When we talk about trauma in football, we have to remind ourselves that it’s just a game. Matches are won and lost, managers and players come and go, but the world continues to turn. Neither Ashford Town of Middlesex- not to be confused with Ashford United of Kent who used to be Ashford Town, or Ashford FC of the Kent County League who are neither Town nor United- nor Heybridge Swifts- who, by the way, weren’t always Swift- are in the throws of any critical crisis. Yet both have had, in footballing terms, some trauma this week.
This time last Saturday the Tangerines were coming to terms with a 5-0 defeat at home Bracknell Town, their heaviest of the season by some margin. They did manage to get back on track with a 2-0 win over bottom side Molesey at Walton Road in midweek, but undoubtedly a hammering like that in front of their own fans will still smart somewhat. Swifts, however, were- internally at least- dealing with a bigger problem. The resignation of their manager, and perhaps talisman, Jody Brown after defeat at Horsham in the FA Cup.
Brown’s resignation was, as you may well have noticed, not announced last weekend- because the club managed to persuade him to have second thoughts- but he did finally walk after defeat at leaders Basildon United on Tuesday night. That was Swifts sixth reverse of the season- by contrast, it took them until January to reach that unwanted milestone in the last campaign- and although every loss but one had been by the narrowest of margins, and despite the side being hit by injuries and the unavoidable absence of key players, the manager decided it was time to go. But perhaps much of the trauma came when he explained his reasons in an interview with the local press.
When managers leave of their own volition, you tend to read the same old platitudes. “Work commitments, family commitments, taken the club as far as I can, etc etc.” Brown’s interview with the Daily Gazette, then, was rather a departure.
Welcome to Ashford Town
“Given the financial stability we had brought to the club, I had really hoped for improved resources to at least allow me to keep our over-achieving squad together, but also hopefully improve it. When it wasn’t there I knew we would be pushed to progress further and when players were asking for astronomical increases as a result of their new-found exposure, I had already begun to question their motives and principles.”
Perhaps his next revelation was the most surprising, however:
“No matter how many times I reminded people of where we had come from, how quickly we had developed, how many players we had lost, how modest our resources were, the supporters still expected us to beat all comers.” He then explained that, following defeat at Dereham Town, “a long time and loyal supporter had a go at me and said that I shouldn’t be manager of Swifts because I left the club after our play-off defeat in 2013 to move up the pyramid. Fans are allowed their opinion but, given the effort I had put into this club throughout good and bad times, I felt I deserved slightly better and in truth I found it hard to take. The atmosphere around the club was affecting me and the players negatively and, I really felt it was time to move on.
I continued to work hard for the players, but I couldn’t get them going - not at the levels I had previously. When we travelled to Horsham in the FA Cup with a few senior players absent on holiday, I knew my time was up.”
The outpouring of support for the manager from everyone at the club- and from the vast majority of the supporters- since the announcement hit the press earlier this week has not been a surprise given his achievements in the Swifts hotseat. Elsewhere in this original interview, and in others in the subsequent days, he has been very positive about the support he received from the board at Swifts, and from the supporters, but his words must smart. How would the players who he believed weren’t showing the commitment and professionalism he expected from them going to react to the criticism? How would the supporters feel about his words? We were about to find out.
The away fans who arrived- mainly by coach- at half past one were philosophical about the situation, but anything but downhearted. Always a positive bunch- although, to be fair, they’ve perhaps grown used to positivity- we caught up with their drummer, Josh, to find out his view.
“We’ve got mixed emotions, really. The results had been poor, and yes, some supporters had questioned that, but Jody was probably the best manager the club has ever had and we expected he’d put it right. We’re sad he’s gone, but we’re confident that we’ll turn a corner soon.”
Asked about the criticisms Brown made on departure, there was some agreement- but it was far from complete.
“Some of it was fair. The supporters should have been more supportive. But there should also have been more of an understanding that part time players aren’t professionals- they have no option but to put their work and non-footballing activities first sometimes.
Josh of Swifts
I expect the players to react positively. I think we’ll win today (3-1) and see a gradual improvement. Whether we get promotion will depend on how we perform against sides like AFC Sudbury, Aveley, Maldon- they’re our biggest rivals.”
Not current leaders Basildon?
“No, I think they’ll do what Barking did last season and run out of steam. Their form won’t last.”
He then wandered off to the bar, minus drum. It was apparently broken, the result of being hit too hard at Soham Town Rangers.
Focus turned to the home side, who entered this match sitting fairly comfortably in seventh place in the South Central Division, two points off a play-off spot. Most Isthmian fans will not know whether that means they are overachieving, underachieving or about right, given they’ve been away from our league for eight seasons. Victories over Molesey, Tooting & Mitcham United and Chipstead, losses to Hanwell, Bracknell and- in the Velocity Trophy- Hayes would suggest that they are perhaps an upper mid-table side, and their current position would suggest that, too. It might be fair to say that, apart from an FA Cup defeat at Step Five Cray Valley Paper Mills, Town haven’t lost a match they were expected to win, nor won a match they were expected to lose. Whatever happened today, given the sides were in different divisions and meeting in an FA Trophy tie, we probably wouldn’t be much further forward in making that assessment.
Ashford John and the Dannie Bulman memorial stand!
Home supporter and committee member John, who also had the responsibility for writing up the team line ups on the board outside the club shop (and no wonder, his handwriting was impeccable), just about agreed with that assessment.
“You always wonder how you’re going to do in a new league. Manager Ben (Murray) talked of promotion before the season, but I think we might just about manage the playoffs, although I think the top ten would be realistic and a decent result. Last weekend- against Bracknell- was atrocious, although to be fair for about an hour the match could have gone either way, but we play attractive football and this is a great place to watch it.”
