The first day of the football season is one of the finest days of the year.
The heightened sense of excitement and anticipation. The glorious sunshine. The smell of freshly-mown grass. At Bracknell Town’s Larges Lane two of these elements were present in large(s) quantities, and as Meatloaf would undoubtedly like us to remind you, two out of three ain’t bad.
And then the sun went in.
Bracknell Town and Waltham Abbey line up
As we stared out across the 3G pitch (now you know what else was missing), a fan of the home side, speaking to a friend, summed up how we were all feeling. “It’s the first day of the season. Anybody could still win the league. It might be us.” Undoubtedly from Margate to Marlow, from Ware to Worthing and from Greenwich to Great Wakering the same sentiment was being expressed.
Apart from the fact that Great Wakering were playing away, but you get the picture.
There was, perhaps, even more reason for optimism in Bracknell today. The home side- newly promoted and back in the Bostik League for the first time in fourteen years- have been strongly fancied to continue their momentum this time around, with supporters from across the Division placing them in fourth place in our predicted League Table- high enough for a shot at the worlds most convoluted playoff system. A number of new signings have served to bolster faith in the Robins Bostik credentials, with Kane Fitzgerald (Binfield) and Ashleigh Artwell (Wealdstone) joining this week and adding to a squad that had already been strengthened with the likes of Gavin James (who ended last season playing for Thatcham Town in the FA Vase Final at Wembley) and Matty Day (another from Wealdstone).
That optimism wasn’t confined to those in red, however. A look at last season’s North Division League table would show the today’s opposition Waltham Abbey in nineteenth place, only nine points clear of relegation, but our supporters were clearly rather keen on them when making their predictions, placing them only one spot behind Bracknell.
Steve, Dave, Kevin and Jack of Bracknell Town
You may be asking why. We’d have to point you to the Mark Stimson effect.
The former Newcastle United, Portsmouth and Southend United defender moved over to Capershotts in the summer after the sad demise of his previous side, Thurrock. The Fleet ended last season, which was to be their last season in every sense, in fifteenth place in the Bostik Premier Division- far higher than a side with their resources should perhaps have been expected to be. Given the fact that half of that squad has followed Stimson twenty five miles around the M25, big things are expected from the Abbotts this season. Stimson tried to dampen early expectations a little when speaking to the local press earlier this week, pointing out that due to holidays and suspensions he’d be ‘down to twelve plus reserve teamers’ for the first couple of matches, but his squad, even depleted a little, looked full of quality.
All of this promised an opening day fixture to remember. And for all it wasn’t a classic, there was enough about this match to regard that promise as kept.
Home fans Steve, (Prediction“2-1 Bracknell”), Dave (“two-all,”), Kevin (“3-1 Bracknell”) and Jack (“2-0 Bracknell”) were enjoying a beer or two whilst leaning on the perimeter fence. Their mood was one of laid back optimism. “It’s nice to be back at this level. We’ve played some really good stuff over the last few years, but this should be a bit more of a challenge. We noticed that the Bostik League supporters put us in fourth place, and we’d happily take that, but we’ve no idea how we’ll do, really. We’ve not done too badly in pre-season, and we’ll play entertaining football, but it’ll take a month or so before we see how things shape up.”
In the Boardroom before the match there was talk of a new ground, to be built around half a mile away in a location not too far beyond the far corner flag, and of “National League ambition.” This- the former, not the latter- came as something of a surprise, as Larges Lane is rather modern, with very good facilities for this level (if short of a covered standing area). But our quartet were positive about the idea, and supportive of the need for it. “A new ground is necessary not just for this team but for the Academy. We need to get everything in house, and build a facility that will serve the entire community.” There was an immediate nod to the work done by Chairman Kayne Steinborn-Busse. “Since Kayne has come in it’s a different place- even a couple of years ago this was a very run-down ground, but look at it now. Where we’re standing now was a wooden stand that was falling down. Everything is new. The progress has been exceptional.”
Focusing on the season ahead once more, and asked what they were most looking forward to, there was complete agreement. “The away games, particularly Egham Town and Marlow. It’ll be nice to get on a train and have a day out!” And then it was time to focus on the days entertainment, as the teams were making ready to emerge into the overcast afternoon.
The Abbey huddle
Abbey got proceedings underway, but to the delight of most those occupying the stand it was the home side who were soon in the ascendency. On three minutes they had the first chance, a corner being met by Carl Davies at the back post, the ball needing to be hacked clear a yard off the line. Strike partnership James and Liam Ferdinand seemed to be building a good understanding, and the two combined to create the next chance on seven minutes, a run from James, wearing nine, leading to a shot from his number ten, held by Abbotts keeper Arthur Janata.
It took ten minutes for Mark Stimson’s side to get up a head of steam, but they could easily have taken the lead. Rob Clarke had a shot palmed away by Mark Scott, before the keeper was beaten by Ibrahim Kehinde- only to find Robins skipper David Hancock waiting on the line to clear. It proved a false dawn, however, as Bracknell were soon back in control. Davies, particularly, seemed to be on the end of every set piece at the back post, and twice more caused havoc in the Abbey box; but it was very much a team effort. The Robins were moving the ball well, their front two were a constant menace, and when the side in green and white got the ball they were sure to have an opponent immediately snapping at their heels.
That said, the next good chance also fell to the away side. It was rather audacious- Rob Clark trying a lob from all of 35 yards- but it brought a save at full stretch from Scott. It was a rare foray. For the rest of the half any goalmouth action was at the other end, along with Bracknell’s best sight of goal so far, as Davies- who else- sent a header from a free kick against the bar five minutes before the break. The first 45 minutes of the Robins new Step Four adventure had been almost entirely positive, but they had nothing tangible to show for it.
A very different Waltham Abbey kicked off the second half. Immediately on the attack, Ellis Brown forced a fine save from keeper Scott, and two minutes later Stimson’s men had the ball in the back of the Bracknell net, only to be denied by the Assistants flag. But once more their early endeavours soon petered out, and the home side took control.
A rare Abbey attack
James and Ferdinand were irrepressible. Up until the former left the field with eighteen minutes to go it was difficult to decide which of the pair would be man of the match, but afterwards it was clearly the number ten. James forced two saves from Janata, who really earned his money in the second half, and Ferdinand and Joe Grant also made the keeper work hard to hold onto his clean sheet, but it seemed as if the goal wasn’t going to come. When Ferdinand had a bouncing ball taken off his toes by Ricky Brennan as he shaped to shoot the home fans groaned. But they weren’t groaning for long, as the Robins number ten finally found space to shape a shot, and his effort beat Janata and found the bottom corner.
Abbey didn’t look like getting back into the game until the very last minute of added time. A break saw Brown charge through the middle, defender at his shoulder, and although the shot was delivered keeper Scott was able to make a marvellous save, before berating his team mates for switching off. He was right, but in the end it didn’t matter. The whistle went and the Robins deserved their celebrations.
After ninety minutes of a new season making any predictions would be rather pointless, or even rash. What we saw of Abbey today is unlikely to sum up their season, and although it will be a performance that they will not take heart from it will soon be forgotten. For the Robins, however, this was a big moment. A first game back in the big time- although, of course, these things are all relative- had demonstrated that there was enough talent in this team to defeat a side with a number of players who had been successful at a higher level; and indeed, had they won by a greater margin that wouldn’t have been a travesty.
In the car park around ten minutes after the match, two home supporters were absent-mindedly watching a game of cricket which was taking place at the other side of the fence. “That was good, wasn’t it,” said the male half of the duo to his companion.
He probably wasn’t talking about the cricket. And he was most definitely correct.