If you were to list the top three hundred and sixty eight clubs in England in one table, based on this season’s points total, then Shoreham FC would be the strongest of the lot. Yes, to use that old joke, they’d be holding up the rest. In the interests of clarity, if we were to add back the six points they’ve had deducted for registration irregularities they’d leap over Gosport Borough, Arlesey Town and Dunstable Town of the Evo-Stik Southern League, but that looks little consolation. As seasons go, this hasn’t been the debut Bostik season which the Musselmen would have hoped for. It has, however, perhaps been the season they expected, despite the continued public optimism of manager Sammy Donnelly.
Shoreham finished last season in second place in the Southern Combination Premier Division. After setting the pace for much of the campaign, they fell away over the last few weeks, allowing rivals Haywards Heath Town to take the title by six points. Manager, Bryan O’Toole- brother of former Horsham and Burgess Hill Town striker Rob, now plying his trade along the coast at Saltdean- left the club, many of the first team squad did the same, and then the future changed. It was announced that Heath forward Melford Simpson, signed in late March, had a ten pound unpaid fine and subsequent suspension hanging over him from his time with Fisher, and that Heath, unaware of this, had played him for all of the run-in. Three hearings later, with first the FA, then the SCFL, and then the FA once more, left Heath deducted nine points and Shoreham taking their place as champions. The decision-making process took nine weeks, and left the Musselmen entirely in limbo.
Speaking to this website back in early August, Joint Chairmen Stuart Slaney and Ralph Prodger described the situation as “like a real life version of Eastenders. We couldn’t plan for more than two months. We couldn’t even sign players; everyone wanted to know which league we were in and we couldn’t tell them, and nobody would commit on that basis.”
Since then, incoming manager Donnelly has used seventy-one players. The highest league position his side has reached is 23rd, for five of our thirty nine weeks so far. They’ve been propping up the rest since the autumn. They have won three matches- two of them at home- lost thirty one, and came into this match with Herne Bay with a goal difference of minus 87, their most recent defeat coming at Thamesmead Town on Wednesday night. Their most recent victory, over second-bottom Molesey, came on February 17th, but that was their only victory since October’s win over Ashford United. Fourteen points behind with only twenty one left to play for, it looked hopeless, and even Donnelly has begun to sound resigned. Speaking to the Shoreham Herald before the Thamesmead defeat he explained that he’d be giving even more of his Under 18’s a chance as the season moved towards its finale, stating: ‘Sometimes you have to take a step back to go forward. I think giving the under-18 players- who are still in with a chance of winning their league- a chance can only be good for the club. You’ve seen with Lewes and Worthing that they’ve stuck by youth players, with both of them now enjoying success. I believe giving these younger players a chance now will stand them in good stead for what is to come next season and looking further forward than that.’
He then slipped back into eternal optimist mode. ‘It is going to be tough but while we still have a chance we will not give up the fight. If we can pick up some points, with games coming thick and fast, you never know what can happen.’
Middle Road from Middle Road
You might expect, at this point, that to visit Middle Road would be to wallow in misery. You might think that a pervading air of doom would hang over the Taxi-Link Community Sports Ground.
But you’d be wrong.
Away from the first team, this seaside world is sunny. Shoreham run nineteen sides including the first team, a girls team and a veterans team, right down to two at Under 8, and those sides are very successful and have a positive reputation across Sussex and the South East. With soccer schools, youth tournaments, networking events for local businesses- if you could look away from the bottom of Bostik South for a moment you’d see a club in rude health. They first team may- barring a miracle that would see Donnelly deified and a shrine built in his honour next to the Old Town Hall- be heading back towards the Southern Combination, but the world doesn’t begin and end at the Bostik League.
The people around Middle Road seemed a contented bunch. No long faces, no shouting at the players, none of the moaning and griping you often get from the sidelines when a team is relegation-threatened. At first it was easy to mistake this for resignation, but from discussion with a number of the home supporters it soon became clear that this wasn’t the case. Volunteer Nigel, in a break from helping in the tea bar and selling raffle tickets, typified their approach. As he pointed out before the match, “this is a community club. It’s not been a great season for the first team, but beyond that everything is positive and the people here are focused on the club as a whole.” And then he shrugged. “But perhaps if we’d have been able to build our squad when everyone else was building theirs, rather than having to try and sign the players who hadn’t already signed for someone else…perhaps if we’d been able to get through this season without relegation- which looks likely- and stabilise, we’d have been ok next year. “
Visitors Herne Bay came into this match comfortably in mid table. Not quite good enough to trouble the playoff places but far too good to be anywhere near the wrong end of the division, their season has been typified by inconsistency. One week they are impressively defeating a strong Whyteleafe side, the next they are losing 7-0 to Walton Casuals. Over the last seven days they’ve drawn with South Park and lost to Hythe Town, whilst in their previous two matches they defeated South Park and VCD Athletic. When the good Herne Bay turn up they are exciting to watch and fluid in attack, and occasionally the opposite is true. Won eighteen, lost eighteen, middle of the form table, middle of the actual table, and yet with enough good young talent to believe that they could be a force with a few tweaks.
Welcome to Shoreham (but not with a dog or your own food!)
