Who will buy?

It’s Saturday morning and I’ve swept the local football offerings available to clear my head, after catching up with old colleagues in the pub for a bit too long on Friday. I’ve opted for the opening day of the Isthmian League season at South East Division Cray Valley Paper Mills, who played at Wembley in the FA Vase Final last year, where they came a close second, and also achieved promotion as Champions of the SCEFL.

I paid them a visit in Quarter Finals of the Vase and had an excellent afternoon out, and if nothing else it would be worth going back just to see if the five staff in the slowest tea bar I’ve ever experienced could serve more than four teas during a fifteen minute half time break. This is what we live for in non league football.

There were a few changes in Cray’s personnel from last season, with among others old boys Kevin Lisbie and Paul Semakula not present, but an equally old boy, Andy Walker, was still between the sticks a few weeks shy of his 38th birthday. As captain, he also managed to keep up a remarkable barrage of noisy coaching from the back throughout the 90 minutes.

It was also a chance to eye up their opponents Hastings United, who have been bafflingly becalmed in the lower reaches of the Isthmian League for a couple of seasons. They were fielding a couple of familiar names from Tonbridge – Craig Stone & Gary Elphick – and others with higher level experience such as Ben Pope, Sam Beale and Jack Dixon. In the parlance, they would provide a stern test for the new boys.

These are also the kind of teams that Tonbridge Angels routinely get drawn against and lose to in the FA Cup, so this could double up as a scouting mission.

The afternoon came, blown in on the tail end of another seasonal gale, and I set the sat nav for the Paper Mills of the Cray Valley. Actually, don’t do that, because if you do, you’ll end up driving around a cardboard new build housing estate, erected on the derelict brown field site where the Paper Mills once stood, with such delightful names as Cadmium Drive and Red Lead Avenue. Instead the team now plays a few miles away, at a community sports club squished between the beauty of the Courtauld family’s stunning Art Deco restoration of Henry VIII’s Eltham Palace (do go there, it’s fabulous), and the horrors of the South Circular (avoid like the plague).

Having picked my way around a spectacular amount of fly tipping for such a residential area, probably a product of the gentrification of nearby Lewisham, the clubhouse was friendly and welcoming. Outside, the pitch was green and pleasant, and the weather turned warm and sunny, with an occasional gusty breeze to blow away my cobwebs.

The crowds which had followed The Millers to Wembley had inevitably dissolved into the ether, but a reasonable smattering of away fans had foresaken the pebbles at Hastings for the day, bringing the gate to 150. I expect the club were hoping for more, given the ploy of sending doe-eyed urchins in torn clothing and bare feet around the ground in the second half, pleading with you to buy one of their excess programmes, so they could put food on the table next week.

The match itself was excellent entertainment for the neutral. Hastings set themselves up to play a patient passing game, with their management team exhorting them to relax on the ball, and “why on Earth are we crossing the ball from there?”. They also benefitted from a threatening long throw merchant in Ollie Black. Cray’s approach was to hustle Hastings at every opportunity, and to go long when in possession to bypass the midfield. This brought the experienced Babaloa and pacy Edgar in to play, plus their most creative outlet Denzel Gayle picking up the knock downs.

Hastings bossed the opening stages and in the first 20 minutes created a number of chances, which Pope was unable to capitalise on. Cray then steadily gained more possession as they closed down and shut off the visitor’s passing game. With a chance from a corner cleared off the Hastings line, and a swirling long range shot tipped over their bar, Hastings were probably happy to hear the half time whistle at 0-0.

So, to the tea bar challenge. There were three people in front of me and one person serving, which suggested I might miss the start of the second half of next week’s game based on past experience. However, the lovely lady serving today was clearly aware that the sight of a gaggle of middle aged men staring at her with their tongues hanging out did not mean that they should be ignored because they were a bunch of old pervs, but that what they were actually gagging for was nothing more than a cup of tea, so all was well, and there was time to kill before the game resumed.

The second half was a mirror image of the first, with Hastings coming out strong and passing well, only for Cray to once again squeeze the life out of them and dominate possession. The home team tested the Hastings keeper on a number of occasions, and it opened up perfectly around the 75th minute when a tremendous long shot crashed onto the crossbar and dropped ideally for an unmarked player in the box, but he blasted the rebound against the post and away it went, staying 0-0.

As so often happens Hastings then had a last gasp chance. A break down the right, the perfect height cross to the striker, whose bullet close range header couldn’t have been better. Walker was intuitively stretching to his right, but somehow stuck up his left arm not only to save the shot, but to turn it over the bar. It was an exceptional save.

