Three Performance of the Month Awards. Three victories over higher league opposition. Victories against three of our promotion candidates, and three more against three of the bottom four. Last month, a seven-two victory followed by a four-nil victory.
Reading that list before today’s match against Margate begged one question. How on earth were Wingate and Finchley in the bottom three of the Bostik Premier Division?
At the end of last season, the club fell ten points short of a playoff berth. Given the resources at Summers Lane that was rather a positive result, as indeed was their previous season’s finish, when they qualified for the playoffs in fifth before a Semi-Final defeat to eventual winners Bognor Regis Town. Last May there were no signs that pointed to a relegation struggle this season- after all, they were a full thirty-three points clear of Tooting & Mitcham United, who went down, and twenty six points clear of the bottom three.
Welcome to Wingate & Finchley
So what on earth has afflicted the side at the Maurice Rebak Stadium during 2018/19?
The obvious answer would be the departure of manager Keith Rowland in October. After all, any club which loses its most successful leader of all time is likely to feel the effects. In came Nicky Shorey and Glen Little for a short while, only for Shorey to leave and Little to step up and become the boss, and then for Little to leave too, Dave Norman coming back to the club from Wales to take over on an temporary basis which has continued since January. Four managers in six months must cause uncertainty- and yet each of those Performance of the Month Awards has come since Rowland left, the most recent last month for that seven-two win, over Harlow Town. Perhaps the truth is that the players have been able to raise their game for high profile matches, as their victories over Chippenham Town and Dulwich Hamlet- and perhaps that hammering of their relegation rivals- demonstrates? Either that or they have two teams of identical twins, one much better than the other.
Whatever the reasons for their fall from grace, one truth remained. Supporters at Summers Lane faced the final three matches of the season hoping that a team of Doctor Jekyll’s would emerge from the changing room, whilst Mr Hyde remained well hidden. This would not be a suitable time for any more horror stories. Margate, Haringey Borough and similarly relegation-threatened Burgess Hill Town were to come over the next eight days, and the job of the North London Blues was to get more points from those matches than fourth-bottom Whitehawk, whom they were behind only on goal difference, whilst hoping that the Hillians and Harlow couldn’t do any better.
A few short weeks ago, the arrival of Margate would have filled the home supporters with dread. After a terrible winter the Kent side, one of our pre-season fancied teams, had plummeted down the table- but the arrival of Jay Saunders in the Hartsdown Park dugout changed all that. After taking over on 7th February his rejuvenated side charged up the table, taking twenty-three points from twenty-seven and leaving fans wondering whether they might manage a late charge for the playoffs. The last fortnight, however, has seen that run ended by two defeats; the first at playoff chasing Bishop’s Stortford, then last week at home to Potters Bar Town. The Scholars came away with a 2-0 victory which just about made them safe, and that was a result which would have given fans of Wingate and Finchley hope that their escape bid might not be derailed today.
Fans enjoy the sun before the match
Summer had well and truly arrived at Summers Lane. The sun beat down mercilessly, and most of the early arrivals- who were generally Margate supporters- had retreated to the clubhouse for a cold beverage and a view of Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur. The noise coming from the main stand was already considerable, but it was all emanating from the Wingate and Finchley Under 9’s, today’s mascots and an important part of the club’s youth setup, which goes from strength to strength. According to the programme most of them were Arsenal supporters, which was probably why they were avoiding the clubhouse and Spurs. Although Spurs were losing, so they might have enjoyed it after all- with the exception of young Alessandro Rosiello, the only Spurs fan amongst their number. Sorry for mentioning that, Alessandro, but you’ve had enough glory this week.
The last time the two sides met, back in December at Hartsdown Park, a 2-2 draw had been the outcome. Only four of today’s Margate starting eleven had also started that match, whilst for Wingate the same was true, which might go some way to explaining some of the difficulties experienced by both sides this season. It’s difficult to grind out consistent results when your team changes week on week. Speaking to home chairman Aron Sharpe before the match, he spoke also of confidence being an issue, and exclaimed that they’d had no luck, but was also nonplussed about how a side that could win Performance of the Month three times could be third from bottom.
