Going Up? The Ryman Prem Run-In

After all the discussions about the ground, fan ownership, and Chapple knows what else, it’s a pleasure to be writing something for this blog that’s 100% about football. That is, after all, what football clubs are supposed to be about.

With the win last night against Bognor, K’s have forced their way right back into the promotion picture in the Ryman Premier League. With the end of the season less than three weeks away, let’s have a more detailed look at how it’s shaping up.

The title race:

Hampton & Richmond Borough: P43 Pts 88 GD+47
Sat 9th: Farnborough (A)
Sat 16th: Grays (A)
Sat 23rd: Enfield (H)

As a K’s fan, the thought of Hampton winning the league and scoring 100+ goals in the process is deeply frustrating. That’s not because K’s and Hampton have any sort of rivalry – we don’t – but because Alan Dowson had four opportunities to build a team like this at Kingstonian, and didn’t manage it. It’s rumoured that Dowse has had a bigger budget to work with at Hampton than he had at Kingstonian, but even so, where has this free-flowing dominant side emerged from? Why haven’t they had the standard Jan/Feb Dowson Wobble? Why hasn’t he panicked and released half the team in March? It seems that, at Hampton, Dowse has turned into the manager that he could have been at K’s, given his enormous contact book and superb motivational talent. Good luck to him – it couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke.
It would take a massive collapse for Hampton to lose this now, although their run-in is slightly tougher than East Thurrock’s. Two wins will be enough, and surely they’ll do it.

East Thurrock United: P43 Pts 84 GD+49
Sat 9th: VCD (H)
Sat 16th: Harrow (H)
Sat 23rd: Lewes (A)

If Hampton’s dominance under Dowse this season has been surprising, then East Thurrock’s promotion charge has been astonishing. Without spending shedloads of cash, the Corringham club have (at the time of writing) scored the most goals, got the best goal difference, and have the top scorer (Sam Higgins) in the division. That’s quite some achievement – but it doesn’t look like it’s going to win them the title, even if they get the 9 points they’re likely to get from their last three matches. They absolutely destroyed K’s at Kingsmeadow in December, and I don’t think I’d be the only one who’d fear playing them in the playoffs given their immense goal-scoring power. However, teams finishing 2nd don’t have a great record in the playoffs, especially considering that it’s two home games in this format, and the disappointment of missing out on the title could make them vulnerable to a post-season upset. That is – if Hampton don’t bottle it beforehand, of course…

The not-quite-in-the-title-race:

Tonbridge Angels: P43 Pts 80 GD+40
Sat 9th: Billericay (H)
Sat 16th: Merstham (H)
Sat 23rd: Burgess Hill (A)

Angels have been a very good side all season, without ever threatening to be good enough to win the league. They’re solid, well-drilled, and have good players – but they don’t have that touch of genius that title-winning teams possess. Having said that, they’ll be exceptionally tough to beat in the playoffs, home or away. It’s very possible to see them finishing the season with promotion.

Bognor Regis Town: P40 Pts 76 GD+30
Wed 6th: Burgess Hill (A)
Sat 9th: Leatherhead (H)
Tues 12th: Wingate (H)
Sat 16th: Leiston (A)
Tues 19th: Brentwood (H)
Sat 23rd: Hendon (H)

Whoever says “the league table doesn’t lie” has never followed non-league football, where the table frequently does lie, some years worse than others. This year it’s going to end up telling an absolute porker. Bognor Regis Town have been the best team in the Ryman Premier League this season, yet they won’t win the league, and they may end up finishing as low as 4th. They’ve been victims of their own success in the cups, getting through 3 rounds in the FA Cup, and no fewer than 7 rounds in the Trophy, beating Bath, Maidstone, Altrincham and Torquay along the way, and progressing all the way to the semi-final. In the process, given replays and the two-legged semi-final, they’ve played 14 cup matches (excluding county and league cups) on top of their league fixtures. This led to the Rocks facing an almighty fixture pile up in Spring, and they’ve been playing Sat-Mon-Weds-Sat (or similar) for the past few weeks. That really puts professional players’ moaning about being tired into perspective, given they’re doing all that on top of their day jobs. Perhaps inevitably, finally, in the last week, it’s caught up with them: they’ve lost to Enfield, Dulwich and Kingstonian and the title is now out of reach. But this Wednesday’s trip to Burgess Hill represents the last of the fixture backlog: after that they’re back to a manageable two games a week, and no more long midweek away trips from the south coast.
Given the kinder fixture list approaching, I think they’ll recover their form and surge into the playoffs. And if they do, they’ll be the team to beat, whatever the league table says – as long as they’ve still got something left in the tank.

