Away Day Diary: Bury (St Edmunds) Town

Bury Town Away: a lovely brewery town, only two hours away by train, with a great little football ground which allows ales on the terraces. So surely, given the guarantee of such a good day out, there was a big crew boarding the 10:45 from Kings Cross? Sadly not: only three of us bothered to make the journey. Still, three’s company and four’s a crowd (or something like that), and so we gamely soldiered on and made a day of it anyway.

Matt was trying to make up for the lack of numbers by encouraging an early start to the drinking, offering me a Carlsberg at precisely 9:30 on the train into town from Kingston – “you may as well, they’re cold, and if they get warm they’re going to be horrible” –  which I politely declined, knowing I’d be in a dire state if I started drinking at that ungodly hour of the morning. After a worrying 10:30 phone call – “err, I’m sort of in a taxi at the moment” – Henry managed to get to Kings Cross in the nick of time and the three of us boarded the busy 10:45 train to Cambridge. As everybody knows, the normal rules of social etiquette are suspended on weekend train services, and as a result of this peculiar British tradition, none of us felt remotely guilty when cracking open the Carlsbergs at 11am. Although Matt was right: they were horrible. A quick change at Cambridge later and we were out of the air-conditioned train at Bury St Edmunds and into a lovely, warm Suffolk day.

Our first stop on the short walk into town was the Old Cannon Brewery, because it ticked every box. Great ales? Check – it’s a microbrewery! Good food? Check. And most importantly of all on what was possibly the last day of summer: Beer Garden? Check. Once we’d all settled down in the sunny courtyard with a pint and some grub, it was time to talk through the season so far and what we could expect from those in hoops later on. The general consensus was that Dowse had already done the hard bit at this level, having successfully put together a side that’s dangerous going forward, and that we’d improve defensively as the season went on. As far as the day’s game went, Matt in particular was worried we’d miss McCollin, whereas Henry was more worried about the lack of a proper left-back. Sadly it turned out they were both right.

A small pub for a big man

Time was marching on, and so we departed the Old Cannon and walked into the pleasant market town, as no visit to Bury is complete without a pint in the Nutshell, which claims to be the UK’s smallest pub. Apparently that’s disputed, but even if it’s not actually the smallest it’s still an impressively tiny boozer, and as the local by-laws mean you can’t even step a foot outside the door with your pint, it certainly feels small enough once there’s more than half a dozen people inside.

Fixture board in the world’s smallest pub

The notes of various currencies from around the world stuck on the walls and ceiling gives it great character, although it was noticeable how tight-fisted all the American visitors were compared to locals and Europeans: a one dollar bill isn’t really much of a “gift”, is it, Uncle Sam? A top notch pint of IPA from the very local Greene King brewery was the reward for squeezing in, and the three of us spent the next twenty minutes or so enjoying our pints while laughing at full-time S*tton’s struggles in the Conference South. What price the two clubs swapping divisions in May – and how hilarious would that be?

A lot of rum

A combination of the warm day and some slightly over-enthusiastic ale drinking necessitated a stop for an ice cream on the way to Bury’s ground. It turned out that this was a seriously good ice cream van, and although Matt’s rum and raisin didn’t have the desired sobering effect on the big man – “This has got so much rum in you’d get children drunk on it…in fact, I think you’d get me drunk on it” – he was sorely tempted to go back for more.

After paying £10 to get in to get into Crown Meadow – the same ridiculous price that it is at Kingsmeadow – the three of us realised we’d been so keen not to repeat the mistake of 2010 (when we’d managed to miss the opening 10 minutes of the entire season) that we had enough time to get a drink from the bar and soak up some more sun before kick off. Sitting down in what passed for Bury Town FC’s beer garden (a pub table in the corner of the ground) was proving to be so relaxing that we somehow contrived to miss the start of the game, and duly scuttled round behind the goal K’s were attacking a couple of minutes in.

My view of the first two minutes. You can see why I wasn’t keen to move. What a day

It was immediately obvious that our group’s poor attendance was mirrored in all the other small groups who make up the K’s travelling support. For a sunny September Saturday, this was a really tinpot away following, almost as small as the followings of the clubs we like to mock for their lack of numbers at away games. There were just 17 (SEVENTEEN!) behind-the-goalers, and no more than 25-30 standing down the side. I’m not criticising – it’s still a bigger away support than most at this level, and my attendance record is dire compared to many of those ‘missing’ on Saturday – but I can only hope this was a one off, because part of the fun of following K’s away from home is the knowledge that there’ll be a sizeable number of like-minded souls inside the ground. Such a large proportion of our hardcore fan-base travels away from home week-in, week-out, that as a new Kingstonian fan you feel as if you ‘should’ travel away as well. That’s certainly why I started going to away games 10 years ago, in an era when K’s had a phenomenal away support, and I really hope this game wasn’t the first signs of that tradition dying out. Is this an overreaction to one game? Possibly – but there were games last season where our following was less than impressive, and this away day really did have everything going for it. We need to up our game, or even better, attract some new fans…now there’s a novel idea.

