The Nuts and Bolts of it all

Crisis, what crisis? Ashford United is a football club that from the outside can look like that they’re always lurching from one crisis to the next. Despite a Championship and promotion-winning campaign in 2016/17, just two games into the current campaign, Danny Lye, the manager who led them to the title last season, was gone along with some of his backroom staff, which included the club’s record goal scorer, Shaun Welford. Lye had been charge at Homelands for almost two years and his departure came as a surprise to many having only signed a new two-year contract extension in the summer. The 36-year-old manager had led the club back to Isthmian League Division One South seven years after Ashford Town had resigned from the same position in the pyramid (Step 8). The name change from Town to United took place in 2011 when the club began again from scratch in the Kent Invicta League (step 10).

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Homelands – The home of Ashford United FC

 

However, whilst the 2016/17 season ended in celebration on the pitch for the club and its long-suffering supporters, off the pitch the club had to overcome another crisis which had emerged at Homelands during the campaign. The club’s 3G Pitch, laid in the summer of 2015, was suddenly deemed unsuitable having failed to meet the Football Association’s requirements for approved playing surfaces, and the Kent club who are based in the Kingsnorth area of the town, were given a deadline of May 31st, 2017 to bring the surface up to standard. The club was given special dispensation to continue to play games on the pitch whilst the work was carried out. The irregularity issue with the pitch was with the sub fame foundations that had not been laid properly. A pitch consultant firm had found 81 “unacceptable undulations” which the FA said should be no greater than 10mm.

Ashford United regain control of their Homelands ground

The issue of the 3G pitch nevertheless seemed a minor crisis in the grand scheme of things, as the club were in a bitter legal battle to regain control of their Homelands ground, a battle that has been ongoing since November 2015. The battle between Ashford United and V.Bar Limited who are part of the Minotaur Group was eventually settled in March 2017 which gave ownership of the Homelands back to Ashford United. It was a timely boost to the club who were in a battle for the Southern Counties East League(SCEL) title with Crowborough Athletic. However, a missed November 2016 deadline to be considered for promotion from the SCEL to the Isthmian League, meant another battle had to be won this time with the FA. The club won the appeal in the same month the ground legal battle had been resolved which meant everyone involved in the football club could breathe a collective sigh of relief.

The title battle with Crowborough Athletic eventually went down right down to the wire, with Ashford United eventually triumphing on the final day of the season with a thumping 7-0 win over Rochester United to give the Nuts and Bolts the Championship on goal difference.

After seven years away, the club was back in the Isthmian League set up.

A club with the name Ashford United were founder members of the Kent League in 1894. However, in 1907 the club resigned from the league and their record was expunged. The Kentish Express Newspaper, which had helped form the club, pushed hard for a new club to play in the town, and they got their wish when the South Eastern and Chatham Railway company joined the league and played under the name of Ashford Railway Works. The Railway Works team were extremely successful between 1911 and 1914, winning the Kent League Division Two East Championship three years in a row. Another title was won by the Railway Works in their first season (1919/20) after the First World War, but that was the last time the club were to taste Championship success until 1928 when they won the Division Two East Championship for the final time before their departure from the Kent League set up. A new club under the name of Ashford Town joined re-organised Kent League for the 1930/31 season and finished 6th. The club’s first title success didn’t arrive however until 1948/49 season when they pipped both Dover & Ramsgate Athletic to the Kent League title on goal average. A 0-0 draw with Gillingham reserves in their final game clinched the Championship.

In 1959 Ashford Town moved across to the Southern League set up and began life in the First Division. A first promotion was achieved to the Premier Section in 1970 with a Fourth-place finish in the First Division, but the club lasted just one season in the Premier before dropping in the Southern League First Division South section. In 1979 the Southern League re-organised into a Midland and Southern section and Ashford found themselves placed in the expanded Southern section. A premier section was introduced alongside the Southern and Midlands sections for the start of the 1982/83 season, and by the 1987/88 season, Ashford had gained promotion to the Premier section after finishing runners-up to Dorchester Town. Another relegation at the end of the 1989/90 campaign dropped the club back to the Southern Section before a third promotion to the Premier section was achieved with another second-place finish at the end of the 1995/96 season. A two-season stay at the level came to an end in 1998, before another re-organisation placed them in the Eastern Section of the Southern League. The club then moved across to the Isthmian League set up in 2004 and continued in the 1st Division section until the club eventually quit the league in 2010.

Ashford United quit the Ryman League in 2010

Again, much like the previous Ashford clubs had done during the nineteenth century, another club was quickly reformed after a previous one had disbanded, and Ashford United took up a place in the Kent Invicta League for the start of the 2011/12 season. A first promotion was achieved to Southern Counties East League at the end of the 2012/13 season after ground grading rules cost another club’s promotion, and their first season (2013/14) in the SCEL was immediately rewarded with a second-place finish. Another second-place finish the following season (2014/15) was followed up a 3rd place finish at the end of the 2015/16 season, but it was bittersweet as a 10-point deduction had cost the club another second-place finish. Then finally after all the off-field crisis during the 2016/17 campaign, the Nuts and Bolts stopped being the bridesmaids and won the league on goal difference on the final day.

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In the 2001 population census, the town of the town of Ashford and it’s neighbouring boroughs had a population of 102,661, and Ashford Borough council predicts that total will rise to 141,100 by 2021. The introduction of England’s first ever High-Speed train service to the town in 2009 has brought many new inhabitants to the area and the football club has the potential to tap into this growth and help grow its fanbase. A quick internet search shows that towns such as Dover, Havant, Chorley, Crawley and Mansfield all having lower populations than Ashford but with football clubs much higher up the pyramid and with greater levels of support. However, Ashford United, much like many clubs based in the County of Kent, suffers from having London right on its doorstep and many football supporters can be seen using the High-Speed rail link to catch the train to London to follow the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and West Ham United every weekend.

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Saturday 23rd September 2017 – Bostik Isthmian League Division 1 South – Ashford United v Guernsey – Homelands – Att: 258

The departure of manager Danny Lye just two games into the new season had come on the back of a tough start to the new season with the club losing their first two games, the second of which ended in a 5-0 hammering against South Park FC. However, an FA Cup win over Redhill lifted spirits with youth team manager Jason Whitmore taking up the reigns after Lye’s sudden departure. The league form continued to disappoint with two more defeats after the Redhill cup game, but a 0-0 draw against Sittingbourne was the club’s first point of the new season to get them up and running. Another heavy 6-0 defeat in the next round of the FA Cup at Horsham was the third time the team had conceded 5 or more goals in a game already. A first win of the season was finally achieved against Kent neighbours Ramsgate with a 1-0 win at Homelands on September 12th before the midweek defeat against local rivals Hythe Town.

