Jingle Bells – Cray (A)

Na na na na naaah,
Na na na na na naaah,
Na na na na na na na,
Na na na na na naah,
HEY!

Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way,
Oh what fun it is to see
Kingstonian beating Cray

(Repeat for 10 minutes)

Sung gleefully by the travelling fans behind the goal for the last few minutes, the trip to Bromley turned into a fun day out – but for a long time that didn’t seem likely. A slightly over-enthusiastic lunchtime ale session, coupled with over-confidence about just how close the station was to the ground, led to a rather uncomfortably brisk walk to make it to Hayes Lane in time for kick off – only to be greeted the other side of the turnstiles by the players on the pitch still completing their warm-up. “In case you haven’t heard, kick off has been delayed for 20 minutes,” came the announcement over the tannoy, which meant that all the effort to get there for 3 was not rewarded. Fortunately, Bromley seemed to have installed a fantastic bar since my last visit, complete with a panoramic view of the pitch. It would have been rude not to have a pint – and in fact, so comfortable was it watching proceedings from inside, that I only ventured out into the damp cold surroundings of Hayes Lane after about 15 minutes of the first half.
IMG_0024 Most of me wished I’d stayed in the bar: Cray were dominant in both territory and possession, and it took two good Rob Tolfrey saves, plus one magnificent stop, to get the hoops in level at half time. The second half was different. K’s were much better at keeping the ball and sharper in the tackle; Cray started to hit it longer as a result, which allowed Murphy and in particular McNaughton to regain possession. But, bearing in mind this is non-league, perhaps more importantly the conditions were all of a sudden in K’s favour, with a gusting wind behind them, and a squally shower blowing into the faces of Cray’s defenders.

IMG_0025It was still a poor game though, despite the improvement’s in K’s performance after half time, and it looked like being a frustrating afternoon spent standing in deserted, dilapidated surroundings – until out of almost nothing, Wade Small broke clear and calmly slotted the ball under Cray’s keeper to put K’s into the lead. This not only galvanised the behind the goal fans – who began a rendition of Jingle Bells which wouldn’t end until after the final whistle – but it spurred K’s on to look for a killer second goal. The decisive strike duly came from a penalty when Cray keeper Andy Walker, who’d been barracked by K’s fans all afternoon, was adjudged to have tripped McCollin. McCollin stepped up to smash home the penalty, no doubt wanting to banish any mental demons lurking from his appalling spot kick against Dartford (think Stuart Pearce against Spain in Euro ’96 and you wouldn’t be far off). There was still time for Cray’s left back James Clark to unleash a goal of the season contender with sweet left peg half-volley which swerved into the bottom corner from fully 25 yards – and still time after that for Matt Pattison to finish a move he’d started and secure the win with a cool finish from Dean Lodge’s pass. So after 80 minutes of nothing, the final ten produced three K’s goals, a world-class Cray goal and a memorable sing-a-long for the Kingston faithful. Football, eh?

Alan Dowson’s sweeping changes have delivered three straight wins, and fired K’s back into the promotion picture after a season of early promise looked to be petering out due to diabolical defending. The last time the manager did this, after a similar run on K’s return to this level of football, such was the transformation in fortunes that it became known as ‘Dowson Day’. The changes this time around have been less dramatic, but there is no doubt K’s look a lot more solid – as Martin Tyler said after Sunday’s game, “the opposition don’t look like scoring every time they attack any more” – and a lot more likely to keep clean sheets. This gives Kingstonian the foundation of a proper team, but there are still unresolved issues, giving Dowse a few things to ponder:
1. Callum MaNaughton, who has done so much to stabilise the back four, is only on a short-term loan, so a proper centre-half is still needed;
2. Harry Harding hasn’t settled quite as quickly as he’d have liked; and most crucially
3. Despite the three wins on the bounce, this new K’s side are yet to produce a genuinely convincing performance.

