STUDLEY’S push for a top-three finish in the Midland Combination Premier has been boosted by the return to action of defender Ryan Gardner.

The centre-back returned to training after a lengthy injury absence, which has seen him play only eight times all season.

With the Bees in the middle of a hectic end to the campaign, they need as many players as possible available.

Studley had a free weekend as they were supposed to be playing Castle Vale JKS, who resigned from the league last month, and the league were unable to reorganise one of their midweek fixtures.

Like many teams in the league, the Bees face a fixture pile-up because of the wettest winter on record.

Studley have nine games to play before Tuesday, April 29, when they wrap up the season at fifth-placed Atherstone.

Manager Paul Smith said: “The big problem we are having is that players are not available for midweek games.

“We’ve had so many matches called off, so games they originally would have been available for they can no longer make.

“I was frustrated we couldn’t find someone to play on Saturday; we’ve got so many matches to play in so little time.”

Smith admits that Studley’s title hopes are all but finished after two draws and a defeat in their last three matches.

Late goals denied the Warwickshire-based outfit a winner against leaders Brocton, while they drew with Earlswood and were edged out 2-1 by Lichfield.

But Smith believes a strong end to the season could see them grab third place.

Brocton remain on course for the title, while in-form Bromsgrove Sporting are building up a healthy cushion in second.

“The title is not out of the question mathematically, but we are out of the running for that now,” commented the manager.

“But I think we can push on and finish third, like I did last season with Earlswood.

“That would be a good end to the season and give us some momentum for next year.

“Teams have raised their game against Studley because we were relegated from the Midland Alliance.

“But if we can end the season strongly it will have been a successful campaign.”

Studley, who played Coventry Copsewood in the league last night, face fourth-placed Bolehall Swifts at home on Saturday (3pm).

They then face a short trip to the Victoria Ground to tackle high-flying Bromsgrove a week later.