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After the club picked up twelve red cards during the promotion-winning campaign last season, a red card in the first game of the season against Carshalton and two red cards in the second game against South Park was a concern for the club’s hierarchy who wanted the club to improve its discipline. The yellow card count was also high after the first two games and after a meeting between the club’s owner Don Crosbie and manager Danny Lye, the matter was brought to a head. Lye decided after the meeting to walk away from the club and with him went assistant manager Shaun Welford and two players from the first team. In an interview between Lye and the local newspaper after his departure, the former manager and player mentioned that there was more to his departure that the team’s on-field discipline but leaves having achieved what he set out to do which was get the club back to the Isthmian League.

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Match action as Ashford United clash with Guernsey 

 

The visitors to Homelands for this game were Guernsey who hadn’t exactly started the season very well themselves having won just one game at home and lost all four games away from home. A 1pm kick off meant an early start for both clubs, but it was the away side who seemed to have woken up the quicker. However, they were wasteful in front of goal which would cost them once Ashford United got going themselves in the second period. The home team had their goalkeeper to thank for keeping them in the game as made numerous saves to keep the away side at bay, the best being coming when he turned a curling shot away that looked to be heading into the net from Guernsey’s Matt Loaring.

The second half was a completely different story altogether, as the home side took their chances and turned the game on its head with a fast start that saw them score twice in a mad five-minute spell. Tyrell Richardson-Brown opened the scoring for the Nuts and Bolts as he volleyed in from the edge of the area in the 48th minute.

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Ashford United players celebrate their opening goal against their Island visitors 

 

Then just a minute later it was two-nil as the Guernsey players switched off from a decision that went against them. The resulting free-kick was lofted into the box and Ashford’s Matthew Day stuck the ball into the corner to the delight of the noisy home support behind the goal Ashford were attacking. The killer third goal came with ten minutes remaining as sub George Humber played a lovely one two to set himself up and he ran through to place the ball beyond the reach of the Guernsey keeper. It was the icing on the cake for the home side, who must have been given the hairdryer treatment at half-time after a poor first-half display.

A decent crowd of 258 had come through the turnstiles, their second highest attendance in the league, and a crowd size very much on par with many clubs in the Isthmian Division One South. It remains to be seen if the football club can grow its fanbase and climb back to a similar level it once reached playing as Ashford Town. For now, the club and its hardcore will hope they can get through this season crisis-free and with the card count somewhat lower than the previous campaign.

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To view the full picture set from this game then click here –  Picture Gallery

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In Search of Kentish FA Vase Glory

In more recent times it is fair to say that the FA Vase Cup competition isn’t exactly a competition that is steeped in glory for many football clubs from the County of Kent. The all Kent FA Amateur Cup Final (the predecessor of the FA Vase) between Bromley and Erith & Belvedere in the 1937/38 season is the only occasion that two Kent teams have made it all the way through to the final, and there have been just three other final appearances by Kent sides, Erith & Belvedere (1923 FA Amateur), Deal Town (2000 FA Vase) and Tunbridge Wells (2013 FA Vase). When Erith & Belvedere made their first final appearance in the final of 1923 it was played at the Den, home of Millwall FC, but success eluded them as Clapham ran out 3-0 winners in front of 32,000 spectators. Their second final appearance in 1938 again saw them play the final at the Den and again they were the losing finalists as Bromley won 1-0 in South East London.

The Football Association decided to replace the FA Amateur Cup with the FA Vase when the status of players became contract and non-contract instead of professional and amateur. This change occurred in 1974/75, but success still eluded many sides from Kent under the new format.

The winners of the 1980 FA Vase were United Counties League side Stamford FC. However, it could have so easily been Kent club Cray Wanderers who battled their way from the Preliminary Round to the Quarter Finals with wins over BAC Weybridge (4-0), Three Bridges (5-1), Eastbourne United (2-1), Cheshunt (2-1), Gorleston (3-2) and Newbury Town (1-0) before Stamford ended their Wembley dreams with a 1-0 win. By the time the 1988/89 season kicked off there were 17 Kent clubs competing, but success was few and far between with many clubs unable to get past the 3rd Round stage. However, the following season (1989/90) for the first time in five seasons a number of Kent sides made it beyond the 3rd round (Greenwich Borough, Whitstable Town, Deal Town and Hythe Town). Hythe Town of the Southern League made it the furthest as they battled their way through to the Semi-Finals all the way from the Preliminary Round with wins over Malden Vale (3-1), Littlehampton Town (3-1), Camberley Town (1-0), Deal Town (1-0), Collier Row (1-1 & 3-1 replay) Abington Town (1-1 & 3-1 Replay) and Rushden Town 1-0 before losing 5-2 on aggregate to eventual winners Yeading in a two-legged Semi-Final.

After the 1990 semi-final appearance from Hythe Town, it wasn’t until the 1996/97 season when a Kent club went deep into the competition, as Herne Bay and neighbours Whitstable Town made it all the way through to the 5th Round (Last 16). The Bay started their cup exploits in the 2nd Qualifying Round where they defeated Shoreham 4-0 in a replay after a 0-0 draw. They then beat Hassocks (3-1) in the 1st Round, Abington United (3-0) 2nd Round, Saltash United (3-2) 3rd Round, and Arlesey Town (3-2) 4th Round, before Isthmian League side Banstead Athletic won 2-0 at Bay’s Pilot Field ground in the 5th Round. The highlight of their run had been the 3-2 win away at the 1995 winners of the competition Arlesey Town. Whitstable Town also began the competition in the 2nd Qualifying Round with a 4-0 thrashing of Sussex side Lancing before another Sussex side, Southwick, was beaten in the 1st Round by three goals to the one. A 1-0 win over Slade Green in the 2nd Round was followed up by wins in the 3rd and 4th rounds over Burnham (2-1) and Concord Rangers (2-1) in a replay after a 0-0 draw. North Ferriby United proved a hurdle too far for the Oystermen as they won 1-0 in Yorkshire in the 5th round. The final that season was contested between Whitby Town and North Ferriby with Whitby winning 3-0 at Wembley. Banstead lost in the semi-final to Whitby Town.

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Above – The match-day programme from Deal’s 2000 FA Vase Semi-FInal plus a news clipping from the local Kent Messenger newspaper group 

The story of Kent clubs in the FA Vase had been a case of ‘close but no cigar’ up until the 1999/2000 season, when Deal Town of the Kent League Premier Division finally managed to put the County on the semi-professional footballing map with a glorious run to Wembley and a first lifting of the trophy by a Kent club since its change of name and status in 1974. The Cinque Port club began the competition in the 1st Round where they defeated Eastleigh 4-3 away before two victories at their Charles Sports Ground home over East Preston (3-0), and Watton United (2-1) in the 2nd and 3rd round respectively earned them a place in the 4th Round. A visit to Crook Town of the Northern League was easily negotiated with the Kent club scoring three without replay to set out a 5th Round showdown with Met Police.

