Jack Blake has been aiming some of the most accurate deliveries by a native of Nottingham since the arrows of Robin Hood.
And after a three-goal night marked by two sensational free kicks, the Jacksonville Armada midfielder doesn’t want to let that magical weekend go.
“I’ve been watching it back a couple of times,” Blake said.
But behind every successful free kick is a foul - and that’s where people like Derek Gebhard come in. The Armada’s newfound set-play weaponry gets another test Sunday, when the North American Soccer League club travels to the New York Cosmos in Brooklyn, N.Y.
As Blake celebrates his first professional hat trick, his first of any type since his days in the youth system of two-time European champion Nottingham Forest, he’s grateful for the teammate who endured high-impact soccer to set him up.
“If it wasn’t for Derek’s hard work in the first place,” he said, “I wouldn’t have had the opportunity.”
Hard work, plus some pain and suffering.
And by now, Gebhard is used to it.
On 45 occasions in 1,167 minutes this year - every 25 minutes and 56 seconds on the soccer field - somebody has been whistled for kicking, pushing, tripping, holding, elbowing or otherwise fouling the 21-year-old forward.
“People try to get anything they can on the ball, so sometimes they foul me,” Gebhard said. “I’m not the heaviest either, so it doesn’t take too much to get me on the ground.”
That happened four times last week in Indianapolis. Twice, Gebhard was downed around the box, first by a blatant trip from Indy’s Kwame Watson-Siriboe and then a sliding lunge from Justin Braun.
“You get free kicks, it means you’re on the ascendancy, you’re putting the other team under pressure,” Armada coach Mark Lowry said. “Getting two free kicks on the edge of the 18 [yard box] shows how much attacking we did.”
Both times, Blake provided the punishment.
“On the first free kick, I thought [Indy goalkeeper Jon Busch] was slightly over to the side, so that kind of made my decision to go to that side,” Blake said. “On the second one, the wall was slightly off, so I thought I could whip it around.”
The last NASL player to score two free kicks in a game stands on the opposite side Sunday. That’s New York’s Juan Arango, the 2016 league MVP who achieved the feat against Jacksonville last September and returned to the Cosmos last month.
To win in New York for the first time ever, Lowry believes his team must prepare for a shootout.
“I think in this league, when you go away from home, you have to score three goals if you want to win,” Lowry said.
At this rate, some of those may well come from dead balls. Between Blake’s goals last week and Tony Taylor’s strike against Puerto Rico, the Armada has now scored three free kicks in three games. Repeat that effort, and they could leap above the Cosmos, the 2015 and 2016 NASL champions, in the combined standings.
“To have guys like Tony, Jack and Mechack [Jerome] with the ability to score directly, it’s a great bonus for us,” Lowry said. “It gives us another weapon.”