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…..

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.

We Have Waited For Too Long, For This Moment To Arrive

As I listen to the song that I decided to use as a lyric for tonight’s piece, I am still undecided if it is “for too long” or “far too long”. But as the vocalist, a Mr Jerry Knight, would also say in the song that “it doesn’t matter”. That this song was out in 1984, when today’s hero was undoubtedly not born (he’d need to be 38) is by the by. Today, Sutton Athletic could proudly say on their Step 5 debut that there was no stopping them, and certainly, no-one could have done it better.

As I get the tortured song analogy out of the way, let me start by reflecting on the events of the past 28 hours or so. Last night, as you would be able to tell from the report, was one of my footballing highlights as a supporter of many many years. I have been to many memorable Millwall games, and some pretty good ones without them, but it’s that close, almost family feeling, that the win last night had on me that made it so special. I didn’t think last night’s piece conveyed the rawness of the emotions I felt, the sheer elation at being there. I watched a superb game, aided by the fact that all the supporters were closely packed on one side of the ground helped the buzz and the anticipation. It was just superb, and while I felt I could have done better with the report, I am immensely proud of it. I think I need to strive to improve more and more to tell the story even better.

The reaction to the post has been amazing. To those of new to me, I wrote, and still have editorial rights, to the cricket blog Being Outside Cricket. If you are a cricket fan, have a look at 2015’s Wisden under the Cricket Blogs section. Those were mad, mad days. We regularly had 2000+ hits per day. It was intense and I had to produce copy virtually every day. It was a recipe for burnout. As I said to one of my readership today, I am a better angry writer than anything else, but it is also immensely destroying. English cricket made me angry. So, with an outlet in writing about non-league football in the shape of this personal blog, I am looking to be positive, and it is not hard to be that. Non-league is amazing and I am really passionate about selling it, and writing about it. But doing it not to get myself noticed, although I love the hits and the views, it is about writing for myself and if others love it, well that’s great. As a result of last night’s post, I have had my record day on Seven and Seven Eighths II. Only cricket and occasional posts on a football blog having a go at Alan Pardew when he was Newcastle manager have got me more. Thank you to everyone who has read it and those who have been nice about it on social media.

So, as an encore, I felt duty bound to go to a game today. It would need to be in the SCEFL and three options looked to be on the table. Firstly, and nearest, was Stansfeld v Bearsted at Glebe. The next was Holmesdale v Hollands & Blair, and thirdly Sutton Athletic v Canterbury City. I put the options on Twitter and within seconds, Sutton has put their hand up and said it had to be them. As Stansfeld’s FA Cup tie is next Sunday I could always see them then, so they were eliminated before the start, so my visit to Holmesdale will have to wait (maybe against Phoenix, we’ll need to see). Sutton’s excellent social media game netted them a punter. It’s not much, but it’s £13.50 they would not have got for entrance, a programme, a burger and a cup of tea.

Of course, probably like a lot of people seeing Sutton Athletic’s name, you think of the place west of Croydon and for people of my age, the United team who beat Coventry City. But this Sutton is the one in Kent, and the team play on the outskirts of Hextable, not a million miles from the M25. The ground is on a lane out of the town, in what looks like farmland, but is actually a really quite nice looking venue, although, as the club will no doubt admit (and do in the programme) that it needs some work to get up to standard for Step 5. At the moment there is one small stand, a temporary structure and a nicely appointed club house. On a lovely summer’s day like today, it was excellent. I am not sure I’d be massively keen to be there on a dark January night with pouring rain, but that’s not today’s exam question. For today, it was nigh on perfect.

I found the ground after my useless satnav left me a half mile short of the venue, and pulled into the car park. As I pulled out of my original selection of space as it was too close to the pitch, the attendant came up to my car and I had another one of those encounters that makes this form of the game so special. He was a Gillingham fan, which always gets the comment that I liked them until they got better than Millwall at the turn of the century, and he filled me in on some of the history of the club, its background, how they ended up on the outskirts of Hextable, how that doesn’t have a pub, and all sorts on the players. When I asked who I should look out for today, he said without hesitation “Arlie”. Of course, I thought he meant Harley as I had done zero research on the game and the club. I did recall that they had given Sheppey a mighty tussle in the two-legged Kent semi-final last season, and he regaled me of tales of that encounter. I could have spoken to him for longer, but needed to get fed and watered!

One thing the parking man did say was that the programme was the best in the league. A proud boast, especially for a team making its debut at this level after a long history in the Kent County League, but it is quite good, with lots of information and pictures, although the chairman does state he has had to make economies as the costs, like everything else, are rising alarmingly. He was apologetic that the entrance is now £10 (including the programme) which to me is absolutely fine. The expected attendance was going to be around 50, so I was told, which I feel is a bit of a shame. The local community have a good club there, so they should try it. I know I am a recent convert, but people won’t regret it.

After I’ve had my burger and tea, I start to take the prep photos for the day, put the selfie online, and I see two semi-familiar figures walking in my direction. “Hello, are you Dmitri” the man asks, and I say yes and of course I know you. It’s Grads, assistant to Steve at Phoenix along with Ben, another assistant. Of course, as Phoenix have drawn today’s opponents, Canterbury City in the FA Vase, they have come along on a scouting mission. I had sort of thought of doing this myself, compiling a dossier on the strengths of this and that, but then checked myself as just a mere fan of the game and not a student of all that “technical nonsense”. But it was good to know that my team were having a look. There did not appear to be any team announcements, or team sheets, so I enquired and found them from the bloke in the blue t-shirt, who let me copy them. I then relayed them to Ben, and I felt like part of the coaching staff. I’m still a child at heart. The visitors first:

And on to the home side:

Sutton marginally winning for neatest handwriting. I’ll be interested (I know I know) on who does the writing for Phoenix. I am prepared to volunteer as I am told mine is obsessively neat and “girl-like” which in this instance I’ll take as a compliment. I’ll bet it is Leggy. And as I am thinking this, who should appear but Mark Sullivan! I can’t escape Phoenix. Talk revolved around last night. Then, as if by magic, the Evans clan appear. Alfie’s dad, in an Under Armour top I am well jell about, Claire, his mum, who likes my posts a lot, and Alfie himself. This is mad. I am here to do a job and we are talking about last night.

