Rebels too strong for lacklustre Angels

This season I think I’ve watched more pre-season friendlies than the last few years put together. Maybe it’s the lure of missing the game being played on the pitch in front of me instead of the television for most of the last seven months and the quality I’ve seen so far hasn’t disappointed me.

Worthing vs Tonbridge was on my radar from the time it was announced a while ago, two managers in Adam Hinshelwood and Steve McKimm who have been very helpful to me when it comes to blogs and indeed Steve took me around the London lights back in December in his black cab, a birthday treat to myself.

Tonbridge is also around the area I originally come from as well so always a glance towards their results, I grew up watching some fantastic players go through their club, the likes of the late Ray Tumbridge, Mark Gilham, Neil and Paul Emblen, Roly Graham and many more that I’m sure readers will remind me of.

Rather than the wet weather predicted to fall all afternoon, the South Coast was bathed in beautiful sunshine before the sides took to the pitch and despite the Angels missing four or five likely starters, McKimm was still expecting a performance to match his opponents and once again named his own son 16 year old keeper Toby and Bobby Moore, 16 year old son to assistant manager Barry amongst the substitutes.

The opening exchanges were fairly even, the experience of Doug Loft and Ricky Modeste in the Angels midfield were matched by Danny Barker and the returning Marvin Armstrong in the middle of the park, almost trading sparring punches with neither side committing too much.

Worthing, renowned for their passing game from back to front, began to move the ball about a bit quicker and were rewarded with a penalty when a ball whipped into the box was handled by Harry Hudson, Ollie Pearce making no mistake from the spot putting the Rebels into the lead on 16 minutes.

Minutes later the Rebels were almost two goals in front, Reece Meekums put clean through lifting the ball over Angels keeper Jonny Henly only for Hudson to recover and clear the ball for a corner before it could end up in the net.

Worthing’s sole trialist should also have extended the lead on 37 minutes, heading over the bar when unmarked in the six yard box. As it was the home side didn’t have to wait long for their second goal.

Joel Colbran was allowed to stroll forward from the back line and unleashed a fierce drive from all of 25 yards past the hapless Henly to double the Rebels lead.

Tonbridge though were back in the game just before half time, Tommy Wood pouncing on a rare error from keeper Harrison Male to reduce the arrears and giving the visitors hope as they headed for the dressing rooms.

The good fortune lasted for all of three minutes in the second half as the home side’s trialist took advantage of the visitors hesitant defending and slotted home a third goal for Worthing.

Five minutes later, the scoreline was put beyond doubt with Pearce scoring his second and Worthing’s fourth from the spot once again after Pattenden was fouled inside the box whilst in full flight.

The next ten minutes allowed Hinshelwood to rest some of his starters and as per all the friendlies I’ve seen so far at all levels the quality of the game didn’t drop at all and although McKimm had just the four substitutes at his disposal they all made a decent contribution when they arrived on the pitch.

The Angels matched Worthing for chances in the final half hour, Ibrahim Olutade forcing Male into a point blank save and Sonny Miles heading over while Shaq Gwengwe’s overhead kick and Ty Mthunzi’s effort were both wide of the target and Worthing coming off comfortable winners.

For some reason it just didn’t happen for Tonbridge all afternoon, second best all over the park to a Worthing side who seem to have the knack of producing a performance whichever eleven players Hinshelwood selects.

What’s to be commended is the amount of young players on the pitch at the final whistle and having seen both McKimm and Moore being blooded during this pre-season for Tonbridge, neither looked out of place. McKimm dealt with all coming his way in the Angels goal whilst Moore looked tidy up against the experienced Darren Budd in midfield.

Worthing’s policy of youth getting it’s chance is well known, ‘providing the pathway’ is their motto and with two 14 year old’s getting their chance earlier this week, a chance they will get under Hinshelwood if you are good enough.

Speaking to both managers after game, neither was getting carried away with the result and both conceded there was plenty to take from the 90 minutes. Hinshelwood was happy with the performance one he felt wouldn’t have happened a few years ago:

‘I felt we looked fit and strong against a physically imposing Tonbridge team, maybe a game that we would have lost out on the battles individually across the pitch so that was pleasing to see.’

