Dorking away promised much: a new ground, to K’s fans at least; a new town to visit, for some of us; the prospect of a decent away following and some good pre-match plans; and best of all a K’s team to support who finally looked like a competitive outfit. And sure enough, the day started perfectly, with a bacon sandwich and a tin on the on-time train out to leafy Surrey. Even the weather was playing along: the sun was beaming down and, most incredibly of all, there was even the hint of some warmth in the air pre the donning of my beer jacket. Perhaps K’s winter of discontent was finally going to be over.
On the train journey, a couple of the day-trippers accompanying me asked about the current K’s team. Who should they look out for these days? “Andre McCollin is back. Tolfrey is still the best keeper in the league. The left back is good. And you can’t miss Ciardini, he’s a proper unit.” There wasn’t really much more to say: even I don’t know who half the players are at the moment, but as it turned out my instinct was right…Ciardini was a good man to mention. Somehow we moved onto impressions of Michael Caine in the style of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in The Trip, perhaps because the legendary Londoner lives in Leatherhead – try saying that after a few pints – or perhaps because we are sad bastards, only for our terrible attempts at “she was only 15 years old” and “I’m not burying another Batman” to be interrupted by a stranger across the aisle:
“I work for Michael Caine.”
“You what mate?”
“I’m Michael Caine’s security. I can’t do an impression of him though.”
“Are you serious? As in, you work for him at the moment?”
“Yeah. I’m a Yorkshireman so he takes the piss out of me for me accent…”
“Does he like the Coogan and Brydon impressions of him?”
“Yeah he absolutely loves them. Not sure which one he thinks is better though. One of your impressions wasn’t too bad. Have a good day.”
That bizarre scene over, and having met up with some other K’s fans just outside Dorking station – “stick together lads, this Dorking mob are tasty” – we were led through the back lanes of Dorking by Simon, who’s moved “out to the sticks”, in his own words. It’s a glorious little town, with a babbling brook, a pond surrounded by parkland, and countless ancient narrow alleys, all overlooked by Box Hill. And once we got to the main street, things got even better, because there were several very old pubs just waiting to be explored.
We settled into the beer garden of The Old House, because if you can comfortably settle into a beer garden in February without being cold, then why wouldn’t you? A few pints of London Gold later – plus one pint of Thatchers Gold, because to one of our party that was apparently the same thing – it seemed a good idea to head over the road to the Kings Arms, a picturesque old pub, for one last pint before a taxi to the ground. The day kept on giving – this wasn’t any old taxi journey, but a rapid ride round Dorking courtesy of a one-legged driver who wouldn’t stop joking about his prosthetic leg: “I’m going to lock the doors, because if you run off without paying lads, I won’t be able to catch you”. It wasn’t easy to know whether to laugh or sympathise, but the way he drove we didn’t have long to think about it.
So suddenly we were dropped off at Wanderers’ ground, in the shadow of Box Hill and just off the A24. This was a properly tinpot setup, more befitting of the setting for the kind of cup tie against lower league opposition that K’s specialise in losing, rather than a place to watch an Isthmian League game. But it was very charming, especially the little wooden bar and tea hut, and the view of the Surrey Hills was spectacular. With the sun shining, and K’s due to attack the covered end in the second half, things were still looking good.
Things continued to look good in the opening part of the match, as K’s competed well and limited Dorking to half-chances. K’s went closest to scoring when the Wanderers right-back inexplicably smashed a back-pass towards his own goal. Incredibly fortunately for him, and incredibly unfortunately for the travelling fans who would never have ceased talking about this amazing own-goal, the ball rolled inches wide of the far post. Meanwhile, unlike his Enfield counterpart, the Dorking keeper remained irritatingly focussed in the face of the usual distraction techniques from behind the goal. Then out of nowhere Dorking took the lead, via mistakes from both K’s centre halves. A ball over the top was missed by one, and then the other one clattered into a clumsy challenge and gave away a penalty. With Tolfs in goal all was not lost, but the lad took a great spot kick and Dorking went into half-time 1-0 up.
There was still hope: K’s were attacking the end with some cover in the second half, and the healthy-sized travelling support tried to make some noise to encourage the yellow-clad lads forward. But Dorking were being held together by a mighty, talismanic performance by their number 7, Jerome Beckles, who was running the game from midfield. At one point he held off three challenges with ease before spraying the ball 40 yards to a Dorking winger. It was going to take something special to break Wanderers down, especially on the tacky pitch…and that’s exactly what happened. McCollin slipped the ball to West, who took a touch and then curled an exquisite right-footed shot into the top corner. You don’t see goals of that pure class at this level very often, and it inspired the rest of the lads, putting K’s on the front foot against a Dorking side who were suddenly hanging on.
But the man it inspired the most was Nic Ciardini. Ciardini has been the subject of some stick from the terraces in his time with K’s so far, some of it from this correspondent, and to my mind that’s been justified. This isn’t park football: he is being paid to play semi-professional football, against people who take their physical fitness seriously. I’m not saying he has to have the physique of a male model, but he should at the very least not have a belly. After all, most of us manage to be vaguely in shape despite not playing two matches a week plus football training – it must be genuinely difficult to be overweight when doing that much exercise! But as the cliche goes, the first yard is in your head – “with him the first five yards is going to need to be in his head”, said one fan at Enfield – and what Ciardini has shown so far in his brief time at K’s is that he has a great first touch, and clearly some real ability on the ball.He took that to a completely different level on Saturday. First, he cut inside onto his left foot and unleashed a screamer into the top corner, sending the travelling fans wild. Then, only minutes later, he again picked up the ball in the inside right channel, and this time ran into space before dispatching the ball into the bottom corner with real authority. Pints went in the air; Ciardini came over to the K’s fans and caused a massive bundle. “Not bad for a far c*nt!” he shouted in the middle of the celebrations. Fair play to the bloke.
The remaining minutes zipped by to a chorus of songs from the K’s faithful, largely serenading the chubby hero of the hour. Delighted to have witnessed three such brilliant goals, it was the kind of win that makes you realise why you love football and puts you in a good mood for the rest of the weekend. Having negotiated the death trap that is crossing the A24 in the half-light, we eventually made it back to the station pub, where my enthusiasm couldn’t even be dampened by being repeatedly thrashed at pool.
What a day out. Bring on Margate…
K’s Player Ratings: Tolfrey 7; Gogonas 7, Phillips 6, Francis 6, Musungu 7; Yao 7, Beere 6.5; *Ciardini 9*, West 7.5, Cundle 7; McCollin 6.5