The game ended 0-0, and Cray would be the more disappointed of the two with the result. A word also for the referee, who let the lively game flow superbly. He didn’t get it all right, as the ever enthusiastic Mrs Stone was often loudly heard to say, but he was even-handed and played his part in the quality of entertainment for the fans.

As a newly promoted side Cray looked comfortable, but as a promotion hunting side Hastings looked in need of more of a cutting edge, and an oxygen tank for Elphick after 60 minutes. As a neutral I watched an entertaining game of football, and would urge the good people of Eltham to get out of their houses, pick their way through the plasterboard and paint tins, and go to see the Millers on a Saturday. They’ll have a good afternoon out.

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The Joker

Match Day Four, and with three of their four opening National League games against teams in outstanding early form, the Angels may have been hoping for a breather. But there was no obvious respite in sight in their fiery baptism in the National League South, which continued against Canvey Island’s finest, Concord Rangers.

There had been been plenty of fight in the Angels’ team in the first three games, a bit too much for two of the frankly awful referees encountered thus far, but as long as they kept their heads there were some promising signs in the squad, which looked fit and together. A good omen was that in times gone by Tuesday nights under the lights at Longmead had often been electric for the Angels, and this occasion was once again to provide pure theatre.

Unsurprisingly, many away fans hadn’t travelled because the Dartford Crossing at rush hour is a better barrier to North/South migration than anything Donald Trump could devise, but the locals turned out in good numbers. They also were in strong voice with throats rested, having not been allowed to make any noise at Dorking Library on the previous Saturday, for fear of Lurch in a hi-viz hauling them out on the walk of shame, past disapproving duffers in Surrey FA blazers.

On and off the pitch there were echoes of the glory nights under Tommy Warrilow. Behind the goal the crowd was bouncing. Baby Faced Joe was back, still needing ID to buy a Lucozade let alone a lager, Peaky Blinder Baker was creating ludicrously complicated songs for the substitutes, and the drum was being thumped out of time to some completely different tune. On the pitch, the good old days were evoked by Sonny Miles hoofing the ball into the stratosphere like a youthful 19 year old, and the light bouncing off the balding bonce of Hession-Harris as he twinkled down the wing like a reincarnation of Kirk Watts. Ah, happy days!

The first half was very even, and slightly cagey, but there was nothing to suggest that Concord were top of the table, and Tonbridge at the foot. Concord had come to play football, which was a refreshing change from the murder-ball approach adopted by Dulwich at the Angels first home game and, joy of joys, the referee let the game flow. Tonbridge carved out two clear chances, with Turner forcing a very good save from the keeper with a diving header early on, and Hession-Harris smacking the bar after a kerfuffle from a corner.

Concord were the more composed team on the ball, but the return of Miles and moving Bentley to right back gave much greater solidity to the Angels defence. The problem for the Angels was that the favoured 4-5-1 formation resulted in the ball constantly being hit long towards Derry, and just coming straight back. This lack of ball retention meant that meaningful pass and move by the home side to test the Concord defence was rare.

0-0 at half time was about right, and the home team will have been happiest with it.

The second half followed a similar pattern, but as Tonbridge relaxed and became more confident in their passing they began to dominate the game. The home crowd became noisier, and the pressure grew. However, the Angels’ achilles heel up front continued to dog their efforts. Having been outscored by midfielder Turner last season, there is yet to be any indication that the strikers will be faring any better this season. McKenzie came on for Derry and offered more movement, but once his chance came he, too, whacked the crossbar instead of the back of the net. Miles almost squeezed in a back post header, but as the clock ticked down and the volume turned up, a 0-0 draw looked likely.

Joel Nouble had been the most impressive outfield player in terms of control and movement, but as in his two appearances for Haringey against the Angels last season, there was no end product. One thing he delivered in numbers last season was penalties, and there was a heart in mouth moment for the home team when he fell under a challenge in the box. The referee immediately reached for a card….but it was for Nouble, for diving. A photo later suggested that the Angels had just had the bit of luck they needed to kick start their season. Aside from this there was little trouble for the 17 year old stand-in home goalkeeper, Myles Roberts, who looked solid enough for what he had to do.

The Angels continued to press on and show the desire to unlock the puzzle of how to bag their first win of the season, and in the 89th minute they played their Joker. The Parter/Turner combo had been one of the best Tonbridge outlets last season, and they linked up again to seize the three points in this match, albeit in an unexpected way. Following an attack, left back Parter stayed forward and, however unlikely, was perfectly positioned at the near post to flick a Turner cross into the back of the net. I’ve no idea when he last scored with a header, but I doubt it was as valuable as this ball skidding off his hair gel.