The two teams come out and I like both kits. Canterbury City have a burgundy colour top (I won’t call it claret) while Sutton are another team predominately in green. I see Arlie is a tall forward with the number 9 shirt on, and I warm to Canterbury’s number 8. The playing surface is rock hard with the lack of rain, but looks better than it plays (which isn’t badly at all) and it is Sutton who settle the better. There is some early probing down on the left side, kicking away from the rather poor position we have taken by the corner flag on the opposite side of the Sutton attacks. Arlie Desanges gets the all on the left side of the box, creates an opening and shoots wide of the right post in the second minute. Sutton are passing quite nicely and keeping more possession as Canterbury can’t get the ball. There aren’t many chances, and the next I have noted is on 17 minutes when City get their first attempt, when Owen Punselik shoots wide and high from long distance, with the only issue being fetching the ball. While the probing continues, chances aren’t manifesting themselves and Sutton could be forgven for becoming a little anxious. They are certainly much the better side, but need a goal to settle them down. Arlie gets another attempt from a header on 27, but it is comfortable for the keeper.

A minute later and there is a break into the right side of the area. Neil Spencer, who I thought had a terrific game for Sutton finds space on the right of the penalty area and advances uncallenged into it. Instead of having a pop himself, which he could well have done, he does the absolute right thing, squares it to an unmarked and onside Arlie Desanges, who makes no mistake with a sound, comfortable finish low into the net with the keeper nowhere. Sutton are 1 up on 28 minutes, and the nerves, if there were any, could be defused a little.

Sutton look to build upon the lead, but chances still seem elusive. On 39, Sutton’s busy number 10, Conor Evans, has a shot which is dealt with by the keeper. This then highlights why I need a spotter. As I am not sure of the number of the player for my notes who has had that shot, and I see it, I note it down and miss one of the Sutton players hitting the bar! I have no idea how it happened, who did it, but it is Grads who confirms the woodwork has been contacted. I am not lying to you all, so my mistakes are as relevant as my good stuff. No bluffing!

Just before the break and Canterbury have their best chance. A ball is slipped through and the pacey number 10 Joe Nwoko gets a march on his defender, he gets near the byeline, pulls the ball back, and it finds its way to Tyrell Mitford who sees his 20 yard shot well saved by Joe Hyde. It is the last action of the first half.

I then have a conversation with Alfie’s mum who tells me she reads my posts by speed reading looking for Alfie’s name, and then when she says what I says, reads the rest. I am tempted to just put random Alfies in each post now, just to wind her up. Instead the conversation turns to West End Musicals, which, I am afraid, is a bit of a bridge too far for me. I don’t like musicals. I think that is being polite. I remark that I have not taken many notes, to which Alfie says “well, make things up” and it is as if he has asked me to kick my precious dog. I have standards, young Evans. I have standards.

While constantly talking about moving to get some snaps for the blog, I stay where I am for the start of the second half and am well rewarded with a view for goal number 2. Again the creator is Spencer, who gets the ball in the right channel, gets close to the byline, and puts the ball across. It’s a little behind Desanges who does well to steer it goalwards, and the ball loops up over the line, before being cleared away. I see it clearly, it is about two feet over the line and so does the linesman on other side. Sutton are two-nil up and looking every bit a SCEFL Premier team. The second half is barely two minutes old.

With this I move behind the goal and rewarded with my memorable moment of the day. On 51 minutes Sutton win a free-kick on the right side of the area – Spencer again winning the foul and continuing to be a constant threat. A dangerous cross is whipped into the box, and to everyone’s surprise, and especially Charlie Plummer’s, the ball falls to him with an open goal. It isn’t easy, and I am not saying it is a really bad miss, but Charlie snatches at it and it goes wide. He gets berated by his team. Charlie is swearing under his breath (OK, I could hear him) before he shouts “all right, all right. I PANICKED”. Charlie is now one of my favourite players. Good on you mate. See below……

Sutton are totally on top, and Neil Spencer is tormenting the left side of the defence, while Sutton’s left back has the freedom of the other flank. The passing is neat, and Canterbury have rare forays (I will use this word in every piece as Richard Green at Cray Valley loves it). On the hour one of those attacks brings a save out of Hyde, I think from Punselik. But that spurs on Sutton and this time Arlie is the one with the ball running into the area, and it is he turning down a chance for the hat-trick and pulling it across, but Evans can’t make contact when he may well have killed the game. Three minutes later and Spencer is away again, and he chooses to square when he has the goal at his mercy, and City’s number 5, Alex Coyne, calmly puts the ball (just) wide to clear the danger. He gives off an air of nonchalance, which was fooling no-one. On 70 Evans has a good shot saved, but by the time the follow-up is stuck away, the offside flag is up. By now, I’ve returned to my original position and the parking attendant is there.

“What’s your unbiased view?” he says. “Really impressed, you are going to take points off some good sides” which sounds a bit patronising in hindsight. “Nah, we’ll come up against some organised sides who will stop us playing” was his view. I have to say I was disappointed with Canterbury and said I thought Sutton were very comfortable. Grads says today has been a waste as City haven’t had a corner and so can’t even give Boyley a view on how they work their set-pieces, and then says his goodbyes. At this time Nwoko has another long shot which isn’t worrying anyone. I say that Sutton look comfortable and know “that” feeling that the team you support is never comfortable 2 goals up!

On 79, Kola Salami, who has replaced Spencer on the right, is providing City’s left back with a nightmare upon nightmare, because he’s electric fast and wants to impress. In the 10-15 minutes he is on, he terrifies the defence. He gets put in, and instead of squaring, which might have been the better option, he has a go for goal and hits the side netting. If Arlie is cheesed off at the chance of missing a hat-trick, he doesn’t show it. A good team-mate. On 84, City have a chance, but Rowland’s effort is well saved. Canterbury start to build and a Punselik shot a couple of minutes later as he works it on to his right foot is well saved. A corner for City, after Grads has left, works its magic. It is floated into the near post and headed in. I couldn’t tell if it was number 9 or number 6 had scored, but according to SCEFL it is Seb Rowland, and suddenly car park man is nervous. “It should have been six by now” he and his friend say. A bit strong. 4 might be better. But I am not arguing.

It is all academic. Kola has an effort, which he curls wide a minute later, but then the pressure continues, and he puts in Conor Evans down the right side of the box – a common theme – and the number 10 looks up, squares it to an unmarked Arlie Desanges who strokes the ball home to complete a striker’s hat-trick (probably a combined 20 feet out for the three goals) and put Sutton’s fears at rest. 3-1 becomes 4-1 a couple of minutes later. Stop me if you have heard this before, but Kola has his defender on toast down the right side, he advances on goal, cuts inside and then slots into the bottom corner for a fine individual goal. I thought it could have been an own goal, but Kola is claiming it and I am not arguing. He’s been amazing. Wherever he has been before “didn’t have him in their plans” and the guys in the clubhouse are making that fact known.

