One more step….

A proud club

The next few weeks could be pivotal moments in the history of Kentish football.  For far too long Gillingham have held the monopoly as Kent’s only league team but that could soon change.  Whilst Ebbsfleet fight with relegation after the glory years of the ownership fade away there could be a challenge both from Dover Athletic who are poised for a play off spot to reach the Blue Square Conference after a long absence, as well as from Dartford who are just one game away from promotion to the Blue Square South.  Of course it is more than possible that Dartford may find themselves next season with local derbies against Ebbsfleet (should they be relegated) and Dover (if they fail to progress in the play offs).  Good times indeed.

The Fuller family have a long tradition of supporting Dartford as a second/third team.  As part of an article I have been researching about “My first game” my brother regaled me of a couple of classic stories from the early 1970’s when Dartford were in their golden period, including the club’s one and only visit to Wembley in 1974 for the FA Trophy final where they lost 2-1 to Morecambe. They also won the Southern League in that season which entitled them to apply for a place in the Football League, but with so many other clubs ambitions under the old “re-election” system they did not get enough votes for promotion.

It's all about the history

The following season they played a strong Wimbledon team in the Southern League which included Dickie Guy in goal (who was later to find fame in saving a penalty in a cup game versus Leeds United) and a certain Dave “Harry” Bassett who was sent off in a 2-0 defeat.  So what was special about this?  Well it was the club’s third game in four days over the Easter period!  The following season the club reached the first round of the FA Cup and lost narrowly at Watling Street to Plymouth Argyle.  However one story that he remembers from the season was a game versus Grantham Town when fed up with the stick he was getting from a particular home fan, the away goalkeeper hurdled the fence around the pitch and chased the fan into the car park, whilst the game carried on for a couple of minutes in his absence.

Princes Park

The decline of the club in the 1990’s has been documented in detail elsewhere and the part played by Maidstone United’s move into Dartford’s Watling Street ground. But after a significant period in the wilderness, sharing grounds with Erith & Belvedere (technically sharing with Welling United), Purfleet (now Thurrock) and Ebbsfleet (or Gravesend & Northfleet as it should be known) they returned to a new purpose built state of the art stadium in the town in 2006.  The ground has won a number of awards for its futuristic design and use of “green” methodologies – in fact fashion designer Wayne Hemmingway once described the stadium as “the best in the country”.

So after a steady rise up the lower non-leagues the club finished 8th last season in the Ryman’s League Premier.  However, this season things could not have been better for the most part.  They climbed to the top of the table after the second game of the season and have stayed their ever since.  Apart from a little wobble post Christmas their form has been imperious and promotion as champions was odds on.  They are without doubt the biggest team in the division, and will also make a serious challenge next year in the Blue Square South both on and off the pitch.

We had been down to Princes Park before, in March 2007 just a few months after the stadium opened when they beat Croydon Athletic 3-0 in front of a few hundred.  But after the annual TBIR garden spring clean (which included breaking a £500 lawn mower) I was given permission to head off to their game with Canvey Island for being such a good boy.

At exactly 10 miles from TBIR and just 17 minutes down the road it was one of the easier grounds to get to, and after leaving home at 2.15pm I was in the bar enjoying a cold pint less than half an hour later.

Dartford 2 Canvey Island 1 – Princes Park – Monday 5th April 2010

A different view of the game

With the sun shining at last the locals had come out in force and took their place behind the Canvey goal but it was the away fans who made the most noise early on, spurred on by some indecision in the Dartford defence.  It is often the case that teams who for so long have dominated the league start to doubt their own ability with the finishing line in sight and this was the case for long periods in this game.

1-0 Canvey

And consequently it did not come as a surprise when Canvey took the lead from such indecision when Greg Cohen smashed the ball home after the Dartford Keeper, Andrew Young had failed to clear the danger.  The away fans (of which there was no more than 20) when wild…”We’re going to win the league”, “You only came to watch the Canvey” and my favourite “Sh1t ground, no fans”.

As the half progressed the referee Mr Harris seemed to want to get involved more and more in the game – but not in a proactive way.  He showed little consistency, seeming to give every decision to the away team in a tetchy first half.  Canvey played a flat back line with an offside trap which whilst effective was crap to watch.  My view is that the offside law should be scrapped at this level to make games more entertaining.