The Surrey club was no match for a rampant Deal who won at a canter by 5 goals to 2 at Imber Court. The Quarter Final brought Deal a home draw against North West Counties League side Mossley, but again Deal scored three goals on the road to sail through to the semi-finals after a 3-1 win. The Semi-Final against Staffordshire based Newcastle Town, from the same league as Mossley, was played over two legs and the Kent side gave themselves a great platform to reach Wembley with a 2-0 win away in the 1st leg. The second leg at the Charles Sports Ground was watched by 2495 spectators and the Deal supporters were kept on edge as the game was a tight affair, but a 1-1 draw (3-1 on aggregate) was enough to secure a trip to the twin towers to the delight of manager Tommy Sampson.  The final was the last to be played at the Old Wembley and over 8000 fans traveled up from the Kent coast to support their heroes in a crowd of 20,083, as Western League side Chippenham Town stood in their way of glory. It was another tight game, but with three minutes of the final remaining, Roly Graham ensured he would never have to buy a drink in Deal ever again with the winning goal in the 87th minute to unite a town and give the county of Kent its first ever winners of the FA Vase.

Link – Deal Town FC reflect on their FA Vase glory ten years on

After the trophy was lifted by Deal Town in May 2000, it would be thirteen long years before a club from Kent would make it all the way to Wembley with the 5th Round of the competition becoming a graveyard for clubs from the county. VCD Athletic in 2005/2006 and 2006/07 exited at that stage, as did Greenwich Borough in 2007/08. Cray Wanderers made it all the way from the Quarters Finals in 2003/2004 before losing 2-0 to eventual winners AFC Sudbury. However, in the 2011/12 season, Herne Bay again went deep into the competition but this time they were to go much further than they had done in 1996/97 competition when they exited at the 5th Round stage, this time making it through to the Semi-Finals. Their run to the Semis included wins at home versus Winchester City (3-1) in the 2nd round, Hanworth Villa (3-1) in a replay in the 3rd Round before the club made their longest ever trip in the competition to Newcastle Benfield (300 miles) for their 4th round tie. They distance didn’t seem to matter to the Bay however, and their 2-1 win in the North East set up a home tie in the last 16 against Larkhall Athletic. It was a tight game but Bay emerged victorious by one goal to nil and that meant a first-ever Quarter Final appearance for the club. The draw would pair them with Shortwood United of the Hellenic League Premier Division, but this time they wouldn’t have the home advantage. Again, like at Newcastle in the 4th Round, they came away with a 2-1 win on the road to set up a semi-final showdown with Northern Premier League West Auckland Town. After a 2-2 draw at the Pilot Field in the first leg, the Bay again broke their mileage record for the second time in the competition (304 miles) but this time it wasn’t to be their day as West Auckland won 2-1 in the North East and 4-3 overall to end the Bay’s dream of Wembley. West Auckland Town went on to lose 2-0 in the final to fellow Northern League side Dunston UTS.

 

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Above – The Wembey match-day programme and match ticket from Tunbridge Wells’ FA Vase Final appearance in the 2012/13 season.

The following season Tunbridge Wells, a club that hadn’t previously made it beyond the 4th Round of the competition in their history, suddenly became the talk of semi-professional football in Kent as they became only the fourth club from the county to ever make it all the way to the final, knocking out the holders Dunston UTS on the way. They began their route to Wembley with wins over Hellenic League sides Wantage Town (H 2-0) and Binfield (A 2-1 AET) in the 2nd and 3rd rounds respectively. Next up came their toughest tie so far as Dunston UTS made the long journey to Kent. The game has been postponed on a number of occasions before the two teams finally did battle on a sticky pitch. The Wells scored the only goal of the game in front of a healthy crowd of 508 at their Culverden Stadium to set up a 5th round clash with Western League side Larkhall Athletic. An epic match was settled in the dying minutes of extra time as Tunbridge Wells produced heroics with 10 men to win the game 4-3 after being 1-0 and 3-2 down during normal time. That meant a first-ever appearance in the last eight and a home tie against Hadleigh United of the Eastern Counties League. After the dramatic win in the previous round, the Quarter Final proved a more routine affair as the Wells defeated their Essex opponents 2-0 to book a place in the Semi-Final.

A year earlier, Herne Bay had their Wembley dream ended by a club from the North East, so with the semi-final draw pairing the Wells with Shildon FC from County Durham, it was going to be another fascinating encounter. The first leg was played at the Culverden Stadium and it was advantage Tunbridge Wells as they took a 2-0 lead to Dean Street to defend. The second leg produced every emotion in the book for the Tunbridge Wells faithful as they saw their first leg lead cancelled out as Shildon raced into a 3-0 lead and looked to be heading to the capital. However, Martin Larkin’s team were made of sterner stuff and a goal in the 72nd minute squared the tie up again at 3-3. For the third time in the competition the Wells needed extra time, but again they emerged as winners as Perry Spackman’s header sent them to Wembley. In the other semi-final, Spennymoor Town beat Guernsey 4-1 on aggregate to make it to Wembley. Another sizeable contingent from Kent made the short trip to the capital to get behind the Wells. A crowd of 16,751 was present at the New Wembley with over 11,000 of them coming from Kent. Unfortunately, Tunbridge Wells couldn’t match the achievements of Deal Town fourteen years earlier with Spennymoor running out 2-1 winners, but they could at least celebrate the goal of the game from Josh Stanford!

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Above – Heroes All! – The excellent publication put together by the Kent Sports News team documenting the Wells glorious run to the FA Vase Final in the 2012/13 season. 

The 2014/15 and 2015/16 season saw Pheonix Sports and Ashford United make the 5th Round and Quarter Finals respectively but the heroics of Deal Town during the 1999/00 season have yet to be matched. Tunbridge Wells came ever so close to adding the second Kent name on the famous old trophy, but the recent North-East dominance of the competition put pay to that in May 2013.

The FA Vase 2016/17 Final video highlights

The 2017/18 FA Vase First Qualifying round got underway on Saturday 9th September with Kent clubs Rochester United, Hollands & Blair, Glebe, Deal Town, Sheppey United, Whitstable Town, Snodland Town, Lydd Town, K Sports, Chatham Town, Gravesham Borough, Canterbury City and Lordswood all looking to make it all the way to Wembley.

The pick of the 1st Qualifying Round wins was Southern Counties East League front-runners Sheppey United hammering Southern Combination league side Loxwood 5-1 at their impressive Havill Stadium, which set up a very juicy Second Qualifying Round clash with former finalists Tunbridge Wells.

