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Author: Roger Jackson
Cheltenham’s men will return to the National Hockey League next season after a thrilling, last-gasp 3-2 win over University of Exeter 3rds on Saturday.
And it really was last-gasp because the game was deep into the last minute when they finally got the goal that clinched the victory and, with it, the West Men’s Premier title.
Fittingly, that goal was scored by captain Chris Laird, his 10th in the 22-game campaign, with the win leaving Cheltenham two points clear of nearest rivals Bath Buccaneers 2nds, who rounded off their season with a 5-1 win at Swansea.
That game kicked off later than Cheltenham’s, but that didn’t do anything to lessen the tension at Balcarras in a match that was played in front of a decent crowd.
“It was ridiculous,” said Laird, who took over as captain at the start of the campaign. “It looked like all hope had gone. We’d been knocking on the door for the whole of the second half, we’d hit the post but we couldn’t score.
“I asked the umpire how long there was to go and he said ’36 seconds’.”
But that 36 seconds was long enough for Laird to score the goal that he says “will live with him forever”.
It started with a long aerial direct ball from a set-play in their own half. Laird takes up the story.
“Rich Hartley picked up the ball and drove down the right of the D. When he crossed I was left unmarked and one-on-one with the goalkeeper. He came charging out and I put it through his legs.”
So, how does it feel to be back in the National League – they’ll play in the West Conference – after a season away?
“Amazing,” said Laird, who was the team’s top goalscorer. “We’ve gone all season trying to keep our feet on the ground. There’s been a real togetherness and that has driven our team spirit.
“Winning promotion became a possibility around Christmas. We beat Bath Buccs in November but then lost our next game to Whitchurch, which set us back a bit.
“Then we won our next nine games and we were five points clear with four games to go before we lost at Bath Buccs.
“That made it a nervy final three games, but what made me really proud was the way we bounced back in those final three games.”
And they’ll be ready for the National League next season.
“We’re really excited for that,” continued Laird. “We’ll take the summer to take stock. The idea is to keep as many of the squad together as possible with a few additions.
“And the aim is to play front-foot hockey, it’s served us very well this season.
“We play with a bit of bottle and with that attitude we’ll be fine.”
Laird’s late, late goal was the only one of the second half on Saturday. Rupinder Hanspal had given Cheltenham a dream start, scoring his first goal since joining the club at the turn of the year in the opening minute.
And after the visitors had levelled, Luke Cole got their second before Exeter equalised for a second time before the break.
That only helped to add to the drama, of course, and it was certainly a great day for Cheltenham Hockey Club because the women’s flagship team secured their place in the National League for another season with a hugely impressive 4-1 win over second-placed Oxford Hawks.
That win ended their relegation worries and lifted them into sixth place in the 10-strong division, and club chairman Will Carter told The Local Answer with understandable pride: “We’re now the only club in Gloucestershire with two National League sides.”