You Are The Weakest Link – Goodbye

Three games into pre-season, and how are K’s shaping up? That’s a difficult question to answer. Pre-season in non-league is a reliably unreliable indicator of prospects for the season ahead: there are trialists playing the odd game and then disappearing; key players are on holiday; lads who play most of the games run off in August and September for an extra fiver a week; warm-up games are played at a laughably slow tempo, giving players the time on the ball they lack in the hustle and bustle of a league fixture. Results – and even performances – don’t really matter until August 8th at Leiston.

So how can we predict if K’s are looking set for a good season? The manager and coaching staff are now settled, so no excuses on that front. In my opinion the level of success this term will simply be about the quality of the squad that we can put together.

I use the word ‘squad’ deliberately, in place of the word ‘team’. Too often over the past few years, there have been whole chunks of the season when Tommy (or Dowse before him) didn’t have three genuine options on the bench to change the games. At 3-0 down away at Hendon last season, Tommy Williams was forced into bringing on the 15-stone human wrecking-ball Danny Buckle up front rather than somebody who could genuinely turn the game around – and that wasn’t an unusual type of substitution in Winter. Even worse, K’s have often had to put out a team with obvious weak links in the starting XI due to a trusted player’s injury or suspension, or an unexpected player departure.

Why does that really matter when you’ve got McCollin and Moss up front (for example)? Well, there’s a lot of evidence that it’s not the strength of your best player, or even the average strength of your team, that really matters when looking at likely success over a season: it’s actually how bad your weakest player is. A couple of numbers geeks, Chris Anderson & David Solly, explored this theory in their football book ‘The Numbers Game’, and their research has since been backed up by several other geeks doing a similar thing. If, as an example, K’s lost the services of Rob Tolfrey and replaced him with an even better goalkeeper (hard to imagine, but go with it), we might get a few more points next season, but there wouldn’t be a big improvement. But if K’s could ensure that there was only very seldom a ‘weak link’ in the side, a player who isn’t really comfortable at Ryman League level, then there would be a massive improvement in K’s results.

Why? If you’ve got a fairly strong player, the other team will make sure they focus on stopping them as far as possible, so signing an even stronger player doesn’t change things too much. Whereas if you’ve got a weak link (or two) where you haven’t normally, the opposition picks on him (or them) relentlessly, viewing it as an opportunity. Some (old) examples. When we played Byron Napper at left back away at Bury St Edmonds, Bury switched the play every single time they got it to their right flank, and sent their full back bombing on; Napper was sent off after twenty minutes. When we played Sean Ray at centre half, Thamesmead adapted their tactics to drag us out of our half and then hit direct balls over the top, exposing Ray’s lack of pace and negating his strength in the air; they came from 2-0 down to draw 2-2. You could call this The Djimi Traore Theory.

Looking at the current squad we’ve been using so far in pre-season, my hope is that Tommy Williams has learned from last season, and from his previous experience at Carshalton, and realised that it’s better to spread the budget wisely on a strong squad rather than blowing it on a few star names. That’s not to say that some great players wouldn’t be welcome of course – but not at the expense of having a liability somewhere else in the eleven.

So Here’s To You, Alan Dowson, Kingstonian Loves You More Than You Will Know

Alan Dowson has left Kingstonian, finally exhausted by the time and effort he’d put into the job. That says it all really – in the end, his dedication to the job, his obsession with detail and preparation, was just too much to bear. He didn’t leave because he’d lost interest, or because the team was under-performing, or he feared he was doing a bad job. He just cared too much.

It’s hard to put into context how depressing it was to be a Kingstonian fan when Dowse took over. We were lower mid-table in the pub league, nearer to relegation than promotion. We were playing terrible football. We’d seen Stuart Macintyre break up a decent side which beat Wimbledon in the Surrey Cup Final and replace it with a team that didn’t care. Attendances had dropped to an all-time low, back in the time when some people still did watch non-league football. And then a bloke with a reputation for grinding out 1-0 wins as Walton & Hersham manager was handed the reins. I, for one, didn’t think for a minute I’d be writing this piece seven and a half years on with K’s having finished second in the Ryman Premier, but he grabbed the club by the scruff of the neck through sheer personality, and hasn’t let go at any point since.