Cue mayhem on and off the pitch, as all the pent up emotion of players and fans burst forth. The Angels eased through the four minutes added time, and the first points of the National South season were in the bag. It was a deserved win. Maybe Concord had been a little complacent after their strong start to the season, but they had no argument with the result.

Tonbridge’s reward for beating the table toppers is to line up on Saturday at Bath – who are the new table toppers. It’s almost like a video game where your reward for going up a level is having to start all over again, against a bigger, badder beast. Having seen this result I doubt Bath will be complacent, and as they are a team that builds their success on a mean defence, it would be a really welcome day for the Tonbridge strike force to take whatever meagre chances come their way.

In the meantime, the whole team can justifiably bask in the warm glow of a job well done.

Spice up my life

After the hurly burly of the opening match at home to Dulwich on Saturday, on Tuesday evening Tonbridge Angels headed off to the seaside for the first away game of the season.

The venue was the Langney Sports Club, home of Eastbourne Borough, a steady stalwart of the National South for a number of years, although flirting increasingly closely with relegation for the past three years. This season they had the toughest possible opening game away at Billericay, and put up a good show, falling at the last gasp to a 1-0 defeat, which maybe gave Tonbridge a sniff of a chance, even on an accursed plastic pitch.

For Tonbridge fans, the position between the sticks was the main concern, with Jonny Henly both injured and sent off against Dulwich. Ironically Tom Hadler, one of the better keepers to pass through Longmead in recent times before Henly, was in goal for Eastbourne. Regular ground hopping goalie Derren Ibrahim used before by manager Steve McKimm wasn’t available so he brought in Myles Roberts on loan. No, I’ve no idea who he is either.

The location itself is a decent out of town Sports Club, next to a sprawling housing estate bereft of any features such as shops or pubs. In fact it is probably nearer to Pevensey than Eastbourne. This is the location where William the Conqueror landed in 1066 to change the course of British history. Having seen what the developers have done to the area, if he landed today he’d probably turn back to Le Touquet, his speech littered with merde, sacre bleu, and ou est le vin. A bit like the Tonbridge fans heading back to civilisation at the end of the match.

The game had an even start on a lovely summer evening, until Eastbourne were gifted a goal on 14 minutes. One of Steve McKimm’s most successful signings at Longmead, Nick Wheeler, lined up against the Angels, and duly ran the first half, before being subbed at half time to comb his hair. He was allowed to wriggle free, cut into the penalty and shot across/straight through the cover keeper. 1-0.

Tonbridge reverted to their familiar cross field passing routine, but their ball retention was poor on the artificial surface, which as usual had all the adhesive properties of a freshly polished school gym floor. As a result the rest of the first half managed something rare in non league football – it was boring. Eastbourne snuffed out the Tonbridge wingers who managed zero crosses, with no shots on target from any Angels players. Eastbourne then strolled through the Angels’ defence on 44 minutes, to set a 2-0 advantage at half time. They were decisive and incisive when they got themselves together; Tonbridge were not.

The Angels looked perkier in the second half, and after fifteen minutes the chance they needed was worked from a break away. Theobalds went through one on one with Hadler, in a similar position to Wheeler in the first half, on the apex of the penalty area. The difference between the two sides was encapsulated in the seconds it took him to miss the target completely, compared to Wheeler’s composed finish.

Eastbourne took the scare to heart and decided to sit back and consolidate on their lead. This gave Tonbridge the opportunity to move forward more, and finally get crosses in to the box. But there was no end product from the loopy, hanging crosses. A generous away fan would say there was one shot on target, and a late chance for Read who didn’t seem to really gamble to get on the end of it.

In the end the best fun was the rather needy Eastbourne announcer having a strop, because he couldn’t see the numbers on the substitute boards, which he managed to chunter on about loudly for about five minutes. Instead of just reading the bloody great big numbers on their shirts.

In the end the 2-0 result was fair and comfortable for Eastbourne. For Tonbridge, having suffered at the brute force of Dulwich and ignorance of the referee on Saturday, this time they were shown up in speed of thought and movement.

Ultimately the Angels had no “presence”. They were a bowl of rice, when what you wanted on your plate was a bit of spice, a jalfrezi or rogan josh. The Tonbridge head chef needs to get into the kitchen and mix up the recipe, and before long decide whether he has the ingredients he needs on the shelf, or if he needs to go shopping. With Dorking and Concord to come in the next two games, the cupboard could be looking bare sooner rather than later.

Shameless

The new National South football season started on a lovely warm day, with a large, genial crowd, and decent opposition in Dulwich Hamlet for Tonbridge Angels to benchmark themselves against. As the teams walked out the first, and most obvious, difference was apparent in their physique. This was a National South side against an Isthmian side.

