WHITLEY Warriors have created history by becoming the first team to retain the English National League title – and they have done it with six games remaining.
Although Telford are at the other end of the table, they knew they were playing the occasion and certainly did all they could to frustrate the Warriors, in the first period especially, with no score in the opening 20 minutes.
However, it took the home side just 32 seconds to find the net in the middle session, with Martin Crammond on target as he once again deputised for the injured Karl Culley on the Whitley first line.
Far from settling any home nerves that goal only seemed to inspire the Titans and they proceeded to have their best spell of the game, resulting in Ryan Stanton firing in the equaliser on 29 minutes.
That prompted Warriors coach Simon Leach to call a time-out to re-focus his troops, and four minutes later they were back in front.
With an extra man while Stanton sat out a two-minute interference penalty, it was Dan Harris who restored the lead with a strike from distance, although credit must go to Adam Robinson who screened the Telford keeper perfectly and then moved out of the way at the last possible minute.
Another powerplay opportunity came Warriors’ way in the 36th minute, and it was Crammond who was left with the simple task of putting the puck into an empty net following good work from Adam Reynolds and Ritchie Thornton to set up the chance.
It was Callum Watson who brought the session to a close with a fine solo effort at 38.42 and leave the Warriors 4-1 ahead as the final period approached.
Surprisingly Whitley could not add to their tally in that last 20 minutes, but that did not stop the home fans from beginning the party early and by the time the final hooter sounded, the celebrations had already begun.
Afterwards Leach paid tribute to his whole squad.
“We had aims for the ENL at the start of the season and achieving them by winning 21 of our first 22 games – and drawing the other – means we have probably surpassed what we set out to do,” he said.
“But I have to say the players have been superb right through,” added the coach, who, in the time honoured tradition, was soaked by his players at the final whistle.
“We didn’t always play our best hockey every night, but we always dug deep when it was needed and came up with a way to get the right result.”
And after having to make massive changes to his squad in the close season, Leach felt the balance of his side has been right throughout.
“I don’t think any side in this league lost as many players as we did,” he continued.
“But we have been able to bring in some good players with experience and also turn to our youth development to add new faces that have matured as the season has progressed, and we now have a formidable squad as a result.”
However, despite the title being wrapped up with six games remaining, the coach still wants his side to finish the ENL campaign on a high.
“That title might be decided,” Leach said, “but we cannot afford to slacken off at all, because we still have the play-offs to look forward to and there is also the small matter of chasing the Northern League title as well.
“We have to maintain the quality of our performance because there are some very big challenges ahead of us over the next few weeks, especially vital Northern League games away to Fife Flyers and Solway Sharks, that will have a big bearing on were we finish in that competition.
“So we need to enjoy what victory tonight brought us, but we get back to hard work in training this week,” he added.
Although it wasn’t a vintage performance against Telford, Leach felt his Pantrini’s sponsored Warriors did more than enough to earn the victory.
“Give credit to Telford,” he continued, “they came to Whitley knowing what was at stake and made life as difficult as possible for us with a good counter-attacking game, but once we got the measure of them, I felt we were always in control.”
Crammond was again the Warriors man of the match and bagged another couple of goals as he continues to deputise for the injured Culley on the first line.
“Martin has certainly stepped in a taken his chance with two more excellent goals tonight, although to be fair, he should have had a hat trick – and I told him so,” said Leach.
“But he is the perfect example to the young lads in the squad of what can be achieved and seems to be enjoying the quality of service he is getting from the likes of Adam Reynolds and Paul Windridge at the moment.”