Sleeping with the fishes

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It’s a bit tricky being in a Cup competition where you can only play away from home, and a long way from home at that, but that is the price being paid by St Peter FC of Jersey to enter the Kent Senior Trophy. St Peter, (not St Peter’s) play in the Jersey Football Combination, where they sit second in the table behind St Paul’s (not St Paul). Man, it must be a bundle of fun there correcting typos. 

Up to now their trips to Kent have stood them in good stead as they have reached the Quarter Finals of the competition. Their reward is a trip to leafy Royal Tunbridge Wells, the kind of town where they will probably recognise some of the people who make offshore “business trips” to their sunny and fiscally relaxed home island.

Tunbridge Wells is no hotbed of football, sitting in the lower reaches of the SCEFL with just 4 home league points to show for 6 months work. The Wells do have Cup pedigree in the recent past, enjoying the dream of any club below the Premier League Top Six, with a run to a Wembley Final in 2013 in the F.A. Vase. Although they lost 2-1 to Spennymoor Town it was a day enjoyed by 12,000 Tunbridge Wells supporters. But, as is usually the way, without sustained success most have long since drifted away, the half and half scarves long consigned to the bin after they were used to mop up something unmentionable left next to the Aga by Benson the labrador.

Before I am accused of lazy stereotypes, it is worth pointing out that during a lull in the second half I learned a lot from the chaps next to me on the relative merits of a cycle tour of Rome rather than Florence, because of the greater authenticity and age of the remains you could see there, and why St. Moritz is superior to Chamonix. I kid you not, but moving on…..

Their ground, the Culverden Stadium, is on a hill in what seems to be a rhododendron plantation. You arrive at the top of a slim concrete terrace which would not have looked out of place as a sliver of Charlton’s old concrete bowl at The Valley. There is long covered seating on one side, with the coaching facilities and some random scaffolding on the other. I have no idea what is at the far end of the ground because I couldn’t face the mountaineering involved in getting down there and back, and as far as I could see nor could anyone else. It drifts off into the Kent countryside somewhere.

There is a spacious, functional clubhouse, a regulation mobile burger van, and a bus shelter where the programme seller was quietly succumbing to hypothermia. Everywhere seemed to have been given a good lick of paint, so some of the Cup winnings trickled down to where it is best spent, rather than just a one season splurge on player’s wages. The pitch inevitably suffers because the water from the hillside drains through it, but a dry winter has kept it glue-free, if very bumpy.

The attendance last week at over 500 seemed to have been puffed up by more than a few school-kid freebies, as there were fewer watching this week, but the remaining hard core were noisy and engaged in the game. The match kicked off at 2pm, to allow the Jersey Boys time to fly home afterwards in case of extra time on another grey, dreary, dank January day, which proved to be wise. 

Scoring opened after 8 minutes by St Peter, after a poorly defended long throw which flicked off a Wells defender’s head was banged home by Solomon 0-1. The lead seemed to last just a couple of minutes, after a shot was spilled by the St Peter keeper and was knocked in by Humphries, but he was offside. Shortly afterwards it was 1-1, as Pearson slotted home following an excellent break from corner on 12 mins.

The Wells’ problems with set pieces continued as a St Peter free kick on the right was crossed back in from left, and headed sharply home after 24 minutes by Dewhurst. But once again the lead was squandered two minutes later, as a beautiful curler by Carnegie from the edge of the penalty area made it 2-2.

Learning nothing from experience, The Wells then conceded from another set piece, a free kick from right and a stooping low header by Weir. As their manager went nuclear on the touchline, they trailed 2-3 after 33 minutes. Wells adopted a shoot on sight policy to test the St Peter keeper’s handling, which was as dodgy as his hairdo, and St Peter played a neat, attractive short passing game, but it stayed that way to half time.

In the second half both teams compressed the play with a higher line, and the home side had the lion’s share of possession, with two good shots on target and hitting bar with a header on 60 minutes. In gathering gloom, as the home team presumably tried to save money on the early kick off by not turning on the floodlights, Beecroft made it 3-3 with a clean strike from 20yds on 71 minutes. It looked like ending that way, but only a great sliding cover tackle in the six yard box by Mingle on 89 minutes made sure it did, as St Peter made a rare forward foray.

Extra time followed much the same lines, with both teams looking for a winner. and St Peter seeming the perkier of the two. A red card for Spackman of The Wells, for an awful dive-in that took the St Peter no.5 on the upper thigh, made the home side more cautious, and the game petered out (sorry, it had to be done) to the agony of a penalty shoot out.

Common sense prevailed, and the shoot out took place at the terrace end where the fans had gathered, rather than towards the Vale of Anduin at the other end. What followed was an exemplary display of penalty taking, as the players stepped up and whacked it. No namby pamby efforts at slide rule precision or smart arse outwitting the keeper. Just good old fashioned power, 22 times. A team I’m very familiar with 4 miles north would be well advised to try it. 

Those still with me will note that 22 penalties were hit hard and strong – unfortunately for Jake Humphries, number 22, and his second effort of the shoot out, went the wrong side of the crossbar, and St Peter won 11-10. The fine margin of victory reflecting the match itself.

St Peter enjoyed their moment and took the warm congratulations from the home spectators. They could’ve won in extra time with a bit more belief, and will be tough to beat in the semi final. For Tunbridge Wells, they paid for awful defending from set pieces in the first half, and not making possession pay in second half. It was excellent entertainment for the neutral and I doubt either the home or away fans had much complaint, as they meandered back out through the Himalayan flora to the coffee bars and snugs of Royal Tunbridge Wells.

Walk off music:

 

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