The view during the first half – it could have almost been the Kingston Road End. Sigh

When the surprise at the lack of numbers had abated, those of us who were there put in a concerted effort to up the decibel level in the early stages. Given that there were only 17 of us (have I mentioned that?) singing, I’m not sure any of the noise made it out onto the pitch, but we felt we had to try: the locals don’t bother, so it’s up to the away fans to create the atmosphere. K’s started well, passing the ball around in the middle third and looking for attacking opportunities. As the minutes ticked by, K’s began to control the game, but were unable to create any clear-cut chances as a result of all the possession; Bury were seeing less of the ball but their more direct approach seemed to be more threatening.

We’ll never know how this interesting clash of styles would have turned out, as Byron Napper got himself sent off in pretty stupid fashion. His first challenge on Bury’s right-winger was nothing more than mistimed, and he was perhaps unlucky to be booked. He followed this up minutes later with a second poor tackle (in almost exactly the same part of the pitch), and the referee had a long conversation with him to let him know that any more bad challenges and he’d be off; before Dowse could even think of subbing him, he’d dived in AGAIN with the worst challenge of the three, leaving the ref no option but to give him a red card. This was stupid Sunday league stuff, and he really did let his team-mates down. The rest of the half was monumentally average, as K’s reshuffled into a 4-4-1 and held on until the break.

“Is it a cathedral even though Bury’s not a city?” – “Do I look like Wikipedia to you?”

Half time brought an annoyingly narrow miss in the lucrative 50/50 draw, and trip to the bar for a much-needed drink for the second half, in preparation for an expected Bury Town onslaught against our ten men. Such an onslaught never really arrived, however, partly due to K’s resilience, and partly due to Bury’s shortcomings. K’s kept the ball well, and kept their shape even better, frustrating the opposition and negating their man advantage for long periods. Bury were unable to move the ball around quickly enough, and didn’t seem to possess the flair and individual artistry needed in the final third to break down our determined back line. Annoyingly, their winning goal was a particularly poor goal to concede with ten men, a header from a corner. In fairness, Bury were by far the better side after the goal, as K’s had to look to come forward and lost shape as a result, but due to a couple of good Rob Tolfrey saves Blues didn’t manage to add to the scoresheet.

At the other end of the pitch, Bury were fully in control. The closest K’s came to an equaliser was a 25-yard Matt Pattison free-kick which was tipped behind by Marcus Garnham, the always-affable Bury ‘keeper, and as such they held on for the win, despite the K’s players’ best efforts. Bury were exceptionally well organised, and it’s worth dwelling on this point. In the professional game, calling another side “well-organised” is a back-handed compliment, implying that they’re limited, short of ideas and defensive in outlook. It’s the adjective Arsene Wenger uses to describe Stoke when he doesn’t want to pick a fight with Tony Pulis. In the semi-professional game, it’s just about the biggest compliment you can give the opposition: these lads only train together for two evenings a week, and you’ve got to be a seriously good coach and tactician to get a group of players gelled into a cohesive defensive unit with that limited amount of time working together. But would Bury have been so comfortable against K’s with eleven men? And, to take the point further, would Bury have been so comfortable against eleven men spearheaded by Andre McCollin, Wade Small or Mark Nwokeji? Sadly we won’t know until the return fixture.

Bury’s burning, Bury’s burning, call the insurance, call the insurance

After pausing to gawp at the most unusual (and most burnt down) part of Bury’s ground, which we’d somehow missed the first time round, it was time for a pint in the bar and a chat with a couple of Bury regulars, who were impressed by our passing style, but mainly by Rob Tolfrey. One old boy reckoned that “we’ve just seen the two best keepers at this level today”, and it was hard to disagree with him. After a long interrogation about the absence of Bobby Traynor – “he was top class, that boy, you’ll miss him” – we all agreed that both sides would be up there at the end of the season. Bury are simply too good defensively to fail to make the top 5, and if K’s can compete with such a good side with ten men for an hour, missing our best three strikers, then I’ve still got faith that we’ll be up there too.