The first time I thought, “we could be onto something here” was an away game at Molesey. The management team actively encouraged the behind-the-goal travelling fans to wind up the Molesey keeper – something I thought was brilliant – and K’s played swashbuckling football, topped off by a stupendous goal from recent signing Bobby Traynor. It was, in many ways, the start of things to come: a connnection with the fans, attacking football, and Bobby Traynor goals.

The championship season showcased everything that was good about Dowse. The seemingly never-ending contacts book was raided to sign players with real pedigree. Then, these good players were bonded together into a proper squad with team spirit and a winning mentality. Next, Dowse quickly found a winning system with the players he had – a 4-4-2 with Dean Lodge cutting in from the left wing – and the wins started coming consistently and relentlessly. There was the February wobble (another strangely consistent part of Dowse being in charge), but as always, Alan kept his nerve, made some great decisions, and got the team playing winning football again. It was a masterclass in how to manage a lower-level non-league club, and it delivered a thoroughly deserved championship.

The following season also epitomised all the good points of Alan Dowson. One of his great qualities – loyalty – meant that he felt he had to trust the team that got us promoted, but they weren’t good enough. So he acted decisively and brilliantly, shipping out several of the heroes who weren’t up to it, and bringing in a host of top-class players. This was all carried out in the space of a day which came to be known as Dowson Day. Of course, Alan had made all the right decisions. The players he’d kept gradually adapted to the higher level of football; the players he brought in fitted in well; the players he let go never really played at the same high level again for any proper period of time. That season ended with K’s in the playoffs, and probably our best victory under Dowse, a terrific 4-2 derby win at Sutton. Of course the season really ended with the Boreham Wood debacle, something that hurt Dowse more than it did the players and fans, because such a good, honest man just couldn’t believe the injustice handed out to his club was allowed to stand.

Equally, despite all of those positives, it’s true to say that watching Kingstonian could occasionally be a frustrating experience during the last seven years. This isn’t just quibbling about whether 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 would have been better on any given day, or whether player A or player B should have been selected – in my view, that’s up to the manager, and fans should leave off second guessing every managerial decision – but every now and then, Dowse selected a team that you just knew would play badly. As a fan, you’d see the line-up, gulp, and think “this could be a long afternoon”. East Thurrock away this season, for instance, or Simon Huckle starting at number 10 in a bizarre 3-6-1 lineup a few years back. If anything though, these oddities were just another feature of meticulous, obsessive planning rather than the act of a desperate manager shuffling the pack. The opposition in each case would have been scouted (possibly even more than once) and weaknesses identified – and then a team would be selected to prey upon those specific weaknesses. In other words, Dowse sometimes overthought it, becoming too reactive and not showing enough faith in his own players to dominate the opposition by playing our best players in our best shape.

This is when Kingstonian have been at their best under Dowse: a clear gameplan, backed up by good training, played out by motivated, good players. The last 15 games of this season offer the perfect example of how good a team built by Alan Dowson could be: we were highly organised, fiercely competitive, but played really good football in an unusual system. I’ve enjoyed the last three months of football-watching as much as any. Even driving back on a Tuesday night from Leiston after a 0-0 draw, I didn’t regret going. Why? Because it was so glaringly obvious that all of the players had given their all, something that’s a depressing rarity at this level. And it doesn’t get much better than watching your team effortlessly stroke the ball around the park at the home ground of the runaway champions, as we did at Wealdstone only a few weeks later.

It’s sad to lose a manager as committed and inspirational as Dowse at any time, but for him to leave when he’d finally put together a team that looked like it merited a place in the Conference South is hard to take. Such is the nature of non-league football that a new manager will have new ideas, a different contacts book, and an alternative vision for a successful side. It wouldn’t be a great surprise now if this excellent team broke up and disbanded. What a shame that would be.

