I Tried To Shave Myself, Be A Happier Guy

“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.

Two of the changes – Tashi and Babs

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.

Perez in the back line – Tom and Joe keeping him company

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

1-0. Mark looks pleased! Alan, more calm. Tony, about to do something with that airhorn!

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.

There are a few quips I could make, but I like Luke! I love this pic!

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.

Tom after the second goal (more about the linesman later)

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.

Denigrate or Speculate On What I’m Going Through

This one isn’t going to be an easy piece to write. For a number of reasons. If you are looking for a match report, well, there is going to be one in here somewhere, but this is more than a match report. It is about something more, and I only wish I knew what it was. It’s also about new beginnings and old chapters.

The fact is, the FA Cup is almost like a mirror on life, and how it has proceeded through my 50+ years. In those early formative days, when you didn’t need to worry about things occupying the free space in your mind, it was the game (the Final) that brought the country together whether your team was playing in it or not. The build up was special, the game an “event”. Saturday, in May, at 3pm. There were competitions, TV specials all around it. Every fan I knew in the 1970s and 80s wanted their team to get to the Final. To progress as far as possible. When you got knocked out of the Cup and were safely mid-table, your season was “over”. No-one would have thought once about changing their team for the Cup. You put out your best team. The fans would never have forgiven you otherwise.

Even into the 1990s, and with a couple of great scalps in Arsenal and Chelsea, the Premier League took over. Now teams started weakening their line-ups to survive in the league because glory didn’t pay the wages, money did, and the Premier League was money. We all know that. Millwall, my team, had Cup runs, and some bad defeats. Replays were limited to one game, we had penalties deciding ties. Teams could not handle the fixture congestion. The Final was important, but it wasn’t the be all and end all. In United’s 1999 Treble, the FA Cup was very much the third limb. And as the 2000s progressed, and the bigger teams became behemoths, the other Premier clubs decided that to progress, it had to be their reserves doing it. The massive clubs still dominate the competition, but really, it’s just a rigmarole now. One round is played in midweek, replays are a nuisance for big clubs, so off you trot, and the Final is played at some nonsensical time.

All this, you know. There is little there that a football supporter of a league club won’t recognise. Millwall have had some decent cup runs in the last 10 years, but it isn’t the same. 2004 was our year, we rode an immensely lucky draw to the Final (and to the three Premier League clubs in our half of the draw, think of the chance you missed – including you, Charlton) and as I have said many times, it was a phenomenal anti-climax, not ranking in the top 20 days of being a football supporter. I barely remember any of it, and I don’t care – and it wasn’t to do with drink either.

So what?

I have been a miserable, drifting, aimless football supporter for a decade since I gave up my Millwall season ticket, and probably even longer as the last few years felt like going through the motions a bit. With a gap that large in my life, given my home and away fandom for 15 years, home season ticket for 25, I struggled with things to do. I struggled more during the pandemic, as we all did. Then, when it lifted, and as you know if you read this blog, I discovered non-league football for myself. For this to continue, I really had to hitch myself to a local team, and Phoenix Sports lured me in. I considered myself in the early days of this football return as a non-league fan, but I know, deep down, I am not. I am, while I live in London, a Phoenix Sports fan. That much was evident with the Stansfield game last Tuesday. Previously I had loved those odd games I went to. Last Tuesday I almost regretted the decision to go. I only had eyes for the following night’s SCEFL game – Phoenix v Fisher.

The important, for me, phrase in the paragraph above, though, is the “while I live in London”. Because, again, you will know if you read my stuff, that this is not going to be for much longer. I am moving around 80 miles as the crow flies, over 100 as he can’t do that and has to go around the M25. I have seen every Phoenix league, Cup and Vase game so far this season. That will end soon. Possibly as early as next Tuesday when I might miss Rusthall away due to work, or 5 October as a I might be moving. I have a holiday planned for 7-14 October to see my other team in Devon as part of that. I don’t know when I’ll be back after that if we have moved. So, if Phoenix lost the Cup tie yesterday, this would be my last game at the Mayplace prior to my moving. Who knows? When I do, will cost of living, logistics etc. stop me coming along. I will have to leave home pretty early to get to games, and driving 30 minutes from home is massively different to 2 and a half hours. Each way. In my mind I’ll be back twice a month. But will I?

So yesterday felt like the end of a mini-era. Of a club that had welcomed me (and now my brother) with open arms into the almost inner sanctum of its operations and thinking. A club that took my writing and my emotional responses and thanked me for them, and approached me, not the other way around, to tell me how much they meant to them. That may have been them being nice, because I did not do this for that. It’s the breadth of the club, which made me think this was normal, but as I am finding out, it isn’t. Not at all. Only Holsworthy have come close to being as friendly – actually really close – and only certain individuals at other clubs have shone too (Richard at Cray Valley PM, the team at Sutton Athletic, etc.)

But it isn’t just getting back to supporting a football club because they make you feel a little more important than the humdrum life makes you. It is a bit more than that. A lot more than that. To put this into context, reflect on my earlier comments on the FA Cup. Before the season started, the draw for the FA Cup pitted Phoenix away at Oxhey Jets. I don’t wish to be rude, but I didn’t have a clue where that team played, who they were and what league they were in. A bit of me went “so what”, this isn’t a competition Phoenix can win, so why get excited when no-one else really seems to in any of the leagues, the “proper” leagues. Not really. This team “needs” to get back to Isthmian League football, so why bother with these myriad cup competitions? That day going to Oxhey Jets was transformational. I got it. I really got it.

The win at Tunbridge Wells, with that sublime late winner by Dave Martin, was another moment to add to those I have had with Phoenix. I screamed out when he shot that ball into the net as loudly as I might have done in any of those big ties in 2004. The comfortable win over Rusthall had me dreaming, would you believe, of an Oxhey reprise, of somewhere new with this great bunch of people. A coach trip, a proper away day. Instead we drew Sevenoaks at home. I am not going to say “no disrespect” because that would be patronising. Sevenoaks was my first away game with Phoenix, and I had a real problem with them. I didn’t like their team, I didn’t like their attitude. I did like their car park attendants! Given they are now a stronger team than that one we met back in January, it was pretty likely they would win, I thought. A humdrum exit to the Cup. But those 270 previous minutes were the equivalent of Millwall getting to the Quarter-Finals. A win on Saturday is akin to my old lot getting to the Semi-Finals.

So yes, I was excited. I had some belief that this was almost a match-up of equals, but logic didn’t really support that contention. Sevenoaks were my pick to do well in the Isthmian SE, but they have just 4 points, I believe from 4 games. Not a great start. Phoenix have played really well once all season, and while with just one defeat, they are lower mid-table in the SCEFL because of the cup run. There’s a part of me thinking the run is a distraction, but then my old supporter-self is going “no, win this, and we could get a really nice draw next time around, and then who knows”. Precisely what the FA Cup is all about. The rationalisation is that “we need this more than bloody Sevenoaks”.

I got to Mayplace around an hour before kick-off. We had some good chats with Housey, Leggy, Steve the Boss, the Sullivans, Alf, Dave on the Door – Alan was at Lord’s to see Bexley win the National Club Cup, Tony was away as was Chairman Mortlock. These people have become friends, firm friends. I look forward to seeing them every week. I still feel odd trying to be friendly with players – an age thing maybe, but also, I never wanted to be that “jock” who hangs around the people doing the business as some sort of reflective thing to mask my inadequacy at playing the game. It is over-thinking. I know that.

To the game itself. I did take notes, but really, I don’t feel too much like going into them in much detail. The story of the game was of a tense struggle, one team, in my view, clearly better than the other, but who, in my view, seem massively over-coached and too reliant on their manager. In hindsight they should have been well out of sight by half-time, but their pressure, possession, their strength on the break, their pace, only reaped one goal, and even that was a bit of a scruffy one, when Ryan Gondoh, clearly their most dangerous player, slipped the ball into an unguarded net after an initial ball rebounded to him off Andy Walker who had advanced to thwart the Sevenoaks attacker’s first effort.

Phoenix had not been outplayed, but for me that they were playing with a little fear, a little too much respect. There were some moments – a wonderful Ryan Hayes cross which evaded all the attackers (and defenders facing the wrong way) and would only need a touch. Dave Martin had a shot from 25 yards. Andy Pugh had one blocked, one go just wide, but Sevenoaks had more chances and went in to the half 1-0 up. I just felt like that Phoenix had got in to the break still in the game, but their hesitancy had made it slightly easier for Sevenoaks than I thought they had deserved.

One thing was also interesting to me. Nearly every time there was a stoppage, such as for Lewis Clark’s injury, but not just that, the Sevenoaks team were almost ordered to come over the bench to take direction, like a school class being held in for break by teacher. It was almost too ostentatious. I know Harry Hudson has a really positive reputation from his days at Whyteleafe, and everyone speaks highly of him (perhaps not Glebe), but I don’t remember all that from his one game I saw at Foxbury. I don’t know, I quite like players to sort things out themselves, and sometimes I think this is more about the manager showing off than anything else. Look, an opinion. That’s all.

I said hello to Kevin at half-time as I switched ends, but the second half was much like the first. Sevenoaks really didn’t look like they were going to score the second, and even less so when they had a man sent off on 64 minutes when a ball over the top saw Andy Pugh get a march on Corey Holder who brought the Phoenix striker down when last man. After what seemed an age to decide his fate, Holder went (the third game in a row with Phoenix and a dismissal) and yet Sevenoaks withstood pressure. The closest Phoenix came to an equaliser were two efforts from Francis Babalola from the edge of the box, both going narrowly wide with the keeper nowhere. There were five minutes of added on time, but no real opportunities presented themselves, and you felt that we could have played for three hours and not scored. Sevenoaks had produced that “professional” performance, and Phoenix, for all the huffing and puffing, might look back and regret their relative timidity. But also reflect that they did not get a tanking by a team who seemed to hold themselves back.

Then it really dawned on me, as I planned to stay behind a bit longer. This could be my last home game for a while. I had said this on a tweet, and a few of the staff came up as if it was a farewell. I said hello to Luke Leppard who mentioned it to me and I felt a little bit of a lump in my throat. It is a fin de siècle. I may not be back for six weeks, and I feel like I am leaving them to their fate. Sure, I will be in the visiting areas for both Bridon Ropes in the Vase, and for Bearsted in the league on 1 October. But nothing at Mayplace. This, added to a few drinks, and the melancholy set in. It felt sad. This is what this place, and this team have done to me. I put up a few miserable tweets, and went to bed early. It had been an emotional day.

Because, as I know from my last few years, I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing.

If You’ve Got The Inclination, I Have Got The Crime

A lot has happened since my last post. Obviously the death of the Queen is a monumental event, and I really don’t plan to blog or write about it, which I know is odd for someone like me. I just don’t really want people to read my thoughts on it, nor comment or judge. There is far, far too much of that as the social media whirl goes into overdrive, and “republicanism” has its 30 seconds of fame. That’s not what I am here for.

Since I last wrote I have been to three matches. Given they were all night games, and in the case of the first one, in appalling light, pictures are rubbish, and time was short. I decided, quite quickly, not to write full match reports, but summaries of each. Indeed, for the last two, I didn’t even take notes. My thanks to @JanetLC1980 on twitter for showing disappointment at a lack of a report from last night – seriously, it does make me feel like they are missed and I will, I promise, try to do one for the FA Cup tie on Saturday. But, until then, I hope the following will do.

6 September 2022 – Erith & Belvedere v Phoenix Sports

The Deres have been the impressive early front runners, and Phoenix were coming into the game on the back of their most impressive performance of the season against Rusthall. It looked like being a very keen, and potentially quite important contest in the context of the league, even if our 15th placed position in the table didn’t really show it to those who might have come along on the off chance. It felt like a big game.

It really didn’t take long to determine that at this stage, E&B are the class of the division. Their 100% league record was merited with a first half display that put the early table into context. They have some very decent players at this level. I was massively impressed by their number 2, Nathan Palmer. In Danny Lear they had a very dangerous striker.

E&B struck quite early, with a whipped in right-win cross neatly headed at the near post by Lear to put the home team one up. Phoenix were not out of it, but the balance of possession and chances went in favour of the Deres. Just after the half hour, Lear was slipped through after a powerful run out of defence which was not met by much resistance in the midfield, and he slipped the ball past Walker to make it 2-0. This had been preceded by Dave Martin lobbing over the keeper from the halfway line but seeing his shot drift wide. On such margins can games turn.

After the break, Steve pushed Luke Leppard further forward and the visitors had their best spell of the game, forcing corner after corner, when, fourth, I think, time lucky, Marcus Elliott nodded in his third in two games to bring Phoenix back into the game. The match then got quite stretched, a little narky, and while Phoenix had a decent chance to equalise through Joe Denny, the home team had more opportunities and Andy Walker was stretched a number of times to keep his team in it. As the game entered the last few minutes, the home centre-back was sent off for his second booking as the game became harder and harder to officiate, and the Deres had what they held despite looking dangerous on the break. They ended up holding out reasonably comfortably to win 2-1, reinforce their position at the top of the table, and send Phoenix to their first defeat of the season.

On a personal level, I have to say I was horrified by the quality of the facilities at Welling United, and that is no knock on Erith & Belvedere. The lighting was utterly crap. I am getting on a little in age, and my eyesight may not be what it used to be, but in the centre of the field, it was atrocious. I have utterly no idea how that is National League South standard. Step 2 in the non-league game. I went to two Step 5 games after this and the lighting was much much better. I had been to Welling’s ground before and it is a pale shadow of what it was 25 years ago. In my view.

It was good, as always, to see the crew. I have to say I seem to be more on a wavelength with Tony Highstead than anyone else there on how I see a game. Maybe he can be as down as I can! I know it is a very long season, and we have not even played 5 games at this stage in the league, but I sense we might be playing for second place. The home team looked a very, very decent side.

I do seem to be staying behind after games a little longer. I sort of feel like a groupie, if truth be told. A hanger-on. I doubt I’ll ever change. But my despondency in defeat is now back, and I suppose that is a feeling I am going to have to get used to. The one thing that was left with me though, talking to Tony, who told me Marcus was on his holidays for Saturday and next week, when I asked who would be playing he said “watch this space”….. Well, we did.

Then, on Thursday, events took place that put non-league into context, and the UK into spasm. I am not going to comment on whether the games should have been called off, but they were, and we moved on.

13 September 2022 – Stansfeld v Rusthall

I have to say that when I saw there were other SCEFL fixtures for the Tuesday, I wasn’t really busting a gut to go to any. Maybe my non-league fandom is being replaced by a Phoenix one when I am up here, and nothing else seems to rouse me. It may also be that the country is bloody miserable right now, and no-one is really up for anything. I put the prospect to the back of my mind, but saw the SCEFL Twitter page and noticed Stansfeld were at home, and they are about 5-10 minutes drive from my home, ground-sharing (and recently beating) Glebe. I thought “why not?”.

Stansfeld had got off to an excellent, and surprising perhaps, start to the season. I believe they won the first division last season and have continued that momentum into this. I also was keen to see if the Rusthall display at Phoenix was a one-off – they had had a good start too, but lost their last two fixtures, so a test of their credentials too.

Early on it was clear this was not a day for the notebook. It absolutely pelted it down for much of the game. Kudos to the supporters that came out, especially the Rusthall fans who had made the journey, I think about 20 of them. Very well done to them!

The game itself was not particularly memorable. It really isn’t helped by not having a team sheet and not really knowing who is who. Rusthall had the better of either end of the first half, but Stansfeld were never overwhelmed. Again the visitors showed a great deal of pace, as they had at Phoenix, but no real end product. Stansfeld were quite physical, but not doing them a disservice just by saying that. They do utilise longer passes more than most, while Rusthall seek to get you with darting runs and movement.

