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.

We Are Top of The League – Finchley (A) & Hampton (H)

Two games in three days, and so you lucky readers get a 2-for-1. Five thoughts on the bank holiday weekend’s action, starting with Saturday’s events at Finchley:

1. The game at Finchley isn’t being analysed first just because it was the first game of the weekend – it was also the key game of the weekend, for two reasons:
a) K’s marked themselves as genuine promotion contenders with this win. While it’s true to say that Finchley weren’t a well-organised side – their centre halves were all as dire as it gets at this level – this was a ferociously dominant performance from an away team. The final goals tally was four; it could, without any exaggeration (as Gary Abbott said in his post-match interview) have been eight. No matter the quality of the opposition, destroying a team on their own patch so comprehensively is something only a promotion contender has the firepower to achieve. And more than that, K’s showed that we have two formations, two modes of play, which are equally effective: we’ve won games handsomely playing 4-2-3-1, and on Saturday we won a game handsomely playing a proper 4-4-2. This gives Dowse a major tactical advantage over most managers in the division.
b) The conditions during the Finchley game directly affected the Hampton game on Monday. The only variety in the weather was the severity of the rain: most of the time it was pouring; sometimes it was truly pissing down; during half time it was bordering on biblical. Many other pitches would have become waterlogged and it’s to the immense credit of Wingate & Finchley Football Club that this never seemed a possibility, with the ball rolling properly across the surface throughout the match. Having said that, in such poor conditions, the pitch was undoubtedly heavy, and such a dynamic performance must have taken it out of the K’s players. I’d wager that most of them woke up very tired on Sunday, and this tiredness outed itself in the final half an hour on Monday – because while K’s were slogging it out in the rain, the Hampton players had their feet up due to their match being postponed.

This doesn't do the weather justice. Monsoon season in Finchley!

This doesn’t do the weather justice. Monsoon season in Finchley!

2. As a result, it’s my strong suspicion that the close nature of Monday’s game flattered Hampton. In the first half, K’s were on top without looking overly dangerous – although that was largely due to the performance of Hampton’s centre halves, who were immense throughout. But in the second half, especially after the hour mark, K’s noticeably tired. The midfielders looked leggy and began to chase a game they were previously controlling; the strikers made fewer of the runs into channels that were causing Hampton such problems; the full backs started to make the odd misjudgement against the Beavers wide players. Hampton grew in confidence and pushed higher up the pitch, and K’s resorted to playing on the counter. On another day, against a less brilliant rearguard (and more on that later), Hampton could well have won a point.

3. So, if any Hampton fans have happened upon this little corner of the internet, they probably think I’m being overly harsh on their side. It was a close, scrappy game – but it was a game K’s deserved to win simply for showing some ambition to attack and entertain a decent sized crowd. To this paying punter, Hampton were unimaginative, dull and unambitious. Starting with a genuine 4-5-1 (i.e. a formation as defensive as it sounds, rather than K’s 4-2-3-1 which is almost a 4-2-4 when attacking) against a tired side betrayed a lack of confidence, handed K’s the initiative. A complete failure to play any football during the ninety minutes, preferring instead to hit channels and try to work off second balls and set pieces, was not pretty to watch. And although they came close, the fact the Hampton couldn’t get the ball in the net against eleven knackered players – and have only scored twice so far this term – suggests real problems in the final third. If I were a Hampton fan, I wouldn’t be optimistic about the rest of the season on the evidence of Monday.

4. The club clean sheet record of 6 consecutive games secured on Monday is remarkable. There’s no doubt that at times, K’s have ridden their luck this season – notably against Canvey and Enfield – but the strong defensive showing is no accident. Rob Tolfrey is the best keeper in the division, and anyone who argues with that has not watched enough Ryman League football. Sam Page is a colossus. Matt Drage has been the find of the season, showing a good football brain and ability to read the game combined with a powerful physical presence. Aaron Goode has been much improved on last season, even if he remains his own worst critic. And whoever has played left-back has acquitted themselves admirably. But it’s not just the back four who deserve credit: plenty of goals were conceded last season because the opposition simply ghosted past a non-existent midfield. Not this year. Kavanagh, Somner and Sweeney have acted as an extra shield, and Pattison and Okojie have tracked back admirably. Huge pats on the back all round.

5. Finally, an insight into another football club’s way of doing things. Wingate & Finchley got battered on Saturday – so battered that some of us felt we should spend some money in the club bar after the game. Well, that and it was raining. Their Chairman still gave a rousing little speech – in the public bar – about “improving on Monday”, desperately searching for positives to relate to the players and finally settling on “you were almost matching them by the end”. He then presented a (cheap!) bottle of white wine to the keeper as Man of the Match, and there was a very awkward round of applause. It seemed ridiculous to me – but maybe I’m a curmudgeon and it’s good that they’re clearly such a nice club. I just can’t imagine Dowse tolerating a round of applause for his players after losing 4-0 at home!