‘I’ve been quite pleased with the squad of players we have at the moment; I feel it allows us to play a variety of formations and also the emergence of some of our younger players who have come in and done well in recent weeks has been an added bonus for me.’

McKimm said before the kick-off he was expecting a good workout and despite missing a few players he did think it’s served as a little wake-up call:

‘I definitely learnt more from that game than from the good run we have been on so far this pre-season, there were a couple of positives to take from the game but also some negatives that we need to get to work on.’

‘It was excellent to see so many youngsters on the pitch to finish the game and if they’re good enough then they should be given a chance.’

The beautiful game looks about as ugly as it ever has been

So then. The last 24 hours or so, read lots, spoken to a number of people, answered lots of messages, here we go then the National League ladies and gentlemen!

A warning this might be a long blog, there’s a lot to get through, reactions from those inside the clubs, my own thoughts and what I see as stumbling blocks going forward from today, it won’t be pretty, you might not agree, but above all it’s an opinion nothing more, it’s neither right nor wrong.

Before we get to the main points though as a Barnet fan I’m embarrassed we’ll stay up through default. On the face of it, it looks like Tony Kleanthous made the correct decision in the summer not to spend, to severely undercut the football operation and six months later he’s looking good.

We should have been doing it on the pitch for the next four months or so to get out of the mess we created for ourselves which is what I would have preferred to happen, sink or swim by your decisions, not of others. But, for all intents and purpose it is what it is and Barnet have the opportunity to put a proper club in place under Tim Flowers over the remaining months of the season, a silver lining if you must but a hollow one at that.

Onto the main meal then and once again here we are in the midst of controversy. Whatever this final outcome was to be there was never an option to please absolutely everyone and there will be ramifications to come for days and the next few weeks.

I don’t believe there was ever a doubt in outcome of the vote, heavily weighted towards the top division and with the EFL relationship at the forefront of that it won’t have come as a surprise, but it’s been more how the situation has been dealt with.

A real lack of transparency and leadership is evident which you can trace back to the play-offs last season and continued into this. Commendation maybe for ensuring we had play-offs eventually completed for all three divisions last year but a lack of foresight when attempting to get this season worked has been forgettable.

Funding of course has been the full issue in where we have gotten to now, we are all aware the National League have no minutes of the meeting with the DCMS over what was on offer for the full course of the season is at best incompetent. I’ve served on league and club committees throughout my lifetime, to not have something so simple but vital can’t suggest anything more than a cover up of mismanagement and hanging all 66 clubs out to dry, effectively what they have done.

Two days ago I was informed players and staff in the South and North divisions were told, not via official communications, that no testing was to be carried out ‘a waste of tax payers’ money’ which in effect said null and void was coming. Excuse me, what about some of the £11 million pounds of lottery money than has now been poured down the drain?

While I write this now, I see across social media fans, clubs and chairmen attacking each other because opinion is so divided on what should have happened.

My opinion, well every club of those 66 is vital, vital to someone, vital to its players, vital to its staff and mostly importantly vital to its supporters and its community. The same applies for Steps 3-6 as well and every club has quite rightly looked after its own house but should they have been left to fend for themselves while the league banner they play under seem to not want to get involved.

Last night I spoke to various people around the situation to gauge a bit of reaction:

David Blackmore, chairman of Eastbourne Borough was ‘absolutely gutted’. He said ‘We have been cut adrift by the National League. A majority across all three divisions wanted to continue, majority in the South wanted to continue, yet we don’t continue.’

David’s manager at Priory Lane Danny Bloor is frustrated the season has now ended, ‘Our club just wanted to keep playing; at the conclusion of this we sit 3rd in the league a position we’re very proud of and I hope we can regroup and replicate that again next year.’

Steve McKimm, manager at Tonbridge Angels who had to furlough their players this week in order to protect the club, was gutted at the outcome ‘I don’t think the process was fair, how can the National League have it’s members vote against each other but not in equal amounts.’