Last season, Torquay weren’t the first to realise how best to get out of this league, but they set the template in stone – ditch most of the skilled ballers and bring in a bunch of oversized lumps who can hoik it in roughly the right direction of the one or two with some touch. Then bully their way out. It worked for them, so of course everyone else with those aspirations and sufficient funds has followed suit. Dulwich’s team was mostly huge, and mostly disappointingly limited in skill given the wages they must be pulling in, but smart in conning the junior referees who cut their teeth at this level, and who often determine the result along with their deaf mute assistants.

Tonbridge were cautious for much of the first half. Even when gifted 10 v 11 after 13 minutes for a silly pull down by a Hamlet defender, they didn’t go two up front and drive home a potential early advantage, against a team still learning to play together. Safety first, one up front, stayed in place and was punished as the most shameless lump on the pitch, David Ijaha, was left unmarked to head home at a corner.

Tonbridge looked rather lost for the rest of the first half, while the signs of what was to come were apparent when a Hamlet scaffold pole threw himself to the ground in the Tonbridge penalty area. The ref rightly gave the free kick for simulation, but no yellow card. Dulwich twigged that it was open season to use their experience at this level to manipulate this wimp with the whistle, and so it began. With their size they looked threatening at every set piece, and the skilful Clunis probed and tested Jack Parter well. However, it remained 1-0 at half time.

The second half started evenly, but the game came alive following another piece of dubious refereeing. The Tonbridge keeper Henly had injured his shoulder early in the first half, but with no sub keeper on the bench he had to stay on. Indecision because of his injury on whether to catch or punch a cross resulted in a half hearted flap, and as he went for the rebound he brought down a Dulwich player. Clear penalty and, under the current laws of the game, a yellow card, because he was trying to play the ball, but the wimpy whistle wallah wilted and sent him off.

The upshot was defender Jay Folkes in goal, a penalty stroked home for a 2-0 Dulwich lead, and a barrel full of problems for Tonbridge. Except that rather helpfully Dulwich decided to stick, and sit back on their 2-0 advantage. Tonbridge sensed their opportunity, woke up, and the game came alive. I don’t know if the one up front formation was formally abandoned, or if the Angels players just took it in their hands and decided to go for it, but for half an hour they looked like last year’s team. Turner scored a penalty after a bout of all-in wrestling, and they hit the post twice, while Folkes never had his gloves dirtied by the Dulwich strikers. However, Hamlet held on, although Tonbridge more than matched them when they applied heavy pressure, and the game turned in to a noisily supported, rollicking good spectacle.

As the last bus prepared to pull out of town, time was finally called at 2-1 to Dulwich, not long after the boorish Ijaha had treated the home fans to an obscene gesture, which summed him up perfectly. What a role model for the self styled team of the people to have as their captain. However, the fact was that two goals was too much for Tonbridge to pull back over the 103 minutes played.

Yes, 103 minutes. Joking aside, because we all like a little dig at the oppos, don’t we, this is where my beef about the shameless Hamlet players feigning injury and the dismal refereeing comes in. None of the Dulwich fans at the game said it didn’t happen – they all just said it was what you do in this league. For fuck’s sake, 13 minutes of added time across the game, for a few subs and one injured goalie. Neither red card was greeted with much complaint. No Air Ambulance, no stretcher, no VAR reviews, not even so much as a magic sponge. It was just grown men rolling about like a bunch of complete tits, and the biggest tit of all letting them do it, as they ran back on the pitch like rhinos on speed. Yes, of course it happens to some extent in every game, but this was extreme.

The referee acknowledged some of the time wasted, and should have added more, but was way too much of a wet blanket to stop the behaviour. And this is why it happens – because the joker with the whistle allows it to. Happy to step in on the penalty decisions, the money shots for his assessor, but wet behind the ears when it comes to gamesmanship and the dark arts. Welcome to the National League South. Leave your sense of shame at the door.

Looking at the teams themselves, at one end Tonbridge finished on a high, which bodes well if they can keep it up across the whole 90 minutes. The spirit is there, but the manager needs to be bolder when an opportunity presents itself – there’s no room for faint hearts in this league. They also badly need a reliable goal scorer, which they do not have at present, and to bulk up their physical presence.

At the other end, Dulwich did what they felt they had to do, and did it well. They are very well supported, well funded, know what they want, and have a shameless disregard for how they go about it, or what everyone else thinks of them. This is no Sandinista – it is Boris Johnson embodied in a football team.

Good luck to them. They are not going to remain everyone’s favourite funky boho underdog on the next step of their journey. But having left their shame at the door, they clearly don’t give a toot – a club for our times. It’ll be interesting to see how far Tonbridge feel the need to follow.