The two key moments though came in the second half. A free-kick for Stansfeld, around 15 minutes from time, was hit beautifully and smashed off the crossbar to safety. This felt like the one moment that would matter, but not to be. In the 87th minute, Rusthall failed to deal with pressure arising from a corner, the ball came over from the left wing, was brought down superbly by Tommy Whitnell, who controlled it and stroked the ball into the corner for the winner. Stansfeld remain second, Rusthall now have three defeats in a row.

Stansfeld are clearly a resourceful side, and far be it from me to have a go at them! They have got results, impressive ones too, and the table rarely lies. They may actually be a team that might upset Erith and Belvedere. They aren’t cloggers, that is not fair, but theirs is a style that is getting results and makes this sport, and this level, what it is. The weather was atrocious, a horrible night, but the teams put on a really decent first half, if not such a good second. But league positions are determined by who takes the points in games like these, and Stansfeld got that key winning goal. The day after Leggy at Phoenix said he had played with the goalscorer’s dad. That sums up life in the SCEFL.

Good on Stansfeld for producing a programme. I don’t like Glebe as a club, mainly because they have built over where I made my highest ever cricket score, but their playing surface and facilities are not bad at all. I was glad I went, but also really glad to get home.

14 September 2022 – Phoenix Sports v Fisher

For someone of my age Fisher means Fisher Athletic, a non-league team playing in Rotherhithe who reached the heights of the Conference in the late 1980s, and getting to the FA Cup 1st Round where they were beaten by Bristol Rovers. It meant regular reports in the Mercury and South London Press. It meant other things, which we do not speak about.

That incarnation is long gone, and unknown to those of us who are of a certain vintage. This match-up, nominally, was nothing to write home about either, pitting 16th in the table (us) against bottom (them). This does not tell the story though, as we know. Both of us are on amazing FA Cup runs, both few of the remaining Step 5 clubs left in the competition. While we have a difficult, but possible chance against a team one level above, at home, Fisher have a daunting trip, thankfully in daylight, to Welling United. None of the garbage floodlights for them with the current weather forecast.

Unlike last Tuesday, Paul could make it to this one. We are both a bit down in the dumps with life at the moment, and it is important for both of us to get out and away from the grind. Phoenix is like an oasis in that respect, from seeing Dave at the turnstile, and being greeted by the upper echelons of the club (although the chairman was on holiday). The intrigue was higher because we had made two signings. Francis Babelola I knew from his Paper Mills days last season, Andy Pugh came in from Chatham – we seem to get a few from there – on a month’s loan. Both are forward players, and Pugh came straight in to the team, while Francis took his place on the bench.

On a personal note, thanks to whoever maintains the toilets at the club. Good job. Just another thing to make sure you know. The work that goes in is immense.

I made a decision early not to take notes, and for once just to watch the game. I am so pressed for time at work and at night I am knackered. I have a move now a matter of weeks away, and the house is in tumult. I just wasn’t in the mood. I wanted to enjoy the game. Take it in. Not bother about making notes. So, I went to behind the goal in the first half to watch. Familiar faces around. The Sullivan clan, the Claggett herberts (Dave was still needed at the turnstiles), Dean from the SCEFL website, Phoenix social media and all round media guru, and others.

The game itself got off to a furious start and it was clear that this was not going to be an easy night for Phoenix. Fisher were extremely direct, utilising their strengths, and not really worrying too much about the midfield. Phoenix, who like to try to play that was, found themselves a bit out of sorts. Luke made one early very tasty challenge (the Fisher feed did not like it) but wasn’t really his effective self. Alfie wasn’t in the game, Lee was not on his top form. But while that was a concern, it was also interesting to note how Andy Pugh played, using his experience in winning headers, or if not, making himself a concern to the defence.

On 15 minutes though, a moment of class. The ball came out on the edge of the area to Ryan Hayes. I shouted “shoot” but of course, he didn’t listen (nor probably heard, of course), and instead of hitting the ball with his left, switched it on to his “weaker” foot, and clipped a shot from just outside of the box which the keeper got a slight touch on, but could not stop going in. A moment of class. 1-0 Phoenix.

The teams jousted back and forth, the pace and directness of the visitors never leaving Phoenix comfortable with their lead, and that became even more worrying when, five minutes before half-time, Lee Bird, who had been booked for a late challenge in midfield earlier, again got caught out and received a second yellow. Phoenix would be down to 10 men for the remainder of the game.

The home team came out superbly in the second half. The Fisher right back had made his opinions known of the man he faced, Dave Martin, and got diddled early in the second half and was reminded by some of the Phoenix Massive behind the goal. Phoenix asserted some early pressure, but more and more Fisher started to make the man advantage tell. Walks had a couple of saves to make, but the pressure lasted longer each time, and it became more difficult for Phoenix to get out.

Then, on 70 minutes, Phoenix win a free-kick around 35 yards out, on the right. We’re telling the keeper how great Ryan is at free-kicks, and that he should watch either top corner, but this was too far out. Instead, in his box of tricks, Ryan catches everyone out, hits a low one into the box, and you know, from where we were, this was dangerous, because Andy Pugh had a march on his defender and if he got a touch, the keeper was in dead trouble. Andy Pugh got that touch, and it was 2-0, and we Phoenix fans could breathe.

Well, for a few minutes at least. Fisher pulled one back when Isaac Thompson’s long range effort was deflected in leaving Andy Walker helpless. The game became increasingly tetchy as Phoenix used the arts and crafts to play out time, while Fisher poured men forward. Francis Babelola made himself a nuisance and nearly profited from getting to a ball before the keeper, but there were men on the line to clear his effort. There was also a huge scare when the referee awarded an indirect free-kick inside the box, but the shot was blazed well wide. There was time for a Fisher player to be sin-binned for dissent, the first time I have seen that, and the home team were mightily relieved to take all three points.

Some other quick points arising from the game and the surrounding stuff. Andy Pugh’s father is going to be an interesting one while he is here. Very entertaining. As always, a pleasure to meet up and speak to Steve, Harry Douglas’s father, after the game, and look forward to seeing him on Saturday. I had a little chat with Steve afterwards, who was very calm, yes, that Steve O’Boyle, and focused. I found out at the weekend that he was a Charlton fan. Oh dear. Dean Bowey was very magnanimous over his team’s 2-0 win over my team – “I don’t gloat” he said. Again good to see Grads and Ben, and there’s something about hard fought wins that are sometimes more pleasing on the soul. We all thought Fisher won’t stay down there long. They are combative, strong and will cause teams a good deal of problems. I wish them all the best on Saturday in the Cup. They can give the SCEFL a real boost.

It is possible that this is my penultimate home game before I move. The last might be Saturday. Phoenix go on the road in the Vase to Bridon Ropes on Saturday week, are away at Rusthall when I might be away with work, and then away at Bearsted on 1 October. The 5th may be our moving day, when Phoenix play Tunbridge Wells, and I miss Deal on the 8th. Everything is up in the air. While I will be back, when is another matter.

There may not be lots of opportunities…..

You Might Think I’m Crazy, But I’m Serious

In the heat of early August, on a dry pitch near Watford, was where it started. A hit of the left boot, a clip of the right and a Mayplace Messi Masterpiece in the north west London sunshine. The convoy dropped down to the area of irate Colonels, and Royal designations, played a poor game but with one crossfield pass, a sumptuous cushioning of a long ball and a rasping shot, the Tunbridge Wells flag was lowered. Preliminary and extra-Preliminary skirmishes over, it’s time to Qualify! The magic of the cup was on its way to Mayplace. Cup fever in Crayford. Butterflies in Barnehurst. Enough of this. Qualifying Round time is upon us. Four steps to the main draw.

Once the FA had realised that releasing last year’s draw wasn’t going to work (when I saw Phoenix had drawn Chipstead, I thought there might be a problem), the new one was finally issued and we, that is Phoenix Sports, had drawn early pace-setters in the SCEFL, Rusthall, and for once among all the away draws, at the Mayplace Ground. I love this every two week pace for the early rounds of the FA Cup, and I quite fancied another chance on 17 September to sample the delights. But Phoenix had to win, and on paper, this looked tough.

Rusthall had started the season like a house on fire, but the flames had simmered down somewhat over the Bank Holiday weekend with a last minute draw salvaged against Glebe, and then a defeat to then bottom of the table Tunbridge Wells in front of nearly 900 supporters on Monday. Phoenix, having played last on Sunday, had missed out on two league games and after today’s action sit 14th, having played just three league games. Rusthall came with a decent following, flags, noise and a decent atmosphere.

I do generally use these articles, or posts, to explain my feelings and how Phoenix interacts with life. It still doesn’t feel normal, but it is getting more comfortable. Paul is also enjoying it and feeling a bit more part of the furniture, even though he still strenuously denies it (and no-one believes him). It was brilliant also today to see the two chaps who I refer to a lot on here, the guys I spent last season with at the Mayplace, chewing the fat. Kevin and Andy. I have their names. Kevin and Andy. I’ll forget them by next week. Great to spend most of the game with them.

We got to the ground a little early. Dave Claggett had asked me to do him a favour for the minute’s silence which was absolutely no trouble and a privilege to do. Dave has been one of the most welcoming and friendly faces, and it has been an honour to talk to him about the club and his part in it, ever since that day we had the chance meeting at the Hackney Carriage in Sidcup. His father, Ted, passed away a few weeks ago, and today the club honoured him with a minute’s silence, with Dave and his lads, as well as the junior team as mascots, and the players taking part. A genuinely moving moment, I know replicated at many clubs, but so emblematic of the soul of the club. They are just really, really nice people. I got there early, with a tripod, to make sure everything worked, and had a small practice run, before the real thing. The video is on Youtube, but not listed. I can let people have the link if they want it.

Even early on, and I mean 1:45 early on, there were a lot of people in the ground. As usual, lots of welcoming faces, I had a good conversation with Andrew Mortlock, the chairman, and Tony gave me the team sheets. Steve had a good chat and was introduced to Paul, or is that the other way around, and I am sworn to secrecy about the conversation, but it was an enlightening one. I wish I could tell one of the stories today, the “it sounds like you” one, but as I said, I am sworn to secrecy! Good as always to bump into Housey, Albert, Alan, Alf, Billy, and very very briefly, Mark. All feel like a form of family now. Discussions of which games I’ll come back for if/when I move are always there. It’s going to be a wrench to leave. It really is. But there are a lot of games before then, two a week now.

It was to be Marcus Elliott’s Day

The team showed no changes from the fixture last Sunday. Tom O’Connor returned from injury and was on the bench, Tashi is still injured so Marcus Elliott kept his place up front, and with Bertie still out of commission, Lee Bird continued in midfield where, in my view, he has been really good the past two weeks. Steve had said, and I think I can quote him on this, that “we hadn’t been playing well” but we are due a good performance. No spoilers.

As kick-off approached I spied Kevin in his usual spot, and made my way over. Paul stayed to take up some back-up photos of the teams coming out and joined me once the minute’s silence was over. It was strange, I didn’t really feel nervous, like this is almost a bonus game rather than one that really matters. I am not belittling the FA Cup at all, you know that, but I am worried that the league is going to be a hassle with the games we are behind. A win today, and that’s another one at least. A draw today, and it is not Erith and Belvedere in the midweek, but a trip down to the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells. But a win is money, and for a club like ours, that is important. It’s also the chance to test ourselves against interesting opponents in the next round should we get through.

I didn’t know what to think. Rusthall had won their first three SCEFL games, and had won 3-2 against Loxwood, and then had a very impressive 2-1 win against Isthmian SE team Ramsgate in the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup. They were one of four remaining SCEFL teams, with ourselves, Fisher and Erith Town (actually not, as they lost 2-1 at Three Bridges last night) in the 1st Qualifying Round, so a step 5/ Tier 9 team was going to get a shot in the 2nd Qualifying. Got that. Anyway, quite excited, looked forward to it after a tough week, looked forward to seeing the good people of Phoenix, so let’s have an entertaining game and a Phoenix win.

There’s a classic quote by Lloyd Honeyghan, the ex-Welterweight world champion, about a fight I think he had with Gene Hatcher in Marbella, back in the 80s. Lloyd knocked him out in not many seconds, and when asked afterwards what happened, and it might be for another fight so don’t hassle me, he said “the bell went ding, and I went dong”. (I’ve just looked it up and it was against Johnny Bumphus). After about 5 seconds from Rusthall kicking off the game, there was a tackle in midfield, the Rusthall player was left on the floor, the Phoenix player coming away with the ball and feeling rather peeved that the whistle had gone. “You are [word removed] kidding me” as referee Steve Scott brandished a yellow card. Ryan Hayes, our captain, remonstrated forcibly with the referee, imploring him to address the error of his ways, in a manner designed to influence and persuade. Thank yer, but gin I can’t drink, or something like that. My hearing has gone since I bought earbuds. Barely a minute on the clock and our player booked. If you are a follower of this blog, or of Phoenix, you will not have any difficulty guessing who was booked:

Luke Leppard does not agree… Ryan uses diplomacy.

One of the themes of the season so far, above that of Phoenix not playing up to potential but not losing, is the understanding and link-up between our wide midfielders. There are a number of attacking opportunities set up by Ryan Hayes pinging over a long ball from the right, to Dave Martin on the left, and vice-versa (although not as frequently). The 4th minute saw the first of a few today. Ryan put the ball over to Dave, who took the ball in stride, and advanced dangerously into the area, an almost, from my standpoint, a Tunbridge Wells redux. This time though Dave Martin made an odd choice, chipping the ball back and the danger was cleared, but already there seemed to be something to work on. Rusthall were not going to out physical Phoenix, and there seemed some space on the wings.

On 7 minutes a cross came over from the right, I think it might well have been Ryan Hayes, but VEO will confirm when we get to see it. In any case the ball went to the far post where Dave Martin rose up to head the ball, and with the keeper taken out of commission by the cross, standing at the other side of the goal, Marcus Elliott was presented with an open goal to put Phoenix 1-0 up. As it went in, I looked for a flag, or for a referee pointing for some mythical infringement, but my eyes had not deceived me. Phoenix, off to a fast start, 1-0 up and playing quite well. This doesn’t feel quite right?!?

There came a very strange incident on 12 minutes. Phoenix had not let up and were putting pressure on the Rusthall defence. The ball came to Luke Leppard on the edge of the area. He hit a shot, not particularly cleanly which went through Marcus Elliott’s legs (it looked like it from where I was) but also seemed to catch the Rusthall keeper, Tommy Taylor, out. As he dived to his left the ball appeared to bobble out of his grasp, but he may well have had it in his hands when Marcus kicked it and the ball went into the net. We were waiting for a referee’s whistle, but there wasn’t one. It was 2-0, wasn’t it? In the absence of a whistle, it had to be? There was a delay. Phoenix ran back to the half-way line. The ref went over to the linesman. They had a word. Then the ref blew his whistle, and pointed in the direction of the centre circle. I started to write up the note for a 2-0 lead when Paul says to me, “no, they are taking a free-kick from the penalty area”. Confusion. After clearing my head, it is still 1-0. Oh dear.

Phoenix did not take their foot off the gas. On 14 minutes, Ryan Hayes picked up the ball midway in the Rusthall half. Paul and I did not need to say anything. We knew what was going to happen. Takes the ball on the right wing, cuts inside, takes ball to edge of box, hits a curling shot. This one was too close to the keeper, but there’s not a lot of future at this level letting Ryan do that. On 20 minutes, again, Ryan on the right, hits a ball across the edge of the box, where caged, and with his booking, defanged Leopard, Luke Leppard hit a low volley that went straight at Taylor in the Rusthall goal. Five minutes later, Marcus Elliott turns on the edge of the box, hits a shot which takes a deflection and loops up wide of the goal. Marcus has looked a hugely more confident player since the goal, and is causing the defence problems with his movement and persistence. I have to say, and I do like most people in the club, I like Marcus.