But back to Dowse. Thanks Alan, for steadying a sinking ship, righting it, and setting it back on course (albeit at a slower rate of knots than you would have wanted). Thanks for genuinely caring about a little non-league club and its supporters. Thanks for bringing in terrific people: Mark Hams, Gary Abbott and Martin Tyler. Thanks for signing Bobby Traynor. Thanks for re-signing Dean Lodge. Thanks for beating Sutton. Thanks for beating Sutton again. And again. And again! Thanks for the championship – those tense away wins in Spring, the great victory against Cray, the pitch invasion at the end of the Dulwich game. Thanks for the football we played this season. Thanks for playing Allan Tait at number 8 just so we could sing a rhyming song about him. Thanks for your humility. Most importantly, thanks for ‘getting’ Kingstonian FC.

Good luck Alan, and don’t be a stranger to Kingsmeadow.

Now, altogether then:

Our Dowse, is a football genius,
Our Dowse, is a football genius,
Our Dowse, is a football genius…

Match Preview: Kingstonian v Bromley, London Cup Final

So, a chance for some silverware before the Summer break. First, some statistics:

Head to Head in the London Senior Cup:
Kingstonian – 4
Bromley – 2
London Senior Cup wins:
Kingstonian – 3
Bromley – 4
Standings:
Kingstonian – Finished 11th in the Ryman Premier League
Bromley – Finished 15th in Conference South (4 points above relegation)
Form (in last 8 games):
Kingstonian – W2 D1 L5 F7 A12
Bromley – W1 D0 L7 F4 A22

In short, then, it’s not easy to predict the result of the Final. The two clubs have a very similar attitude to the London Senior Cup – a mixture of “we may as well enter” and “in it to win it” – but both camps have been making all the right noises about “ending the season on a high” and “winning a trophy for the fans”. The two team selections should provide an early indication of just how desperate each manager is to win the game. In particular, the selection of Player of the Season Joe Welch in goal for Bromley in place of George Howard – who’s been selected in every London Cup game so far – would demonstrate that Mark Goldberg really want to end the season on a high. For Kingstonian, Alan Dowson’s strongest XI is a little less obvious, as it’s the young players such as Jamil Okai and Luke Wanadio who have been the brightest sparks of the disappointing recent performances. However, Dowse has chosen to experiment tactically in recent games – the selection of right-footed defender Sidorowicz on the left wing at home to Concord being the strangest selection of all – and if the team lines up in a solid 4-4-2 or similar, then he means business.

Kingstonian’s season has almost exactly mirrored 2011/12: a tame mid-table finish, falling gates, poor performances in big games, and a London Senior Cup Final reached almost by accident. Again, the tantalising prospect of a pitch invasion and a trophy awaits with one good performance when it counts – and a win also offers the prospect of ending the year on a high, and starting next season with renewed hope and optimism. Last year the team put in a truly dire performance in the final, which meant that the supporters sloped off into the Summer even more dejected than they would otherwise have been. It would be a crying shame if the players let everybody down again: even if you can’t win it, boys, show some heart, break this downward spiral, and give us behind the goal something to shout about.

It should be close, it should be tense – but more than anything, it should be one of those fun nights to be a Kingstonian fan when we show what we’re about. COME ON YOU K’S!

Dartford – Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

On the 26th of August 2006, K’s fans travelled to Thurrock for a Ryman League Division One South (pub league) fixture between Kingstonian and Dartford. 336 people were there to witness a fairly dire 1-0 ‘home’ win by the Darts.

Fast forward six and a half years, and yes, in that period, we at Kingstonian have strengthened as a club. We have a passionate, committed, knowledgeable and downright good manager in Alan Dowson; we have secured tenancy at Kingsmeadow; we have people in charge of the club who have the best interests of Kingstonian at heart and are willing to back the manager to sign players; we have a thriving youth section and academy; and most of all, we’re playing our football at the top end of the Ryman Premier League rather than the lower half of the Ryman South. In fact, in retrospect, we can say that the MacIntyre months (in which that August 2006 Dartford game fell) were the club’s nadir. But happy as we should be with our progress since then, Dartford’s record puts ours to shame: the Darts have moved on to such an extent that they’re barely the same club any more. Three promotions, a new ground, and regular four-figure gates all mean that the Darts are very much the big boys in our Trophy fixture. As if to demonstrate what a mammoth task winning the tie will be, Dartford’s most recent away game was a win at Luton, whose average gate is 20 times that of ours.

