…for the second chance, for the break that makes things okay.”
Sometimes even the best laid plans go wrong for no reason at all. Today was a football free day. I had agreed that one weekend each month I would turn my back on the beautiful game and be a Husband, Dad and a general Family Guy. CMF planned a day of events, ranging from a picnic in Greenwich Park to popcorn and a family movie. I was even given permission to sit and watch the rugby on TV – a perfect tonic after a week of hard work in the Capital of Cool (Copenhagen to those who don’t know).
We set off on our day of adventure at 12.02pm….At 12.07pm Littlest Fuller threw up in the car. She actually threw up in the same spot that I had meticulously cleaned less than an hour before, trying to clean the remnants of mud from last week’s Lake District trip. She wanted no further part of the day and wanted out, so we returned home, picnicked in the front room and sat around twiddling our thumbs. Except my thumbs were busy looking at what options I had to go to a game. I wasn’t going to ask or simply say I was off to a match, but instead bid my time and waited for CMF to suggest that I could go….Of course I said “don’t be silly” but she was insistent, perhaps thinking that at 2.12pm it would be too late to get to a game….Oh how wrong she was! At 2.17pm Lolly and I were in the car, SatNav programmed to take us south to the High Weald – Tonbridge.
23 minutes later we drew up outside a busy Longmead stadium a few miles north of Tonbridge town centre ready for some Ryman’s League Premier action, and the visit of league leaders Dartford.
So why the strange lyrics at the start of this post? For those who don’t have an intimate knowledge of Canadian music then you would not have recognised that it is the opening line from the Sarah McLachlan song Angels. And we were here to see the Angels – Tonbridge Angels. CMF actually believed for a few seconds that any team with such a name had to be a female only team. But I knew the history behind the name, and gave her a brief run down that went something like this….
Tonbridge Angels were actually formed back in 1947 and were invited to join the Southern League just two years later. At that time they took on the lease of the Angel ground, a cricket ground used by Kent and thus adopted the name Tonbridge Angels. They scratched around the Southern for the next few decades with a few highs, such as an FA Cup game versus Charlton Athletic in 1973 that drew a crowd of 7,770. A long drawn out battle with the local council over redevelopment plans for the Angel eventually saw them leave in 1980 (ironically the last goal scored at the old ground was by Mickey Angel!) and move to Longmead.
When the non-leagues were re-organised in 2003, Tonbridge found themselves in the Isthmian (Rymans) Premier League although they were relegated to the southern division in 2005. After a play off victory against Dover the following season they returned, where they have stayed since. In season 2006-07, current AFC Wimbledon John Main scored 44 goals for the club, including a remarkable eight hatricks in the season.
The club can lay claim to a few notable ex-players. Fulham managers Malcolm McDonald and Roy Hodgson both played for Tonbridge in their early years and more recently the Emblem brothers both played here. Neil went on to play for Wolverhampton Wanderers, whilst Paul started and finished his career here. Let me just go on a brief de-tour at this point back to 1994. During that summer I was taking my FA Coaching badge, and on my course was young Paul. Our “tutor” was a guy called John Ryan, ex-Norwich City, who at the time was looking for a job back in football. And at the time, young Emblen’s dad was in charge of Tonbridge. So whilst the rest of the course were made to replay our set moves time and time again, young Paul passed with flying colours by doing no more than a few more shots at goal.
Anyway back to the story….The Angels had not had the best of seasons so far, struggling near the bottom of the table before todays game. The visitors, on the other hand had seemed to have had the league sewn up a few weeks ago. New stadium, new squad, all the trappings of a Conference standard club. Blue Square South destined, with a lead of double digits over Kingstonians. But then they started to wobble. Defeats against Billericay Town and Sutton United hadn’t helped matters and so a victory here was essential. I am not going to go into the background of Dartford here as to do it justice I need to visit them for myself. For a view of life at Princes Park, have a look at Danny Last’s visit 180 Not Out.