While Rusthall have pace up front, they aren’t really threatening and the home defence is keeping them at bay. Phoenix, meanwhile, are putting their most dominant display of the season together, and are not letting up. On 26 minutes, probably from the corner after the deflected shot from Marcus, Ryan sticks the ball right under Tommy Taylor’s crossbar, and the keeper just about keeps it out. Another corner, but this comes to nothing. On 30 minutes, Ryan Hayes again, putting in a frankly dominating display, wins the ball passes it to Alfie Evans on the edge of the box, but this time the Mayplace Messi doesn’t hit one of his trade mark beauties, and instead hits it wide from 20 yards.

Just as Paul and I are commenting, as does Kevin, that it is all well and good us playing like this, and we need a second, then a second arrives. Phoenix win a corner on the left. Dave Martin swings it over, and Marcus Elliott leaps, and heads the ball into the net from six yards out. Simple as that. Here’s a photo of the ball on its way to Marcus’s head…

It is about to become 2-0 as Marcus Elliott (17 – in centre) is about to head the ball goalwards

2-0 after 33 minutes, with two of our midfielders (Ryan having got a booking for dissent) on yellows, and I felt I could breathe a bit easier. On 37 I make my first note of a Rusthall attack in the book – Revel Dowell-Downey took the ball inside from the left flank and from 20 yards hit a decent effort heading towards Andy Walker’s left hand side of the goal, but the home keeper was equal to it and made a comfortable save. On 40 minutes, another attack, a more dangerous foray. Mike Miller on the right for the visitors worked a good opening for a cross, and hit a dangerous ball across the box to Louie Clark at the far post, who stretched to turn the ball goalwards, but thankfully with little pace and Walker fell on the ball gratefully. A key moment perhaps, because 2-1 would have given the visitors momentum. Any hope of that was soon extinguished.

Phoenix won a free-kick but it was a long way out. I’ll say 30 yards as we always over-estimate these things. I have two cameras – my phone and a “proper” bridge one, and I don’t think it is worth the bridge, so just hold the phone up. It seems inevitable Ryan Hayes is going to take it. For some reason I think Luke is as he’s at least 15 yards away and as if he was going to do an impression of Roberto Carlos. But no, it’s Ryan. He steps up and hits an absolute stunner into the top right corner, with the keeper nowhere near it. A goal to grace any cup tie. A fantastic strike. Hayes has been brilliant all game, and this crowned his first half performance. 3-0. Surely tie over.

The phone picture doesn’t do it justice… Ryan Hayes makes it 3-0

The half-time whistle blows and we can scarcely believe it. At last, Phoenix have put together a performance some of us (me) were doubting was within us. Rusthall had not made an impact, and frankly, given what I’d heard about their play, I was surprised. Everyone has an off day, I suppose.

There’s something about a Cup Tie that when it feels all over, the energy drains out of supporters. I remember one tie Millwall had in 1992, away at Huddersfield at the old Leeds Road ground. At half-time we were 4-0 up against a team the league below, and the second half, well, virtually nothing happened. My notes for this game become much more sparse in the second half. I’m not rushing to the end of the report just to get it out, but the notes become fewer. I talk to Kevin and Andy, who has arrived at half-time, a bit more. One of the visiting players gets booked for a blatant shirt pull, and a visiting fan says that the ref is a joke for that, and Steve Scott then recites what appears to be Clause 7 sub clause b of the referee manual to explain the booking to the player.

Phoenix nearly make it 4 in the first minute of the second half. After Ryan has booted the ball to the far corner for a throw-in some lazy defensive passing means the ball is loose 20 yards out, and Dave Martin pounces on this but hits his shot over. That would have killed it, if it wasn’t a dead game already. Rusthall look more active, but they felt a little lightweight to me with their starting line-up. They do have more attacking moments. On 52 Dowell-Downey heads just wide from a corner to fire a minimal warning shot to the defence. But Henry, Tom, Lewis and Joe are all on their games, and Luke and Lee in centre-midfield are solid as rocks. I think Lee has a really really good game.

Chances are coming, but less frequently, and there’s one slick passing move involving Alfie and Lee which comes to nothing but had us a little excited. On 66 the visitors have another chance, again it is Dowell-Downey but his header from a Miller cross is comfortably saved by Walker. At the other end, Ryan Hall works an opening to cross down the right, he puts the ball to where Marcus is, but the defender beats him to the ball. However it falls quite nicely to Lee Bird on the edge of the area, but he can’t keep his powerful shot from rising over the bar. A decent chance.

Time is not Rusthall’s friend. They are not really threatening the goal. A chance seemed to open up for substitute Daniel Blunn, when a pass from Dowell-Downey seems to set him clear, but then the danger passes with a whimper when it looks like Blunn is about to shoot. Not really sure what happened. It looked a decent opening. Instead it is a goal-kick.

At this point I am about to say farewell to Kevin and Andy and watch the last 10 minutes behind the goal with the Phoenix Massive, and as I am packing up, and asking Kevin his name, he mentions that he reads my stuff and I say “I’ve got a podcast as well”. My brother sighs and walks off. Lovely isn’t it. Anyway, as I am just about to move, Ryan Hayes gets the ball on the right hand side, he looks up and plays a lovely ball across to substitute Manny Oshinowo, who has come on for Marcus Elliott. The goal is at his mercy. Now. It is better to be lucky than good some times. If that were 2021-22 season Luke Leppard, that would have found a way to miss. But Manny, in a superb position it has to be said, did mishit hit it slightly and his attempt wrong-footed the keeper and went in to the net. Who cares? 4-0.

I walked around to behind the goal to be greeted by Dave’s kids, one of them with an airhorn. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of moaning about it. I put the book away, packed away the main camera, and waited for time to expire. In the second minute of added on time, Lee Bird reprised his earlier miss with another one over the bar from 20 yards, and then, a minute or so later, Daniel Blunn hits a 20 yard shot that beats Walker, and puts Rusthall on the scoresheet. I am not even sure it merits the term “consolation goal” but it is a really decent finish. I get sighs and exasperation from some of the Phoenix fans, but I tell them off to say this really doesn’t matter. Who cares? Sure defenders like clean sheets etc., but 93 minutes when 4-0 up? Who cares? Really? Though I do think Andy doesn’t look happy when he goes off, so maybe he does.

Anyway, as soon as the kick-off takes place, the referee blows his whistle, and Phoenix have put in by far their best display of the season. I am not sure what that says about Rusthall, but that defeat of Ramsgate is certainly a good one on the resume. Phoenix go into Tuesday’s league fixture at Erith and Belvedere with some momentum, but news has also come through that the Deres have maintained their 100% record having come from 1-0 down to win 2-1 at Bearsted.

Eyes will now turn to the draw for the 2nd Qualifying Round on Monday. Fisher also go into the draw for the next round, having drawn with Spelthorne Sports, so two SCEFL teams remain. Also through in fixtures I was keeping an eye on, are Cray Valley Paper Mills, who have won 3-0 v Hastings, an impressive win against last years Isthmian SE champions. Cray Wanderers have drawn 2-2 at Bognor Regis, with a replay at Bromley on Wednesday. A possibility? Herne Bay have beaten Horsham 2-1 – the latter last year went all the way to the 1st Round Proper. That’s a decent scalp. It’s great to have that interest, and to have something to follow in the next round, but looking at the SCEFL table, seeing us in 14th, having played just three games, and with a further backlog to come. Wow. Can you imagine Premier League clubs putting up with this nonsense with 15-20 player squads?

We didn’t get to talk to many after the game as we had to shoot off. I did get a quick word with Steve, and said I would see him ON Tuesday, and he thanked us for the support. I do, sort of, whisper it quietly, hero worship him. Don’t tell him that.

It was a good day, as Ice Cube once said. A relatively peaceful one, it has to be said. They all played pretty well, but I would single out Ryan Hayes for man of the match. There was one point where he covered Henry Douglas at right back, and I looked at Paul in disbelief. He was up for this, and played superbly. His passing on point, his goal, a thing of magnificence. If this is how Phoenix are going to be going forward, well, bring it on. Maybe the principle we need is pleasure, which was a crap way of shoe-horning in the lyric in the title above. More pictures from the game will be available on The Magpies and The Phoenix blog. Maybe even later tonight!

One last thing, before I go. Please, if you haven’t and are remotely interested, listen to the latest podcast (and my brother can sigh all he likes) where I interview Ryan Hall, the manager of Holsworthy. While there were good results around, the Magpies are in a rut and lost 4-0 at home to day to Newton Abbot Spurs. It’s a lovely insight into lower non-league management, and I listened to it again last night and thought it was good (and I am my own worst critic). Please give it a listen. And if anyone at Phoenix is interested in having the same treatment, please let me know.

So, to Erith & Belvedere on Tuesday. Heaven knows when I will get to write that report. Until then, thanks for reading and hope to see you all soon. Let’s see what Monday brings.

I’m Tired Of Listening To You Talking In Rhymes

I couldn’t do a regular podcast this week, instead two specials. The first, earlier this week, was on how I got into non-league football. It always goes to show that the podcast I enjoyed doing the most is the one with (by far) the fewest downloads. I’m being truthful, it disheartened me a bit. I didn’t really feel like putting together a full round-up of the last week’s action. Yes, I am human!

The other reason was I always had in the back pocket the potential for an interview with Holsworthy AFC’s manager, Ryan Hall. I have an enormous amount of time, as you know, for Ryan, Lee, Steve, Wendy and all I have met at the club. I am really looking forward to meeting up in October, and with the move on the cards, hopefully seeing them a little more often when they venture into East Devon to clubs like Honiton, Axminster, Bridport (Dorset) and Sidmouth, potentially.

Ryan was an early supporter of the podcast, and I know Holsworthy players (or so I am told) listen to it. Ryan volunteered to be my guinea pig, and to do an interview. I didn’t want it to be reviewing recent matches but more how a Step 6 manager becomes, well, a Step 6 manager, and his life in football. He is just 30! When I think of Swindon, his club, and their Premier League season back then, he was just a toddler. Jeez, makes me feel old. But he was willing with his time, I could have asked so much more, and I hope you find it interesting. I hope people at Phoenix Sports are listening, as I would like to do them next.

Anyway, please support the podcast, listen to the interview – yes, it is a bit rough and ready, but it is worth your time if you love non-league – and let me know what you think.

There are other podcasts available, and please support them if possible with a download, or a retweet if you like them. It certainly supplements the blog and I do enjoy doing them when I have the time. Here is a link to the previous one on my starting out with non-league football:

Tomorrow it is FA Cup 1st Qualifying Round, and it is Phoenix Sports v Rusthall. All being well a match report up tomorrow night. Good luck Phoenix.

Holsworthy have a tough home game against Newton Abbot Spurs, while Cray Valley Paper Mills have a juicy looking tie at home to Hastings, who won the Isthmian SE last season. Good luck to them all.

Maybe I Don’t Really Wanna Know, How Your Garden Grows

I think this happens all the time to me – initial bursts of energy, and then lethargy as writing a blog takes time. That enthusiasm to write, which you need to have, gets harder when you don’t really know how to express your feelings on a game of football. I went to Cray Valley Paper Mills yesterday, yet had no intention of writing it up even though I took notes, and plenty of pictures. I might do a summary piece on the sister blog (The Magpies and The Phoenix) in time. As the game ended, with a cracking goal I might add, I didn’t feel the desire to write about it. Warning signs. Also, absolute evidence of the ups and downs of my personality. There are reasons.

The enjoyment of the season inevitably wanes as the proximity to the start of the season becomes more distant. Maybe I am part of the furniture rather than some novelty act, at least that is how it feels. Or maybe, I just have the hump because I am the unlucky so and so that has real lip trouble when the sun comes out and have a particularly nasty one at the moment which makes me down (there is massive psychological scar from my teenage years, which induces paranoia when I get one). It doesn’t take a lot to induce the miseries. As a blog writer the enthusiasm is generated by hits and interest, which wanes too as the novelty wears off and the inspiration for writing becomes harder. When the podcast struggled this week, then I felt even lower. I’m trying my best, people! Don’t you love me any more?

So, first paragraph, a load of self-pity, a bit of my own ego bruised, a whinge and a moan, and having a pop at life in general. You thought I’d been too upbeat this season? Ha!

The fact is that, as we all know, and as I am only too aware, the football season is a monumental grind, and we aren’t even out of August yet and Phoenix are falling behind on league games played while they are in all the early rounds of the cup competitions. After last week’s unconvincing win against SCEFL Premier bottom club Tunbridge Wells, the FA Vase preliminary round, or whatever this one is, saw Phoenix drawn away at Canterbury City. They play at Sittingbourne’s ground, somewhere in the vicinity of the town of that name, but in actuality, and technically speaking in the arse end of nowhere. I had been warned by Richard at Paper Mills of this fact, but still, they were some of the choicest country lanes my satnav took me down to get there.

I also don’t really like Sunday football. It is not a day that is meant for the game at any meaningful level as it was always the recreational game’s day – and yes that speaks to my age in this televised football era. It always felt to me that football should be a neat package. Saturday for football, Sunday for rest the day before work or school. Now we have nonsense like Friday nights and even Thursday this week for a Premier League game. What is going on? Anyway, today was not going to be a conventional day whatever the weather, as Canterbury share with Sittingbourne, who as hosts of course have preferential rights, and they chose to play their home Isthmian game on Saturday. This meant either Friday night or Sunday and we got the latter. It’s been known for a while, but the SCEFL Premier had some fixtures on Saturday (for teams with byes in the Vase) and most play tomorrow as well. Phoenix fall two games behind some of those teams, and have an FA Cup tie on Saturday as well.

I never really knew who played in the Vase and who played in the Trophy, but it appears as though the dividing line is the Step 4 to Step 5. So this year instead of being in the Trophy, as they were last year, Phoenix are in the FA Vase. Steve is said to be keen on a run in this competition, and if truth be told, on paper, we had to fancy our chances. Canterbury have not had a great start to the season, I saw them at Sutton Athletic when they were really poor, and they have since had a 10-0 reverse in a FA Cup REPLAY! They have had a win in the SCEFL, against Holmesdale. Phoenix are unbeaten in all competitions, and, it is fair to say, unconvincing in most of them as well. A good performance was needed to get the show on the road, the wheels on the track, the pointer in the right direction – oh, OK, it is a cup competition, a win is really all that matters today.

The first disappointment of the day was Paul could not make it. As you have read, it has been great for me to go to football with my brother again, and he is, despite his pleas otherwise, getting into it. He was not too pleased to have to miss the game, but I am sure he will be back on Saturday. Just to let you know, Paul, a lot of the guys asked after you, so you were missed.

After navigating the country lanes, and going through a village that clearly despises cars (Tunstall) with speed humps, chicanes and all sorts designed to make you cheesed off, I missed the turning to the ground, had to find somewhere to U-Turn and then found myself in a science park, which is actually where the ground is. The car park was quite full, but nothing to do really with the football. Something called “Kevstock”, it appeared, was going on, complete with music and so on. More of that later. As you may guess, the title of this piece came from one of the songs we heard!

As I walked up to the turnstile, there was Alf, the former secretary. Always good to see a familiar face. Canterbury charge £8 to get in, plus £2 for a programme. I’m still a sucker for these, so of course I had a purchase. For the second day on the spin, and another reason I am down in the dumps, I was asked if I was a senior citizen. This is really beginning to peeve me. When I mentioned it to Vince and chums, they said, “what are you moaning for, it is £2 off”. The price of my effing dignity, Mr Clark et al, that’s what it is! That is why it cheeses me off. One theory is it is my cap that does it. Not buying it. I now have a complex. Derek did it to me at Cray Valley Paper Mills yesterday as well.

