Match Preview – Maidstone United (H)

There’d be a certain irony if tomorrow’s game were to be postponed – this is, after all, Maidstone’s first game due to be played on grass since the Conference’s decision to vote against allowing 3G pitches. But *if* the game’s on – and despite Kingsmeadow’s fantastic drainage, the severity of the weather expected to arrive suggests that’s a big if – then it promises to be another mouthwatering clash between two of the best sides in the Ryman League. So here’s the good, the bad and the downright ugly sides of the two teams.

Kingstonian

The Good: K’s are a contender largely because we’re the side with the best defensive record, having conceded just 25 goals in 27 games. This is no accident: Rob Tolfrey is the division’s best goalkeeper, dominant, agile and consistent; Matt Page and Matt Drage are both dependable, strong centre halves, but an even better partnership; and Josh Casey is an impeccable further shield to the K’s goal sitting just in front of the back four. Other teams will have to continue to work hard to score against Kingstonian. Another strength for K’s is the front pairing of Andre McCollin and Ryan Moss, who must be giving opposition managers headaches every week – as they’re both strong, quick and goalscorers, how on earth do you manage to mark them both out of the game? The simple answer is that you don’t: they’ve scored 40 goals between them in all competitions so far.

The Bad: But apart from Moss and McCollin, goals have been hard to come by – and as a result K’s are the lowest scorers of the leading pack. Alan Dowson would have expected a better return from players such as Charlie Knight and Dan Sweeney, both capable of shooting with venom. Perhaps Dan Sweeney’s late strike against Dulwich is the first sign of improvement in this area? The only glaring weakness in K’s first eleven is at right-midfield. Dee Okojie has tried hard, but not offered a consistent end product, and has tended to disappear from big games; Charles Ofusu-hene offers power and direct running, but has failed to track back once too often, and never manages to get to the by-line; and meanwhile the mercurial Matt Pattison – probably the most talented player in the whole squad – has struggled to such an extent this term that he’s been farmed out on loan. And it’s the loan market Alan Dowson has turned to in a quest for a solution, by signing Iffy Allen from Barnet for an initial month – but it’s early days for the young winger. If K’s can threaten more often down the right flank, we’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

The Ugly: Referee Chris Thomas’ display against Met Police knocked the stuffing out of K’s, and helped to lead to a 2-1 home defeat in K’s last game. When that match was played, K’s would have gone four points clear at the top of the table with a win, and would have grabbed hold of the Ryman League by the scruff of its neck. Instead, by losing that game, and with all K’s competitors winning since, K’s are very much back in the pack. A great opportunity missed.

Maidstone United

The Good: Maidstone are consistent – they’ve lost only 4 of their 28 games so far this season – and that’s a quality very few Ryman League teams possess. In particular, the Stones as solid as their pitch when they’re playing at home, being unbeaten there this season. Although some of the locals – probably not the ones who went to Sittingbourne and Ashford, I’d imagine – have been complaining that there have been too many draws and not enough wins, last week’s 7-2 destruction of the Beavers should have broken that particular dam. As far as players go, Frannie Collin has 17 league goals so far, meaning there’ll be 3 outstanding strikers on show on Saturday.

The Bad: All four losses suffered by the Stones this season have come on the green, green grass (well, okay, the brown, brown mud in most cases) away from their Gallagher Stadium home. In particular, a recent 4-1 defeat at Thamesmead was a remarkably poor return. Let’s face it, Thamesmead are dire. But even their ‘bad’ away record isn’t that bad when it’s inspected more closely: they’ve won 8 out of 12, including a win at Bognor, and 2 of those 4 defeats were at fortresses Wealdstone and Dulwich.

The Ugly: The Conference’s vote to not allow 3G pitches, for next season at any rate, means that as it stands Maidstone United would be refused promotion to the Conference South if they win the title or the playoffs. How will the squad react to the knowledge that no matter how they do this year, if they stay at Maidstone they won’t be Conference South players next season? I strongly suspect that the players won’t care – they’re already being paid better than most of their peers in the higher league – but what is the next step for the club? Certainly, it seems only a matter of time until the authorities come to their senses and allow 3G at all levels of non-league, but until that happens will Maidstone continue to push to win the title when the money spent on wages could, perhaps, be better spent on increasing their new ground’s 2200 capacity in preparation for eventual life in the Conference?

Prediction

Unless something unusual happens – an early sending off, one player having the game of his life – then this should be a very close match between two very good teams. K’s caused Maidstone enough problems in August, despite the 2-0 loss, to suggest that the Stones won’t have it all their own way, but Maidstone will be cock-a-hoop after their seven goals last week. I’ll chicken out and predict a 2-2 draw.