John explained that he was a former devotee of the Super Hoops, QPR, but had been coming to Short Lane (go past Large Lane and it’s the next left- yes, really) for six years and loved it. “This is a family club, and the atmosphere is great. I came along here after giving up the professional game, loved it, and never left. The supporters are a great bunch; it’s a joy to watch football here.”
Asked about which players to watch out for, John sang the praises of Mark Bitmead, Elliot Poley and James Cottee. We were about to find out whether he was right- of course, after an Ashford Town burger with special secret Ashford sauce!
The Tangerines, in Tangerine and white stripes, got us underway. Swifts were in all red. The away side were the quickest to get into the game, and George Craddock had the first shot in the third minute, his effort charged down, but Ashford were far from overawed and had some nice possession of their own, Bitmead earning a corner which Sambridge in the Swifts goal held under pressure.
A Swifts warm up
In the seventh minute, Max Webb- who also scored against Molesey in midweek- put his side ahead. His shot took a wicked deflection on the way, wrong-footing Sambridge, but they all count. The Swifts drum (we thought it was broken, Josh?) sounded in response, but their side were behind. Cottee was afforded the space to shoot wide from twenty yards shortly afterwards, and the home fans in the main stand responded with delight. More pressure saw a Swifts defender head the ball over his own bar to give Town another corner, and Tom Dilloway met it unmarked and should have done better, sending his header wide of the left hand post. The first quarter of an hour came to an end with Ashford firmly on top.
In the seventeenth minute Swifts fans had their first moment of excitement, as Matthew Price went down under pressure and appealed, loudly. The referee said no, and he was undoubtedly right, but it gave Swifts hope. A few moments later a deflected shot was desperately touched wide by Brannon Daly in the home goal, and the attitude of the away side became audibly more positive.
Town responded, and Bitmead curled a shot wide after good work from Tom Brunton. Was this shaping up to be the rip-roaring cup tie we all hoped for?
Swifts best chance of an equaliser came on the half hour. Bantick and Daly chased the same ball, and the Heybridge forward lifted it over the head of the onrushing keeper. It floated, it dropped, everyone held their breath- and it ended up in the side netting. The sigh of relief amongst the home supporters was probably heard at Heathrow Airport. But then, disaster for the away side. A lovely passing move saw the ball fed through to Bitmead, with only the keeper to beat. His finish was as beautiful as the build up, and the Tangerines were two up.
A master craftsman at work!
On 38 minutes it could have been three. A turn and shot from Brunton brought a full stretch save from Sambridge, and from the corner Poley’s header was just wide of the far upright. The defender was still holding his head in exasperation a minute later, but not for long. In the fortieth minute it was three- Cottee with a tap in at the far post as Swifts looked at sixes and sevens.
The half time whistle couldn’t come soon enough for the visitors. When it did blow, the home supporters were both delighted and a little bit surprised. “That’s a turn up,” said one, from the back of the Dannie Bulman Memorial Stand.
Bulman isn’t dead, by the way, far from it; aged 39 he’s still bossing the midfield for Crawley Town in League Two- but they’ve fond memories of him here as his transfer fee, paid by Wycombe Wanderers, paid for much of the construction of this edifice!
Swifts started the second period with a change, Dan Walker coming on for Ahmed Abdulla, and they kicked off into the sun with renewed purpose. You felt they’d need an early goal to have any chance of salvaging something from this game, but you also felt they’d underperformed enormously in the first half, so there was some hope. The drum awoke, and they applied some pressure.
Swifts fans- and a large quantity of aviation fuel
Four minutes after the restart they had their chance. Interplay between Bantick and Price led to a shot from Gardner, cleared off the line by Dilloway. But it was a false dawn, and then it got worse. On fifty six minutes Bitmead was fouled at the corner of the box, and stepped up to fire home confidently from the spot. Four-nil, and surely, game over?
Swifts, to their credit, didn’t give up. On the hour Price found the net, and almost flattened the keeper in his haste to retrieve the ball, and a moment later they were again threatening, Gardener being tripped just outside the box. The shot was saved, but Price again forced it home (although the man with the mic gave it to Alieu Njie, so who knows). 4-2, and the Swifts drummer went wild! Ashford had 28 minutes to hold out.
With twenty minutes to go, another Swifts change. Off came Bantick, and on went Nicholas Brown. But before Brown had the chance to influence the game, Bitmead almost had his hat trick for Ashford, a curling free kick touched wide by Sambridge at full stretch. The corner cleared, on came Harrison Chatting for Joe Gardener- a final throw of the Heybridge dice.
They didn’t throw a six.
With four minutes to go, Bitmead- undoubtedly man of the match, so John was right- was replaced, as Town finally looked to hold on to what they had. In truth, after Swifts second goal, the Tangerines had threatened as often as they’d been troubled, and Daly hadn’t really had a decent save to make, despite a much improved second half performance from the visitors. The whistle went after four added minutes, and Ashford celebrated with gusto.
The sun shone, the sky was blue, the football was thoroughly entertaining and the people were lovely. That sounds like the recipe for a perfect day- and indeed it was- but it is undoubtedly the latter that will stick in the memory the longest.
Non League football is about people. It’s about a friendly welcome, a shared beer on the terraces, and a good burger (with or without secret sauce). It’s about being surrounded by like-minded people and, whatever the result, sharing the experience with a laugh and a smile.
A visit to Ashford Town will be a new experience for many of our supporters. But rest assured, on the evidence of today, it’s an experience they’ll want to repeat, as regularly as possible.
A few small oranges