After two games, two wins and eight K’s goals in four days, it seems like a good time to sit down and write five thoughts…
1. If there wasn’t genuine evidence that it happened – a report, the score on football web pages, photos of the goals – I’m still not sure I’d believe that Saturday’s 6-0 win over Harlow wasn’t really a dream. Before Saturday, K’s had been thrashed twice, and our wins had been either rearguard efforts (Billericay and Merstham) or scrappy and slightly fortunate. More to the point, in previous match a first-choice K’s eleven were outpassed and at times outclassed by pub league Walton Casuals in the Alan Turvey Trophy. As such this probably goes down as the most surprising thrashing dished out by Kingstonian in recent memory, and that made it all the more enjoyable. This wasn’t a fortunate result; in fact, without some smart saves by Harlow’s keeper, it could have been even more. The (small) crowd were stunned.
2. So where on earth did this sublime performance come from? Well, the lineup *looked* balanced, and didn’t obviously have any weak links, for possibly the first time this season, and that undoubtedly helped. K’s lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with all eleven players in their preferred positions – or at the very least positions they are comfortable playing – and that certainly helped too. Tom Little’s left-footed overlapping runs down the left flank created the space for Kane Haysman to drift inside and find space, overwhelming and confusing Harlow’s centre halves. Meanwhile Alex Fiddes stuck to his task with great discipline – which was to stay wide on the right throughout, stretching the game wide and creating space for box-to-box runs from Lewis Taylor. Taylor – probably K’s most talented player at this level, if we’re honest – produced his first truly dominant performance since Billericay away, simultaneously offering defensive cover to Gogonas and the back four while also getting into dangerous attacking positions throughout. But the real difference was a mercurial performance at number 10 from Tom Collins, who had shown flashes of class before this point in his K’s career without ever delivering concrete results. Collins relentlessly found himself with the ball in space between Harlow’s back four and midfield, and he used that freedom superbly. Harlow had no answer to his creative passing and skilful dribbling, and he made the key move in three of the first four goals. Collins was only marginally less influential in the second half when he was being man-marked in an effort to reduce his influence. We can’t expect him to do this every week, and we probably shouldn’t even expect him to play this well more often than not – but when Tom Collins plays like this, I don’t think we’ll lose many this season.
3. From the sublime, then, to the ridiculous: the first half refereeing display at Worthing, which contained the single worst decision I’ve ever seen at a football game – and I was at Vicarage Road for the ‘ghost goal’. It was immediately obvious that the ref was going to be a factor in the evening. He clearly enjoyed the moments when the attention of the 151 hardy souls assembled was focussed on him and him alone, taking unnecessary extra time over every decision, and making overly dramatic hand gestures, a non-league Mike Dean in almost every way. He didn’t start the evening well, actively deciding to bottle a decision when Tom Derry was tripped when clean through, followed that up by missing two clear fouls on K’s players, and then gave us a free kick for such a weak challenge that the K’s players didn’t even appeal. The pressure started to build when he blew up for a K’s free kick when we had an almost comically clear advantage – Fiddes had actually skipped away after the ‘foul’ challenge, and was about to dribble into the box in a 3 vs 2 situation – because the K’s players told the ref in no uncertain terms how ludicrous this decision was. Sam Page was booked for his forthright contribution, and the ref had already started to punctuate his display by looking nervously at the dozen or so travelling fans behind the goal, who were being no less honest in their assessment. Presumably distracted, his big moment then arrived, when he passed from merely being an averagely poor Isthmian League official to proud holder of my award for Worst Refereeing Decision Ever. K’s attacked, the ball ricocheted off, and a Worthing player cleared the ball under no real pressure about 4-5 yards from the byline. The referee’s reaction to this was to very firmly give Kingstonian a corner, and then express genuine shock as the entire Worthing team, bench and supporters went apoplectic. Those in red and white hoops openly laughed. The strangest part of this story? The ref followed up this total embarrassment by having a largely competent second half!
4. The match itself against Worthing – although at Bognor Regis, of course, as evidenced above! – was far less remarkable, even if it did provide K’s with another three points. In the first half K’s were the definition of lacklustre, passing the ball slowly and with little intent, and far too reactive at the back. This approach allowed Worthing to grow in confidence and while they didn’t really deserve their half-time lead, it was hard to argue with the scoreline. But just as it seemed K’s inconsistency was becoming consistent, the players produced a much-improved second half performance to turn the game around. We were on the front foot, playing the game in the Worthing half, and at least putting the home side – without a win this season, remember – under some much-needed pressure. However, chances were at a premium until Saturday’s hero Collins, who had struggled to find any space in which to operate, was replaced by on-loan Gillingham forward Noel Mbo. Mbo was immediately a direct presence alongside Tom Derry up front, and in this more traditional 4-4-2 K’s looked more dangerous – as is often the case against poor sides. Derry (or was it actually Mbo with the final touch?) poked home the equaliser, and as the loyal travelling faithful* found their voices to try to inspire K’s to a winner, Mbo scored a delicious winner on debut, cutting inside on his left foot and calmly curling the ball into the far bottom corner. It was a difficult, clinical, dare I say professional finish, the kind you seldom see in the semi-pro Isthmian League. Mbo looks like a great option, and his class was the difference between a poor side and a below-par side on Tuesday.
5. What might all of this mean for the season? Without wishing to get splinters up my arse, it is really hard to say. My gut feeling is that the overall quality of the league is weak this season, and that’s why many teams, and not just K’s, are struggling to hit reliable form. I don’t think that the league has already taken shape – it’s likely that one or two of the teams who’ve had a poor start will sign a couple of players and end up in the playoffs, and if Worthing get back home sooner rather than later, they are capable of putting together a run to escape relegation. (At least, I certainly hope so, because they’re an excellent club and we missed the away day this year!) With only one relegation place this year, and with Billericay odds on to win the title due to their ludicrous spending, this really isn’t the season for clubs to dip into their reserves to boost their budgets. Canny chairmen will be keeping their chequebooks dry this term, and spending any saved money next year, when there are the normal number of relegation slots to avoid, and the outside chance of winning the title. Basically, I don’t think these crazy rollercoaster results are going to stop any time soon – so let’s have a laugh, throw our arms in the air, and enjoy the ride!
*who really do deserve a pat on the back, given it wasn’t possible to get back to London by train afterwards…
v Harlow: Tolfrey 9; Rodgers 7, Vilcu 7, Page 7.5, Little 7.5; Gogonas 8, Taylor 9; Fiddes 9, Haysman 9, *Collins 9*; Derry 8
v Worthing: Tolfrey 7; Rodgers 7, Vilcu 7, Page 7, Goode 7; Gogonas 6, Taylor 7; Fiddes 7, Collins 6, Haysman 6; Derry 7