In my day this used to be a rubbish tip

Half time came and Dartford trudged off with a need of an injection of confidence.  Manager (and Director) Tony Burman made some changes bringing on Rob Haworth who was soon booked for “persistent fouling” which was impressive considering it was his first challenge!  Dartford continued to struggle until the 68th minute when Danny Dafter (name of the day, closely followed by Canvey’s Gabriel Fanibuyan) was allowed to run unchallenged through the Canvey defence before his pass found Danny Harris and is miss hit shot fooled the keeper and the ball rolled into the net.  Game on!

With news filtering through that Kingstonians and Sutton United losing, Dartford sensed blood and went for the kill, finally starting to put the Canvey defence under pressure, and with 12 minutes to go Ryan Hayes crossed to the back post and Elliot Bradbrook stormed in to head home.

Politics at football - the new battleground

The home fans, of which the 1,319 was bigger than every game bar one in the Blue Square South and North, and bigger than three games in the Blue Square Premier including local rivals Ebbsfleet United. They left licking their lips at the prospect of promotion with a win away to second placed Kingstonians in a few days time.  Welcome back Dartford!

For more photos from the game click here.

About Princes Park
Construction work began on 14 November, 2005 of the new stadium. Designed by Alexander Sedgley architects, the stadium has a capacity of 4,100 (642 seated), and has been described as one of the most ecologically sound ever built. The pitch level is sunk two meters below the external ground level to reduce noise and light pollution. It is estimated to have cost around £7 million. The stadium was opened on 11 November 2006 when Dartford FC, who had been without a home ground in the borough since 1992, beat Horsham YMCA 4-2 in an Isthmian League Division One South league fixture, in front of a capacity 4,097 crowd.

The environmental aspects of the stadium include – The stadium roof has a sedum roof blanket, a living roof that provides a natural air filtration system. solar panels on the roof serve the community changing areas and public toilets hot water storage cylinders. The roof is supported by treated Glulam timber beams. Water recycling system which serves the toilets within the clubhouse. Rain water is collected in the two large ponds at the north end of the stadium grounds. Underfloor heating on both levels of the clubhouse. Low energy lighting. Increased fabric insulation to give the clubhouse better thermal retention and efficiency. Condensing boilers to provide a more energy efficient system. Also excavated earth was reused for landscaping the external courtyard areas around the stadium.

The club has an excellent sized bar which overlooks the pitch and has a couple of huge TV’s that show live football.  On the opposite side is the unique five and a half metre Wooden Man, aka Dartford’s biggest fan.

How to get to Princes Park
The stadium is located close to Dartford town centre and the M25 motorway junction 2.  At the roundabout with the A2 take the Dartford town centre exit.  At the next roundabout take first left and straight over next roundabout.  The ground is on your left hand side as you go down the hill.

Princes Park is also served by a dedicated “Fastrack” bus stop which runs from the railway station to Bluewater shopping centre. The use of public transport for travel to the stadium is encouraged, although there is a dedicated car park with spaces for up to 300 vehicles. Vehicle access is via Grassbanks, a new road named by the winner of a local newspaper competition. On non-matchdays, this is available for use as a “park and ride” station for users of the Fastrack bus service. Alternatively the stadium is a 15 minute walk from the station via Central Park or Darenth Road which is the first road on your right as you climb the hill out of the town centre (next to the Malt Shovel pub).

Getting a ticket for Princes Park
£10 for Adults, £5 for concessions and £1 for children is all that it costs to enter the ground.  The stadium holds over 4,000 and it is only the pre-season games against the likes of Millwall that have sold out, although expect potential bumper grounds against the likes of Ebbsfleet United if they end up meeting next season in Blue Square South.

When football is clearly not the winner…

Remember my post from last week about fixture pile ups and the effect it has on teams in the lower leagues?  Well can it be any worse than the situation at Wealdstone, currently pushing for a playoff spot in the Rymans Premier League?

Since the start of February the club have had to play three games a week almost every week.  In February they had knocked up five games before Valentine’s Day before rain put pay to more games, and March will see them play 11 times – a game just under every third day…This is the price of success in the lower leagues.  The club reached the first round of the FA Cup this season, losing to Rotherham United at home in front of 1,600 and played four games in the FA Trophy.  They also took the Championship Manager Cup seriously, lost on penalties to Leatherhead in the final on last Wednesday night – a game that manager Gordon Barlett missed due to commitments as his job as a teacher.

