There is something rather exotic about the FA Trophy. The chance to be drawn against a team from another league, perhaps from another part of the country- look at Potters Bar Town, off to play in front of 2000 people in Hereford- promises an entirely new experience, and the chance of glory. On that basis it's almost a disappointment when a club ends up facing opponents from its own league, a case of 'been there, done that,' but if it has to happen then at the very least you want someone from another division, and you want a match between two form teams who don't meet all that often.
On the basis that Sittingbourne currently sit in sixth place in the South Division and were twelve matches unbeaten until seven days ago (don't mention Faversham Town, who have managed to beat them twice this season- they've only lost to one other side in the league), and that opponents Haringey Borough are second in the North Division- and still unbeaten- then we had the foundation for a rather exciting and potentially close fought encounter. There are often debates in Bostik circles around which is stronger, the North or South Divisions, and given we can't afford to pay for Harry Hill to adjudicate there is only one way to find out. The FA Trophy today gave us the chance to make our own judgements, and 134 people came along to watch.
That number, particularly given that it’s the weekend of the international break, is far from enormous- but it’s growing. Sittingbourne FC are beset with a number of disadvantages when trying to increase their average attendances. Amongst these are the easy trip into London via high speed rail- which takes many of those who moved to Kent but grew up in the city back there every weekend to watch the Premier League; the number of other Non-League sides in the vicinity- Maidstone United are a particular draw; and, perhaps, the most important of all- the fact that their stadium is in the middle of nowhere. Woodstock Park is three miles from the High Street, two and a half miles from the railway station. It is The Brickies fourth ground in thirty years, and in reality they didn’t really want to be there. They sold their original (actually their third, if we’re being picky, but they were there just two years shy of a century) Bull Ground for housing and built a state of the art stadium, Central Park, before having to sell that due to financial difficulties and move to their training ground, Bourne Park. They then had to sell Bourne Park due to more financial difficulties and move in with Woodstock Sports, who then themselves went out of business leaving Sittingbourne as sole tenants. Are you keeping up? Anyway, casual supporters aren’t going to be able to get home from their shopping at half past two and think, “I’ll just pop to the football.” You can’t travel by train from a surrounding town and expect to be at the ground in ten minutes- indeed, Mr Google Maps suggests that the walk would take fifty-one minutes and be generally uphill. The club lay on mini-buses, but the trip requires planning. Which, then, should make it all the more laudable that the average attendance is up almost thirty four percent this season; evidence that the club is doing something right both on and off the pitch.
Darren of The Brickies
Sittingbourne manager Nick Davis celebrated his third anniversary as sole manager on Bonfire night, and under his stewardship the club have finished twelfth, eighteenth and fifteenth. If the season were to finish now then the club would equal their best placing over the last ten years, and that sixth place was in 2008/09. Generally, Brickies fans haven’t had a great deal to make a noise about- their last trophy, winning the Kent Senior cup in 2010, is the only time they’ve held silverware, or indeed come anywhere near it, in the last 20 years- and yet their enthusiasm and dedication is clear to behold. Indeed, they may be, pound for pound, the noisiest supporters in the Bostik League.
“It’s like a family here.” Darren, who explained that he’d abandoned Chelsea for his home town club nine years ago, was clear about the attraction of Sittingbourne. “I know that’s a typical thing to say, but there’s such a togetherness here, and unlike at a professional level we know we make a difference. The players and the coaching team tell us that themselves- there have even been some players who’ve told us they came here just because of the support they get. Home and away we support our team, sing constantly; win or lose we’re there for them.”
He was delighted at the way the team had played this season. “It’s been brilliant so far. We’ve had two poor games, and even when we lost to Faversham the other night that was more down to some terrible refereeing than the performance. When you consider that most of last season’s team went to Herne Bay in the summer, and that four weeks before kick off we had two players…hats off to Nick. He’s done a magnificent job, and he’s got us playing the right way, too. I don’t think we’ll end up in the top two, but I’m very hopeful that we’ll make the play-off’s.”
David and Ken, with about eighty years of combined Brickies support between them, were similarly positive, and also convinced that a play-off spot was there for the taking. They talked about the euphoria of winning the Kent Senior Cup as if it was the FA Cup, and in many respects typified football supporters the world over. We enjoy the highs, accept the lows, know that most years will be mediocre, and still come back for more because, generally, the experience is more important than the result.
By the way, Brickies fans should ask Ken for his stories about how he spent some of his childhood in Glasgow alongside Alex Ferguson, and what he used a milk bottle for at Anfield. We can’t print them here, for legal reasons!
Given that their town is twinned with the Belgian town of Ypres, it was perhaps hardly surprising that supporters of Sittingbourne FC were making an enormous effort for Armistice Day. Fans of The Brickies- so named, by the way, because brick making used to be the town's most prominent industry- had clubbed together to pay for free entry for up to thirty five ex service personnel, and a number of veterans had taken them up on this offer and were being treated with the deference they deserved. It seemed as if almost every member of the crowd was wearing a poppy, and during the minute of silence before kick-off, and a rendition of the Last Post, you could have heard a pin drop. The father explaining the need for silence to his children just beforehand needn’t have worried- his young offspring were as respectful, indeed as reverential, as the rest of the crowd. Nobody here needed telling that football isn’t as important as life and death.
