“Hang about”, I thought. “Steve looks different today. Can’t put my finger on it from a distance. Not sure what it is….” So begins another chapter in the story of Dmitri Old and Phoenix Sports.
Paul and I had parked down the road rather than try the club car park with all that ANPR nonsense and gambling whether the technology worked. No, it was old school street parking for us, despite there being a big, and rather noisy, football match going on at The Valley a mile or so away and with some youtubers and social media influencers playing a charity game.
We were near Charlton, not something I would do intentionally, because we were in the vicinity for the second qualifying round of the FA Vase. Phoenix had won their first qualifying round match, an unconvincing win against Canterbury City, and now faced the SCEFL Division 1 team, Bridon Ropes (who had a bye through that round, no idea how that works) in the second qualifying round. I love the name Bridon Ropes, and they do derive it from the ropemaking factory in the area back in the day. I think that is pretty cool, to be honest.
The game was being played at Meridian Sports, next door to QE2 Hospital between Charlton and Woolwich – we had been warned about the parking – “be careful”. So, having parked around the corner, walked into the complex, we (Paul and I) were on the lookout for a familiar face. And there he was. Steve O’Boyle. Manager, supremo and fortified larynx that science still hasn’t unlocked, standing by the entrance to the pavilion that doubled up as a bar and changing rooms. “Hello Lads” he says. Then it twigged. Steve had had a very sharp barber session….
At that point, I could almost embrace him. The decision was made for a title. A Haircut 100 lyric was going to be the headline to today’s piece. And it is. Fantastic Day.
Steve told all who came up to him about the story about his short haircut – without wishing to sound too much like a fashion and lifestyle correspondent, I like short hair, so well done, it looks good – but more importantly I got the team news from the man himself. We had some changes today. Ryan Hayes is out, for a time not certain, and would be replaced in the starting line-up by Francis Babalola; Lee Bird was suspended after his sending off against Fisher, and he would be replaced by Tom O’Connor; Andy Pugh picked up an injury in training, so Tashi-Jay Kwayie came in after a time out injured (we were all a little excited about that); and as expected, Lewis Clark’s injury is not good, and this gave Perez Julius-Goumou an opportunity to stake a claim for a while in the centre-back position. Lewis is one of those players you don’t notice during games (except at Tunbridge Wells when he was in the middle of that incident), but you do notice when he isn’t.
This looked like a time to test our (Paul and mine) theory out, that although Ryan is, without a doubt, a fabulous passer and set piece guru, how would we react if we had something different down that flank?I’m not being unfair on Ryan, but pace isn’t his forte, while Babs certainly has some of that. How would it go? Also, nice to see Marcus Elliott back from his holiday and taking his place on the bench. I think he has been terrific for us when he’s played, and he had three goals in two games before going off to cavort in some lovely location no doubt (not jealous, definitely not jealous). A nice weapon to have off the bench.
The bar at Meridian is really good, though after a night out last night, I wasn’t partaking of any refreshment or grub. The ground lay behind a wooden fence, obscured from view, and the turnstile wasn’t opened until 2:20. There were some exuberant vets players going into the football cage for a fixture that afternoon, and the place was quite lively. Steve remarked that the quality of that 3G surface wasn’t ideal. Or something like that. Alan was back and regaled Paul of tales of Lord’s last week, Housey was his usual jovial self, and I think I told them all I’d be back for Tunbridge Wells and Deal as my move was back a week. As usual the Phoenix Massive had assembled – we do have a good solid away following in the 20s or 30s, and it’s always lovely to see them.
We paid our match fee, although Dave was not enamoured by the SCEFL Division 1 club’s children’s pricing policy, but then he got his revenge on pretty much everyone for that as his youngest decided he would give the airhorn its money’s worth. This, I might add, did not attract the enthusiasm of one of our club officials, who came over to me in the second half and said “why are you standing here and not behind the goal? Is it due to that bloody airhorn?”. I am with you, sir, but I was standing where I was because, over the years, it is where I stood for football if I could, side-on. Level with the penalty area if possible. I don’t know why.
It was a bright, breezy day in South East London, and the two teams came out. It was going to be a guessing game for me to identify the home team as I didn’t have their team sheet, although they did have shirt numbers in the match programme. It’s also convincing me that at some point, I really should go for that eye test. It has been 3 and a half years.