I really wanted one with the tractor in (see above the goal)

The final whistle goes, I shake hands with the two great chaps I’ve spent the last twenty minutes with, and Claire comes around from their second half vantage point wanting to know if I’ve caught the dog who ran on the field as a picture. Does she think I am some kind of amateur? (Given there is a mum and child on the field, this was taken after the game, so the answer is yes).

Sutton have a debrief as I say my goodbyes and think of what I have watched. Sutton hav played well, could have won by more. There is delight that they are joint top of the league with Punjab United and Rusthall who have won their games 4-1, while we look at Deal’s won over Glebe as an interesting one, given the visitors went 1-0 up.

Three goals – a true striker at this level

A really good day, and in Arlie Desanges, there is no doubt that Sutton have a goalscorer, and a potent attack when allowed to play. I am going to leave it there, as I have written enough this weekend, and want more to reflect upon, but I had a great time at a friendly club. It is a shame the attendance was 52, and I hope the club, which is clearly going in the right direction, gets the backing it undoubtedly deserves. It’s another example of the greatness of the game, of the clubs and the people at this level, and I will cherish these memories. Hat-tricks do that. Add Arlie to Teddy Sheringham, Paul Stewart, Mark Hughes, Paul Jewell, Darren Byfield and a number of others that I have seen score a hat-trick (Teddy four in one season, I might add). They play like that they will be top half, I think. It’s neat, incisive and good to watch.

Thanks Sutton Athletic. I am glad I chose you. Score one for your social media game and your wonderful car park attendant, who called me “The Blogger” (of course I told him I write….)

When You Believe In Things, That You Don’t Understand, Then You Suffer

As with a lot of non-linear story telling, the whole purpose of it is to be self-indulgent and focus on the cleverness or importance of the author or director. Not for them a running list or ordering of events in chronological fashion. No, far too predictable. Jump to a key point in the tale, tease the outcome, and let the audience try to figure out the rest.

So, in tonight’s SCEFL opener between Erith Town and Phoenix Sports, at the 70-odd minute mark, the crucial decision was made which affected the outcome over and above anything the teams, the management and a sometimes overly fussy referee could have done. I switched seats to bring us good luck. I went from 4 rows back next to Claggy and Son, and instead sat at the front with Billy Sullivan and Dean Sawyer. It changed the whole game….. of course it did.

But more of that later. Because there was so much to take from tonight that to do it justice would take an epic post, and, well, this might turn into one. Let’s go back to 6:15 when I left the house. As usual, there was the senior moment. The bound notebook that has been my non-league chronicle had been put in the bag, but as usual, I’d forgotten I’d done it, until I remembered and found it. I was nervous. Really nervous. I’ve said many a time that I hadn’t got into non-league football to feel like this, but I now know that this is probably what I had hoped. The caring about the outcome is the charm. It is the driver of the enthusiasm, but more importantly, the driver of the emotions from the game. What does it matter if my team loses? What will it do to me personally if they do? How upset will I be? These weren’t questions I was posing six months ago, now I am feeling them again.

I got to the ground, and secured a parking space, which is always important to me! I paid the £10.50 for admittance and a matchday magazine, and made my way to the south side of the single stand and sat down. The two teams were warming up, and I was taking a couple of pics, when Dave came up and said hello, and I informed his sons that I had no bananas that evening (a long story, but the kids expect it now). Then, out of the blue, Phil Legg, the all-round gofer to Steve O’Boyle came up, said hello, and gave me a look at the team sheet. He talked me through the selection process, the agonising decisions Steve had made in choosing certain positions, and then a history of his time at Erith and some of the stories about games played there. Now I know some of you might get tired of the “awwww shucks, why me” lines in these pieces, but let me make this really clear to you all. This stuff means the absolute world to me. These are guys who are letting me in, in a very small way, to how a football club is run. It is utterly fascinating and very, very real. I am someone described at times as aloof, distrusting, and who has been hurt by betrayals and placing faith in people I shouldn’t have. I have a barrier, and can be hard to approach. But also, I can be a really open and engaging friend, I think, when you know me. That these guys trust me, even at this stage, and when some know I won’t be with them for long, is magical. They may not think it is anything. It is everything. It’s why I love the club.

After Phil leaves, and I’ve said hello to the Sullivans (Mark asking if I was any more optimistic – silly so and so) my brother rings and we have a chat. Then, after 20 minutes, I realise all the Phoenix boys have left me, but I am told they are now at the north side of the stand, so I go to join them. I say hello, not remembering who all of them are (I’m sorry, I am really bad like that – let’s get pictures so I can remember) and take my seat. The one I would not move from until 70 minutes had passed. I’m next to Claggy’s son, who I ask to act as my spotter. He doesn’t. Why should he? I think he wanted me to eat a banana.

Erith Town are expecting a large crowd, and to be fair, they get one. It is 365 strong, and on a calm summer’s evening, this feels like a decent start to a season. Phil has tipped me off as to some of their good players, but I am looking at bigger pictures. Erith had finished 7th last season. Against the two dominant teams in the SCEFL last season, they lost 2-1 at home to Chatham (2nd) and 2-0 at home to Sheppey (champions). They had beaten Glebe, an expected rival this year, 2-1. This was a tough place to come and get a win, and would be a huge test of Phoenix Sports – I feared for my team because pessimism is my default setting. Why change the habits of a lifetime?

Spot the Chairman.

The stadium is very odd. It is based at Erith Leisure Centre, and has one stand on the west side of the ground. The dugouts are opposite and the changing rooms in the far right corner. The playing surface looked good, but is surrounded by a running track. There were passing references to West Ham, but my brother and I thought more Withdean (that’s Brighton’s old ground for you youngsters out there after they left the Goldstone and Priestfield). By the time the teams had come out, I was beginning to wonder what I had let myself in for, and with camera poised, notebook open, pen found, I was ready. People already indicating that they were looking forward to what I was going to write. Pressure everywhere.

The game itself started two minutes late. Or maybe three. There seemed to be a huge pause between the ball being placed on the centre spot and the game starting. Maybe it was me feeling the pressure, because this already felt like a big game for the two teams. How would Phoenix respond to relegation, which is never a certainty? I had no idea. It felt like a must win, but that’s ridiculous. Isn’t it? I think my nervousness is reflected in the amount of notes I have taken. It is by far the most of any game I have been to. Let’s try and summarise.