The playoff race:

Dulwich Hamlet: P42 Pts 74 GD+34
Sat 9th: Leiston (A)
Tues 12th: Brentwood (A)
Sat 16th: Lewes (H)
Sat 23rd: Needham Market (A)

Dulwich wobbled badly in the in February and March, including losses to VCD and Lewes during a run of 6 without a win, but seem to have found their feet again with home wins against Tonbridge and Bognor. That makes the play-off race very interesting, because on form, Dulwich are a seriously good side…and if they are back on form, it’s not hard to see them taking 10 or even 12 points from their last 4 games. Given Hamlet’s superb goal difference (+7 of which has come against K’s), even a haul of 9 points would mean K’s would need to win 4 of their 5 remaining games to claim 5th. Eek.
But 3 of Hamlet’s last 4 games are away – their away record reads a far from impressive W8 D5 L7 – and Ryan Moss continues to get more abuse than goals in a Dulwich shirt, so all is not lost. Plus there’s the traditional Dulwich bottle job factor. Yeah, I’m clutching at straws there. Hamlet are certainly favourites for 5th place at this stage.

Enfield Town: P43 Pts 73 GD+20
Sat 9th: Merstham (A)
Sat 16th: Needham Market (H)
Sat 23rd: Hampton (A)

Enfield haven’t really been in the promotion picture at all, and yet here they are sitting in 6th with three weeks of the season remaining due to a strong recent run, which included a most unwanted 4-0 marmalisation of K’s. However, given both Dulwich and Kingstonian’s friendly run ins, it’ll take 9 points and a bit of luck for Town to have a chance of 5th. Stranger things have most certainly happened.

Kingstonian: P41 Pts 72 GD+19
Sat 9th: Brentwood (A)
Mon 11th: Farnborough (H)
Sun 17th: Staines (H)
Tues 19th: Farnborough (A)
Sat 23rd: Merstham (A)

Last but not least, the mighty Kingstonian. It’s been an unusual season: we’ve seldom looked brilliant, but we’ve seldom looked awful either. Until this week I wouldn’t have given us a chance in the playoffs themselves, as we’d been consistently outclassed against the top teams, instead picking up points ruthlessly against the poorer sides in the division. But in the last 10 days we’ve smashed champions-elect Hampton, and deservedly beaten Bognor. The only problem is that both this victories were recorded at Kingsmeadow, yet even if we do make the playoffs, it’ll take two away wins to get promoted. As such it’s fair to say that in the event of finishing 5th, we’d be outsiders to go up. But we certainly wouldn’t be no-hopers. There’s always the strong possibility of magic from Dan Bennett and Andre McCollin, plus the likelihood of big-game performances from the team’s experienced and resilient spine of Tolfrey, Inns, Page and Odametey.
And it’s this belief in the quality of the players in the squad that gives me hope we’ll do well enough in the last 5 games to grab that 5th spot. Our record against teams in the bottom 8 is exceptional (we’d be 2nd!), and although we’ll be facing a vastly different Farnborough to most other teams in the division, I’d take our XI over the opposition’s in all five matches. The problem could be Womble-driven Sat/Mon and Sun/Tues fixture pairings to manage. But how many points will we need?

One thing’s for certain: it’ll be mighty close.


The Wheels Have Fallen Off – But Why?

The wheels have yet again fallen off a Kingstonian promotion charge in February. What’s gone wrong this time?

1. Too Much Tinkering
Yes, there have been injuries, “illnesses”, suspensions, and the odd player leaving the club in a hurry. But we haven’t had a proper injury crisis, or a sudden exodus of our best players. In fact, the best players have been largely available all season: Tolfrey, Page, Drage, Casey, Moss, McCollin. If those six are fit, and have trained, then they should play in their correct positions. The rest of the team can fit around that depending on who is available, but in my opinion you’d also be looking to get Aaron Goode and Tommy Kavanagh in the starting eleven whenever possible. So why the endless tinkering when we’ve got such a good, reliable spine to the team? Why the never-ending chopping and changing of formation and personnel? Why, when it comes to it, doesn’t the management have confidence in the players that put us nearly top of the league? Because that lack of confidence has now been transmitted to the players, who don’t look like the same group of lads as a result.