The FA Vase is clearly a competition that Phoenix Sports really like – they had a decent run in it a few years back and the stories of Arundel, Bodmin and North Shields have been told to me already. Also, the next round is October 22, so I might be able to come back for that if we get through. I’m quite excited. I ask Dean Sawyer (Mr SCEFL website, and Phoenix social media) pre-match whether he had seen Bridon Ropes. He said “no, but I’ve heard they are a decent side, but Phoenix should win this, I expect 3-0 or 4-1, something like that.” Mr SCEFL, also, as we found out today a massive Miami Dolphins fan (as are Paul and I), is not prone to hyperbole, and also, give that man a break during games…… he has TOO much to do.
Andy Walker*, our keeper, was skipper in Ryan’s absence, and he did the Ryan thing of switching ends, so we all have to go down the other end to take our chosen view. The thoughts were that although Bridon were 5th in their league, they weren’t really going to be able to live with Phoenix, and this should be a comfortable workout. I thought, “what planet are they on?” But then I have my own house on Planet Pessimism and I don’t invite neighbours along. The only thing I really knew about Ropes is their one league defeat came away at Faversham Strike Force (who we have in a cup game on a Friday night, having played on Tuesday before that later in the month), and by the totally regular score of 8-4. I have never seen more than 8 goals in any game I have been to. A 4-4, a 6-2, but no more. 8-4 is taking the michael.
Phoenix started quite well, as I started off sitting in the main stand in front of the Council of Elders of Phoenix, and cursing that I hadn’t charged my camera battery up and only had one bar remaining! On the field, Phoenix won a free-kick on 3 minutes outside the box. In the absence of Ryan, Dave Martin took it, and hit a nice shot that the home keeper saved well, but which some of the attendees thought was a “cameraman’s save”. Well this “cameraman” didn’t take a picture of it, so it wasn’t.
But Phoenix were out of the traps, probing with Tashi darting around up front, Dave Martin looking frisky on the left, and Babs being a total nuisance on the right. But chances did not really come. And frustration started to, as passes were misplaced, runs not picked up, openings not worked. All the while Bridon Ropes, and their number 14 early on (Bishal Tamang according to the programme) caused Tom a few moments of concern, while the two forwards had a little bit about them. But for another 30 minutes I had no cause to add anything in my notebook.
OK. I exaggerate. 25 minutes. Phoenix had, at one point in the move noted down, a 3 on 1, but hadn’t managed to work a great chance from that advantage. Instead it culminated in a shot by Tashi that sailed over the bar and the danger passed for Bridon.
Bridon had a couple of opportunities of their own shortly after. On 32 minutes, the Ropes number 9 (I think), listed as Jack Wilson in the programme, put his shot wide when in on goal from 20 yards. On 36 the Ropes 8, listed as Finlay Chambers, profited from a Luke Leppard flick on which put him in, but his shot went wide too, while we held our breaths at the other end. They had not looked dangerous, but Bridon had had two decent chances. My mantra, despite what others may say, is you are NEVER in control of a game that is 0-0. I don’t care who you are.
On 38 Phoenix, perhaps sparked to life, created an attack down the right, as Alfie Evans battled through challenges and picked out a decent cross to Dave Martin in the area. He hit the ball on the half volley, with his “wrong” foot, and sent the ball wide and high – not very, but enough. Decent opportunity but still 0-0.
On 42 minutes, The ball fell to Tashi on the edge of the area, and he freed up some space to let go of a rasping shot which looked like it was arrowing into the top corner past the despairing dive of, I presume, Alex Jones, in the home net. However the goal net did not bulge, but the protective net behind the goal did as it flew just wide. The chance had been created by some neat passing between Dave Martin and Francis Babalola, and had been Phoenix’s best move of the match so far. Which wasn’t saying a lot.
The half-time whistle blew. The Phoenix Massive were pensive. Then perhaps a little anxious. Bridon had certainly not been outplayed – undoubtedly Phoenix had a little more pedigree, but that had not stopped two decent chances coming against them. This was not a comfortable tie. One wondered how Steve might react in the dressing room. I dared anyone who might have been part of his “hairdryer” to tell him to keep his hair on! I’d have paid to see that.
