Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Season Review 2007-08

Take a look at the banner heading because it will change in August, but it does relate to the season departed. Firstly, the blog was to put a boring season behind me, well 07-08 was far from boring and it was also to start and, hopefully, end at Wembley, well it did that, but not with Gillingham.

When I started this blog back in July, I had no reason to think that all three of the teams I support would sack their manager, two, in effect, would suffer relegation and the third heartbreakingly losing out on a play-off place on the last day.

Gillingham were a disaster from virtually the first whistle to the last. Hopes were reasonably high going into the opening fixture at Cheltenham. I had previewed the season sensing a “whiff of optimism”, feelings built on experienced players replacing some of the dead beats that had turned the previous season into a relegation-threatened one. Steve Lomas, Delroy Facey, David Graham and Efe Sodje had come with reputations and Craig Armstrong, who had been relentlessly chased by Ronnie Jepson. Each of them has since left the club, undoubtedly at the great expense of contracts being paid up. Lomas was just awful, his high point being a pre-season friendly against Colchester. Rod Wallace and Tommy Johnson were always accused of being last pay-day players, only at Priestfield to top up the pension, but in comparison to Lomas they positively bristled with enthusiasm. Facey was fat, lazy and when you saw the goal he scored at Swansea, frustrating. Sodje was perhaps a little unlucky, though his defensive qualities were regularly questioned. A horrendous facial injury at Yeovil was sustained and with the arrival of a new manager he never recovered his place. Armstrong managed to quickly fall out with the new man and he was on his way back to Cheltenham, using his Face Book page to throw as much dirt as possible.

Two of Jepson’s signing were stand-out successes. Simon Royce was player of the year and his runner-up, Simon King, had superb seasons. Royce, overworked, excelled throughout and King who after being signed for £200,000 strangely found a place in the team hard come-by early in the season flourished under Stimson.

Early season optimism quickly evaporated as they opened the season with four straight defeats including a Carling Cup exit at Watford. A couple of home wins in September papered over the cracks that were being relentlessly exposed on the road. Heavy defeats at Southend and Nottingham Forest was then followed by a humiliating 5-0 rout at arch-enemies Swindon saw the exit door open for Ronnie Jepson.

At this point I will digress from Gillingham as this period was just about the strangest set of coincidences. I blogged at the time that to lose a manager is unfortunate, to lose two is careless, but to lose all three, meant I should have taken more care with the choosing of the teams I support. Following Jepson a month later, Tony Dolby was fired at Tonbridge and following the failure of the national team to qualify for Euro 2008, the wally with the brolly was sacked by the FA.

Back with Gillingham, Iffy Onuora caretakered for a month with relative success built on avoidance of defeat in three home games before on November 1st Mark Stimson was appointed the new manager. This was to be Stimson’s first Football League job having had success in non-league with Grays and Stevenage. That Delroy Facey goal mentioned earlier gained Gillingham their first point on the road at the seventh attempt despite being battered by 10-men Swansea. A creditable draw at home to an impressive Doncaster side might have strengthened the view that Scally had indeed picked the right man but for an unforgivable performance at Barnet in the FA Cup highlighted the magnitude of the job in front of Stimson. The Stimson revolution began from this point with signings being made from non-league, but this defeat meant the end of the line for the lamentable Lomas, with Brown, Cogan, Sodje, Graham, Cox all heading for the exit door during the coming weeks. Many people have drawn the conclusion that Stimson changed too much, too quickly but the memory of this appalling display still leaves a bad taste and changes were forced upon him by a group of players acting in the most unprofessional of manners.

In from the non-league ranks came a mixture of players, some of whom performed with varying degrees of success, and some haven’t come up to scratch. Success can be attributed to Adam Miller and John Nutter, potential is seen in Simeon Jackson and Stuart Lewis and the jury is still out on Dennis Oli. Stuart Thurgood has come and gone, Leroy Griffiths was not retained at the season’s end and Barry Fuller has failed to make an impression.

Stimson also employed a few loan players as he tried to instill into the team a spirit and a work ethic to complement his own. Results were patchy to be more than kind and these were being obtained on the back of goals from Charlton loanee Chris Dickson. A first away win of the season was achieved at Crewe in early December, only for the bottom club, Port Vale to come to Priestfield four days later and win. A corner appeared to have been turned with a superb victory over Nottingham Forest, followed by an away draw with high-flying Leyton Orient and when a second away win was achieved at Huddersfield, the dizzy heights of 13th had been achieved. A seven game winless run plunged Gillingham back into the mire by the end of February including a humiliating 4-0 defeat at Northampton. A home win against Huddersfield broke up a run that went to just that win in 13 games ending with a shocking home defeat against Crewe that resulted in all sorts of recriminations. Chairman Scally took a whole load of abuse in the ground, his car had rocks thrown at it and his programme notes he subsequently labelled Gillingham fans, Scumbags and for the programme notes against Bournemouth he wrote nothing at all.