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The Havhill Stadium @Holm Park – The impressive new home of the re-formed Sheppey United

 

Saturday 23rd September 2017 – FA Vase 2nd Qual Rd – Sheppey United 2 v 2 Tunbridge Wells(AET) – Havill Stadium – Att – 331 

The Island of Sheppey is certainly not a hotbed for football in Kent, but the island’s main senior football club certainly has a lot of history to be proud of and at one time in its history, the club could regularly attract four-figure crowds to their former and much-loved Botany Road ground on the Island. Unfortunately, the former Southern League club sold their ground to Swale housing in 1992 and this started a long and slow death for the club. The former Sheppey United went to the wall at the end of the 2000/01 campaign and it wasn’t until the 2003/04 season that Sheppey United had an adult side playing back in the Kent County League after remaining as a Youth club from 2001 to 2003.

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Match action from Sheppey United v Tunbridge Wells

A name change to AFC Sheppey in 2007 didn’t last very long, and by 2010 they were again playing under the name of Sheppey United, but mid-way through the 2012/13 season they resigned from the Kent County League. However, a proper revival of the club came about in 2013 when they merged with established Kent County League side Sheerness East and became Sheppey & Sheerness United with the club playing their games at a Holm Park formerly Sheerness Steel Sports Ground.

 

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The club again changed their name to that of the Island in 2014, and a second place finish in the Kent Invicta League was achieved at the end of the 2015/16 season. The Kent Invicta League merged into the Southern Counties East League in 2016 and Sheppey United were placed in the Premier Division. A sixth-place finish last season (2016/17) was a good start to life in the SCEL Premier Division and this season they have started very well with four wins, two draws and just two defeats from their first eight games and were sitting in third in the SCEL going into this Vase clash. However, their visitors from Royal Tunbridge Wells had played two games less than them in the SCEL, and had won two, drawn two and lost two of their first six games.

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A healthy crowd of 331 had come along to see the battle of these two Kent clubs and they left having certainly got their monies worth as both clubs battled hard for a place in the 1st Round proper. The Havehill Stadium has undergone a major overhaul since the two clubs Sheppey and Sheerness merged in 2013, and it’s now a ground more than fit to host football a lot higher up the Non-League pyramid. The first half saw the Ites attacking their covered Botany Road end where the locals were present in good numbers. After just six minutes, the home fans had a goal to cheer as Luke Grit lobbed the Wells keeper from 25 yards out to give Sheppey the lead. It was a great start to the tie and the Ites held that lead until the half-time interval. The traveling contingent from Tunbridge Wells was vocal throughout and their songs were as witty as anything that can be heard further up the pyramid.

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However, a half time chat from Wells manager Jason Bourne had the away side back in their stride and they quickly equalised with just two minutes of the second half played through a strike from Jack Harris after the initial shot from Kieron Tarbie had been parried away by the home goalkeeper. The game then ebbed and flowed with both sides having chances to get in front before the referee pointed to the spot in the 68th minute to award Sheppey a penalty. It was scored by Dan Bradshaw and looked to be the goal that would send Sheppey through to the next round.

 

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Sheppey United go 2-1 up with a penalty from Dan Bradshaw

 

However, the Wells kept plugging away and with just two minutes of normal time remaining grabbed the equaliser through striker Steven Ita. A 2-2 score line sent the game into extra time but neither side could find the winner which meant a replay back at the Culverden Stadium the following Tuesday night. It had been a good contest between two good sides at this level but, the Islanders certainty would have felt the more disappointed having been two minutes from victory and passage to the First Round.

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Snapshot – A full set of pictures click here – Sheppey United v Tunbridge W – Picture Gallery

In Conversation with Jamie Howell

It’s a sign of just how fragile the life of a football manager has become that Antonio Conte, a Premier League winner in just his first season in English football in 2016/17, was under pressure just two games into this season. However, whilst the average length of time in charge seems to be a season and a half in the Premier and Football Leagues, further down the pyramid the chairman of semi-professional football clubs tends to be a bit more forgiving and allow their managers time and don’t panic after a run of bad results or form. The eight seasons that Jamie Howell stood in the home dugout of Nyewood Lane were some of the most successful and memorable seasons the supporters of Bognor Regis Town have witnessed in a long time, but it’s unlikely he would have been given the same length of time further up the leagues that’s for sure,

 

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Photo by Tommy McMillian – https://www.flickr.com/people/56357999@N07/

 

However, when Jamie and Darin Killpatrick agreed to take over as joint managers from club legend Jack Pearce in 2009, the Rocks were, in football terms, at least on a life-support machine and the club was heading in only one direction and that was down. A financial crisis, a points deduction, an arson attack on the clubhouse, a former manager battling a serious illness and a mass exodus of players were just the tip of a very big iceberg that hit the club around the same time. Did Jamie and Darin quite realise what a huge task they had on their hands to turn the club around? “When Darin and I arrived back at the club we were in a difficult situation, Jack had been ill and the current side had just been relegated. I think we both agreed it was going to be a big job but we were determined that when we did leave at some stage that we wanted the club to be in a better state than when we found it.” However, before the club could start the rebuilding process, they were to suffer another relegation to the Isthmian Division One South in April 2010, just one league above the Sussex County League. 

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The following season, 2010/11, Jamie, Darin and the club started the long road back, but they were to suffer an early hammer blow. The team had challenged at the top of the league for most of the season and went into the final game knowing a win would earn the club a league title and promotion double. Their opponents on the final day were struggling Chatham Town, but the home team hadn’t read the script. The Chats took a first half lead, and despite an equaliser by Bognor before half-time, their relentless pressure in the second half couldn’t produce a winner, so the Met Police pipped the Rocks to the title by just one goal. It was utter devastation for everyone involved in the club and for Jamie himself too; “I think that was one of my most disappointing days in football, I felt we had the best team in the league, the supporters were brilliant as always and it was all set for us to go there and clinch the title. I think I learnt from that experience as it shows how cruel football can be. I remember going into the bar at the end of the game and I was trying to lift the players for the play-off game on Tuesday, but it was a real low point.” Unfortunately, Jamie and Darin just couldn’t lift the players in time and Dulwich Hamlet ended the promotion dream at the Lane on a miserable evening that ended in a 3-1 defeat for Bognor.

 

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Photo by Tommy McMillian – https://www.flickr.com/people/56357999@N07/

 

Despite the disappointment of the Chatham and Dulwich games, the club and the players dusted themselves down, licked their wounds and managed to secure another shot at the play-offs the following season. However, there was yet more drama in the play-off semi-final as Godalming Town played their part in a dramatic 4-4 draw resulting penalty shootout in which Bognor goalkeeper, Craig Stoner, emerged as the hero to send Bognor through to the final. Their opponents in the final were Dulwich Hamlet. A single goal from loyal defender Stuart Axten won the final for Bognor, and Jamie and Darin had their first promotion under their belts. After the crushing disappointment of the previous campaign, had Jamie and his assistant done anything different to get the club over the line this time; “I don’t think so, I actually felt we were a better team the previous season but the players were really together and we had a great team spirit. When you play good teams, as Dulwich were, the margins are so tight. I remember in the final taking a risk by bringing off Ashley Robinson after 60 minutes and thinking can we defend and see the game out? Dulwich then got a penalty and if they scored they would have the momentum to go on and win. Luckily Stoner saved it and from that moment I felt it was just our day”. It certainly was Bognor’s day, and the club was back in the Isthmian Premier Division.

