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.

It’s A New Dawn, It’s A New Day, It’s A New Life For Me, And I’m Feeling Goode – Enfield Town (H)

1. Football loses my attention in Summer, almost completely. It doesn’t help that I have no interest whatsoever in whether Wayne Rooney moves from Manchester United to Chelsea, or whether Newcastle United can sign a decent centre-forward, but mainly it loses my attention because of cricket. While the cricket season’s in full swing, I couldn’t care less about football – and so it was with great relief for me personally that the Ashes were won a matter of minutes before kick-off, and the cricket season effectively (bar the matter of whether the Ashes finishes 3 or 4-0) put to bed. Suddenly, I was enthusiastic about football again – about appealing for a penalty instead of an LBW, about chanting on the terraces, about the ball hitting the back of the net, and more than anything about being back at Kingsmeadow. They can paint it blue all they like, but it’ll always feel like home to those of us with no memories of Richmond Road, and it was good to be back.

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2. Given this was my first football game of any kind since April there were a number of players lining up in the hoops who were new to me. It’s only natural to form first impressions, so here they are:

a) Matt Drage had a good game at centre half – tall, brave and with a good sense of positioning – and perhaps more importantly he looks a particularly natural partner to Sam Page. Every time I’ve seen Page in the past – for Horsham or Sutton – he has been class, and it ranks as a real coup that he’s playing for K’s this year. After keeping a battling clean sheet with ten men at Canvey, another clean sheet against Enfield bodes well for a better goals against column this season, although in both games K’s have been thankful to Rob Tolfrey at vital moments. He made one extraordinary save at the Athletics End last night, but mainly Enfield’s chances came from set pieces or down the flanks – and critically, not once did Enfield create a chance due to a defensive error. Too many goals were conceded unnecessarily last season, and too many games dominated by K’s were drawn – or even lost – due entirely to individual mistakes from the back four. If Drage and Page can stem the flow of cheap goals, then that’s already an improvement, and if they can also be as dominant as they were against Enfield, then we won’t concede many at all.

b) Marcus Moody looks terrific going forward from left back, and will be an important player given the lack of natural wide players – and particularly the lack of a left-winger – in the squad. His perfectly weighted through ball for Ryan Moss’ goal was a delight, and could easily have graced a higher level. Moody did have a few worrying defensive moments, however, and will need to be covered on his frequent forays into opposition territory.

c) In midfield it was a mixed bag. Tom Kavanagh broke up play well, was disciplined in covering for marauding full backs, and occasionally popped up unannounced in the opposition penalty area. More of the same, please. But Dee Okojie didn’t exactly impress: decent close control, but peripheral in the game as a whole and no sign of an end product (cross, shot or pass) when he did get the ball. Hopefully it was just an off day for him against good opposition.

d) Ryan Moss looks like a real find. Hard-working, bullish, strong but quick enough, and with an eye for a poacher’s goal. In addition, he scored an absolute beauty last night, bending the ball right-footed into the top corner of the net when through on goal. (If you weren’t there, imagine the way Michael Owen used to finish one-on-ones in his prime.) Crucially, he has all the attributes needed to play up front on his own – and I can’t remember the last time I could say that about a K’s centre forward. McCollin showed glimpses of being able to do this at points last year – often after one of our dozen or so red cards – but Moss really did deliver against Enfield playing on his own up front.

Moss celebrates his second goal in front of the Grolsch Stand

Moss celebrates his second goal in front of the Grolsch Stand

3. And it was this all-round ability of Moss that gave Alan Dowson the chance to make possibly the game’s critical decision – switching to 4-5-1 after only 13 minutes when Andre McCollin went off injured. Up until the change, Enfield had largely dominated the centre of midfield, with K’s threat limited to the flanks. After the switch, K’s gained a foothold in the centre circle which they never really relinquished, freeing up space ‘between the lines’ in which Matt Pattison in particular was able to flourish. In effect, K’s were playing 4-2-3-1, with Kavanagh and Somner playing as the defensive shield in front of the back four. It looks like a system that is really suited to the squad Dowse has assembled this season. Knowing they have the insurance of two good holding players to cover them, both full backs can take every opportunity to bomb forward – and that;s something that neither Aaron Goode, nor by the looks of it Marcus Moody, is afraid to do. And knowing that Moody and Goode will be providing width in almost every attack, Matt Pattison and Dee Okojie (or whoever plays number 11) can cut inside and support the centre forward. At times, Enfield had no answer to Pattison and Goode’s combination play down the right flank, and if that can be replicated on the other wing, then we’ll be an even harder side to play against.

4. Enfield seemed a decent side. Like so many non-league sides these days, they’d clearly been told by the manager to “play it out from the back, lads”, and this was working well when they largely had control of central midfield. But when K’s started to dominate from about the 20 minute mark, all they were succeeding in doing was playing themselves into trouble, and as such the more pragmatic older players decided to take a more direct approach. And unfortunately for them, that didn’t succeed at all, simply providing heading practice for Page and Drage. At half time, their manager clearly told them to be more positive in search of an equaliser, and they battled well in the second half, trying to use width to force a chance – and they made two clear chances with the game still in the balance at 1-0. One was cleared off the line; one was saved brilliantly by Tolfrey. Fine margins.

5. Two games in, it’s difficult to say with any certainty at all what the season holds for K’s. Two clean sheets – but in both games, Tolfrey has had to make very good saves for that to be the case. Four goals, but one an own goal, one a penalty, and one a 93rd minute last kick of the game free kick. Two wins – but who knows where Enfield or Canvey will finish the season? Bobby’s back – but he’s on loan with Casuals. Bring on East Thurrock. A third win and even I’ll start dreaming of glory in May…

Man of the Match: a tough one this. Pattison was outstanding in almost everything he did; Moss was magnificent; Page and Drage faultless. But Aaron Goode was back to his best – good positioning, a couple of crucial and well-timed tackles, energetic runs forward down the right flank, and even a Ricky Villa impression which nearly led to a memorable goal.

Key Moment: Ryan Moss‘ superb goal to make it 2-0. K’s were under a bit of real pressure for the first time in the game, and an equaliser looked possible, but then Moody strode forward and picked the perfect slide-rule through ball for Moss to run onto and bend the ball into the top corner. Top class.

Away Fans: 6/10. Very respectable numbers for a Monday night – perhaps 60-70 if there were a few in the main stand – and a decent attempt at making some noise, especially at 0-0. But get some new songs, will you lads? You can’t call yourselves ‘Ultras’ if you don’t actually have any songs of your own!