Finally, it was the final game of the season- and it was a Final. Indeed, it was a final Final.
We were in familiar surroundings. Imber Court first became an Isthmian League ground in 1977, but is a venerable old stadium, the home of sport for the Metropolitan Police since just after the First World War. As we arrived the car park was filling up, the smell of frying burgers filled the air, and the weather was just beginning to deliver a hint of the promised sunshine. Two cricket matches were underway, especially for those who suffer from insomnia, and in an area just outside the ground a dog was barking, loudly, despite the efforts of its owner to shut it up. It may not have been a police canine, but it was definitely no angel.
Welcome to Imber Court
It’s difficult to think of a match between Metropolitan Police and Tonbridge Angels as anything other than a tie between two Bostik Premier League sides, but, of course, it isn’t. Met left our ranks last summer, kicking and screaming, dragged to the Evo-Stik Southern South Premier amidst great acrimony, a managerial departure and concern about the very future of the club. We didn’t want to say goodbye, they didn’t want to go, but off they went into a world of uncertainty.
Goodness, how well they’ve dealt with that.
When long-serving manager Jim Cooper announced that he couldn’t commit to the travelling that went with being part of the Southern League, the club asked his Assistant, Gavin MacPherson, to step up. Gavin talked, early on, about a possible relegation battle ahead, a depleted squad, a depleted budget and having to put his faith in youth. But where there was once trepidation there is now joy- third place, playoff wins over Salisbury and Poole Town, a Surrey Senior Cup win in midweek- and the idea of putting faith in youth seems to have very solid foundations, given the Academy side have made the senior side look like underachievers by winning trophy after trophy, culminating in lifting our Champion of Champions title in midweek.
Of course, we know all about Met’s opponents at Imber Court today. Our very own Tonbridge Angels finished the season in fourth place, triumphed over Haringey Borough and, on Monday, Merstham, and in normal circumstances would, along with their opponents, already be guaranteed a place in the National League South next season. Sadly we don’t have normal circumstances; and both sides would have to do it all again, with a winner-takes-all outcome. It has to be said that the Playoff system for this season has caused a great deal of angst, and will cause some more today, given that whoever loses will not get promoted. Being thankful for small mercies, thank goodness it’s only for one season, but that won’t help lessen the heartbreak that one side will be feeling at around five o’clock- or perhaps half past five, if things aren’t quickly decided. Mind you, there will- of course- be an equal amount of joy.
For those only here for the beer!
Trying to predict the outcome today was rather difficult. Last season, the two clubs met on two occasions and each ended up with one two-nil victory to their name, Bayley Mummery and Jonathan Wright giving the boys in blue victory at Imber Court, Joe Turner and Liam Smith scoring for Angels at Longmead. The previous season saw a one-one draw at Imber Court and a one-nil home victory at Longmead. What did that tell us? In truth, not very much. Met started last Monday’s victory over Poole with only four players who featured in their last Bostik League side, but Angels only started five of last season’s squad, so however much each club felt they knew about each other the truth was that their knowledge could hardly be comprehensive.
Still, although Met’s home advantage- gained due to them having a superior points-per-game ratio over the course of the season- might have been thought to give them an advantage, Angels weren’t entering unfamiliar territory, and there was some discussion on social media that the Angels faithful might vastly outnumber the home supporters. Perhaps Imber Court was about to become Longmead by proxy?
Half an hour before kick off the teamsheets arrived, and Angels had made one change- an enforced reshuffle at the back. Skipper Sonny Miles, courtesy of his red card against Merstham, missed out- Michael Kamara his replacement. Met had also made one change, John Gilbert coming in for Johnathan Hippolyte, who dropped to the bench. By this point both sides were out on the pitch, warming up, whilst the ground was beginning to fill up- we were expecting a late influx, mainly due to the fact that the beer tent was outside the ground!
The Angels fans behind the left hand goal began warming up their tonsils as kick off approached. “We’re the blue and white army,” they sang, and it seemed that social media predictions had been correct. There were away fans everywhere, although a number of them were in orange- as were their heroes when they arrived on the pitch. They produced a drum, too, as the teams arrived and the tannoy played a blast of “I fought the law, and the law won.” Would the law win today? We were about to find out.
