Exactly three months ago today Hythe Town sat in eighth place in the Bostik South Division, ten points off the playoffs. Manager Clive Cook had just presided over a 3-3 draw at Ashford United, watching his side recover a 3-0 half time deficit to earn a point, and the natives of Fort Road were relatively content. The boardroom, however, wasn’t quite such a positive place. Chairman Paul Markland felt that the team were underachieving, and perhaps more importantly not providing value for their budget. He decided to act, and Cook was gone, offered a boardroom post which he declined, replaced by former Herne Bay boss Sam Denly.
Mid-season managerial changes don’t always work out. Indeed, for every Rafa Benitez there is an Alan Pardew, for every Jurgen Klopp a Gary Neville, despite the usual bounce effect that happens when a new man enters the dugout. Denly started with a victory over South Park, before watching his side fall to defeat against Carshalton Athletic.
East Grinstead Town- lovely folk and good football at a reasonable price!
He hasn’t experienced a single defeat since.
As Hythe entered this match at the GAC Stadium they did so with five successive victories behind them; indeed with ten victories in the last twelve. This run included wins over title challengers- now promoted- Lewes, and over playoff rivals Greenwich Borough and Cray Wanderers; and it left The Cannons in the final playoff place, two points ahead of Walton Casuals- a side who had been twelve points ahead of them when Denly was appointed. They were- with the exception of Carshalton Athletic- the most in-form side in Bostik South; indeed, the third best performing side in the top four levels of Non-League football, only bettered by the Robins and Weymouth. Could the Wasps cause an upset? Walton Casuals supporters about to watch their own side take on Cray Wanderers must have hoped so, but with East Grinstead having conceded 121 league goals this season- only four fewer than relegated Shoreham- the odds weren’t good.
Just how good- or not- those odds may be would depend on which East Grinstead Town turned up. If it was the side who came from behind to beat Thamesmead Town 5-4 last month, or the side that beat Ashford United 3-2, then Casuals fans would be entitled to have some hope. If it was the group who lost 7-1 to Hastings United or 8-1 to Whyteleafe, not so much. When the Wasps were buzzing, they could be formidable opponents. Too often this season, however, they’d performed as if the opposition were armed with insecticide. Still, their performances against Phoenix Sports and Lewes over the last two weekends, despite defeat, showed both spirit and promise.
All that said, it’s important that we look at East Grinstead’s season with an attempt at perspective. This isn’t a club with promotion aspirations, nor with the finance to back them up. Well run but aware of their limitations, the Wasps are far more focused on the bigger picture than on just their position in Bostik South. Just about to complete their fourth year in the division since promotion from the Sussex County League, they’d previously finished 22nd, 20th and 18th, and whilst the current 21st place was perhaps below their expectations it hardly bucked the trend enormously. Needing to use sixty players over the course of the season can hardly have helped, either.
East Grinstead Town v Hythe Town
In addition to the first team, East Court hosts an Under 23’s side, a Third XI, Under 17’s, 16’s, 15’s, 13’s and 11’s. As a club who need to grow their own future stars each of these sides are important, but there’s a real community focus, too; perhaps exemplified by the recent launch of a disability football initiative in partnership with a local community centre. As well as delivering ‘turn up and play’ sessions and providing coaching, manager Matt Longhurst is acting as a coach mentor to the captain of the disability team, Sean Hemmings, and helping him to meet his own coaching goals. This is a nice place to watch football, even on those occasions when the football isn’t all that nice to watch.
Wasps Twitter maestro Adam Robinson, resplendent in an Orlando City shirt (“bought on honeymoon”- and to be fair we were having Orlando weather for once), was taking a break from his attempts to become the next Phil Taylor in the clubhouse to enjoy the sunshine (and a crafty fag). As someone who had been almost ever-present this season you might have expected his memories of the campaign to be slightly tarnished by some of the results, but instead he demonstrated the optimistic demeanour which was typical of everyone involved with the home club. “We’ve had a few hammerings, true, but we’ve had so many injuries we’ve hardly ever been able to field a settled team- at one point we had eleven members of the squad on the treatment table. And they’re really young too- an average age of around 22. If we can keep them together, and Matt can keep improving them, we have to be positive about the future.”
(In the manager’s programme notes he confirmed that fifteen members of the squad had now committed for next season. That seems a good omen).
Asked about which players we should keep an eye on, Adam singled out Alex Gaggin- “a pacy, tricky winger who scores goals too. Was on Palace’s books as a kid, but he’s still very young, and still learning.” He then mentioned vice-captain Will Hoare, “an attacking midfielder and another very young player- and another one who is ex-Palace.” Both were starters today, so perhaps more about them later.
