We’ve Only Got Ten Men – Dartford (H)

1. On paper, this was yet another thrashing for K’s in a fixture against Dartford, a comprehensive 0-4 defeat to add to the 6-2 and 5-0 scorelines from our last two meetings. Dartford were exceptionally well-organised, so well organised in fact that it’s easy to forget that they remain a part-time team, despite all their recent success. The Darts lined up in two tight banks of four, moving as a unit up, down and across the pitch every time K’s had the ball, shutting down space and stifling K’s creativity. There was also the kind of quality on the ball that’s been a rarity at Kingsmeadow over the last decade, albeit that it was only on show in sporadic bursts throughout the game. A passage of play early on, when Dartford moved the ball from right winger to left back all along the floor, in the space of about five seconds, rendered our back four momentarily shell-shocked: they simply don’t have to contend with that sort of footballing class in the Ryman League. In the end, Dartford strolled to a comfortable win: 1-0 up and playing against 10 men, the Darts could simply wait for K’s to tire, knowing they had the finishing power to wrap the game up in the second half.

2. But this game could have been so different: instead of a mismatch, this might very well have been a proper cup tie. First, when K’s had the good fortune to be awarded a dubious (to say the least) penalty at the Athletics End in only the fourth minute, Andre McCollin took a spot kick which made Gareth Southgate’s Euro 1996 effort look like a good strike. With the Bobby Traynor years meaning that Penalty = Goal in the minds of the K’s faithful, such a weak and half-hearted spot-kick in a big game was a bitter pill to swallow, and took some of the sting out of K’s attacking intent. Then, just as K’s were coming to terms with going 1-0 down, Simon Huckle managed to get himself sent off, thereby ending the match as a contest. There’s no doubt it was a mistimed, clumsy, hard challenge – a typical Simon Huckle tackle, being unkind – but it looked worthy of a yellow rather than a red card. After half an hour the Kingstonian team found themselves 1-0 down to a side two divisions above, playing with 10 men, and realistically the contest was over.

3. However, that’s not how it seemed at the time. In fact K’s had their best spell in the run-up to half time and made a few chances, with Matt Pattison becoming increasingly influential when drifting into the middle. The last key incident (as far as K’s chances in the match were concerned, anyway) came shortly after half time, when Darts’ impressive young keeper Bettinelli made an astonishing reaction save low to his right from a Wade Small strike. Those reporting on this save from the Athletics End or the Main Stand have no idea how good it was: the ball was not hit straight at him, he actually had to react to the shot, a sweetly-struck half-volley from no more than six yards out. Save of the season, without doubt. From then on, it was a procession, with a tired K’s side gradually forced onto the back foot by Dartford.

4. Now, I promise this blog won’t gradually turn into a non-league version of Michael Cox’s Zonal Marking – apart from any other reason, I don’t know enough about football to manage it – but I simply don’t understand how we’re setting up to play at the moment. We are lining up in a 4-4-2, despite being fairly weak in central midfield. As the squad is not blessed with out-and-out wingers, we’re generally playing with a totally right-footed player (Lambu/Clayton) on the left who cuts inside, and a ball-playing midfielder (Pattison, mostly) on the right who is encouraged to drift into the middle of the park, meaning that we can control possession, but are exceptionally narrow with the ball. We look to counteract this in one of two ways, depending on the opposition: if the other team is weak, the full-backs are told to push on and provide the width (let’s call this Plan A); if the other team is strong – as in the case of Dartford on Saturday – the strikers are clearly asked to spin out wide and into the channels to stretch the play (Plan B). This is all fine in theory, and in fact Plan A in particular has been very successful against weaker sides so far this season. But if we are genuinely trying to get promoted – and that is what us fans are told – then both approaches have inherent weaknesses which are far too easy to exploit for us to build a title-chasing side with this squad. Plan A needs two full backs who are comfortable going forward, and good on the ball. Aaron Goode is the perfect fit at right back, but so far this season Dowse has not had a similar option at left-back (although hopefully a fully fit and focussed Tom Bird could be the man), meaning too often we’ve been hopelessly lop-sided when attacking. Regardless of this problem, asking your full-backs to constantly push on is asking for trouble with such a slow selection of centre halves to pick from, as it exposes them to the quick ball over the top on the counter. Gary MacDonald has many positive attributes, but pace is certainly not one of them. This is how we managed to lose to a dire Wingate & Finchley side recently. Plan B is equally problematic: neither Small nor McCollin is a natural link-man, both preferring to be on the shoulder of the last man or in the box, and Craig Mullen is too slow to stretch good defences. As a result, we can struggle to hold up the ball, fail to dominate possession as a result, and are forced to play entirely on the counter attack. Again, this has worked well so far this season in certain matches, but it is not a recipe for a promotion-winning side. With the attacking quality on the books – McCollin, Small, Pattison, Lodge, Clayton and Lambu – there is no doubt K’s will continue to win games this season, but we are still two or three players away from being able to turn in the sort of consistently dominant performances that lead to consistently positive results. We can only hope that the signing of Lewis Taylor, backed up with a fully fit Tom Bird and Dean Lodge providing width on the left flank, can solve Dowse’s selection dilemma. No pressure, Lewis.