Angels fans did as they were told
The home side got us underway, whilst the away fans filled the stadium with noise, proclaiming the virtues of striker Chinedu McKenzie, scorer of the first goal on Monday. The opening exchanges were cagey, but both sides were showing attacking intent, which impressed some home supporters at the back of the stand. “It’s already a better game than last week,” they explained. Tom Derry then had the first shot of the game for Angels, but it struck Jeremy Arthur and went out for a throw in. A moment later Joe Turner picked the ball up on the left and went on a mazy run, being brought down a few yards outside the box. Turner stood over the ball, and then curled it around the obstacle, Bertie Schotterl making a fine diving save. The Met keeper couldn’t have seen much of the ball but was able to get down to his left and push it away. “You’re supposed to be at home,” chorused the blue/orange hordes.
Another Turner free kick in the seventh minute was curled towards the far post and headed out for a corner, as Angels continued to press. The corner was met at the far post by Michael Kamara, and his header was cleared off the line then scrambled clear. Then it was the home side’s turn to attack, but an offside put paid to that.
In the fourteenth minute pressure from McKenzie earned his side a corner, and once more it was an orange clad figure who got to the ball first, the header from Arthur Lee landing on the roof of the net. The home side had hardly got out of their own half, and Turner kept them there, driving into the box and firing a shot towards the near post which just missed the target. The long goal kick that followed saw a foul on Jack Mazzone thirty yards out- could Met have their first shot? Instead they tried a cross, which was quickly cleared. It gave them some impetus, however, and a moment later they were ahead. When the goal came it was a beauty. Ethan Chislett was still some way from goal when he received the ball, but he struck his shot brilliantly and Jonathan Henly had no chance. It was entirely against the run of play, but Met Police had their noses in front.
The home side had the next chance, too. Although Angels continued to have the lions share of possession, Max Blackmore produced a shot from outside the box that Henly had to push round the post. The corner came close to being headed in by an Angels defender, and the resulting set piece was headed over with Henly under pressure. What would have been the biggest concern for Angels boss Steve McKimm was that every time Met got a chance it seemed to come from an Angels mistake. They’d need to be more careful- but sadly they weren’t initially, giving Luke Robertson far too much space in the box, his shot deflected for a corner as we reached the midway point of the half.
Angels should have been level in the twenty eighth minute. Craig Stone found himself with time to deliver a cross, and it was met by McKenzie, who seemed certain to hammer it home from a few yards out. Instead his effort flew over the bar. It seemed easier to score, and perhaps it was simply the pace of the cross which caught the striker out. Angels kept up the pressure and earned a corner, their fans delivering encouragement, but it was cleared. A run from Jack Parter, the full back who was so impressive against Merstham, saw another cross delivered but the home keeper got down and held well. We passed the half hour mark, and the next chance came to the home side once more, Robertson firing across goal and wide of the post. By this point the away fans were entirely silent- what could Angels do to wake them up?
Again it was Met who got the next chance, Gilbert firing over from the edge of the box three minutes before the break. As we moved into the one minute added time Met earned another corner, and then one more- but the whistle blew before they had the time to take the second one. The home fans rose to applaud their players as they left the field- and they deserved that applause.
The effectiveness of both sides in the attacking third was undoubtedly the difference between the sides. For Angels, balls to Tom Derry, Chinedu McKenzie and- particularly- Adem Ramadan- were not sticking, possession being squandered again and again, whilst Mazzone, Robertson and Blackmore at the other end looked dangerous every time a pass was sent in their direction, or every time someone in orange dithered whilst in possession- something which had happened too often. The first ten minutes aside, this wasn’t the Angels who saw off Merstham. Something had to change.
Angels in a cage!
D’sean Theobalds got the second half underway for Angels, and soon they had the chance to throw the ball into the box. Instead it was thrown short to Parter, who beat his man and floated the ball to the far post. There was nobody there to meet it, and it drifted out for a goal kick. The Angels fans, now at the open end of the ground, thumped their drum half-heartedly.
They got louder when the ball hit the hand of Gilbert just outside the home box. Arthur Lee stood over the ball, and whipped in the free kick, which took a deflection and found its way into the bottom corner of the net. Angels were level- yet hardly celebrated, Lee ushering his team mates back, seemingly in a hurry for the restart. One-one, game on!