The last nine games produced only two further wins and ten points, but at least they showed a certain spirit that had been so lacking earlier in the season, especially under Jepson and the early days of Stimson. A last day defeat at Leeds consigned Gillingham back to the basement division from where Paul Scally had taken over the club back in 1994.

The future is now shrouded with doubt, antagonism, but even a little optimism. There are doubts are to Mr Scally’s plans for the future. He has decamped his family home to Dubai and following the relegation and the continuing fall-out from the Crewe game, leaves me to wonder whether he really has the stomach to start again. Of course, he says he has. Supporters are also divided on Mark Stimson. Personally, I’m ready to give him a fresh start in August and see where it takes us with a guarded optimism that he might be on the right track in a lower division.

Tonbridge also suffered from a shaky start and sacked Tony Dolby at the end of October following a disappointing FA Cup exit at Ware. Tommy Warrilow was brought to the club from Horsham and there was no initial improvement in fortunes. But from the end of February they went on an amazing run of seven straight wins, broken only by a injury time winner for champions-elect Chelmsford City and this was extended to eight wins out of nine, catapulting them into a play-off position. Sadly, it didn’t quite pan out with two draws and a defeat in the final three games, but the seeds of potential success have been sown and everybody is looking forward to next season at Longmead with the highest of hopes.

Tonbridge supplied most of the highlights of my season. Top of the tree was their Trophy success over Conference side Oxford United. Over the two games they deservedly won the replay at Longmead having had the better of the game at the Kassam in the first meeting. Then in the midst of their seven game run they completely took apart a very decent Hendon side in a four goal win.

Warrilow made some very successful captures to strengthen the squad after his arrival. He responded to the disappointing loss of Jon Main to AFC Wimbledon with the signing of Carl Rook. Like his manager, Rook had a slow start, but once he got on the score sheet the goals just kept coming. John Westcott also made valuable contributions with his excellent wing play. But there were players already at the club that went from strength to strength following Warrilow’s arrival. Keeper Matt Reed, seemed to grow in confidence with every game, Matt Lovell, James Donovan and Tommy Tyne all seemed better players within the new regime.

The future is bright at Tonbridge. Plans are in place to put 600 seats into the main stand and there other major improvements on the agenda with a £100,000 investment. They’ve got it right on the pitch, now they are going to get it right off it. For the Angels, next season won’t come quickly enough.

England, oh my God, England. Wembley finally opened, it was a jaw-dropping experience walking into that fabulous stadium. It was also jaw-dropping to watch the utter dross that the national team have managed to serve up since. The atmosphere on international days has been almost funereal as the side have failed to excite their loyal support. Ultimately, Croatia left our pampered prima donnas with the task of getting a nice tan this summer rather than challenging for European honours. On a sodden, miserable night at Wembley, we had Scott Carson howlers, a stirring comeback and a 3-2 defeat that consigned England to the beach and the wally with the brolly to the employment exchange.

Fabio Capello has come in to shake up this bunch of over-paid failures. Perhaps, in time, he will achieve, but the first couple of friendlies have been far from inspiring.

On a personal basis the season was good. There was always interest with Gillingham at the bottom, Tonbridge chasing the top and England supplying the boredom. Sixty-seven games is a good return, although new grounds were thin on the ground. No new league grounds were added, Staines Town and Maidstone’s lodgings at Sittingbourne added couple of non-league venues and internationally, there was a spectacular visit to Moscow and the Stade de France in Paris, taking the total to 222.

The 2,000th match is now 65 games away, so it is reasonable to think that next season will see that milestone passed. The blog has driven me on at times and I’ve enjoyed doing it immensely. Hopefully my authorship has improved over the course of the year and That’ll be the Day will be back again next season.

End of season totals: Games 1,935. Grounds: 222

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Ebbsfleet United 1 Torquay United 0

Match 67/07/684 - Saturday, 10th May 2008 - FA Trophy Final

Ebbsfleet United (1) 1 McPhee 45
Torquay United (0) 0
Att. 40,186

Entrance: £25
Programme: £3
Mileage: 100/6,561

Match Report

After the season that I’ve endured, who could blame me for a little end of season glory hunting. But it was more than that, a Kent side into a non-league final for the first time since 2000, in fact the first time in a Trophy Final is more than a good enough reason. But also I had to live up to the banner heading on my blog, a season that would begin and end at Wembley, albeit that it wasn‘t the Gills supplying the finish.

Ebbsfleet’s arrival at Wembley is the culmination of a season of change like no other as a club. Forever, to old-timers like myself, they will be Gravesend and Northfleet, but to take advantage of the marketing opportunity presented by having a major rail terminal sited on their doorstep they changed their name to Ebbsfleet. They were then the subject of a mid-season takeover, not by the traditional rich businessman, but by 35,000 members of a website. MyFootballClub is a site that members have paid £35 each for a share in the potential purchase of a football club and that club turned out to be Ebbsfleet. When the takeover was proposed there was, and probably still are, fundamental questions about the control of club matters. It was said that surfers could have influence in picking the team, sacking the manager, none of this has materialised, but the truth is that they have had a reasonably successful team that has flirted all season with the Conference play-offs and now reached a Wembley Final, why would they want to change anything?