On three minutes, after a decent start, Phoenix win a corner on the left. Ex-Millwall Dave Martin takes it, and the keeper and defence are a little confused as Lewis Clark is free at the back post, but his header goes high and wide. I make the note “half a chance that”. It wouldn’t be long before a real chance. Tashi-Jay Kwayie bursts through, there’s a tangle of legs with the defender, he goes down in the box. They aren’t given, are they? Wait! Referee James Black is pointing to the spot. A penalty! What a chance for the Phoenix boys to stamp their mark early. There’s a wait, it’s always a long one…

Captain Ryan Hayes is going to take it. I reach for the proper camera in my rucksack. Thank god there is a load of nonsense going on. I messed up with the penalty on Tuesday at Paper Mills, but that wasn’t going to happen this time. As you can see, above and below, it worked out. Hayes runs up, strokes the ball with the left foot, to the keeper’s left, who has gone the right way, but it is just well enough placed to elude his hand, and it hits the net to a great roar from the lads around me. I’m pleased, of course, but know the assembled supporters will want a good pic. I hope I’ve done OK. Phoenix 1-0 up after 7 minutes, and I’ve got a couple of nice ones in the bag for the blog. The importance is in the correct order. This is a decent start to the SCEFL campaign.

So, at this point my mind is cast back to a game in around 1996. Millwall had been relegated to the 3rd division of English football, and after an iffy start, had won a big game at Watford, and we thought we were fine. We then went up to York City, totally unfancied, bossed them for 45 minutes, were 2-0 up, and collapsed in the second half to lose 3-2. We walked out that day thinking, this isn’t going to be a stroll.

I interrupt this negative thought, and there are more where that came from, because Erith react well to the goal. The Dockers have a chance on 9 minutes when Steadman Callender, who would be a real pain all night, curls a shot wide after a free-kick isn’t cleared very well. It would be a common theme, with Phoenix consistently struggling to clear their lines when the ball was played into the box. Every cross, corner or set piece would be an adventure.

On 15 minutes there is a big penalty appeal for Erith, as the ball hits the Phoenix defender with arms raised. The referee adjudges that the ball did not hit the arms (I think of Henry Douglas), but it is a narrow escape. Erith aren’t going to go away quietly. Dave Martin has a shot on 17, which doesn’t trouble the home keeper, but Phoenix are also looking quite assured early on too. It’s a really decent contest. On 19, Joe Chalker has a shot over after a free-kick is punched out by Andy Walker in the Phoenix goal. As the ball goes up the other end, a foul brings the first yellow card of the game for Ryan Mahal of Erith (which would matter later on, in another piece of non-linear story telling). Phoenix threaten on 21 when a free-kick is flapped at a little by Mackenzie Foley, but no harm done. However, the yellow cards are evened up when Thomas Cousins is pulled up for a foul on the halfway line to avert a break.

Erith created a headed chance, not sure for who, which was headed wide on 25 minutes, again from a right wing cross. Ryan Hayes had a shot on 27 which drifted wide, as the Phoenix forays became more sporadic. On 30 minutes, Erith really should have equalised. Harry Taylor was first denied by a fantastic save by Walker from close range, gathered the rebound, looked certain to score, but saw his second shot blocked, and even then the ball came out to the left side of the goal and another shot was blocked away by Henry Douglas. The Erith fans sensed their time might be coming. I could only see the next goal coming one way. But on 36, from a Dave Martin cross, new Twitter follower Calvin Senedu found himself unmarked at the back post, and headed into the side netting. It looked a really decent chance to put the visitors in the driving seat.

Phoenix were increasingly being pushed back and back and one sensed they needed the half-time whistle. Tashi and Luke were becoming increasingly isolated up front, while Alfie and Bertie in the centre were struggling to impose themselves. On 44 Andy Walker came to the rescue again, with a fantastic save from other new Twitter follower, Alex Nelson, the Erith number 12. But the respite was short lived. In added on time a cross from the right was mishandled (hard to call it an error) by Walker, and Charlie Clover saw his first effort saved on the line. The ball came out to Erith’s left, and the cross was met on the chest by Clover, who then adroitly hooked the ball in on the volley leaving Walker and the Phoenix defence with no chance this time. A well-deserved and really well-taken equaliser. Erith Town could go into the break with confidence. They nearly went in with the lead, with Callender having a decent chance he poked wide from another cross from the left. When the ref blew for half-time, Phoenix were grateful for the break. They were on the ropes.

That is Phil’s Thumb!

I am on Dry July, so didn’t go to the bar, but all the guys in the picture above did. Billy came over and thought Boyley would be laying into them, but I rather hoped he didn’t. I felt that the game had turned a little when there had been some vulnerability from crosses exposed by Erith in our defence, and that in turn the defence started to sit a bit deeper. I thought that was a problem last season too. But I am not about to tell anyone their jobs. I don’t like it when people tell me how to do mine. Like Mogg and the Daily Mail, for instance. And the Guardian too!

If we thought that half-time had changed the momentum, we were sadly disabused. Within a minute, Erith were on the attack, Callender crossed and Taylor had a shot blocked. Callender again threatened, with a cross on 49 that Walker put behind under pressure. Erith’s fast start was certainly concerning me. Tashi’s break on 50, when Bertie Valler put him in, was a breather. The shot might have been wide, but it at least meant we were still a threat. Erith though, were more of one, and Taylor, with another chance headed wide from another dangerous cross. There was a great piece of skill by Thomas Cousins, who “diddled” his opponent, broke down the left, and sent in a dangerous cross to no-one in particular. Again, though, it established a foothold when Erith were threatening to really camp in Phoenix’s final third. On 60 Ryan Hayes sent a fabulous crossfield pass to Dave Martin who beat his man, advanced into the box and tried to chip the keeper, when perhaps he might have crossed? But again, a threat, as the ball sailed over. Two minutes later, Hayes takes a crossfield pass in his stride with some wonderful control, puts in a cross which the Erith defence is grateful to put behind for a corner, but nothing comes of it.

After two passages of play on 65 and 66, where Erith threaten as crosses come over, and Phoenix just about deal with them, Erith come as close as possible to taking the lead on 68, when they hit the crossbar. The subsequent melee sees hacked clearances stay in the box, the ball not quite falling to the home team, and me tearing the little remaining hair on my head out. It seems there is only one winner in this and it is just a matter of time. Another scramble on 74 has me deciding that now is the time to put Plan B into action. I stand up. Housey looks at me as if I am betraying him. He clearly thinks I am leaving. But no, I assure him, I am changing seats to bring us better luck. He accepts this and I wander down to sit by Billy and in front of Dean. Billy is incredibly nervous and consoling himself with a point. I agree, but don’t say anything. I’ve not given up a slightly elevated position to pitch level for a point. Or so I persuade myself.

