Bring It On: Playoff Semi-Final Preview

Head-to-Head – This Season

Saturday 16th November, at Hornchurch: 0-0

K’s passed a major test in grinding out a hard-fought and well-earned 0-0 in a tight, cagey game on a bobbly pitch. Hornchurch were exceptionally well organised, big throughout, and had real quality up front; meanwhile K’s were exceptionally well organised, big, and had real quality up front. Nothing much has changed since, although some of the personnel have.
Here are my thoughts at the time on the blog.

Saturday 15th March, at Kingmseadow: 1-1

This was the game after the game that stopped the rot (the win at Margate), and no less important. Hornchurch bullied a K’s side that was still lacking in confidence from its dire run in the first half, and dominated a central midfield of Sweeney, Laider and Pappoe which was still finding its feet. In the second half, it was a different story, as K’s put in a valiant effort to grab a deserved point – and start the run that’s seen us finish in second place. All Kingstonian fans will hope that the second period proves more instructive than the first in determining which side will have the better of this playoff game.

Match Preview

Tactically, it’s fairly clear how this game is going to play out, as both sides are similar. It will be a major surprise if it isn’t a tight game of high quality decided by either a moment of genius – a terrific team goal, or a 30-yard wonderstrike – or, given the high stakes involved, a big mistake.

So let’s make sure us fans do what we can. Let’s not lose patience, let’s not demand that the players “stick it in the mixer” given the size of Hornchurch’s back four, and let’s not demand a kamikaze approach from the lads. We should trust in the system and the players that have seen us go from no-hopers to Ryman runners-up.

And we should make noise. A lot of noise. Relentlessly.

I believe. Bring it on. COME ON YOU K’S!

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.

Match Preview – Sutton United v Kingstonian (SSC)

Head-to-Head:

All-Time: P124 Kingstonian 34 Draws 35 Sutton 55
At Sutton: P59 Kingstonian 10 Draws 18 Sutton 31
SSC only: P24 Kingstonian 8 Draws 5 Sutton 11
SSC at Sutton: P9 Kingstonian 1 Draws 2 Sutton 6
SSC All-Time Wins: Kingstonian 13 Sutton 15

The knowledge that K’s have only won at Sutton 10 times in the club’s entire history is worrying enough, but considering that Sutton have won 6/9 home SSC ties within 90 minutes, a Kingstonian win in this fixture seems even more unlikely. Of course, this game was drawn to take place at Kingsmeadow, but because our board were scared of upsetting our all-powerful Womble overlords, we agreed to play the game away from home. Even if you place little bearing on historical trends, the statistics above show just how damaging that switch of venue is to Kingstonian’s prospects of going through to the next round.

Recent Meetings:

No Sutton v K’s preview – well, no preview written by a K’s fan, at any rate – can ignore the epic 2009/10 saga between these two old enemies. Promoted back into the Ryman Premier after four long years spent in the wilderness of the pub league, where the fiercest derbies were fought – quite bizarrely – against Molesey, K’s were determined to show Sutton that the club was back, on and off the pitch. As extraordinary as this seems now – with gates continuing to fall and K’s still treading water in the same division four years on – there was a feeling amongst the K’s support that the club was genuinely resurgent, and could compete with traditional Conference & Isthmian League peers such as Sutton on a level playing field once again. Despite the anticipation, the first meeting between the two clubs on an even footing since 2004 – at Gander Green Lane in December – was a poor game, notable only for a 30-yard looping strike from Simon Huckle (of all people) after home keeper Kevin Scriven had come off his line and mis-kicked a clearance.

But the fuse had been well and truly lit. Alan Dowson was furious after being sent to the stands; several of the Sutton players, notably a certain Mr Steve McKimm, were angry at the barracking they received from the travelling K’s fans; and perhaps most importantly of all, Sutton supporters – who don’t treat this game as a true derby, focussing their attentions on a friendly rivalry with neighbours Carshalton instead, but more of that later – were reminded that, for one set of fans at least, these games meant something.