The good people of Gravesend and Northfleet bought into this final big time and sold 21,500 tickets at Stonebridge Road and of the tickets that were sold on the day (including mine), they must have made that up to 25,000. It all made for a really good atmosphere, better than most England games of late.

Torquay started much the better and had three good chances before Gravesend (cos that’s who they are!) had a shot at goal. Lance Cronin made one particularly good save and another missed by the narrowest of margins. But following these first 20 minutes the Kent side took a grip of the game and in the 43rd minute were offered the golden chance to take the lead when they were awarded a penalty. Chris McPee, who previously had a six out of six record from the spot, had a poor effort comfortably saved by the Gulls keeper. McPhee made amends on the stroke of half-time when he was on the end of a cross from the excellent John Akinde, who had robbed a dithering Torquay defender.

As the second half reached its last fifteen minutes, the Ebbsfleet support really started to believe that they might just win this and began to match their numbers with a noise befitting, although the much despised Mexican Wave betrayed them as day-trippers, the real fans were too busy biting their nails.

I have to say that I met the final whistle with an elation that almost caught myself by surprise. This was a really good day out, a thoroughly entertaining game that brought back memories of what it is like to win at Wembley. It brought the curtain down on season 2007-08 and the first year of That’ll be the Day, which I’ve enjoyed doing and it will be back in July with pre-season friendlies.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Leeds United 2 Gillingham 1

Match 66/07/683 - Saturday, 3rd May 2008 - League One

Leeds United (0) 2 Johnson 69 Kandol 88
Gillingham (1) 1 Jackson 20
Att. 38,256

Entrance: £20
Programme: Given Free
Mileage: 507/6,461

Match Report

Que sera, sera, whatever will be will be, we’re going to Shrewsbury, que sera, sera . . . We’re going down in a minute, down in a minute, we’re going down in a minute . . . such was the gallows humour with which Gillingham supporters greeted their imminent relegation that was indeed confirmed in that following minute (ok, so it was three). For a fifth successive match they had failed to win a match from which they had taken the lead, for a third successive away game that lead had been eradicated by a goal from a super strike that would grace a level much higher than the third tier of English football.

Over 38,000 people, the biggest crowd in the Football League this season, came not to witness Gillingham’s Great Escape, but to celebrate the home club’s promotion back to the championship. For that they will have to wait and win the play-offs as the League decided to turn down their appeal for the return of their 15 penalty points. Ken Bates had made our own Paul Scally the scapegoat for the verdict, when he was just one of 63 chairman that had voted in favour of the League Board in sanctioning the penalty. But Scally, never one to shy from comment, fronted up the Sky cameras and, with that, Leeds fans get the impression that he is some kind of ringleader. Bates’ programme notes fanned the flames and he finishes up by saying that it will be poetic justice that it is Leeds that relegate Gillingham. All this racked up the atmosphere that crackled come kick off time.

But Gillingham managed to quell the crowd noise and following an awful bit of defending, Simeon Jackson struck to put them in front on 20 minutes and got through to half-time with their lead intact with no great problem. Unfortunately the news from other grounds was not so good, Cheltenham were beating Doncaster and that would be enough to send us down.

Early in the second half there was a brief flurry of excitement as news of a goal came through. Carlisle had taken the lead against Bournemouth, helpful but not the salvation that many seemed to believe. Any joy that was taken from elsewhere was dissolved when Bradley Johnson volleyed past Derek Stillie from 20-odd yards to launch an ear-splitting cacophony of sound from the Elland Road masses. The celebrations were completed two minutes from time, but to Gillingham fans this was immaterial. Such was our luck that one final chance rebounded off a post to deny even the satisfaction of avoiding defeat in such intimidating circumstances. Inside the ground, the home supporters seemed to take Bates to his word and gloried in Gillingham’s relegation. But on the walk back to the car there was no antagonism and even a little sympathy.

Mark Stimson has failed to turn this club around in the last six months. Results have been no better than they were under Jepson and there have been precious few highs. There are undoubtedly supporters who want another fresh start, preferably with Scally gone as well as Stimson, but there are plenty of people that are more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and have a guarded optimism that he is the man to lead us back to League One at the first time of asking.

The summer is going to be a time when Paul Scally’s resolve is going to be tested. The probability is that skipper Andrew Crofts will depart for football at a higher level as will Simon King. These are going to be huge losses and the manager is going to need the full backing of the chairman with a budget that is going to compensate for their departures. This time around supporters are going to need to see significant investment in the team to convince them to part with their season ticket money at a time when the general economy of the country is facing difficult times. Season ticket prices have to come down, this in turn reduces the cash flow and the budget Stimson has, but the balance must be found because next season there is no margin for error, the next relegation is the trap door.