Man of the Weekend – Ryan Moss. 4 goals in 2 games, and not even playing as a goal poacher. The last player this dominant up front for K’s was Tim Sills. Long may it continue and long may Moss not move to Aldershot.

Key Moment of the WeekendRob Tolfrey‘s save to deny Joel Ledgister in the second half against Hampton. A ridiculously good save, and a match-winning save to boot.

Away Fans:
Finchley – 1/10 (counted as away fans as they were outnumbered by travelling K’s). Very few of them, and the three old men standing on the side in the first half were an absolute disgrace. Foul mouthed and aggressive – and that was just towards the referee – and completely deluded in the bar afterwards. I’m sure other Finchley fans are nice, but I didn’t meet any.
Hampton – 5/10. Half-decent numbers, and the bulk are clearly nice people, but they haven’t learned to sing yet, and perhaps never will.

Luke Wan-ad-io, Luke Wan-ad-io – Hampton (A)

1. This was the classic cliche – the “end of season affair between two mid-table sides”. Both teams were poor, lacking in quality, and combined with a bobbly, uneven pitch, this was a fairly wretched spectacle for the bumper Easter crowd. The immediate conclusion in the post-match pub chat was another cliche – that the K’s players simply “wanted it more” than their Hampton counterparts, and it’s interesting to hear that Mark Hams agreed with this analysis. K’s seemed sharper in the tackle and more prepared to put in the hard graft required to win the game, tracking back well and maintaining their concentration when defending set pieces. Given that Kingstonian FC have very clearly given up on promotion this season, and decided to release some of the higher earners already as a result, it was pleasing for the fans and management alike to see that those players who remained had their hearts in the right place. In fact, it was somewhat of a pleasant surprise given the half-hearted efforts over the last couple of months: after everything that’s happened, it’s clear that everybody at Kingstonian FC is still very much united behind its management team.

2. Which brings me onto Hampton, who haven’t yet trimmed their wage bill to quite the extent that K’s have, and as a result should be able to produce a far better showing than they managed on Saturday. Players were going through the motions, playing at 90% rather than 100%, doing just enough, not making that extra stretch for the ball. Darren Powell’s performance, which presumably didn’t come cheap, was a joke, quite literally – his utter incompetence and disinterest was laugh out loud funny. It all smacked of a group of players who don’t really rate their manager. Certainly, if in some godawful parallel universe I was a Hampton fan, I’d be extremely worried for next season.

3. Matt Somner was once again something of a revelation at centre half, giving Dowse a few things to ponder in the off-season. Bar a couple of outstanding performances – notably at Bognor, where he was immense – Somer hasn’t really done the job he was brought into the club to do. K’s have needed a reliable holding midfielder who can pass the ball ever since the Huckle-Williams central midfield axis was so badly exposed in the opening few games of K’s return to this level. Dowse has done his best to work around the lack of personnel in that key position – playing 4-5-1, 3-5-2 and several variations of three central midfielders for much of the past three seasons – but Somner’s arrival and form in his first few games meant that the team looked both solid and potent playing 4-4-2. His lack of form over the past six weeks has been a major factor in the downturn in K’s form. Is he a genuine option at centre half?

4. Given that we’ve (correctly) settled for mid-table and reduced the wage bill accordingly, Dowse threw down the gauntlet to some of the unproven players seeking to be registered as K’s players next year.  Here’s how they did on Saturday:
Szymon Sidorowicz – whose name caused the home announcer such trouble the first time that the second time he just called him “Kingstonian number 2, err, number 2” – looked a defensively solid enough right back, but that’s the very minimum we should expect of a player who AFCW’s scouts believe could play in the football league in the future. He didn’t get forward much, and as such Dowse will I’m sure want to get a better look at him over the coming weeks.
Luke Wanadio has his own popular terrace chant already, and that tells you a lot. He has bags of promise: explosive pace, a good first touch, decent close control and he isn’t scared to run at the opposition defenders. Yes, he needs to learn to get his head up, but he was the bright spark on a dull Easter Saturday.
Jamil Okai apparently has a fantastic scoring record at Academy level, but having also missed his goalscoring exploits for the first team in the London Cup, I remain perplexed as to how. It’s probably fairest to leave it at this: he worked tirelessly, but let’s hope Saturday wasn’t his finest day in terms of quality.

5. The rest of this season will inevitably fizzle out, but I really hope that the players – whichever players are selected – show as much effort and try as hard as the players did on Saturday. Frankly, as a fan, it’s the very least I demand.

Man Of The Match: Matt Somner. Playing out of position with a right-back for company for the majority of the game, he was almost faultless, and scored the winner. Unlucky to be sent off for a firm, mistimed, clumsy challenge which appeared to merit a yellow card rather than a straight red.

Key Moment: Darren Powell‘s comical attempt at a clearance which gifted Somner the only goal of the game.