 

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Photo by Tommy McMillian – https://www.flickr.com/people/56357999@N07/

 

After promotion to a higher level, Jamie had to make some tough decisions if the club were to kick on again, and that meant letting players go who had helped get the club promotion. It wasn’t always an easy process; “I have always tried to be loyal to players but ultimately if I felt a decision needed to be made for the benefit of the club that would improve us, then that would be my job to do so. I don’t think we had a massive turnaround of players. I would bring them in, Dabba and the coaches would work tirelessly on the training ground and then they hopefully would stay with us for a long time.”  After that first promotion, it didn’t take long for the club to adapt to the higher level, but behind the scenes there was a lot of hard work involved in getting the players in that Jamie needed to help push the club forward and club legend Jack Pearce played a major part in that; “I was very lucky to have a chairman that understood the difficulties of a manager as he had done it himself. We couldn’t afford to buy players so we had to identify them and then work hard with them. Jack and the fans also gave us time. I remember in the first season in Ryman Premier we were around the play-offs in January and we played Enfield. During the game, our goalkeeper, Stuart Axten and Ben Andrews got injured and we only had a small squad with not much experience or back up. I spoke to Jack at the time and he said we should use the rest of the season to give experience to the likes of Doug Tuck, Ollie Pearce and others. Unfortunately, we did not win a game for the rest of the season, but the next season we came third with a core of young players that we had molded into a team.”

 

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Photo by Tommy McMillian – https://www.flickr.com/people/56357999@N07/

 

That season was the 2013/14 campaign which ended with the club finishing in 3rd place with 85 points and another play-off campaign. The higher placed finish gave the team home advantage at the Lane in the semi-final, but Lowestoft Town proved a hurdle too far, as the Suffolk club won 2-1 on the night. It was setback from Jamie, Darin and the players as a mixture of fatigue and fixture congestion caught up with everyone at the club. How did Jamie reflect on that season? “I just felt we had a lot of injuries and the sheer number of matches at the end of the season meant we just ran out of steam at the wrong time.” The following season, 2014/15, was very much one of transition on the pitch as the club ended with a final league position of 14th. After six seasons in charge did Jamie or Darin start to have any doubts that they could still take the club forward? “I think that the end of that season (14/15) was a real cross road for me. I remember we played Margate at the end of the season and we lost 3-0 and Jack, Dabba and I had a heated debate at the end of the game (this is how we communicated most of the time by the way!) For me personally, I just wanted to compete in this league. Jack said we couldn’t afford to match Margate and their finances and he didn’t want us to put the club in jeopardy. However, Darin and I felt we needed more help and thankfully that summer Jack really backed me financially and we signed Jason Prior, Craig Robson and a few others and it worked for us, as we had a great season”. It certainly was a great season the 2015/16 campaign, a season of so many highlights and one that will go down in folklore at Nyewood Lane.

 

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Photo by Tommy McMillian – https://www.flickr.com/people/56357999@N07/

 

There was, of course, the fabulous FA Trophy run to the semi-finals which included wins over the likes of Maidstone United, Sutton United, Altrincham and Torquay United, plus the FA Cup giant killings against Lowestoft Town and Oxford City. In the league, a tremendous last few months of the season saw the club almost snatch the title and promotion from under Hampton and Richmond’s very noses. That run included six straight wins and 24 goals. Nevertheless, promotion to step 2 was again to elude the club in the play-offs. A truly memorable season ended in an extremely heartbreaking way when nemesis Dulwich Hamlet scored in the 91st-minute winner in the play-off semi-final, after Jason Prior had missed a penalty in the second half. For Jamie though he only has special memories of his that campaign; “That season was brilliant, the FA Trophy run was superb and I felt we were very unlucky not to win the league. Those three away games in five days at Enfield, Dulwich and Kingstonian with a depleted squad probably cost us the league title, but who can forget those games against Torquay, Grimsby and Sutton which were just superb. One memory that really does stick out from that season was having the cars on the pitch against Altrincham on a freezing January night to get the game.”

 

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Photo by Tommy McMillian – https://www.flickr.com/people/56357999@N07/

 

After such a tremendous season in 2015/16, no-one quite expected Bognor to be challenging at the top again last season after losing some real quality from their squad in the summer of 2016, but challenge they did, and the 2016/17 season ended in an almost mirror image of that first season in the Isthmian South in 2010/11, when promotion and the title was snatched away on the very last day. This time it was Havant and Waterlooville who snatched the title from Bognor’s grasp, as in another ironic twist 2011 nemesis Met Police failed to read the script like Chatham Town had done and prevented the Rocks from claiming a deserved title and automatic promotion place. After such a dramatic ending to the season, somehow Jamie and Darin managed to raise the players’ spirits and finally get the club over the line and that promotion we all craved to step 2 through the dreaded play-offs. But just how did they do it? Jamie explains; “Drawing the game against Met Police and losing the league title was the hardest day in football for me. I so desperately wanted the club to win and it just didn’t happen. The next two days were hard but the players were a special bunch and showed tremendous resilience and they loved playing for each other and were brilliant especially against Dulwich when the pressure was really on to deliver.” Deliver they did though, and two second half goals from Jimmy Muitt and Ollie Pearce gave Bognor a 2-1 win and a long-awaited promotion to the National South.

 

Bognor Regis Town v Dulwich Hamlet, Ryman League Premier Play Off Final
Picture by Paul Paxford – Pitchside Photo – http://www.pitchsidephoto.co.uk

 

However, no sooner had the club and the supporters finished celebrating a glorious promotion, Jamie decided after eight seasons to depart Nyewood Lane and take up a full-time position with Sussex and National South rivals Eastbourne Borough. For a man that will go down in Bognor Regis Town FC’s history as one of its most successful ever managers and a club legend, how does Jamie himself reflect on his eight seasons in charge at the Lane, and how difficult was it for him walk away in the summer? “It was a very hard decision to leave as my time at Bognor was brilliant. I made so many good friends like Michael Birmingham, Colin Hunwick, Neil Cockcroft, Simon Cook, Coops, Rach and Lee Conway who were wonderful people to be around. We enjoyed five play seasons of play-off campaigns in eight years, with two promotions and the FA Trophy run. I hope the supporters of the club enjoyed my time at the club as much as I enjoyed being the manager, they were always brilliant and very supportive to me. Also, the players are a top group of men who were a joy to work with and I will always look at their results and wish them every success in the future which I am sure they will be. The club is in great hands with Jack and Dabba still at the club and I am sure success will continue. I was very lucky to have worked with them as they were an integral part of mine and the club’s success.” 

