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.