So who are the winners here?  The club obviously lost major revenue in the winter months and now has additional expenses of travel in such a short period of time.  The last full week of March sees the team on the road four times in seven days, travelling around 450 miles in the process.  And the players?  Well obviously none are full time so they needed to take time off work to play in the games at Tooting and Leatherhead.  The fans – the last two home games, played on a Tuesday and Thursday respectively saw crowds of 328 and 113.  Compare that to the crowd against Rotherham and the previous home game against Kingstonians of over 500.  And the more games the players play, the more injury prone they become and the quality of the games reduces. So who is the winner?  Well nobody actually – so why continue in this farce of squashing all these games in? I am all ears.

Pictures thanks to Danny Last from his report at the Wealdstone v Lewes game – click here to read in full.

Just whose side are you on?

We have just experienced the worst winter in thirty odd years which has resulted in our football calendar being decimated.  No club was immune from the weather, or the namby pamby local authority rules that saw perfectly playable pitches being called off because of dangers to the surrounding areas.

On Saturday 10th January, some 25 hours before West Ham were due to play Wolves in a Sky game the match was cancelled due to “dangerous conditions in the surrounding areas”.  The local authority was concerned that fans may slip and fall and hurt themselves.  Or were they?  Was the concern that they couldn’t actually be arsed to grit the surrounding area and thus any accidents could potentially open someone up to litigation?  Or was it Sky putting pressure on so that they could divert their attention to another sporting event?  There was no issue at all with the pitch, and temperatures were above freezing point.  So who made the decision?

What impact did it have on the fans?  Well nothing really.  as virtually all Premier League games are based on buying tickets in advanced, the cash was already in the bank.  Of course you could have a refund (unless bizarrely like myself you are a Season Ticket holder), but the process was far to complicated for fans to bother.  I am sure when the game is eventually played on the 23rd March, again in front of the Sky cameras, there will be few empty seats and little impact on the (overdrawn according to the Circus) bank balances of the club.

But what about further down the leagues where their main source of revenue is gate receipts?  This winter has driven a number of clubs almost to the wall.  Some help has trickled down from the Premier League to the Blue Square (steps 1 and 2 of the non league pyramid) in the form of a £30,000 payment.  But how far did that go?  For a club like Luton it was probably eaten up in a few days wages.  For someone like Lewes who struggle on on gates of 400 it went along way.

Some of the games that were postponed were the financial bankers for clubs – those games played over Christmas against local rivals where crowds would be bumper.  Basingstoke Town, for instance, were due to host Eastleigh on New Years Day.  They would have expected a fair few hundred to travel up the M3, each paying £10 and probably the same again in the club house or around the ground.  £20 x 250 = £5,000.  When that game is re-arranged on a Tuesday night in late February the crowd was 335,  some one hundred LESS than their average attendance.

But clubs also suffer due to the silly rules in place.  The Rymans League for instance has a rule, rule 8.6 for those who want to know the real details, that states “Where a match has been postponed for any reason, the two clubs concerned must agree within 14 days of the postponement a new date, which shall be within 42 days of the original date”.

So in the case of a club having a number of games cancelled due to the bad weather, they have to cram them all in in a short period of time, meaning in some cases two midweek games a week.  Who is the winner in this instance?  The players?  I don’t think so.  combining a full time job in most cases with part time football is going to put a strain on them physically and even financially if they have to take time off from their paid employment to play for their club.  What about the fans?  How many can afford, in the total sense to go to three games a week?  I am lucky I have an understanding wife (God bless CMF) and a daughter who loves any football, but I am not the norm.  So fans will not be prepared to come out for two games during the week, and thus attendances will suffer.  As attendances suffer, so too do the clubs as the gate revenue will be lower, yet their cost base will still be the same and thus putting more financial pressure on them.