The Real Thing

At last, it’s nearly here – 3rd August, my brother’s birthday, and the nations’s favourite winter sport is back, two days after the start of the 2019 Ashes Test Match series. How did we survive so long without it? Ok, there’s been the Women’s World Cup to watch, but we all know that there’s only so much Diet Coke you can drink before you need the taste of the Real Thing.

Longmead Stadium in Tonbridge looks sparkling, spruced up by the club’s trusty volunteers, including Steve McKimm sporting a suspiciously pristine pair of gardening gloves. There’s a shiny new Vanarama sign at the entrance proclaiming the Angels’ return to the National League South, the paintwork is gleaming, the paths are weed free and, as ever, there’s nothing about the clubhouse that wouldn’t be improved by a lick of petrol.

The pitch, too, looks glorious. Groundsman Peter Elves has spent the entire summer cutting each blade of grass to the same length with nail scissors. He will now spend the next nine months weeping, as a bunch of oiks ruin it by running round and kicking a football on it.

Pre-season was a bit duff. I only saw the final game against Merstonian, and if the Angels carry that form into the season itself, it’s going to be a long one. A couple of early confidence boosting wins look necessary, to convince them that they belong at a higher level, or it’ll just be a mad scrap to finish third from bottom.

The game itself was overshadowed by the sad loss earlier in the week of 26 year old ex-Angel Charlie Slocombe. Another young man dying on a football pitch, apparently of sudden heart failure. Wouldn’t it be great if a new government used the small change found down the back of the Downing Street sofa to pay for the heart testing of all young sports men and women, instead of spaffing it up the wall on their own ego inflating vanity projects which are forgotten about five minutes later? I know – dream on, you silly old fool.

The good news is that the crowd should be a handy one for this season opener. Hopefully a decent number of Dulwich fans will pop over from the Dordogne for the weekend, leaving Jacinta in charge of the yurt, with strict instructions not to smoke all their weed before they arrive back on the TGV on Monday. Equally, the fine people of Trench Wood will be turning out for Tonbridge, trusting Jayden not to have snarfed all their crystal meth and nicked next door’s TV to sell for some more before full time.

On the pitch, the Angels’ team will be a mix of the familiar and the new. Much of the game will be spent hearing “Is that the new bloke?”, “No, it’s Parter with a different haircut”, “Where did that midfielder come from?”, “He’s shit isn’t he”, and “Oh, he’s scored”. Also, no new season would be the same without Steve McKimm having dreamed up some bonkers formation he has to try out, before reverting to 4-4-2 in November. Happy days! Dulwich fans will also no doubt reserve an especially warm welcome for one of their favourite keepers, Jonny “ooh, my back” Henly.

An upside for the home fans is that if the match is boring, they have the makings of a decent walking football team to watch behind the Angels’ goal, with Sonny Miles, Tom Parkinson, Tom Beere and Joe Turner all having some time on their hands for different reasons. Do we have a spare goalie to make it a five a side? No, no, it’s ok Stewart, you can sit down, we’ll find someone.

The Dulwich team has changed and, on paper at least, strengthened from the side that knocked the Angels out of the FA Cup last year, during their relocation to Tooting & Mitcham. Dulwich slowly throttled the life out of that match after the ref sent off Jay Folkes for something he’d “heard him say”, which nobody else was aware of, least of all Folkes. After that it was an uphill struggle for the Angels, and Dulwich held on with some ease.

Maybe the ref had tinnitus from the jangling of money in buckets by some geezers from Deutsche Bank, trying to blag more cash from away fans to foot their relocation costs. On the upside, in case anyone thinks I have some irrational dislike for Dulwich Hamlet – not at all. I’m delighted they are back in Peckham, as I much prefer the cheer of Champion Hill to the badlands of Beddington. It’s easier to get to, has decent pubs nearby, and doesn’t stink of sewage, so it was well worth the three kopeks I chucked into the slush bucket.

The Hamlet fans must be slightly concerned that a pre-season friendly on Monday was called off, because of the injuries sustained in a game on Saturday, so maybe it’s a good time for the Angels to face them. This Saturday’s game also offers a return to Longmead for a long lost Angel, David Ijaha. I wonder if he’s learned to track back in the intervening years? Otherwise the customary niggles, nudges and falling over his gangly legs will presumably be on offer.

One blessing last year, apart from in that Cup tie, was the surprisingly good standard of officials in the Isthmian League, probably aided by the limited trips in the direction of East Anglia. However, we often read about the poor standard in the National League, so it’ll be interesting to see what is served up this season. Hopefully some of the good ones will have been promoted as well.

