Sunday, 24 March 2013

Tunbridge Wells 2 Shildon AFC 0

Match 60/12/1013 - Saturday, 23 March 2013 - FA Vase Semi-Final, First Leg

Tunbridge Wells (0) 2 Irvine 76, Pilbeam 83 (pen)
Shildon AFC (0) 0
Att. 1,754

Entrance: £3 Senior
Programme: £1.50
Mileage: 26/4,601

Match Report

When I first starting writing That’ll Be The Day the first thing I needed was a title and the inspiration was the words that my Dad would use when I would wish for something, football-wise, that wasn’t likely to happen.

In 1999 Gillingham had their day, and thankfully the old fella was fit enough to share it, as my eyes unashamedly moistened as they walked out onto the Wembley turf for the first time in their history. Sadly the old boy isn’t around anymore, as the threshold is set for another day as Tunbridge Wells took another step towards an occasion that seven months ago would have been fanciful even to the supreme optimist.

This was a day when Gillingham had to take a back seat, my season ticket could lie idle as the need to be at the Culverden Stadium as this little bit of history unfolded was too special to miss. The week had been one of weather watch as this interminable winter drags its heels to a much overdue conclusion. It was something of a surprise that the game had been given even an initial go-ahead on Friday afternoon but from my London workplace, through Friday night and into Saturday morning, continuous rain and sleet left serious misgivings that the weather-beaten pitch could take the volume of water that was being thrown at it.

Whilst I caught a couple of hours sleep following my night shift, an army of volunteers were setting about forking the pitch in an effort to make it playable, a seemingly impossible task. Their effort was rewarded by an inspection at 11.30 a.m. that decreed that it was playable as long as the weather didn’t further deteriorate. On any normal Saturday, I would arrive at Culverden at 2.50 p.m. and be met by a couple of people in front of me at the turnstile, today at 1.30 p.m. there were a couple of hundred or more in the queue, these were waiting patiently for the referee to consult both managers before giving the final go-ahead.

The Shildon team filed past the queue to enter the stadium and there could not have been a doubt in their mind that the game would be played as the customers were starting to pay at the gate before the last of the players had entered the changing rooms. There was obviously a great will on behalf of both clubs to get the tie played, almost certainly Shildon had little desire to make the 600-mile round trip a second time.

The first look at the pitch might well have been that perhaps it’s going to be okay, but just the player’s warm-up left it decidedly worse for wear. Someone remarked that the players shouldn’t have been permitted to warm up in the penalty areas but, in truth, there wasn’t a square foot of the pitch that wasn’t going to suffer.

By the start, 1,754 were in attendance for the most important match in Tunbridge Wells’ history, some of whom, according to Minnie, were asking the way to the stadium on arrival at the station, I can only say, I hoped they enjoyed the walk because that’s a fair old step. Among the attendance there was a coach-load from the north-east that had travelled down in the morning and was in Tunbridge Wells by late morning and they positioned themselves and their flags behind the far goal, something that I cannot ever remember witnessing before. A temporary stand was quickly filled to its capacity as the best viewing points were sought.

As the game unfolded, both sides did their very best to play football in impossible circumstances. It was quickly established that this Shildon side were strong and capable and would pose by far the biggest task that Tunbridge Wells have faced in this FA Vase run, but this was the semi-final , so nothing less should have been expected. The conditions and two resolute defences were offering up very few chances in a first half that descended into a contest somewhere between the Eton Wall Game and mud wrestling. For the Wells, Josh Stanford and Jon Pilbeam ploughed their way down the flanks presenting a significant threat that was snuffed out by experienced defending from two wily old pros in Shildon’s full backs, whilst the home keeper, Chris Oladogba, was called upon to make a couple of comfortable saves. A chance after half-hour opened up for Pilbeam, but this first serious attempt on goal from the home side was charged down inside the penalty area.

Shildon began the second half on the front foot but immense defending from Scott Whibley and Perry Spackman was limiting their attempts to those that were being comfortably dealt with until, past the hour mark, there was an almighty fright for the home support as a shot was parried by Oladogba into the path of Jamie Owen, but a last ditch block from Pilbeam saved the day.