Dave and the boys were there, I gave them a banana update, they probably think I am going senile. No Billy today, no Chairman Andy fresh from his tour de force on BBC Radio London this week. Housey says hello, Mark is there, bemoaning West Ham not having a shot on target, and Alan is there although probably a bit disappointed that Bexley CC lost in the semi-final of the national T20 competition (although they are going to Lord’s in the National Club Cup Final). Tony is setting up the Veo, and securing a team sheet for the Phoenix not quite as massive. The Mayplace Messi Mob are there, and Richard from Paper Mills enters the fray, with a carton of chips, ruined by ketchup. These things grate. The Phoenix team has one change from last week’s starting line-up. Steve Philips retires to his abode, awaiting another call up no doubt, and Andy Walker is back between the sticks. I don’t see much change from the match v Sutton Athletic in the Canterbury team, but then, I can’t say I am hugely interested. There’s just a feel of total lethargy. The ground is nice enough, the weather is lovely, the surface looks firm as they all are at the moment, and it is a cup tie. But the vibe, just not there.

Steve comes over before kick-off to say hello to everyone. He’d been to see the Rusthall v Glebe game the previous day, where the home side kept their unbeaten run going with a last minute equaliser. Steve had his views, given we are playing the surprise package from the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells next week, but I am not sharing them here! Jamie Philpot was missing from Glebe again yesterday, and no-one seems to really know why. Steve is still a little perturbed about his sending off last week, and is hoping that evidence from the video will help his cause. He seems a little subdued as well. It must be something in the air.

The teams come out from the opposite corner of the ground to where we are. I do like the park benches to the side of the pitch, it has to be said. As is usual, when we win the toss, Ryan switches the teams around, so we are attacking the goal to the right. As we make our way behind the goal, the ball is played over the top, the keeper and defender get into a tangle, Marcus Elliott is making a massive nuisance of himself, appears to get a foot in first, and the ball heads slowly goalwards and potentially for Marcus to follow in and score within 30 seconds. Except the referee blows his whistle. I don’t know for what, because given it is a drop ball on the restart, Marcus has not done anything wrong. Consensus was for a head injury to the keeper, but, whatever, it is a curious start to the game.

We get to the seating area behind the goal, where there is a “press” area with a table, so I nab it for the notebook and camera. It’s not the greatest of views, or angles for photos, but it will do. Within seconds Phoenix win a free-kick on their right. Ryan Hayes swings over a cross, Lewis Clark gets up first but can’t control the header and it goes harmlessly wide (see below).

Positive signs thus far. Phoenix popping it around, Canterbury sitting back, not pressing, and the visitors looking for openings. On 9 minutes Ryan Hayes puts in another cross, Marcus Elliott gets in the header, but it lacks power and it is a comfortable save for Lee Kidman in the Canterbury goal. On 15 minutes the home side have their first foray, but it is not a scintillating effort, a 20-yarder by Owen Punselie which is comfortably saved by Andy Walker.

Two minutes later comes Phoenix’s best chance of the half. The ball is cleared, and finds Dave Martin free of his defender, with one home player between him, and Alfie Evans to his right, and the goal. Dave does the unselfish thing and lays it across to the Mayplace Messi, who doesn’t get the right control (possibly a bobble) and scuffs the chance. A bit reminiscent of the chance at home to Glebe. The consensus of the behind the goal Phoenix Massive was that it was only a matter of time before class would out, but as I repeat in saying all the time, I am a pessimist. We are not in control until we are 3-0 up. Not Phoenix, not Millwall, not anyone.

Chances kept coming, mainly from set plays. A corner on 24 by Ryan Hayes reaches Lee Bird at the back stick who heads goalwards, but Kidman is there to gather easily. Two minutes later, another corner, similar location, and it is the King of the Barnehurst Jungle, Luke Leppard there, to head the ball, but this time it is wide of the post. On 28, a lovely piece of improvisation by Tom Cousins, with a cheeky reverse pass so nearly puts in Alfie Evans, and as I am a sucker for clever ideas, it merits a mention in the piece. But as this flurry of attacking intent yields no reward, the game slows down. The movement isn’t there, the passing is listless, aimless, the gameplan fails to materialise. Phoenix have had a number of these types of spells. They have, so far, managed to avoid catastrophe during them, more often than not, but we were starting to get concerned.

Then, on 41 minutes, while on the attack, a pass goes astray from Phoenix (I have not noted who it was, so blame avoided), and it is one of those that catches the defence a little too far forward. Suddenly Canterbury break down the right, the home player jinking one way then the other, and then pulls the ball across the face of the penalty box. There Tyrell Mitford takes the ball, controls it, and from what looks like 20 yards where I am sitting, buries a low hard shot to Andy Walker’s right and into the bottom corner. An absolute sucker punch, well-taken, and just how Canterbury might have scripted it. There’s dismay at our end. “We’ve given them something to hold on to now” says one.

The goal does not provoke much of a reaction prior to half-time, and indeed, Canterbury have another effort just before the break from distance which Walker saves comfortably, but isn’t a great sign going into the half, which comes shortly after. Losing 1-0, not the scenario we thought we might face.

The Phoenix Massive all take their leave and move towards the other end. I sit there, just one other fella staying and we bemoan the first half display. We haven’t really tested the keeper. I keep on about my theory that Ryan should play in front of the back 4 today and let some pace go down the wings, based on the way Sutton tore Canterbury apart late in the game earlier this season. I pack up my stuff and trudge around to the other end, get some pictures of the players as they come out. This is prefaced by a huge shouting rallying cry from the dressing room before Phoenix come out. It isn’t Steve, I recognise that voice anywhere (and, like everyone else today, seems to be on the chill pills, he has hardly said a word first half), and it is the first sign I’ve seen or heard of the severity of the situation. Phoenix have to be better.

For some reason, alright, a number of reasons, I’m not feeling my conversational best today (sorry to everyone who thought I might be a bit more aloof than normal today – it’s the lip, and other stuff) and I don’t stand as close to the Phoenix Massive in the second half. Partly because I want to get a better angle for the pictures, and partly to take my own views of what is happening. What happens, is 10-12 minutes of utter ferocity I’ve not seen from Phoenix this season. This is what we expected to see more often. The fabled head of steam. That elusive period where you pound the opposition into submission, gaining momentum, forcing your will on the game.

On 49 minutes a cross goes to the far post. Dave Martin is there and nods the ball back. It doesn’t fall for the Phoenix boys but Luke does his usual foraging, lays the ball back to Lee Bird who crashes in a 20 yard shot which is saved by Kidman. Intent shown. I have barely noted this down when Tom Cousins picks the ball up in his own half, drives forward, and as the opportunity opens up decides to have a pop himself which Kidman saves well. A minute later and the ball finds Ryan Hayes on the right side of the area, he brings the ball inside and from the edge of the box hits a low left foot shot that is on target, and agains Kidman is forced into a save. The pressure is mounting. Can Phoenix keep it up? Where is the equaliser?

Phoenix win a free-kick on half-way. Cleverly Dave Martin takes it quickly and as we’ve seen a number of times before this season, his cross-field pass to Ryan Hayes is excellent. Ryan gets it under control, takes the ball near to the bye-line, puts over a super cross, and crashing in at the far post is the Big Cat of Crayford, Luke Leppard to power in an unstoppable header to level the scores. The cheers from our end are of relief, and Phoenix have their reward for a spell of pressure. 1-1. Now what?

Two minutes later, and we found out. The ball found its way to Alfie Evans, midway inside the half. I am not lying to you, it was Oxhey Jets, but a little more central. I watch him advance towards the area, the defenders not sure what to do, backing off a little, and I shout “hit it Alfie”. No idea if he heard me, my voice doesn’t carry, but hit it he does. As it leaves his boot, it’s in. No doubt. The ball arc towards the top right corner of the goal as he sees it, a perfect strike, hitting the back of the net, with the keeper no chance. A terrific goal, an absolute gem from the Mayplace Messi. His mum and dad must be very proud. I text Paul that it is 2-1. The response from someone who says that he hasn’t got the bug yet? “Mayplace Messi”.

Phoenix keep the pressure on, and nearly score a third although there is a confusing offside flag. We win another corner, and Ryan hits another far post one which we think a defender turned on to his own post before the ball is cleared. The linesman has his flag up for something. As an aside, earlier in the half, Dave Martin is caught offside and his complaint is that the linesman was not up with play and was guessing. The linesman’s retort was “maybe, but I guessed right” was silently acknowledged by your scribe. “Nice reply”, I thought. Noted.

On 63 minutes Alfie has another shot at goal, but this time Kidman is equal to it. On 70 minutes Ryan Hayes gets in on the right hand side of the area, and his chip into the area / shot at goal doesn’t clear Kidman, who saved it with his eyes wide shut.

Canterbury really didn’t create too much after the second goal, but as I am a pessimist I never felt very comfortable with the lead as Phoenix started to make changes, taking off Cousins (injured), Lee Bird, Marcus Elliott and I think someone else, or are we allowed only three subs. City had an acrobatic shot go well wide on 70, Nwoko blasted a 20 yarder over on 75 minutes, and a free-kick outside the box was blasted into the wall and cleared from danger. I have no notes of anything Phoenix did in the last 25 minutes. They played the game out and took their place in the next round of the FA Vase. When the final whistle blew, it was job done, and a really strange feeling. It had been that kind of day really.

The players came over and shook hands with us, and that’s good to see. The club is built on that camaraderie and spirit and I think some of us know there is more in there, and something just isn’t gelling. But for heaven’s sake, it might be a tough watch, but in six games this season, five away from home, we have won 4 and drawn 2. As you will know, and as Mark was also saying, we need to work hard to win games at this stage of the season. As the games become more routine, maybe we will see the quality that the side undoubtedly has, come through. I don’t think the quick pitches favour us at the moment. Marcus had a really tough game today, and yet I think he played quite well in his other appearances for someone who has hardly trained with the squad. Tashi was injured, and we haven’t seen what he can do yet either. Maybe we should be patient, and yet that is not something football ever allows you.

There were all sorts of comments after the game, most revolving around “we just did enough”, “didn’t want to exert ourselves too much” “controlled the game after we got in front” and so on, and all decent points. Maybe they weren’t worried at 1-0 down, but I was! That 15 minutes of fury, where Phoenix imposed their will on the game was enough today. Canterbury were much better than they were at Sutton, much better organised, more savvy, but a little outmatched at times. But they were game and good opponents. To pick yourself up from a 10-0 defeat a couple of weeks ago speaks volumes.

So to the backdrop. The second half was played out to the sound of a band singing various cover versions at “Kevstock”. You do not get this at your regular Premier League fixture! Dave was on to this like a flash – you need to take one of these songs for the title of your blog post. It’s so transparent how I work that even Dave has sussed it. I did mention that I had taken the lyrics from one of the bands numbers on last week’s post….

So as Phoenix were attacking, we were getting a rendition of “Some Might Say” in the background. The crap Blur song “Country House” was recognised as being something that might apply to me in a few weeks – although my proposed new home is not a big house, a very big house. As the game subsided a little after the attacking, the band thought we might Live Forever, and then we played out the last few minutes to the dirge that is Coldplay’s “Yellow”. Look at the bloody stars, and how they shine for you. As we left the game, the band, who clearly like Oasis, started “Stand By Me”. Ah yes. The first line of that one could aptly describe the first half. Made a Meal, and threw it up on Sunday. I’ve got a lot of things to learn. I advised Dave’s kids that you should never do an Oasis cover, because there is only one Liam. I think they still think I am a banana loony toon.

On to the next round, and a shorter trip to Bridon Ropes, a wonderful name for a football team, on 24 September on the Charlton/Woolwich border (if such a thing exists). Bridon Ropes are in the SCEFL First Division, and Phoenix have to fancy their chances. But as today showed, you can’t take anything for granted. There were times when the display today made you think we might have.

As I left, missing Richard and feeling a bit bad about it as I don’t think I am going to get to Paper Mills before my move, I felt quite sad coming home. It is dawning on me that if all goes to plan, by the time of the next round of the Vase, I might either be moved, or about to be moved, and around 100 miles from the Mayplace. It’s really quite a sad thought. When the energy prices rocket like they are supposed to, I might have to rein back on how many games I might be able to come back for. I would love to come to most of them, but know this isn’t possible. I feel the knot loosening and I don’t like this feeling, As if I have to give up something I never knew I was looking for, and then found it. As Richard says to me many times, it is such a friendly club. You feel part of them, and them of us. It’s all transient, players come and players go. But I already see the Phoenix ethos. I like it. It will always be a part of me. It makes me feel a bit melancholy now, but the move is right. We will make it work, somehow.

Just to finish off. Look out for extra pictures on The Magpies and The Phoenix (link here). Also may write up a quick match report on the Paper Mills game on there too (picture space is running out on here). I have decided not to go to a game tomorrow, Bank Holiday Monday, and midweek looks a bit sparse. Back to work on Thursday. Sigh. But at least it is with Phoenix through in both cup competitions, living to fight another day. As Steve and the lads might say. Stand By Me. As I might say, in tune with the set list, Phoenix, with me, will Live Forever.

Winners Are Grinners. I think.

I Know Saint Peter Won’t Call My Name

As you may know when I write this blog, it isn’t purely about the football. It is also about my life and how and why it goes the way it does. This blog never started as a non-league football journal, it was about me. As the non-league football infused into my daily routine, then it took over the content of this blog as it is one of those subjects that deserves all the attention it gets. The match reports have, yes, contained the details of the games, but they have also described how it has interacted with my emotions and feelings. As someone who suffered mentally hugely through lockdown, including a breakdown in June of 2020, the memory of which scares me even thinking about it, and the collapse in front of my promotion interview in October, this needs to be said. Without non-league football, without Phoenix Sports, without Holsworthy, without Richard and JG at Cray Valley, and others I have met in person and online, I don’t know where I would be.

Why is this important today? Why am I saying it now? Well, I woke up this morning in a really quite depressive state. I woke up feeling utterly low, not wanting to talk to anyone, face the world, or go to football. For to do so would mean I would need to put on a facade, and at my age, that gets more tiresome and mentally downgrading. I know many out there would go “get a grip” and sometimes I am my own worst enemy. This was unexpected, because I had a thoroughly enjoyable day at the cricket yesterday, Surrey v Gloucestershire, and it was a good game too. But I drank alcohol during the day, and that’s where I am pinning the blame. There are lessons there. I just need to learn them.

If non-league has been a lifesaver, so has Teddy, my border collie, and my brother, Paul, who seemed keen to go today, even after I said on Twitter that I probably wouldn’t be there. Having walked Teddy around the park, I felt more human, and Paul’s desire to come along sealed it. I changed my mind, packed my stuff, Paul drove, and off we set for Tunbridge Wells.

If you don’t get the mental health issues, then that is fair enough. But it is part of me. Part of the issue is this rampant insecurity over much of my friendships and work. On Twitter this morning, as if reading minds, came a piece up on Imposter Syndrome. I thought is was spooky that it came up (maybe because I asked how to spell imposter – an e or an o -to my colleagues at cricket yesterday) but it resonated. It’s insecurity with Phoenix, that I’ve seemed to become part of the furniture. Why?

This was reinforced when I was told I was on the Phoenix officials list for the gate at Tunbridge Wells, again an ubelievably lovely gesture by the club which I am so grateful for. That this happened after my brother had missed the A21 turning through muscle memory and stayed on the M25, which added 30 minutes to our journey, was definitely odd. But thanks to Dave and Tony for doing that. Paul and I are totally appreciative.

