11th May 2019.
There are 85 minutes on the clock in the “Super Play Off Final”.
Tonbridge Angels are 2-1 down at Imber Court against the Metropolitan Police, and five minutes away from impending defeat. It would be a result which could well end the tenure of manager Steve McKimm at Tonbridge, and inevitably disperse the squad.
With preparation for 2019/20 looking like starting with no sponsor, no manager, and few if any players, the Angels are five minutes away from a troubled and troubling summer.
D’Sean Theobalds takes up the ball in the Met Police half, and decides it’s time to have a run with it, and see where it ends….
Turn the clock back to August 2018, and the backdrop to the start of the 2018/19 season for Tonbridge Angels was also one of drama, behind the scenes. The reason for the sudden departure of the Finance Director earlier in the year had finally manifested itself in the words a fan dreads hearing – an unpaid bill from HMRC.
The first impact was an embargo on signing new players, just when you least want it, immediately before the start of the season. As a community club, with no deep-pocketed backers, it required swift, unselfish action by the Chairman to settle the bill, and it also resulted in the manager having to open his campaign with a small but high quality squad.
The eye catching signings already in place were central defender Arthur Lee, the first player for which the club paid a fee for many years, prolific striker Alex Read (although blessed with an on-field attitude which would have made Carl Rook seem like a court jester), and attacking midfielder Jared Small. Beyond that were mostly familiar, reliable names and faces from the previous season, providing good continuity, plus two successful triallists.
The match day team was generally going to be a strong first eleven, with a couple of experienced subs, and a couple of youngsters. But with no strength in depth, and no money in the bank, these players were going to be playing an awful lot of football over the next nine months.
Tonbridge fans were familiar with their manager, Steve McKimm, starting a new season with a new formation, and so it proved again in August 2018. Fortunately it was not the diamond of 2017, which baffled fans and players alike, but it was an equally unusual “one up front”. Unusual at this level because it is a tough ask for the lone striker, but maybe Alex Read was up to it. The general view of the terrace experts was that it was risky, and we were likely to see a lot of low scoring games.
To an extent they were right, but for a different reason. Read did struggle to impose himself as a lone striker, but at the other end of the pitch the back five gelled very quickly into an extremely tough defensive unit, which provided the platform for an outstanding start to the season. Six wins and a draw in the first seven league matches, conceding just one goal, plus three wins in cup games including two more clean sheets, set a high benchmark towards the end of September.
Play-off potential and, whisper it quietly, automatic promotion seemed a real possibility. There were no obvious “money bags” teams like Billericay and Dulwich to distort the league this season. Kingstonian’s signings suggested they had the biggest budget, but they made a complete pig’s ear of their entire season, while Enfield splurged money on Billy Bricknell but seemingly nothing to back him up. The relegated sides from the National South struggled to adapt, so it was left to relative newcomers like Dorking, bankrolled by Surrey FA, and Haringey with a wealthy backer dishing out free season tickets to anyone who wanted one, to help set the pace.
Of course, Tonbridge were never going to continue in the same vein all season, but nobody could have foreseen the way it was going to start to unravel in a big way, through November and December 2018.
From a total of twelve league and cup matches from 7th November 2018 to 5th January 2019, the Angels won just one. Ironically that was a smash & grab win at the increasingly impressive Dorking. However, the run had put the skids under the season, as the Club fell out of the play-off places, having also made their customary early exits from the meaningful cup competitions.
The reasons were two-fold. Firstly, the lone striker tactic had been worked out by opposing managers, who shut it down to the extent that one run of six matches during this period yielded just two goals. Secondly, the defence was disrupted by suspensions to James Folkes and, more significantly, a long term injury to Jack Parter. This was where the lack of strength in depth began to hurt Tonbridge, as defensive replacements off the bench or on loan were not of the same quality, and the alternative of moving someone else into the defence from midfield just left that area similarly weakened.