 

Bognor Regis Town v Dulwich Hamlet, Ryman League Premier Play Off Final
icture by Paul Paxford – Pitchside Photo – http://www.pitchsidephoto.co.uk

 

 

Judgement Day on the South Coast

Every now and again a game will come along that can define a season, define a football club and define a group of players. A game that is still only 90 minutes long, and which has the same amount of points available win or draw as all the other games before or after it, but the ramifications of a defeat can ruin a season of hard work. It is fair to say that the managers, players and supporters of Havant and Waterlooville and Bognor Regis Town have known for quite a number of weeks now that their respective clubs were heading for a showdown on Easter Monday that was likely to determine which of these two clubs could put themselves one giant step towards promotion and a league title to boot. The last few weeks have been like a chess game where each club makes their moves but the other counters that move with neither club able to play a move that proves decisive.

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The packed terraces of Westleigh Park on Easter Monday

At the start of the season, Havant and Waterlooville were expected to be challenging for promotion with a big name manager in former Portsmouth striker Lee Bradbury, who very much had the budget to match those ambitions. Meanwhile back along the A27, Bognor Regis Town and their manager Jamie Howell were still reeling from having the heart of their successful 2015/16 squad picked apart by their neighbours and rivals Havant, who signed two of their players; top scorer Jason Prior and his striker partner, Alfie Rutherford. Nevertheless, Jamie Howell managed to secure the services of James Fraser, a well-travelled striker who had previously spent time at Nyewood Lane, and crucially Howell was also able to keep hold of centre-half Sami El-Abd, a towering figure at the back at Nyewood Lane.

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Former Bognor legend Jason Prior lines up against his former employers

At the start of the season not many Bognor supporters expected this current Bognor Regis Town team to be challenging again for promotion, having gone almightily close last season, but Jamie Howell and his assistant, Darin Kilpatrick, have fostered a team spirit and determination in a group of players who never quite know when they’re beaten and who want to achieve what they came so desperately close to last season. The 1-1 draw as recently as March, at play-off chasing Leiston where Bognor scored deep into second-half injury time, was case in point of this team never quite knowing when they’re beaten.

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Lee Bradbury and his management team look on

It has certainly been an interesting last few months in the battle for supremacy at the top of the Ryman Premier League, with both Havant and Bognor both spending time at the top, and at one stage the gap had grown to 7 points in Bognor’s favour, but Havant did have games in hand. However, since suffering a 3-0 away defeat against Dulwich Hamlet in late March, the Hawks have slowly closed the gap to Bognor with a run of four wins and a draw. Meanwhile, Bognor themselves haven’t exactly been faltering but their one and only defeat in their last seven games against Enfield Town meant a four-point gap was reduced to just one point, meaning the clash between the clubs on the penultimate weekend of the season had suddenly become a fixture both clubs dare not lose.

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Monday 17th April 2017 – Ryman Premier League – Havant & Waterlooville 1 v 0 Bognor Regis Town – Westleigh Park – Att 3455

On Easter Friday, Havant had briefly gone to the top of the table with a vital 2-1 win away at relegation threatened Canvey Island, whilst Bognor had to wait another 24 hours before they could kick-off against playoff chasing Harlow Town on Saturday. A defeat against Harlow for Bognor would mean Havant could possibly win the title by beating their south Coast rivals, but Bognor kept their discipline, unlike their opponents Harlow, who were reduced to 9 men, and a 3-0 win meant Bognor reclaimed top spot and kept the gap to one point going into the clash at Westleigh Park. Suddenly now Bognor not only had the opportunity to end Havant’s hopes of automatic promotion with a win, a win would also mean the league title would be secured in their distance neighbours back yard.

A big crowd was expected at Westleigh Park and the massive queues snaking around the local roads leading to the ground meant the kick-off was delayed by 15 minutes, as the supporters of both clubs turned out in big numbers to cheer on their heroes. The game already had a lot riding on it before kick-off, but the added spice of Jason Prior and Alfie Rutherford playing against their former club was another intriguing slot plot to this match.

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The game kicked off under dull and overcast skies with Havant attacking down the gentle slope towards the packed South Terrace as both sets of supporters were scattered throughout the ground and without the need for segregation. The Bognor manager was without the services of influential utility man Gary Charman, who had suffered an injury in the previous game, and he also decided to leave out pacy winger Ollie Pearce. The striking partnership of little and large pair Jimmy Muitt and Jimmy Wild looked to run into the channels and pull the Havant back line apart, as James Fraser and Doug Tuck did the dirty work in the middle of the park.

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It was a cagey affair in the early exchanges as both teams looked to avoid conceding a goal rather than go forward and play on the front foot. The first real chance of the game was created in the 7th minute by Theo Lewis who crossed for ex-Bognor man Rutherford who headed straight at Dan Lincoln in the Bognor goal. Rutherford then returned the favour seven minutes later when he crossed for Lewis, but Lewis’ header deflected wide for a corner. As the half wore on, Bognor started to find some space in midfield with James Fraser driving forward and it was the ex-Whitehawk man who won a free kick in promoting a promising position. Dylan Barnett swung in a good ball which Sami El-Abd beat the Havant keeper too, but no Bognor player was on hand to pick up the loose ball.

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Former Bognor man Rutherford was causing his old club plenty of problems and he was unlucky not to open the scoring when Chad Field blocked a goal-bound shot. The game was now opening up and the home team looking the more likely of the two teams to find that vital breakthrough. Bognor defended well though and showed why they had only conceded 40 goals, the least amount in the division. A 0-0 score line at half time meant Bradbury and Howell could be pleased their teams had kept a clean sheet in the first half but the game needed a goal to give the big crowd something to cheer.

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The second half began in much the same manner as the first had ended, but the home side were starting to find their rhythm. Rutherford again came close to breaking the deadlock for the home team when he fired just wide of the post from a half clearance by Bognor six minutes into the half. Bognor goalkeeper Dan Lincoln then had to be at his best to push away a dangerous cross. However, from the resulting corner, the former Braintree stopper could do nothing to stop Wes Fogden from opening the scoring. A quick one-two with the corner taker saw Fogden find space in the box, he then wrong-footed the defender and fired a superb shot into the far corner of the net. The home supporters were ecstatic with joy as the Bognor support suddenly started to feel a case of déjà vu after the dramas of last season.

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Is this the goal that clinches the Ryman Premier League title and promotion for Havant?

The goal had galvanised the home side, but for Bognor, the game plan of containing Havant had been undone and now they had to open up more and come forward which meant move space for Havant to exploit going forward. That’s not to say Bognor weren’t a threat when they were in and around the Havant box, and it was the tall Jimmy Wild who almost equalised a few minutes later only for a great clearance from under the crossbar by a Havant defender. Jamie Howell decided it was time for a change on the hour mark and Ollie Pearce was brought on to replace Muitt. Bognor then almost found themselves 2-0 down when Lincoln saved a close-range header from a dangerous cross.