After a dash to Tesco for the all-important supplies for the journey home, all that was left was to board the train back to London slightly deflated by the result, but happy with a good day out nevertheless. Next up, three weeks (hopefully) in a row of cup football. Bring it on.

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We’re The Famous Kingstonian and We’re Going to Wember-lee – Guildford City (A)

1. A very, very easy win for Kingstonian in an FA Cup tie against lower league opposition: yes, you weren’t dreaming, it really did happen. With no disrespect to East Thurrock – and how could we underestimate a side who beat us 5-2 the last time they came to Kingsmeadow? – a home tie against a side in our league counts as a kind draw. Now, can we actually go on a cup run please?

2. Were K’s very good or were Guildford not very good? I’m inclined to say the latter, because the overall quality of the match was poor. Yes, the dry, bobbly pitch certainly didn’t help either side when they tried to get the ball down and pass it, and yes, it was a hot day, but K’s were vastly superior despite not getting out of second gear. Perhaps the Southern League is a lot weaker than the Ryman League at the moment – I certainly can’t imagine K’s getting such an easy game against Dulwich, for instance – or perhaps Guildford’s players simply underperformed. Either way, it wasn’t much of a spectacle.

3. The biggest bright spot from a Kingstonian perspective aside from the result was the performance of Craig Mullen, who led the line with energy and enthusiasm and also managed to get on the scoresheet twice. Against better opposition, it’s difficult to see Mullen playing on his own up front in a 4-2-3-1 as he did after Wade Small went off injured on Saturday – his lack of pace would allow superior centre halves playing in front of a less rotund keeper to step higher up the pitch – but on this showing he could certainly play a prominent role as a proper target man alongside a speedy centre forward. He gives Dowse another option, a plan B, and that can only be a good thing.

4. The big negative from the game was the nasty looking injury to Rob Tolfrey. Get back to fitness soon, Rob: there aren’t many better keepers at this level, that’s for sure. Let’s hope Jake Whincup performs admirably if he’s called on at Bury Town.

5. Finally, a word about the matchday experience at the Spectrum, because it’s nothing if not remarkable. In fact, apart from the hilarious PA announcer (“Going off for Kingstonian, Rob, err, Tolfroy…and coming on is, err, err, err, Jake Wherrycup”) it felt exactly like watching a county cricket game: a sunny summer’s day, a sparse crowd (many of whom were actually sunbathing), a distant viewing position, spectators drinking cans of lager in the stand, and a sense that the action on the field of play wasn’t the be-all and end-all of the day out. As someone who likes county cricket, I really enjoyed myself. But how the 100 or so Guildford fans motivate themselves to watch football there in Winter – and pay £8 for the privilege – remains a mystery. I salute each and every one of them for their loyalty, because there’s no way I’d do it.

Man of the Match: Dean Lodge. Far, far too good for Guildford. It was like going back to the Ryman One South Championship season

Key Moment: Pattison’s left-foot finish into the bottom corner which put K’s 2-0 up and finished the tie as a contest

Progress Report: Five Games In

As the Isthmian League reaches its first hiatus of the season for the first FA Cup fixture, it’s time to file the first progress report of the season. And what better way to start than with the early breakaway top-5 clubs?

 

The Contenders

Lowestoft were the clear pre-season favourites with the bookies, and it wasn’t hard to see why: big home gates, play-off finalists last season, and their one problem area last term (scoring enough goals) seemingly solved with the signing of Kings Lynn’s very own Bobby Traynor, 161 goal Linnets striker Jack Defty. Five games in and there’s no reason to strip them of that favourites tag. Apart from a 2-1 reverse away to a good Margate side – more on them later – Town have been impressive, particularly going forward. Chris Henderson already has four goals, and perhaps more ominously for the rest of the division, looks to have already struck up a promising understanding with new strike partner Defty.

Verdict: Still the ones to beat

Hampton top the table after five games, thanks to their perfect defensive record; in fact, Arsenal are the only other team in the English league pyramid yet to concede a goal. The Beavers’ goal does seem to have led a charmed life thus far, with opposition fans bemoaning their poor luck and their even poorer finishing, but it’s a mightily impressive record, especially as Dean Inman – sensationally linked with a move to QPR last season – can’t even get into the side at the moment. They’ve only scored seven goals, however, and haven’t exactly looked like scoring a lot more, generally lining up in a narrow formation with both full-backs playing a largely defensive role.