In the Blue Square North for instance, Workington and Stalybridge Celtic currently have six games in hand on leaders Fleetwood Town.  They have fifteen games to go and just six weeks to fit them in.  The same situation can be seen across all divisions, yet the leagues are adamant that an extension cannot be granted to the end of the season, which bizarrely finishes on the last weekend of April.  Why?  Well according to the Ryman League this is because:-

The league must be completed by a certain date (24th April 2010) to enable champions to be decided, end of season play offs to take place and to allow time for the numerous other administrative tasks to take place”

What tasks?  The Premier League plays on for a further two weeks and as far as I can see no non league teams are in the last 8 of the Champions League, or Europa Cup.  I haven’t seen any players at this level being mentioned for a World Cup call up so why does the season need to end in April?  Play offs?  Great – three games per division max per team.  Why does it matter if they are not completed for a few more weeks?  After all, the entry to the leagues does not need to be decided until June.  All clubs who were in with a chance of promotion will have needed to complete work on their grounds to bring them up to standard by the end of March, so that is no issue.  And recent years has shown that there can be teams who simply pull out of the leagues altogether and thus create opportunities for promotion, or a relegated team staying up (Team Bath and Fisher Athletic for instance called it a day after the end of the Blue Square South last season).

So my message on behalf of the fans, and the financial interests of the clubs is simple – Leagues – be realistic and think about the responsibility you have to ensure the long term survival of the clubs.  Rules can be amended and changed.  Get out of your ivory towers and look at what the fans, the clubs, the players and our long suffering partners want!

Kevin Toms is my hero

Once upon a time a man called Kevin Toms.  Some of you (probably those over the age of 35) will have known his product very well indeed.  To others the name will mean nothing, but I bet if you a) Own a PC, PSP, Playstation, X-Box or Wii, b) Love football and c) Do not have a demanding wife/partner you will have heard of Championship Manager.  Probably only rivalled by as the most fun you can have on your own with a PC, Championship Manager gives us all an opportunity to be Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho or Gianfranco Zola (unfortunately the “alleged” nocturnal activities of a certain Portsmouth manager cannot be re-created in the current versions of the game), starting with the lowest of the lows and rising to the top.  My record was taking Grays Athletic to the Champions League final in my 27 year managerial history on the game.

So who is this Kevin, and what relevance does it have on today’s post?  Well, Kevin Tombs developed the first every football manager simulation game for the ZX Spectrums back in the very early 1980’s.  In the game everyone the opportunity to manager a team, and watch the game unfold in pure two dimensional unadulted by advertising green graphics.  Want to see what kept us in our bedrooms for so long at the time without a staple through their naval? Well you can still play a version of the game by clicking here.

So where am I going with this one?  Simple – Aveley.  Who or where you may ask!  Aveley is essentially a large town, or small village just the other side of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge.  Heard of Thurrock?  Well its near there.  It is in fact about a mile and a half from the home of Thurrock FC, although technically they actually play in Purfleet. Aveley FC are in the Isthmian Premier League, one level below the Blue Square North/South or “Step 3” for those like me in the know.  And tonight Matthew they were playing in the Isthmian Cup, aka The Championship Manager Cup, at the quarter final stage no less against another team from the Essex bordering Thames Estuary, Canvey Island.

Aveley FC, or the “Millers” have been playing at this level since 1973 when they were first elected to the Isthmian league.  They had bounced up and down the various levels but could point to the fact that they were Rymans League 1 North champions last season to get into the Premier League where they had more than held their own this season.  They actually won the title in dramatic circumstances, beating champions elect East Thurrock United 3-2 on the last day.  But this was cup football, and the form book could go out of the window.  The Millers had actually won this competition before, some twenty years ago when it was known as the AC Delco Cup when they beat St Albans City 3-0.  There was also the small issue of a FA Cup qualifying round defeat to Canvey Island from 2002 to avenge, and avenge they planned to do.

So why such excitement about a Monday night game in tidal Essex?  Well, for one it was a rare midweek outing for me which was actually on! And that despite the Fuller 5 A Side Arena (aka the back garden) still being under inches of water, and secondly because you rarely get an opportunity to turn up at a game with your Playstation controller to influence the game – or that is what I thought we were supposed to do and told Dagenham Dan to bring his along too.

Lolly, our official photographer was also allowed a night off from her 11+ revision, making the TBIR party a significant proportion of the attendance.  Well, based on the previous round when the local derby with AFC Hornchurch had attracted just 104 then we wouldn’t be too far from the truth.  The Isthmian league had been decimated by the weather since Christmas and many teams had lost five or six games due to postponements so you could see why this cup is a bit of a distraction – in fact in the previous round Concord Rangers and Tonbridge had failed to fulfil their fixtures for various reasons.  But this was a local derby and passions would be at the fore right?