When they hosted the Musselmen at Altira Park back in October they came away with a 4-1 victory, and undoubtedly joint managers John Embery and Jermaine Darlington would have been hoping for a repeat performance today. Striker Jake Embery hadn’t scored in the last two matches, but had three goals in the previous two, so would have been looking to add to his twenty goals so far this season against the most porous defence in the league.
Visiting supporter Harrison Wilkins- brother of Bay midfielder Connor (but apparently a better footballer!)- was fairly certain of an away victory, and indeed predicted a repeat of the home scoreline. Asked for a critique of the Bay season so far he spoke of their inconsistency, which he put down to the fact that they were a young side and still learning, and spoke positively of their development over the course of the season. He explained that their performance in the first half of their FA Cup defeat to Bostik Premier Division- and Kent rivals- Margate earlier in the season demonstrated just how capable they were, and what they could achieve if they found consistency. Reading reports of that match suggested that he might just be right. By the way, Connor, he did speak very highly of your ability, just felt that he had more of it!
Shoreham kicked off and lofted the ball forward, but it was soon at the other end where Harvey Dunk was shepherding it out of play for a goal kick. “Switch on, Dunkey,” yelled Musselmen striker Sean Roddy, to the amusement of a number of the away supporters who thought he was calling him by a rather more equine name. And he was, rather obviously, switched on already.
After the teams spent the first few minutes sussing each other out, it was- perhaps unsurprisingly- the away side that began to make the running. Bradley Schafer was continually looking to run at the home defence, and when he was fouled just outside the box in the seventh minute the ball ran to Connor Cox and the referee waved play on, but the eventual cross was far too close to keeper Josh Measor and Bay wasted their advantage. Cox was also involved in the next chance, four minutes later, when his header from a Thomas Carlton free kick should have caused real trouble Measor, but was short on both power and direction and easily gathered.
Am I the only one with the urge to move these to each side of the half way line?
Bay did, however, go ahead in the seventeenth minute. Schafer was given time to pick out a cross and did so expertly, finding the head of Joshua Wisson. This header had both accuracy and power, and although Measor did well to get behind it he was only able to palm it to Embery, who easily got number 21.
Shoreham could easily have been overawed at this point, but they dug in and defended well under pressure, and were even applying some pressure of their own ten minutes later until full back Alfie Gates was struck violently in the face with the ball, and went down by the corner flag. A lengthy stoppage and substitution followed, and the game went a little flat upon its resumption. An away fan to the right of the stand commented that Musselmen substitute Tadley Bromage could be an Agatha Christie villain. It must have been his curly moustache and his top hat.
In the 36th minute Embery had the chance to make it two, but shot straight at the keeper and then put the rebound wide. The referee awarded a corner, to the annoyance of the home fans, but they were soon pacified as it was entirely wasted. It did, however, start another period of Bay pressure, Bromage thwarting Schafer by poisoning him with arsenic blocking his shot with the goal gaping. That said, Shoreham could have equalised shortly afterwards, a break leaving Roddy with time to shape a shot, but the ball curled just past the far post with keeper Ben Hunter beaten.
As we moved into added time Shoreham pressed once more, and a driving run down the right from Alvaro Castano earned his side a corner, but the ball was soon cleared and, as the crowd headed for the refreshment window, the whistle blew for half time with Bay holding onto their slight advantage.
Main stand, Shoreham FC
The Musselmen applied the early second half pressure too, quickly wasting a hard-earned free kick by the corner flag, and could have been level seven minutes after the break. Substitute Ross Myers controlled the ball beautifully just inside the box and swivelled to shoot, but as he was about to pull the trigger Wisson made an incisive tackle to concede a corner yet prevent a goal. Bay seemed both surprised and rattled, and the home side began creating chances with far greater regularity, if not managing to make them count. Bay were hanging on and second best, but you felt that Shoreham had to turn their possession into a goal- and then, seemingly, disaster. An excellent Dunk tackle on Embery left the centre back injured, and- with the home side having used all of their substitutes- down to ten men with half an hour to go. Luckily after five minutes of treatment Dunk was able to continue, but he limped through the rest of the half and was obviously playing on only because he could not be replaced.
Somebody at Middle Road must have run over an entire litter of black cats in the summer.
Bay seemed somehow reluctant to test the depleted defence, however. They increased their share of the possession but did very little with it, and the blue hordes got behind the ball solidly before looking to break at speed. Indeed, there were only six minutes remaining when they got their next good chance, a fine through ball from Wilkins- are you watching, Harrison- putting through Embery, who brought a great save from Measor.
As the final whistle blew, two Herne Bay supporters stopped to chat at the back of the stand. “That wasn’t very good, was it?” asked the first. “No, but they were much better than expected,” came the reply. It was entirely correct- Shoreham had been much better than expected, certainly better than you’d expect from a side in their position.
They left the field to the news that Molesey had conceded a last minute goal to lose at Sittingbourne. A miraculous escape was still, mathematically at least, a possibility- if, with only six matches to go and fourteen points the gap, even less likely than it had been before kick off. But the truth, and of course everyone at Middle Road knew it, was that relegation is as good as a certainty.
By far the best footballing Wilkins brother...
What’s important, however, is that they keep that outcome in perspective- and there seems little doubt that the people of Middle Road have perspective in abundance. Perhaps, if they continue to build on the energy and quality shown today, it won’t be long before we see them in the Bostik League once more.