Zinger-free, fence-sitting match reportage

Match Report by Joss Ackland's Spunky Backpack
During periodic spasms of boredom I’ll go to the archive, select a random year, see if we had a match that day and if we did, read the report. It’s fine, it passes the time and more often than not it gives a pleasant feeling of nostalgia, which is harmless as long as you don’t fall into the trap of thinking everything was better 16 years ago.

On Friday it was the 2002-03 season and the anniversary a Kent Senior Trophy tie with Crockenhill at Bourne Park. The official gate was 265 but in reality it was almost doubled by a contingent from one of the Vinters clubs. We won 6-0, everyone seemed to have a good time and it’s probable that a fair chunk of those present were also there yesterday. A pre-match conversation with a fellow veteran of that era went as follows: “Is there any part of you that misses those days?” And the answer was,with the single caveat that you at least knew you’d get an uninterrupted view, an emphatic “no.”

Ten years after reforming,2002-03 still felt ground zero, even though we were the featured club on Football Focus’s Road to Wembley. Saturday was a/an (delete according to which century you live in) historic occasion for a number of reasons. The first FA Cup second round tie to take place in Maidstone since 1987 (Kidderminster Harriers). The biggest crowd for a competitive game at this venue. The first time a 3pm kick-off has been broadcast internationally, from Maidstone and the first time we’ve actually hosted Football Focus, which I don’t normally bother with, but is pretty inoffensive when compared with the titanic robo-wank that appears on Sky and the cervical smear test that is “Premier League World” on BT. And Dan Walker might not be Des Lynam, but he’s not a massive arsehole and as this is 2018, the epitaph “not a massive arsehole” is almost something to aspire to.

It was slick,professionally managed and gave a great account of the club to the outside world. Oldham fans were impressed, saying it was better organised than many league clubs. And then we kicked off and the hope slowly flickered to nothing.

It was fairly even until they scored their first goal, a tap-in after the ball was knocked back into the danger area from the byline. From then on it was a struggle and we were reduced to hoping we’d shithouse something from a set piece. Given how fucking terrible some of these were it was no surprise that didn’t happen. Romain did astoundingly well to create a chance for himself out of fuck all when he made a yard of space and eluded four defenders, but the angle was against him and the keeeeepaaaah blocked his shot

The second goal, six minutes from time, illustrated a lot of what’s wrong with our current approach. Cassidy, supposedly a striker, was playing so deep he ended up bailing out the defence by dropping back to make a clearance. Unfortunately he was so deep he played Oldham’s attacker onside and they scored via a deflection off Sir Tom. It says something about the level of expectation that a groan went up when five minutes of Sir Alex time was signalled. It had become an ordeal to be endured instead of a great occasion. Iniesta 2 actually went close in the added time and Muldoon came on and hit the bar from about 35 yards out with the last kick, but something weird is happening.

In the space of seven days, one hour and 55 minutes that elapsed between kick-off at Havant and the final whistle v Oldham, the reasonable optimism generated by the Wrexham draw has vanished. Terms like “clown” are being chucked around. People are already openly questioning HW’s position. Some of the criticism isn’t justified. Saying get rid of HW now before he“destroys the club” is an overreaction: we’re built to withstand a bad managerial appointment or relegation and it’s too early to say this will end as either. With the cup-tied players available we should be a different proposition.

On the other hand,the critics aren’t the usual nutters. It’s interesting how few people are willing to jump in to defend him and as premature as it may seem, he’s invited some of this pressure. Saying we maybe need to be even more direct invited incredulity because the football,frankly, is fucking awful to watch at the moment. We used to, quite regularly, boot the ball up field for the big man, Jay May, Joe Pigott, Delano etc. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but there was at least someone up there and someone playing off him for the knock-downs. Now we’re playing in a rugby style, sometimes lumping it to an area where none of our players are near, kicking for touch and trying to pin them in the corners. You can just about get away with this when you win. It worked at Barnet and to an extent at Gravesend, but it’s grim enough to watch so if you’re Romain,running for 90 minutes while almost permanently marked by at least two players, it must be bloody awful to play. And we have scored the odd goal in the past through little “ticky-tacky” passes.  

There are other things. We used to get “mugged off” because we weren’t streetwise enough with referees. Now there’s a risk we’re goingtoo far the other way. Players are getting deserved bookings for stupid fouls, shoving their opponents in areas of the pitch where there’s no need to. It’s already costing us in terms of suspensions and do we really want to cultivate a reputation as a pack of Hendon-style arseholes?

The manager in 2002-03 was Jim Ward, who knew how to deal with fans, reporters and a chairman who had previous for sacking managers at half-time. This bought him time when things weren’t going well. He was working at Kent League level, but it’s easy to forget, when Football Focus is beamed live from the Spitfire, that this is still a non-league club, where people feel they have a direct connection with the owners, managers and players.

HW comes across as someone who’s already managing a league club. When a manager says he’d take a league win at Barrow over a cup win over Oldham, the first reaction is, really? You’d swap the chance to play a top-flight side and with it the chance to generate enough money to potentially fund a squad that would comfortably keep us up and make a promotion push next season, for three points in front of 100 away fans at Barrow?

The second reaction is: if that’s the case then you’d better beat Barrow.