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Bognor manager Jamie Howell paces up and down his techincal area

James Fraser was looking the man most likely to grab the goal Bognor now needed, but his shot from 20 yards out with twenty minutes remaining cleared the crossbar. Fogden was the next to go close for the home side, but like Fraser, his shot from outside the area was high, wide and not very handsome. A flurry of corners for both teams came to nothing, and when Fraser’s deflected shot crept just past the post with about ten minutes remaining came to nothing you started to get the sense this just wasn’t going to be Bognor’s day.

The away support raised the noise level and tried to encourage the Bognor players to one last effort at finding a crucial equaliser when the fourth official signalled five minutes of injury time would be played, but in truth, it was Havant that looked the most likely to score with Prior and sub Tarbuck going close late on.

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The final whistle signalled a huge roar from the home support as Havant moved to the top of the table with a two-point gap over Bognor with just one more game to play. It was a disappointing afternoon for Howell and his players who knew a win would see the team clinch the title and promotion. The West Sussex club must now beat relegation-threatened Met Police at home on the final day and pray that another relegated-threatened team Kingstonian beat Havant to let them back in. If Havant do what is required, then Bognor will have to settle for a third play-off appearance in four seasons with likes of Enfield Town and Dulwich Hamlet waiting to inflict yet more play-off heartache if Bognor are not at their best.

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The large following from Bognor sing loud and proud long after the final whistle has blown

A small band of Bognor supporters stayed behind in the ground long after the final whistle to sing and chant despite the crushing disappointment of defeat. They all knew this had been a pivotal day in the promotion and title race, but they were determined to try to show how proud they were of their heroes who had defied the odds to even be in this position at this stage of the season. Eventually, assistant manager Darin Kilpatrick came out to acknowledge to fantastic support and many will be hoping he and Jamie can still inspire this group of players to great heights even if the play-offs now look the most likely route for promotion to step 2. If one club deserves a promotion after a couple of near misses its Bognor, but in sport, much like in life, you don’t always get what you want or deserve.

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Click the link for a full set of snaps from the match – Havant v Bognor

The Battle for Ryman League supremacy

There was once a time when Enfield FC were a real force to be reckoned with in the semi-professional game. They were a club that won Isthmian and Conference League trophies and FA amateur competitions as a matter of course and even once had ambitions to climb the ladder into the Football League. Unfortunately, their one and only application to join the Football League in 1986 fell well short of the number of votes required to gain promotion (The bottom four Division 4 clubs all gained re-election that year) despite the North London club winning the Conference title in 1985/86. In an ironic twist of fate, the following year the winners of the Conference were finally granted automatic promotion to the Football League without having to apply for election, but it came too late for Enfield who could only finish 4th that season behind Maidstone United (3rd), Barnet (2nd) and Champions, Scarborough. Both Barnet and Maidstone United both went on to eventually gain promotion to the Football League in the following seasons, but Enfield never got that close again and just three years after reaching the pinnacle of non-league football, the club suffered relegation out of the Conference and they haven’t been back up to this level since.

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However, whilst relegation to the Isthmian League in 1990 was a blow to the club and its supporters, the club continued to be a force in the Premier Division of the Isthmian League, a feeder league to the Conference at the time, with the club finishing runners-up in 1990/91, 1991/92, 1993/94, 1995/96 and 1996/97. The club also added another Isthmian League Championship trophy to their ever expanding trophy cabinet in 1994/95, their eighth Isthmian title since accepting an invitation to join the Isthmian League structure in 1977. The club also finished runners-up in the Premier Division at the end of another four hugely successful seasons between 1964 and 1981. All in all, Enfield spent eighteen unbroken seasons in the Isthmian Premier Division from 1963/1964 to 1980/81 season and were involved in title race 16 times, with seven Championships finding their way to this corner of North London. Quite a remarkable run of success for any football club at any level.

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The title-winning season that will live long in the memory for many Enfield fans, took place under the guidance of manager Ten Hardly who guided the E’s to their third consecutive Isthmian Championship title in 1977/78. A total of 110 points were earned over 42 games with the team winning 35 games, drawing 5 and losing just twice. The team also added 96 goals in the for column whilst letting in just 27. Their nearest challengers, Dagenham, were 31 points behind in second place! After their last title win in 1995, the club were denied promotion back to the Conference due to failing to meet the Conference financial criteria at the time. Since adding their eighth Isthmian League Championship title to their trophy cabinet in 1994/95, Enfield has yet to add a ninth and tenth title to their Isthmian honours list.

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Fast forward just six years to 2001 and the club were now in a real mess off the field and their trophy-laden past was very much just that, a thing of the past. The sale of their Southbury Road ground in 1999 was the start of major power struggle at the club between the chairman, the local council and the supporters, which would eventually end with a group of supporters breaking away to form a new club called Enfield Town after the chairman of Enfield FC failed to hand the club over to the supporters’ trust and £100,000 from the sale of the ground. The club had played at Southbury Road for 63 years, but the chairman, with the help of the council, sold the ground for housing despite strong opposition from other directors, supporters and the general public at the time. On Saturday the 23rd June 2001 the Enfield Supporters trust voted by a margin of 9-1 to form a breakaway club and they haven’t looked back since. Enfield Town has continued winning trophies in the same manner as the original club did with two Essex Senior League titles, two Essex Senior Cups, two Middlesex Charity Cups and a Gordon Brasted Memorial Trophy successes already added to the new club’s honours list. The club also gained promotion back to the Isthmian League North in 2004 and then won the North Championship in 2011/12. After stabilising in the Ryman Isthmian Premier League for three seasons the club was cruelly denied a playoff berth at the end of the 2014/15 season when they were deduced 3 points for fielding an illegible player. The club didn’t take the deduction of three points lying down and the row between the club officials and the authorities keep the playoff semi-finals from being staged for a brief period. Eventually, the punishment stuck and the club ended the season in 7th placed, two points away from finishing in the play-off positions.

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However, if the officials and supporters were left feeling sorry for themselves after an admin error cost them a play-off berth in 2014/2015, then the end of last season another cruel twist was about to strike. A final day meeting with Hampton and Richmond became a fixture that would not only determine the outcome of Enfield Town’s season, their hosts Hampton needed at least a draw to win the title and prevent second place Bognor Regis Town snatching the title away. In a dramatic day of action, second place Bognor won by four clear goals in their match which meant a defeat for Hampton against Enfield would hand the trophy to Bognor, consign Hampton to the play-offs but also enable Enfield Town to gain a play-off place. It was a tense and nervous afternoon but Hampton defended for their lives under sustained Enfield pressure and held out for a 0-0 draw which was enough to clinch Hampton the Championship whilst ending Enfield Town’s play-off hopes in the process. The newly formed club eventually finished 6th, which is their highest finished since re-formation in 2001, but it felt very much a case of what if much like the season before.