If ever the saying in football of “a game of two halves” can be applied to a game it would be this one. Tonbridge went in at the break on top with a one goal lead and having hit the post. Dartford were on the ropes, ready for a third consecutive knock out blow. But somehow they re-grouped and came out with all guns blazing and deservedly won the game.
“We are Dartford, super Dartford, from Dartford” – Trying to make anything else rhyme was impossible, but somehow Dartford managed to insert Rymans in there.
The crowd 0f 842 was a season best. Tonbridge had under-estimated the demand for this game, and even programmes had sold out at least thirty minutes before kick off. We wandered in just as the game kicked off with the noise of both sets of fans drifting across the pitch. It made a refreshing change to hear this sort of noise. As I spend one week in every two in the sterile environment of Upton Park (supposedly one of the most intimidating grounds in the Premier League) I am not used to such noise as fans singing songs. Giant bubble making machines and ear splitting classical music sure, but actual fans, singing? You are having a laugh. Not that any of the songs could be repeated by Lolly. Every one contained enough swear words for her to earn a detention, suspension and expulsion from school I would imagine. What made this so ironic is that Tonbridge are the first club I have visited in ages that actually had a sign up saying that such language was not welcome at the ground!
“Fat Stephen Pienaar, you’re just a fat Stephen Pienaar” – Dartford fans to Tonbridge number 8, Steve Ferguson, despite the fact he seemed a good foot taller than Everton’s South African international.
Tonbridge started the better of the two sides coming close with the ball frequently being played out to the Karl Pilkington lookalike Kirk Watts on the flank. They should have taken the lead on the 15th minute when a corner was badly dealt with by the Dartford keeper and a goal bound header was diverted onto the post by the Tonbridge’s Booth. Four minutes later they had the lead as an impressive passing move saw Cade feed Paul Booth and this time the post was his friend as his shot creeped in. The Dartford fans at the far end picked up the pace, inspired by the drums.
“We all follow the Tonbridge/Dartford, over land and sea – and Dover” – Another silly football song sung by a number of teams who never actually play overseas anymore. And why Dover? The likelihood of Tonbridge playing them again in the league some time soon is as likely as David Sullivan keeping his mouth shut for more than an hour. Perhaps it could be Wealdstone, or Mertsham?
Tonbridge could have doubled the lead if it wasn’t for Dartford’s keeper Young who made another fine save from Booth, who was proving to be a thorn in their side.
Half time saw a few hundred people squeeze in the bar overlooking the ground. With Scotland completing the kind of self destruction that is normally reserved for an English cricket team against Wales in the Six Nations on TV, most of the fans contemplated a famous Tonbridge victory, one which would lift them away from relegation danger. The Dartford fans didn’t know what to make of their team’s dreadful run of form. Nothing had changed in terms of team personnel, yet since the cold snap started in mid January the team had picked up just one point from a possible nine. One pint of Theakston’s later and we were back outside, positioned in the heart of the Tonbridge faithful. As luck would have it all the goals came at the opposite end of the pitch to us, and all were very well taken.
“Where were you when you were shit?” – Surely the Tonbridge fans will remember that Dartford were a big team in Non League circles in the 1970’s and 1980’s. 1974 FA Trophy final at Wembley ring any bells? Or the fact that during the mid 1980’s they averaged over 1,000 at Watling Street?
Whatever Dartford boss Tony Burman said at half time it only took six minutes to sink as that is when the visitors drew level. An almost identical goal to Tonbridge’s opener in fact with Hayes feeding Harris before finding the impressive Ryan Johnson who slotted the ball in the corner of the net. Tonbridge came back at Dartford immediately and were unlucky not to take the lead as Cade’s shot passed Young’s post by inches. But Dartford broke the home fans hearts just two minutes later as a long punt upfield was poorly dealt with by the Tonbridge defence and Danny Harris slotted home.
“Tony, give us a wave, Tony, Tony give us a wave” – Burman was having none of this playing to the crowd so they changed it to “Wave when we are winning, He only waves when we’re winning” He still didn’t wave when it was 4-1.
