Combined Counties Division 1 – Worcester Park FC v Guernsey FC
Saturday, 14th January 2012, 2pm
Distance 6 miles, Attendance 265(& rising)
Other than the major tournaments and the Cup Finals I HATE TELEVISED LIVE FOOTBALL (I’m going to get this off my chest and move on, I hope). Yes it’s bought the beautiful game into more homes, but it hasn’t improved the game, not one bit. Now instead of meeting football supporters, you meet armchair fans. Well let’s be honest, the supporters are the least important ones in the whole equation. The television companies do it to line theirs, and their shareholders, pockets, and the clubs get some monetary compensation. But does anyone ask how many season ticket holders will not be able to attend when game times are changed? Does anyone find out if public transport is still running after a game at silly hour? Does anyone compensate supporters? Do they…
So yesterday* I found myself at a loose end. Fortunately Guernsey was on hand to save the day. Yes, sixty seven years after my Grandfather helped them out; I was liberated by one of the Channel Islands. While we are at it let’s thank the hosts too; Worcester Park may not have any floodlights but they also don’t have any irritating parking restrictions either. Just first-come-first-served-park-sensibly-people-live-here nearby roads. It was like going to football in the 70s all over again.
Having relieved myself of the car, on this beautiful sunny winter’s day, I strolled down Green Lane and turned through the tree line, and over a small footbridge that spans a stream. There I found four jovial men huddled around a table. As turnstiles go this failed miserably, but as greetings to stadiums go it was truly a breath of fresh air. No checking your identity, no strip search for the bottle top. (Dear big clubs, you need know, supporters, they don’t like being hounded). £3 entrance paid, and programme purchased I walked round the clubhouse to be greeted by a sun-kissed pitch with a large amount of supporters, pint-in-hand, watching the players warm up.
Every league, in every sport, in the whole world has one. They’re not necessarily the best team but they’re always the biggest draw and supporters flock to see them. This season’s big draw clubs include new boys Guernsey FC (which I’ve covered elsewhere) and, results aside, their arrival has coincided with an increase of over 300% in attendances across the Combined Counties League Division 1. I’ve no idea what the other clubs make of this, but as I see it they have two options; carry on as normal, or embrace it and turn the match into a celebratory event. Yesterday, on the pitch Worcester Park adopted the former, off the pitch, thankfully they prepared for the latter. The combination of the two made for a great day out for everyone. One of the best non league bars I’ve seen was packed and good-natured, the tea bar (not a great description but not sure what else to call it) had a magnificent spread on offer**, and supporters mingled freely. From where I stood, outside the club house, the pitch ran up to the railway line and platform of Worcester Park station in the distance.
Guernsey kicked off; attacking downhill and the goal at the club house end (I’d love to know who won the toss). They went straight for goal, signalling their intent to play another team off the park, but the keeper saved comfortably. Given the stats prior to the game one would’ve thought that The Green Lions would easily dominate the game. Instead what we witnessed was a tough-tackling home side prepared to take the game to the league leaders. Much as I like Guernsey it was good to see Worcester Park dominate most of the opening exchanges and whilst not having many clear cut chances they did have the majority of the possession. Between the ref’s whistling the teams played on, the crowd kept arriving, the away fans kept singing, and cameras kept clicking. I heard one arriving local state he’d never seen so many cameras at the ground, and then he properly took in the size of the crowd and there just stood open-mouthed… From behind my (necessary) sunglasses my eyes turned back to the game. The Guernsey faithful piped up with “Oh when the Lions go roaring in…” but in truth despite the literal hill to climb it was Worcester Park who were roaring and pressuring. Guernsey clearly struggled against the close attention they received which put the shackles on their free-flowing brand of football. As Lance-Corporal Jones would’ve said “They don’t like it up ‘em!”