5. A final note on Dartford Football Club. From their officials, who could not have been more welcoming on my visit to Princes Park two years ago; to their manager, who took time to praise K’s and our approach despite just winning 4-0; to their fans, who are always up for a friendly chat with opposing supporters but back their team enthusiastically over the 90 minutes: the Darts are a real lesson to a lot of other clubs of a similar size who, frankly, have no class at all and see themselves as ‘above’ the likes of Kingstonian. Dartford still – quite rightly, given their years in the wilderness – have some humility, and long may it continue.

Man of the Match: A tricky one, this. Despite a good overall team effort, Dartford’s dominance of the match as a whole meant that no K’s player really stood out. Matt Pattison was the most deserving, simply because out of all those in hoops, he looked least out of place: he passes the ball to a team-mate and then wants it back, something the rest of our midfielders could learn from. But the clear winner was The Squirrel, whose appearance livened up a slightly drab first half. “We can see you sneaking out”, sang the K’s behind-the-goal gang as it finally left the pitch, much to the amusement of all 508 (and the rest, by the way!!) in attendance.

Key Moment: There were two, both as important as each other. Had McCollin scored his early penalty, would K’s have used that early boost to rattle Dartford? And had Simon Huckle not been sent off, would K’s have managed to take the game to Dartford in the second half? Probably not, in both cases, but the frustration is that fans of both sides were not given the chance to find out.

Away Fans: a solid 8/10 for the Dartford faithful, who packed the bar before the game, and the Athletics End in the second half. They travelled in numbers, as teams on the up always do, and backed that up with warmth and wit. The atmosphere in the ground was what non-league football is about: passionate, but with a sense of humour. Points lost for actually not being all that loud.

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Dartford – Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

On the 26th of August 2006, K’s fans travelled to Thurrock for a Ryman League Division One South (pub league) fixture between Kingstonian and Dartford. 336 people were there to witness a fairly dire 1-0 ‘home’ win by the Darts.

Fast forward six and a half years, and yes, in that period, we at Kingstonian have strengthened as a club. We have a passionate, committed, knowledgeable and downright good manager in Alan Dowson; we have secured tenancy at Kingsmeadow; we have people in charge of the club who have the best interests of Kingstonian at heart and are willing to back the manager to sign players; we have a thriving youth section and academy; and most of all, we’re playing our football at the top end of the Ryman Premier League rather than the lower half of the Ryman South. In fact, in retrospect, we can say that the MacIntyre months (in which that August 2006 Dartford game fell) were the club’s nadir. But happy as we should be with our progress since then, Dartford’s record puts ours to shame: the Darts have moved on to such an extent that they’re barely the same club any more. Three promotions, a new ground, and regular four-figure gates all mean that the Darts are very much the big boys in our Trophy fixture. As if to demonstrate what a mammoth task winning the tie will be, Dartford’s most recent away game was a win at Luton, whose average gate is 20 times that of ours.

The Kent side’s last season in our company was 2009/10, when they destroyed the hoops twice on their march to the Ryman Premier title. The 5-0 demolition job at Princes Park still gives me nightmares now, given that K’s were highly fortunate not to be on the end of a double-figure defeat; the Darts’ 6-2 win at Kingsmeadow, which secured them the title, was tame in comparison. All the scorers of those 11 (ELEVEN) goals are still starting for the Darts in the Conference, which does help to put the heavy defeats into perspective, even if it emphasises the mountain K’s will have to climb to win the tie.

And if the gulf in quality between the sides didn’t seem big enough already, there is the K’s 4-0 defeat at Thurrock last Saturday to throw into the mix. A loss like that – to the bottom side in the league, remember – can shatter confidence.

But despite all of this, there should be no despondency about K’s prospects in this fixture: we have a chance. The K’s players will raise their game – and make no mistake, we do have some good players – and any team that scores goals for fun has a great chance in a one-off cup tie. A set piece, a long-range strike, a counter attack, and all of a sudden Dartford are under pressure. Wealdstone’s run to the semi-finals last season, when they beat Conference sides Barrow and Cambridge, and dispatched Dartford along the way for good measure, shows what can be done with belief and a little luck.

So tell your friends, tell your neighbours, and tell the world – let’s get a decent crowd in, for once, and let’s get right behind the side for 90 minutes. COYKs!

