One hundred and forty seven.
Without context, it’s just a number. Is it the percentage pay rise Alexis Sanchez will get when he moves to Manchester United? Is it the claim Donald Trump makes for his own IQ? Is it the number of times that Boris Johnson puts his foot in his mouth during a calendar month? Or is it the number of brains cells Antonio Conte loses every time he considers purchasing Andy Carroll or Peter Crouch?
It could, truthfully, be all of those things (although it’s probably an under-estimate of the third option), but in this case it’s an average attendance increase, and it belongs to Walton Casuals. Sitting in sixth place in the Bostik South Division this morning, with only six league defeats all season and only one loss in the last six, anyone employing a sixth sense would probably have come to the conclusion that Casuals manager Anthony Gale is the happiest man in Elmbridge at the moment. Six, incidentally, is also the number of grounds, permanent and semi-permanent, that Casuals have called home before the official opening of the Elmbridge Sports Hub on 14th September- Elm Grove Rec, Franklyn Road (later the Waterside Stadium), Stompond Lane (with Walton & Hersham), Addlestone’s Liberty Lane, Merstham FC and Whyteleafe FC being the others (there were also three matches at Cobham earlier this season if we want to get picky, but they were almost an afterthought after the Sports Hub opened slightly late). Casuals actually played their first match at their new ground a week before it was officially opened, by the way- and indeed had played twice, against Horsham and East Grinstead Town, before the ribbon was finally cut.
A collection of contemplative coaches
Being in your own home, in your own home town, has a number of advantages- and to a great extent accounts for the rise in attendances. The Sports Hub was built on the site of the Waterside Stadium by Elmbridge Borough Council, and the construction meant that fans of the Stags had two years having to do a minimum of a forty mile round trip for a home match. Was it worth it? Looking around the new facility there can be little doubt that it was, but to get a real answer to that question you needed to ask a local. We found three before today’s match against Ramsgate- Spencer, Nathanial and Gareth.
Spencer, sporting a matching orange scarf/jacket combo, explained that he lived locally and that he’d become a committed supporter for the first time this season. “The opening of the Hub has brought something special to this end of the town, where previously there wasn’t much, and it’s attracted a number of people who live locally to come and watch the football- me included. I’ve seen people here this season who I hadn’t seen for years, and it’s brought the community together.” Gareth- a first timer- was waxing lyrical about the quality of the stadium. “I live locally and over the last three years I’ve walked along the riverbank and watched it being built. There was a buzz about the place before it opened, and you can see why. It’s fabulous- and- at this he gestured at the bar area- if the weather is awful you can even watch the entire game from inside!” The weather was horrible, but he was seen quite clearly outside just after kick off so the atmosphere was obviously attractive. The three predicted scorelines of 3-0, 4-1 and 2-1 just before one of us walked out into the drizzle and the rest turned their attention back to the fine draught beer that they were holding.
Ramsgate came into this match with three defeats- and two draws- in their last five. They won December’s Performance of the Month Award with victory over leaders Lewes on 16th December but haven’t won since, and indeed have only one point in their last three games, coming from behind at home to rock-bottom Shoreham to grab a 3-3 draw a fortnight ago. Last time out they fell to a single goal defeat at East Grinstead Town, and sat in eighteenth place, a full twenty-five points behind their opponents. You might have thought that their fans would be a little disenchanted with recent form, but the truth was somewhat different, and their outlook was typified by Mick, who described himself as dedicated to the Rams cause, having watched the club home and away for twenty years.
“Our performances have been far better than results might suggest.” Mick was quite clear that the Rams were on the up. “I’ve no idea how we only got a point against Shoreham, we should have scored ten, and we should have got something from the defeat against Greenwich, too- but we’ve got a young team and sometimes when they fall behind their heads drop a bit. But we’re in a season of transition. Lloyd (Blackman, the manager) has them playing good football and he’s building for the future. Under the last manager they’d have got a bit of stick from the fans given the results, but we all buy into what he’s doing and we know that next season, or perhaps the season after, if we can keep the side together we’ll be a force to be reckoned with.”
Spencer, Nathanial and Gareth
One of the Rams young guns, Rory Smith, had just returned to the club after spending a few days dodging the snow, training with Scottish Premier Division Aberdeen at Pittodrie. He returned with his ears ringing with praise courtesy of the former European Cup Winners Cup holders Head of Recruitment, Russell Williamson, and with two scouts- apparently from Millwall and Brentford- sitting in the stand watching him today. But these weren’t the only scouts in attendance; there were two more watching a few of the home side’s brightest prospects, particularly Josh Kelly and Sean McCormack, both on loan from National League Maidenhead.
The arrangement with Maidenhead has been particularly valuable to Casuals, and speaking to isthmian.co.uk in late September, Anthony explained how it came about. “We’re very fortunate to have Alan Devonshire, the manager of Maidenhead, as a friend. But he loans us players not because of that friendship but because he understands the work we will do with them. We’re a developmental club, and Josh and indeed a number of the other young players get to training an hour early so that I can work with them, and often stay for an hour afterwards so that they can continue to learn. Our philosophy is to do all we can to make these players as good as they can be, and they’re hungry for that. I know that we’re lucky now, we have a fantastic stadium and fabulous resources to enable that coaching- balls, goals, space and time- but we’re set up to make the most of that, and to create a great environment in which these young footballers can learn their trade.”
Both Kelly and McCormack were quickly to the fore in today’s game, but it was the away side who started the stronger, and it was apparent that Lloyd Blackman had done his homework. During a week where one of the main topics of conversation on the Back of the Net Radio Show had been whether sides at our level were good enough to build from the back, Casuals were set up to prove that indeed they were- but Blackman had sent out his Rams to stop them. From the off they attempted to give the Stags little time on the ball, pressuring and harrying the defenders and keeper Denzel Gerrar, and it was this that gave them the better of the earlier exchanges. Within the first five minutes Ramsgate had created three chances and forced one fabulous save from Gerrar, diving full length to thwart the impressive Alfie Paxman, and Tom Chapman had followed up by firing just past the upright as Casuals struggled to settle.