Aveley  2  Canvey Island 1 – The Mill Field – Monday 1st March 2010
Signs were good when we turned up.  The car park was full and the pot hole filled access road lined with cars.  Perhaps we had vastly underestimated the lure of this game.  We paid our £10 for entry and a programme and was amazed to see that the crowd consisted of us and three others.  We headed for the tea bar – a magnificent structure in the corner of the ground complete with a retro neon sign and a theme park style queueing system.  They were rushed off their feet but not by us, but by the massed crowds of females in the adjacent hall.  Stripper night?  No better than that – for this is Essex.  It was “dancing around your handbag” lessons! (only joking!  The room was packed though).

The Dagenham crew arrives and immediately doubled the attendance and we secured a spot in front of the main stand.  A late rush of spectators took the attendance up past the fifty mark, but still in the “safe” area of my bet with Dan with was “less than 73”.  The ground is a really strange affair.  I know this is only Rymans League, and this is the highest level the club have played at, but it appears to have shrunk over the years.  On the far side, beyond the Rymans Stand (Scaffolding and tin roof with a Rymans sign on) is another football pitch size bit of land sitting within the grounds outer wall.  At the north end there is another large track of land, and the pitch itself is flanked by yards of empty grass.  Why not move the boundary walls in then?  or does the ground double up as the home of the Essex Knights Polo team in the Summer?

The game was due to be played to a finish, although with the temperature dropping most of us hoped that extra time and penalties would not be needed.  Aveley lined up with Junior Dadson in the starting line up, and an A Daddy on the bench – quite a fatherly duo if ever I saw one.  And Canvey had their own JEDward and Jon Edwards probably heard that for the first time.

The first half was dominated by the signing efforts of the Aveley Crew in the main stand, rolling out their song book including a version of Bubbles which had the line “Just like Thurrock, they fade and die”.  Classic stuff but they soon grew tired of not getting a response from the Canvey Island seven behind the goal and disappeared off to the waste land behind the north end for a game of footie themselves.

The match was a hard fought affair, and right up until the 88th minute seemed destined for extra time which I do not think anyone in the ground wanted.  Alls well that ends well as through Lolly and Liam’s controllers they orchestrated a winner as Sherwin Stanley scored the goal that sent the home team through, and the crowd home to their warm cars.

A far better match report than my two paragraphs can be found by Billy Shaw at the excellent Non League News site here.

So Aveley became the first team to reach the semi-finals.  They would have to wait a week or two before the full line up was known, but with most of the Ryman’s Premier teams already out they must fancy their chances of winning the cup for a second time.

A fifteen minute drive home ensued and before the clock struck ten I was tucked up in bed with CMF, who was having the most amount of fun you could have with a pc on your own in a bedroom.  While the cat’s away and all that!

About The Mill Field
For those of you who love the bygone era of old football stadiums then you will love the panorama of the ground when you stand on the east side of the ground.  The old main stand (not that there is a new one, it is just old), sits high on the terrace, with a fenced off paddock in front and has smart blue seats with AFC in white picked out.  Views are good from here.  As for the rest of the ground it is pretty basic to say the least.  two steps of terrace around the rest, with a small scaffolding constructed cover on the far side (The Rymans stand).  Behind the north goal it appears that construction has started on a very small permanent structure.  What is apparent though is the size of the ground – there is masses of room behind the east and north stands, and the pitch itself is set back by 10 yards on both sides from the crowd hardly adding any atmosphere to proceedings.
How to get to Mill Field
From A13: Follow A13 until junction with A1306. Turn left (Rainham / Wennington) then immediately turn right into Sandy Lane (B1335) to Aveley. At next roundabout turn right into Mill Road, the entrance to the ground is 300 yards on the left (after St. Paul’s Close).

From M25, Northbound (anti-clockwise) Exit Motorway at Junction 31 (A1306, first junction from Dartford Tunnel). At the roundabout follow the directions for the Aveley turn off and head up Ship Lane. At the mini-roundabout (High Street) turn left. At the next mini-roundabout turn right into Mill Road. The entrance to the ground is 600 yards on the right (after St. Michael’s Close).

