The first matchday of the season is always special. The air is filled with the small of optimism (mixed with fried onions and liniment), everyone has a smile on their face, relegation worries are at least seven months away, and the sun is shining. The sun always seems to shine on the first day; perhaps it’s a deliberate attempt by the great god of football to help us cope with the mud and rain we have to come between November and March.
By the way, the great god of football isn’t Richard Scudamore. Even if most of the national press might have you believe otherwise.
Longmead, home of Tonbridge Angels, is always a fairly optimistic place. The supporters here tend to stay with their side even when things aren’t going well. Whether that’s part of the joy of being a supporter owned club or is something to do with the excellent Kentish hops grown in the vicinity has never been fully explained, but it’s a marvellous location to watch football nonetheless- and as the clientele seem generally sober perhaps we should go for the former option rather than the latter. Even the wooden carved owl which surveyed the ground from the balcony by the media watchtower looked happy.
Tonbridge Angels v Hendon
Although that may have been the Heineken.
Angels visitors today were also in grand fettle. They came from another supporter owned club, Hendon, and despite a generally awful campaign last time around there was a calm serenity from the Green Army; a serenity which was typified by supporters Eddie, Mick, John and Chris.
“We’re fairly confident that we’ll do better than last time- although that shouldn’t be too difficult! When we were playing catch-up in the last game and thought we were going down it was really nerve-wracking…but we won’t be in that position this season.” So where will you be? “Tenth”- Eddie was sure. “Eighth”- that was Chris. “Seventh”- exclaimed John. “We had no stability last year. Players were coming and going in mid-season, we hadn’t managed a home victory before Christmas- the only thing we had going for us was Gary. We’ll support him not matter what- he’s always striving to push us forward despite the obstacles that get in his way. But we have a stronger squad this year.”
The two sides had experienced a different kind of summer. Hendon had a pre-season full of change, with their manager Gary McCann fielding only ten of last season’s squad in the pre-season victory over VCD Athletic a week ago (five during the victory over Hertford Town which followed last Monday), although there were only six new additions in the eighteen named today. Signings included Daniel Uchechi, who played much of last season in the National League for Borehamwood, Jake Eggleton, an eighteen year old defender released by West Ham United, and Rian Bray, formerly with Millwall. For Tonbridge the order of the day had been continuity, with only a handful of new players; perhaps the most notable signings being Craig Stone from Eastbourne Borough and Joe Turner from Isthmian Premier rivals Kingstonian- although these had been augmented this week by keeper Jonny Henly from Hemel Hempstead Town, after the surprising decision by manager Steve McKimm to release keeper Anthony di Bernado five days before kick off. Angels had just fallen short of their play-off goal last season after finally being defeated by an enormous injury list and an inability to score enough goals, so you could understand their wish for stability.
An owl and his beer
The match kicked off a couple of minutes late, and the home side were quickly on the offensive, but the first half was shaded by the team in green. Prompted by Matthew Ball in midfield, and utilising the pace of Zak Joseph and Reis Stanislaus up front to good effect, it was Hendon who looked the most dangerous, drawing two very good saves from Jonathan Henly. Angels weren’t short on endeavour, with Nathan Elder busy, but they were regularly failing to find him with crosses. Indeed, the referee had the whistle to his lips to blow for half time when the first genuinely dangerous ball into the box arrived, from Luke Blewden down the right, but it managed to evade everybody and the players trooped off having failed to trouble the man operating the scoreboard. Despite that, the home fans weren’t particularly downcast at half time.
“We’ve a couple of midfielders missing, our main striker McCollin is suspended, and we haven’t got the ball into the box enough today,” Keith, who had been watching Angels since 1966 (his first game, he recalled, had been against Hinckley United), was clear. “But we expect to make the play-off’s.” His companion for the day, Colin- a mere junior with only thirty years of watching the team in blue- agreed. “We had more injuries last season, particularly around February/March, than I ever remember having had before. I know it sounds like an excuse, but without them I believe we’d have been in the play-offs.” Keith agreed, then focused his attention back onto the game, as the players were just re-emerging for the second half. “If we cross the ball better, and get it onto Nathan Elder’s head, he’ll score. You just watch.”