The Finchley Blues, in blue, were quickest out of the blocks, whilst the Margate Blues, in yellow, had the first effort of the match in the 6th minute. Jordan Robins took on the shot, around twenty yards out, and it was so high that it not only cleared the bar but left the ground and bounced off down Summers Lane, hopefully missing any moving vehicles. It was the fourteenth minute before we had any real goal threat, Anthony Mendy, who has been finding the net regularly of late, turning Ben Swift and powering into the Margate area before pulling his shot wide of the far post. The amount of excitement this created amongst the home faithful quite clearly summed up their desperation, and there was more three minutes later, a long ball into the Margate box causing panic and ending in a corner which Sean Cronin headed wide. Another corner followed, as the home side kept up the pressure, and again Cronin got his head to it, but he could only direct it into the arms of Kleton Perntreou in the away goal. As we moved into the twenty first minute a third corner was floated in, and once again Cronin got to it first, but the cross was around five yards behind him and he could do very little with it. Shortly afterwards a chase between Mendy and Ben Fitchett was won- just- by an excellent defensive tackle, but the home side couldn’t make their pressure count.
After a lengthy stoppage- and a shoving match- Swift found himself in the book for the foul on Irnti Rapai which led to the handbags. From the stand, the defender seemed to be rather lucky with the colour of the card. Margate, however, seemed rejuvenated by the drinks break that accompanied this period, home keeper Gore having to rush out of his goal to rob Marshall Wratten before saving from Jordan Ababio. Just after the half hour a better ball from Ababio could have seen the away side take the lead as the attack outnumbered the defence, but the chance was wasted and we continued goalless, though with Margate looking the most threatening, Jordan Robins powering them forward from midfield. Another chance came to Ababio three minutes before the break, a ball into the box finding him unmarked on the penalty spot, but he was unable to control it and it bounced through to the keeper. Half time arrived with little to be excited about, apart from the news that both Whitehawk and Harlow Town were behind.
The fabulous old grandstand at the Maurice Rebak Stadium
The away side got the second half underway, but as we approached the hour mark there had been little goalmouth action. That changed, however, in the sixtieth minute, with a moment of controversy. An away attack was ended with a foul five yards outside the box, but the referee played on, and the resulting shot was blocked by a defender. At this the referee brought the game back and awarded the free kick, which was laid off to Noel Leighton. The striker hit the ball hard and low, and it arrowed unerringly into the bottom corner of the net. Three minutes later Wratten could have doubled the lead but hit the side netting. “Come on Margate, Come on Margate, Come on Margate, Come on” sang a lone female supporter in response, accompanied by a ponderous drum beat.
Both sides made changes, and it was one of the home substitutes, Rob Laney, who burst away from his marker down the right as we entered the last twenty minutes. Four players waited for the cross, but he couldn’t find even one of them and his great approach play came to naught. On such fine margins matches are won or lost- or perhaps drawn. Five minutes later another chance, and another substitute with it; Claudio Vilcu lined up a shot on the edge of the Margate box, but leant back and fired well over the bar. As the third substitute, Luke Ifill, crossed directly into the arms of the Margate keeper the howls of anguish in the stand could have been heard on the Northern Line.
The home side continued to push, and thought they’d equalised twelve minutes from time, Mendy’s powerful drive hitting the underside of the bar before bouncing on the line and being cleared. Ifil’s follow up a moment later was well saved by Perntreou, and Mendy forced another save from the Margate keeper but was flagged offside. From the right hand side of the stand came the sound of a mobile phone ringing, and the response was extremely Dom Jolly. “I’m at the game,” he shouted. “It’s rubbish!”
The teams emerge up the steps
It wasn’t. More home pressure, a shot blocked on the line, another point-blank stop which left a defender poleaxed, but still the breakthrough wouldn’t come. Swift had to be helped from the field, and it looked as if he took the ball directly to the face, but he was soon recovered and back in play. There were three minutes remaining. And then there were five more.
Margate could have put the game to bed three minutes into added time, a shot from sub Frannie Collin forcing the home keeper to touch it over. The corner couldn’t be directed anywhere other than out of play, and the blues went forward again. Into the last minute, and a twist, a shot from Beckles-Richards, and Perntreou had to acrobatically tip over. Up went Gore for the corner, which was cleared, and then a free kick at the edge of the box was fired into the wall. It was the last kick of the game. The only good news for the home fans was that Whitehawk and Harlow Town had also failed to pick up a point.
Before the match, as Chairman Aron talked about their lack of luck, the temptation was to shrug a little. After it, it was far easier to understand his point. Margate’s goal was a good one, worthy of winning any match, but the Blues certainly had little rub of the green. Every 50/50 decision seemed to go against them, every misplaced pass seemed to find a yellow shirt whilst Margate’s errors tended to go unpunished, and when Mendy’s shot hit the underside of the bar it was surely destined to go in, yet didn’t. It was as if he’d run over a black cat after breaking a mirror, and had lost his lucky underpants.
If his side are to stay up, he may need to visit a glazier, take a trip to the vet, and search the laundry basket.
Margate fans on the open terrace