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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Big House, Nice Car, No Points – Tonbridge Angels (A)

1. I’d never been to Tonbridge before – and it turns out it’s a decent day out. The walk from the station to the ground takes about 30 minutes, and is basically a pub-lined avenue through a pleasant enough town; the ground has terrific covered sheds at each end, and a decent little bar with the local ale on tap. The presence of the odious Steve McKimm in the away dugout in his first managerial role had the potential to overshadow the game itself, but K’s fans rose above it, and basically ignored him. Hopefully that will remain the case in the reverse fixture at Kingsmeadow.

2. Fortunately, the game didn’t ruin the day, as so often happens on these occasions – but only because Kingstonian took 3 points. It was a poor game, truth be told, between a K’s side packed with individual quality but unable to string two passes together, and an Angels eleven which was a much more cohesive unit but short on class. As a result, Tonbridge dominated the middle third of the pitch, while K’s had the better of the exchanges in both penalty areas. This is becoming a worrying theme. Any club with Alan Inns, Sam Page, Andre McCollin and Nathaniel Pinney on their books should be better in both boxes than most of the opposition in this league – but a club with Josh Casey, Steve Laidler, Tommy Kavanagh and Dan Sweeney should also be able to pass the ball through midfield.

3. The lack of cohesion in the side has seemed so far this season to stem from a lack of balance. That problem was partially fixed on Saturday with Nathaniel Pinney starting ahead of Elvis Hammond: Pinney dropped off deeper when necessary and was willing to do the hard yards with his back to goal, holding the ball up to drag the team up the pitch. However, the midfield remains disjointed. Laidler and Kavanagh haven’t really gelled in the midfield engine room: much of the time, they’re either both deep and thus inviting the pressure or both ahead of the ball and thus leaving the back four exposed. Sweeney is being played out of position, wide in a 4-4-2, and is struggling to contribute, although his work rate on Saturday was exceptional. Chris Henry, starting on the left wing to give the side much needed width, had yet another poor game against Tonbidge, and delivered only one cross of note in all his time on the pitch. Tommy Williams needs to find a solution that works – and quickly, given the number of important games coming up.

4. You might be reading this thinking, “this is a bit harsh – we’re unbeaten and won an away game 2-0!” But Tonbridge were desperately poor, in all honesty. Listening to Steve McKimm’s interview after the game, it appears there’s a pretty strong reason why they didn’t look a good side: injuries. Their back four was cobbled together the night before the match – and it showed. The fact K’s only made three clear cut chances during the game is a cause for concern, not celebration.

5. Finally, on a positive note, let’s not understate just how good K’s defending was on Saturday. It was immense – and that’s without Matt Drage, imperious for us last season, who was looking on from the stands. If we can absorb that much pressure and still win, it bodes well. But let’s try not to put ourselves under that much pressure, eh, lads?

Player Ratings: Tolfrey 7; Goode 8 Inns 9 Page 9 Casey 8; Sweeney 7 Kavanagh 5 Laidler 5 Henry 4; Pinney 7 McCollin 8

Man of the Match: Alan Inns. Colossal.