Hythe also had a few young players who promised much, prominent amongst them striker Zak Ansah. Ansah started his career with Arsenal, before moving on to Charlton Athletic, and had loan spells at Plymouth Argyle and Newport County. He then moved on to Woking, before signing for Hythe in January. For a player who is still only 23 it would be easy to look at the number of clubs he’s turned out for and make a judgement, but the truth is that he’s had a large number of serious injuries for one so young. Seventeen goals in eighteen games since signing for the Cannons tells its own story, and is a big factor in Hythe’s recent success. Amongst his teammates- although not so young- the club were also thankful for the form of former Dover Athletic and Tonbridge Angels midfielder Chris Kinnear, who also signed in January after being released by Angels as part of a cost-cutting exercise. These are two players who would fit into any side in the division- and perhaps the next division up, too.
The teams emerged into the sunshine at around five to three, and after the obligatory huddle the coin toss led to a quick change of ends. Grinstead started positively, and within thirty seconds the aforementioned Will Hoare had put the first shot of the match just wide from 20 yards. The ball spent much of the next few minutes out of play, both sides opting for long throws, before the first real chance for the away side came the way of Ansah, who charged through the middle only to see his shot blocked by a defender whilst the home supporters shouted for offside. Liam King was first to the resulting set piece, but was only able to direct his header wide of the near post.
Grinstead remained positive, and in the seventh minute a half volley from Leo Mazzone was kept out only by Hythe keeper Will Godmon’s face, before being cleared for a corner. Both teams were committed to attack, and you felt a goal could come at either end.
It went to Hythe, and of course it was that man Ansah who scored it.
He’d been involved in every Hythe attacking move so far. Looking for the ball constantly, he’d been in the centre, wide left, and dropping back to help the midfield, but on this occasion he was where you might expect, lurking on the edge of the box. The ball came his way and he controlled, swivelled, and the ball was instantly in the corner of the net, beyond the despairing dive of Dan Smith. Ninety seconds later it could have been- perhaps should- have been two, Liam King going past Smith but seeing his shot cannon back off a post.
The Wasps Army- not ambivalent about Three Bridges
This may have been the moment that you’d have expected East Grinstead heads to drop. But to their credit the opposite happened, and indeed they began to take the game to their opponents. Displaying an impressive range of passing and movement- and a couple of excellent back heels- they pressed and pressed, forcing a few desperate clearances, although without really testing Godmon. Stephane Bombelenga put a header wide of the back post, and the same player should have done better when a lovely pass found him reaching the ball just ahead of a defender twelve yards out, but his shot cleared the bar. This livened up the supporters behind the goal, who began to encourage their team in song, before becoming even more animated when expressing their affection for local adversaries Three Bridges. There’s a good chance they’ll be renewing that rivalry next season.
The half came to an end after only forty five seconds of added time, with no addition to the score- but those keeping up with proceedings from Walton Casuals would have felt rather positive. Their side had come from behind to lead 4-2 over Cray Wanderers, and The Wasps were making Hythe work. Perhaps a miracle might happen?
Grinstead started the second half as if they revelled in being cast in the role of miracle workers, and after an intense spell of pressure fashioned the first chance. A great forward pass found Hoare on the edge of the box, and the away fans held their breathe, but not for long as the ball was high, wide and not particularly handsome. Five minutes later and the home side would be made to regret not taking their chances, as Kieron Campbell charged into the box and was tripped. The referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot, and Darren Oldaker was composed enough to try a Panenka, entirely deceiving Smith as the ball dropped gently into the net to double the Hythe advantage.
The Wasps tried to respond. In the 65th minute the impressive Karn Miller-Neave created his own chance from full back, weaving to the edge of the Hythe box before firing wide. But in truth, from the moment the second goal went in the away side looked comfortable, soaking up pressure whilst looking to Ansah to spring them into attack. He didn’t disappoint, and a great flicked ball to substitute Jerson Dos Santos- who had only just entered the field- saw them out of sight, a hard shot across the keeper finding the net. “It’s a case of how many,” agreed the home fans to the right of the press box, and it perhaps could have been four only two minutes later if Kinnear and Mitchell Dickenson hadn’t decided to both head the same ball at the same time with the goal gaping. Ansah was denied his second by Smith at point blank range ten minutes from time as Hythe picked their moments to attack, but the game had lost its earlier intensity. Whether it was the heat, the certainty of the outcome, or perhaps a mixture of the two, the players had slowed down and the crowd had seemingly dozed off. Even the Grinstead beagle had given up hoping for a chip and succumbed to sleep.
Zak Ansah of Hythe (pink boots) takes the plaudits
The game petered to a close, and Hythe heard the news that Walton Casuals were now 5-2 up. The battle for the final play off place was going to go to the last weekend of the season- but there was a twist. Corinthian-Casuals, albeit with a game in hand, had fallen out of the playoff positions after defeat at home to Herne Bay. They play that game in hand against an improving Guernsey on Tuesday night, but defeat would leave them in danger of losing out. Hythe’s opponents on that final day? Corinthian-Casuals.
The last time Hythe qualified for the playoffs they came up against a rampant Worthing and went down 7-0. Worthing were the form side going into the season finale on that occasion, but this years Cannons look to be stronger and more focused than the side from 2015-16, and their form- particularly after Carshalton Athletic lost today- is the best in the division.
The form side don’t always succeed. But perhaps, just perhaps, Hythe have something that the opposition will have no Ansah to.