Sheppey United 1 Chatham Town 1

Tuesday 8th June 2021 7:45pm – The Medway TournamentThe Bauvill Stadium, Chatham

Whilst the Northern League has traditionally been the most competitive league outside of Steps 1 to 4 in the Non-League pyramid, the landscape is slowly changing. For many years clubs in the North-East of England competed almost weekly in local derbies, in front of big crowds and battled for the honour of being the best amateur club in the region, as well as the goal of reaching Wembley for the FA Vase.

The Non-League structure has changed today, with clubs in the Northern League now moving up and out, rather than staying where they were. Spennymoor Town, Blyth Spartans, South Shields and Morpeth Town now play at Steps 2 and 3, whilst the recent FA restructure has seen Shildon, Stockton Town and Hebburn Town all moving up to Step 4.

One of the other competitive Step 5 leagues has been down in the South East of England, in the SCEFL. The PPG restructure announced in mid-May saw Corinthian promoted, marginally edging out Sheppey United and Chatham Town on PPG over the last two aborted seasons. All three sides had enjoyed fantastic form since the start of the 2019/20 season, averaging over 2.2 points per game, which for many leagues would have been enough to be champions. Sheppey United knocked Step 2 Welling United out of the FA Cup, Chatham Town beat Folkestone Invicta 3-0 in the same competition whilst Corinthian came within a spot-kick of reaching the FA Vase final.

The 2020/21 season saw all three almost have 100% records when the season ended. Chatham and Corinthian won 10 out of their 11 games, losing just once, whilst Sheppey recorded 8 wins and 1 draw from nine games. Chatham also managed to score five or more goals in nine of their games. Their next scheduled game after lockdown was announced in November was against Corinthian – although that wouldn’t have ultimately altered the ranking after PPG. The 2019/20 Golden Boot winner, with 34 goals, Dan Bradshaw had switched from Sheppey United to Chatham Town to team up with their top scorer Jack Evans. In the limited games they played in the 2020/21 season they scored 27 goals between them for Chatham Town.

The post-season Medway tournament has seen Sheppey United and Chatham Town lead the way since game one. With a new 3G pitch being laid at their already well appointed Tiger Stadium on the Isle of Sheppey, their home games were moved to Chatham’s Bauvill Stadium, which has gone through a major, and incredibly impressive, redevelopment of its own.

My last visit here was on the final day of the 2016/17 season, when a lifeless 0-0 draw against Lewes saw the home side relegated from the Isthmian League. The rebuilding of the club on and off the pitch started from that point. Both Chatham Town and Sheppey United have big catchment areas on their doorstep. Whilst Gillingham are the “premier” club in the Medway Towns, the population of the Medway towns is over 280,000. Whilst some will make the regular trip to watch Charlton Athletic, Millwall and even West Ham, having a club with community facilities on your doorstep helps – which is why priority one was to lay a 3G pitch. Chatham have revamped their bar, which included a pitch-side beach bar for the tournament, table service and a range of decent food. Whilst the population of Sheppey is considerably less, at around 37,000, the lack of alternative clubs gives them a strong base to grow from, again a deciding factor in the laying of their 3G pitch this summer.

The tournament so far had seen the two sides come through their first five games unbeaten, with their first game ten days ago resulting in a highly entertaining 4-4 draw played in front of a crowd of over 600. Both sides came into the game with identical scoring (for and against) records, with Sheppey United looking for a win that would all but secure their place in the final on the 22nd June.

Another sunny day saw the crowds come out in numbers. There’s no denying that this tournament has seen locals (and groundhoppers from afar) really engage. Chatham Town’s approach of the outside bar in the June sunshine worked to a tee – I’m not sure it would be as well supported come November time, but the adage of make hay whilst the sun shines was perfect for the event.

The first half was cagey to say the least, with Sheppey seeming quite goal shy, whilst Chatham pressed down the flanks looking for a way through the back line. The “away” side took the lead just before the half hour mark when Ryan Hayes scored from close range. The goal prodded Sheppey awake and they had their first chance of the game in the 35th minute but Mfula’s shot from 10 yards almost took out one of the masts on the roof of the stand.

The second half saw the Chatham Town hardcore fans congregate behind the goal, creating a decent noise – something that’s been missing from grounds up and down the country for nearly nine months. Whilst they had the lion’s share of possession, it was Sheppey who equalised when Mfula’s acrobatic overhead kick found the net after a corner hadn’t been cleared.

The last twenty minutes saw both sides make a few substitutions that impacted the flow, and a draw was a fair result. It would be highly surprising if these two sides didn’t meet each other again in the final on the 22nd June, something that could be confirmed this weekend if Punjab can’t beat Lordswood and Chatham beat Rochester United.

Whilst the fans were here to see the football, they were also here to embrace a return to some normality, which was helped massively by the weather. Hats off to what Chatham Town have done with the ground – with that investment now in place they will fancy a shot at the SCEFL title next season, although I think tonight’s “hosts” may just run them close.

More pictures from the game can be found here.

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