Verdict: Solid so far – but what happens when the Beavers’ dam bursts?

Kingstonian sit third, and do so as the anti-Hampton, the Kevin Keegan to their George Graham: 14 goals scored and 7 conceded. An attacking midfield of Dean Lodge, Sam Clayton and Matt Pattison should mean the chances don’t dry up any time soon, but will Andre McCollin take enough of them? His red card aside, Andre has been magnificent so far in all but one area: one-on-one finishing. (If you could combine McCollin and a certain Mr. R. Traynor, you’d have a top-class football league player, by the way). Defensively, it’s difficult to know where K’s actually stand, as at least 3 of the 7 goals conceded have been due to suicidal defensive errors and gross lapses in concentration rather than poor defensive positioning. If the lads in red-and-white hoops can cut out the stupid mistakes at the back, they could be genuine contenders.

Verdict: Come On You K’s, keep it going

Margate are by far the best side K’s have faced so far this season, reflected in their unbeaten start. They’re also the only team to have beaten title favourites Lowestoft, which really marks them out as a team to watch. Hartsdown Park – with its sloping pitch and fierce winds – is never an easy place to go, but ‘Gate look to have an added resilience on the road this term which will make them difficult to beat.

Verdict: Play-off material

Bury Town have performed admirably since stepping up to the Ryman Premier, and now make their third attempt to exit the division to the promised land of the Conference South – although those of us who enjoy a boozy away day will be desperately hoping they fail (unless of course K’s accompany them up!) as it’s a fantastic little town. Gates have slid slightly since their promotion from Ryman One North, with only 312 at their first home game, which means they are not always able to compete on wages with Suffolk neighbours Lowestoft in the way they once were. However, Bury have made a seriously decent start, unbeaten in their first five, and look a sure-fire bet to reach the play-offs for a third consecutive year. Like K’s, they’ve had a relatively straightforward set of fixtures to start, so the match between the two in 8 days’ time could be a useful pointer as to whether either of the two sides can be genuine challengers for the title this time around.

Verdict: Top-5 again?

 

The Best of The Rest

Lewes were much fancied by some of their own fans before the start of the season – probably the type of Lewes fan who seems to think they’re a big club – but the smart money was never on the Sussex side to be up there this year. Their budget has been drastically reduced as part of preparation for a ‘break-even season’ next year, and as a result it would be a major surprise if they overcame this hurdle to mount a proper promotion bid. So far, there are no signs of the Rooks solving last term’s goalscoring problems, with only five strikes in 5 games.

Verdict: Midtable in the league table, top of the away day league table

Wealdstone continue to compete well at Ryman Premier level due to the loyalty of their long-suffering supporters, but were earmarked for greater things this time around after a Trophy run to the semi-finals allowed a significant boost to the playing budget. When you consider that the Stones finished last season in magnificent form, charging into the playoffs from a mid-table position at the turn of the year, it was no surprise that many fans took up the bookies’ offers of 12s and 10s, meaning Wealdstone started the season as 8/1 third favourites. They’ve made a solid, if unspectacular, start to the year, with only three goals conceded but only five goals scored. An insipid performance away to Lewes left supporters unimpressed, but they’ve ground out good results in all other four games, and it would be a very brave man who discounted them from the promotion picture this early in the season, especially with Richard Jolly in the ranks.

Verdict: If Richard Jolly stops firing blanks, they’ll be right up there

Canvey, Whitehawk and Bognor are also all on 8 points after five games, yet all have different ambitions this year: Bognor will be happy to consolidate after promotion, Canvey are making a tilt at the play-offs, and Whitehawk’s backers should expect a title challenge as a result of their vast playing budget. As much as it hurts to admit it, Whitehawk must have a genuine chance of being in the promotion picture at the end of the season: their one loss so far was to Lowestoft. The funding at Whitehawk looks like a rich man’s vanity project – what is the point of funding a non-community club without any fans? On the subject of annoying clubs without fans: mercifully, Met Police don’t look as strong this year.

 

The Strugglers

Thurrock sit in the relegation zone after five games, which is a major surprise. Not because Thurrock are a big club at this level – I’m not sure they’re a big club at any level if truth be told – but because they’ve got a proper manager in the form of Mark Stimson at the helm. Stimson has won FA Trophies and Football League play-off finals, so it’s a shock to see his new charges struggling so badly. It’s not a shock to see Carshalton struggling, because they’ve not got a proper manager. In fact, they’ve not got a manager at all with Owner/General Secretary/President/Prime Minister/Chairman Dipre selecting the side. As long as he’s in charge of team affairs, they’ll be in trouble. But when will he realise he needs to appoint a genuine gaffer to pick and train the first XI? If a proper manager is in place there sooner rather than later, they could still be a threat given the quality of the squad at Colston Avenue.