So, that’s it – after a summer of aimless pre-season friendlies, pointless transfer speculation, holiday heatwave torture with the family, Love Island (oh god, it’s still going) and VAR, the preliminaries are finally over, and it’s time to crack open the new Non League season. Raise that ice cold can to your parched, dry lips and drink in the Real Thing. Whatever happens this season, let’s hope it tastes as good as we remembered from last year.

And even if it doesn’t, at least you’re not drinking an Aperol spritz and watching Megan Rapinoe.

Cheers!!

Louie’s strong arm

It’s the last pre-season friendly for Tonbridge Angels, so it’s about time to take a look at what is on offer for the new season in the National League South. It seems a bit self indulgent to write up a pre-season friendly, but it keeps the brain ticking over.

To set the mood, the last chance to lounge around on the touchline before the real thing, beer in hand, no pressure on the outcome, was of course greeted with typical British summer heatwave weather – pissing down with rain.

The opposition for this kick about was being provided by Merstonian – a new enterprise formed by Merstham donating their players and management team to Kingstonian, in return for respect from the Merstham fans for all Hayden Bird had done for them. Bargain.

Given that they reached the Play Off Final last season, it’ll be a touch embarrassing for the Birdman if they don’t go one better and win promotion this season, with the step up from village football to groundsharing with Corinthian Casuals. They have strikers galore, a surfeit of goalkeepers, and can even afford to employ Dan “Barn Door” Thompson, so must have money to burn.

Umbrella in hand, it’s time to head off to Longmead to see what’s on offer.

The match was prefaced by a sobering minute’s applause for the life of Charlie Slocombe, cruelly cut short at just 26 years old.

To “protect the pitch” the groundsman seems to have left the grass nearly long enough for Theresa May to run through naked, and fortunately nobody would’ve been able to see her. As the rain tipped down towards the end of the first half, it also gave a “Bambi on Ice” element to the proceedings.

Tonbridge fielded a squad which comprised most of last season’s players, plus half a dozen new signings. No household names, just worthy semi-pros who have done the rounds at National League South or Isthmian League. As such I know nothing about any of them, so have no preconceptions.

What followed was a good tempo game between two well matched sides, competitive and combative, with the difference being a master class in positioning, timing and finishing from Louie Theophanus.

The first half included a breakaway goal by Reece Hall, which the home side equalised with a Joe Turner penalty. In the second half the flat footed Tonbridge back four had their offside trap sprung with ease by Theophanus three times in five minutes, which can’t be a good sign for the upcoming season when players of his quality will be lining up against them week in week out. Tonbridge perked up for the last 20 minutes with a neat finish by Harris on 71 minutes, followed by Read with a similarly tidy finish on 80, making the final score 3-4, showing that there’s still plenty of spirit in the side.

The takeaways for me from the new boys were that da Costa impressed, and Brewer looked a solid addition. Of the old boys, Turner was working back to match fitness and looked ok, but I worry that he is playing far too much too soon, for someone returning from hernia surgery. Otherwise it was steady and hard working, but unexciting prep for the new season. The game also showed that the regular Tonbridge forwards have to make a huge step up in finishing quality, as Theophanus illustrated so well.

Kingmerstingham look like they are well equipped for their Isthmian campaign, especially up front, but may be vulnerable at the back.

Pre-season only matters if you don’t learn the lessons from the games, but with head ruling heart, on what I’ve seen today, I’d say a £10 bet on these two teams swapping places at the end of the season wouldn’t be too wide of the mark. However, it all means diddly squat when the contest starts for real next week against Dulwich, and I’ll be there clutching my season ticket, giving it my all, and hoping for the best.

Bring it on!

The Sunlit Uplands

Pre-season predictions are a bit of a doddle really, because all you are doing is guessing like everyone else, and once the season’s started nobody remembers what you said anyway. But it’s a lazy, sunny summer’s day, the fixtures are out, and pre-season friendlies are underway so, what the heck, here’s my tuppence worth on Tonbridge Angels’ prospects for 2019/20 in the Vanarama National League South.

Let’s get the first cliche on the table – the momentum of promoted teams. It does seem to hold good at most levels of football, and manager Steve McKimm moved quickly to capitalise on this by offering terms for the new season to every member of the promotion winning squad, including two of those with long term injuries.

This move was shrewd because it immediately reinforced the winning team bond with “we’re all in this together”, and reduced the likelihood of players he wanted to stay from walking away because their best mate’s been let go.

The risk is that one or two, who know they are going to be playing above their level, will hang on for a few extra quid and the National South on their CV, whilst making a ricket in a match that costs the team three points.