2. Baffling Tactics
There’s a few examples that could be used of the muddy thinking currently dominating our management team, but here’s last night’s line-up as it was set out, with this fan’s opinion of their best position in brackets:

K's Crazy FormationYou don’t need me to tell you that it was madness. And you don’t even need me to tell you how bad we were in the first half – of course we were. What must the players have thought? It’s the sort of decision-making that leads to managers losing the dressing room…so let’s hope that hasn’t happened. Play players where they are meant to play, please!
We were almost top of the league playing a straightforward, old-fashioned 4-4-2, adapting into more of a 4-5-1 against the top sides, as for example we did so successfully at home to Dulwich. However, now that we’re in the second round of fixtures, teams are coming into games with a distinct gameplan, and as such Dowse has rightly worked on a Plan B. This Plan B is a 5-3-2 – which was proposed on this blog a few weeks ago, in case anyone accuses me of hypocrisy – and the system has had its successes, particularly against teams who play in a very direct way. But is was only ever meant to be a Plan B – in other words, a system to use when Plan A wasn’t working! Instead, we go into every game using a different system, and as a result the players have lost their rhythm.

3. We’re building the team around Sean Ray
The most non-sensical of all the things that have happened in 2014 is that we are now building a side around Sean Ray, an immobile wrecking-ball of a centre half. Yet, within the squad, fit and ready to play, we have a centre-half partnership which kept a record number of clean sheets early in the season, and who look as if they were born to play together as part of a back four. Matt Drage and Sam Page are superb, and they don’t deserve this madness. It’s as if Manchester United had built their side around David May in the 90s rather than Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister. I’ve nothing against Ray – he is, by all accounts, an excellent bloke and a force for good in the dressing room – but he is mediocre at best, and should be used as a substitute, to kick and head anything that comes his way in the last ten minutes when we’re defending a lead, rather than made into the lynchpin of the side.

4. Players
The players also need to take responsibility for a lack of desire in the past few weeks. You shouldn’t be letting Thamesmead back into a game by thinking it’s already won, by taking your foot off the pedal. You shouldn’t be failing to win half the 50/50s you go for, something that happens all too regularly for this fan’s liking. You shouldn’t be failing to track back because it looks like a bit of effort. You shouldn’t be sulking and moaning and sitting on the floor when things go against you; you should be trying to put things right. You shouldn’t be using a few moaners in the Main Stand as an excuse for poor home performances. And I don’t care what tactics the manager uses – you shouldn’t be fucking losing to a team who haven’t won in the league since November!

5. Bad Luck
Finally, there’s no doubt we’ve been unlucky during 2014. At key moments, events have gone against K’s, all arguably affecting the final result in the matches when they occurred:
– Met Police’s first goal, scored as a result of a refereeing aberration;
– Maidstone not having a man sent off when McCollin was hauled through clean on goal;
– And last but not least, Rob Tolfrey’s once-in-a-career howler just after half-time against ETU.

But you can’t put the slump down to luck. I’m losing faith. Yet this is a talented group of players. They deserve to be called talented because of what they’ve shown on the pitch, as individuals and as a team, rather than simply because of their reputations. As such, I hope this is a blip. I hope we recover and start playing the sort of football we should be – because at the moment, what’s on offer just isn’t good enough. Over the last eight days I’ve spent £30 on gate money and I honestly feel £30 out of pocket. It’s been that bad. Come on You K’s. You’re better than this.

Where Are We Now?

Before the defeat to Maidstone, everything looked rosy. No goals conceded, plenty scored, and some great football played – and absolutely no doubts that this K’s side was the real deal.

A 2-0 defeat later, and questions were being asked in the pub post-mortem. Was Drage being dragged along by the excellence of Sam Page? Are we too open playing 4-4-2 against the better sides in the division? What does Dee Okojie bring to the table except enthusiasm? Has McCollin lost his confidence in front of goal? Why was Maidstone home to the entire UK population of wasps?

And so onto Grays, a top of the table clashed that looked as if it would be a tight affair, and very possibly a weather vane for the season after the Maidstone setback. After an initial period where Grays pushed forwards, bypassing Kavanagh and Sweeney, and had the upper hand, K’s gradually begun to dominate, with Okojie particularly impressive playing down the right flank. In the second half, K’s were simply magnificent: one and two touch passing; direct running; solid despite playing a high line. It was the best half of football played at Kingsmeadow for many a year, containing the best goal scored at Kingsmeadow for perhaps even longer.

K's 4-4-2 v Maidstone, Grays & Bognor

K’s 4-4-2 v Maidstone, Grays & Bognor

So the questions were seemingly well and truly answered – well, four of them were; the wasps remain a mystery – with this comprehensive win. Drage was outstanding. Even with a fairly open 4-4-2, K’s had dominated midfield and forced Grays back deep into their own half. Okojie was superb playing on the right rather than the left, offering much needed pace and width to an otherwise narrow midfield. And McCollin’s four sensational goals rather suggested that he had ample self-belief – all four finishes were instinctive, quick-fire and deadly accurate.

