I am not an optimist!
A month to the day since my last post, on non-league of course, and I have just got back from the Mayplace Ground where Phoenix Sports have played their last pre-season game against Walthamstow FC. I have been to three of their preparation games, the previous two at the University of Greenwich at Avery Hill, but today was the dress rehearsal for the SCEFL season opener on Friday at Erith Town. The game was pretty good, a keenly contested 1-1 draw with a team newly promoted to Step 4 matched up with a team recently relegated from Step 4 to Step 5. Phoenix had the best of the first half leading 1-0 through a Dave Martin free-kick, but one of Walthamstow’s two number 14s equalised with around 10 minutes to go and that was the goal scoring action. Either side of the equaliser Phoenix missed gilt-edged chances when the visiting keeper made decent saves when he should not have been given a prayer. I won’t name those who missed. If they read this they will know who they are.
Today was a final pre-season warm up for yours truly. The notebook was dusted off and the action noted, but not really for a full piece because I have a certain thing about pre-season football. But it was a decent run-out, and I am certainly more (but not totally familiar) with the players for Phoenix. It helps the newbies are all quite distinguishable. Tashi is the striker, with very noticeable hair colouring, and made an immediate impression on first sighting with at least two goals against Paper Mills in the 5-1 win (he could claim a hat-trick, but I’m not sure who is claiming that equaliser). Ryan Hayes is the new skipper, and he has a presence, wears long-sleeves, has a captain’s armband, and is genuinely loud! He is the new midfield man, brought in to bring some steel and experience. There is a new keeper, replacing Steve Phillips, Andy Walker, who comes in from promoted Chatham Town, and he has a presence in between the sticks. I will, still, miss Stevie’s “Shuffle” call though. I voted him my player of the year for the games I saw last season. Andy looks a very good replacement. Then there is Dave Martin. Ex-Millwall. I’d recognise him a mile off. He has come from Hastings. The one thing I don’t remember about him is he is a really angry man on the pitch! He scares me, and I am just watching the bloody game.
It is interesting this season, as I feel like it is a bit different in tone for me, and for Phoenix. Let’s start with the football club, which is much more important. I missed the end of season relegation, and wanted to be there with the team as their amazing attempt to escape the drop came up short. When I first saw them they were dead and buried. But they fought. How they bloody well fought. They held good teams, slipped up (usually chasing games), but won at places like Ashford towards the end. Now they have dropped into the SCEFL, they are one of the fancied teams to bounce right back. But this is tough, really tough. Just the one team is definitely promoted, the next four I think go into play-offs, or maybe it is second only goes into a play-off. I’ll find out. During last season, Glebe, one of the favoured teams in this league, who finished third in 2021-22, pronounced, via their chairman, that the top four in the SCEFL would finish in the top half of the Isthmian SE. A bold statement indeed. Sheppey and Chatham who rolled through the SCEFL last season will show the validity of that statement when they pit their teams against the rest of the chaff in the Isthmian. I think you underestimate how strong that league is, how difficult it is. I don’t underestimate the SCEFL either.
But Phoenix are one of the bigger fish, but I can’t say that I think they will win the league until I’ve seen the first few games. The start is tough. Erith Town (away) on Friday is a good test – they finished 7th. Next up is Welling Town (away) – they finished 14th, so a gauge for both clubs. Then comes what looks like the biggest game, Glebe at home on a Wednesday night. They finished 3rd, beat both the top clubs last year, and are highly fancied to go a bit better. Not least by themselves, I’d imagine. It isn’t a club that lacks confidence. Should be a good one, and I am really looking forward to that one. Then it is K Sports away (17th) before they meet Erith and Belvedere in another local derby in early September. E&B finished 6th. The other teams up there last season were Deal Town and Kennington, and Whitstable came down with Phoenix. It looks competitive. It is not just the big games against the top teams, but how Phoenix deal with teams that may not appear as strong. The beauty is, I don’t have a clue how this is all going to work out. That’s the joy. For reference here is last year’s league table. Click the link.
My fear, and pre-season gave a false impression early on, is I am not sure how Phoenix are going to score the goals required to go up. I think they’ll be fine in defence, although some of the more knowledgeable home fans cite this as a cause for concern as Toib has left the club and there has been a miss on one of the signings, but will Tashi up front be able to score the goals needed? It isn’t just on him, of course, but there is a lot of hope placed on his shoulders. But, as I said, at the top, I am not an optimist. I never, really have been.