On balance, it looks like it was a risk worth taking as only three players turned down the offer. Arthur Lee decided to stay local in the Bostik Premier, and bag some swag from this season’s curiously cash rich Essex team, Hornchurch. Adem Ramadan rather more surprisingly decided to stay at the same level, opting for a long trek to Margate and one season under Jay Saunders. If they go up he’ll be released. If they don’t go up he’ll be released. It is the Saunders way. Finally, Craig Stone stepped down to play at Hastings, and up to coach at Gillingham.

All-in-all, three good players moved on, but it’s only a small number, so I’d say McKimm’s gamble paid off.

The next cliche is the excitement generated by new signings. Not much to see here – there are no household names, no Flash Harries, no marquee signings.

This is not a bad thing. The Angels have signed solid, dependable like-for-like replacements. There’s no point in going into any detail now on how they’ll fit in, or if they will be any good, as this will be proven over time. The simple hope is that McKimm has continued to learn from experience, and once again this season there won’t be any passengers just strolling around for the pay cheque.

There’s also the cliched talk about budgets, and nobody can reasonably argue that Tonbridge will be in anything other than the bottom quartile this year. The Maidstone CEO has publicly stated that they need £1.7m to operate for the season. If you reckon that Tonbridge will be run on about a third of that, you won’t be far off.

Havant, Billericay, and Chelmsford will have similarly deep pockets to Maidstone. Conversely, others like Hampton & Richmond and Welling are feeling the pinch, with public pronouncements on reduced budgets, while St Albans seem to think that charging fans £18 to get in to home fixtures is somehow a solution to their financial position. Good luck with that.

However, last season proved that it is not all about money. A lot of “little things” need to go your way too.

Tonbridge start the new season with defensive lynchpin Sonny Miles suspended for three games. This means two brand new central defenders as a starting pair for these games. Given the defensive solidity which marked the Angels’ success last season, this is not ideal. Also, top scorer and player of the season from 2018/19, Joe Turner, is missing pre-season while recovering from a hernia operation. He’ll come back stronger, but ring-rusty. How the team deals with these little early upsets will be vital to how the season unfolds.

The new season fixtures have been fairly kind to the Angels, with a home tie on the opening day against Dulwich, which should pull a big crowd and be a decent benchmark for how competitive they will be against mid-table opposition. Similarly, the subsequent midweek tie away at Eastbourne will offer the chance to size up against more established National League opponents.

The games then come thick and fast through August and in to September, as the league front loads the fixtures to reduce the likelihood of late season pile-ups from bad weather and cup runs (Ha! A cup run – if only!). The next three ties against Dorking, Concord and Bath are all games on the radar for one or possibly three points.

By the time the August Bank Holiday weekend is done, with a home game against Doswell’s big spending title favourites Havant & Waterlooville, and an away match at perennial bogey team Welling, the size of the task for the season should be much clearer. Let’s hope the Angels don’t need points for safety when the two reverse games against these teams are played over the Easter Holiday weekend.

As only two teams are set to be relegated at the end of the season, the Angels’ task could be said to be to finish third from bottom. I hope sights are set much higher, as this approach would leave precious little margin for error.

A steady, anonymous 14th place would do just fine. The club needs to get set again at this level, work out the finances with new sponsors, and hopefully offer other new schemes and deals appealing to club owners and the community. This should be the start to build a steady base of 750+ gates, which a town the size of Tonbridge should readily be able to achieve. Then to push on optimistically, looking upwards and outwards from the rather insular base on which it currently operates.

Above all, let’s make sure we have some fun. There’s new clubs to visit, and new away supporters to welcome, after years of the one man and his dog that so many Isthmian teams travel away with. Playing Maidstone twice in the Christmas/New Year holidays is a gift for both clubs, and even the Weymouth away tie has been handily scheduled for a weekend by the seaside in April.

There’s plenty to look forward to, so it’s time to bring it on!

Five Minutes from Meltdown

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.

Home comforts

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Here it is, the last league game of the regular season, and one which Tonbridge Angels still have an incentive to win.

It involves a trek to a new town and ground for most of the away fans, to Potters Bar. Yes, it’s a trip to another of those Isthmian League staples – a dormitory town just outside the M25, once a sleepy medieval village which grew fat with the revenues from railways, and its proximity to London.

Like its brothers and sisters around the Road to Hell, the historic town centre has been “modernised” by the Local Council. Pavements have been thoughtfully widened and areas pedestrianised, so that oiks on stolen bicycles can harass the few remaining shoppers, picking through charity outlets and nail bars, without fear of getting knocked off by a passing car. Naturally the locals voted in favour of Brexit, so that their uniquely English way of life could be preserved for posterity.