On 80, Erith are looking dangerous again. Callender, who is becoming a real nuisance, picks the ball up on the right, and starts teasing Thomas Cousins. He beats him to the left and hits a shot that is arcing towards the top corner. It looks for all the world a goal, but Walker is there to claw the ball away as it is curling in. It is a brilliant, match-saving save. Two minutes later a shot by Clover goes wide. 8 minutes on the clock. The bargaining phase is in true effect. A point is really quite good, you know. They are a decent side. They should be winning, really. This is a tough test. All these things were true. Erith had been excellent.

But then football struck. I am claiming my seat change, of course, as the reason, but the gods decided that today was Phoenix’s day. Ryan Hayes received the ball on the right. Dean and I conversed after on how to describe the ball played in – Dean preferred “mishit cross”, whereas I said I’d go with “speculative effort”. In any case it was dangerous and the ball looped over the goalkeeper and out of nowhere hit the crossbar. With the keeper stranded, Alfie Evans was on the spot to gleefully put the ball home, and the Phoenix fans went crazy go bananas. Billy is up off his seat, whereas I’ve let out a “yes” but then concentrated on making the note, as if I am going to forget what happened. Now the mood amongst the men and women in green had changed. A desultory, sombre mood lifted. Football in a nutshell. If I was an Erith fan, it would have felt like a kick in the nutshell. They hadn’t deserved this. I looked at the watch. 8 minutes, plus left. This ain’t over.

Four minutes later and the ball is played out of Phoenix’s defence. Luke Leppard, pretty quiet all night, gets the ball and steals a march on Mahal who brings him down. Leppard is up, and raging, which, even Luke might admit is something of a default setting! The ref knows, the Phoenix fans knows and Mahal knows. He has been booked, this is booking number two, and Erith’s task has just got a bit harder. He is sent off.

As the free-kick is lined up, I am getting slightly irate that we have just two men in the area. They are down to ten, let’s finish this. Put it in there! So I say to Billy and Dean, “we all know Ryan is going to have a shot here, with that few up here”. I know nothing. Ryan runs as if to shoot, but Alfie has sneaked off to his right. Hayes puts the ball to him, and Alfie is now on the bye-line. He cuts the ball across, it evades the keeper, and there, four yards out is Luke Leppard, scorer of no goals since his signing, with the chance. He steers it in, I feel massively chuffed for him because I am a fan, and he runs off to the corner as we all scratch our eyes out and convince ourselves that it was Luke. I mention Sevenoaks again, as if anyone gives a stuff. It’s like a comfort blanket to me, because they were two good goals there. But this has sealed the game and we are all delighted. All of us who want Phoenix to win, that is. Erith have to be gutted. They have been very very good. It has been a terrific game.

There’s just time for a fantastic surging run by Lee Bird that everyone else was too knackered to keep up with, and after just the three minutes of added on time, James Black blows his whistle and the Phoenix supporters are copiously talking about how great it is to play badly and win. This is Mark Sullivan’s line to take, pointing out that Erith will be top 6 (if they play like this, absolutely) and that this is a fantastic win. I realise at this point that I have perhaps concentrated too much on the reporting and writing aspects to really take it in, but then feel more than compensated by more than one of the lads saying “can’t wait to read this blog” which makes me feel good. It is lovely to be appreciated.

I think about leaving quickly afterwards, once Billy has told me that they worked on that free-kick for an hour and it never came off in training, and Mark is chiding me for being such a misery! Dean is working his magic on the social media feed and has the third goal on video. The board is chuffed. Then I see the players and Steve come towards us. At this point I am beginning to worry, that as a 53 year old man (I’ve ticked one over in the summer), I’m feeling a bit like a boyband fan. As Steve hugs the chairman and the players come over too, I see some of them look in my direction. Do they actually know me? I try not to get too close, but then one grabs my hand and says “you’ve got plenty to write about tonight, can’t wait to read it” and I get that Holsworthy at Okehampton thing again. I feel like welling up. Stevie grabs my hand and shakes it. “That was highway robbery, wasn’t it?” and I can’t speak. It’s as if I am part of this, and yet I don’t know how. Sorry if this comes over all “aww shucks” again, but it’s about as self-affirming and humbling an experience as I’ve had in ages. I am, in a very small way, a part of this.

I stay behind as Henry Douglas’s dad says hello. Millwall Alan offers me a place to stay if/when I move to North Hampshire, and Henry’s dad offers to pick me up at the station. They may be joking, but I feel guilty about leaving them when I do move (assuming the survey comes through OK). I have had many, many, great away days, but this is right up there. It was lucky, OK, but that happens. Phoenix stayed in there, somehow, and took their chances at the end. But I am utterly excited at what I have seen. I’ve been drawn in and it feels glorious and captivating. Yes, some of it is they are giving me attention, but I think I repay it with what I do, and I love that it is appreciated. Henry’s dad tells me how much he liked my last piece. I absolutely love that feeling.

After a long conversation, I decide it is time to go. As I leave, Steve is heading up to the bar. I am behind him and he hasn’t seen me. “I’ll see you next week, Steve” I say. He turns around and asks whether I’ll be at the cup game, and I tell him yes, but won’t be on the coach. He talks to me about the game, and about how great Andy Walker was. I try to say that although he made some super saves, I felt that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, but I shut up. Steve is the man, I’m not. He’s clearly playing the game over and over in his head, and he has his mind made up. I am pleased for him. He’s already one of my heroes and I am bloody middle-aged and shouldn’t have them at my time of life. I say cheerio, follow Alfie Evans out of the ground, and say nothing, get in my car, and want to fly home, as I consider what the song should be for the lyrics for tonight’s headline. I did say, at first, it should be “I should be so lucky” but then decided on Superstition. I also realise that chip shops close much earlier than they used to around my way. I consider that it is going to take until 2am to write this post. I wasn’t far out. How good are the pictures (I’m a little disappointed)