A campaign which had seemed so promising was starting to look like it had run out of steam, and out of ideas by Christmas. Steve McKimm stuck to his lone gunslinger up front for too long. By the end of December 2018 the fans were starting to get restless at the awful run of results, and it was also clear that McKimm was considering his future at the club.
2-0 down at home at half time against Brightlinsea Regent on 5th January 2019, and it looked as if the game was up. Although urged by his Chairman, players and family not to quit, I believe that at that point the manager was rehearsing his farewell speech.
However, just in time, in the second half the team finally clicked on the pitch for the first time in ages, goals from Parkinson and Read pulled it back to 2-2, and there was a stay of execution.
Another significant development that day was that it marked the signing of Chinedu McKenzie up front. A more mercurial talent than the doughty Read, with an infectious enthusiasm, Chinny’s arrival also seemed to mark a change in mood, as well as options to play more than one striker. Liam King had done his best as an alternative option to Read, but was playing well above his true level. D’Sean Theobalds had also joined a week earlier, to add to the skill and share the workload in midfield. This would take a weight off the outstanding Joe Turner, who seemed to be carrying the team’s offensive threat single handed for long periods of time during matches. Adem Ramadan was also starting to keep the injury prone Jared Small out of the team.
To everyone’s relief a corner was turned. Twelve goals were scored in five matches in January 2019, and play-off hopes were re-ignited. Parter returned to the defence, taking pressure off Sonny Miles and Arthur Lee in the centre, and Jonny Henly continued to show why he was one of the top goalkeepers in the League. In eleven games, from 9th February to 30th March 2019 only five goals were conceded. Conventional wisdom, that successful campaigns are built on solid defences, was once again being borne out.
However, this was Tonbridge Angels, so the drama was far from over. Influential captain and midfield lynchpin Tom Parkinson suffered a serious ankle injury which ended his season. The experienced Tom Beere took his place, alongside the fast improving Theobalds. However, the team had also lost the midfield and defensive skills of Craig Stone to hernia surgery, and a subsequent loan to Grays to rebuild his fitness. Also, Joe Turner played from January with a hernia which caused him increasing pain as matches went on.
As the run-in to the end of the season commenced, Dorking pulled away from the pack to bag the title and automatic promotion. Haringey were well set in second place, and a gaggle of about ten clubs all had a reasonable chance of taking one of the three remaining play-off places.
Through April 2019 the Angels spluttered towards the line, eventually doing enough to bag one of the play-off places with a draw at Worthing and a win against Carshalton. The final game of the season offered the chance to secure a home play-off semi final, but a poor performance on a horrible pitch at Potters Bar saw Tonbridge lose both the game, and Tom Beere to ruptured knee ligaments. The Angels – never ones to take the easy path.
The upshot was a play-off semi final on a plastic pitch at Haringey. They had looked comfortable in second place for some time, but ended the season on a poor run, which gave the Angels some hope on a surface they disliked, where they had lost 4-0 earlier in the season. The trip to White Hart Lane, for that is where the Borough play, also gave Angels fans a chance to pop round the corner to see Spurs’ recently finished new ground. To the writer it looked like a soulless stainless steel shopping centre, plonked in a residential area, which the local residents could admire from close up, but not afford to go to. Everything which is wrong with modern football.
At the other end of the scale, Haringey’s ground also reflects modern, city based non-league football. A plastic pitch surrounded on three sides with 20ft high catch fencing, one stand on the fourth side, and no raised terracing behind the goals to aid anyone more than one row back to see what was going on. A local football facility, rather than a thriving community hub.
On the night, heavy rain before the game gave the plastic a slick surface which played evenly, very much to the Angels’ advantage in the first half. In January, Ramadan had scored a 90th minute screamer to take three valuable points off Haringey at Longmead, and in the first half he repeated the trick to give the Angels the lead, which McKenzie added to, for a deserved half time 2-0 advantage. The second half saw the expected Haringey onslaught, but a well organised Angels team, bolstered by the return of a fit and in form Craig Stone, held on for a solid 2-1 win.