As for the football club, they are also a fairly modern construct, an old boys club from the 1960’s which has morphed in to the town’s team. They were promoted to the Isthmian Premier Division this season, and by the halfway stage seemed to have settled well, lying in the play off places. However, they have fallen away alarmingly in 2019, and will end the season uncomfortably close to the relegation zone.

In contrast, 2019 saw Tonbridge power into the play offs, apart from a brief splutter in the final run in. A win in this game offers a the Angels a chance to finish in second or third place, securing a home play off semi final next Thursday. Apart from losing captain Parkinson to another serious ankle injury which may well end his career at this level, Tonbridge have a full squad to select from, and a large travelling contingent of fans is expected to make the trip.

As a spectacle the game is likely to be spoiled by impending stormy weather, and an apparently bumpy pitch, but the fans’ day out will only be spoiled if the team get a bit windy on the pitch. Momentum going in to the play offs has proven vital to success in the past, so a win for the Angels will be what they all want to see, ideally with the forwards contributing some long overdue goals.

Here’s hoping this is how it’s all going to end…

 

Life’s a box of chocolates

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It’s a red hot, double bubble, Bank Holiday weekend for Tonbridge Angels, against rivals Worthing and Carshalton, for one of those cherished, nerve shredding play off spots. 

First up, pack your bucket and spade for a sunny Good Friday trip to the seaside, and the refereeing Banana Republic of Worthing. A place where they make their own rules, as they certainly aren’t the ones applied elsewhere, given the ridiculous tally of red cards and penalties against Tonbridge on their last two league visits. Curiously enough neither of those two games was filmed as evidence of the unusual goings on, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

The Worthing pitch is one of those made of old Pirelli tyres, which spray black muck everywhere, and give a very artificial feel to the game. It must be a weird surface for the Angels to play on, given the green sward they are accustomed to at home. Indeed, Tonbridge are the only team in the current Top 5 who play at home on grass, which says all you need to know about where non league football is going.

Tonbridge tend not to pick up many wins playing on these recycled pollutants, which must be a bit worrying given their coughing and spluttering performances in the last two games. The midfield has lost its way due to injuries at just the wrong moment, and the manager’s covering signings have failed to materialise as yet, because they’ve been walking the dog or doing the shopping. One hopes that they at least get allowed out on Good Friday and Bank Holiday Monday like the rest of us, so they might put in a belated appearance.

Worthing are also wheezing up the hill towards the finishing line, leaning on the occasional fence post for a rest. They are only 14th in the “home” table, although five  games at the start of the season were actually played at Bognor, ironically because of the poor condition of their toxic pitch. They have also had arguably worse performances than Tonbridge in the last two games, with back to back 3-0 defeats, which may offer the visitors some encouragement.

Given the form, nerves, and playing surface, don’t be surprised if this is a scrappy game, where the least bad team takes the spoils, subject to the referee’s permission.

The sting in the tail of this game, if it is not a draw, might be the swing in goal difference towards the winning team, if the reckoning on the final day comes to this. Tonbridge at +13 and Worthing at +11 would both benefit hugely from a two goal win, relative to each other and the chasing pack.

After a weekend of chocolate and enforced family jollity, Bank Holiday Monday brings the Angels back to Longmead for the last home game of the season against Carshalton Athletic.

Carshalton are the surprise package in the Top 5. They secured promotion last season with a mighty 102 points, and took the momentum forward into this season. Having scored 21 goals in their last 8 games at the time of writing (not including their other Easter weekend game against Burgess Hill), they seem to be finishing at a canter, so won’t be shy about attacking if they need a win. However, their league position is largely built on home form, on their rock hard version of an artificial pitch, so they may be less bold on their travels.

The last time Tonbridge approached the end of season in a similar position, they froze at Folkestone, as did the rest of us watching, although for us it was because of the weather, not nerves. It will be interesting to see if the Angels manager can coax a more settled and less panicky approach from the players on the pitch than they showed last weekend, at home against Dorking, especially as Carshalton may be more relaxed under stress, channelling positive memories of how they smashed it last season.

It is a hugely pressurised time of the season, and for the managers in particular it can be one of extremes. On Bank Holiday Monday Steve McKimm could be helping to build his case to be one of Tonbridge Angels most successful managers, or he could even be leading his team out at Longmead for the last time. There’s that much at stake.

As Forrest Gump’s momma said, life is like a box of chocolates and you never know which one you’re going to get. Will the Easter Bunny be giving Steve a luxury salted caramel chocolate treat,  or will he be left with the last unloved chewy Turkish Delight at the bottom of the box. That’s the mystery to be solved this weekend……