Wednesday 13th August 2014 – Southern Counties East League – Canterbury City 1 v 0 Woodstock Sports – Homelands – Attendance – 77
When you have watched games in amongst crowds of 60,000 people in the past, you do sometimes question why you’re watching a game with 77 other spectators, most of them made up of the family and friends of the 22 players that are playing. The Southern Counties East League(SCEL), formerly the Kent Premier League, is nine leagues below the Premier League and as far removed from its riches as you can possibly imagine it is.
However, the welcome is as warm as any you will receive in the non-league community, and they even let you bring your cycle in once you have stumped up your £6 entrance fee. The decision to attend this fixture was down to my day off from work falling on a Wednesday and having a very limited choice of Kent clubs playing at home that evening. I had previously only ever attended one game at step nine in the English pyramid system, a match between Deal Town and Canterbury City in late 2013 played at Deal Town. This time it was Canterbury City who were playing at home, well, their first game at their new shared ‘home’ at Ashford Town FC. The 2013/14 season saw City ground sharing at near neighbours Herne Bay, but an agreement was reached with fellow SCEL side Ashford Town in the summer of 2014 to up sticks and move to Homelands. Homelands is a basic ground with one main stand five rows deep. The rest of the ground is open to the elements with the two ends behind the goals having a roof shelter over two steps of terracing. The side opposite the main stand, where the dug outs are situated, has just a metal rail running down its left separating it from the pitch.
The ground is four miles from Ashford International station located in the Kingsnorth area. My original plan was to cycle the 28 miles from my home in Rochester to Homelands, but alas life got in the way in the hours before the game, so I decided to cycle the mile or so from my flat in Rochester to the station, then take the train to Ashford, and then cycle the remaining four miles to the ground.On the train from Maidstone East to Ashford International, the choice not to cycle all the way was suddenly looking a wise one, as the clouds came over very inky black and then the heavens opened to produce a deluge. Ironically just a few weeks previously I had spent 92 out of 112 miles getting wet on a cycle ride from Calais to Ypres in Belgium with fifteen other friends, which as I’m sure you can imagine wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences. Perhaps someone was looking out for me this time around.
On my arrival into Ashford, the dark thundery clouds covering much of West Kent hadn’t quite made it as far as Ashford, allowing me to cycle the four miles to the ground in dry conditions. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing as the main route to Kingsnorth from the station is made up of a dual carriageway with a sizeable amount of traffic entering and leaving the town of Ashford. Cycling may be popular again in the UK thanks to the success of the British Olympic cycling team in the London 2012 games, and by the back to back Tour De France wins by a British Team and two British riders in 2013 and 2014, but cycling on UK roads can still feel like taking your life into your own hands.
I survived the four mile ride and on arrival at the ground there was still well over an hour to go before kick-off. Players and coaches from both teams had started to arrive in their own cars and were lacking in big earphones and wash bags that seem to be the norm for a Premiership footballer these days. I suppose you can’t really block out the clamour for autographs if there isn’t anyone actually wanting one. After standing around a little lost for about twenty minutes, a man eventually opened the turnstile and relieved me of my six pounds and allowed me to enter the ground. If I was expecting a sudden rush of supporters wanting to see Canterbury’s historic début in Ashford it never materialised, and in the end just seventy seven supporters were present by the time the game got underway. The majority of the supporters watching the match were either sitting in the main stand or leaning against the metal rail in front of the main stand. The game was played at a good pace, but both sides couldn’t take their chances in front of goal during the first half. The game was quite competitive and after a few robust tackles the referee had to get in amongst a brawl between both sets of players, eventually booking the two original culprits. The half-time break came and went and the start of the second half saw Canterbury start to create the better chances. The Woodstock keeper had already done well to palm away a well-hit shot minutes earlier, but he could do nothing when a quick free kick in the 56th minute saw a City player put the ball into the box that eluded a few City attackers before Chevan Xavier was on hand to finish and give City the lead. Canterbury now had a lead to defend and they were thankful to their defence for some blocks on the line and their keeper for pulling off some fine saves to preserve the lead and help City secure all three points. Woodstock almost stole a point right at the death, but the crossbar came to Canterbury’s rescue. Xavier’s goal had given Canterbury their first win at their new shared home and the seventy seven spectators had gotten their six pounds worth.
The heady days of Southern League football in Canterbury had long since disappeared along with the crowds, but essentially the club must return to a ground within the town if it hopes to flourish in the future. Kent neighbours Dartford and Maidstone United have shown what can happen when playing back at your own ground. Time will tell if Canterbury City can pull in three figure let alone four figure crowds on a more regular basis.