The match began, floodlights already on, with Borough pushing forward. Before the match their manager Tom Loizou wasn’t particularly confident, looking as if he was carrying the responsibility of managing the best club on White Hart Lane rather heavily. His chairman, Aki, was similarly cautious, despite his club having had a magnificent start to the season. “We haven’t been up to our usual standards over the last few weeks, and we were a little lucky to get a point at Romford the other night.” He was, however, pleased to admit that if this was a blip and his side still weren’t losing then it was a good blip to have, but he was also realistic. “We have to lose sometime. It might even be a relief to get it over with!” Nobody quite believed that.
Two more Brickies- David and Ken
Within seven minutes gone Borough had the first chance of the afternoon. The ball ran to the prolific Ralston Gabriel, and although his first touch wasn’t great, his second- a touch off to Anthony McDonald, was fabulous, but McDonald found his shot blocked. Within no time at all the ball was at the other end, and Sittingbourne were creating chances. It stayed that way the entire afternoon, both sides moving the ball quickly from back to front whilst almost bypassing the midfield. That’s not to suggest that this was a long ball game, indeed that would be far from the truth, but more that both sides relied to a great extent on one touch and move, both were looking to throw men forward, and neither attempted at any point to sit back and contain the opposition. That made for a very open and entertaining game, but the players must have been exhausted by the time the full time whistle blew.
Valerey Pajetet made a full stretch save from Brickies full back Chris Webster. At the other end, Joseph Benjamin had an effort cleared off the line. Forward and backward, backward and forward, it was difficult to work out who would get the first goal. Off the pitch, both sets of supporters engaged in a singing contest, which Sittingbourne were always likely to win- not just due to their weight of numbers but because they never stopped. Behind the goal, in ‘Blakey’s Garden Shed’- were a group of around thirty men, women and children, all animated and musical, almost all of the time. Their repertoire needed to be heard to be believed- they went through a little reworked number that had started off life with the Sex Pistols, moved on to Hermans Hermits, had a go at The Carpenters before singing a rather risqué number about the good people of Chatham, who apparently are a little, ahem, chavvy. Later they moved onto reworking the only notable hit from Pilot, and indeed it was a bit of a 1970’s fest, all told. Even a baby in a pram, which was also being used as a table for copious amounts of chips with sauce (the pram, not the baby), seemed to be attempting to get involved. It was, it must be said, marvellous. Football singing is hardly unique, but it isn’t generally so cross-gender and cross-generational.
By the way, as Darren had earlier explained, the garden shed reference harks back to a supporter who now apparently lives in the Middle East, who had a habit of visiting opposing grounds and pointing out that his garden shed was bigger than their structures. His name? Blakey, obviously. And nothing at all to do with ‘On the Buses.’
The away fans sang back, but initially they had only one song, until- taunted by the home crowd- they began to come up with more. “We might only have one song,” shouted one, “but it’s great. And anyway, that never did Morrisey any harm.” Heaven knows he was miserable now, as Sittingbourne took the lead, a shot from Miles Cornwell only being parried by Pajetet and Kane Rowland on hand to hammer the rebound home. Celebrations were slightly interrupted by the PA announcer pointing giving the golden goal time, and later we were advised that the winner of the golden goal, Brian Edwards, had donated his prize back to the club. We were all over the moon with that, Brian. Thank you!
Haringey tried to hit back, and the ball was regularly in the Sittingbourne box, but the centre-backs were generally equal to it and, when they weren’t, there wasn’t an away forward near enough to get on the end of it. As we approached half time some of the away fans on the touchline were despairing of getting an equaliser, but then they got a free kick on the right, thirty yards out. The ball was lifted towards the penalty spot and Gabriel, as if he had the wings of his angelic namesake, outjumped the home defence by what seemed like almost three feet to thump a header home.
The second half was similarly end to end. Both sides exhibited some great passing and movement, and if you were a neutral it was enthralling to watch. If you weren’t a neutral, however, you’d probably bitten your nails down to your elbows. Rowland and Cornwell had chances for the Brickies, Gabriel and McDonald for Borough, and indeed Gabriel should have had his eighteenth of the season when he got clear of the defence only to send his shot the wrong side of the far upright with only the keeper to beat. It would have been difficult to predict the next goal, indeed impossible, because there wasn’t one. The final whistle blew, a collection of Borough supporters celebrated as if they’d won the Trophy (perhaps fuelled by the offerings in the home side’s excellent bar), and we’re all off to Coles Park for a replay next week.
Borough must now be favourites for the replay, their home form being rather exceptional, but it won’t be easy. These sides are extremely evenly matched and if you were prepared to put money on the outcome you might be better just keeping it in your pocket. But actually, although the football was thoroughly entertaining, it wasn’t the quality of the football that stood out. Instead, it was the quality of the welcome.
People often talk about the friendliness of the Non-League game, and often they are indeed right, but at some grounds it is taken to another level. Woodstock Park is one of those places. From the moment the turnstiles opened until the last fans were drifting away into the night, this experience was characterised by helpfulness and good humour. It was, to quote Darren from earlier, as if a family had decided to open its doors to all comers and treat everyone in their home as if they belonged there. It was, it must be said, wonderful. The away fans contributed to that too, and undoubtedly they will provide a similar welcome next week, but it is to one of their supporters, standing in the car park after the game, to who we give- almost- the last word.
The marvellous Borough choir!
“What a lovely place to watch football. Here’s hoping we get to come back here again soon.”
Perhaps they might be back sooner than they think. Perhaps next year.
In the Bostik Premier Division.
The Woodstock Woodland