By now the conditions were descending into farce and with Shildon holding the balance of play, I know I wasn’t the only person in the ground that thought a goalless scoreline might be considered a good result. Oh ye of little faith!

With 13 minutes remaining on the clock, another Shildon attack was broken down and Pilbeam was released to attack down the right flank with space that he had found restricted by his opposing full back all afternoon, this time he drove the ball across the face of goal to an unmarked Andy Irvine who coolly picked his spot to shoot past Keith Finch to the roar of approval from Culverden.

No sooner it was one, it was two. Six minutes later, Hooley Cornell, on as substitute weaved his way into the box and was brought down by Shildon’s skipper, Richard Flynn to gain a penalty. It appeared that the coolest person inside the ground took responsibility for the kick, Jon Pilbeam sending the goalkeeper the wrong way and into the corner for a two goal advantage.

The slog in the mud was done, the battle on and off the pitch was won, but the tie is not. Next Saturday it is the turn of the southerners to make the long trek north and to be faced, from reports, with a pitch that is little better than Culverden and a Shildon side that is going to be even stronger with their own support in the majority.

If the Wells can come through this test, then they will have their day, the eyes will almost certain moisten again and I will look to the heavens and I will hear the old man saying “Tunbridge Wells, at Wembley, That’ll Be The Day!”

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Ebbsfleet United 4 Southport 1

Match 59/12/1012 - Saturday, 16 March 2013 - Conference Premier

Ebbsfleet United (4) 4 Bellamy 4, Payne 11, Elder 14, Godden 29
Southport (0) 1 Almond 49
Att. 603

Entrance: £10 Senior
Programme: £2.50
Mileage: 56/4,576

Match Report

Is it possible, nigh even probable, that we are going to make one giant leap from Winter to Summer and miss out Spring altogether? Another heavy belt of wet weather saw the postponement of my original choice of match, the Blue Square South relegation six-pointer between Tonbridge and Eastbourne and its alternative the Kent Senior Trophy Semi Final at Erith and Belvedere where Tunbridge Wells were both the visitors and the hosts as the game was switched to Park View Road due to the state of the pitch at Culverden.

Ebbsfleet's game against Southport was still showing as Match On, so it was off to Stonebridge Road to see the relegation-threatened Fleet blissfully unaware of a pitch inspection at 14.00 hours and a further one that was done just ten minutes before the due start. That said, the pitch looked and played perfectly adequately.

A midweek defeat at Alfreton had left Ebbsfleet entrenched in the bottom four and the visit of middle-of-the-table, going nowhere Southport was seen as a must win fixture in their quest for safety. I cannot envisage that there were many of the home support that expected nothing more than a dour struggle and those same people would have been pinching themselves in disbelief as they watched their favourites storm into a four goal lead inside the first half hour.

After just four minutes, a briliant turn from Stefan Payne gave him space to set up Liam Bellamy for a drive from the edge of the box to open the scoring and on 11 minutes a surging run and cross from the impressive Joe Howe was met with a glancing header into the far corner of the goal from Payne. The ex-Gillingham striker was a bit of a revelation. Since his departure from Priestfield, he has failed to settle at Aldershot, Sutton and Macclesfield, but his performance against Southport suggested that he has found a level and a club that he is comfortable with and his confidence that must have taken a mighty knock over the last 18 months has returned.

After 14 minutes a free kick from Ashley Carew, another ex-Gill, was touched home by Nathan Elder with the Southport defence in total disarray. Before the half-hour was complete, another Carew cross was headed on by Elder and Matt Godden was allowed to bundle the ball home from close range. At Conference level, the defending had been little short of shocking and must have been excruciatingly painful for the 40-odd supporters that had made the long journey down from the North-West coast.

One of those supporters had decided not to leave himself open to the elements and stood among the home support with the comfort of a roof. He had arrived well-prepared, thermos flask and sandwiches to hand. As the visitors attempted to make something of a recovery from their impossible situation a chance opened up that was lofted high over the bar, a Fleet follower made the not overly witty exclamation that Southport really were poo, to which the visitor merely took the top off his flask, unwrapped a biscuit from its cling film and silently nodded his agreement.