Ben Strevens, manager at Eastleigh, is unsure what the future holds for the top division ‘seven teams voted for null and void, what exactly is that going to mean after this weekend for our teams?’

Andy Hessenthaler, manager of Dover Athletic who seem most at risk of not seeing out the season, said ‘I think the mess is just going to continue because as you said nothing has changed, still no money. Seven clubs voted to null and void so will be interesting with what’s going to happen now’.

Kevin Watson who recently returned to the game at Billericay Town like most wasn’t shocked at the decision, ‘No surprise at all to be honest, just really disappointing.’

Adam Hinshelwood whose Worthing side have twice been in pole position for promotion to the National League South questioned the timing of the announcement, ‘It seems strange with the government telling us on Monday the plan for the country and for the National League to not follow suit and also not to stay in line with each other.’

‘I feel for Marc at Dorking who invested in a great team at that level and to see it null and voided again seems wrong on the face of it. It does seem likely Steps 3-6 will follow; we will be ready for whatever decisions are made for our club.’

An increase once again to the furlough scheme as the North and South clubs put their players and staff on leave once again from this morning and attention turns now to the can which is just getting kicked down the road.

Already we see legal action from clubs going in today which if they feel is the right thing to do for themselves so be it, I’m not here to judge the rights and wrongs of what each club feels is its chosen path. Whether they can get any joy or a reversal of decision remains to be seen.

Then we have the seven who voted in the top division to null and void, the next can of worms. What now if those seven, and I’m led to believe Barnet were NOT one of the seven, decide with no further funding their club would go under and quite rightly want to preserve their future? Do we play on with 16 teams expunging all results of those not playing as there is no relegation? Do those seven get asked to furlough the first team and play weakened sides in order to complete the season? Do the National League push Sport England to help these seven clubs as soon as possible? So many questions but when do we get the answers? And these are just the beginning.

To read this morning though that two clubs in the top division didn’t bother replying at all beggar’s belief! Now either they’ve got deep pockets so it makes no odds to them or purely ignorant, surely out of respect to the other clubs in your division you would have abstained?

In all likelihood Steps 3-6 will now also null and void with no chance of Step 3 promotion to the National League North and South bringing another premature end to the season for a second year in a row. The hope now will be for the FA to see sense and take the time to implement their restructure of the perfect pyramid and with it some movement for teams upwards which is deserving, the benefit to playing exactly the same teams for the third year running, not one I can see.

And for the second season running it appears as if the National League and South will run with a team less once again, granted it’s difficult to now work out who would take the missing spot in each division but a lack of contingency plans is as well not their finest hour.

Just a sidenote to this as well, the FA Trophy and Vase. One continues, one suspended and last year’s finals still be played with one of the four participants an EFL club, go figure!

The beautiful game as it’s often referred to looks about as ugly as it ever has done in non-league circles, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a vote of no confidence in both the National League and the FA in the coming months, not a chance this is all going to go away easily…..

Vote to play or vote to finish

Every few days the National League picture is changing, every day I’m receiving messages, speaking to people, and listening to interviews to find out exactly where we all stand and from one 24 hours to the next the landscape moves quite drastically.

There are various meetings happening almost daily now to try and get a resolution to what I call is ‘the mess of non-league football.’ Trying to keep on top of it is also a challenge in itself and understand exactly what the latest position is for each division.

The position of each club is the big variety and I think Marc White at Dorking Wanderers put it well that each club has an opinion and in many cases it is going to be different from club to club and in other cases it will be the same as some clubs.

Clubs met with Sport England on Friday morning to ascertain further what can be done to help, also after a meeting this week with the leader of the opposition Sir Keir Starmer. Grants applications are able to be made for the National League but those are expected to take four weeks minimum to come through, so clubs will in effect have played January and February without funding but wages to pay. These grants are also for those whose immediate future are at risk, otherwise once again it’s loans which we know are not feasible for clubs with no idea when they will actually earn income to pay it back.

Whilst they apply for a grant, they are being asked to vote next week on the resolution to the season, surely that decision needs to either be delayed or clarification sought to ascertain how long grants would actually take? The National League board itself should have been walking down this road at the end of last year so plans were in place after Christmas to get things sorted out as quickly as possible.