We switched to the other penalty area to set up camp. Bridon Ropes came out early for the second half, a good five minutes before Phoenix Sports came out. We were a long way from the dressing room, so no repeat of hearing the Canterbury City rallying cry that was audible back in August. There were no changes, and the second half set off on its course. Dean was still confident that Phoenix would prevail comfortably, and I was trying to take solace that Phoenix had done enough in games like this all season long, and were good at the end of games. You take what you can.
But Phoenix did not come out of the traps quickly, and Bridon, and their, ahem, vocal number 5 driving them on seemed to be growing into the game. But then an opening from nowhere, 52 minutes on the clock, and the ball floats into the box, and Tashi and home keeper Jones are on collision course. Only one would survive! Tashi gets to the ball first, and the shot is not controlled, but instead drifts over the bar. Jones runs into Tashi, but it is never a pen. It’s a clash, and both seemed to have come out of it unscathed. But Tashi’s pace is the key to unlocking the door. It could be the spark to light the flame. Clutching at straws but the first time we had really passed through them. A hope, maybe?
And Tashi does unlock the door four minutes later. Good work by Tom O’Connor in midfield, and the defence are resolute, the ball looping up in the air just outside the box, on the right hand side of the 18 yard box. Henry Douglas jumps and heads on, Tashi has timed his run into the right side of the area beautifully and is now faced with the keeper to beat. Tashi chooses power and gives the ball a fearful thump which, although close to the keeper, has him beaten. While it looks like Jones “should” have done better, the power of the shot was too much. Tashi wheels away as the ball goes into the net, and Phoenix take the lead. It is his first goal in league or cup for Phoenix after his signing from Ashford (did he get a hat-trick in pre-season, or was it stolen from him). and a welcome one. We have been waiting for this after his injuries. He has pace, and looks the part up front. Now he has the goal. 1-0
The game is now for Bridon to chase a bit more, and this must favour us, surely. Pressure is continued. On 60 minutes, after Dave and I have a discussion on how many chances are created from corners (we’ll get to that in future chats, especially about a book called The Numbers Game) a right wing corner is won by Phoenix, the cross is met by Joe Denny, who heads across goal; Tashi nearly gets on to it, and the ball rolls wider to Perez, who doesn’t connect cleanly, but Jones comes across to make a save and smuggle the ball out for a corner. Dave doesn’t think this chance came from a corner, when clearly it did! Sigh. When will they ever learn! Listen to Dmitri.
The game is still up in the air. Bridon have two chances in a minute. Firstly Goodluck, we think, has a shot wide on 62, but a minute later there is a break, “a footrace” as Dave Claggett beautifully puts it as Tom Cousins finds himself behind the dangerous Goodluck who has a yard on him and a clear path to goal. They are running away from us, and we are holding our breath. Get this wrong and Tom could see red. More than he usually does! But he does beautifully, holding his composure and capitalising on some mis-control by the attacker to nip the ball away from danger. We can breathe again.
Bridon would not take long to rue these chances. On 65 a ball is fabulously controlled by Tashi 40 yards out and he plays a lovely pass to Babalola on the right side of midfield. Babs gets the ball under control and slips a wonderful pass through the middle to, wait, who, what’s he doing there? It’s Tom O’Connor who takes the ball in his stride and clips a lovely finish past the advancing Jones and into the net. 2-0. It’s the first time I’ve seen him score, and not sure if he has before (I’m sure Billy and Dean can tell me), but he’s clearly delighted. He runs to the Phoenix faithful, and it is 2-0. I blow one photo (see Magpies and Phoenix later) and get another (below). 2-0 and surely safely through to the next round.
But Phoenix are nothing if not unpredictable, and suddenly they take the foot off the gas. Steve senses this from the sidelines and is in louder form than most of the last few games. Maybe he is sensing a slackening of the pace, a worrying complacency. He’s not tearing his hair out, that’s for certain. On 74 we have a close shave, as the ball skims off a Ropes attacker’s head in the box, and Walker has to be alert to turn it over the bar – a chance out of nothing, but the danger is not over. The subsequent corner is met at the near post, six yards out, with a thumping header and the ball rockets into the top left corner. It is 2-1. I’ll confirm the scorer later, because we don’t know. We are told it is Finlay Chambers, the number 8.
