2021/22 kicks off at the Sportsfield

Around 24 hours after England reunited the nation after a tough 15 months for everyone, I was back watching live football with a trip up the road to see Littlehampton Town take on two divisions higher Bognor Regis Town in the opening pre-season friendly for both sides.

It also marked the opening of the home side’s new floodlights, contributed by sponsorship donations from its supporters and the general public with the work carried out by Dave Wade who I know well from the repairs completed at Wick FC when I was there.

A reasonable size crowd estimated at around 200 saw the home side start in a fast manner against a Bognor side who utilised their whole squad over the course of the 90 minutes. Town certainly had the more attacking intent in the early stages as Bognor slowly felt their way into the game but chances were at a premium which maybe wasn’t surprising given it was the first action for both sides.

The home side took the lead just before the half hour mark through George Gaskin from a well delivered Mitch Hand corner on the right, Gaskin being deployed more in the number 10 role rather than the left wing he enjoyed much success on last season before it’s interruption. The striker was close to extending the home side’s lead not long after but the ball struck the outside of the post and away to safety.

As it was Littlehampton went into the break two goals in front as Gaskin pounced on a defensive mix up between keeper and defender and slotted home at the far post.

Regis made a raft of substitutions at half time and certainly began the second half much the stronger team which Littlehampton found hard to contain and it was no surprise when Jordy Mongoy fired past James Binfield in the Littlehampton goal five minutes after the re-start.

It did look as if that would open the floodgates but the home side weathered the storm and worked their way back into the game but were unable to carve out any opportunities with Bognor much tighter at the back than during the first half.

The visitors were back on level terms 22 minutes from time when substitute Alfie Lis pounced on a poor back pass to Binfield, rounded the keeper and restored parity once again.

Neither side fashioned out many good scoring opportunities in the closing stages and both sides were left to reflect on a good workout for those involved, the new floodlights shining down some fantastic light across the pitch despite the natural July evening trying to prevail.

Despite not being the biggest fan of pre-season games I can’t wait to get around over the next three weeks or so and see friends, people I know at clubs and the enjoyment being at a football match brings. If it comes home on Sunday evening, then I think it completes and heals a lot of the past few months, over to you Gareth Southgate, we still believe………..

Ready and raring to go

It’s been a few weeks since I last penned something to blog, indeed the arrival of Harry Kewell and Dean Brennan at Barnet FC the last time I sat down and put a piece together.

Granted the world of non-league football is now in its ‘quieter’ period after the culmination of the National League play-offs but is there ever a quiet time for clubs even when a season has finished?

Of course there isn’t! Whilst this has been the strangest season in my lifetime just played out, playing games ended for most before the Xmas decorations had made it out of the box.

In that time no doubt clubs made decisions to make improvements to their surroundings, to upgrade areas around stadiums whilst some were actually lucky to complete a supplementary cup competition around April and May time.

Those involved behind the scenes of a club will know the groundwork begins almost as soon as the last ball is kicked on the pitch and it’s not long before attention turns to commercial activities, the hiring of function rooms and clubhouses to help turn over the summer months into profit.

This is still of course causing clubs problems currently with restrictions still in place nationally for what you can or can’t do unless you’re a government minister, loaded with cash or in bed with UEFA.

Then comes the paperwork and affiliation work to complete to ensure the club kicks off the new season on time and before you know it, the players are back for pre-season, signing on forms become the bane of your life although if I remember correctly just as I was leaving Wick a couple of years ago the process to move details online instead of a paper form was well underway.

Then it’s referee’s for those games, splitting costs, finding venues if the pitch work is not yet complete and ready for action, the very beginnings of these thankless tasks are the reason 22 players take to the pitch every August and beyond.

This year we have a slightly earlier start for clubs at Steps 5 and 6 on 31st July whilst the rest fall in line over the following three weeks with the expectation that the National League will not be finishing up in June this time around.

Whilst I’m not a fan of pre-season friendlies I am going to get to some, merely for catching up with fellow supporters, players and managers that I’ve hardly seen for a year, in some cases longer.

I was lucky enough to get three games watched in May, a double return to The Hive and a friendly at East Preston.

For many this coming season will be one they hope returns a sensible level to their mental health. I consider myself a strong person but at times this has tested even my resolve, granted Barnet FC have had a lot to test me with but we got through that!

It’s not the place to get all political despite the earlier notation but a reminder as a football fan we’re not far away from action once again and appreciation for those who make it happen for us all to enjoy, it might even be ‘coming home’ I hear……..

Otford in seven heaven

For the second week running I managed to double up on midweek action, as much as I would love that every week going into the winter months it’s going to be few and fair between. Once again it was a trip back home and to Kent but this one had more about it than most.

I grew up for eighteen years in a village called Otford just outside of Sevenoaks. I played for the junior section from the age of twelve and by fifteen I was playing for the senior club’s 3rd team. Before that time, I was a spectator and a helper as my late father was heavily involved from tea making on a Saturday afternoon to being the groundsman as well for so many years.