On to a home Play-Off Final against surprise package, Merstham. Tonbridge had opened the season with an easy 3-0 away win against the Surrey village team, but lost the return 1-0 at home, with the dangerous Figueira scoring for Merstham. However, back at home on their outstanding, award winning grass pitch, the Angels were never really troubled, winning 2-0 with another McKenzie goal and a late Turner penalty.
That was it, a bumper crowd of over 2,300 saw Tonbridge Angels crowned Bostik Isthmian Premier League Play-Off Champions. Home and hosed. Job done – National League South here we come!
But no, thanks to The FA, that was not it. Having decided to split a league restructure across two seasons, there were not enough promotion slots to go round, so another “Super Play-Off Final” was required against the Southern League Play-Off winners, the Metropolitan Police.
Absurd though it was, at least it was less ludicrous than the Points per Game solution adopted for the Step below, where some teams went in to the play-offs knowing that they could not be promoted even if they won them. At one point, two teams in Yorkshire went into a final knowing they had been denied promotion, because of a win by Horsham in a completely unrelated league 200 miles to the South!
So battle weary troops on both sides gathered at Imber Court in leafy Esher, Surrey for the final final. The Met Police barely muster 100 home fans for their regular games, so even with family, friends, hangers on and train spotters (sorry, Groundhoppers), Tonbridge fans made up a large majority of the 1250 crowd, giving it the feel of a home game.
It turned out to be a very entertaining match which had pretty much everything – excellent goals, late drama, and extra time, and a very good referee who let the game flow. But, thank the Lord, no penalty shootout.
Tonbridge had yet another defensive reshuffle as Sonny Miles had been sent off in the game against Merstham, picking up a three match ban, which meant that the “golden defence” was disrupted at just the wrong moment. With no Parkinson and no Beere, Steve McKimm could not afford to drop Craig Stone out of midfield so drafted in Michael Kamara from Woking for the match. It proved to be an excellent choice as he slotted in seamlessly. However, the Met Police rather appropriately had a successful shoot on sight policy, which put them 1-0 up at half time, and largely in control.
The Angels fought back well, and equalised on 52 minutes, through the rather unlikely sight of Arthur Lee firing home a direct free kick. However, the Plod were back in front five minutes later. Tonbridge dominated possession but could not make it pay, with McKenzie in particular having an off day. So, with five minutes left on the clock D’Sean Theobalds took up the ball in the Met Police half, and decided it was time to have a run with it, and see where it ended. The result was “goal of the season” quality – past four or five Met Police players, and slotted home through the keeper’s legs. It was 2-2, extra time to be played, and the momentum with Tonbridge.
Urged forward by the noisy Tonbridge fans, it was up to a couple of players who had been peripheral for the rest of the play-offs to bring home the bacon. Alex Read had been sidelined (literally!) due to tight hamstrings, and had spent the whole match urging the team on from the touch line, especially pleading with substitute Jared Small to take on his defenders on the outside. On 97 minutes Small finally did so, and curled an exquisite cross towards Tom Derry at the far post. Derry had joined the Club late in the season, his wages funded by a small group of fans, and their investment was about to pay off handsomely, as he drifted off his marker and nodded the ball home: 3-2. Not quite game over on the clock, but Tonbridge killed the last twenty minutes successfully, and this time that really was it.
The fans had witnessed the quintessential Tonbridge Angels win.
Nothing fancy – 6/10 or 7/10 across the piece, with one player taking the lead. That day, for me, it was Craig Stone. On another it may have been Theobalds or Turner, Parter or Lee. The rest did their job. The subs did not sulk – they prowled the touchlines in the guise of warming up, cajoling, coaxing and coaching. Parkinson and Miles could not take part, so joined the fans behind the goal. It was a complete team performance – the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Cue a delerious Tonbridge Angels pitch invasion – they had been Five Minutes from Meltdown, and were now Super Play Off Final Winners, and promoted to the National League South.
Such are the fine margins in football – don’t take your eyes off the dials because it can all change in a second.