From M25, Southbound (clockwise) Exit at Junction 30 and turn right (A13 London). At the next junction (A1306) follow signs to Rainham / Wennington. Then turn immediately right into Sandy Lane (B1335) to Aveley. At next roundabout turn right into Mill Road, the entrance to the ground is 300 yards on the left (after St. Paul’s Close).  There is a car park at the ground although its not very big.  There is plenty of room in the surrounding roads though.

Bus 372 passes the ground. The 372 service runs from Hornchurch to Lakeside. A rail connection with this bus is available at Elm Park (District Line), the journey time is 19 minutes to Aveley. You can also pick up the 372 from RAINHAM Station (c2c LONDON FENCHURCH STREET (dep xx05 & xx35) to GRAYS).

Google Maps reference

Getting a ticket for Mill Field
Despite the small capacity for Mill Field, 99% of games are pay on the door.  It is £9 for Adults, £1 for children and programmes are a £1.  Once inside you can use the fantastic tea bar with its neon sign and theme park style queuing system.  The bar is actually located outside the turnstiles though.


“Spend all of your life waiting….

…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….

Frantic bench activity

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.

Tonbridge Angels 1 Dartford 4 – Longmead Stadium – 13th February 2010

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.

Might as well be written in Danish to the crowd

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.

1-0 Tonbridge

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?

a rare 2nd half Tonbridge attack

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.

The massed Dartford ranks

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.

A rolling stone has no home

In In the second week of December another football club in the non-leagues unfortunately bit the dust.  Kings Lynn FC, formerly of the Northern Premier League simply could not cope in the modern world after their relegation last season from the Blue Square North and their one hundred year plus history was as irrelevant as a Graham Norton joke.  Not that Kings Lynn were the first nor would they be the last in the modern era of football to suffer this fate.  Ironically, one of the highest profile clubs to have disappeared off the football map was Maidstone United, then of the Football League Fourth Division in 1992.  The whole saga has been reported on numerous occasions in other publications but below is a simple summary.

Maidstone United were founder members of the Alliance Conference, the league below the Football League when it commenced in 1979.  They subsequently won this league in 1984 but at the time promotion to the league was controlled via a vote of the chairman, which was of course a closed shop.  In 1989 they won the Alliance Conference again but this time promotion was automatic and they replaced Darlington in the football league.  Unfortunately they would not be playing in the administrative capital of Kent.  They had sold their ground in 1988 to fund their investment in the squad to developers and had agreed a ground share with Dartford FC at their Watling Road ground.  The first season was a relative success as they finished in the play-offs and were denied a game at Wembley by Cambridge United in the semi-finals.  The club always planned to move back to Maidstone and that summer bought some land in the town for £400,000 but were then denied planning permission.  At the same time the Football Licensing authority demanded urgent repairs of Watling Street in order to comply with Football League rules, which would not have been needed if Dartford were the only residents – so the burdon fell on the Stones.  They had only one option, putting the squad up for sale.

The following season was a disaster on the pitch, and with the Stones falling into financial trouble it was putting pressure on their landlords, Dartford.  It was too much for the club and at the end of the 1991/1992 season they went into liquidation despite efforts to merge with other teams (such as Newcastle Blue Star).

I followed this with interest.  At the time I was in my early twenties.  I had been invited on a number of occasions to train with the club as they looked locally for talent, and being a local lad I fitted the bill.  My dreams of a career along side such stars as Gary Breen evaporated one summer’s day when I turned up for training only to find no one there.   I still have my original shirt given to me at my first session, which I hit from the administrator in case they wanted it back.

A few months later a new club, formed by the current Chairman Paul Bowden-Brown under the name Maidstone Invicta and played in the lower reaches of the Kent leagues.  They kept making progress on and off the pitch as they attempted to win every competition, irrespective of its size they entered.  In 2001 they moved to Central Park in Sittingbourne, and more latterly in Bourne Park Sittingbourne.  They finally moved out of the Kent leagues in 2006 when they won the title and joined the Isthmian League South, some four levels below the Football League.  They surprised many by winning this league at the first attempt, taking their place in 2007 in the Isthmian Premier League.  The club also applied for permission to build a new stadium in Maidstone town centre although funding was initially turned down so they decided to move out of Sittingbourne and share instead with Ashford in their Homelands stadium.