So, to a warm and sunny Kingsmeadow in April for the return fixture. This time, there was absolutely no doubt that this was a Big Game. Both clubs were in the playoff places hunting promotion, and both sets of players – and now fans – were eager to draw first blood in the renewed rivalry. As a result, 946 punters came through the gates at Kingsmeadow, still the largest gate in a competitive game at the ground since 2002, and if we’re honest, probably still the largest number of K’s fans in the ground since the infamous visit of Bristol City in the FA Cup 4th Round Replay in 2001. As often happens in such situations, it wasn’t a great game. Sutton played by far the prettier football and dominated possession, but K’s always looked the more likely to score via the pace of Christian Jolley or the goal-poaching genius of Bobby Traynor. In the end, though, a moment of pure comedy saw K’s take the lead via a ridiculous Jason Goodliffe own goal. Sutton came back strongly in the second half, but K’s somehow looked to have seen the game out until a deserved Sutton equaliser in the 85th minute sent the away support into raptures. Steve McKimm chose to celebrate by gesturing obscenely at the K’s fans behind the goal, yet it was those massed into the Kingston Road End who had the last laugh. Deep into injury time, a Kevin Scriven kick was headed back into the space behind the Sutton back four, and Bobby Traynor ran onto it, all of a sudden clean through on goal. The ground went – for an instant – silent, those in hoops absolutely sure Traynor wouldn’t miss, but too scared to start celebrating prematurely. And, of course, he didn’t miss, cooly slotting the ball under Scriven and into the back of the net, sparking mayhem. I can’t think of another goal celebrated quite like that in recent times at Kingsmeadow – and sadly, it remains the last great bundle in the terraced Kingston Road End.

So, to the end of the saga – the inevitable meeting in the playoffs. K’s were magnificent on and off the pitch that night, but there’s no further wittering needed by me, because it’s all there to see on Youtube. Some amazing goals, none better than Bobby Traynor’s bicycle kick:

The following season, Sutton were a far better – and K’s a far worse – side, with the U’s going on to win the league, but K’s still managed to win the home fixture courtesy of a late Bashiru Alimi strike. Kingstonian were then soundly beaten at Gander Green Lane in the return match, the last meeting between the sides until this cup tie.

Match Preview:

I really don’t care who’s playing for Sutton, and who’s playing for K’s. Weakened sides, blah blah blah. If you want that sort of preview, go elsewhere. Instead, a rant on rivalry!

For the majority of Kingstonian fans, this is game to look forward to. Okay, nowhere near as big as the games mentioned above, but still, far more than a run-of-the-mill county cup tie. Why? Well, simply because it’s a game against Sutton. That sentence will invite derision from any U’s fans reading – we are “obsessed” with them, “deranged” apparently. I refute all of that. There’s never been a punch thrown, or even anything like the threat of it, between supporters at a K’s v Sutton game. As a fanbase, we simply gradually started to see Sutton United as our main rivals, and now we do see Sutton United as our rivals. As a football traditionalist, I know that sounds ridiculous – surely you can’t manufacture a real rivalry and anyway, why would you want to? – but it’s the truth.

Yes, a rivalry can gradually develop. Not a rip-roaring, all-encompassing rivalry which is in supporters’ blood, such as West Ham/Millwall or Porstmouth/Southampton, built on years of mistrust, prejudice and violence, but you wouldn’t want to create that sort of brutal antagonism in the friendly non-segregated world of non-league football. Yet a rivalry can still develop fairly easily, providing there’s some basics in order and then a few things all fall into place…which in this case they have. So, the basics:
1. Is the game a local one, making it likely that there’ll be a large travelling support at matches and as such a good atmosphere? Yes.
2. Are the clubs balanced enough in terms of history and traditional playing level that a rivalry between them isn’t ridiculous? Yes – although the U’s would (rightly) claim to be the ‘bigger’ club overall, K’s have won more meaningful trophies and the two clubs have been playing each other for decades on and off.
3. Are both clubs lacking an intense rivalry with another club? Sort of. K’s have no rivals at all: Woking – the club’s most traditional, long-standing opponent – are now a club far, far bigger than K’s, and that’s why K’s fans latched onto a new ‘derby’ against Sutton so eagerly. Sutton have their so-called derby against Carshalton, but having been to a couple of these games, there’s no intensity to speak of in the stands. It’s all a little too friendly, like a shit Everton v Liverpool game.