There is so much more to reflect upon tonight, but let me leave you with something. I went home and away with Millwall for around 15 years. I saw all sorts of away performances, and yet never felt part of anything other than the club itself – as a fan, a ticket purchaser, but never close to anything even as I sat by the tunnel. I never sought acknowledgement, nor was given it. Social media, when it came in towards the end of my time, had been a vehicle to meet some good friends, but also a vitriolic hate-filled sewer with few redeeming features, and everyone knew more than the other one. Everyone had to be a better, more knowledgeable supporter than the other name behind the message board. It was destructive, it was tedious and it was, at times, nasty. It also had several enormous positives. This is so different. This is appreciation, mutual appreciation. It is a true common cause, from the management to the staff, the players and the supporters. It is a beautiful thing, later in my life, that has given me self-esteem, confidence and shaken off some depressive moments and spells. It is the most wondrous thing. I always felt that when a blog post became expected, I would stop. I don’t do on demand. But I feel this writing is, in a silly, small way, a part of the cause. And I will write it until I leave, and I will miss them terribly when I do. But they know, and I know, because of nights like these, I am always, always a part of them. From Phil sitting next to me telling me the team news, to Steve’s conversation this evening, Tony, Alan, Housey and Andrew, Claggy and his kids, the Sullivans, the players, Jay, all of them. I owe you. Writing this is the least I can do.

Say we are top of the league. As I finish this at nearly a quarter to two, I am scheduled to be going to Sutton Athletic tomorrow to see some of our rivals. I may return to this theme then. It has been a simply fantastic evening.

When I Get Off This Plane, I’m Gonna Break Down That Door

In the team we trust…

The Friday afternoon is just drifting by as I write this. There are two main areas of focus. One is on Tuesday when the inspector comes along to survey the house for the sale. That’s something I can’t control and it looms like a spectre on the horizon, threatening everything. The other is tonight. The opening of the SCEFL season, the first game for my boys, Phoenix Sports, and a trip to Erith Town to begin what looks like a competition that is open and unpredictable. You really wouldn’t want it any other way. I am trying to think of an opening day I’ve looked forward to more. I can only really think of August 1988, and Millwall’s first ever game in the top flight at Aston Villa. Now a league a mere, counts fingers, 8 (I think) rungs below that has me absolutely bricking it.

Why? Well, there is just one promotion slot up for grabs, with another potentially going to the second place team if they can beat a Step 4 team in a play-off. Third is nowhere. No play-offs to get into the play-offs. Last season the SCEFL was dominated by Chatham and Sheppey who both got over 100 points and will be contesting the Isthmian SE league this year. Glebe were a distant third, but seem the obvious favourites this time around. The murmurings around are Punjab have spent, Erith & Belvedere and Deal are dangerous, Erith Town are no mugs, there is always a surprise package, no-one has a feel for how the promoted teams will do, and let’s face it, no-one really has any idea.

So, all I can do is wait for this all to kick-off. In the words of the song in the title, I’m like a child at Christmas time, but instead of a Playstation or whatever it is that the kiddies get these days, mine is that bloody football feeling that I thought I would never have again, that feeling of excitement and foreboding, of potential dreams, and nightmares too. As always, if you would have told me this time last year I would be like this, I would have laughed at you. If you told me even at the beginning of 2022 that I would be fully onboard with a club in London. Well, you know the rest.

In the meantime, please read the two following posts – the first by my friend Lee, and he was was huge influence in getting me into the scene. He captures it superbly (and namechecks me to boot!)

Secondly, a brilliant preview on the SCEFL site.

So come on Phoenix, all the best to my blog readers’ clubs and hope you have a great time and some great moments to enjoy. I only wish I’d discovered this world earlier. T-minus 2 hours and counting to departure for Erith Town!

At Cray Valley Paper Mills on Tuesday Night (lost 5-0 to Maidstone)

And If The Sunshine Has A Meaning, Tellin’ Me Not To Let Things Get In My Way

I am not an optimist!

Dave Martin hits the free-kick to put Phoenix 1-0 up against Walthamstow FC. As the visiting keeper (top fella by the way) shifted his wall right, so I moved too….. Quite like this one.

A month to the day since my last post, on non-league of course, and I have just got back from the Mayplace Ground where Phoenix Sports have played their last pre-season game against Walthamstow FC. I have been to three of their preparation games, the previous two at the University of Greenwich at Avery Hill, but today was the dress rehearsal for the SCEFL season opener on Friday at Erith Town. The game was pretty good, a keenly contested 1-1 draw with a team newly promoted to Step 4 matched up with a team recently relegated from Step 4 to Step 5. Phoenix had the best of the first half leading 1-0 through a Dave Martin free-kick, but one of Walthamstow’s two number 14s equalised with around 10 minutes to go and that was the goal scoring action. Either side of the equaliser Phoenix missed gilt-edged chances when the visiting keeper made decent saves when he should not have been given a prayer. I won’t name those who missed. If they read this they will know who they are.

Today was a final pre-season warm up for yours truly. The notebook was dusted off and the action noted, but not really for a full piece because I have a certain thing about pre-season football. But it was a decent run-out, and I am certainly more (but not totally familiar) with the players for Phoenix. It helps the newbies are all quite distinguishable. Tashi is the striker, with very noticeable hair colouring, and made an immediate impression on first sighting with at least two goals against Paper Mills in the 5-1 win (he could claim a hat-trick, but I’m not sure who is claiming that equaliser). Ryan Hayes is the new skipper, and he has a presence, wears long-sleeves, has a captain’s armband, and is genuinely loud! He is the new midfield man, brought in to bring some steel and experience. There is a new keeper, replacing Steve Phillips, Andy Walker, who comes in from promoted Chatham Town, and he has a presence in between the sticks. I will, still, miss Stevie’s “Shuffle” call though. I voted him my player of the year for the games I saw last season. Andy looks a very good replacement. Then there is Dave Martin. Ex-Millwall. I’d recognise him a mile off. He has come from Hastings. The one thing I don’t remember about him is he is a really angry man on the pitch! He scares me, and I am just watching the bloody game.

This just makes me smile. Steve sat away from the bench, one of his squad players entranced by the action!

It is interesting this season, as I feel like it is a bit different in tone for me, and for Phoenix. Let’s start with the football club, which is much more important. I missed the end of season relegation, and wanted to be there with the team as their amazing attempt to escape the drop came up short. When I first saw them they were dead and buried. But they fought. How they bloody well fought. They held good teams, slipped up (usually chasing games), but won at places like Ashford towards the end. Now they have dropped into the SCEFL, they are one of the fancied teams to bounce right back. But this is tough, really tough. Just the one team is definitely promoted, the next four I think go into play-offs, or maybe it is second only goes into a play-off. I’ll find out. During last season, Glebe, one of the favoured teams in this league, who finished third in 2021-22, pronounced, via their chairman, that the top four in the SCEFL would finish in the top half of the Isthmian SE. A bold statement indeed. Sheppey and Chatham who rolled through the SCEFL last season will show the validity of that statement when they pit their teams against the rest of the chaff in the Isthmian. I think you underestimate how strong that league is, how difficult it is. I don’t underestimate the SCEFL either.

