The year that was 2015 was a tough year at times for all those involved with Tonbridge Angels Football Club. On the pitch, the team avoided relegation from the Ryman Premier in May by the skin of their teeth, finishing just four points above the final relegation spot. If the Angels had slipped through the trap door, it would have been their second successive relegation, having been relegated from the Conference south in the previous season. Manager Steve McKim, in his first season in charge, managed to ensure the Angels maintained their status as a step 3 club and went into the summer break looking to strengthen his playing squad to hopefully strive to achieve a better reward for his efforts this current campaign. However, at the start of those preparations in July, tragedy struck the West Kent club which left everyone at Longmead devastated.
Pre-season is normally a time for managers and players to test fitness, formations, tactics and anything else that you just can’t do during a full-blooded league campaign. Summer friendly matches also see a large number of trial-lists turning out for clubs and one such player turning out for the Angels last summer was 23-year-old Junior Dian. Dian was a promising, up and coming footballer who looked to have finally earned his chance to impress at a higher level. Manager Steve McKim gave him that opportunity during the second half of a friendly against Whyteleafe. Twenty minutes after coming on as a second half substitute, Dion collapsed on the pitch and died the following day in hospital despite receiving medical treatment immediately at the scene by two club physios.
The death of Junior shocked and devastated everyone involved in the club. McKim speaking shorty after Junior’s death summed up just how everyone was feeling at the time, “Something like that, for a 23-year-old doing something he loves, it affects the family first and foremost, but it affects other people as well. Nothing can prepare you for this and no words can describe it.” The following friendly against Gillingham at Longmead saw both sets of players and supporters pay their respects to Junior. Along with a minute’s applause in his memory, those involved with the Angels also provided an area inside the ground where people could lay tributes.
It was a touching gesture by the club, but their efforts to raise awareness of heart risk in the young didn’t stop there.
Throughout the first half of the 2015/16 season, the club have been raising funds for the ‘Football Fightback’ campaign, and as of December 2015 they had raised a staggering £22,000. The aim of the campaign is to host heart screenings for young players in and around Kent. One of the people involved with the Angels, and the co-ordinator of the campaign, is Rodger Maddams who sadly lost his son to a heart condition which had also gone undetected. In a tragic coincidence Jack, aged 17 at the time, had also been a young footballer at Tonbridge when he lost his life. Rodger has been a huge advocate of heart screening for youngsters, and his fund raising efforts since August, which have involved cycling to away Tonbridge away games, have been nothing short of inspirational. Then again this is a football club that has a history of going to extraordinary attempts to raise money for charity with three of their fans once walking to an away game 300 miles away at Bath City in a bid to raise money.
On the pitch the club’s been fighting hard at the top of the Ryman Premier League for much of the season under McKim, and in late November headed across the Dartford bridge to do battle with Billericay Town, another club who have been making great strides on the pitch this season.
Saturday 28th November 2015 – Ryman Premier League – Billericay Town 1 v 1 Tonbridge Angels – Att 375
After an extremely challenging first season back at this level, the Angels have been challenging at the right end of this table this season and were right in the promotion picture going in the clash at the New Lodge. The visitors were also handily placed in third position in the table having lost just three of their first 18 league games. Their hosts from Essex were just two points behind the Angels prior to kick-off but having played five games more.
The recent form guide for both teams made for some interesting reading before kick-off with the home side having won once and drew two of their last three games. Tonbridge had won their last three games on the trot. However, the home side had a habit of conceding the first goal in games but it seemed to spur them on having come from behind on nine occasions so far this season to get a result.
The Ryman Premier pace setters Dulwich Hamlet were not in action which meant a win for the Angels would see them go to top the table. However, the hosts were in no mood to roll over and started the game at a high tempo. After eight minutes they opened the scoring. A perfect start for the Essex side but as the half wore on Tonbridge started to show why they’re one of the favourites for promotion.
It was a bruising and physical encounter throughout played on a heavy pitch on a cold, wet and windy November afternoon, but both sides gave as good as they got and the ref seemed happy to let a few strong challenges go to allow the game to flow, which made all the difference. Billericay wasted great chance to add to their lead when one of their players headed a chance over the bar, and they were made to pay for that missed opportunity when Tonbridge drew themselves level just before half time to the delight on large away following who had made the journey from Kent.
The second half was a good contest between two good teams with Billericay seemingly shading it as times, but without managing to break down a solid Tonbridge back line. The closest the Essex side came to scoring was when they hit the bar from a well struck free kick.
At full time, both sides could hold their heads up high having produced an entertaining encounter and a good advert for Ryman Premier League football, but arguably the home side will be feeling a bit more disappointed they didn’t take all three points rather having dominated the game after the half time break. As for McKim and the Angels, they missed their opportunity to go top of the pile by not winning, but with games in hand on the leaders and many clubs in and around them, they’re currently in a strong position to challenge for honours in the second half of the season.
Meanwhile the ‘Football Fightback’ campaign, continues to gather pace which is testimony to the impressive effort of all those involved with it. Junior Dian and Jack Maddams were two footballers cruelly taken away before their careers and lives had really begun. If the money raised by this campaign prevents it from any happening to any youngster in the future, then it’s a cause the footballing public can stand united behind.