We Are The Pride of South Chessington, The Mighty Kingstonian – Needham Market (A)

1. If you didn’t make the journey to deepest Suffolk – and with the trains in chaos as usual, I can’t blame you – then you might have seen the result, and thought, “hard earned away point”. You’d be wrong, because of one very important factor that you won’t quite understand unless you were there: Needham Market were woeful. Some of the NMFC players were so comically uncoordinated that it was a wonder they could run without tripping themselves up, let alone kick a football. Their number 8, in particular, was one of the worst footballers I’ve had the misfortune to have paid £10 to watch, and did nothing but hoof the ball up in the air all afternoon. Their centre halves viewed the ball like a grenade, and panicked whenever the ball was within 10 yards of them (which wasn’t often). They were amazingly bad. Behind the goal, we laughed at the NMFC efforts in the first five minutes, and talk turned to goal difference. We couldn’t fail to beat this lot, could we?

2. But fail to beat them we did – and on another day, we might have lost. After an initial five minutes of total K’s domination, in which Pico somehow smashed the ball over from 5 yards out, the sad truth is that K’s were no better than their relegation-threatened opponents, and often forced onto the back foot. Needham Market’s number 19, after initially being mocked for his shirt number – “you’re not even good enough to get in the matchday 18, 19” – went on to be a thorn in K’s side all afternoon with some direct running down the right hand side. A long-range strike from the home side caught the wind (or just caught Tolfrey unawares) and hit the post. Meanwhile, K’s offered nothing going forward, looking pedestrian and predictable. Bennett didn’t look interested; the new lad on the left barely touched the ball all afternoon; O’Leary looked lost; both strikers were subdued.

3. One of the mysteries of the afternoon was Tommy Williams’ lack of impact on the game. Needham Market lined up in a 5-3-2, looking to be solid first and foremost. We lined up in our standard 4-4-2, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But as the game went on, it was blatantly obvious that we weren’t going to play our way through Needham Market’s narrow 3 central defenders, and in particular that both our widemen were having shockers. I’m not a tactical genius, but changes clearly needed to be made if we were going to win the game, either to the formation or the personnel. Why didn’t we try and play with wingers? Or bring on Jake Kempton with more than 5 minutes left? Or just do something, anything, to break the dreadful monotony of the second half? Only Tommy will know. As a fan, it was very frustrating.

4. But despite all of that frustration, this was still a terrific day out. Needham Market is a nice enough village, with a glorious train station a short walk from the two pubs – one nice with good beer and no frills, one less nice with dreadful beer but with football, pool and darts to keep travelling fans amused. The ground had bags of character, with a bike shed (plus another burnt out bike shed) behind one goal, a huge hedge along one side, complete with ladders and a gigantic hi-vis pole so balls could be retrieved, and a homely bar. What’s not to like?

5. But, aside from hopefully the Turvey final, where do K’s go from here? In the week, Alan Inns issued a call to arms, saying the players in the squad needed to decide if they’d be happy finishing sixth, or whether they wanted to make a real go at getting in the playoffs. The response was this insipid performance, devoid of any quality or urgency. Perhaps there’ll be a reaction to this reaction? There certainly needs to be.

Player Ratings: Tolfrey 6; Bennett-Johnson 6, Page 6, Hogg 5, Wells 6; Bennett 4, O’Leary 4, Odametey 5, Newman 4; Gomez 5, McCollin 4

Does Bianca Know You’re Here? – Billericay Town (A)

1. No discussion of this match can start anywhere else but the pitch, because it was the main feature of the match, and the main reason it finished 0-0. As a fan of a club which doesn’t have a pitch of its own to maintain, perhaps I can’t complain, but the pitch was in a disgraceful state. It wasn’t really that it was particularly devoid of grass (if you’re imagining a 1970s style mudbath), it was just dreadful: totally uneven, with humps and hollows all over it, and seemingly random patches of long, tufty grass interspersed with patches of bare, sticky sand. It made passing football completely impossible, and dribbling with the ball exceptionally difficult. I know it’s been a bad winter, but there were steeplechases run on better ground over the weekend, so I’m not sure that’s much of an excuse.

2. As such, no surprise that K’s only started with one of our two tricky wingers, with Peter Dean coming in (on his birthday) for the benched Malachi Hudson. The surprise given the conditions was that Bennett was so effective in the first half, cutting inside with real menace, and at one point nearly scoring the goal of the season. Just as Ali was calling ex-K’s striker Phil Williams “the non-league Paolo Wanchope”, Bennett was once again proving he is the non-league Riyad Mahrez by trying, and nearly succeeding, to beat the entire Billericay team in a slaloming run. “Bennett’s too good for you,” sang the small but enthusiastic travelling support, and in the first half that was quite often the case.

3. K’s were generally the better side in the first period, with Bennett to the fore, but struggled to create clear cut opportunities, and actually were indebted to a couple of decent Tolfrey saves to keep it goalless. The second half was precisely the opposite, despite neither team making any significant tactical changes, leading most to conclude that the conditions (pitch, wind, proximity to the bar) were clearly in favour of attacking one end. Billericay really put us under the pump after half-time, dominating territory and taking every chance to get the ball in the box. They met two K’s centre halves in imperious form, and a keeper who simply doesn’t look like making a mistake ever again, such is his consistency at the moment, and therefore ‘Ricay also struggled to really create that clear-cut chance to win the game.

4. Throughout this period, the home fans were becoming increasingly irate with the referee, who was having an inconsistent afternoon. From my vantage point down the other end, it was hard to tell whether the moans were fully justified, but it did seem as if K’s got lucky on a couple of occasions. However, that evened itself out when Andre McCollin set off on a storming run against Billericay’s tiring back four, beat one, beat two, and then when he’d reached the edge of the box and had one more Essex giant to beat, was cynically brought down. Andre was travelling at an angle rather than directly towards the goal, but he was brought down just as he was preparing to shoot on his left foot from about 16 yards. To most Ryman League centre forwards it wouldn’t have been, but all K’s fans in the ground knew that the ‘Ricay centre half had just deliberately prevented a clear goal-scoring opportunity. As such the K’s fans howled for a red; the referee brought out a yellow. As a result I don’t think the home faithful can feel too hard done by, really. A draw was a fair result.

5. On a weekend when a lot of people were obsessing about the Premier League, this was a brilliantly non-league occasion. Billericay’s ground is charmingly tinpot, from the goal nets that looked like they’d been bought off Hereford United just after Ronnie Radford scored in them, to the world’s smallest main stand, through to the (wonderful) ability for fans to enjoy a pint during the game. The players added to the lower-league feel: Billericay’s number 8 seemed to have been subbed for attempting two bicycle kicks in his own half*; Andre McCollin left the field for a piss mid-way through the second half; and Peter Dean shouted “PETER DEAN” for no apparent reason mid-way through a K’s attack. And in the truest non-league tradition of all, Billericay’s keeper lost his temper with the behind the goal travelling fans for no real reason, and for at least 5 minutes acted like a total clown.

That’s non-league football. And sometimes that’s why we love it.

Player Ratings: Tolfrey 7; Goode 6, Inns 8, Page 8, Wells 7; Bennett 6, Odametey 8, O’Leary 7, Dean 6; McCollin 7, Gomez 6

*He may have been injured, but it sure looked like he’d been subbed for showing flair!