1. Where to start with this one? Football, as we all know, is the cruellest sport. Kingstonian were excellent against Conference South Eastbourne: we showed commitment, quality and guts, but lost to a last-minute goal because we were trying to score a winner. It wasn’t deserved, but it was hard to begrudge Eastbourne the win. Their players looked genuinely delighted, and they played in a rather charmingly naive fashion, totally open and intent on outscoring the opposition rather than grinding out a result. They would be an easy team to watch every week and the vast majority of their fans seemed a nice bunch – although the small group who stood behind their dugout were rather tiresome in their pathetic attempts at football league style support. (Lads: if you want to indulge in unfunny ‘banter’ of the Soccer AM school – highlights including “your support is f*cking shit” and “you’re just a shit team of Wombles”, both comedic gems that Oscar Wilde would have been proud of, to be fair – then be my guest, but do it with a smile, rather than a scowl, eh? Non-league support is supposed to be about wit and humour, not po-faced droning accompanied by aggressive hand signals which had no chance of being followed up. Another word of advice: perhaps tone it down against the likes of Wealdstone, eh lads, or perhaps you might get more than you bargained for?)
2. Anyway, back to football, because this was a properly rip-roaring FA Cup tie. More than anything, though, this was a game of two Kingstonian systems. Tommy Williams started with the 4-4-2 which hasn’t really worked for K’s so far this season and we suffered in general from the same problems we’ve had all year: lack of cohesion, not enough passing options, and a slow tempo allowing the opposition to recover defensively too easily. That’s not to say K’s were poor: far from it, K’s competed well in the first half, with challenges and blocks flying in on the edge of the box from Kavanagh and Laidler and some excellent challenges from Inns and Page preventing clear-cut chances. And K’s really should have gone into the break ahead. Some direct, positive wing play from Alex Addai down the right saw him at the byline, and his cross should have been converted twice: first by Andre McCollin, who somehow contrived to hit a body on the line from four yards, and then by Elvis Hammond, who airkicked the rebound when the ball was begging to be smashed into the net. Predictably – in fact, I think most of the people I was standing with did predict it! – Eastbourne went straight down the other end and scored. The first 14 minutes of the second half was more of the same – K’s running hard, tackling well, but generally second best – and Borough went two up through an excellent chipped free kick by one of their subs. It was won in rather dubious circumstances by their rather twattish number 10, Simon Johnson, clearly the kind of non-league player who thinks he’s excellent, who can’t understand why he hasn’t been scouted by one of the big boys, and who tells girls that he’s a “footballer” even though he’s only semi-professional.
3. But just as things were starting to look a bit bleak, in the 59th minute the game changed completely following a courageous double substitution from the K’s gaffer. At 2-0 down against a team looking increasingly frightening on the break, it would have been easy for the manager to lose belief in the players, and to fear that opening the game up could have led to the floodgates opening and K’s being on the end of a demoralising thrashing. But he didn’t. Instead, he seized the initiative back from Eastbourne by totally switching the system to an attacking 4-3-3. Immediately, K’s looked better when going forward: no longer were we moving forward in two predictable banks of four at a slow pace; suddenly the ball was flying around the pitch at tempo, because the man on the ball had so many more options. Laidler sat really deep and showed terrific discipline, covering for the full backs on their (necessary, without wingers) forays forward up the flanks, especially for Josh Casey, who was magnificent. As a result, Sam Page and Alan Inns had a player close to them who wanted the ball, and could then distribute it effectively. Gone were the long punts forward, bypassing the midfield, and in its place was some really impressive passing football involving Laidler and Sweeney in particular.
4. The real beauty of this 4-3-3 system, though, is that it allows K’s to get all three of our terrific strikers on the pitch at the same time. Yesterday the three big lads generally took up positions as in the diagram, but they interchanged continuously, confusing the Eastbourne back four and, at times, creating absolute mayhem. The regret has to be that in front of goal all three had a poor day in all honesty. Andre McCollin somehow contrived to hit the defender on the line from 4 yards out; although he scored twice, Elvis Hammond hit the keeper in a one-on-one when it seemed impossible not to score and missed from 4 yards out in the first half; Nathaniel Pinney wasted two glorious situations in the closing minutes by delaying too long or taking the wrong option. Had any of them being as clinical as they can be, K’s would be in the hat for the next round.
5. So K’s are dumped out of the FA Cup without getting a big tie for yet another year, and that’s a great shame, because this team is the kind of team that has the potential for a big cup upset. There’s a lot of individual quality that on top form could beat a top side. But we simply haven’t been good enough as a unit this season, something Tommy Williams knows all too well. Is it time to start with the eleven that ended the game on a regular basis for a few weeks, and see if results start to pick up? That’s up to the manager, of course, but I know one thing: if we do play this 4-3-3 system, we’ll be a great side to watch.
All the best to Eastbourne Borough in the FA Cup this season.
Player Ratings: Tolfrey 7; Drage 6, Inns 7, Page 7, Casey 8; Addai 7 (Pinney 7), Kavanagh 6 (Sweeney 8), Laidler 9, Berry 7; McCollin 7, Hammond 7