The season was a struggle, not helped by a serious injury to manager Alan Walker in pre-season training.  They went into the last game of the season against Folkstone Invicta needing a win to stay up, which they duly did and relegated the visitors in the process in front of over 1,300!  Last season was a bit more stable as the club finished in 15th place and enjoyed renewed acquaintances with rivals Dartford.

So what of this season?  Well in the Rymans Premier League they sit in 9th place and are again more than holding their own.  Crowds have been disappointing at just over the 300 mark proving the struggle the club has to bring back the magic and more importantly the fans to support the team.  With so few teams in this area of England football does not seem to stir the passion in the loins of Kentish people!  However, the real story was brewing in the FA Trophy.  After promotion in 2007 they left behind the mysteries of the FA Vase and moved into the big boys cup.  A 1-0 win in the first round replay against Waltham Forest saw them into the second round where they put league form behind them and beat Bognor Regis Town away 2-0.  In the third qualifying round they ripped up the form book by beating Bromley 1-0 away and thus reaching the 1st round for the first time.  And then came the draw….number 22 Maidstone United, will play number 13 Histon…The Stutes located a few miles north of Cambridge has essentially been propelled into the public eye just over a year ago when they beat Leeds United at their tiny Glassworld Stadium in the FA Cup.  The club, managed by long ball specialist John Beck had ended last season one goal away from a place at Wembley in the Blue Square Play Off Final.  But twelve months is a long time in football and they came into this game in mid-table with Beck long gone, new manager Steve Fallon suspended after he was critical of the new chairman’s cost cutting measures, and strong rumours that the club were on the verge of entering administration.

In the build up to the game I made contact with the club asking for some information.  Paul Bowden-Brown responded to my email within seconds with an offer of a press pass and an interview at the game.  How could I say no to such hospitality?  I couldn’t, so after dropping CMF off at one of Britain’s biggest Outlet centres some 2 miles away from The Homelands Stadium, me and the girls pitched up at the rural setting for the biggest game in the Stone’s modern history…..except the pesky Kent rain had put pay to any play, with the Histon coach already arrived.  I had no option but to return to the shops and endure an afternoon of listening to 5live…And then the saga of bad weather started.  The tie was postponed no less than six times due to first rain, then snow and finally ice caused serious financial pressure on the Stones and Ashford Town, as obviously home games are the main revenue generator.  The FA told the club that the 19th was the last chance they had before the forfeited home advantage.

In the period between the first game in early December, and the 19th January 2010 it had been a case of all change at Histon.  Fallon was welcomed back as manager on the 9th January after his suspension for divulging confidential information about playing budgets to the team.  Fallon, who had been in place for a decade.  But three days later, Fallon was sacked – “”After resuming the role only yesterday it soon became very evident that underlying irreconcilable differences between Steve and myself and the board would preclude the partnership ever working for the benefit of Histon FC.” was the official line from Chairman Tony Roach.  So with a tie away to Salisbury City up for grabs, the game commenced.  What you don’t want in these games is to concede an early goal, and that is exactly what happened as Bolland put Histon ahead in the 8th minute.  The Stones held their own for most of the remainder of the game but two late goals put an unfair reflection on the final score.  Again, the disappointment for Maidstone was the very small crowd of just 238.

After the FA Trophy drama it was back to normal with a home game against Boreham Wood, the first home league game for the Stones since they managed to squeeze in the Margate game on Boxing Day.  The middle of the Rymans Premier looked a bit like the M20 under operation Stack with just 10 points separating 14 teams – from the final play off spot to the final relegation place.  The cold snap had meant postponements all over the shop and so some teams such as Billericay Town in 20th place could actually go above Hastings Town in 2nd place with their games in hand.

As luck would have it, Big Nige (my elder brother) had paid for CMF and myself to go away for the night sans children as part of my 40th Birthday present.  He chose Eastwell Manor and Spa, some 3 miles from the Homelands Stadium, and as I was still under the 40 days/40 Nights rule of doing what I want, I chose to go to the football, CMF back to the shops! Who said romance was dead!

Maidstone United 0 Boreham Wood 1 – The Homelands Stadium – Saturday 23rd January 2010
After CMF taxi’s had dropped me outside the bar I could hardly refuse a pint before kick off.  The function room at the Homelands is, well, functional, with a large projector screen showing the end of the Chelsea game and a very interesting programme and memorabilia sale in aid of the Bobby Moore Cancer Trust.

