4th December 2021: A dramatic comeback sees the Aztecs clinch third place.
The Aztecs took eight to Bedford with Rebecca Moody being the only change from the previous game.
Nerves were on full display in this cagey affair. Wishing the game could have been played in Basingstoke or Winchester, the Aztecs travelled all the way to Bedford to take on their closest geographic rival, Reading Royals.
What was at stake? The Aztecs had to win, and hope other results went their way to sneak into the top four and qualify for the national league for the second half of the season. With an Aztecs win and Bedford failing to win, or an Aztecs win and a Bloomsbury loss, fourth place would be guaranteed. If both Bedford failed to win, and Bloomsbury lost, the Aztecs could get third. As the second game of the day, the pressure was on, and the rivals were watching. It was all to play for, but first, Southampton had to overcome a strong Reading Royals side who were looking to leapfrog the Aztecs and finish their season in fifth place.
The Aztecs kicked-off, and had their first chance after six seconds. A popular kick-off routine saw Lauren Sayler float a ball to Rebekah Tonks who shot wide at the far post. The resulting goalkeeper throw displayed what was to come for the rest of the match, with Reading having most of the ball, using good rotations and patterns, in an attempt to breakdown Southampton's low block. Reading were trying to open up the Southampton defence, while Southampton were forced into counters.
Lauren Sayler's first big call to action was when Reading had a top corner shot palmed away, following some sleepy marking at a corner. Southampton's first big chance came thirty seconds later. Rebekah and Kayleigh Tonks worked well together to steal the ball, Bekah slipped Kayleigh through 1v1 against the keeper, who made a great save, with Bekah's rebound being hit wide. Southampton had another chance seconds later, when Kayleigh Tonks hit wide from a Nicola Curtis cross. Southampton looking to calm their nerves took a step in the wrong direction, when a kick-in routine went wrong, and Lauren Sayler was out of her goal. Fortunately Kaylee Senter had recovered to block the shot.
The blocks kept coming as Reading began to unleash more shots, when they had pushed back the Southampton defence to be within shooting distance. A futsal ball leaves more bruises. Perhaps more settled now, the Aztecs began to show glimpses of their quality. Kaylee Senter passed a kick-in to Rebekah Tonks who played an excellent defence splitting pass to Nicola Curtis, whose shot was well saved. Reading were starting to break through too. A great give and go routine had them 1v1 with Lauren Sayler, only for Kaylee Senter to recover out of nowhere with an excellent tackle, for the rebound to require a save from Lauren Senter, and then the ball squirmed thankfully wide of the Southampton goal. Southampton replied immediately with a counter. Lauren Sayler retrieved the ball, threw it to Kayleigh Tonks, who laid off her sister with a great one touch pass, only for her shot to be well saved by the Reading goalkeeper.
Still inside the first ten minutes, Rebekah Tonks stole the ball, and smashed a shot at goal. The Reading keeper's reactions were excellent to block such a powerful shot from close range, and then the rebound was smashed in by Kayleigh Tonks, which went through the defender's legs, hit the keeper, went across the goal, and bounced off the inside of the far post. The game was now opening up. Lauren Sayler made a great double save, then threw the ball forward for a counter, putting Kayleigh Tonks through. The ball was poked away by the defender, which fell to Rebekah Tonks, who forced a diving save from the Reading keeper. Seconds later Sayler threw to Rebekah Tonks whose aerial attempt at goal was blocked, and the rebound was hit hard by Kayleigh Tonks, and blocked by a recovering Reading defender.
How would it get to half-time 0-0? Part of it was due to players like Kaylee Senter and Divina Alo Ilolo putting their bodies on the line to block shots and passes. The deadlock remained unbroken when the buzzer sounded, and the two teams would vacate the court for the half-time break. Who was going to strike first? Which team would take all three points in this intense encounter?
The second half began in the same manner. Southampton sat deep and defended compactly while Reading moved the ball around well to try and open up space. The eternal struggle between possession v counter. What would win; attack or defence? Three minutes in, and it was attack that struck the first blow. Reading's possession paid off. A six pass move with some great rotations allowed them to work a shooting opportunity from distance which was drilled through a crowd of players and into the bottom corner to put the Royals 1-0 ahead. Not ideal for the Aztecs, needing three points to hope for a top four finish.