Southport's manager, Liam Watson, clearly could not trust himself with his players during the half-time break and within five minutes they were back out on the pitch disconsently kicking balls among themselves. If there was anything said, it had the desired effect as they set about the task of at least restoring a bit of personal pride. Sean Clancy struck a post almost from the outset of the second half before after three minutes, Chris Almond shot home from 20 yards to the almost ironic cheers of their fans positioned behind the goal.

For a while, Ebbsfleet looked slightly rattled before regaining the upper hand but a 30 yard shot that came back to goalkeeper Preston Edwards off the underside of the bar from Shaun Whalley served as a timely reminder.

Ebbsfleet can take a great deal of heart from this performance although there is still some way to go to climb out of those relegation places, but it is highly unlikely they are going to face such a charitable defence again anytime in the next six weeks.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Welling United 4 Tonbridge 1

Match 58/12/1011 - Tuesday, 12 March 2013 - Conference South

Welling United (2) 4 Acheampong 39,80 Lafayette 43, Clarke 62
Tonbridge (0) 1 Collin 49
Att. 447

Entrance: £7 Senior
Programme: £1.00 (from postponed fixture)
Mileage: 76/4,520

Match Report

The season is warming up nicely for an exciting last six weeks, it's a shame that the weather cannot do likewise and make the watching a tad more comfortable. Promotion for Gillingham is within touching distance, Tunbridge Wells' focus may well be on the FA Vase, but they are competing on several other fronts, but sadly, Tonbridge's last month is going to be nervously looking over their shoulders unless victories can be obtained in a trio of six-pointer home fixtures.

As the board displayed four minutes of time added, I took my leave from Park View Road, the cold had permeated my two pairs of socks and there was not the masochistic streak in me to see the game to its conclusion just for the hell of it. The night was over for Tonbridge, they had been well beaten by a Welling side that surely will take their place in Conference National next season.

Last season, over the course of the nine months, Dartford deserved to win promotion from their play-off game against Welling, but it was the Wings that probably deserved the result on the day. From that disappointment, Welling lost key players and replaced them with players of a similar mould and have built a side that is big and strong but capable of playing some decent football along the way.

Losing the champions-elect is no disgrace, but the manner in which the defeat was inflicted will hurt everybody involved with Tonbridge. They were vulnerable throughout to set pieces when Welling sent forward their big central defenders, Ben Martin and Anthony Acheampong, to get on the end of superbly delivered crosses from Jack Obersteller in particular.

Tonbridge did well to get beyond the 40th minute with their goal still intact, but two goals in the half's final five minutes left them with a mountain to climb that was never likely to be scaled. The first goal after 39 minutes was as straightforward as they come. An Obersteller corner from the right travelled to the far post from where Acheampong jumped highest to head into the corner from close range. Tonbridge barely had time to regain their composure before they found themselves two down, Kiernan Hughes-Mason outstripped Jon Heath down Welling's right hand side and his cross was met by Ross Lafayette who powered another header into the net.

The visitors needed an early goal in the second half to get any sort of foothold in the game and this duly came within four minutes of the restart when Frannie Collin got on the end of a Mikel Suarez pass and duly despatched the opportunity past Sam Mott. Unfortunately, it was the Wings that drew momentum from the set back and several chances were passed up before Lee Clarke rolled a shot past Lee Worgan into the far corner after more good work from Obersteller.

Frannie Collin had an opportunity to put pressure on the home side with 20 minutes remaining, fastening onto a Suarez headed flick-on, the striker's well hit shot was beaten away by Mott and cleared.

Tonbridge's vulnerability at set pieces was once again highlighted with 10 minutes remaining when another corner was once again met by Acheampong, who stabbed the ball over the line from no more than a couple of yards.

Tonbridge fielded two new signings, Anthony Sinclair-Furlonge at centre back and Ashley Miller, from Gillingham. Both had difficult debuts, Sinclair-Furlonge looked good on the ball at times but with no dominance at the set pieces has to take his fair share of the blame for the defensive deficiencies whilst Miller was virtually anonymous.