. It took nearly twenty minutes for them to make a break through, but when it came Dave Rihoy slotted home well. Within minutes Guernsey almost doubled their lead. Keeper Steve Winnen rushed out but missed the ball on the edge of the box. Matt Loaring bore down on goal only for Darren Beale to put in a fantastic last ditch tackle to save his team’s blushes. It wonderfully timed and easily the defensive play of the half. Guernsey tried to go up a gear but didn’t always cope with the undulating surface or a team not prepared to lie down for them. “What’s the attendance?” I enquired of the good natured gatemen who by now had moved their position to the corner by the tea bar. “225, no 226…” came the response as another young man paid to enter. Back on the pitch The Park still couldn’t convert their chances and on 30 minutes were made to pay for this. Ross Allen who’d already scored 50+ goals this campaign got the ball on the edge of the box. He turned and curled a beautiful shot into the far top corner. The people watching from the station platform would’ve appreciated that just as much, and Sky would still be replaying it from a multitude of angles had they bothered to turn up! For a while The Green Lions had the upper hand with shots deflected over but resolute defending and their own mistakes (a superb Rihoy air-kick amusingly bought a loud cheer) were also kept the score down. The ref blew up time and again for fouls, which Beale complained about when they went against the home team (something that would ultimately get him booked later in the game), and family and fans of both these community clubs enjoyed the atmosphere. At times it had the school sports day kind of feeling; sporting endeavour, cheering friends, club officials signing up new members, and some younger children engaged in their own amusement. As two boys road their scooters around me, close by Loaring found his way to the near goal line and hit a fierce low cross into the box, Allen rushing in put it away at the near post, 3-0. It was more a reflection of the accuracy rather than the play or possession.
I made my move for a cuppa just before the halftime whistle (an astute move looking back down the queue moments later). The conversations of Guernsey’s success were everywhere. How far could they go up before struggling? How would they cope against an even more physical opposition? Would the Bedfont Sports game later in the season be the title decider or could they clinch it earlier? And how many goals would arrive in the second period? I love seeing goals but one ground-hopper had the temerity to complain he never saw this many goals at Hendon…
As it was, with poor visibility from the falling sun the second half was dominated by Worcester Park. Down the hill they had the advantage. Playing up the hill Guernsey struggled. They had the opening chance as Ryan-Zico black headed straight into Winnen’s arms but soon seemed to tire. Worcester picked up the pace; Gary McLaughlin hit the stanchion, Chris Tardif was forced wide and handled outside his box, and time after time The Park had opportunities but let them slip through their fingers. Even when against the run of play Guernsey found a fourth; Rihoy scoring from a Glyn Dyer cross from the left, Worcester Park continued to harry them. They never gave up.
Glyn Dyer’s cross for the fourth Guernsey goal
The best of their chances fell to sub Chad Heuston who saw a fantastic long range effort hit the post. The whistles of train guards on the platform mingled with those on the pitch as strong challenges continued, away fans sung on, children played behind the goal, fans asked the linesman for the time remaining, and I even got to touch a match ball again (for the 2nd AND 3rd times in 35 years). It was getting colder but the spirit of the day was still strong. The only thing missing was a Worcester Park goal but thankfully it eventually came just before time. Marc Munio showed some nice footwork in the build up, the ball bounced around the box, a cry went up for hand-ball, then a shot fired in beating Tardif but not the man on the line who cleared, or so I and many others thought as the game went on, but the linesman flagged furiously and eventually got word to the ref. Now I’m not going to enter into a lengthy debate about whether it crossed the line or not. From where I stood not far away I didn’t think it had, but thought the defender fell back into the goal after clearing the ball. Other will tell you differently. It matters not. It was fair that Guernsey won, but it was also fair that Worcester Park had scored.
over the line… you decide???
The afternoon had had something for everyone; goals for both teams and their supporters, a rope barrier which one could cross without being arrested, a warming atmosphere in the cold winter sun, fathers encouraging their children in the beauty of the game (“I played here once” one proudly enthused), photographers happy to promote the non league game, pleasant conversations with fans from Corinthian Casuals and Truro, ball boys giving up their positions to play happily with friends in the cricket nets by the railway embankment. Football, not television, was the winner. In four weeks I will be in Guernsey for their game against Westfield and seeing how their football community spirit is flourishing, but today it was a shared experience. It was a happy football crowd from all corners, and some welcome extra finance for a nice community club in South West London. They might not have won the game yesterday but Worcester Park probably still won the jackpot… for the benefit of their community.
(*thanks to Sky, **proof that non league just seems to do food better)