Southampton attempted a response quickly. Nicola Curtis took a kick-in by the halfway line to Kaylee Senter, who switched the play out to the marauding Lauren Sayler free on the right wing, whose shot was well held by the Reading keeper. The equaliser nearly came shortly after, again from a Nicola Curtis kick-in, setting Lauren Sayler free down the right, who crossed it to Rebekah Tonks, whose shot from the edge of the box went agonisingly wide. Southampton were chasing the lead, and elected for a high press that utilised man marking.
But it was Reading who scored next, extending the lead to 2-0. A kick-in on Reading's left side, followed by a couple one-twos to get through the compact Southampton defence, and a spinning shot placed well into the corner.
Could it be done? Could the Aztecs pull it back again? Could the team that has come from behind so many times this season pull it off one more time? In six of the seven games Southampton have played this season, the opposition have taken the lead first. The true grit of this team was to be tested once more. A response was needed, the ability was never in doubt, but was luck about to run out?
It could have been 3-0 before it was 2-1. Southampton lost the ball in attack with Sayler out of her goal, and the snatched shot bounced wide of the open net. Moments later, Sayler was called on to smother the ball when Reading worked an unmarked 1v1 opportunity in the box. Maybe it wasn't going to happen today. The self-doubt increased a little more when a Reading counter down the right forced Sayler into a great reflex save at the near post. From the resulting corner she made an excellent point blank stop to deny a goal which surely would have sealed it for the Royals. Down, not out, Southampton were still breathing.
Southampton's panic lead to an inability to keep the ball. Sayler was called on two more times to get the team out of jail. Calm was needed. Every Southampton move was breaking down, leading to the team having to rush back at lightning pace to prevent Reading from getting the third. With twelve minutes remaining, Southampton came close. Nicola Curtis received wide left from Rebekah Tonks, who performed an excellent shimmy with the left to cut inside the defender, before having her right-footed shot saved. That skill was a real crowd pleaser, and it showed signs that there was still hope.
The Aztecs kept pressing. It was starting to work. Rebekah Tonks was relentless, stealing the ball, and clipping a cross in to Kayleigh Tonks, whose volley produced an excellent save from the Reading keeper. The team grew with every chance. Lauren Sayler caught the ball, threw it forward to Rebekah Tonks, who held the ball up well before laying off to Kayleigh Tonks, whose shot hit the post. How many more good chances would Southampton need?
And then it came. The high press made Reading elect to play long from their keeper. Kaylee Senter won the knock down, laid it off to Rebekah Tonks, who turned and played an excellent disguised pass to Kayleigh Tonks, who received unmarked and poked it into the far corner before the defender recovered. 2-1. Game on. Eleven minutes to play. Southampton believed.
It nearly became 2-2 with ten minutes left. Reading played short from the keeper, K. Tonks pressed quickly, stole the ball, and tried to poke it through the keeper's legs. Alo Ilolo rushed in for the rebound, which was blocked by the recovering defender, and R. Tonks fought off the defender to win the subsequent rebound, and shot wide. With Reading seemingly on the ropes, the Royals called a time out. Southampton took the opportunity to catch a breath, lower the hear rate, and re-focus. There was a job to do, with more than enough time, and more than enough ability.
How would the game go? What were Reading going to change? They nearly re-established their two goal lead, if it weren't for an excellent sliding block from Senter. Thirty seconds later and Reading had a kick-in in their own half on the right. The attempted scoop over the high press was acrobatically blocked by Alo Ilolo. The block went through to the Reading keeper, who rolled out to her left. R. Tonks pressed well, stole the ball, and put it on a plate for her sister to finish. The Reading keeper did well to save from close range. K. Tonks recovered the rebound, tried a cross which was blocked, regained the ball again, tried to beat the defender 1v1, and was fouled in the box.
Following some confusion as to which line was the area, a six metre spot kick was awarded. Who would be brave enough to take the decisive shot? Legendary status was up for grabs. A whole season's worth of work rested on this kick. What future could be written? A valiant but so-close campaign that ended in heartbreak? Or a riveting comeback, a movie plotline, that would elevate the club to the big stage.
As soon as it was known for sure that it was a penalty, the American goalkeeper marched out of her goal. Confidently striding towards the big moment, facing the beast head on. She felt the fear and did it anyway. Knowing that her kick could lead to unbridled joy, or shattering despair. For someone with such weight on her shoulders, Lauren Sayler stood tall. Almost casual, as the referee's entertained the protests of the Reading coach. Perhaps not a delaying tactic, but stats show that the longer the wait before a spot kick, the more the doubt grows in the mind of the taker. But did anyone doubt her?