The standard Non-League £10 got me in, and in chilly conditions it was easy to see how this game was in doubt up until a mid morning pitch inspection.  Puddles littered the playing surface and it wasn’t going to be an afternoon of passing football that is for sure.  I positioned myself in my favoured position between the dugouts to listen to the banter, and didn’t have to wait for long as both benches were united in their abuse for the officials.  Boreham Wood were the better team in early exchanges, and if their lanky centre forward Effiong could have used his obvious muscle on a couple of occasions they would have taken the lead before the 20th minute/  A break into the box caused panic and the Maidstone keeper, Jamie Turner pulled down Lee Allinson.  I broke my golden rule of the golden goal.  I opened it before the first score.  Twenty one minutes……My watch said 19 minutes and 10 seconds, so we needed some delaying action but alas it was not to come.  Forty five seconds later the ball was in the net as Mario Noto’s penalty bulged….I had missed out for the second week in a row by a matter of seconds.

The rest of the first half saw the ball hardly touch the ground as both teams tried to avoid the swamp in the middle.  An injury to a Boreham Wood defender led to some abuse being hurled from the bench – “Get up you tart!”…but it was coming from his own bench!  Then another poor decision had Maidstone’s boss Lloyd Hume “Humeing”….his tirade of seven, yep seven expletives in a row were met with mirth by all those around the dugouts, all apart from a scary looking female steward who forthrightly told him to “Sit down and shut up”.  And the most amazing part was that he did!

It didn’t stop him berating the officials at length on the walk back to the dressing rooms at half time although quite what he hoped to achieve I do not know.  The second half was more of the same from both teams.  Maidstone’s keeper was the busier of the two and made some excellent saves, none more so than from Effiong.  The home side’s best chance came when Peter Hawkins who blasted over a golden opportunity from a few yards out.

So, with six minutes added at the end of the game Maidstone threw everything forward but the impressive Boreham Wood back line held firm.  CMF had arrived and I persuaded her to come for a swift half back in the bar, but was amazed that we were the first people in there.  Then came Razor Ruddock and his mates (yep, Neil Ruddock in his best Vinnie Jones goes shooting clubber). Ten minutes later the number had trebled but surely more fans could have made the effort?  The 233 who did attend are certainly behind the club, most of whom supported club colours, but as it has been publically stated on a number of times, the club needs more fans through the turnstiles.

Twenty minutes later we were back in our manner house, champagne in hand.  If only all of our awaydays could be this luxurious!

Coming soon – An interview with Jamie Barber, founder of the Virtual Stadium.

About The Homelands
The Homelands is home to both Maidstone United and Ashford Town.  Fifteen years ago the stadium hosted Ashford’s FA Cup game against Fulham (then in the third tier of English football) in front of 3,300.  It is the centre point of a new Sports Village that has been proposed for the area.

It has one main  stand that runs 2/3rds of the way down the length of the pitch and offers some good views of the action.  Opposite there is just a fenced separating the pitch from the path, and behind each goal are small covers over three rows of terracing.  There is a large bar at the far end of the main stand, but is accessible from the outside only.

How to get to the Homelands
By Car – Leave the M20 at Junction 10, follow the signs for Ashford International Station and Brenzett. This will be Bad Munsterieful Road. Follow this road straight over at the first roundabout (McDonalds drive thru and Travel Inn on your right). At the next roundabout take the first exit for Kingsnorth. At the next roundabout go straight over (Tesco on your left). Follow this road for about twomiles, going through Kingsnorth, passing the cricket club on the left. The Homelands is 300 yards on your left.

By Train – The nearest station is Ashford International, which is four miles from the stadium. Trains from Maidstone to Ashford are plentiful with a journey time of 22 minutes (fast) or 30 minutes (stopping). From there a taxi will cost around £5 to the stadium.

How to get a ticket for the Homelands
It’s pay on the door for everyone with entry at £10 for Adults, £7 for Concessions and children under 11 free with every paying adult.  Well, sort of pay on the door as you have to buy your raffle ticket style entry ticket from a window beside the turnstile before you enter. Transfer to the single stand is free of charge.