But – and there always seems to be a but with K’s these days – along came Bognor on Monday night, and put most of those certainties in doubt again. Drage had a dire game, directly responsible for both Bognor goals and deservedly sent off for two very poor challenges. The team looked way too open, with Bognor being able to pass straight through our midfield as if it wasn’t there, worryingly reminiscent of last season. Okojie did little of note (although he was involved in K’s equaliser, to be fair) and offered no real threat. McCollin, however, looked the most likely to score once again, and so it proved. He isn’t a worry – apart from to opposition defences.

So, as it says in the title, where are we now? Are we still the real deal?

Well, if you’re the manager of the opposition, what do you do against the current line-up? I’d suggest the following, which is almost exactly what Bognor did on Monday:
1. Drop deep. Don’t give McCollin space to run in behind.
2. Attack down K’s left. Pattison will cut inside, giving the right-back space, and Moody is much better going forward than defending.
3. Get your best player – particularly if he’s quick – to focus on Drage. Page is too good.
4. Let Okojie have the ball. Close down the space in the middle of the park so Pattison and Sweeney don’t have space.

All well and good in theory, but very difficult to actually achieve. Moss and McCollin are superb; Drage is hardly a ‘weakness’, being part of a back four that kept a near club-record for clean sheets; Okojie has set up goals already this season after being given space (for instance, McCollin’s first v Grays). In short, Plan A still looks pretty good – and I hope Dowse sticks with it and doesn’t panic.

But if it’s not going well, as on Monday, what could Dowse use as a Plan B?
1. Sign an out-and-out winger, even if he sits on the bench initially. Introducing a genuine wide-man would force the opposition to change tactics, which could disrupt their game plan. Alternatively, using the current players, line-up with the more solid Aldred and left-back and push Moody on:

Option 1 - playing with a winger

Option 1 – playing with a winger

2. Play 4-5-1. It means one of the two excellent forwards would have to be withdrawn, but it’s been proven to work well already this season. It gives Sweeney and Pattison far more licence to roam, and makes them harder to man-mark.

Option 2 - the successful 4-5-1

Option 2 – the successful 4-5-1

In summary then, we’ve got two excellent options for mixing things up as well as a great starting XI. Dowse should be happy – and it’s no time to panic. It’s still looking rosy. Come on You K’s.

Progress Report: Five Games In

As the Isthmian League reaches its first hiatus of the season for the first FA Cup fixture, it’s time to file the first progress report of the season. And what better way to start than with the early breakaway top-5 clubs?


The Contenders

Lowestoft were the clear pre-season favourites with the bookies, and it wasn’t hard to see why: big home gates, play-off finalists last season, and their one problem area last term (scoring enough goals) seemingly solved with the signing of Kings Lynn’s very own Bobby Traynor, 161 goal Linnets striker Jack Defty. Five games in and there’s no reason to strip them of that favourites tag. Apart from a 2-1 reverse away to a good Margate side – more on them later – Town have been impressive, particularly going forward. Chris Henderson already has four goals, and perhaps more ominously for the rest of the division, looks to have already struck up a promising understanding with new strike partner Defty.

Verdict: Still the ones to beat

Hampton top the table after five games, thanks to their perfect defensive record; in fact, Arsenal are the only other team in the English league pyramid yet to concede a goal. The Beavers’ goal does seem to have led a charmed life thus far, with opposition fans bemoaning their poor luck and their even poorer finishing, but it’s a mightily impressive record, especially as Dean Inman – sensationally linked with a move to QPR last season – can’t even get into the side at the moment. They’ve only scored seven goals, however, and haven’t exactly looked like scoring a lot more, generally lining up in a narrow formation with both full-backs playing a largely defensive role.

Verdict: Solid so far – but what happens when the Beavers’ dam bursts?

Kingstonian sit third, and do so as the anti-Hampton, the Kevin Keegan to their George Graham: 14 goals scored and 7 conceded. An attacking midfield of Dean Lodge, Sam Clayton and Matt Pattison should mean the chances don’t dry up any time soon, but will Andre McCollin take enough of them? His red card aside, Andre has been magnificent so far in all but one area: one-on-one finishing. (If you could combine McCollin and a certain Mr. R. Traynor, you’d have a top-class football league player, by the way). Defensively, it’s difficult to know where K’s actually stand, as at least 3 of the 7 goals conceded have been due to suicidal defensive errors and gross lapses in concentration rather than poor defensive positioning. If the lads in red-and-white hoops can cut out the stupid mistakes at the back, they could be genuine contenders.