Having seen one of my workmates trudging back from the shops on London Road (I thought she was still in Cornwall), but not soon enough to stop and say hello, we wended down a narrow lane to the Tunbridge Wells FC stadium and their generously sized, but quite full car park. As I walked up to the gate, there was a nervousness about asking for free entry, but there were our names, and in we walked for gratis. The ground is set down from the entrance and with a nice terrace behind the goal, and looked really pretty good in the August sunshine. It had that extra buzz for the FA Cup, and it felt like a fairly decent occasion. Maybe not the energy in my heart of the Glebe game, but a chance to get another win and to progress. Then to see what happens. The magic of the cup indeed.

I was approached by Dave, I think, because my head was still in a depressive whirl, but whoever it was told me it was an unchanged team (actually, may have been Alan) from Wednesday, but Tashi was on the bench. The feeling had been that we had played well on Wednesday and that the tide might have turned. I, being Mr Sunshine, needed convincing. Dave approached with what looked like a heart attack in a roll, so, of course, I followed him to the van to gobble down a very decent burger. Thumbs up for the T-Wells catering. I didn’t see the chairman today, but Tony was there, and the Sullivans, of course, as well as the Alfie Evans fan club, mum and friends. The Phoenix Massive, not so massive today, but still making their voices heard. Paul and I sat on the concrete steps behind the goal, and this was decent to take notes, pictures etc. It’s more like a job, a Phoenix game, these days. I feel a responsibilty to do the best job I can. Sometimes I wish I can just sit back and be a proper fan. Just watch the game. Today felt like one of them.

Phoenix were kicking towards us in the first half, up the hill towards the main terrace. They started quite brightly, with Ryan Hayes down the right stroking in a very nice cross, which Marcus Elliott brought down and set up Lee Bird who hit a shot well over from 20 yards. Two minutes later and Dave Martin down the left stroked over a long cross which found Ryan Hayes at the edge of the area. He decided, I think, to shoot and lob the keeper in to the far corner, but his attempt sailed over. It might have been a cross, I don’t know. A similar move five minutes later; a Dave Martin cross field pass, Ryan Hayes gathering, putting in a far post cross, but again it drifted harmlessly wide.

Tunbridge Wells might have been on the back foot early, but they had the first on-target effort of the game when on 15 minutes Ryan Hayes was caught in possession in his own half, and from the move, the Tunbridge Wells number 8, Lamin Bah (apologies if I did not read the board correctly) had a very decent low shot from about 20 yards pushed aside by Steve Phillips in the Phoenix goal. The ball going for a corner, from which no danger ensued, but a warning from the team currently bottom of the SCEFL with no points to their name. At this point, while I felt comfortable that Phoenix were the better side, they needed a goal.

On 18 minutes a ball over the top by Phoenix looked to be harmless but the defender’s knock back to the keeper was too short, and put the home keeper, Billy Johnson, under pressure from Marcus Elliott who closed down superbly. There was a meeting of legs, aiming at the ball, and the keeper just got there first. It looked like a goal-kick but was given as a corner. The first attempt wasn’t good, but the ball found itself with Dave Martin on the left who closed in on the area and picked out at the far post, with what looked like an inch-perfect cross, the midweek hero Joe Denny. He steadied himself to head, and we waited for the net to rustle as he was totally unmarked. The net did rustle, but on the wrong side. The ball had hit the side netting. Maybe he was further beyond the far post than we thought, but it looked a great chance.

But from then on in the first half, Phoenix utterly faded. What chances there were, and they didn’t seem clear-cut, were for Tunbridge Wells. On 23 minutes, Jack Palmby was set up by a very good lay back by Matt Astle, but his shot went well over. On 27 minutes, the Tunbridge Wells number 2, Jon Shea had an effort that was deflected and Steve Phillips gathered. And at that moment my notes for the first half stopped. The only thing I did note was that Steve O’Boyle was incredibly animated sensing the problems arising from the performance. “WHERE’S OUR WORK RATE!” was the one noted. But they just could not raise anything. This had a lot of hallmarks with the Welling Town display. While I never felt that the home side were going to dominate or score, neither did Phoenix.

As the half tailed off, as the Phoenix passing failed, as the work rate and movement faded, as Marcus became more and more isolated up front despite challenging gamely, there was a pall of despair among the Phoenix supporters. You could almost audibly hear the the home fans say “is this all they are?” The half-time interval came with Phoenix goal-less, and even the Sullivans feeling apprehensive. The team had not played with that pop from Wednesday. The sharper passing, that showed itself at times, from Wednesday was missing. A theory was that the pitch was playing exceptionally slowly, but I am not sure I was buying that. Paul thinks we are set up all wrong. He’s been consistent in that for three games now. I am not as firm, but I do think playing Ryan on the right is taking one of our better players last season out of his stride, and Henry Douglas is not how he was last season. Tom Cousins had a difficult first half. The consensus though, as Steve would not be a happy manager at half-time.

We moved down to the end that Phoenix, we hoped, would attack, in the second half, with Dave insisting he go level with the penalty area. The teams came out, with no changes to our line-up. We thought Tashi might come on. Like the first half, Phoenix started with some ambition. A cross from Dave Martin on the left was met at the far post by Marcus Elliott who thumped his header onto the post, and as the ball was recycled, it came out to Luke Leppard who blasted over. But some good positive intent. The massive might allow some optimism to creep in. It wouldn’t last long.

On 52 minutes there was a major flashpoint. The Tunbridge Wells number 9, Trevor McCreadie was through from a decent pass, and goal-side of Lewis Clark. Lewis drew by the striker’s side and just outside the area, from my angle, made a perfectly timed challenge which cleared the ball, and then the player fell over the trailing leg. I have one sight of it, no replays, but it looked great. The referee did not agree. He blew his whistle and we thought it was going to be a penalty. But it was a free-kick. Now we wondered if Lewis would be red-carded as he was last man. Steve was going utterly beserk. He thought the same as us, a great challenge. There was uproar, and we were relieved that the referee gave only a yellow. There was then a heated conversation between Steve and the linesman. Steve obviously upset the second official and he called the referee over, and O’Boyle, for the second time in 72 hours, had a yellow card. After three minutes the free-kick was finally taken, the shot flew low around the wall, but Steve Phillips got down well and smothered the shot. Threat over.

Most decent things for Phoenix seemed to be coming from Dave Martin, and it was he again who put in a super cross on 61 minutes that met the head of Alfie Evans (I think it noteworthy that this is his first mention in the report, he’s our key player) who had quite a tight angle and his header hit the outside of the post.

Two minutes later, Phoenix got caught in possession on the right side, Tunbridge Wells gathered, a cross came from the left, and the number 9, McCreadie, threw himself at the ball, but his header lacked control and flew wide. Three minutes after that, on 66, another left wing cross, this time low and hard, evaded McCreadie but at the back stick, a la Hammond on Wednesday, was the right back John Shea who got his feet to it but could not turn it in. Tunbridge Wells were on top.

Phoenix Sports were in need of a lifeline, and they had an opportunity on 69 minutes with a long throw taken by Tom Cousins. The ball wasn’t dealt with, the ball came out to Luke Leppard, but again he could not keep the shot down and over it went. Tunbridge Wells, countered again, this time with a long shot from the Wells number 18, who saw his saved by Steve Phillips.

Tashi came on for Marcus Elliott, and had looked much more to link with the midfield, and while no criticism of Elliott who had been game and played his part. Tashi had a header on 79 from a corner, which was comfortably saved. But then Tashi won a free-kick on the edge of the area, and both Dave Martin and Ryan Hayes lined up to take it. The kick was quite central, and Dave got the nod. 20 yards out it may have been, but it might have been 20 yards over. Not one of Dave’s best.

As we were contemplating a replay on Wednesday, Phoenix seemed to up the ante a little. I wouldn’t confuse it with dominating, not at all, but there seemed more cohesion. Yet again, Dave Martin on the left put a cross into the box, Alfie Evans again finding himself free for a header, but he couldn’t make ideal contact and the home keeper, Billy Johnson saved. Tunbridge Wells had a lot of crosses thrown in to the box, but Steve Phillips had been majestic all day, a bit of a contrast from the rusty keeper on Wednesday. This looked like 0-0. But then, there was magic to come.

87 minutes on the clock. Ryan Hayes picked up the ball just inside the Tunbridge Wells half and hit a monstrous crossfield pass, beautifully weighted, perfectly arced, Except I didn’t think so as it looked slightly ahead of the on-running Dave Martin’s zone. But it wasn’t and Dave took the ball down in a fantastic piece of technique. Look, I don’t do hyperbole lightly, but it was the type of control that if done by Dennis Bergkamp or his ilk, the pundits would have been shouting from the hype rooftops about its greatness. But control was all well and good. What could Dave do? He was ahead of his defender, he advanced into the box, I knew he was going to shoot, the defenders less so as a Phoenix player advanced into the box with him. But Dave was always going to shoot. He hit it hard, he hit it low, it burst through the keeper and hit the back of the net. Bedlam among the Phoenix Massive. The players swamped Dave Martin in front of us, the subs in their orange bibs shrouding him from our view, the staff bombing down the wing. This was it. This had to be the winner.

I marvelled at the pass, but the control of it, the ease in which Dave Martin did this with his left foot in full stride, and getting it under his spell. I wish I had done a single piece of work in my recent past with that perfection, that technique, that ability. Imposter Syndrome compared to that. Yep. That was magic. Viva La Vida if get to see something that good any time soon.

Phoenix just needed to see the game out. They nearly didn’t. On 92 minutes, the number 18 for Tunbridge Wells put in a cross having been part of an overload on their right which left Cousins exposed. The cross found Astle, but his shot lacked control and stuck it over the bar. We breathed easier. Tunbridge Wells continues to pressure, five minutes in to the added on time, and the ball bounced around, but fell to Frank Griffin, and his shot from 20 yards was sent wide. With that the referee blew the final whistle. Phoenix Sports claimed their place in the draw for the 1st Qualifying Round which will take place on Monday.

We all agreed that we had got away with it, again not playing well, but we were through. We. All words a neutral reporter shouldn’t use (the Richie Benaud rule) but I am not claiming neutrality. It was a poor game, Tunbridge Wells may be bottom of the SCEFL, but on this evidence there is not much between them and Phoenix, if you are being truthful. There appears something missing from the Phoenix Sports squad, their play, and I don’t know what it is. Mark may be right, that the Hayes and Martin combo can bring you success with that piece of magic, but they are old legs, in a young legs game. It is fascinating to see how this might work going forward. Phoenix Sports have won 3 and drawn 2 games so far this season, so it isn’t disastrous. But there seems something missing. The biting midfield of Lee Bird and Luke Leppard, as great as they were on Wednesday, were not as effective today (although, in my view, Lee Bird was our man of the match for his defensive work, alongside Steve Phillips who did everything really well in goal, claiming all crosses). But a win is a win is a win in a cup tie. It doesn’t say how on the result sheet.

What I will take from this day, though, is how that single piece of artistry, that majestic piece of control, lifted me from a trough, and sparked an outburst of joy on a day when I was on the downslope of the mental curve. Not overplaying it, not wanting sympathy, but it was wonderful to watch. Brilliant.

The game did not finish with peace and tranquility. Steve O’Boyle was absolutely ticking, and wasn’t letting his dispute with the officials, who I thought did not have the best game, lie. He pushed it too far, the two of them should have just left it, but Steve clearly said the magic word(s), the referee, as he was leaving the pitch, turned around, pulled out the red card and brandished it to our manager. Phil Legg told me after the game on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of anger, Steve was currently a 15!

My afternoon with the massive was enlightening and entertaining. What goes on with the massive, mainly stays within the massive, and I always find supporters are a bit self reverential. The advice given to Tashi in dealing with a certain member of the opposition by someone who should know better, is best kept hidden from prying ears. The same person calling the right back for Tunbridge Wells “Ravi” because of his propensity to shank a clearance, was also amusing. Conversations with the subs is one of the joys of non-league, it has to be said. They are great lads, I have to say. Really funny. No. I am not mentioning or giving a group name to the Alfie Evans Fan Club, or the Mayplace Messi Maidens, or have I just done that? I have, haven’t I. No, stop. This is getting to self-regarding.

That was almost that. As always, superb to bump into Steven Douglas and his wife afterwards. As usual, he is too kind about my self-indulgent scribblings. As usual, he pretends that Paul and I are talking profound football observations. I am not. I deal in emotions and feelings, not tactics.

The draw is on Monday. Of the fixtures I was “looking at” on the podcast, you have to hand it to Rusthall, who took out Isthmian SE team Ramsgate, 2-1. Fisher looked to be doing the same to Sittingbourne, but the Isthmian SE team scored two very late goals to take that to a replay; 2-2 the score. Deal Town went down 3-2 to Three Bridges. Bideford lost 5-2 to Paulton Rovers; Andover New Street lost 5-1 to Westbury; Brixham 4-0 losers at Shepton Mallet, and in the game I paid closest attention to, Cray Valley Paper Mills beat Glebe 3-0 at Foxbury.

SCEFL teams in action included K-Sports, who lost 3-2 at Beckenham Town; Erith Town, 2-1 winners over Bedfont Sports; Punjab United lost 2-1 at home to Westfield; and Sutton Athletic stretched Isthmian SE favourites, Ashford, before losing 2-1.

That is that. One magic moment. Dave Martin might be a little old pain in the backside, but he has that ability in his locker, even at his age. One moment. One goal. Quallifying Round One. That is all that matters.

Please visit my podcast, released on Thursday, previewing this tie and reviewing the two games I saw on Tuesday and Wednesday. Another episode will be released later in the week. I don’t think I have a game until Saturday. My podcast is on Apple, although I’ve not found it yet, and possibly on Amazon. But please listen and give me advice (I got some from Dave today!) on what I can do better. I do enjoy putting it together. Link to the latest episode below.

Give Me The Reason To Want You Back

On the car journey home this evening, I turned to my brother and said “so, has it got you yet?” He looked at me as if I was asking him to sell his soul. “It’s all right. It’s a night out”, he replied. I thought to myself “yes, you are pretty much there, whether you know it or not”.

That, for me, was a ringing endorsement and a sense of pride – it’s great to be going to football with Paul again. It had been a hell of an evening, and a hell of a game of SCEFL football. I am not sure if I can do it justice, to be honest. I’ll give it a go. I try my best to write as a scribe not a fan, but even Richard, from Paper Mills knew the difference. The conclusion of the game, well….. football. Phoenix. Non-League. Wow.

This game had been built up in my mind as the “big one” as soon as I saw the fixture list. Everything else was secondary to it. This was the game I had to go to. Come hell or high water. Listen to me, will you? A year ago, I didn’t give a crap who played who, when. I didnt care. Now, I’m acting like 20 year old me,. I shouldn’t be like this. I am 53. I gave all this supporting lark up for a reason, but here I am, acting like a bloody kid before, during and after a game at Level 9 of the pyramid. Would you actually look at yourself? And why are you dragging your brother down with you? But this game lived up to its billing.

Where do I start? Dave greeting us on the car park gate was a bit of a surprise to be honest, and we had a conversation which I won’t share on here, but he knows how highly I regard him, and thoughts are with him and his boys. He was also talking to Andrew, the chairman, and it was an upbeat, optimistic Mr Mortlock prior to the game. It’s early in the season, but this one feels like more than just a game.