So I can’t tell you how excited I am about the SCEFL. Once again, the power of non-league football wields its emotional sword, striking into my head after three months respite, or possibly a better description, void. A void I never thought I would experience again after I packed in the Millwall season ticket ten years ago. In fact, that thrill had died a bit before then. When I went to the first pre-season game (for me) against Cray Valley Paper Mills, and met up with Dave (who I bumped into at Sidcup on a night at the Hackney Carriage), got greeted by Steve O’Boyle (the manager) and praised by the chairman Andrew Mortlock to non-league “legend” Tony Incenzo, as well as bumping in to Leggy as well, and with Dean (Maverick 10) now on the coaching staff, and familiar faces around, it was a huge reassurance. I really struggled mentally after the end of the non-league season, possibly also due to that near miss on the M25, and the struggles at work seeming insurmountable. But with the familiar faces, and a focus on the upcoming season, there’s something to look forward to.
This matters. It matters immensely. It is also interesting how I am viewing my role, such as it is. Last season I was a novelty to the team there. Some middle-aged oddball, perhaps with a little gift for scribing, turning up, finding his heart being snatched away by Phoenix and by Holsworthy, and trying to convey it in match reports and emotional downloads of previous angst and despair. Trying to express what it has meant has been my reason to write, and there feels like a lot more to say. But I also find myself bumping up against myself. I don’t want these pieces just to be soft-focus love-ins, but there is also absolutely no way that I can slag these guys off for anything. That’s the problem. So even saying I am doubting their ability to bounce right back feels a bit like an act of betrayal. Mark Sullivan, a West Ham fan, but I like him, is my polar opposite. He could find sunshine on the rainiest of days, and he’s telling me how this team is full of it, another one will choke like they always do, and this one is over-rated, and this favourite has a lot to prove and so on, and I want to believe. Mark thought we could get a result after the loss at Corinthian when we all felt that was it. I wish I could be like that. But I can’t.
So. There is an issue. In many ways, a really good one, but in others, quite a sad one. I turned up to the Paper Mills game and Steve O’Boyle recognised me and said hello. Then talked to me about the season, he thinks we have a good side and is really confident, and I am with Dave, who trains the kids, when I said, we’ve put the house on the market and looking to move. When asked where, I say North Hampshire. Boyley says “you can’t do that, you’ve just started supporting us”. I felt like a traitor. I am never, ever, going to stop supporting Phoenix, I just won’t be able to go as often. But I felt awful. It’s also pretty damn touching for an old man. I keep saying this, and believe me if you want, but these guys have made me feel better as a person. That they are interested in me, even in a small way. I felt I’d lost that over a number of years. It’s massively important that I have the ability to make new friends and in the two clubs I have adopted. I have regular chats with Ryan Hall, the manager at Holsworthy. The chairman there sent me a birthday message, saying I am now an honorary committee member. The Phoenix management team, and board, are just brilliant to me. I can’t express my utter gratitude. It might seem a bit too needy, but that’s just how I feel.
On Friday, at 7pm, I got a call from the Hampshire estate agent. Our offer has been accepted for the house we want. We got a good one on our house in London. Things are about to get real. Money will be a bit tighter, but it is going to be for everyone. There will be a new team I will probably fall for a bit in the area I am moving to, given Andover have two. But already my mind is whirring away. How often will I get to Phoenix, and how will I do it. Can I stay at my brothers overnight, and drive there? Could I sort out the Saturday run once every few weeks – after all, I used to do it all the time when I earned a lot less in the 90s when I went Millwall home and away. Phoenix have been such a fantastic part of my last 6 months that I owe them. Massively. I want to move to village life, but I also don’t want to turn my back on friends. That is the balance that needs to be struck. Yet again, it is worth repeating, I had no idea six months ago that this is how I would be.
There’s so much more in my head, whizzing around. Like Luke Leppard today asking me if Dave Martin had been fouled (this after Luke and Dave gave the ref an absolute volley) because I was laughing, I nodded, he’d been clipped. Luke smiled. He’s a character. There’s so many there, though. It’s what makes it so special. I cannot wait for Friday. I cannot wait for Saturday week and the FA Cup trip to Oxhey Jets. I cannot wait for the Glebe game. If the move falls through, I stay where I am, and can watch Phoenix in their Kent odyssey to my heart’s content. I would like to see FC Elmstead, probably the nearest team to me before any move. I said in one of my pieces the line from a Linkin Park song (hey, today’s is from a bloody boy band), that somewhere I belong, and it is in this great part of the football pyramid. The people are worth the time. I owe them. I hope they realise that.
See you Friday. I might be more optimistic, you never know. But I am not about to change the habits of a lifetime. Nor am I going to make predictions. The joy of the SCEFL is I do not have a clue. Isn’t that really how sport should be?
If you don’t know the song from the lyric in the title, well the opening line summed up today – I woke up today with this feelin’. That better things are comin’ my way. The new season is nearly here. Keep on Movin’
Update – Walthamstow goal scored by Reece Mosanya. https://twitter.com/walthamstowfc/status/1550898873962569733?s=20&t=dNeGBRB5C77E0sGxP9MebQ