Saturday brings the first of the vital six-pointers when Eastbourne Borough visit Longmead and it has to be assumed, and hoped, that they are not going to carry the same threat as this powerful Welling side.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Gillingham 2 Plymouth Argyle 1

Match 57/12/1010 - Saturday, 9 March 2013 - League Two

Gillingham (1) 2 German 30, Whelpdale 55
Plymouth Argyle (0) 1 Banton 75
Att. 10,260

Entrance: Season Ticket
Programme: £3.00
Mileage: 45/4,444

Match Report

The Saturday night frown that has accompanied Gillingham home games of late was at last turned upside down as a really decent performance on the pitch was matched by a passionate effort from the fans in the stands. Recognising the dreadful lack of atmosphere at Priestfield in the last couple of months, a group of fans got together and initially using the power of social media and at the turnstiles issuing a Kitchener-style card to rally the support and, to be fair, it worked. The team likewise responded and everybody went home happy for a change.

I’ve no idea whether the club rallied to the supporters’ call, or it was a pre-conceived plan, but it was rumoured that upwards of 4,000 tickets were given away that boosted the crowd to a season’s best 10,000-plus. As far as I’m aware, there was no official announcement of any ticket giveaway and it was a complete surprise to me to see long queues formed at the Gordon Road entrance half-an-hour before kick-off. I can only visualise the massed ranks of the club’s staff stationed down the High Street with fistfuls of tickets being offered to passers-by. Before I’m sued by the club, I am joking and I understand the tickets were given to schoolchildren and service people.

The Kitchener-card spoke of days when Gillingham fans had a voice and a FA Cup game against Chelsea in 2001 when from
3-0 down at half-time the Priestfield crowd dragged the home side back into the game and had the top division giants wobbling at 3-2. Let’s get the place buzzing again was the call and the combination of the extra attendees and commitment of the regulars produced an atmosphere not enjoyed at Priestfield for a very long time.

Top versus virtually bottom should mean only one result, but with Gillingham’s home form nobody was taking anything for granted. As is Martin Allen’s style he produced the first surprise of the afternoon naming Bradley Dack and Antonio German in the starting line-up at the expense of Charlie Lee and Deon Burton and when the supporters would have been digesting the game in the bars or their sitting rooms later in the evening those two names would have been uppermost in their thoughts.

The home side set the tempo from the outset and the first chance of the game fell to Chris Whelpdale, in the fourth minute, who failed to convert a Dack cross with a header that sailed over the crossbar. German announced his arrival on the scene with a shot that had the Plymouth keeper, Jake Cole, saving low his right.

Dack and German joined forces to engineer Gillingham’s lead on the half-hour. Dack swept in a free kick that wasn’t dealt with by the Argyle defence and when the ball dropped to the Brentford loanee on the edge of the six yard box, German reacted quickly and volleyed home into the centre of the goal.

The Bradley Dack first half show ended with a diving header that was saved by Cole just before the break.

Plymouth, who had barely threatened in the first half, stretched Stuart Nelson to his first save after 10 minutes of the second half when a shot from Jason Banton took a deflection and was dipping in before Nelson produced a fine save, tipping the ball over the bar.

Gillingham doubled their advantage just after the hour with a move started and finished by Whelpdale. A defence splitting pass sent German through on goal, but having rounded the keeper, his shot hit a post but thankfully rebounded kindly for Whelpdale to slot into an empty net.

With the game seemingly won, Gillingham made substitutions, Dack leaving the field to rapturous applause, and German after taking a knock. The hosts lost momentum and Plymouth started to find a way back into the game. With a quarter-hour remaining a corner was only cleared to the edge of the box from where Banton, on loan from Crystal Palace, drove a low shot through the crowded box and into the right hand corner of the net.

The raucous crowd were now on the edge of their seats as relegation-threatened Argyle sought a valuable point and when Gozie Ugwu toppled under a challenge from Leon Legge, there was a collective holding of breath from the Gillingham end of Priestfield and indignation from the Green Army as the referee waved away the appeals.

It was almost as if everything would be alright on the night when the roar that greeted the final whistle was complemented with the news that Port Vale, Rotherham and Cheltenham had all lost their matches and Gillingham’s lead at the top of the table stood at five points.

Stand up the people that brought Priestfield back to life, promotion is now within touching distance, my prediction is that 78 points will be enough for promotion alone and that amounts to just three more wins and the passion that was created will drive those red shirts over the line (and then we can go back to our proper colours!).

