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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Bring It On: Playoff Semi-Final Preview

Head-to-Head – This Season

Saturday 16th November, at Hornchurch: 0-0

K’s passed a major test in grinding out a hard-fought and well-earned 0-0 in a tight, cagey game on a bobbly pitch. Hornchurch were exceptionally well organised, big throughout, and had real quality up front; meanwhile K’s were exceptionally well organised, big, and had real quality up front. Nothing much has changed since, although some of the personnel have.
Here are my thoughts at the time on the blog.

Saturday 15th March, at Kingmseadow: 1-1

This was the game after the game that stopped the rot (the win at Margate), and no less important. Hornchurch bullied a K’s side that was still lacking in confidence from its dire run in the first half, and dominated a central midfield of Sweeney, Laider and Pappoe which was still finding its feet. In the second half, it was a different story, as K’s put in a valiant effort to grab a deserved point – and start the run that’s seen us finish in second place. All Kingstonian fans will hope that the second period proves more instructive than the first in determining which side will have the better of this playoff game.

Match Preview

Tactically, it’s fairly clear how this game is going to play out, as both sides are similar. It will be a major surprise if it isn’t a tight game of high quality decided by either a moment of genius – a terrific team goal, or a 30-yard wonderstrike – or, given the high stakes involved, a big mistake.

So let’s make sure us fans do what we can. Let’s not lose patience, let’s not demand that the players “stick it in the mixer” given the size of Hornchurch’s back four, and let’s not demand a kamikaze approach from the lads. We should trust in the system and the players that have seen us go from no-hopers to Ryman runners-up.

And we should make noise. A lot of noise. Relentlessly.

I believe. Bring it on. COME ON YOU K’S!

A Long Way For A Nil Nil – Leiston (A)

1. It really is a long way to Leiston, especially midweek, but this was a big game: a K’s win, and the playoffs would have been ours to throw away. Sadly, it wasn’t to be against a spirited, determined and altogether decent Leiston side who thoroughly merited their point. K’s started the game well, passing the ball fluently through midfield (well, as fluently as possible on the bobbly pitch) and creating several decent shooting opportunities – the only problem being that either the players in good positions didn’t shoot, or when they did, they failed to shoot on target. But as the half wore on, Leiston started to look more and more dangerous by hitting long passes into the channels and getting behind K’s makeshift back 3. In truth, K’s were lucky not to concede: two were cleared off the line, Rob Tolfrey made a good save, and the Leiston centre forward missed when it looked easier to score. This is how K’s lined up for the first 50 minutes, a sensible solution to Matt Drage being injured, but one which left Pappoe and Hogg exposed:
K's 3-5-2 at Leiston2. Half-time discussion centred largely on where to stand for the second half. There were three options, none of them good: the open wilderness behind the goal (the traditional option); right on the touchline along the side (where at least we could see something); or along the touchline at the back, under cover (noise potential, but a dreadful view). As the argument was raging on, and the seven intrepid behind-the-goal lunatics were arranged in an unusual 3-3-1 formation in the three different areas, Andre McCollin was put clean through on goal – and then taken out. With the linesman right in front of us, vocal pressure was applied, but this linesman wasn’t for turning – he was adamant (correctly) that the tackle had taken place just outside of the box. The next fear, after the Maidstone game, was that the referee would bottle the clear sending off, but much to our relief he reached into his top pocket for the red card, and Leiston were deservedly down to ten. The fact it was a blatant sending off didn’t stop the locals from unfairly barracking the referee for the rest of the game. On the whole, they were quite an unpleasant bunch, actually, a number of them stopping to tell loyal fans who’d made a six-hour return journey that they were “shit” because they “couldn’t even beat ten men”. Thanks fellas! But I’d probably be angry too if I lived next to a nuclear power plant in a bleak village in the middle of nowhere, so perhaps it’s understandable.

3. Anyway, this was our big chance: 40 minutes to play against 10 men. Dowse was decisive and immediately switched to 4-4-2 to prevent our spare man being a centre-half:
K's 4-4-2 v LeistonBut there were two big problems with this on the night:
a) The wide men in that formation aren’t the most creative, and certainly aren’t natural wingers. As a result, they consistently drifted inside, leaving the middle of the pitch far too congested. Dowse brought Dee Okojie on to try to counter this, but he also played far too narrow. It seemed like a night for Charlie Knight to unpick their resolute back four.
b) Our much-lauded centre forwards had poor games, as individuals and as a partnership. Andre McCollin had one of those night where he just didn’t *seem* interested, even though he obviously cares a great deal, and Ryan Moss had probably his worst game of the season, including responding to the manager’s shouts from the touchline by telling him to “f**k off”. We’ll need the pair of the back at their best on Saturday.

4. Having picked on some negatives, it’s only fair to look at the positives as well. The most obvious plus point was the performance of Steve Laidler, who is now beginning to look like the player we thought we’d signed. He patrolled in front of the back four, breaking up play and then passing it calmly to a teammate, either wide, or forwards. He isn’t one of these holding midfielders who only passes sideways rot backwards, yet on top form (like last night) he doesn’t lose the ball either. If Laidler can perform like this during the final four games of the regular season, we’ll have a good shout. The other reason to be optimistic is another clean sheet, the fourth in five games. Without Matt Drage, it was all the more impressive, as Dan Pappoe doesn’t really convince as a natural centre half, but it shows the resolve of the lads not to concede. Rob Tolfrey, once again, was immense.