Verdict: Come On You K’s, keep it going

Margate are by far the best side K’s have faced so far this season, reflected in their unbeaten start. They’re also the only team to have beaten title favourites Lowestoft, which really marks them out as a team to watch. Hartsdown Park – with its sloping pitch and fierce winds – is never an easy place to go, but ‘Gate look to have an added resilience on the road this term which will make them difficult to beat.

Verdict: Play-off material

Bury Town have performed admirably since stepping up to the Ryman Premier, and now make their third attempt to exit the division to the promised land of the Conference South – although those of us who enjoy a boozy away day will be desperately hoping they fail (unless of course K’s accompany them up!) as it’s a fantastic little town. Gates have slid slightly since their promotion from Ryman One North, with only 312 at their first home game, which means they are not always able to compete on wages with Suffolk neighbours Lowestoft in the way they once were. However, Bury have made a seriously decent start, unbeaten in their first five, and look a sure-fire bet to reach the play-offs for a third consecutive year. Like K’s, they’ve had a relatively straightforward set of fixtures to start, so the match between the two in 8 days’ time could be a useful pointer as to whether either of the two sides can be genuine challengers for the title this time around.

Verdict: Top-5 again?


The Best of The Rest

Lewes were much fancied by some of their own fans before the start of the season – probably the type of Lewes fan who seems to think they’re a big club – but the smart money was never on the Sussex side to be up there this year. Their budget has been drastically reduced as part of preparation for a ‘break-even season’ next year, and as a result it would be a major surprise if they overcame this hurdle to mount a proper promotion bid. So far, there are no signs of the Rooks solving last term’s goalscoring problems, with only five strikes in 5 games.

Verdict: Midtable in the league table, top of the away day league table

Wealdstone continue to compete well at Ryman Premier level due to the loyalty of their long-suffering supporters, but were earmarked for greater things this time around after a Trophy run to the semi-finals allowed a significant boost to the playing budget. When you consider that the Stones finished last season in magnificent form, charging into the playoffs from a mid-table position at the turn of the year, it was no surprise that many fans took up the bookies’ offers of 12s and 10s, meaning Wealdstone started the season as 8/1 third favourites. They’ve made a solid, if unspectacular, start to the year, with only three goals conceded but only five goals scored. An insipid performance away to Lewes left supporters unimpressed, but they’ve ground out good results in all other four games, and it would be a very brave man who discounted them from the promotion picture this early in the season, especially with Richard Jolly in the ranks.

Verdict: If Richard Jolly stops firing blanks, they’ll be right up there

Canvey, Whitehawk and Bognor are also all on 8 points after five games, yet all have different ambitions this year: Bognor will be happy to consolidate after promotion, Canvey are making a tilt at the play-offs, and Whitehawk’s backers should expect a title challenge as a result of their vast playing budget. As much as it hurts to admit it, Whitehawk must have a genuine chance of being in the promotion picture at the end of the season: their one loss so far was to Lowestoft. The funding at Whitehawk looks like a rich man’s vanity project – what is the point of funding a non-community club without any fans? On the subject of annoying clubs without fans: mercifully, Met Police don’t look as strong this year.


The Strugglers

Thurrock sit in the relegation zone after five games, which is a major surprise. Not because Thurrock are a big club at this level – I’m not sure they’re a big club at any level if truth be told – but because they’ve got a proper manager in the form of Mark Stimson at the helm. Stimson has won FA Trophies and Football League play-off finals, so it’s a shock to see his new charges struggling so badly. It’s not a shock to see Carshalton struggling, because they’ve not got a proper manager. In fact, they’ve not got a manager at all with Owner/General Secretary/President/Prime Minister/Chairman Dipre selecting the side. As long as he’s in charge of team affairs, they’ll be in trouble. But when will he realise he needs to appoint a genuine gaffer to pick and train the first XI? If a proper manager is in place there sooner rather than later, they could still be a threat given the quality of the squad at Colston Avenue.


The Verdict

Strangely, the league table could well have taken shape already: it would be no great shock if the current top 9 all finished in the top half, and no huge surprise were two of Leiston, Hendon, Harrow, Concord and East Thurrock to be relegated. We’ll know a lot more about Kingstonian’s chances after the next five games, which include away games at Bury, Lowestoft and Wealdstone. Ouch. Lowestoft are still the club to beat in the hunt for the title, but if Hampton are still top in five games’ time with an impressive defensive record, they’ll have to be considered genuine rivals to the Suffolk side. It’s all to play for.