The classic programme covers that are being replicated for this centenary season today came from the 1969-70 season.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Tunbridge Wells 2 Hadleigh United 0

Match 56/12/1009 - Saturday, 2 March 2013 - FA Vase QF

Tunbridge Wells (1) 2 Irvine 36,76
Hadleigh United (0) 0
Att. 1,180

Entrance: £4 Senior
Programme: £1.50
Mileage: 26/4,399

Match Report

There was a record attendance of 1,180 at Culverden Stadium, many of whom would have been visiting for the first time. A club insider (goes under the name of Minnie(!)) revealed that during the week, people were ringing the club to purchase tickets in advance on their credit cards, “just like they do at the theatre” he said. Culverden may lack a resemblance to the Theatre of Dreams, but the dream is still alive.

Tunbridge Wells Football Club are in the Semi Finals of the FA Vase, pinch yourself and carry on pinching yourselves until 3.00 pm on Monday afternoon when the draw is made, at which point the task facing the club to make the Wembley final will be known. Favourites Spennymoor are through, Guernsey will entertain Walsall Wood in a replay whilst Shildon and Ascot will also try again next Saturday.

Hadleigh United, from the Eastern Counties League, arrived with a good run of form behind them, having won six of their last seven and promised to test the Wells just as hard as the present holders of the trophy, Dunston UTS had done a couple of rounds ago, but a dominant performance from the home side left them deserved winners.

The FA Vase is a wonderful competition that showcases grassroots football at its best, with its predecessor being the FA Amateur Cup; Tunbridge Wells are truly an amateur club with none of their players receiving any reimbursement in terms of salary. The competition also offers a fairly level playing field, unlike the FA Trophy where a full time club can be pitched against another training just a couple of times a week, the Vase clubs only differ in respect of modest amounts of money that might be paid by certain clubs and not others.

Through the modern methods of social networking and good old fashioned coverage from the local paper and the club itself, the message got out there and there were long queues formed just prior to kick off and long after the start people were still entering the ground complaining that a parking space had been difficult to find. A good contingent from Suffolk were at the ground in plenty of time, resplendent in some eye-catching scarves, and they are a group of fans used to seeing their team winning on the road with five of their previous six Vase ties being won on visiting grounds.

Tunbridge Wells responded to the crowd’s encouragement and from the outset attacked their opponent’s goal in front of the main body of the crowd. An early chance for Perry Spackman was scrambled to safety before the Hadleigh goalkeeper, Dan Heath palmed away a corner, only to watch helplessly as a Tom Davy overhead kick narrowly went wide of the junction of the post and bar.

On the flanks both Josh Stanford and Jon Pilbeam were causing havoc to the Suffolk side’s full backs. Stanford set up chances for Andy McMath and Lewis Mingle whilst Pilbeam set up McMath with a chance that he struck wide from 20 yards.

The goal that the Wells’ dominance deserved finally arrived on 36 minutes with a counter attack that ripped the Hadleigh defence apart. Pilbeam made a surging run from his own half, passes from Hooley Cornell and Andy McMath opened up a six yard opportunity for Andy Irvine who coolly shot past Heath to the acclaim of the massed ranks on the terrace behind the goal.

After the break, Tunbridge Wells continued to dominate and if the Wells can be criticised for anything on the day it would be that they should have put their visitors to the sword long before they managed a second goal to ease the nerves. Irvine put a couple of good chances over the bar as the introduction of Jack Harris, replacing Cornell, offered a significant extra threat.

Harris won a midfield tussle and sent Pilbeam on his way to once more stretch his legs and wing his way past the harassed full back, from the bye-line the winger cut the ball back to Irvine who managed to slide in front of his marker to finish from close range.

With a quarter-hour remaining, for the supporters it was clock-watching and nail-biting time, but Hadleigh were offering very little threat and the occasional foray was being comfortably repelled by Spackman and Scott Whibley. Pilbeam had a couple of chances that had he taken them could have taken the man of the match award away from Irvine.

The final whistle brought the inevitable, good-natured, pitch invasion of elated young supporters, who it has to be hoped have taken the club to their hearts and will be the fan base of the future.