Phoenix respond like they did when Oxhey came back to 2-1 in the cup tie earlier this season. They up the pace. The goal is not immediate, like Alfie’s at Oxhey, but Phoenix are not to be denied. On 82 minutes, there’s a chance for Francis Babalola to open his account but his shot is saved by the keeper. I have no time to note this down as more or less straight away, Phoenix carve open Bridon. Tom O’Connor pushes a delicious pass into the left side of the penalty area. Running through this time to collect is Luke Leppard, who instead of shooting unselfishly has drawn the keeper out to him and slipped the ball sideways across the face of the goal. Running into the box and there on the spot was substitute Marcus Elliott, who might have had his heart in his mouth when he struck the ball goalwards as it wasn’t the cleanest of contacts, but it was good enough. His run and anticipation, as well as Luke’s vision, made the goal and Marcus now has four in three games. 3-1 to the Phoenix.
On 87 minutes Dave Martin is put in on the left side and gets into the area, where he squares the ball, but Jones palms it away. The ball comes to Marcus Elliott and the ball is blocked, and then to Kenzie too. Another chance.
The game is coming to its conclusion and is getting a little fractious in the midfield. The home side’s number 5 has been a “vocal” presence throughout, and as with all games, everyone sees handballs no-one else does, the cries at the ref are constant and every attack is offside. But this linesman on our side of the field in the second half isn’t one of those who takes the abuse and cries passively, and for that, while an assessor may have his/her own pious view, I am about to start his fan club. There is one incident where a defender claims an offside, and his retort is “you weren’t even watching, so what do you know about it?” There isn’t a lot of comeback. He tells another who moans at him to shut it. I am not being unfair when I say he has a similar physique to mine, so I warm to him. He’s a comedian. Give him his own show.
Anyway. we are now well into added on time. Kieran King has come on as a sub, and while he looks a bit like a baby giraffe, he’s also, from his time talking to him as a sub (well hearing him talk), he’s a good kid and you warm to him. He’s done little of note, he hasn’t had to, but in added on time, there’s a moment. Marcus Elliott takes the ball on, the left/centre of the area, 30 yards out, and bombing outside is Kieran. The pass is weighted perfectly, a pass asking Kieran to shoot. He looks up and sees the keeper advancing and sticks the ball across him and it nestles into the right corner of the net. It is a lovely pass (well done Marcus) and a super finish. A lovely moment to see his first goal for the Phoenix first team. His team mates, even the old curmudgeons like Dave Martin, are in on the pile. There’s a coaching staff member there, probably Dean Bowey, who I didn’t get to see today, but it is a lovely moment to end the game. 4-1 flatters Phoenix, but football isn’t always fair. This though, this is what you come to see. A nice moment. Well done Kieran!
The whistle blows, and the view is that this has been a hard fought win, and one we probably deserved after the goals and chances we took. But again, there’s still that nagging concern that we aren’t imposing ourselves in first halves, but we do really finish games quite strongly. The players clap the Phoenix support, which appeared the vast majority of the attendance, and Steve appears relieved. I don’t hang about after the game, although, again, lovely to see the parents of Henry Douglas (Steve – I will have a drink with you, see you at the Deal game?) and Alfie Evans (Clare) who fills me with great joy about my upcoming house move by saying she did it 17 years ago and “never again”. Thanks mate!
So, onto the next round, the 1st round. I see Erith and Belvedere have gone out. No idea who Glebe might have. We are surprised Stansfeld have lost to Tunbridge Wells in the SCEFL – it is a mad league this – and Cray Valley Paper Mills have won their Trophy game 5-3, while Bideford lose on penalties. The draws for both competitions are this week and that’s what I love about this. I am as excited, even more so, about who we might get, and where we might go. The game will be on or around 22 October. I come back from Devon on 21st, and we hope to come up to London on that date, so it is a prospect. Sad to see, and thoughts with, Ryan Hall and his Magpies who are really struggling at the moment. Sending positive thoughts to you. Hope it goes well in the cup this week.
But let us see. For tonight, enjoy first goals for Phoenix by Tashi, possibly by Tom (I don’t know) and definitely by Kieran, and remember the great duty performed by Steve O’Boyle’s clippers.
Today was a closer shave than it looked, but not as hair-raising as it could have been. For that made it a Fantastic Day. Another lovely one in non-league football. I love this club. I truly do.
*Look. I am sorry about this. I keep wanting to call Andy Walker, Alan and it is doing my head in,. Alan was a centre back for Millwall in the mid 80s who popped up with a goal every now and again. The only Andy I know played for Celtic. Sorry Andy. Must try harder.