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A Refereeing Aberration – Not Police (H)

1. Sadly, there’s only one place to start – and that is with last night’s referee, Mr Chris Williams. The following things are all true: without referees there wouldn’t be a game; the more referees are abused, the fewer good referees there will be in the future; referees are only human and will make mistakes; the fast nature of football compared to other sports means refereeing mistakes are a common feature of the sport. Equally, the following is also true: the referee from last night’s game should never referee semi-professional football again.
For those who weren’t there, this is what happened. Mr Williams blew for a (slightly dubious) Kingstonian free kick, near the touchline on the Grolsch Stand side, about level with the edge of the Athletics End penalty box. After bringing all the big lads up from the back, K’s took it quickly and tapped the ball forward down the line to cross from a better position…but too quickly for the ref, who clearly thought Met Police weren’t ready, and who therefore gave a shrill blow of his whistle. The K’s players stopped – leaving the ball alone – and at this point, those closest to the incident heard a shout of “play on” (or similar) from the ref, who also made a “play on” gesture. At that exact moment, the Met Police player nearest the ball hoofed it clear. All of a sudden, in an instant, the ball was at the feet of the Not Police number 9, clean through on goal. Unsurprisingly, given every football player is instructed from the time they are kids to “play to the whistle”, there weren’t any covering K’s defenders, and he slotted the ball home to put the Met one-nil up.
Everybody heard the whistle – in fact, even all those on the far side of the ground in the Main Stand heard it – and so the referee’s actions are inexplicable. He didn’t make a mistake; it was an aberration. If Mr Williams is even capable of doing such a thing, he should not be a referee. That is the harsh truth of the situation.
In the second half, things got even weirder. The Met were literally in the process of making a substitution – one player walking off to the bench, linesman with his flag over his head to indicate a sub, the bench holding up the cards to say who was on and who was off, the game stopped – when the ref waved the Met Police keeper to hurry up and take the goal kick. Confused, and a little shocked, he did as he was told, to the astonishment of all the players. K’s didn’t challenge for the ball, and let the nearest Met player boot the ball into touch for a throw so the substitution could be completed. Farcical.

2. The refereeing nonsense certainly affected K’s rhythm, and contributed in no small part to the defeat – it took until about the 70th minute for the hoops to actually get going again, and Sam Page in particular seemed to have completely lost concentration – but K’s weren’t all that good before the incident either. Dowse opted to only leave Ryan Moss as an out-and-out striker so that, as he said afterwards, we “made sure we got in the game” and to “split their three centre halves”. The problem with that tactic against a decent, but not brilliant, team such as Met Police is that unless at least one, and sometimes two, of your central midfielders is consistently supporting the front man, you’re handing the opposition the initiative in terms of territory. Tommy Kavanagh, Dan Sweeney and Josh Casey are all good players – Casey, in particular, has been outstanding since he joined – but none of them naturally take up positions in the line between the defence and midfield. As a result, K’s were very much 4-5-1 rather than a modern 4-2-3-1, and offered little threat in the first half.
As the form of Ryan Moss and Andre McCollin continues to impress, and as the pair continue to notch up goal after goal, opposition managers are going to become increasingly concerned with stopping them above anything else. As such, other teams playing three centre halves against K’s is going to become more and more common so that teams have a spare centre half – and we’ll need to come up with a better plan than this to counteract that tactic. Brendan Rogers’ solution at Liverpool was to also go to three at the back and match up, allowing Suarez and Sturridge to continue to play together up front. With Sean Ray looking good at centre back when he plays, and with three good central midfielders in the squad, it wouldn’t be impossible for K’s to do the same. Not every week, of course – our 4-4-2 has been immense – but as a more effective Plan B, perhaps…

3. This group of K’s players is easy to like. First and foremost, they work hard. It sounds like a basic requirement, but it’s been while since K’s fans have been able to cheer on an XI that’s really worked for one another, covering every blade of grass as a team and giving everything they’ve got for the cause. It’s refreshing, and it’s refreshed my enthusiasm for this level of football, too often a conveyor belt of failed ex-pro’s with a chip on their shoulder, who are playing solely for the extra money. Since the disappointment of the last half an hour against Harrow, when for the first time this season arrogance crept into K’s play, the lads have been magnificent, even in defeat last night. Despite a difficult 90 minutes played on a cross between mud and treacle on Saturday, they ran until they dropped in the closing stages, putting the Met under untold pressure. More of the same, please, boys – it’s great to see.

4. The two new boys have made a good start, but equally, they haven’t yet offered the promise of a league-winning solution to K’s problem areas, left back and right midfield. Jack Clark is tidy on the ball, takes up good positions, and isn’t scared to put a hefty challenge in – but is his best position really left back? Iffy Allen is quick, direct, and has good skill – but how will he cope with the heavy pitches he’ll have to deal with following all this rain? The jury’s still out, for now…but they both look like decent signings based on their first three games.

5. After the highs of the game against Dulwich – a revitalised club on the up with a young, vibrant, noisy support – the last two games couldn’t have provided more of a contrast. There’s more point in wasps existing than Met Police FC. They don’t represent a community and they’re not even a works team any more – seriously, what’s the point? Why don’t they disband and use the Met money they receive for good causes, such as, I dunno, openly funding some sports facilities in Tottenham to rebuild bridges with the community there? I reckon that’d be a bit more useful than providing 16 non-league journeymen mercenaries with a living.
But even that’s not as sad as what’s happening at Carshalton, a fantastic football club being ripped apart by a civil war with no winners, only losers. To see their home end deserted, and their loyal fans standing outside the turnstiles, I couldn’t help but put myself in their position and admire their stoicism. All the best to them – but sadly, it doesn’t seem there’s much hope of a light at the end of their long, dark tunnel.