My bet, and the bet of most of the fans I talked to on Sunday, is that such a performance is just around the corner. And this is not just blind optimism: in addition to the added steel in defence, the midfield four looks like a perfect balance of pace, power and passing ability, and if Wade Small can re-find his shooting boots, we have a potent pairing up front. Have we witnessed Dowson Day II? Let’s hope so…

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And That Is Why We Follow – Canvey (A)

In light of last night’s game against Casuals, the following seems very belated. Nevertheless, five thoughts on Canvey:

1. Canvey Island is a strange place. Entering the ground, you’re immediately confronted with a stark reminder that you’re actually about to watch a football game below sea level. IMG_0008While that fact is still sinking in, the game kicks off, and none of the locals seem at all perturbed when a gigantic ship looms over one end of the ground. In what should be the sky. How the locals can sleep soundly at night when they live in what essentially amounts to a gigantic man-made dry dock remains a mystery. Perhaps this is what makes the Islanders particularly chippy; despite there clearly being some great people involved with the football club, a trip to Canvey is always accompanied by a tedious number of comments from the locals which tend to go beyond ‘banter’ between rival fans.

2. Anyway, to football. Despite a promising opening spell, in which Andre McCollin bravely headed K’s into the lead, it was the away team who were all at sea during the first half. Dowse started with a 3-5-2 for (to my knowledge, anyway) the first time this season, a ploy which seemed sensible. Given that we’ve been hopelessly susceptible to balls over the top of our back four recently, having a spare centre half should have provided some insurance at the back; and in the absence of Tom Bird and a fully fit Dean Lodge, we don’t really have a left flank in a 4-4-2 anyway. Sadly, it worked about as well as a new Tesco carrier bag*, with K’s conceding an avoidable equaliser and then two further pathetic goals to go in 3-1 down at half time. The highlight of the half was the container ship in the sky.IMG_0011
3. Are the defensive problems systemic or down to personnel? The only possible conclusion can be that it’s a combination. Given that I wrote at length about the systemic issues in the squad last week, perhaps it’s about time – having conceded four goals for the third successive proper match – to bite the bullet and bring up the thorny issue of whether the players are good enough, full stop:
TOLFREY. Although perhaps not performing quite at his highest level of previous seasons, he is clearly not the weak link. On Saturday alone, he made two exceptional saves to keep Canvey down to three.
GOODE. Anyone who thinks he’s the problem either needs their head or their eyes testing.
MURPHY. Arrived with a big reputation, and a good record. Outstanding in pre-season. Despite occasional glimpses of class, has not been a consistently reliable centre half so far this season, with too many errors. Clearly not a reserve right-back.
HUTCHISON. Has developed a worrying tendency to switch off and find himself grossly out of position. Out of form.
MACDONALD. A leader, by all accounts a top bloke. Slow, but tends to get away with it via his positional sense and reading of the game. Has not been getting away with it this season. Out of form is an understatement.
NAPPER. Not good enough for Kingstonian. End of. (And as someone who used to play left-back, and was often the worst player in my team, I feel his pain. He must know he’s not good enough).
BIRD. Fitness problems have led to largely poor performances since his return.
SOMNER. Clearly not a left-back. Regrettable that he’s had to play there more than once this season.

The view of the second half - with Canvey's bizarrely huge terrace the backdrop

The view of the second half, with Canvey’s bizarrely huge terrace the backdrop

4. But, despite all that, were there signs of a potential solution in the second half? K’s went 4-4-2 with Dean Lodge on the left wing and absolutely bossed the game. Under clear instructions from Dowse to go for it, and helped by a strengthening wind in their favour, K’s held a high line for the full 45 and trusted Matt Somner and new-boy Lewis Taylor to win the ball back in the Canvey half. It was kamikaze stuff, K’s sometimes launching attacks with 8 or even 9 players forward – but with the slightly quicker Jerome Sobers at centre half, it was perhaps less of a risk than with Gary Mac at the back, and with Taylor adding bite to the midfield, the ball spent 80% of the second period in Canvey’s half. If Dowse can somehow get a defender with genuine pace on the books – and it can happen even at our level, as the loan signing of Ian Gayle showed – then this high-line approach might be the way forward.

5. But after all the Hansen-esque talk of diabolical defending, there’s something glaring which hasn’t been said about Saturday’s game – it was bloody brilliant. Seven goals including a last minute winner, missed chances, the woodwork struck three times, some great attacking football and some spirited (if dreadful) defending. Worth every penny of £10, and it’s not often anybody leaves a Ryman League game thinking that. Well done to all involved, even if it was Canvey who got an underserved winner rather than K’s securing a memorable comeback.

*If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, consider yourself lucky. And expect to drop a bottle of wine all over the pavement at some point soon.