Dartford were by this stage dominating the midfield. The combination of Johnson, Harris, Lee Noble and Ryan Hayes literally killed any Tonbridge threat and it was no surprise that two became three. With ten minutes to go the ball fell to Elliot Bradbrook some 30 yards out and he slammed the ball into the net for the goal of the day. Number four game four minutes later and Adam Gross’s excellent run and cross was brilliantly met by sub Rob Haworth’s header into the roof of the net.
So with injury time being played we headed back to the car, satisfied in the knowledge that we would be back next season to see Lewes play here. Tonbridge had enough on show to keep themselves out of the relegation zone, whilst Dartford were back on track for Blue Square South football, and a step closer to their rightful position in the top level of Non-League football. Both teams should take some credit for an excellent game of football that would put some teams much higher up the leagues to shame, and the fans were excellent. Over 800 hundred for a game at this level is impressive, considering that Hayes & Yeading, two division above got just 296 for their game, and only Chelmsford City’s top of the table class with Newport County in the Blue Square South attracted more fans. Thirty minutes later we were back at home, and on track for the evenings entertainment of DVD’s and popcorn…I love football me..
About Longmead Stadium
Tonbridge Angels moved to Longmead Stadium in 1980 after protracted negotiations had dragged on for three years after plans were drawn up by the Council to sell off the club’s Angel Ground to a supermarket chain. The Angel had been home to Tonbridge FC since the club’s formation in 1948, and up until WW2 had been used solely for cricket and was one of Kent Cricket Club’s favoured grounds. Its former use was apparent by the position of the 400-seat main stand, that sat at an angle to the pitch, almost behind the near-side goal.
When the club moved to North Tonbridge, the stand was moved with them and reassembled along the western touchline at Longmead Stadium. Until 2008 only the middle section was seated, with only limited hard standing on either side, but 707 new seats were installed in the summer of 2008.
The first notable thing about Longmead is the large amount of car parking available to home and travelling supporters outside the stadium. The entrance to Longmead Stadium was refurbished before the 2005-06 season and the turnstiles are now decorated with white doors with the Angels crest on.
The clubhouse can be found to the right of the main entrance, adjacent to the P.A hut. For the time being there is no cover on the near side of the ground, except for the Directors’ Stand which seats around 50 home and away directors. Previously there were railway sleepers on this side, however these were removed due to Safety issues when the club moved to the Isthmian league in 2004.
At either end of the pitch are two identical stands, erected during the 2000/01 season. The South Stand is named after the sponsor and company that provided them, ‘Mezzazine’. The North Stand is named after Jack Maddams, the youth player who tragically passed away in March 2008. The stands provide a good, elevated view of the action and can hold between 300 and 400 supporters. Current capacity is 2,500.
How to get to Longmead Stadium
From M25: Take A21 (Sevenoaks/Hastings) turning at Junction 5 and leave at junction with A225/B245 (signposted Hildenborough). After passing Langley Hotel on left take slightly hidden left turning into Dry Hill Park Round. Left again at mini-roundabout into Shipbourne Road (A227) and then left again at next roundabout into Darenth Avenue. The ground is at the bottom of the hill and there is plenty of free parking outside.
From East Kent: leave M20 at Junction 4 and follow signs to Tonbridge. Turn right into The Ridgeway immediately after the 30mph signs and then straight on at the roundabout into Darenth Avenue.
By Train: Regular trains into Tonbridge from London terminals and from Folkestone/Ashford International. Tonbridge Station is highlighted on map by green dot. Turn left out of station into High Street, carry on through High Street and take the right fork at junction with B245 London Road/A227 Shipbourne Road. Carry straight on along this road past first mini-roundabout and turn left at second roundabout into Darenth Avenue. The ground is at the bottom of the road.
How to get a ticket for Longmead Stadium
Unless Tonbridge progress up the leagues where they may meet teams with very sizeable away support it is pay on the door for all. Adults £10, Children under 16 £3 with a £2 charge to transfer to the seated area on the far side of the ground.