But Phoenix are one of the bigger fish, but I can’t say that I think they will win the league until I’ve seen the first few games. The start is tough. Erith Town (away) on Friday is a good test – they finished 7th. Next up is Welling Town (away) – they finished 14th, so a gauge for both clubs. Then comes what looks like the biggest game, Glebe at home on a Wednesday night. They finished 3rd, beat both the top clubs last year, and are highly fancied to go a bit better. Not least by themselves, I’d imagine. It isn’t a club that lacks confidence. Should be a good one, and I am really looking forward to that one. Then it is K Sports away (17th) before they meet Erith and Belvedere in another local derby in early September. E&B finished 6th. The other teams up there last season were Deal Town and Kennington, and Whitstable came down with Phoenix. It looks competitive. It is not just the big games against the top teams, but how Phoenix deal with teams that may not appear as strong. The beauty is, I don’t have a clue how this is all going to work out. That’s the joy. For reference here is last year’s league table. Click the link.

The foul that resulted in the free-kick from which we scored. Looks in the area to me. It’s Tashi sprawled out there…

My fear, and pre-season gave a false impression early on, is I am not sure how Phoenix are going to score the goals required to go up. I think they’ll be fine in defence, although some of the more knowledgeable home fans cite this as a cause for concern as Toib has left the club and there has been a miss on one of the signings, but will Tashi up front be able to score the goals needed? It isn’t just on him, of course, but there is a lot of hope placed on his shoulders. But, as I said, at the top, I am not an optimist. I never, really have been.

So I can’t tell you how excited I am about the SCEFL. Once again, the power of non-league football wields its emotional sword, striking into my head after three months respite, or possibly a better description, void. A void I never thought I would experience again after I packed in the Millwall season ticket ten years ago. In fact, that thrill had died a bit before then. When I went to the first pre-season game (for me) against Cray Valley Paper Mills, and met up with Dave (who I bumped into at Sidcup on a night at the Hackney Carriage), got greeted by Steve O’Boyle (the manager) and praised by the chairman Andrew Mortlock to non-league “legend” Tony Incenzo, as well as bumping in to Leggy as well, and with Dean (Maverick 10) now on the coaching staff, and familiar faces around, it was a huge reassurance. I really struggled mentally after the end of the non-league season, possibly also due to that near miss on the M25, and the struggles at work seeming insurmountable. But with the familiar faces, and a focus on the upcoming season, there’s something to look forward to.

This matters. It matters immensely. It is also interesting how I am viewing my role, such as it is. Last season I was a novelty to the team there. Some middle-aged oddball, perhaps with a little gift for scribing, turning up, finding his heart being snatched away by Phoenix and by Holsworthy, and trying to convey it in match reports and emotional downloads of previous angst and despair. Trying to express what it has meant has been my reason to write, and there feels like a lot more to say. But I also find myself bumping up against myself. I don’t want these pieces just to be soft-focus love-ins, but there is also absolutely no way that I can slag these guys off for anything. That’s the problem. So even saying I am doubting their ability to bounce right back feels a bit like an act of betrayal. Mark Sullivan, a West Ham fan, but I like him, is my polar opposite. He could find sunshine on the rainiest of days, and he’s telling me how this team is full of it, another one will choke like they always do, and this one is over-rated, and this favourite has a lot to prove and so on, and I want to believe. Mark thought we could get a result after the loss at Corinthian when we all felt that was it. I wish I could be like that. But I can’t.

Late corner. But zoom in and….. (it will be back)

So. There is an issue. In many ways, a really good one, but in others, quite a sad one. I turned up to the Paper Mills game and Steve O’Boyle recognised me and said hello. Then talked to me about the season, he thinks we have a good side and is really confident, and I am with Dave, who trains the kids, when I said, we’ve put the house on the market and looking to move. When asked where, I say North Hampshire. Boyley says “you can’t do that, you’ve just started supporting us”. I felt like a traitor. I am never, ever, going to stop supporting Phoenix, I just won’t be able to go as often. But I felt awful. It’s also pretty damn touching for an old man. I keep saying this, and believe me if you want, but these guys have made me feel better as a person. That they are interested in me, even in a small way. I felt I’d lost that over a number of years. It’s massively important that I have the ability to make new friends and in the two clubs I have adopted. I have regular chats with Ryan Hall, the manager at Holsworthy. The chairman there sent me a birthday message, saying I am now an honorary committee member. The Phoenix management team, and board, are just brilliant to me. I can’t express my utter gratitude. It might seem a bit too needy, but that’s just how I feel.

On Friday, at 7pm, I got a call from the Hampshire estate agent. Our offer has been accepted for the house we want. We got a good one on our house in London. Things are about to get real. Money will be a bit tighter, but it is going to be for everyone. There will be a new team I will probably fall for a bit in the area I am moving to, given Andover have two. But already my mind is whirring away. How often will I get to Phoenix, and how will I do it. Can I stay at my brothers overnight, and drive there? Could I sort out the Saturday run once every few weeks – after all, I used to do it all the time when I earned a lot less in the 90s when I went Millwall home and away. Phoenix have been such a fantastic part of my last 6 months that I owe them. Massively. I want to move to village life, but I also don’t want to turn my back on friends. That is the balance that needs to be struck. Yet again, it is worth repeating, I had no idea six months ago that this is how I would be.

There’s so much more in my head, whizzing around. Like Luke Leppard today asking me if Dave Martin had been fouled (this after Luke and Dave gave the ref an absolute volley) because I was laughing, I nodded, he’d been clipped. Luke smiled. He’s a character. There’s so many there, though. It’s what makes it so special. I cannot wait for Friday. I cannot wait for Saturday week and the FA Cup trip to Oxhey Jets. I cannot wait for the Glebe game. If the move falls through, I stay where I am, and can watch Phoenix in their Kent odyssey to my heart’s content. I would like to see FC Elmstead, probably the nearest team to me before any move. I said in one of my pieces the line from a Linkin Park song (hey, today’s is from a bloody boy band), that somewhere I belong, and it is in this great part of the football pyramid. The people are worth the time. I owe them. I hope they realise that.

