Three years ago this month, a promotion was being won at Carshalton Athletic’s War Memorial Sports Ground. Burgess Hill Town were celebrating their elevation to the Isthmian League Premier Division after a 2-0 victory over the Robins, and the home club were seeing their first season in the South Division following relegation peter out with them in a disappointing twentieth place. Today, as Carshalton prepared to fight for the three points that would see them hosting their own promotion party, there was perhaps an irony in the fact that there looked to be a 50/50 chance that the Hillians would be the club that they replaced in the top flight. The painful truth in the football world is that success is not automatically followed by success, but there was a delight around Colston Avenue before the match this afternoon, and a feeling that the team put together by Peter Adeneyi would not face the struggles that their Sussex opponents of 2015 have had since their triumph. The sun shone, the air was filled with laughter, and Elbow were crooning One Day Like This over the tannoy. Throw those curtains wide, the Premier Division is on the other side.
The reasons for that optimism were easy to explain. Athletic were on the best run of any Step Four side in the country, having taken twenty-eight points from the last thirty. Even more impressively, they hadn’t lost a game since 16th December- an unbeaten run of eighteen games. Factor in the fact that they lost top scorer Mickel Miller to Hamilton Academicals in January yet have won ten of the twelve matches they’ve played since his departure (drawing the other two, rather obviously), and it becomes quite clear that this is a side which is equal to the sum of its parts, rather than relying on the odd star name to get them over the line. Mind you, the fact that the clubhouse was full of Chelsea supporters in red shirts and that their other side had just come from 2-0 down to beat Southampton might have helped their mood, too.
As the rest of the crowd began to filter into the stadium, it seemed very much as if the locals had heeded the words of Adeniyi earlier this week. The biggest crowd the Robins had hosted so far this season came on Boxing Day, when 424 turned up to the visit of promotion rivals Corinthian-Casuals, but the manager wanted more today. “I urge all supporters to bring family and friends along,” he had stated in an interview with the official website. “If you haven’t been for a long time then this should be as good a reason as any to come see us.
The boys have been superb all season and the club is heading in the right direction both on and off the pitch. It would be great to see over 500 inside Colston Avenue for the Whyteleafe game.”
It must be said that the Robins might have hoped for far easier opposition. Whyteleafe, after a mid-season stutter, had climbed impressively up the table and were sat in eighth place, having taken twenty points from their last thirty. Unless there was to be a mathematical miracle the playoffs were beyond John Scarborough and Paul Dale’s side, but their hard work since the departure of Leigh Dynan and half the squad to Kingstonian was surely paying dividends, and their side were unlikely to be pushovers today. Even the Robins 3G pitch was unlikely to be an advantage, as Leafe had one of their own. Whilst the crowds had gathered for a promotion party, there was a reasonable chance that Whyteleafe might well be cast in the role of party poopers.
Carshalton Athletic terrace
As we approached three o’clock the announcement came that kick off wasn’t as imminent as it should have been. Apparently the referee, Mr Bandara, was running late on account of “his flight from Albania being delayed.” The crowd took this announcement fairly well; perhaps because they were all Southern Rail commuters and used to travel disruption. Actually, there’s a new moto for the most infamous railway company in Britain- ‘Southern Rail- slightly more reliable than Albanian Airlines.’ Expect to see that emblazoned on the side of a slow-moving train in the very near future.
Carshalton eventually got the match underway fifty two minutes late, and went straight onto the attack, perhaps given extra impetus by the news that Corinthian-Casuals were two up at Ramsgate. Whyteleafe defended stoutly and broke quickly, however, and some good work from Tom Pearson saw them record the first shot on target- although it was easily saved by Billy Bishop in the Athletic goal. Carshalton had their first effort in the eighth minute, a shot from Olu Sogbanmu, but the ball crept wide of the far post. This was followed shortly afterwards by a cross from Christie Patterson which was an inch too high for Sogbanmu, much to the forward’s frustration.
Whyteleafe then fashioned themselves the best chance of the game so far. Some good work from the impressive Pearson saw him feed Joey Taylor, and a cross to the back post was just too far in front of Bola Nkori-Venceslas for him to turn it in, despite the number nine throwing himself at the ball. It was a warning, perhaps, that any defensive lapses from the home side might end in disaster.