Angels kept up the pressure. Turner cut in from the left and fired in a shot which Schotterl saved wonderfully but couldn’t hold. The keeper saved the follow up brilliantly too, and two further efforts in quick succession were blocked by defenders. And then visitors were undone- again. In the 57th minute a ball was thrown in from the left, and the defence seemed to stand still. Met defender Ollie Robinson didn’t, and forced it home. The home side were ahead once more, and Angels parity had lasted for only five minutes.
Angels next chance came in the 64th minute, and Turner was again at the centre of it, picking up the ball from a corner, swivelling on six yards but finding his shot blocked. This began a sustained period of pressure, whilst the side in blue held firm. Angels made the first change, Ramadan departing for Jared Small. Another short from Turner was deflected away, and then a diving header from Derry was held by Schotterl. The Met keeper was having a fine game, and a moment later saved again, touching over a shot from Stone. Angels were entirely dominant, but as we went into the last twenty minutes were still unable to get back on level terms. A break in play saw Met make their first change, Louis Birch going off, Tom Nyama heading into the fray.
Out teams- and the Angels hordes behind them to the left
Twelve minutes to go, and a header from Stone called the home keeper into action once more, but it caused him little difficulty. For all Angels possession, Met’s defence was holding firm. Derry went down chasing a long ball, and the away fans shouted for a penalty. “That was more Tom Daley than Tom Daley,” complained a home fan. That might be a little unfair to Derry, but it certainly wasn’t a spot kick. Met then broke forward on a couple of occasions, but Henly remained untroubled. Seven minutes remained.
And then, we had a breakthrough- and it was the D’sean Theobalds show. The midfielder received the ball on half way, and drove forward. Past one man, and to the edge of the box. Another was left by the wayside, and then another. Could he find a gap? He could, and Schotterl couldn’t get near it. Two-two, and the away fans celebrated wildly, as well they might. The second half had been crying out for that moment of quality, and Theobalds had provided it brilliantly.
Angels kept up the pressure, and Derry had an effort cleared off the line as we headed towards full time. It looked like we would have thirty more. Only three minutes were added, and Angels kept pushing, Met defending desperately. The final whistle went, and we had extra time to look forward to.
The visitors got extra time underway, but it was the home side who had the first chance. Mazzone, twenty yards out, swivelled and fired in a shot which Henly, arching his back, superbly tipped over the bar. The ball was cleared, and Theobalds, undoubtedly the most influential player on the park since half time, fired a crossfield pass to Small which led to a corner. Lee’s header was hacked away, then Stone could only fire the rebound against a defender, but Tonbridge remained on top.
Met get us underway
They made their pressure count in the ninety seventh minute. Substitute Small had been dangerous down the right since his introduction, and produced another excellent cross. Up went Derry, and in went the ball. Three-two, and Angels were ahead for the very first time. It was Derry time once more! Could Met respond?
Blackmore was quickly bearing down on the Angels goal, but up went the offside flag, and anyway out went Henly’s leg to make the save. The away fans began to sing “One Step Beyond.” Would they soon be one step beyond the Bostik League? We had twenty minutes remaining, and then it was fifteen, and Mazzone had a chance. He swung his leg…and missed the ball completely. A moment later Chislett set up Blackmore, and the forward’s shot was toe poked past the post. The whistle blew, and Angels weren’t secure, but were still ahead.
Three minutes after the restart Blackmore went off, and Jonathan Hippolyte came on, as Met looked to deliver more pace up front. Angels pulled back everyone but Derry. “Maidstone United, we’re coming for you,” came the song from behind the Met goal. Angels replaced McKenzie with Alex Read, another like-for-like change. Read was soon furthest forward as everyone else in orange got behind the ball.
Four minutes from time an Angels break saw Turner get the chance to make the game safe, but his shot cleared the bar. Met made a final change, Oliver Knight coming on. The home side immediately earned a corner, and the keeper went forward, but the corner was poor and headed away at the near post. A ball into the box, and it bounced in front of Nyama, but he couldn’t connect. Surely the referee would blow for time, but no, Met put the ball into the box, a melee, and Henly managed to fall on it. The game went on, we’d played three extra minutes, and then a little more, before- finally- the whistle went. The fans poured onto the pitch, and the side in orange celebrated.
Turner stands over a free kick
Angels had fought the law. And, on this occasion, the law hadn’t won.