However, he never tended the pitch Otford Utd now play on, the first team having moved quite a few years ago with a car park extension and subsequent cricket pitch moving occupying the space where I saw so many games.

I never made it into the first team, although I believe both of my brothers did, the youngest certainly did and went on to play for Tunbridge Wells in the Kent League.

Going ‘home’ always has so many memories for me, however close I get to Kent, I’ve spent thirty years of my life there, things you don’t forget. I even stopped off at the fish and chip shop we always used in Dunton Green, still tasted as good as they did before!

Its fair to say that there have been a lot more lean times than success for the O’s in recent years, local rivals Sevenoaks have moved onwards and upwards into Isthmian League football, Otford went the other way and only in recent years have they started to move in the right direction.

A new chairman in Stuart Cunningham, a guy I know well from the old days, a returning manager in Ricky Tompkins who started the move upwards before leaving for FC Elmstead, but is now back at the helm after a poor curtailed season last year left them looking down again rather than up.

Whenever you mention Crockenhill to anyone of course the story comes up of Gillingham boss Keith Peacock signing striker Tony Cascarino for a set of tracksuits and various other items it is believed! Those days of me growing up they were a Kent League side until the rules became more stringent and without lights down they went into the Kent County League.

They did have a spell back in what is now the Southern Counties East League Division One but relegation sent them back to where they are now and no sign of any lights yet.

Being I don’t watch a lot of football at this level but follow the results weekly I wasn’t sure what to expect on the pitch, a pitch which looked in very good condition and ready for a night under lights.

What I got was unreal! The intensity from the off from the hosts was pretty breath-taking, although it was the visitors who should have made the breakthrough two minutes in shooting wide of Tommy Hobson’s post. That was pretty much as good as it got for the visitors with the hosts providing a storming masterclass in attacking.

Two minutes after that chance, the O’s were in front, Artur Lechowicz who was a constant menace all evening for the Hill back line cut in from the left and fired past the keeper. Not even ten minutes were on the clock and the hosts were further in front.

The extremely impressive Harry Brown was the scorer on the volley in the left hand corner giving the keeper no chance at all and Otford had certainly shell-shocked their visitors so early on.

It was about to get worse on 13 minutes, a penalty awarded for handball and up stepped Brown, but crashed the ball against the crossbar and back out to safety, Hill not really knowing which way to turn in this game.

Every time Otford broke they looked likely to score, playing with three up front certainly caused Crockenhill no end of problems with every attack and on 26 minutes Brown scored his second and the hosts’ third, leaping highest from a corner and guiding his header into the far right hand corner.

Brown was again denied by the bar on 35 minutes, an absolute smasher of a shot beat the keeper all ends up but not the woodwork, however it wasn’t long before Brown did complete a first half hat-trick.

Another penalty awarded to Otford for handball on the line, defender dismissed, visitors down to 10 men and already 3-0 down. This time Brown made no mistake and the O’s took a 4-0 lead into half time.

Could the second half get any better? Well it matched the first half for goals, Brown came close early on but for a fine save from the Crockers keeper before being replaced by Toyeeb Babatunde who wasted no time in marking his mark on the game, robbing a defender of the ball and slotting home just after the hour mark for 5-0.

His second arrived on 75 minutes, a fierce shot taking a deflection on its way past the keeper and six for Otford. Hill then scored themselves, a very decent looping strike over the top of Hobson for a consolation goal three minutes later.

Babatunde was to cap his impressive second half with a hat-trick of his own two minutes from time with another smart finish after the O’s once again broke the offside trap for his side’s seventh of the evening.

Afterwards I caught up with O’s boss Ricky Tompkins to get his views on the game:

‘I felt it was a long time coming, it’s been fine margins in not winning a lot more games recently. Tonight I felt we were ruthless in front of goal and two strikers, two hat-tricks, top stuff.’

‘We defended as a team and our work rate was second none, credit to all the boys this evening.’

Stuart Cunningham also gave me a little insight into the club:

‘During lockdown of course all training and matches stopped so we spent time redecorating the pavilion, preparing for a return to football and working hard behind the scenes with the updating of polices. We were able to start small group sessions during June and these were particularly tricky for the younger players as they love the mini matches and they weren’t able to.’

‘The club has some long term plans regarding the size of the club, facilities and progression of youth players into our first team. We are aiming to provide teams every season from our coaching school which currently has over 50 attending every week. This is proving to be an excellent feeder for the club and will guarantee our future.’

‘Being new to the chairman role this season has taken a lot of time and energy from the start due to the merger between the senior and junior teams. The club however has settled down with so much good work done during the summer. I coach, manage, referee and support our players so as chairman I get to see the wider picture of the club.’

‘I can see the club developing strongly over the next few years as we have a dedicated committee.’

Quick mentions must go to Brown and Babatunde, quick efficient, lethal and excellent work-rate, the other player who stood out for me was Darrell Thompson in midfield, always available, simple balls and great at winning back possession.