Clubs certainly don’t know where they’re coming from, neither do players. Speaking to people at different clubs over the past few days at boardroom level down to managers and players the lack of what can be planned causes as much concern.

Players and managers at National League clubs believe the North and South divisions will cease playing sooner rather than later and the top division itself a 50/50 split in which way a vote would go. With so little difference in points between clubs, why wouldn’t clubs and chairmen want a crack at promotion to League Two?

Speaking to Tonbridge Angels boss Steve McKimm on Friday morning, he believes grants are the only way forward.

‘Grants are needed without fans to keep clubs sustainable, loans with no relegation are pointless because clubs won’t need to pay wages they are paying and can reduce the budget by a third or less to keep playing, but it would affect the top of the table as it wouldn’t be a strong competition.’

‘A lot of clubs weren’t happy with the original funding distribution through the National League and there lies a problem. I wonder if clubs will have to take the same size loan as they received as a grant because it was obviously needed at a few clubs.’

‘As for safety reasons, players, staff, and volunteers etc, I’m seeing a lot of people asking for funding for testing but hardly anyone was asking for this during the first few months of the season. The league has been stopped for funding issues, not testing. Every member started the season knowing there was no testing taking place, unless clubs themselves undertook to do it, just protocols to be followed and all adhered to it.’

‘I believe there has been no clear dialogue between the DCMS and the National League forwarded onto clubs and the goalposts, pardon the pun, seem to keep moving.’

Eastbourne Borough boss Danny Bloor would like his team to just be able to play football but accepts that might be difficult.

‘I just want my team to be able to continue to play football. I don’t have an opinion on whether we resume on 6th February as we just don’t know, I’ll leave my chairman and CEO to deal with that side of things.’

‘Having enjoyed a good campaign so far it would be a shame for things to end but it is what it is and we have put excellent foundations into place for the future.’

‘We just continue to train like we always do unless we are told otherwise, however it was nice to play QPR Under 23’s during the week, it keeps game time up for the squad whilst not playing competitive fixtures.’

As of Thursday clubs were unaware exactly what they are voting on when it comes to Monday, hopefully by the time this article is online there is a clearer idea of the options, one thing is for certain it’s not going to be a winner for everyone and will be remembered for the mess rather than the football………

McKimm: Let’s just say we’ll be doing our homework on them

This week I caught up with Tonbridge Angels boss Steve McKimm ahead of the visit of Bradford City this coming weekend in the FA Cup:

TK: A bit of a mixed bag of results so far this season, are you reasonably satisfied with how things have gone so far?

SM: Yes I think so, 1st Round of the FA Cup and more points out of our first three league games than last season so it’s an improvement for sure.

TK: How have you and the players found not having fun inside to watch games?

SM: Different. I’m pleased to be playing obviously but you always love the banter, grief, and support you get from the terraces, so it does seem very strange at times. #LetFansIn

TK: I managed to get to watch you and the team in action at Chichester in one of the earlier rounds where there were fans, was that a bit surreal in a way?

SM: Most definitely it was a bit, it’s what we all love though, watching a game and we want fans back close to the action ASAP as it’s not the same without them there.

TK: How pleased were you to get the club through to the 1st Round for the first time since 1972, a long time to wait?

SM: Very proud! It’s something that myself and other managers/players have tried to do in the past and it’s finally happened. I’m so pleased for everyone involved in the club from the chairman to the board members, supporters, volunteers, absolutely everyone.

TK: And now selected for the BBC live game as well announced as we chat, do you hope the players rise to the occasion and show the watching public what Tonbridge Angels are all about?

SM: I do, but it’s all on the day. I hope and believe the players will not freeze on the occasion but we will be right up for it.

TK: Has there been a ban on any FA Cup talk until league games are out of the way?

SM: The game is actually our next one as because of less numbers in the National League South this Saturday falls as our week off so it’s worked out quite nicely.

TK: With the current restrictions have you managed to get out and scout Bradford City?

SM: Let’s just say we’ll be doing our homework on them.

