It’s testimony to the hard work all those involved in VCD Athletic put in week in week out that a club averaging around 100 paying spectators through the turnstiles are able to compete in the Ryman Premier League (RPL), where the average attendance hovers around the 300/400 mark, and where the likes of Dulwich Hamlet at the top of the table are regularly pulling in over 1500, an astonishing number at this level. Dulwich are certainly a one off at step 3 in the Non-League pyramid, however, fellow RPL clubs Bognor Regis Town, Tonbridge Angels, Kingstonian and Lewes can also all pull in crowds of over 500 when things are going well on the pitch. When VCD travelled to Dulwich in September, a crowd of 1961 packed into Champion Hill in support of the home side. The biggest attendance at Oakwood so far this season was for the visit of Lewes when 121 spectators were in attendance. This may all paint a very depressing picture for the likes of VCD, but the club that began life as a Works club in 1916 and are celebrating their centenary during the 2015/16 season. They regularly have the odds stacked against them which only makes them more determined to succeed. After a surprise promotion from the Ryman League Division 1 (North) to the Ryman Premier League on a dramatic last day at the end of the 2013/14 season, the Vickers were candidates for relegation throughout the 2014/15 season in the Premier Division only to survive relegation after a six game winning run at the end of the campaign ensured they finished in 18th place.
It’s been quite a dramatic rise for the club from Crayford in Kent, having risen from the depths of the Kent County League (Step 6) to the Ryman Premier League (Step 3), the highest position they have played at in the English Pyramid system to date. A lot of the ground work that helped the club climb the leagues was put in by manager Martin Ford who joined the club 1993 and remained at Oakwood until his resignation in 2007. Ford oversaw a cup treble in his first few years at the club, and also helped the team to the Kent County League Championship which they won by an astonishing 15 points from the team in second place that year(1996/97). After achieving senior status for the start of the 1997/98 season, the club maintained their position in the Kent Premier League (currently named the Southern Counties East League) the following season finishing in an impressive 9th place. However, in the summer of the 1998 a decision by the officials of the Kent Premier League in which all clubs were to ensure they had floodlights installed, meant the Vickers were forced to ground-share with the likes of Thamesmead Town, Lordswood and Greenwich Borough, living a kind of nomad exsitence until their home at Oakwood was finally developed in 2006 after planning permission was finally agreed by Bexley Council.
Once back playing at Oakwood, the club were able to continue their upward trajectory again, and after missing out on promotion to the Ryman League with two runner up finishes at the end of the 2006/2007 and 2008/2009 seasons, the players and management of VCD were able to finally enjoy the plaudits and champagne celebrations at the end of the 2009/2010 season with their first ever Kent League Premier Division Championship title success. Manager Paul Foley had masterminded their Championship and promotion in 2009, but he was to walk away and take virtually the whole team with him after the Ryman League officials demoted the club back to the Kent League after their first season having deemed their Oakwood home not fit to host Ryman League level football.
It was a bitter pill for those involved in VCD to swallow having rightly earned their place in the Ryman League, but the club bided its time, dusted itself down and began the rebuilding job over the following seasons before their time did indeed come again at the end of the 2012/13 season. Another Championship winning season was put together in the Kent Premier League and the following season they surprised not only themselves but the rest of the Ryman League Division 1 (North) and achieved a second consecutive Promotion and Championship double to dine at the Ryman Premier League table for the 2014/15 season.
10/10/2015 – Ryman Premier League – VCD Athletic 1 v 3 Merstham – Oakwood – Att 85
I had only been back off a week long holiday in the Yorkshire Dales for a day when my plans to attend Hollands and Blair game away at AFC Croydon were scuppered by the traffic jams that often bring Gillingham, Chatham, Rochester and Strood to a standstill on a Saturday afternoon. A quick trip to Gillingham from Rochester was far from that, quick – taking over an hour- and it was nearly one thirty by the time I parked the car at the station and I caught the train towards London. By this point I had changed my plans and decided to head to Crayford and take in VCD Athletic’s game at home to Merstham. Obviously this wasn’t ideal since my plans for this season was to follow as many Kent clubs on their travels when my own club Gillingham were away and time allowed, but having never previously watched a game at Oakwood on my footballing travels I decided Oakwood and VCD Athletic would be my destination for Non-League Day 2015. Best laid plans and all that.
Non-League Day is a celebration of all things Non-League and encourages supporters of bigger clubs to come along and watch their local non-league club during a break in Premiership and Championship action. It’s a fantastic initiative which has gone a long way to boasting attendances throughout the non-leagues with some supporters coming along to their local club on a more regular basis after their first taste. Dulwich Hamlet are a fine example of this with crowds now exceeding 1500 on a regular basis having encouraged fans of all clubs to come and sample the delights of their Champion Hill ground with their welcoming attitude to supporters of all creed and race, and encouraging those who attend to spread the word.
Back to Oakwood and VCD, however, and after a short walk from the train station to the ground, Oakwood is not immediately noticeable as you approach nestled in amongst housing on all four of its sides. The ‘Welcome to VCD Athletic’ sign eventually leads me to the right place though, and the game is already in full swing as I pay my money on the gate and take in my surroundings. I barely have time to get my bearings when Merstham strike first after just three minutes. It was a corner that did the damage for the home side as a Merstham player rose highest to head the away side in front.
The goal had caught the Vickers cold and it took them some time to get their into their rhythm. VCD’s lively winger Nigel Neita seemed to be their main outlet when going forward, and it was he who set up their equaliser in the 30th minute. The Merstham full back couldn’t deal with his pace, and his bursting run and cross was sweep home by Kojo Awotwi to level matters. It remained that way to half time with both sides cancelling each out with good defending.
The first fifteen minutes of the second half continued in much the same manner to the last fifteen minutes of the first half with VCD looking the most likely to get the next goal. However, it was VCD who had their goalkeeper Callum Thomas to thank for keeping the scores level as he produced a fantastic save at close range when it looked for its worth like the Merstham player’s shot had beaten him. It was a warning shot to VCD that Merstham were still alive in this game, but VCD failed to heed the warning and after numerous missed chances their wastefulness came back to haunt them in the 76th minute when the ball broke kindly for a Merstham player to race away and score the all important second goal. It was a kick in the teeth for VCD, and their cause wasn’t helped by an unsavoury brawl between about five players from each side after Merstham failed to give the ball back quickly when VCD were awarded a free kick. Then with five minutes of the match remaining the away side sealed their win with a third goal to leave VCD propping up the Ryman Premier League table still without a win to their name after thirteen league games.
On this evidence the current VCD manager Keith McMahon has much work to do to keep the Vickers punching above their weight at this level, but he remained upbeat in his programme notes where he mentioned they had been down to the bare bones away at Dulwich but still competed against a strong home team. Survival is very much the name of the game at this level and everyone involved in VCD will be pulling in the right direction to achieve that again this season defying the odds in the process. You can only admire them for that.