been two wins in two matches in 2013.
"Pete played at point the previous week, which worked really well, so I spoke with him (about playing there again) and he seems happy with it," said Hall.
"We wanted to give him an opportunity to have more of an impact and get more of the ball.
"We played him in behind the front two, just to offer that support, and it worked.
"Six goals from our two centre forwards, you can't ask for more than that."
Playing at home at the Park Community School, Barnstaple, Cockcroft and Dave Orr each scored a treble, while wide men Sam Witheridge and Phil Bland scored twice and once respectively. Defender turned midfielder Andy Buller weighed in with one goal and three assists.
Nick Howells, the North Devon coach, said: "We have been trying to shore up the middle.
"If you don't get the ideal combination, that is where the opposition can come through and put you under pressure at the back."
With the athleticism and strength of Buller complementing Smale's surging runs and the wing play of Witheridge and Bland, North Devon's midfield overran ten-man Tavistock.
The visitors were a player short as some declined to risk travelling through the snow.
"We were blessed in the striking department but we didn't have many midfielders," said Smale.
"We are the league's highest scorers but we also have one of the worst defensive records and we would rather walk away with a 2-1 win than a 5-4 loss.
"Sometimes we go a bit gung ho when we could sit on what we've got and see the game out, instead of leaving ourselves short at the back going for more goals."
So is Smale happy to stay in his new position?
"Yes," said the 27-year-old who has been with North Devon since his days playing for the under-16s, apart from a brief spell at a higher level. "I'm happy. Whatever it takes for the team".
But for how long? "It depends on who comes up from the seconds," he said.
North Devon could do with players coming through as they are light on first-team talent.
"We probably have only 13 out-and-out first-team players in the squad at the moment," said Howells.
"We have just had a dip. At the moment the next lot of juniors are not ready.
"But when we can get to picking from a squad of 17 or 18 we will be ready to be promoted."
One promotion and the club would be at the highest point in its history.
It is not just who comes through but whether they stay.
Buller, like Smale, signed with Exeter-based Isca, the largest club in the West and current leaders of the Premiership, before returning.
Buller made the first team, Smale the seconds, but work in Barnstaple brought them back.Buller is a sports therapist and fitness manager, Smale a hotel manager.
Now they hope Witheridge, North Devon's outstanding young prospect at 16, will not be lost.
According to Howells, Witheridge is a brighter prospect than either Smale or Buller were at the same age. "Sam has got it all," he said.
Smale said: "There is no doubt about his ability and, as he gets older and stronger, he will cope with games better.
"When I was his age I was like him.
"You tend to get bullied off the ball more than you do when you are older and wiser.
"But he has got the skills, his all-round game is pretty good and he dominates games in his age group. Hopefully we can keep hold of him."
Buller said: "Nick Howells has built up a good foundation of youth coming through but the problem we get every year is that, once we get people like Sam Witheridge up to a certain level, they flee to bigger and better things.
"They get educated, play at a higher level, and rarely move back to North Devon.
"We are fortunate we have people like myself, Pete and Matty Brown who have stuck around North Devon for so long.
"If it wasn't for that we would be a couple of leagues below and we would be a solely feeding club."
Buller, 29, acknowledges Witheridge is a better play than either he or Smale were at 16.
"He knows what to do on a hockey pitch whereas we were very much learning," he said. "He has more natural ability than anyone in the club."
Howells described Buller as the team's midfield general.
"He is strong technically, very athletic, very quick and he gets low in the game, which is important in hockey," he said. "And he distracts the opposition because they don't want him having the ball."
Receiving a penalty corner from Cockcroft, Buller set up Orr for the first goal after nine minutes. Already by then Smale had fed Cockcroft for a shot just wide.
Buller's neat stickwork gave Cockcroft the chance to send in a blistering shot for the second goal and the home team were 3-0 up after 21 minutes as Buller found the target with a shot from a Cockcroft penalty corner.
Adam Holland then scored the first of his two goals for Tavistock before a Cockcroft shot was saved, only for him to turn the loose ball to Orr to score.
Almost immediately, Orr returned the favour, Cockcroft easily converting his pass.
Tavistock's attacks were rare but they scored a second goal just before half time. In the second half, though, North Devon hit five without reply.
Hall's cross for Bland to steal in and score started the avalanche and the visitors might have been buried deeper had their goalkeeper not made a number of saves.
He kept out a shot from Orr before doing the same with one from Cockcroft, after a fine cross by Brown, only for Witheridge to follow up and make it 7-2.
Keeping out further shots from Cockcroft and Orr, twice, the visiting goalie delayed double figures.
But Orr, finding the roof of the net from a Buller pass, scored the eighth midway through the half.
Witheridge, grateful for a gift pass from a defender, struck the ninth and Cockcroft, swivelling before shooting, ensured a ten-goal haul for the second time against Tavistock this season.
They had won 10-1 there in early October in their last game before a run of only three points out of 18.
Now on a five-match unbeaten run since their slump, taking 13 points from 15, North Devon go to third-placed Penzance on Saturday.
They will be mindful that it was a 5-3 home defeat by Penzance that started their slump.
"Eight games left and, in my first year as captain, I am looking to finish in the top half," said Hall.
With Smale where he is or back in attack?
"I have no doubt that wherever he plays he will find the net a few times during the rest of the season," said Hall.
It could be the first and last time that we read the scoreline: North Devon 10 Pete Smale 0.