See you Friday. I might be more optimistic, you never know. But I am not about to change the habits of a lifetime. Nor am I going to make predictions. The joy of the SCEFL is I do not have a clue. Isn’t that really how sport should be?

If you don’t know the song from the lyric in the title, well the opening line summed up today – I woke up today with this feelin’. That better things are comin’ my way. The new season is nearly here. Keep on Movin’

Update – Walthamstow goal scored by Reece Mosanya. https://twitter.com/walthamstowfc/status/1550898873962569733?s=20&t=dNeGBRB5C77E0sGxP9MebQ

Foxbury, Erith, Achievement Replaced

February 4,

Just a very quick post to try to catch up some of my diary backlog. This one takes me back 10 days to some Friday night football at the ground probably closest to where I live (it might be close between that and Cray Valley PM). It’s also a ground that has some emotional resonance for me. But more of that later.

After the Tuesday night football at Artic Stadium, I had put in my diary a marker to see Glebe FC against Erith & Belvedere on a Friday night. I had carried out a little background research, but not much, into the history of Glebe, and also, I know my neighbour down from me has some connections to Erith & Belvedere. Here I was venturing down to Step 5 on the non-league pyramid and into the SCEFL Premier Division. I am certainly nowhere near as well versed in this league as I am in, say, the South West Peninsula League down in Devon and Cornwall, and given work is getting a little too frantic, I don’t have the brainspace to take on another league and follow it closely. However, I thought, at quite a late point in the day to go for it. Why not? That’s the beauty of it really. You can make that late decision. It’s nice to set off for a 7:45 kick-off at 7:15.

So, what was the context, A quick look at the standings indicate this is a two-horse race in the SCEFL and Glebe are third! The top two, Sheppey and Chatham are a little clear of Glebe, with their opponents on the night, Erith & Belvedere, sitting in 5th. Later in the game I got talking to a chap behind one of the goals, and his son was running the social media. He told me that Glebe had more than held their own with these top two – indeed, a few weeks before they had beaten Sheppey 2-0, and earlier in the season drawn 3-3 at their place, having, if I recall correctly held a lead in that game. Chatham, the leaders, have lost two games all season, and one of those was at home to Glebe (4-2). The chance to make their own inroads into that points lead is due to be on 5 March, when Chatham visit Foxbury (the Glebe home ground). In such a tight league, draws against Punjab United (currently 17th) and a loss to Welling Town (16th) loom large. It’s not a league to be dropping points.

The ground is one that holds some emotional attachment to me. It isn’t football related. Glebe have a wonderful set up, that is pretty clear, but this is always going to be Old Elthamians for me, and the venue my highest ever score in cricket. I never made a century, but on a warm summer’s day in 1994, with an hour left in our innings, I top edged a sweep and was caught behind square for 83. I had a hundred there for the taking and missed out. That pitch is now where the Glebe training ground is. It’s a fact of life. Old Elthamians have moved down the road from where I am now, and Glebe have a new floodlit ground to call home, The old pavilion is now their clubhouse. There is decent car parking, although the walk is a bit daunting to the ground, especially if muddy, but once inside, well, it’s nice. A little stand to the right as you walk in, and some decent space to stand. Glebe look like a club with a really decent set-up. It appears this year, though, it’s top two only, and they might miss out.

I didn’t go to this game to do a full match report, and didn’t really get familiar with the teams. I did like Erith & Belvedere’s kit, but that sounds a lame thing to say. I didn’t get to see or know the team sheet until I discovered it posted at half-time. Again, no biggie. I wasn’t there to do a match report, just to watch. It certainly didn’t help that it was really, really cold.

The game itself was very good, and a remarkable tribute to this league. If this is the league Phoenix might fall into, then they aren’t going to have it all their own way if this is the standard. Erith & Belvedere had the better of the opening skirmishes, playing some very decent stuff and testing the legendary Big G in goal. However, slightly against the run of play Glebe opened the scoring on 38 minutes through Bradley Wilson with a quality shot from just outside the area.

At half-time I wandered into the clubhouse to see if I could get a cup of tea, but the queue was quite long so I gave up and went back for the game. The game was put to bed in the first 16 minutes of the second hald. On 51 minutes a name who nagged me all night was put through, and although the keeper got a touch and couldn’t hold, on the Glebe number 9 tucked the ball away from a tight angle. The player’s name is Jamie Philpot, and it has nagged me ever since. I checked him out and he used to be at Millwall, and indeed, scored for the first team in an end of season game at Wolves in 2015. That’s where I had heard his name. Anyway, Jamie looked a really decent player at this level, if getting caught offside a little too frequently. He has to be doing something right – he has 40 goals this season.

On 61 minutes Glebe got a third and killed the game as a contest. Philpot hit a cross come shot, which Sam Johnson turned in at the far post, looking suspiciously offside, but with no flag. By this time I had given up my seat in the stand and wandered around, as I had for the first half. I had prime position to see the sending off of Calum McGeehan of Erith & Belvedere for a foul as the last man in defence, but that didn’t deter the visitors who pulled one back through Danny Lear on 84 minutes. Glebe saw the game out and secured another league win to keep the pressure on the leaders.

Some reflections, albeit 10 days away from the match. I didn’t “feel” Glebe, but that’s not meant as a criticism. I just felt it more of a social club with a football team attached, rather than a football club, and I realise that means absolutely nothing without context or getting under the club’s skin. That isn’t to say I have antipathy for them. Far from it. It also won’t be the last time I go. Especially if there is Friday night football to be had. As with everywhere else there are really, really good people attached to the club. I had a great 5 minute chat with the chap behind the goal in the second half.

It was also really clear that this was a “groundhoppers” night. Quite a few in the main stand were supporting neither club but taking a chance to get the ground off their list. There were also people there like me, coming to see a game, because a game was on. The next day I bumped into a chap outside VCD who had been there, and recognised some faces from that game at VCD the following day too. Again, no bad thing. The football on show was eminently watchable, and certainly of a decent standard on a good playing surface. Glebe were the source for Millwall’s young 15 year old sub Zak Lovelace, and have just had a player, Nico Lawrence, signed up by Southampton. Clearly a club doing good things. It’s just a pity they have to do it on a cherished cricket ground for me!

I am interested in seeing more local football at below Step 4, and have an eye on the fixture lists of Beckenham Town, Holmesdale, Welling Town and others. But that does have to stand aside for the Isthmian South East which is where much of my heart is invested at the moment. But a good night, I wish it had been warmer, I wish I’d had a cup of tea to warm me up, but again, nothing but love for the non-league scene. See you soon, Glebe!