Gale didn’t seem ruffled, and Blackman wasn’t getting carried away either, and before long Casuals were applying pressure of their own, Kelly cutting inside two defenders, shimmying across the edge of the box before curling a shot wide. Youseff Bamba, undoubtedly man of the match today, then forced Rams keeper Jordan Carey into an excellent save before full back Charlie Dickens cleared off the line, and two minutes later- just after the quarter hour mark- a cross from McCormack once more had to be hacked away with the goal gaping. There was much to admire about the efforts of both sides, but also far too many wayward passes, but both managers continued to coach patiently from the sidelines. It was rather refreshing to listen to, and a great change from the usual hollering.
Spectatots shelter from the storm
Ramsgate then took control once more. First striker Aaron Millbank fired a shot across the keeper forcing a fine full stretch save, and Millbank then turned provider, setting up Paxman for a chance which he fired over the bar. A Chapman run earned a corner, then a shot from Jacob Mensah was cleared wildly at the back post as the away side threatened, before Casuals took over, Bamba first showing full back Jake Mackenzie a clean pair of heels- not for the last time- and crossing for Sonny Black to fire too close to the keeper, before the winger again got clear of the defence but this time elected to shoot himself, forcing an excellent save from Carey. The half time whistle went with the deadlock unbroken, but no lack of entertainment for the 108 who’d braved the foul weather.
Ramsgate started the second half as they had the first, and Millbank again went close, outpacing the defence before hitting the side netting from a tight angle. The other number nine, Kelly, then had an even better chance as he robbed a dithering Mensah on the edge of the Ramsgate box and fired goalwards, but Carey once more was his equal, deflecting the ball wide with an outstretched leg. At this Gale decided he’d seen enough and made two changes, bringing off Alex Kelly and McCormack and introducing the guile of Daryl Coleman and the pace of Tyrell Richardson-Brown. The former, particularly, immediately improved the accuracy of Casuals’ passing, and the home side took a far greater hold on the game, applying pressure which finally paid off on the hour mark.
Bamba, always a danger, took the ball just inside the Ramsgate half and charged down the left wing, leaving defenders in his wake as he made his way into the box. He then shaped and seemed to ease the ball across Carey into the far corner of the net; a movement which was followed by a celebration song from the Casuals supporters behind the goal which would have had Ritchie Valens spinning in his grave. You couldn’t fault their enthusiasm, but had Simon Cowell been the executive guest rather than FA Chairman Greg Clarke he’d have had them ejected from the ground for musical vandalism.
Actually, come to think of it, he’d probably have employed autotune and created a new boy band.
The Rams didn’t falter, but manager Blackman made what seemed a rather strange decision, replacing the always dangerous Millbank with Billy Munday. He didn’t seem injured, but the Rams fans at the back of the stand assumed he must be, and perhaps he was. It didn’t help, initially, and Carey was once more forced into action, saving very well from Richardson-Brown, before Ramsgate finally began to apply pressure. A shot from Chapman was deflected for a corner, and then Gerrar stretched full length to touch an inviting cross away from a gaggle of players at the far post just when it looked like the equaliser was on the cards.
Walton Casuals FC
Chapman and Paxman began to stretch the home defence, whilst the Stags tried to use the pace of Richardson-Brown and Bamba to move the ball away from danger, and as we approached added time the result was still in the balance. More Rams pressure resulted in some excellent defending and a header which dropped just over the bar- and then the referee brought the game to an end. Casuals were up to fourth, and their players celebrated with the fans behind the far goal, who responded by murdering some more classic songs with great panache.
Anthony Gale isn’t a glass-half-full sort of chap. He’s more of a glass-entirely-full-with-a-back-up-glass-just-in-case-the-first-one-gets-knocked-over sort of chap. He exudes optimism, sees the best in his players and indeed in everyone else, and seems entirely unperturbable on all occasions. So it was perhaps a surprise when, asked before the game whether he was happy with his sides progress this season, he rolled his eyes and replied, “yes, but we should be top!”
Asked to elaborate, he did so, in detail. “We’ve conceded far too many late goals”- he then recounted them, as if each one was indelibly imprinted upon his brain- “and we’ve missed seven penalties. I know it’s a case of what might have been, but had we been a bit more clinical, not made so many silly errors…” His eyes became drawn to his players, warming up just to his left and obviously full of beans. And the usual light came on.
“Look at them, though.” He grinned. “They’ve worked so hard- they work hard for each other, and for me, and they enjoy every minute. Most of them are really young, and they have so much promise. Some of them could go on to really big things, and if we don’t go up this season and can keep them together then we can win the league next year. But we could still go up this season…we’re really looking forward to going to Lewes next weekend. We should have beaten them here, but we gave them two silly goals…” the grin disappeared, momentarily, but it was soon back.
“This is a great place to play football, a great club, and we’re entertaining to watch. And yes- here he was prompted- if we end the season in the position we’re in now it’ll be the best position the club has ever achieved.” He wandered off, contemplating that statement, to stamp some gentle authority on the warm up.
A free kick is curled in
After the match, listening to the tuneless but joyful singing and looking at the smiles on the faces of everyone in orange, it was obvious that optimism was contagious around the Sports Hub at the moment. And it has every reason to be. They may not be cash rich, but Walton Casuals are rich in something that matters far more- and if you could bottle that, it would be worth far in excess of whatever Alexis Sanchez might earn at Old Trafford.
The future may indeed be orange.