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.

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The Good, The Bad & The Ugly – Dulwich Hamlet (A)

As I and most of my away day crew members hail from proper South London, Dulwich away is our local game, and as such was just about the first date I looked for when the Ryman League’s trusty fixtures computer (also known as Dave, from the Three Crowns pub) finally finished its seemingly Herculean task, and released the fixtures this Summer. As it was scheduled for a standard Saturday 3pm game, there looked to be a grand day out on the calendar for November, and plans were made. We were even due to have an exciting guest appearance from James’ mate Jacopo, a big fan of lower league football in his native Italy, to provide some exoticism to the Kingstonian behind the goal support. It was fortunate, then, that Not Police knocked Hamlet out of the Trophy in the previous round, otherwise this would have been a blank Saturday after all. So here goes, the only time I’ll ever write this: three cheers for Not Police!

The day was meant to start at 11:30am in the Bishop pub, East Dulwich, but I – and almost all of the rest of the group – were running late. The almost unanimous excuse for this tardiness was being hungover – in my case, rather unexpectedly violently hungover and feeling extremely hard done-by as a result, considering I’d only had a quiet Friday night in the pub – and so the decision was taken to move immediately to the Flying Pig, which apparently served great food. The Flying Pig is a spectacularly Dulwich establishment: distressed walls, craft beers, pulled pork and bearded men in checked shirts. It was predictably excellent, and all of us had a superb couple of hours talking K’s and football in general.

As the travelling fans in the bar grew in number, and the pints of local ale started slipping down a little bit more easily, and the tables nearby starting tutting and shushing us more regularly, the feelings of pessimism about the game gradually dissipated, to be replaced by that most dangerous of emotions, hope:
“We always play better against the better teams”
“We held them at home, don’t forget”
“We’ve got a good record at this ground”
“We’re better away than at home”

By the time we left the pub, three points seemed pretty much assured. That decided, the only other thing left to sort out before arriving at Champion Hill was a couple of drinks for the game. I’m always one to buy drinks at the other club’s bar, in the hope that other fans do the same at Kingsmeadow in the spirit of non-league solidarity, but since a lot of the Dulwich fans don’t even buy drinks from their own bar, let alone ours, I figured I’d smuggle a couple of drinks in with me.

After the obligatory indecisiveness in the offie, I actually managed to miss kick off by a couple of minutes, although I didn’t miss any action. Not only because nothing had happened, but also because nobody down the K’s end would have had any idea if it had, such was the angle of the low sun. I couldn’t see a thing for the first twenty minutes or so, and as such concentrated on baiting the Dulwich keeper, who not only used to play for Sutton, but also was a bit on the porky side and not having the best afternoon. I also bought a 50/50 ticket, simply because the bloke selling them abused the Wombles while offering them to our behind the goal support. Good sales technique, sir. At some point during the first half K’s scored, an Alan Inns effort from close range, and all of a sudden the pre-match hope didn’t seem quite so stupid. Josh Casey, in particular, was having a terrific game in midfield, pulling the strings after finally put back in a position where he could do so.

Some of the other lads hadn’t had the foresight to bring drinks into the ground, and baulking at the bar queue, I took one for the team and headed out to the offie with Dan to get them some refreshments at half time. This trip was a bit of a reminder of the other side of the local area, given what was going on inside the off licence. There was a customer in there, a bloke in his 20s with a staffie, off his face, arguing with the owner:
Staffie-man: “What you looking at you c**t?”
Shop owner: “Err…I’m trying to serve you, sir”
Staffie-man: “I SAID…what re you f**king looking at mate?”
Shop owner: “Please calm down sir, I’m serving you”
Staffie-man: “Do you wanna get cut? Do you? F**k it, I’m gone”

Charming. Back to the much more chilled-out surroundings of Champion Hill for the second half, where K’s started as they’d left off, largely comfortable in the lead. Meanwhile, things behind the goal were getting more and more boisterous: the chanting was increasing in volume (although with no roof, only us behind the goal would know that!) and the Dulwich keeper was getting more and more distracted. He even played rock, paper, scissors with one of us at one point, something that had all of us in stitches.

The game grew more intense, as challenges started flying in and other players started objecting to them. Then, the two crucial moments, in quick succession. First, Pico Gomez made a good run across his marker from a powerful right-wing cross and headed just over from 8 yards; then, Josh Casey got onto a through ball (of sorts) before the Hamlet keeper, but could only steer his effort narrowly wide of the far post. I’ve watched enough football games to know what was coming, particularly as Dulwich then brought on their best player, Harry Beautyman. “We’ll lose this, I absolutely guarantee it,” I said to the other lads.

And of course we did lose it 2-1, the winning goal sending the Hamlet fans behind the other goal wild, and prompting some distinctly unfriendly football-league style gestures from the four Dads with prams standing along the side of the pitch nearer us, who of course all denied any such behaviour after the game.

We headed to the most local pub – the Cherry Tree – to drown our sorrows and have a laugh. London away days are always good fun, but this one was more fun than most.

The day after, though, I was left reflecting on an afternoon of mixed emotions. Unfortunately, apparently the behaviour of a handful of K’s fans was very poor after the final whistle, which is a real shame – but not something I can really commentate on, as I had no idea it had happened until reading about it on the forum on Sunday. All involved are committed K’s fans, and really add to the atmosphere home and away, but this doesn’t sound good: reading about Dulwich fans with kids feeling intimidated did leave a sour taste in the mouth, hence the mixed emotions about the day.

The Good? A good, raucous travelling support, something that used to be a standard at every K’s away game but is now sadly rarer and rarer; a really, really fun day out, and a promise to come to more K’s games this season from a couple of the more sporadic attendees in the group; a much improved K’s performance, combing a higher work rate with a greater attacking threat.
The Bad? The result, particularly as it wasn’t deserved.
And The Ugly? Some of the stuff which went on after the final whistle…

Player Ratings, sponsored by A Head In The Hat Ales’ “Tommy”: Tolfrey TFA*; Goode TFA Drage TFA Inns TFA Blake TFA; Henry 7 Laidler 7 Pigden 7 Casey 9; Gomez 6 (4 first half, 8 second half), Hammond 6

*Too Far Away