TK: As a club have you felt having to play in empty stadiums that’s it’s brought you, your staff, and the players closer together?

SM: Not really, I always make sure we have a changing room that sticks together, hopefully you will see that this coming weekend. With our recruitment of new players they have to fit in with what we’re about on and off the pitch.

TK: Has the chairman promised a trip to anywhere not on the government’s quarantine list should you win?

SM: Haha! No he hasn’t, but a mate of mine, Paul, who sponsored a board around our ground this season (tables or businesses) said he’d take all the players and staff to Vegas if we get to the semi-finals!

Angels take cup plaudits

FA Cup football once again took over midweek action, and for me the first time ever that I’ve managed to watch a game in every round so far, however depending on how kind the draw is on Thursday for the 4th qualifying round, that might be it for me this season given the inclusion of the National League Premier clubs and still no fans allowed in at that level.

My Tuesday night game saw me take in Chichester vs Tonbridge Angels, my first ever visit to Oaklands Park despite living down here in West Sussex for fourteen years, but also a chance to catch up briefly with Angels manager Steve McKimm who was kind enough to give me a blog interview over the lockdown period and as we are unable to enter Longmead Stadium currently with the restrictions this was the next best thing.

I used to live a five minute drive from that stadium before moving here and even played on the pitch in a cup semi final for my school a long time ago and also spent some junior years watching a very good Angels team smash their way through the Winstonlead Kent League.

The FA giant-killers of last season were a team McKimm was wary of when the draw was made despite Tonbridge hailing from two levels higher, Chi having also started their season a few weeks earlier than their visitors that might have given them the edge.

The game began on a damp pitch from the afternoon rain but both sides were set on passing the ball and not resorting to long channel balls which was pleasing to see, wing backs from Chi and wingers from Tonbridge were the name of the game.

The early chances fell the way of the hosts but were unable to find the target and as the visitors began to get a foothold in the game, they took the lead. Panic in the Chi defence after allowing a ball to bounce caught the home keeper Steve Mowthorpe in no-mans-land and Joe Turner nipped in between the keeper and defender to slot home the opening goal.

The goal however didn’t knock the home side out of their stride and they were level just five minutes later, a ball from Josh Clack squared across the box to Kaleem Haitham found it’s way into the back of the net to give the capacity 400 crowd something to cheer.

The remainder of the half was a trade off of chances but neither side were able to make the breakthrough to go in front before the half time break.

The first chance of the second half came immediately for the visitors, the impressive Khale Da Costa forcing Mowthorpe to tip the ball round the post within two minutes of the re-start. Both sides certainly appeared more intent in an open game this half as play swung from end to end, and the midfield area seemed a lot more stretched.

The Angels once again took the lead on 65 minutes, Da Costa appearing to score straight from the corner with no Chi player on the front post to attack the ball. The hosts did have the ball in the net four minutes later but Scott Jones comfortably fouled the keeper at the same time.

Chi made a couple of substitutions to try and change the nature of the game, the young impressive Ethan Pritchard arrived just before the goal and was involved after trying to get his back into the game down the left wing, with Lewis Hyde replacing Matt Axell to drive the team forward.

Tonbridge had their chances on the counter attack to add a third, but seemed unable to hold onto the ball when they attacked the final third of the pitch which gave their hosts the chance to put pressure immediately back on the visitors defence and goal for the final fifteen minutes.

McKimm’s defenders dealt with everything thrown at them including stoppage time, Sonny Miles marshalling the back line alongside Rian Bray headed, kicked and put their bodies in front of everything to give the Angels victory and a place in Thursday’s draw.

Very impressed with Chi and the way they played throughout the game, will definitely be making another visit there this season, facilities look pretty good for this level.

I caught up with the Angels boss on Wednesday morning and here are his thoughts:

‘It was a tough game as I expected, a proper game of cup football. Despite all the pressure towards the end I was comfortable with my defence dealing with all the crosses coming in and with a touch more quality we could have had another goal.’

‘It was really nice to hear other voices than just the players shouting at each other, good to see a crowd watching football again.’