The Kent side’s last season in our company was 2009/10, when they destroyed the hoops twice on their march to the Ryman Premier title. The 5-0 demolition job at Princes Park still gives me nightmares now, given that K’s were highly fortunate not to be on the end of a double-figure defeat; the Darts’ 6-2 win at Kingsmeadow, which secured them the title, was tame in comparison. All the scorers of those 11 (ELEVEN) goals are still starting for the Darts in the Conference, which does help to put the heavy defeats into perspective, even if it emphasises the mountain K’s will have to climb to win the tie.

And if the gulf in quality between the sides didn’t seem big enough already, there is the K’s 4-0 defeat at Thurrock last Saturday to throw into the mix. A loss like that – to the bottom side in the league, remember – can shatter confidence.

But despite all of this, there should be no despondency about K’s prospects in this fixture: we have a chance. The K’s players will raise their game – and make no mistake, we do have some good players – and any team that scores goals for fun has a great chance in a one-off cup tie. A set piece, a long-range strike, a counter attack, and all of a sudden Dartford are under pressure. Wealdstone’s run to the semi-finals last season, when they beat Conference sides Barrow and Cambridge, and dispatched Dartford along the way for good measure, shows what can be done with belief and a little luck.

So tell your friends, tell your neighbours, and tell the world – let’s get a decent crowd in, for once, and let’s get right behind the side for 90 minutes. COYKs!

An Ode To The Kingston Road (End)

So then, a brief obituary to the terrace which gives this blog its name, a terrace knocked down by AFC Wimbledon in the name of progress. More accurately, a terrace which AFC Wimbledon were forced to knock down by the FA’s definition of progress. This very same misguided definition of progress has been responsible for the destruction of countless other terraces throughout English football over the past two decades, and hearing the news that yet another fine structure has been earmarked for an ‘upgrade’ is never a good moment. But it was only the demolition of this particular terrace which made me genuinely sad.

Can a grown adult actually feel melancholy as a result of the destruction of some bricks, mortar, concrete and steel? Well, yes, I can’t deny that I did. And I wasn’t alone, either, judging by the number of others who lingered after the final whistle at the terrace’s last game for a goodbye photo, for an emotional final sing-song beneath its roof. So, why did we feel like we did?

Well, it was a brilliant football terrace for a small non-league club. It had a low roof, low enough to reach up and touch (or to bang your head on during a goal celebration for anyone over 6’2″), and low enough to reverberate the noise so well that 50 people sounded like 5000. In fact, I’ve never stood on another terrace which had such an uncanny ability to amplify noise. It was also incredibly close to the pitch, close enough to shake the net at corners and calmly detail the failings of opposition keepers so that they could hear every word. Us singing fans felt that we could have a real effect on the team’s performance for 45 minutes every other week. That may very well have been nonsense, but it certainly had a particular magic which very few non-terraces possess. Every behind-the-goal Kingstonian fan was sad that such an atmospheric structure would be replaced by an oversized, seated, soulless stand. But I’d like to think I’m rational (and not mental) enough not to get emotional about that.

No, the real answer to why its destruction stirred up emotions is this: memories. If you spend a certain amount of your life in a certain place, and experience highs and lows, laughs and deep disappointments, you develop an emotional attachment to that environment. Most of us feel a fondness for our home town, or wherever we grew up; all of us, I’m sure, feel some deep sense of attachment to the home in which we spent most of our childhood. And, in my case anyway, you don’t necessarily realise you have that sense of attachment until you leave your home town, your childhood home. So that’s why I suddenly felt a deep sense of sadness midway through the second half of the Kingston Road End’s swansong, the game against the Met Police in April – it was the knowledge that a place imbued with so many intense memories would no longer be there. Unlike my home town, I wouldn’t be able to revisit it in the coming decades to bring back those feelings, to bring those almost-forgotten memories back into the forefront of my mind. And that is sad.

So, farewell then, Kingston Road End. We were lucky to have known you.

Note:

This has been done already, and far better, by others – notably here and here. Enjoy.