We’re Not Dancing Any More – Brentwood (H)

1. This was a proper cup tie: goals, a passionate crowd, late drama, all caused by a lower division team raising their game in the time-honoured tradition. Brentwood were excellent: not only were they dogged, well-organised and committed, but their manager had really done his homework, and they came to win rather than put ten men behind the ball. And not only that, but their first goal was one of the best goals seen at Kingsmeadow for many a year; even if it can be argued that Rob Tolfrey was out of position, the level of technique and presence of mind required to put the ball in the net made the lobbed finish astonishing. If Kingstonian do get through, we’ll be hoping for a similarly tenacious and accomplished performance against Dartford.

2. As good as Brentwood were, they were helped by a strange team selection from Alan Dowson. Now, this is a man who is right nine times out of ten, a Geordie tactical genius – as the enormous success of his equally unpredictable half-time substitution on Saturday proved – but it was very hard to understand the thinking behind the line-up and formation chosen. Having selected the fairly slow, right-sided Somner at left back (not a complaint in and of itself, as yours truly is not a Byron Napper fan after what he did at Bury), K’s lined up with the incredibly right-footed Goma Lambu on the left. This meant that the side had absolutely no width down the left at all. Not a problem in and of itself, but there wasn’t a huge amount of width down the right hand side either, with Pattison tending to cut inside and operate centrally. All of this meant that Small and McCollin spent the majority of the first half spinning out wide, leaving nothing through the middle, and very little goal threat as a result. I’m sure Dowse had his reasons, but it’s fair to say the half-time whistle came as somewhat of a relief.

3. The second half was a completely different affair. Credit must largely go to two men for that: Alan Dowson and Craig Mullen. Instead of doing the obvious – bringing on Lodge and/or Clayton and playing wider to stretch Brentwood – Dowse instead brought on the human battering ram that is Mullen for Small and simply overloaded the Essex side through the centre of the pitch. If worked magnificently; K’s were rampant for most of the second half, succumbing only to a quality goal on the counter attack and a scrambled late goal from a set piece. Having made the perfect half-time change, Dowse deserved better luck. Of course, a brilliant substitution in theory was only made brilliant in practice by the performance of Craig Mullen, who tore into Brentwood from kick off in the manner of a man possessed. This was Mullen at his absolute best: a feisty, hugely determined bully of a centre-forward, carrying a goal threat through sheer force of personality. We need to see more of Craig The Beast, and less of the Craig The Nice Young Man of recent weeks.

4. There has to be a word about the Brentwood substitutes’ celebrations – well, the behaviour of at least two or three of them – after their first equaliser. Gesticulating in front of the home support instead of actually celebrating the goal doesn’t just reveal a rather pathetic small-mindedness, it also tends to rile the opposition. So thankyou, Brentwood Number 16 in particular, for providing all of us with one of the best after goal celebrations of the last few seasons when Tom Hutchinson headed in three minutes after you made a fool of yourself. Sadly, K’s couldn’t hold on, unable to get the killer third goal as the Essex side pressed forward late on.

5. So, we go to Brentwood for the replay. I happen to be in total agreement with Dowse when it comes to cup ties, even against opposition perceived to be inferior – “nobody says you have to win the first game”. Brentwood raised their game spectacularly on Saturday, and benefitted from a rare poor outing by the otherwise magnificent Rob Tolfrey; even then, they were fairly lucky to snatch a draw. If the Essex boys manage to perform at that high a level again in the replay, then K’s will have to be at their best to get through. But Brentwood’s confidence ahead of the game could potentially work in Kingstonian’s favour by making the home team attempt to play on the front foot. If they do that, with our immense pace and quality on the break, they’re surely doomed to defeat by counter-attack.

Man of the Match: Tom Hutchinson. Given the chance to replace Kieran Murphy at centre half, Hutch was an immense presence at the back all afternoon. I’ve been quick to criticise the Kingstonian back four this season, and yet again, as a unit they looked less than secure if the ball was played over the top. But as far as individual centre half performances go, they don’t get a lot better than this: three last-ditch tackles to stop counter-attacks, countless interceptions followed up by runs into midfield to get attacks going, and even a goal to cap things off.

Key Moment: A rare Rob Tolfrey error of judgement, which led to the late equaliser for Brentwood. Despite having an off-day on Saturday, there is still nobody at this level that I’d rather have between the sticks.

Away Fans: 2/10. A few old geezers in the main stand. None of the younger geezers with a penchant for fighting who went to the earlier rounds, which was a relief. As an aside on the crowd, our gate of 291 was actually higher than Sutton’s for a very similar home Trophy fixture, against Ramsgate. I’ve long maintained that with no recent spell in the doldrums, that lot up the road have never found out what their hardcore support really is. Turns out it’s no bigger than ours.