As I walk into the ground, Alan comes up to me with the teamsheet, and I study it and immediately notice one thing. No Jamie Philpot. The goal-scoring machine for Glebe. Interesting. Phoenix have signed a new striker, Marcus Elliott, and the worst kept secret in the SCEFL was unveiled, the return of Steve Phillips in goal for a short term period while Andy Walker is unavailable, The changes meant that Luke Leppard would drop into midfield. Other than that, it was the same team as Saturday – effectively Elliott for Freddie, Steve for Pat Ohman. I think that is right.

I was then invited into the boardroom, as was my brother, and Richard from Cray Valley Paper Mills. Another good chat, this time with Albert about my blogging “career” where he pretended not to be bored, killed a few tension-filled minutes before kick-off. My brother asked me how I had got so “ingrained” into the club, and I really don’t have any other answer than “they like my stuff” but he is amazed his shy, keyboard scribe brother is a bit more “extrovert” in this environment. Again, it’s all a bit “aww shucks” but I get it more each time. Like those beams that lure in spaceships in crap sci-fi movies, Phoenix are dragging me into their Death Star, and even if I move 100 miles away, I’m not sure I’ll be allowed to pull away. Even if I wanted to.

I have also said many times that I didn’t get into football again, after those years with Millwall, to care too much. That a bad result might mean I get the true blues the day after. But here I am feeling an irrational loathing for Glebe, mainly on the back of a bravado statement from their chairman that the top 4 in last year’s SCEFL would have been in the top 6 in the Isthmian South East (I saw them play once – no they wouldn’t have) and a rather scintillating social media fit of pique when their manager left for Sevenoaks (and promptly pulled them out of a tailspin). It is completely irrational and I need to grow up. It might be a bit late for that. Oh yes. And there’s that thing that they have built a training pitch on the site of my highest cricket score -no, not their ground; a training pitch. Maybe it is rational, then.

And then I saw Jon Pilbeam on their team sheet, and the memories of Sevenoaks flooded back. Oh yes. I remember HIM!

“A major incident, that would impact a fair bit on the game, happened in the 12th minute. Henry Douglas of Phoenix clashed with a home player (not sure, on the other side of the pitch) in one of those where one player heads down, and the other kicks up. Douglas’s boot connected and the home players started to surround the referee, urging a caution at the least. Then the Phoenix players got involved. It was noted that one of those who got involved was the home side’s right back, Jon Pilbeam, who hadn’t stopped moaning from the start of the match, and made his point having run “60 yards” to put his opinion across. This was noted by Phoenix’s manage, Steve O’Boyle, who was not, shall we say, content with that display of team spirit. Douglas was booked. I’d made a note already that I wasn’t particularly enamoured by Sevenoaks Town FC.”

Actually, tonight, Pilbeam played on the left side of midfield. And behaved himself. But I still remember his antics that game. More fuel on the fire (performance of the match to his shorts……)

Having said hello to virtually all the glitterati of Phoenix, except Mr Legg, and the teams came out (do we still need Final Countdown, Mr Chairman?) and I got the picture that heads up this post, I wandered around to my usual spot near the halfway line, saying hello to the Evans clan as we passed by, and was sad to see my two spectating colleagues from last season were no-shows. I hope they are OK, and that they are Saturday visitors, because, if so, I won’t see them until September 3rd. Vince came round to join us for a while, before employing his vocal talents with the Phoenix massive behind the north end of the ground which Phoenix were attacking in the first half.

My heart sank when I saw Glebe’s kit. It is a very light blue with yellow numbers. This was going to be a fun night identifying them! Won’t they think of us poor, unpaid scribes, trying to entertain through our blog writing (Albert, in the boardroom, asked why did I do it? Answer is simple. I like writing. Honest!) This made spotting players on the far side especially hard, so apologies for any misidentifications in this piece.

Let’s quickly set the scene. A relatively local derby (if I had gone my usual route I would have passed by their ground) against a team who would be seen as a major challenger for the top of the table positions come season’s end. Glebe had three points from two games, Phoenix one better off. Deal already have nine. Already, even this early, a defeat might seem to weigh more than normally it should, This felt quite big.

The game started like fairly big clashes do, quite cagily. The midfield for Phoenix seemed to be imposing itself better, Luke especially, but Lee Bird also making some really decent probes and tackles to keep Phoenix on the front foot. Already the team looked a bit better balanced to this untrained eye, and it seemed to let Alfie a little off the leash. Marcus Elliott had some early touches, but was obviously trying to find his feet. For their part, Glebe took time to settle, but looked threatening down either flank, with Jon Pilbeam in front of us for that half! This is probably a long way of saying that I took no notes for the first fifteen minutes, but was actually engrossed in the game. It felt pretty tense.

On 15 the first opportunity as such. Phoenix made strides down the left, I have to assume it was Dave Martin who put in a dangerous cross which was met at the back post by I think Greg Benbow, the Glebe left back, who in trying to clear the danger smashed a volley into his own side netting. No doubt he’ll say he had the situation under control, but that nearly made a Christmas Video.

Three minutes later, Alfie Evans gets put in and hits a cross, which looked dangerous but home keeper Ollie Pain did well to smother before Marcus Elliott could pounce for a debut goal.

On 21 minutes, and having had little action, and just as I gave him the kiss of death by saying to my brother “it’s good to have Steve Phillips back in goal, he organises and cajoles the defence so well”, a ball over the top bounces towards him on the right side of his area, it bounces too high and he carries it out of the area. He couldn’t argue, he finished up laying on the ball while still outside. The free-kick was in a dangerous position and was put into the box, where the deep-sitting Phoenix defence made a meal of getting it clear. A minute later and a really good Pilbeam cross was met with a glancing header by Harry Gamble which left Phillips rooted, but thankfully the ball went wide of his left hand post.

The game was opening up, and Phoenix had a super chance a minute later. Good physical play and control by Marcus Elliott outside the box, set him up for a run into the penalty area. He took a shot, beat the keeper coming out, but the ball drifted wide of the right hand post as we looked. A decent chance, and a decent effort if truth be told. But still goalless.

Two minutes later and closer still. Ryan Hayes hit a wonderful crossfield pass to Dave Martin, who put in a cross. It found its way out to Ryan again who this time took the ball down, cut inside on to his left foot and hit a superb shot which hit the post. Dave told me at half-time that there had actually been a vital touch by Ollie Pain, and it was a terrific save. The danger wasn’t over and the ball was picked up eventually by Dave Martin who hit a firm shot that Pain saved, bobbled and gathered. Still 0-0. Two minutes later, and Dave Martin set Alfie clear in the box, and his shot is brilliantly saved again by Pain. Make your own jokes.

On 33 minutes superb work down the left by Dave Martin and Tom Cousins, and the Phoenix left back gets close to the byeline and hits the ball across goal, where Marcus Elliott cannot turn the ball in. To be fair, it was going at pace, but Phoenix were dominating and still were not in front. I am not saying I was getting a bad feeling. Stuff it, of course I was. I’m a pessimist.

The chances dried up. Glebe started to get more into the game, The vulnerability down the right, where I feel Henry is often exposed to two opponents, was becoming a concern. On 35 minutes Harry Gamble hit a 25 yarder over for the visitors, on 37 minutes Elliott Duncan hit a dangerous looking curling shot after Phoenix made a hash of clearing their lines. On 41 a dangerous Greg Benbow cross induces panic in the Phoenix backline, nearly, but not quite falling to a Glebe striker, but cleared with haste and danger just about averted.

On 44 minutes, Phoenix at least get out of their half after Glebe’s imposing spell of pressure, and Ryan Hayes received a good pass from Alfie Evans, revelling much more in the freedom he had with Luke and Lee sitting behind. The Phoenix skipper moved the ball on to his wand of a left foot, and curled the ball just wide. Now I can’t be sure if it was this, or the Marcus Elliott one, or the Ryan hitting the post effort, but on one occasion Mark’s voice from behind the goal, which carries, shouting “YES” has me cursing him when the ball does not go in.

We would all, well all of us there supporting Phoenix, cursing a minute later as right on the stroke of half-time, Glebe took the lead. Pilbeam had been dangerous, and on this occasion he drifted inside and hit a shot to Steve Phillips’ left which the stalwart keeper didn’t push firmly enough away and drifting in at the back post was Glebe number 2, Jack Holland, to steer the rebound across the goal into the bottom left corner to give the visitors the lead. A bit harsh to call it a sucker punch, more a gut punch, as Glebe had definitely come more into it and looked dangerous. Phoenix had had their best half of the season (maybe Oxhey first half rivalled it) and were going in 1 down. The Glebe fans near me were chuffed. Hmmm. Not sure I could put up with them in the second half.

I decided to do an Erith, and moved. This time, for the first time in a competitive fixture at the Mayplace, I would stand behind the Mayplace Road End goal. Before I get into the second half action, absolute fair play and well done to Calvin and Perez for the penalty entertainment. Well done chaps.

The Phoenix Massive, the usual suspects, the Sullivans, Dave and the Boys and our guest for the night, Richard Green from Paper Mills settled in for the second half. Lots of recrimination and doom-saying, even from Mark, and the heart was sinking a bit. There was a bit of a downcast feel. Here we were, defintitely playing better, but behind. It’s a harsh game.

Phoenix came out on the front foot, and Luke Leppard, who was playing like he hadn’t been fed, and if he made 1000 tackles might be given some raw meat, burst down the right and put a dangerous cross in which Ollie Pain just about held on to while Alfie, I think, at the back post was ready to pounce. But Phoenix would not be denied for long. Henry Douglas made a super smashing run down the right side and whipped in a lovely cross, Marcus Elliott got a super flick on – we’ll assume he meant it as a flick, and not an attempt, great stuff mate – and the ball fell to Alfie Evans at the back stick who headed firmly from a stooping position into the goal off the defender on the line. Cue bedlam. 1-1.

But if we thought this would signal the sound of the trumpets and a charge to the line, we would be mistaken. The game then went into the phase it started like – cagey, a midfield battle, no real chances to speak of. Glebe had settled down after the setback and Phoenix just couldn’t get much going. I did not make a note for another 18 minutes, and I can’t make head nor tail of it – it says not confident defending, Glebe fly hack. I think it was a wild shot by a Glebe attacker but I had no chance picking out his number from that distance. 8 minutes later and Jack Mahoney, I think, had a shot that deflected over and this looked a dangerous chance. Luke Rooney, the Glebe manager, had brought himself on and began that move with a majestic long-range crossfield pass. He still had “it”, and he proved it.

On 82 minutes Phoenix nearly took the lead. Marcus was fed in and advanced on goal, having the keepr in his sights, but unmarked to the left was Alfie Evans with a defender between him and our number 11. Marcus thought the angle too tight and squared it to Evans who took one touch to put on to his left foot, and as we expected him to hit the ball into the net, he made a poor contact and the defender comfortably cleared. These things happen, but this was crucial. How crucial, we would find out soon enough. (Richard next to me said “he’s a striker, he needs to shoot there” re Marcus squaring it – I thought Marcus had done the right thing. Football, eh?)

Glebe had made a number of substitutions, and one really paid off. The ball came over from the left, and wasn’t cleared well, falling to Stefan Cox on the right wing. I couldn’t see brilliantly from my vantage point, but he appeared to beat our defender with pace and skill before smashing a superb shot into the net past Steve Phillips. 84 minutes and Glebe had taken the lead, and it has to be said, we were devastated.

Me? Sick. Why have I decided to put myself through these emotions again? I feel nauseous. I feel angry. I feel disappointed. But that was some goal. Mark comments that this was Glebe’s smash and grab, referring to Phoenix’s win, and Steve’s description of it, against Erith Town. We had six minutes, plus whatever, to rescue a disaster of a night when we really hadn’t deserved to lose. As Glebe ran the clock down, as each throw in, or free-kick took a while, as the board went up for two minutes to go, so the numbing, deadening feeling of a sloppy, important defeat – I think I was past denial, got through anger, and was starting to bargain with the loss. But wait, Phoenix get down the right hand side and win a corner. We are well into a very short period of added on time (I wondered aloud if the referee lived a fair way away and needed to get home).

These are the moments every football fan lives for. I don’t care if you are 5 or 105. This is it. This is the feeling you come back for, you stay for, you remember, you smile at, all that and more. And if you are the victim, you feel the pain. Luke Rooney is cajoling his team “We are ******* winners” as he exhorts his defence for one last effort. Ryan Hayes has the ball at his feet, ready to put in the cross. This is. Last Chance Saloon.

I see the flight early. It is a good one. Not too close to the keeper. Clearing the front man. Attackable for someone running in. It arcs over and the Glebe defender rises, but so does Phoenix’s number 12, the man denied by saves and woodwork at Oxhey, Joe Denny. We’re not sure at the time who makes contact, but it has to be Joe. The ball hits the head with a thud, and powers into the top corner of the net, right by where we are. Getting bloody chills writing this. It hits the back of the net, and it’s stuff the effing notes, I can remember this without writing it down. I see Joe running to the right of where I am standing, and I am off. I’m getting in on this pile-on. It is as if I am a kid again. The pure adrenaline of that moment will not be forgotten. If I say Josh Dorling’s goal got me started, this was my confirmation. I am now utterly totally trapped, and I can’t get out. I don’t want to get out. The players are piling in on top. The elation is overwhelming. That’s what we watch sport for, the moment. But even though I can’t play, I can’t do anything out there to help, I feel a part of it. My brother hasn’t joined me, but I know, even though he denies it, that he’s probably had his Josh Dorling moment. He just doesn’t know it yet. I think he looks at me and thinks “the bloody state of him” but the enjoyment of moments like this is what I missed. I am, to coin a phrase, absolutely buzzing.

The game barely has time to kick off, and the referee blows his full-time whistle. 2-2. It probably felt like a better game than it was because of the final 10 minutes, but there is no doubting the pure emotion of the finish. We’ve got out of jail on a game we should have put behind bars in the first half, but that’s football. Glebe are kept in the far corner of the ground to discuss what had happened, while Phoenix walk off happy. I bump into Stephen, Henry’s dad, and we have a decent chat, and introduce him to Paul who talks away for a while. Chairman Andrew is pleased, but also bemoans the missed chances, but as I said, we played better and that matters. Steve comes past, says “Hello Dmitri”, I enquire how his heart is, and he shakes his head. How he copes with this, I have no idea. I realise I’ve done very little shouting, and my voice has gone. I wish I had his larynx. God, that sounded creepy.

In the end, it is just a point, but it never really feels like that when you’ve stolen two from a rival in the last minute. That’s how my first ever Millwall away game ended, when Tony Cascarino scuffed home a late equaliser at Portman Road on 2 January 1988, but that day I was in the home end and couldn’t really celebrate (I wonder if Tony, the Club Secretary remembers that one). Today, at home, this had echoes of Nottingham Forest at home in 1988, Charlton at home in 1999, both those two late goals, but still the ones that come to mind.

It has been a hell of a day, a football match at the 9th level of English football has me gushing like a boy band fan at a gig, Screaming at the top of my lungs for an equaliser. Supporting and cheering with people who have become lifelong friends in the space of months. I feel less like a scribe tonight and more like a fan, and that was never the intention. Richard said how different the demeanour was from last night, and I like Cray Valley Paper Mills. This is different. These bastards have got me caring again, and loving football again. I love them, and hate them for it. But mainly, I love them. How could you not?

All being well, a podcast tomorrow. Sigh. So much more on my mind, but not a lot more to say. My thanks to everyone, as always who made Paul and I so welcome today. I know my brother is gobsmacked by how everyone at the club treats me. It is never taken for granted. And for people who needed a lift, a distraction, a positive thought, that was a superb finish to a game. And not an airhorn in hearing range. Give me the reason indeed. It has been a mighty long time since I felt like this.

UPDATE – Link to Episode 5 of the Magpies and The Phoenix Podcast, entitled “Tainted Hearts, Heal With Time”

Hope you can give it a listen!