In the 22nd minute Carshalton came close. A cross found the head of the normally deadly Omar Koroma, and he connected well, but the ball was placed too close to Leafe keeper Shiekh Ceesay. Stung by this, Leafe charged up the other end, and a cross of their own was met by the head of John Scarborough. The Whyteleafe player manager turned out to be far more deadly, and the ball nestled in the bottom corner. Athletic supporters in the main stand looked crestfallen- the warning had not been heeded.
Carshalton Athletic grandstand
The Robins soon had the chance to draw level. A challenge from Scarborough on Sogbanmu saw the forward in a heap, and although it looked rather soft the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Koroma stepped up, but perhaps the occasion got to him, as his shot was far too close to the keeper who pulled off a save. The rebound was sent back into the danger area and Sogbanmu forced it home, but the Assistants flag was already in the air.
More Carshalton pressure followed, and another chance fell to Koroma. He got clear of his marker, shaped to shoot, then hit the ball goalward, but had to watch in agony as it cannoned back off the near post, the keeper beaten. It was Koroma again who next tested the keeper, with a firm shot from the edge of the box in the 36th minute, but once more Ceesay was equal to it, getting down to his right to hold.
Off the pitch the atmosphere had become rather tense- although it was improved slightly by the news that Ramsgate had got a goal back on the Kent coast. On it, however, those in red seemed unruffled, continuing to pass and move only to meet a green and white wall on the edge of the Whyteleafe box. “Carshalton, Athletic” came the song from behind the goal as the home crowd attempted to lift their team, but it was again their opponents who came closest, a breakaway seeing Sam Clayton have a shot blocked at the near post. The Leafe captain perhaps should have done better, and if he had the Robins would have had a mountain to climb.
Half time arrived to the news of a Ramsgate equaliser, and the second half began with more Robins pressure, Koroma earning a corner which ended with Kalvin Morath-Gibbs finding the side netting. Three minutes into the second period came the moment their supporters had been waiting for, hoping for. The ball broke to Tommy Bradford just inside the box, and he walloped it home.
Carshalton fans await the arrival of the...referee!
Efforts from Koroma and Bradford followed soon afterwards, Bradford forcing a double save from Ceesay, but the Athletic fans were celebrating. They’d heard the news that Corinthian-Casuals had drawn 2-2 at Ramsgate, leaving their side ten points clear with only three games remaining. Athletic were up! Shortly afterward the stadium announcer confirmed this, sparking excited shouts of “we are going up!”
Just before the hour mark Athletic could have gone ahead. A shot from Adeniyi was only parried, and on the follow up Pattison hit the post. But Whyteleafe then charged up the other end, and after a shot from Pearson was pushed around the for a corner Scarborough once more found himself free in the box, and a diving header found the net. Three minutes later another Leafe break, and another goal- a great run and finish from Nkori-Venceslas provided a two goal cushion. “We are going up,” sang the home fans once more, and they were right, but there was little energy in the singing. Still, they’d surely find their voices again at full time.
The Robins continued to apply pressure, earning a succession of corners but without managing to test the away keeper. But the breakthrough did eventually come, as Sogbanmu got on the end of a corner and guided the ball home. 2-3, and a frantic last fifteen minutes in prospect. A minute later and it was 3-3, and it was Sogbanmu again at the back post, another header finding the net. Suddenly the party had sprung into life once more!
Despite incessant Carshalton pressure Whyteleafe continued to look dangerous on the break, and Clayton could have put them ahead once more with seven minutes remaining. Set up by substitute Hassan Ibrahim the skipper had only the keeper to beat, and although the angle was tight he should have done better than to blaze over. The Robins could breathe again- and indeed were immediately back on the attack. They wanted the title, and for that they may well need three points.
Sunbathing whilst awaiting kick off
As we moved into added time Sterling-Parker earned a corner, and Sogbanmu threw himself at it. The goal gaped, and the ball bounced agonisingly wide. The referee added five minutes, and the Robins redoubled their efforts. And then, in the 93rd minute, a magical moment which set the stadium alight. Tommy Bradford, a menace all second half, controlled and fired home from twelve yards. His shirt came off, the crowd went ballistic, and as well as promotion the Robins had wrestled back control of the title race. Win their last three games and they’d be champions.
The party would go on long into the night. Ten minutes after the final whistle the players and supporters were still celebrating, and you’d think there will be much more of that to come. But there was also a steely determination about Peter Adeniyi’s men. Promotion is not enough. They want that trophy.
You wouldn’t want to bet against them getting it.
The rest of the images from the day will be featured on our Facebook Page later today.
The raw emotion of an injury time winner!