In the blink of an eye, the ball hit the back of the net. For someone who had contributed so much at the other end all season, keeping the Aztecs in the game by stopping goals, she now kept the Aztecs in the game by scoring one. Emotions running wild, with joy, excitement, relief, and nervous energy permeating the entire arena. Could the team in green hold their nerve and score the winning goal in this bravely fought contest?
9:45 remaining. There was a job to do. And it was nearly done. K. Tonks blocked the ball and began her run. R. Tonks poked it through, the sisters combining again for what could have been the third... but K. Tonks hit her shot millimetres wide of the far post. Reading came close again, with their player on the dribble, weaving through the Southampton defence, and hitting the ball hard into Sayler's bottom right corner, forcing the American to palm the ball wide.
7:00 remaining. The Aztecs regained possession after some battling and scrambling in the midfield. R. Tonks set the ball back to Senter. Senter controlled with the sole and looked up. Kayleigh Tonks recognised the space she was in, and back peddled away from the defender to create more space for herself. Senter scooped the ball over the Reading team to put K. Tonks in at the far post. K. Tonks brought the ball down well, but was pounced on immediately by the goalkeeper and the defender. A brief scramble, and the ball was now in the back of the net off the left foot of Kayleigh Tonks, who wheeled away in celebration. It was obvious to see how much this meant to the entire team, and now the Aztecs were in the position they needed to be, third place in the live table. Hold on for the win, and hope Bedford and Bloomsbury results go the correct way.
Could Southampton last the seven minutes? Fans of the greens held their breath when Sayler went down hard after a save, seemingly hurting her elbow. But she was okay, and soldiered on. The Aztecs decided to leave everything on the court. Blood, sweat, and tears were required to get this victory over the line. Rebekah Tonks, Kaylee Senter, Lauren Sayler, and Divina Alo Ilolo get special mention for putting their bodies on the line, although there is no doubt the rest of the team would have done so when called upon, such is their commitment and determination.
One of the many good things about football is the inability to rely on the dark arts. With a continuous clock, teams can feign injury, slowly retrieve the ball, and do all they can to waste time. Futsal doesn't allow that. The only way to run down the clock is to keep the ball in play. With the ball in play, Reading may have scored the equaliser. So what is the right strategy? Passing the ball around to keep it? Backs to the wall defending? Hiding the ball in the corner? Dumping the ball down the court? Southampton tried all of the above. The Aztecs even tried scoring a fourth goal. Nicola Curtis almost getting on the end of a Kathryn Heath backheeled cross, and Rebekah Tonks dribbling forward and hitting the near post. At this point, a fourth goal would have sealed it.
And then we heard the most beautiful sound. It was the buzzer to signify the game had ended. It was done. The Aztecs got the win. Those green warriors fought so hard. The rest of the day was filled with copious phone checking, refreshing feeds for updates from the Bedford and Bloomsbury games. Eventually, the full-time score came in. Bedford had been defeated by Helvecia, and top four was clinched. Later in the evening, news surfaced of a Birmingham victory over Bloomsbury, and that was it. The brand new team from the south coast, formed in May, with players brand new to the sport, finished in third place at the first time of asking. The reward? To now compete on the national stage, in front of televised audiences.
We're convinced now. 2-0 is the most dangerous lead, at least against Southampton Aztecs. Below is the full match for your viewing pleasure.
Kaylee Senter was voted as player of the match with what was a real blood, sweat, and tears performance. Solid as a rock at the back, and contributing the assist for the winning goal with an excellent scoop to Kayleigh Tonks.
The scores from the day of games.
Coventry 5 v 0 London Genesis
Southampton Aztecs 3 v 2 Reading Royals
Bedford 2 v 10 London Helvecia
Birmingham WLV 5 v 3 Bloomsbury
Here is the final table for the season. The Aztecs finish in third place, after holding their first session at the end of May 2021. Southampton will be beginning their national league campaign on the 16th of January, and will be featured on BT a further three more times, with the season running from January to May with seven games. This time around, travel will be at a whole host of venues across England. Will the Aztecs be coming to your town? We'll find out in a week or two.
Can you believe it? What a season for the Aztecs!
The Aztecs have been using Tactic Lite software to cut up and animate clips. Below are two of our best team goals from recent weeks.