The Sun In The Sky Never Raised An Eye To Me

[With a brief Sunday update at the end]

At the beginning of the film Vice, there is a written intro. It goes on about the film being based on Dick Cheney, the former US Vice-President, and how they have made a true attempt to portray his life and how they tried to make it as accurate as possible. But there is a bit of a problem. As the monologue ends, the punchline comes up. It’s hard “because he’s the most secretive vice-President of all time”. I am not conveying the joke well, but it made me laugh. I then said “this had better not be the best joke in the film”. I packed it in after 45 minutes not having raised a light chuckle. Here endeth my Barney Ronay impression*

The relevance? As we walked into Chatham’s Bauvill Stadium, a really good venue it has to be said, we were greeted with some pretty loud late 90s dance “choons”. Jay Brown, one of the Phoenix fans, comes out of the bar and says “blimey” (I think it was blimey) “it’s Ayia Napa away”. I said to myself, that had better not be the highlight of the day. It pretty much was.

As someone who has written a fair bit on non-league this year, pretty much all of it positive, I found today a challenge to get up for the writing. I am on the horns of a dilemma. I love these guys at Phoenix. The fans, the staff, the vibe, the culture even. And yes, some of the players. I really owe them immense amounts for the positivity and enthusiasm they have instilled in me, so that I look forward to their games so much. I am not an entitled football fan who believes his team should win every game. I picked Phoenix, and they picked me, because they fought against enormous odds to avoid relegation when I think they knew they were done for. That they nearly pulled it off was all I needed. They had got to me.

Today I was really, really disappointed in them. They never really felt right all day, and one incident in the second half, which I will not go into on here, was truly sad to see. I love their competitive spirit. I will not doubt this team in that regard, and they need to know that from me. I am not coming on here to slag them off, have a go, or try to make a name for myself among who knows what. I’ve been there at bigger clubs, on message boards where people act like the expert etc. I am not. I have no idea how to manage a football team, and will not give any advice out on that. But I also have to be honest within that framework. I really do. I can’t just write puff pieces.

The day will always be memorable for one thing. I persuaded my brother, at last, to come along, and I think he enjoyed it. He had opinions on players, on how we played, on where he saw the strengths of the team, and as usual we agreed on some and disagreed on others. I know he did take away the enjoyment of sharing time with the Phoenix faithful and recognises what I see in it. This is a big deal, Our last away game together, and Paul will correct me, was probably Leeds United or Brighton in Wise’s last season at Millwall, and for us to go to a game now is amazing. Again, another thing to thank the club for, He’s making noises about joining us for Glebe on Wednesday. I hope so.

This was going to be the framing of the story for today. Brother joins brother in common venture, watching his team maraud to victory as they get their SCEFL campaign really motoring. New follower amazed at the spectacle, and enjoying that precious vibe of an away win. Scripts are rarely followed, and this one didn’t follow it.

The view among Phoenix fans is that this should be an easy three points. There is this tendency for me in later life to take stock too much in what others say. My views on Phoenix have been that they will have to earn every single point they get this year, every bit as much as they had to scrap last year. They don’t appear to have an attacking style of method that is easily repeatable, and drilled in to them. It’s never easy at this level to do that, and if you do, you are fortunate. So you need to outwork and outscrap, and be fitter than the opposition, and so far in this season, Phoenix have been. But there are not goals pouring out of every corner of this team, and so they need to get leads, build on them, and wear teams down. It won’t always be pretty. For instance, I think Steve made too much of the Erith game being a smash and grab. Sure, Erith played well, but in the last 10 minutes, that quality and fitness won them the game. Don’t apologise for that.

So while some of the optimists predicted we would win this even though Tashi was injured and Bertie missing too, and with Andy Walker away, Mr Pessimist here thought “I hope the players don’t think like that”. I genuinely think that scoring goals at this level is hard. I don’t think we will roll over many teams. Welling Town had a fair few ex-Phoenix players and coaches, and there was a sense of needle in the air. It never really surfaced. But you could sense it.

Welling Town use Chatham’s ground, which is a 3G pitch. It is very well appointed, an impressive bar with seating outside and a large stand (for lower non-league) down one side which oddly is set quite a way back from the field of play. A lot of balls were lost, probably the most impressive being a Ryan Hayes hoof which cleared the trees after he’d been pulled up for an offside. That got a “have it” from me. One for Peter Kay fans there and then.

Lee Bird came in for Bertie Valler, Freddie Akon for Tashi, and Steve had secured Pat Ohman as a replacement keeper for this game (another one may need to be found for Wednesday). The formation was going to be interesting. Ryan Hayes was meant to be playing as a striker, with Freddie more on the right, Lee filling in as a direct replacement for Bertie. I knew nothing about Welling Town, and saw their team sheet about 5 minutes before kick-off.

The initial portents were good. The ball was worked to the left, a cross came in from Dave Martin, Luke Leppard got his head to it, but it went wide. A nice start in the baking heat. But there was precious little else from Phoenix as Ryan got pulled over to the right, and couldn’t make an impression, a couple of odd looking offsides were given that we didn’t really agree with, and Welling Town grew into the game, so much so that my notes have them having more attempts at goal. Sam Bailey with a couple, George Whitelock with another. As was always going to happen, the heat made the game very stop-start. Any injury, and the chance was taken to rehydrate and recover. It was a bit of a surprise that so little added-on time was played at the end of the first half, but to be fair, it was steaming out there. Phoenix put a bit of pressure on towards the end of the half, Luke nicking the ball off a defender, feeding it to Ryan Hayes on the edge of the area, and in a position to strike with his left foot, but from just outside the box he put his shot wide. A few crosses and corners at the very end threatened a head of steam, but as another corner was won, the ref blew for half-time. Nil Nil.

During the first half, I got the camera out to take pictures, and realised I had left the SD card in the laptop. It sort of summed up the day. All pictures today are from the phone.

If Phoenix had built up a head of steam prior to the half it evaporated at the start of the second. For the first 25 minutes of it, Welling were more than equal, and had more of the chances. While nothing in the notebook reflects great alarm, it was still more Welling notes than Phoenix. Zak Bryon shot over on 46 after good work down the right to set him up; Olalekan Rabiu had a shot on 48, again over. On 56 minutes, after some good pressure by Phoenix amounted to nothing, a very swift, incisive break followed from the home team ending with Femi Orenuga bringing a good save out of Pat Ohman. A couple of minutes later and Bailey is denied again, but wait, there’s a break. Suddenly through great persistence, Luke Leppard, cutting an isolated figure for most of the game, gets the run on his defender. He gets into the box, and with the keeper to beat, brings out a decent save, and the rebound is gathered in. Luke lets out a cry of exasperation. The supporters do too. A good save, but Luke would have deserved that goal, and knows it should have been 1-0. But some hope.

The game gets into a pattern. A stoppage in play, refuelling, every 10 minutes. Welling looking dangerous on the break, but Phoenix holding them with some discomfort, but not many shots on Ohman’s goal to worry the stand-in keeper. Phoenix get stronger as the game gets later. Emmanuel Oshinowo comes on for Freddie Aikon, and brings a different dimension, a bit of pace up front. On 67 Ryan Hayes has a shot from outside the box, but it is a comfortable save for home keeper Christian North. On 70, a wonderful cross comes in, at the back post Joe Denny only has to hit the target to put us 1-0 up. It is low, but somehow he gets underneath the header and puts it over. His blushes are saved, in part, by an offside flag that frankly, was a complete mystery, but it doesn’t cover the miss. It happens. How mad would we have been if it had gone in?

The closest to a goal comes in the 83rd minute. A ball comes over from the left and Lee Bird meets it with a sweet volley, which is headed off the line by, and Welling Town can correct me, Jack Bancroft. Whoever it was, well bloody played. As the ball pings around, it falls to Luke who conjures a very decent hooked shot from about 10 yards, but again the keeper is equal to it. The chance goes. The game wanders to its conclusion, Phoenix again gaining the upper hand, but no way can Welling be denied a share of these spoils. They matched the “favourites” for the 90 minutes.

It wasn’t a wonderful game, it was going to be tough to be so on such a hot day, but Phoenix supporters thought this was two points dropped. Major players like Deal and Glebe cashed in today. Rusthall posted a second impressive win. Whitstable have six points from two away games. Erith & Belvedere flexed their muscles. Phoenix are already behind two, potentially three, of their major rivals. That Erith Town result not looking quite as good. It’s amazing what a less than great performance does to someone.

Phoenix have given me a lot, and I hope that they allow me to be a bit honest in return. They perhaps, and some of the supporters, need to realise how much of a fight this is going to be. We aren’t just going to be able to turn up and win, and that seems a dangerous attitude to me. At the end, I think we knew that, but there is this impression that we are a big club for this level, and I am not sure I am buying it. In the long run, I think this might turn out to be a good old fashioned wake-up call. That a good, well-organised, committed team, playing to its strengths can match Phoenix. As one club official said to me at the end, we can’t keep saying we can play better, until we do play better. It’s a good point, and one I reckon Steve and his management team will bang home.

As I alluded to above, there was an incident in the second half that those there know what happened. Steve was livid about it. We need those two important players to calm it down and be on the same page. I felt it affected their games after it. We need them. If they read this, and why should they, it matters. It does. I like you both as players. I know things can get a little heated, but that’s not what should happen. Passion and commitment, and “high standards”, are all well and good in the common goal, if they don’t fester. Let’s hope it is a one-off. Steve knows them better than me, I am sure he will deal with it.

So, a fairly subdued report tonight. It wasn’t a great day for my non-league teams. Holsworthy went down 2-0 on a pitch that looked like the Gobi Desert in Teignmouth. Bideford lost to a last minute goal by the West Ham Tribute Band. Cray Valley Paper Mills were well beaten at Ramsgate. Cray Wanderers lost at Billericay (and did Chris Dickson really score against them). At least Millwall came back from 2-0 down to win. Jay wasn’t happy. He seems to claim Millwall always come from behind. He is a Charlton fan, and well, so was my Dad, so I can’t say much, although point out his team haven’t beaten Millwall this millennium.

There were plenty of mentions of fantasy league teams (Gabriel Jesus and Haaland and triple captains, whatever the hell that is) which made me even more glad that I don’t play anymore. Paul kept us up to date with the Sky Sports feed on his phone, a skill I haven’t even remotely mastered on mine. There were nice introductions to the officials for Paul, and Alf, our own Egon Ronay, passed his own verdict on the burger (I don’t think he approved). It was a subdued day all round, although a nice one with my brother out with me (and the Sullivan clan also had an extra member). I just wish it had been a win, because I might well have been still in Bobby’s Jerk Box right now if we had. Don’t ask!

This has actually been a hard report to write. I think it is because I have a relationship with Phoenix that I don’t want to spoil or to criticise. This is, as a wise sage on Twitter said to me “not their day job” and that’s fair enough. I’ve been consistent on that throughout my writing. These are good guys, and they give their all. I find myself in a difficult position. I like to write, and to be honest. I might have got in Claire’s bad books because until now, I’ve not mentioned Alfie, and he barely featured today, but for one incident where he got tangled up with an opponent. I felt down about the result, and I suppose that’s what caring is. But I feel I need to cut more slack. For access? No, not really. Because I’m a newbie and I have so much time for these guys. I hope they know where I am coming from. This is football in a raw old form, and it is probably why I love it. After all, Paul wants to come back (he thought Welling’s Reggie Yembra had a particularly good game)!

Thanks for all the lovely feedback on the podcast. Each has had over 50 listens, and that has blown me away. I will do the next one towards the end of the week unless the mood takes me to do one on Monday. Also hits are solid on here, so I will be more than happy to continue!

On to Glebe on Wednesday, hopefully via Cray Valley Paper Mills on Tuesday. For all our sakes, let’s hope things cool down. D’you know what I mean?

SUNDAY UPDATE

I thought I might jot down a couple more thoughts from yesterday that do not really merit their own post. I wasn’t looking forward to writing the post because of the disappointment in the result, because I feel like a new person to the club and to have some negative words about the performance felt like a little bit of betrayal, and, well, it’s not as easy to write disappointed posts as it is angry (I know that from experience writing on cricket). Thanks to Trevor Knell who gave me some advice, and as usual, to those who have retweeted and liked the post on Twitter. It seems to have come across as fair and that’s the main thing.

This was a relief (so far). I wasn’t going to lay into the team because they didn’t deserve it (one disappointing incident aside). Welling Town played well on the day and deserved a share of the spoils, even if it felt in the last few minutes that the game was only going one way. As 24 hours have passed, the result doesn’t feel great, but the season is long. A win on Wednesday will exorcise this. So I am looking forward to that.

*One of the things that annoys me is this Ronay-ism literary construct. Start many pieces with a culture reference, as obscure and designed to make the author look intelligent as possible, and use it as the basis for a piece. It’s something Bill Simmons did a lot when he thought he was good and many of us agreed with thim (he now thinks he is great and most people think he peaked donkey’s years ago). So allow me to do this just once. If only because Jay’s was the line of the day.

I’m Feelin’ OK This Mornin’ And You Know We’re On A Road To Paradise

If you know the song lyric, and the title of the tune, it is by no means a reflection on Oxhey Jets. It is more on the fact that both teams start this competition and have absolutely ZERO chance of winning it. This is something that I am still struggling with. But I wanted to put it that the trip to Oxhey wasn’t a road to nowhere. I loved my time there, it was a really friendly club and I wish them well this season. To the degree they may even enter my ever-expanding non-league portfolio of clubs I have a “soft spot” for.

I have to say that I had been really looking forward to the game, and the day itself. It promised to be a long one as I had to get to Mayplace for an 11am departure, and then after the game, down to King’s Cross for a meal at 9pm with friends. It wasn’t helped by being ill on Friday night. Then I didn’t get much sleep. I was absolutely shattered before I even started the day. Billy Sullivan had persuaded me to take the coach, and my brother kindly gave me a lift to Mayplace. I am trying my hardest to get him to come along to a game. I will some day.

I got to the ground, and inevitably Phil Legg was there. “I listened to your podcast, really good. I stopped when you got to that South West stuff….” What can you do, everyone’s a critic. Claggy and his two lads soon followed, and more nice words about the podcast. The players filed in, and I said hello to new signing Joe Denny, who seemed cool enough. I know this is going to sound really odd, but I feel really awkward talking to players, even at this level. I am, let’s be fair, totally in awe of them! I think it is going to take some time to get remotely used to this. On a personal level, it may be an awkwardness in me and a confidence issue, which means I am a far better at expressing myself through this, than actually talking to people, but hey, it’s also still nice that anyone who plays decent level football still has my “fanboy” approach to them. If I can’t look up to them, then I am going to look down on them, and I was a crap footballer.

Steve is there, saying he knows very little about Oxhey, but he did have a good holiday. “I drove past Salisbury” he says to me, once again reminding me I am being a traitor by moving. How’s it going, I’m asked, and he then says Ben can pick me up to take me to games. Ben lives nowhere near Salisbury!

The coach arrives, we let the real stars, the players on first, and then I get on. This is the first time I have ever gone to a football match on a coach. I always drove, except, I think, for two games on a train. What’s the etiquetter? Now the bit I was really worried about. Who the hell can I sit next to? I’m not a small unit, and in the end I get a biggish prize. It’s Grads, the assistant manager who I saw at Sutton last week. Steve comes up as well and says that everything is “off the record” and I say “of course”. It is important for this blog to be honest, but I’m not here to upset and betray people that have taken me into their football family. If I have a go at the managment or the players, it won’t be on purpose. I wrote my cricket blogs desperately wanting to keep my distance. Here, this is about more than football. It is about assisting my mental health, wellbeing, and expanding a circle of friends and going on a fairly spiritual journey. It sounds ridiculously crap, but it isn’t. It is noticeable how my attitude to work, life and everything has picked up since that return to watching Phoenix in early July. This stuff matters.

