Fareham won their do-or-die battle to stay in the England National Hockey League.
A 3-1 victory over Indian Gymkhana in the final crucial relegation play-off showdown ensured Western Conference standard hockey will remain at Henry Cort next season.
Having beaten Oxton 3-1 on the Wirral a fortnight ago, Fareham only needed to draw with Indian Gymkhana, who lost to the Cheshire side in the first of the three-way shoot-outs.
But a goal in each half by James Evans, pictured above, either side of a waspish penalty corner conversion by Jamie Rawlings, ensured Fareham an outright victory.
The result sent the famous Gymkhana club tumbling into South Premier Division 1 next season, where newly promoted Winchester will feature among their opponents.
“The final whistle felt fantastic,” said an elated Fareham captain Alex Boxall, whose side looked dead-certs for relegation after losing seven of its nine pre-Christmas matches.
“The team has developed massively during the second half of the season and staying in this league on the back of our play-off results is what we deserved after working so hard.”
The ‘last chance saloon’ affair attracted a bumper crowd – probably the biggest ever seen in recent Hampshire club hockey – with spectators hugging the touchline three deep.
The early action saw Rawlings ping a deflected shot inches wide and Fareham’s George Harris save well from a Gymkhana short corner.
But Fareham got a grip on a tense affair 12 minutes in when John Grice pushed the ball into the D, where Evans beat former Great Britain minder Simon Mason from close range.
Rob Wilson too went close before Fareham doubled their advantage with their second penalty corner, which Rawlings powered past a motionless Mason at speed.
Needing to score three times, Indian Gymkhana applied concerted pressure from the second half restart.
But Fareham set themselves up well and kept their goal intact until 15 minutes into the period when Hayden Beltz raised the visitors’ fading hopes.
Fareham fought fire with fire and, eight minutes after IG had clawed the lead back to 2-1, Evans scored the all-important third goal to put the game to bed.
Appropriately James Seager, who wears his heart on his sleeve in Fareham’s cause, created the chance by forcing a close range save from Mason and Evans poked home the rebound.
“James has been a fantastic addition since he joined us from Havant and has provided us with a goalscorer that we’d been missing,” Boxall continued.
But the drama hadn’t finished.
With the clock ticking down, Fareham’s Chris Davey blocked a goal-bound Gymkhana shot with a bruised back to give the visitors a twice taken penalty stroke.
But Fareham’s George Harris, in inspired form during the second half of the campaign, moved to his right to twice stop strokes from David Rae, who got a second bite when the goalkeeper was adjudged to have moved too early.
It proved the last throw of the dice as Fareham saw off the closing minutes to secure a victory so crucial to their immediate future.
Boxall believes Fareham’s success in the relegation play-offs will have a long term beneficial impact.
“Next season, I know the squad will develop even more. Youngsters have gained crucial experience and have shown in recent weeks they are prepared to roll their sleeves up and work for the club,” he said.
“A lot of them have progressed from the club’s youth academy into the National League and are now beginning to find their feet in what is a demanding competition
“I sincerely believe we will move onwards and upwards from here.”
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