Tunbridge Wells as a football club was one that was almost unknown to its town folk, but now the town has responded, if just ten per cent of those people this FA Vase run has generated came back on a regular basis then the average crowd would be boosted to around 250 and what a difference that would make.

For once, Tunbridge Wells took centre stage away from Gillingham, Ebbsfleet and Dartford at the top of BBC Kent’s sports show and Martin Larkin, in his interview with Matt Davison, spoke warmly of the support and amateur values that the club upholds.

The semi-finals beckon, and who knows, the club might have to consider the credit card system that an all ticket match may demand and Minnie might have to buy a ticket in advance - “just like they do at the theatre”.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Gillingham 0 Oxford United 1

Match 55/12/1008 - Tuesday, 26 February 2013 - League Two

Gillingham (0) 0
Oxford United (0) 1 Potter 85
Att. 4,928

Entrance: Season Ticket
Programme: £3.00
Mileage: 45/4,373

Match Report

If there is someone reading this that has Cody McDonald's mobile phone number then please, on behalf of the rest of us, send him a text. It should read missing u already . . . That be said, even Cody would have been hard put to fashion a chance, let alone a goal, from the creative black hole that was Gillingham Football Club last night.

Martin Allen, strode away to the dressing rooms, head down with a chorus of boos ringing in his ears as the Priestfield faithful vented their disapproval not only of the evening's performance but the frustration of the last three months worth of home performances. Since the FA Cup demolition of Scunthorpe on 3rd November, Gillingham have played eleven home league games, won just three and accumulated only 12 points. They sit top of League Two by virtue of their stunning away form and the apparent reluctance of any other club wishing to take this division by the scruff of the neck.

The away form is easy to reconcile. Based on a superb defence (which is much the same at home), Gillingham sit back, stifle the opposition and hit them on the counter attack; grab a goal and defend it, to more often than not win by the odd goal. At home, the opposition come with much the same plan, asking Gilllingham to open them up and their lack of creativity exposes them time and again.

In this winter, when the cold has appeared to drag on much longer than usual, this was another night when the numbing cold could not be ignored as it bit at the extremities because there was absolutely nothing in the game that could take the mind off the cold.

Oxford United were another rank average team with the limited ambition of gaining a point. But when their one chance of the match came along, Alfie Potter, probably the most inventive player on the pitch, had the pace to outstrip the otherwise outstanding Leon Legge and the ability to apply a cool finish, shooting across the face of Stuart Nelson’s goal into the net off the far post.

I’ve long lamented the woefulness of this division and last night was another glaring example. Neither goalkeeper was stretched during the 90 minutes. Bradley Dack forced Oxford’s Luke McCormick into his one and only real save, albeit a comfortable one, whereas Nelson’s only telling contribution was to pick the ball out of the net with five minutes remaining.

With Port Vale losing at home to Exeter City, Gillingham stayed top but allowed the third and fourth placed clubs to creep a little closer. The general opinion among the supporters is that they will trip over the line almost in spite of themselves rather than because of themselves. This season doesn’t have the feeling (or the excitement) of a promotion season and that is has to be due to the poor home form.

The loss of Cody McDonald, recalled by Coventry City’s caretaker manager, Lee Carsley, is a blow because he is someone trusted by the fans and with good reason, four goals in this truncated loan spell, whereas Adam Birchall’s lack of goals is beginning to become a millstone around his neck that he seems unable to carry and despite his energetic work rate is becoming the subject of discontent in the stands. In a season which is still likely to culminate in promotion, we have the unlikely scenario of scapegoats, Lewis Montrose took the role in early season before he departed and recently Steven Gregory, Anton Robinson and Birchall have been the butt of criticism. The staff at any football club would say that this should not happen, especially at a time when the club is for all intents and purposes doing well, but with the majority of the fan base only seeing home matches and poor performances, somebody inevitably carries the can.

Form has a habit of turning on its head and the good early season performances at Priestfield might be regained, hopefully not at the expense of the record-breaking away form. If this is the case then, just perhaps, some time in April, Gillingham can confirm their entry into League One at a canter rather than a stumble and the derision that rang in the ears of players and manager alike on Tuesday night will be a distant memory.

The classic programme covers that are being replicated for this centenary season today came from the 1978-79 season.