5. So where does this result leave us? At the very least, the travelling fans though, leaving the ground, we’ll have gained a point on Lowestoft, who’ve surely been beaten by Wealdstone. The news of that 0-0 made an frustrating night downright annoying. It changed nothing. We need a win on Saturday. So tell your friends, tell anyone who’s ever taken any interest in K’s, and drag people down to Kingsmeadow if necessary. A massive game, only a fiver in. Let’s raise the roof and get those three points. COYK.

It’s Not Over Yet – Bury Town (H)

1. Football, eh? Bloody hell. Nothing else – well, certainly nothing that counts as a hobby, at any rate (!) – offers such fantastic emotional highs and lows as football. At 4:50pm on Saturday afternoon, K’s season was as good as over. As Martin Tyler noted in his post-match interview, the dropped points alone wouldn’t have proved fatal for K’s promotion hopes, but the drop in morale that would have resulted from a draw against – quite literally – a team of kids would have been the nail in the missing-the-playoffs coffin. The feeling in the ground when Bury’s equaliser hit the net was unlike anything since Margate’s third goal in K’s last play-off debacle three years ago: despair at a winning position being thrown away mixed with outright dejection at what the late goal meant. As the person next to me said, surely summing up the feelings of all 250 in the ground, “well that’s another year in this f*cking division then. I can’t wait.” And then, only five minutes later, those same 250 people erupted in celebration in a way they surely haven’t since Bobby Traynor’s last minute winner against the old enemy almost four years ago. I had the pleasure of being stood behind the home bench, and Tyler, Abbott and Dowse’s celebrations will live long in the memory. They knew what the goal meant, we knew what the goal meant, and this honest bunch of players knew what the goal meant.

2. It meant, if it needs spelling out, that this season isn’t over, and in fact that K’s are in with a real fighting chance of getting into the top 5. The home game against Lowestoft in two weeks already looks huge – Lowestoft are vulnerable on the road, and a K’s win in that game could knock them out of the race – but in order for that game to be as important as it could be, K’s need to pick up points in the three games before it. I certainly don’t subscribe to the view that the next three matches are all ‘must win’, because our rivals will drop points – just look at the form table if you doubt that – but we need a minimum of 6 points to catch the teams above. We’re in no position to say things like “4 wins from 7” yet – it’s these next three games that everybody should be focussing on.

3. Back to Saturday. The reason this really was a proper Must Win Game was the nature of the opposition. For those not at the game, or not aware of the clearout of senior players at Bury Town over the last couple of months: K’s were playing a youth team (with the exception of the ever-present grumpy bulk of Marcus Garnham in goal…part of me thinks he’ll still be in goal for Bury in 2024). Some of these lads clearly aspired to a career in football, and the older ones (perhaps 19/20 at a push) seemed to have been in the gym and could just about cope with playing against men, but at least half the team – and certainly the substitutes, some of whom seemed not to have started the process of shaving, let alone filling out – looked like children. In addition, there was the not insignificant fact that the same group of lads had played an away game on Thursday night. If we couldn’t beat this lot, we wouldn’t beat anyone, went the logic – and in the first ten minutes, it looked like being exactly the sort of routine home win that everybody expected. K’s were rampant, all over Bury, swarming around their penalty box, but somehow unable to score – and as the half went on, Bury grew into the game, and started to hold their own. Half time was spent fretting.

4. When the second half kicked off, it looked like we needn’t have worried. Dowse had clearly told the lads to up the intensity, to get in the faces of the Bury boys, and to make it an altogether more physical encounter – an encounter the kids had no chance of winning. K’s piled on the pressure, but still, somehow, the ball wouldn’t go in the net. Was it going to be one of those days? No, as it turned out, as Charlie Knight finally managed to slam the ball home following a scramble in the box, to much relief around the ground. Surely now Bury’s defences would collapse, and the young lads in blue would give up hope, tired from two games in three days? Not a bit of it. K’s play started to get sloppy, we lost our shape, and Bury edged their way back into the game…and then came the sucker punch. If it hadn’t been such a big game for K’s, I’d almost have applauded the audacity and belief of the Bury team, who were a credit to their club. A fair few non-league mercenaries could learn a lot from their attitude.

5. But football is a cruel game, and K’s win meant that we’ve managed to win 5 points in the 3 games Andre McCollin has been suspended. Against Bognor and Lewes, it’s easy to argue that in fact McCollin wasn’t missed all that much: Ryan Moss was fantastic up front on his own, and scored a great goal at Lewes for good measure. But against Bury, we missed Andre’s pace and directness enormously. He would have had a field day against this team of kids, who would surely have never played against a striker possessing such a powerful physique allied with real aggression and intent. But personally, I wouldn’t advocate a return to 4-4-2 just because Andre is available. The midfield trio of Laidler, Pappoe and Sweeney looks well balanced, and with Josh Casey’s best position being centre midfield, Dowse is blessed with an embarrassment of riches in the middle of the park. Against decent sides, he should play all of them – as he is doing – and allow K’s to dominate the game. If we are dominating but not threatening, then yes, switch to 4-4-2 – or bring Andre on in a free role to get into space wherever he feels he can do the most damage. The squad is strong, and looks together. I think we’ll give it a good go.