Watch we did, and Angels certainly came out as if they had a point to prove. But it was at the other end where the best chance of the game so far arrived, in the fifty-sixth minute. Joseph ran into the box, Blewden stuck out a foot, and down went the striker, with the referee showing no hesitation. Ball stepped up, and everyone expected the net to rustle, but instead the bar rattled before the ball ended up in the crowd. A let off for Angels, the wind firmly out of Hendon’s sails.
Angels pressed some more, Hendon broke, and that set the pattern for the game. Dan Thompson almost got on the end of a bouncing ball for the home side, then his counterpart Niko Muir- scorer of seven goals in pre-season- was robbed by keeper Henly when about to pull the trigger. But then in the 77th minute, and just as the supporters in the main stand were beginning to get restless, a quick break down the left, a decent cross, and Elder was on hand to force the ball home. Hendon attempted to get back into the game, and applied some pressure, but Angels defence were never really troubled. Keith, behind the goal, had a face like the cat that had inherited the creamery as the referee blew the final whistle.
Chris, John, Mick & Eddie of Hendon FC
Angels won the Isthmian Community Club of the Year award last season. That community ethos was clear to see, and indeed to feel, around the ground You can’t demand loyalty in football, you have to earn it, and there were many, many Angels fans in the crowd of 495 who had been watching the club for decades and kept coming back for more. Even the joint eighty one year tenure of Keith and Colin, for example, was almost eclipsed by the long service of Main Stand steward Allan, who explained that he was eighty five years old, had been watching the club since he was a child, and now commuted from Carshalton on a matchday. This was a relatively short journey for him, however; he had lived in Bournemouth until relatively recently and still came back every fortnight for a home game! He politely refused to be photographed, but that was perhaps because he claimed to have made the journey from Carshalton to Tonbridge in half an hour this morning, so maybe the traffic cops were after him!
Media man Jim and Events Director Roger, speaking before the game, echoed the views of manager Steve McKimm- as expressed in the Isthmian Friday Interview- that the club were very proud of the award. Roger then went further, and spoke in some detail about a large element of the club’s community work; a project very close to him.
The covered terrace behind the far goal was named for a young Angels footballer, Jack Maddams, who tragically died from an unknown heart condition aged seventeen. Jack was Roger’s son, and since his passing Roger- and the club- have pioneered their ‘Football Fighback’ campaign which has provided heart screening for around a thousand young people in the Tonbridge area- players, supporters and members of the community. Working in conjunction with the charity Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY), last season they raised £33,000 to continue this fine work, and have gardnered support not only from local MP Tracey Crouch but Olympic Gold Medal athlete Dame Kelly Holmes, a local resident.
“Every week a dozen young people in the UK die from an undiagnosed heart condition,” Richard explained. “Screening can make an enormous difference. We have three defibrillators at the club, too; and we lost another player, Junior Dyan, whilst he was on trial here two years ago. To lose one footballer is a tragedy, two is unprecedented. We want to do all we can to ensure that it doesn’t happen again by helping unknown conditions be detected.”
A choir of earthly Angels
As the crowd dispersed at full time, a family of away fans paused just outside the gate. One of them, perhaps a grandfather accompanied by his son and grandson, stopped for a moment to pack something away, and whilst doing so looked back at the ground. “We might have lost, but we like coming here. Nice ground, lovely people.” His family nodded their agreement before heading back to their car, beginning a conversation with a couple of home fans heading in the same direction, and if there had been any doubt about what Angels get very right it was wiped away.
They may not often be fashionable. They may not always be successful. But Tonbridge Angels look after their visitors, look after each other, and spread the message that a football club should be at the heart of their community and look after that, too.
Whatever our clubs aspire to on the field, there can’t possibly be a better measure of success.