 

The Verdict

Strangely, the league table could well have taken shape already: it would be no great shock if the current top 9 all finished in the top half, and no huge surprise were two of Leiston, Hendon, Harrow, Concord and East Thurrock to be relegated. We’ll know a lot more about Kingstonian’s chances after the next five games, which include away games at Bury, Lowestoft and Wealdstone. Ouch. Lowestoft are still the club to beat in the hunt for the title, but if Hampton are still top in five games’ time with an impressive defensive record, they’ll have to be considered genuine rivals to the Suffolk side. It’s all to play for.

Easy, Easy, Easy – Leiston (H)

1. Following the six-goal thriller against a good Margate side, and with K’s missing McCollin and Lodge, perhaps it was no surprise that this game had an after the Lord Mayor’s show feel to it. But the tame, comfortable second half was only possible as a result of Kingstonian starting the game with the sort of intent, purpose and controlled aggression that’s been lacking from the kick-off in the four games so far. Up to now, K’s have grown stronger as the game has gone on, but I’m not sure a Leiston player managed to pass the ball to a teammate during the opening 15 minutes, such was the dominance of territory and possession by those in red and white hoops. The first goal was only a matter of time as long as K’s continued to play all the football, spreading the ball from wing to wing at will.

2. But once the goal did arrive, Leiston seemed to wake up and K’s switched off just enough to allow them back into the game. On another day, despite bossing the half overall, Kingstonian could have gone in at half time with the score at 1-1: a thunderous Leiston strike hit the bar, and it took a real defensive clanger for K’s to score the second goal. It served as a reminder that if Dowson’s boys are really going to challenge this season, the players are going to have to learn to be more ruthless.

3. How good was this performance, then? There can be no doubt that Leiston were poor: in the first half, playing direct, uncompromising football they were fairly dangerous going forward but clearly vulnerable at the back; in the second half, they tightened up and passed the ball at a lower tempo but lost any offensive threat as a result. The big positive is that Kingstonian didn’t have to get out of second gear to record a comfortable three points, something that simply didn’t happen last season. If K’s can find top gear a little more regularly (and the return of Lodge and McCollin will help with that) they could be a very, very good side. But the pessimist’s view is that K’s have played some of the poorer teams in the division so far, conceded 7 goals in the first 5 games in the process and looked altogether less of a threat following the loss of just two players to injury and suspension. Personally, I’m in the glass half-full camp at the moment: it’s much easier for a manager to resolve a wobbly defence via coaching than to inject flair and creativity into a side. If the players keep scoring, they’ll keep winning.

4. Playing football on Sundays instead of Saturdays doesn’t feel any more right than standing at the Athletics End looking at a blue-seated monstrosity instead of a brick-backed terrace. But it does certainly attract some of those who are otherwise engaged on Saturdays, hence the decent gate (for us these days, anyway).

5. On that subject, I brought three people who’d never been to Kingsmeadow along to the game. All three of them enjoyed themselves, surprised at the “actually pretty good” level of football on display and liking the fact they were so close to the action. One of them was even barracking the opposition centre-forward by the 50 minute mark, so has obvious potential as a Kingstonian fan of the future. Despite all these positives, it was still a reality check in terms of the value of the ‘product’ on show: the shocked and slightly appalled look on each and every one of their faces when told the admission price acted as a real eye-opener. One of them even said, “no, I said one adult, not two” to the turnstile operator when she asked for his tenner. Is it any wonder that gates are low when the general public expect the price to be HALF of what it actually is?

 

Man of the Match: Matt Pattison – managed to find space in a congested midfield, used the ball intelligently and scored a good goal. He displayed that extra bit of individual class that no player wearing blue possessed, and looked the best player on the pitch as a result.

Key Moment: Pattison’s goal, K’s third, which arrived just after Leiston thought they’d got themselves back into the game. Suddenly, it was all over.

Away Fans: 1/10. They may very well have been invisible and/or mute, but I saw 1 (ONE) paying Leiston punter cheer when they scored. I’m sure they’re a lovely club and all that, but there were more Bognor supporters present, and that says it all. No doubt they will lap up the cash from the 50-100 visiting K’s fans at the reverse fixture.