So I take in the discussions with Grads on youth development, the Erith match and some of the previous times as coaching at Millwall and so on with great interest. Any input from me on the debates feel lightweight. There’ssome humour about past employees as we motor along the M25. We arrive at the Boundary Stadium in Oxhey at around 12:30 and nobody really knows what to do. It is a bright day, everyone seems right up for it, Tony has our Veo camera, the 20 or so Phoenix Fan Club camp in the bar, and the hosts kindly open it early. There’s a little disappointment that the Liverpool game is not on the TV, instead it is Norwich v Wigan (no BT Sport, no criticism). Some try to find a pub nearby, but they return soon so that search must have been fruitless. I took a picture I really like of Steve on the ground, alone in his thoughts….

I have a decent conversation with the Chairman’s father Roy about pretty much anything other than football. I didn’t know he was Andy’s dad, but it was great. Also Vince and Housey asked after the move, and when I might come back, and have invited me to the game on the 10th December against Erith Town. I might be up then (if the move goes ahead etc.). At 2:30 we went into the ground, a very fair £7, and sat in the shade until it was determined which end would be attacked by Phoenix in the first half. Phil had bought the teams to me, and the club handed out a team sheet as well. Really nicely organised.

While sitting in the bar the home team players were sat on a table near to the TV. They looked very, very young. Now to me, they all look quite young, but this seemed exceptionally so, and not many with a huge physical presence. Also interested me that Dave Martin, experienced former-Millwall man came in and was the only one to watch the Norwich v Wigan game. I kept looking and going to myself, he used to play for Millwall, aka, God-like! Your regular reminder that I am 53.

To the game itself. The day was warm, not hot, but the pitch looked rock hard although quite “verdant” – I’m sure somone said that (or it might have been about our one before we left). Eloquent mob, this Phoenix lot. Steve made one change to the starting line-up from the Erith game, bringing in new signing Joe Denny, who Steve said he had agreed the signing on his holiday at Swanage Beach, to replace Calvin Senedu. Lee Bird again might consider himself unlucky to be left out. Who would be a manager?

As Dave and his boys moved to the right, the teams switched ends after the toss, and I smiled knowingly as they came back and then joined them for the trek behind to goal to the north of the ground. Then I knew I had to get to work with camera and notebook. This wasn’t going to be easy. Dave was acting as my spotter (unofficial) and the game began. Time was noted, the FA Cup started here.

After a few minutes of early exchanges in midfield, the first attempt fell to Ryan Hayes, who from the right of the penalty area hit a crisp 20 yard shot that was tipped over the bar, via a flick of the metalwork, by home keeper Jack Fletcher. From a corner on 5 minutes taken by Hayes, new signing Denny leapt best and flicked his header goalwards, but was denied agonisingly as it hit the inside of the post and came out of again. There were mass grabbing of heads from the Phoenix Massive, and then a debate about the thinness of the goalposts contributing to this particular incident. Scientific logic not necessarily required.

Denny came close again on 7 minutes, again from a corner, but this time his header went wide. Phoenix definitely had the run of the area from set-pieces, but it needed a calming goal. It did not come. Before we know it, Oxhey come out from the pressure, break, and their forward (too far to see from my perspective) and Andy Walker come together, but there is no penalty. We had a sharp intake of breath. I don’t know, and invoke the Arsene Wenger defence. I didn’t see it from my vantage point.

On 12 minutes there was another fright for the home side as a ball into the box isn’t dealt with well. Probing down the Phoenix right seemed most effective, and Tashi was causing problems with his pace and movement. Luke Leppard was being Luke, a man who set his default dial to intense, and thinks that is being too casual. I confess to the kids next to me that he’s my favourite player in the team. He tries his heart out and I’d hate to think what defenders feel like. He’s like a rottweiler who has been starved of meat. We think he’s a butcher. Makes that even more appropriate.

On 17 minutes Dave Martin gets set free on the left and looks dangerous as he advances into the area. Tashi and Luke are in the box, but Dave hears the sound of the trumpets and has a pop from a narrow angle but it is wild and flies high and wide, when he probably should have squared. I think he knows it too. He looks a little sheepish.

On 27 the deadlock is broken. Ryan Hayes puts a ball over from the right that finds Thomas Cousins at the far side of the area. Cousins whips a cross over which is met by the Mayplace Messi, Alfie Evans, who defying his “lack of” height headers firmly and it smacks the bar. We grab skulls again, but as we feel sorry for ourselves the busy Leppard gets in, recycles the ball outside the area and Ryan Hayes hits a low 20 yard drive, which took a tiny nick off a defender before nestling into the bottom corner of the goal. 1-0 and Phoenix could exhale. Billy gets the word out on social media, and that bleedin’ air horn gets another airing. More of that accursed thing later.

I decide now is the time to get the proper camera out, and so note taking becomes less of a priority. I sometimes wish I could just sit back and enjoy the game, but I do like the writing, and I love that people like it too. So it is a balance. There’s a little gem of a moment where Ryan Hayes on the right somehow manages to eke out a very dangerous cross from a tight position, the sort not many at this level could get over and it is headed wide. Phoenix look in control, although the pace in the Jets team isn’t dealt with totally comfortable. This is just filler for the events of minute 38 – Luke Leppard has the ball on the left and flips the ball inside to Dave Martin who is free in front of goal, he works the ball on to his wrong foot, and passes the ball neatly into the bottom corner of the net to put Phoenix 2-0 up. The tie feels almost secured.

Half-time was met with good cheer by the Sullivan/Clagg/Dmitri clan and we headed around to the centre of the ground. The thoughts were that the game felt quite secure, but obviously the next goal, should it come from Oxhey, would make the game. The kids are going on about who has assisted the dull Premier League Goals, the adults talking about the Super Six or accas, and I just sigh. I still need to put my lottery numbers in (I do, usual result). Having secured a burger by semi-nefarious means, and the players come out for the second half, we move down to the Dead Rat end (Dave claimed to have seen one, but thinks they’ve cleared it – it’s the bloody countrysided for heaven’s sake) and await either a comfortable win, or a battle. It would be the latter.

On 53 minutes a free-kick is won on Phoenix’s right. Ryan Hayes takes it again, and it is another wonderful delivery to the far post, and again it is Joe Denny who rises highest and this time heads across goal, but there is no-one there to stick it into the net. Again we rue a chance to put the game away, as Oxhey Jets are not going away, and the game is getting a little tougher to referee, as challenges start to go in. Tashi is subsituted for Taylor Robinson, who impressed in a couple of pre-season games. Tashi assures us, as he walks behind the goal, that his injury isn’t too bad and he should be fine for the next game.

Sometimes, you just know an idea is bad. Someone even mentioned bringing a drum. That’s a hard NO!

On 67 minutes Oxhey have their first meaningful effort on target. The ball is fed in from the left by Dunbar-Bonnie and from about 15 yards out Reid Sims hits the ball. It is mishit and bounces into the ground but with the spin and hard surface the ball is arcing towards the goal. Thankfully for Phoenix, Andy Walker is there to push the ball aside.

A couple of minutes later there is a major flashpoint. The ball goes into the area and it is one of those where the keeper probably has a split-second advantage to get to the ball first, but a forward player isn’t going to shy away from the challenge. This, to many people’s surprise, wasn’t Luke, but Taylor. As home keeper Fletcher gathers, Taylor has gone in too and made contact. I have to say, from my viewpoint, that if this had gone to VAR, Taylor might have walked. It didn’t look good. To Fletcher’s credit he got up pretty much straight away and made not as much of it as his defenders. Who did! Some of the Phoenix support weighed in with their totally unbiased opinions of the incident, and there was some back and forth with the keeper. When all was done, Taylor was booked, and as I said to one of the Clagg lads, I thought he was lucky. It’s amazing how clear things seem when you are right by the incident!

As the game threatens to get more fractious, the view is that Oxhey were being put off their game by getting angry. Certainly the number 4, Harry Brady, isn’t on the Phoenix Christmas Card list at this point. There’s a moment where Taylor is put in with a long ball, and the cry is “you’re in”. Brady, I believe, says “not with that touch he isn’t” (there may have been an additional word, I can’t recall) and then Robinson nicks it inside him. The chance comes to nothing. I suppose everyone really had the last laugh.

On 75 the game comes alive. A free-kick from the right, taken by Kristian Swaby is floated in, the ball bounces up and falls to Oxhey skipper Sam Denham, a centre-back by trade, who shows excellent technique in smashing home a superb shot from about 15 yards giving Walker no chance as it nestles into his bottom right corner. The Oxhey fans make quite a noise when this goes in. The slough of despair envelopes the Phoenix massive. I am trying desperately to pick out the scorer, and we all finally agree it is the number 5, but we’re not quite sure.

So now there’s anxiety. Thoughts to a replay I would miss if Jets get an equaliser. Oxhey start to exert pressure, but I don’t feel too concerned, I don’t know why. Maybe it is because I don’t feel this is that big a deal for Phoenix. They, according to Billy, have never been beyond the 3rd Qualifying Round. But it is the FA Cup. I don’t know. Am I becoming that dreaded thing, “a new fan”. The type that think Cup competitions are a useless distraction?

That bloody airhorn….captured and not cropped to remind me of the horror.

Anyway, I need not worry. On 82 minutes Ryan Hayes hits a shot from outside the box after Robinson is fouled. The ball beats Fletcher but hits the bar again. This time the underside and the ball is semi-cleared. As I’m noting down the shot, I look up and suddenly I see Alfie Evans about to shoot. He curls his shot into the far corner (for him) from 20 yards to practically seal the tie. In the build up, it is a key interjection by Lee Bird, who wins back posession, which Alfie takes up, turns his defender to work the space for his shot. It’s a very decent goal. Once again, Phoenix turn the screw late in the game. Just as at Erith. When the backs were to the wall a little, they came out in the end and knocked the opposition out.

In the dying minutes Phoenix should have made it 4-1. A cross from the right by Ryan Hayes was met by Luke Leppard, who mis-timed his jump, arguably got too much on it and headed wide when it did seem easier to score. Sorry, Luke. Got to call it. I’m sure the goals are going to come because he is working his tail off. There was one instance of a one (Luke) on two opposition players that I recall. He never shirks. But it was a bad miss!

The final whistle blew and Phoenix had run out 3-1 winners. As we made our way round the ground to go to the bar, and after a brief delay to get past the players entrance/exit as the Oxhey management kept their team on the field, expertly resolved by Tony Highstead, the man who gets things dones (next, we’ll see if he can sort Putin out), we heard the news from Chipstead. Having been 1 down, it appears as though Tunbridge Wells have gone 2-1 in the lead, and that is the final. In two weeks we will be heading to the Culverden Stadium. This appears easier to get to than Chipstead. I note that Bideford made it through, 1-0 over Bridgwater, and Andover New Street won 2-0 at Warminster. Glebe saw off Holmesdale 4-3 and get to play Cray Valley Paper Mills in the next round. Sutton Athletic won 1-0 over Welling Town, our league opponents next week.

After a return to the bar and a little download on the day’s action, part two of mine comes into focus, and as Tony is rounding everyone up to get on the coach, I have to bid some farewells. I won’t though, to that airhorn, which the kids enjoyed. Also the singing. There’s a magic moment where Mark leads a song, and his daughter is cringing that will be seared on me. But it’s also pretty endearing. We left the main board members to their own devices on the centre terrace, but it was good to be behind the goals. The Cup brings out the best in us.

That’s what it is about, isn’t it? While this jaded, cynical old soul bemoans what has happened to the FA Cup and the sheer vandalism allowed to diminish it is why money and sport are never mutual bedfellows, the scale of dreams here is also limited. What constitutes a good cup run for Phoenix. The eye is on the SCEFL prize, and that has to take precedence. The Vase gives Phoenix a more viable route to a long run, but cup football is capricious. The FA Cup might get you to a rendez-vous with a Step 2 or 3 team, but chances are that will be a long shot. The next round offers an opportunity, but then what? But it wasn’t long ago that Marine, of step 4, I think, got to play Tottenham and the feeling is this Phoenix team might be better than last year’s Step 4 team. It is a dream, of course it is. But I can’t help but feel that unless the monetary prize helps Phoenix out, it is just a ghost we can’t chase. I hate that I feel this way. Hate it.

The Cup should be sacrosanct, and 200+ games were played in it this weekend showing its appeal. Clubs who had never played got the chance to create their tiny part of history. It is brilliant. It is pure theatre. It means so much. I’d give anything to play one minute in an FA Cup tie. Here, in August, it begins. In January, Premier League clubs will participate, moan about fixture congestion, play weakened sides, eliminate everything that made the Cup great, including replays, moan about extra time etc, and the money men make their decisions as it is diluted and Saturday at 3pm becomes the exception, not the norm. As I finish this, City have strolled to a win over a team that shocked them to pieces four months ago. The juxtaposition to me is stark. We gave up a great competition, and what made it great, for the league, where without something cataclysmic happening, looks like a City procession (I know it is too soon, I know).

I have had some special cup memories. Millwall beating Leicester in 1985 when they had a god ordinary front line of Gary Lineker and Alan Smith. There was the win at Arsenal in 1995, followed up by a win at Chelsea in the next round. There are more, but when push came to shove in the noughties, the FA Cup were games I stopped going to, after we got to the final in 2004. I explained why that game had a profound effect on me on the podcast.

“And my rottweiler puppy is this big, so I can have you…”

The day itself was brilliant. I can appear quite aloof, and still don’t feel as though I deserve the inner sanctum stuff. I still like to keep a little distance, if only not to look like a football lightweight. I don’t know non-league football. I am learning it, and I am fascinated by it. I don’t feel I should be bumping fists with the players, or having conversations in the car park with Steve O’Boyle. Why me? I know, I say it every piece. This morning I am getting the feedback from Holsworthy’s opening day loss in the SW Peninsula League from Ryan Hall. Why me? I exchanged numbers with Phoenix’s right back’s father, Steve, who is just such a lovely bloke, and he’s offering me lifts to games. I say it once, and will never tire of it. It is overwhelming. It has enhanced my life and given me something to truly look forward to each weekend. I barely cared Millwall lost 2-0. They seem just a name I care about, a distant fantasy I will never return to. It’s strange, it can’t really be explained. A friend I went to dinner with last night wants to arrange a game to go to before I leave for Hampshire, and I can’t think of one, really. I sort of, at times, want to keep this to myself. I don’t know. It all feels like gibberish when you put it like that.

Grads thinking, I hope I haven’t got that boring old lump next to me on the coach home.

In the words of Keith Olbermann, I’ve done just about as much damage as I can do here. I hope to record a third podcast, reflecting a bit more on all this, in the next day or so, and looking forward to Welling Town away next week. Holsworthy have a game on Tuesday as well, so keeping an eye on that. Thanks for all the feedback, nearly all good. Thanks also to Oxhey Jets, and their video producer Davie Mason (the intro feels like an airline safety video):

But most of all thanks to Dave and his brilliant sons, to the Sullivans, the Mortlocks, the don, Mr Highstead, Grads for listening to my nonsense on the coach, Steve O’Boyle, who just inspires me each time I meet him, and all the others (Vince, Housey, Phil, Ben, the keeper’s coach et al). I will remember yesterday fondly. Up there with the best Cup memories. I hope I can get more up for the next round. I think I just might. It was who I spent it with that mattered.

The road to nowhere, becomes the road to somewhere. Royal Tunbridge Wells. 20th August. Bring it on. I think.