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Saturday 1st April 2017 – Ryman Premier Division – Enfield Town 1 v 0 Bognor Regis Town – Queen Elizabeth Stadium – Att 687

Whilst the supporters of old the Enfield FC and newly formed Enfield Town have Championship successes to look and reflect back on over the years, down in one corner of West Sussex the players, supporters and officials of Bognor Regis Town must wonder if they will ever have their name etched on the Isthmian League Championship honours board. As mentioned above the club couldn’t have come any closer than they did last season when Hampton and Richmond pipped them by a point on the last day of the last season. It almost had echoes of their Ryman League South Division title miss in 2010/11 when just one goal cost them the title that year. The play-offs have also provided yet more heartache with the club losing in the semi-finals in 2010/11 (Ryman south), 2013/14 and 2015/16 in the Ryman Premier. The club did manage to overcome their play-off hoodoo in 2011/2012 with a dramatic penalty shootout semi-final win over Godalming and a tight and nervy single goal win in the final that year against Dulwich Hamlet. Nevertheless, the club is still very much haunted by their play-off demons of 2014 and 2016 when Lowestoft Town and Dulwich ended their hopes of promotion in the semi-final.

  Further reading –  One game too far – Bognor Playoff heartache

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The league leaders survive an early scare as Enfield attack from the get go

During the summer Bognor manager Jamie Howell also had his two best strikers snatched away from under his nose when Ryman Premier new boys Havant & Waterlooville swooped to capture club legend Jason Prior and his strike partner in crime Alfie Rutherford. Howell also lost an excellent goalkeeper in Grant Smith as well as utility players Snorre Nilsen and Craig Robson. The spine of the team had essentially been ripped out and a massive re-building job was required. It left many Bognor supporters believing this current campaign would be one of transition. However, it’s been nothing of the sorts. The Sussex club have lead the way at the top of the Ryman Premier League for much of the second half of the season and they stand on the brink of their first ever title-winning season. In a crazy twist of fate going into this game against play-off chasing Enfield Town, only Havant and Waterlooville could now realistically snatch the title away from under Bognor’s nose with the Hampshire club four points adrift with five games left to play this season. If Bognor were the hound chasing the hare of Hampton last season, Bognor has themselves become the hare to be chased down and caught by a hungry Havant.

 

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In many ways the Bognor squads on 2013/14 and 2015/16 were stronger and much better equipped to gain promotion to step 2, but Howell and his assistant Darin Kilpatrick have worked miracles yet again to put Bognor in a position where just five more wins will guarantee the club promotion to step 2 and a league title to boot. However, football is never as simple as that it is, and their opponents Enfield needed the points as they themselves are in an absorbing play-off race where before kick-off just five points separated 3rd position Leiston and 10th placed Wingate and Finchley. The drama of last season’s final day might yet be eclipsed and then some.

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First half action from the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Enfield

The midweek action had seen Bognor keep the gap at the top to four points over second place Havant, and with Havant playing at home to playoff chasing Dulwich, Bognor would be looking towards Dulwich and hoping they could repeat their 3-0 win over Havant just a few weeks earlier. A large crowd had turned up at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium with a coach load of Belgian football supporters adding to the atmosphere and noise. Plenty of Bognor fans had also made the journey up from the coast but they must have had their hearts in their months as the hosts were almost in front immediately. Only three minutes had elapsed on the clock when home striker Dernell Wynter was in on goal with just Bognor keeper Dan Lincoln to beat but his shot was not hard or accurate enough and Lincoln pushed it away to safety. Nevertheless, the warning signs were there for the league leaders that this was possibly their toughest fixture in their run-in.

 

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The home team were the much better of the two teams in the first period and their pace and width were causing Bognor all manner of problems. In the 20th minute, the Bognor players and support were again thankful for poor finishing as Scott Shulton couldn’t get his feet sorted after a brilliant dummy had presented him with a clear sight of goal. The away side was hanging on in there at this point with the crowd right behind the home team who were putting pressure on the leaders every time they went forward. The goal finally came with half hour of the game gone and it was Shulton who had a hand in it. A wonderful diagonal ball found its way through to Karl Oliyde who controlled the ball and sent a wonderful curling shot beyond the despairing dive of Lincoln. It was just reward for a great opening half hour of high-intensity football from the home team. The noise levels rose further in the stands as the contingent of Belgium supporters contributed to a good atmosphere.

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The home team had further chances to add to their one goal but the centre back pair of Sami El Abd and Chad Field were showing just why the leaders had conceded the lowest number of goals in the division. That being said the leaders were struggling to find their rhythm further up the pitch and a half-time dressing down by manager Jamie Howell was needed after a tough half of football.

The second half was a much more tactical affair as the home side looked to protect what they had whilst the leaders probed away but lacked the spark that was needed to ignite them into life. The news wasn’t good from Hampshire either, as Havant were doing the business against Dulwich with their winning goal coming from former Bognor striker and club legend Jason Prior. Meanwhile back in Greater London the current Bognor top scorer James Fraser was struggling to get the better of Enfield centre-half who was using all his size and frame to repelled the Bognor attacks of which there were few. If anything it was the home side that was the more likely to add to the score line in the second half. Their best chance of the second period fell to Tyler Campbell on 73 minutes but he blasted over from close range.

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As the final minutes ticked away the game was drifting towards a likely home win but the leaders were not about to throw the towel in just yet. Goalkeeper Dan Lincoln came forward to make himself a nuisance as Bognor threw everyone forward, but they lost possession from the corner and Enfield also broke away to score only to be denied by some great defending. Then with time also up Fraser fired a shot from the edge of the area that had the home keeper Nathan McDonald flying across his goal to turn the ball around the post. It was the leaders last chance to rescue a point but in truth, it would have been harsh on the Enfield players who more than matched the leaders on the day.

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No quarter or inch was given by either of these two promotion chasing teams

As for the title race that now looks very open as the gap came down to one point after Havant’s win over Dulwich Hamlet. It’s still Bognor’s to lose as if they win all their remaining games which will include a humdinger of a clash against Havant, the title will be lifted no matter what Havant do in their remaining fixtures. The three points earned by Enfield Town were crucial to their charge for the play-offs. Next up for them was a huge clash against Billericay, another club in the play-off mix, a game neither team dare not lose.

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There is so much still to play for and no matter what happens from here on in for Enfield Town and Bognor this season, surely this is going to be one of the greatest endings to a Ryman Isthmian Premier League season for many a year. For Enfield it will bring back memories of their own final day Championship winning season in 1979/80 when they won the title on the very last day with an amazing comeback against their opponents and their Championship rivals that day Walthamstow, clinching the title after a 3-3 draw. For Bognor, they will be praying they’re not going to end up the bridesmaids yet again.

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A full set of match day snaps can be found clicking the link here – Match Photography