Basics in place, a series of events helped the rivalry to grow:
1. The ‘bigger’ club was humiliated by the ‘smaller’ club, and then reminded of this humiliation at every possible occasion. This very definitely happened when K’s beat Sutton 6-0 in the FA Trophy Semi-Final. (What a K’s starting XI that was, by the way!)
2. There was then a lull in hostilities, but even when K’s weren’t very good, there were still games like this humdinger at Kingsmeadow to keep the fire burning.
3. Something created tension even between the most level-headed members of each club’s fanbase. At league level, regrettably this often involves fan violence; in our ‘derby’, extraordinarily, this involved Sutton signing an extremely average holding midfielder called Steve McKimm. But such is the tinpot nature of non-league football! McKimm is widely liked and respected as a reliable club stalwart by Sutton’s supporters – after all, he is a highly successful family man with a big house and a nice car (or is it a nice house and a big car – I forget). But he is mocked and abused at every turn by K’s fans, reviled ever since an alleged spitting incident (denied to this day by McKimm, hence the ‘alleged’) in K’s dismal defeat at Brockenhurst in the FA Cup. It still rumbles on now, and no doubt will rear its head again in this fixture. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the whole saga – and there is no doubt it is a nonsense that there is even a ‘saga’ to speak of – McKimm gives games between the sides that extra edge a real derby game possesses.

And eventually, with the sad and continuing demise of both Carshalton and Tooting leaving K’s as Sutton’s only real local rivals to speak of, this fixture may even become a proper derby match, as important to the U’s as it is the Ks. But given K’s recent gates, particularly this season, perhaps this is just the start of the demise for Kingstonian FC too, which brings me onto the next point, that…

Yes, you do really want to create a rivalry, because it provides three huge benefits. 1. It gives Kingstonian FC a permanent, powerful target: to play at a level above, or at worst the same level as, Sutton United FC. This is a good long-term goal for Kingstonian – Sutton are a well-run club, and hanging onto their coat tails is no bad thing, leading to ambition in owners and fans. If we’re absolutely honest, part of our club’s burning ambition to get promoted this season is in order to get our derby back. It drives us on.
2. If we are in the same league, it offers a genuine financial benefit. If you’ve been reading this preview carefully – and if not, why not? – you’ll have noted that 946 people paid to watch the last league derby game at Kingsmeadow played on a Saturday, nearly treble the average gate for that season as a whole. But the profit to the club from that fixture would have been far more than treble the usual: of those 946, hundreds crowded into the bar before kick off, during half time, and after the game, something that seldom happens for other fixtures; double the usual number of 50/50s and programmes were bought; the club shop did a roaring trade; and most importantly of all, the ‘big game’ drew people back to the club and reconnected them to it. If local residents come to the Sutton game every year – and they will do so, let’s not forget, only because they know that it’s their local club’s “derby” – then they’re far more likely to come back to the club for a run-of-the-mill league game in future.
3. It’s fun. It means there’s a big game to look forward to, even in a mundane mid-table season. It means fans sing old songs, and old fans come back into the fold for one night only. It’s a good thing for K’s supporters.

Sutton fans still don’t see Kingstonian as their rivals – we’re well aware of that and don’t need reminding. We’ll no doubt be mocked for singing songs at such a ‘nothing’ game by the Sutton faithful, as evidence of how small a club we are. But – and this is the point – we don’t actually care if our rivalry isn’t reciprocated. It’s our football club, we’ll ‘hate’ who we want to, and we’ll have fun doing it.

Altogether now:
Build a bonfire, build a bonfire…