Isthmian League Premier Division, Play-Off Semi-Final
Kingstonian FC v AFC Hornchurch FC
Wednesday, 30th April 2014, 7.45pm
Entrance £10, Programme £2
Distance 3 miles, Attendance 641
Watching Alan Dowson leave the pitch you’d be forgiven for thinking the play-offs are really rather shit.
Of course governing bodies, league committees and, sports editors would have you think otherwise. They probably rub their sweaty palms with glee at the thought of teams battling it out, one more time… All that end-of-season concentrated cup excitement; a silverware-led drama filling column inches for a few more days. The “BIGGEST GAME(s) OF THE SEASON” created to fill a moronic void in the schedules, boosting profits (theirs, not yours) and, wrenching at one’s heart strings (not theirs, yours). WHAT COULD POSSIBLY BE BETTER?
Lots actually but, we’ll come to that later.
As the crestfallen Kingstonian players sat on the pitch in collective disappointment, staring at them, I wondered what “wor Alan” would be saying to them. What could possibly be the right words to use at such a moment?
After a truly fantastic season – including losing just one of the last fifteen – the Ks had rightfully finished second in the league. Given it’s unlikely they would have ever caught eventual champions Wealdstone during this run in, going into the play-offs with home advantage seemed a very acceptable position to be in. It may even have caused a smidgen of optimism in the ranks stationed along the Surrey borders.
Having drawn both league meetings this year – 0-0 in the East, 1-1 in West – Kingstonian v Hornchurch was always going to be a cagey affair; what we got in the first half however was a hybrid of that. Kingstonian threw the kitchen sink at the visitors but failed to put the ball home; Hornchurch stood their ground whilst challenging with all the grace of the Its A Knockout giants. Behind the goal, home fans bayed for justice; pitch-side “the others” yelled amusing yet taunting refrains back. Cards flew as the officials floundered to contain the behaviour whilst the most reckless, Stefan Payne, was very prudently removed from the fray, early on, before being sent off.
Going in for the interval, the home side clearly had the edge. We knew it, the photographers (all lined up behind the away goal) knew it and, the away fans – who’d resorted to chanting of their delight of ‘ating Dagenham but were now lined up for ating burgers – knew it too.
Refreshments consumed, the second period continued seamlessly from where the previous act had petered out; a slow start immediately broke into a flurry chants, fouls and Ks openings. Whilst Kingstonian fluffed at their chances, Hornchurch spent ten minutes playing with barn doors and banjos, before the game was fleetingly turned on its head.
Just as the talented Mr Nunn predicted at the break, Hornchurch scored, and did so with their first shot on target. As the Ks faithful were taunting visiting subs with songs about TOWIE, Hornchurch broke down the left, winning a corner, Joey May swung the ball over and Rickie Hayles headed home.
Though neither side looked capable of scoring again, both pushed forward; gaps opened up, mistakes were made and both keepers for the first time had their work cut out. What Kingstonian wanted most, Hornchurch weren’t prepared to give up… The longer it went on – with the previous half’s backs-to-the-wall play turning to desperation – the more excruciating the remaining thirty minutes became.
Moving towards the exit early, we knew it was over; moving towards the tunnel for that pre-planned shot, the photographers knew it was too. For everyone else, the hope was cruelly and slowly draining their every last breath of life.As away fans counted down the final few seconds (why do they always conduct this at 78rpm?) those not clambering at the railings, or heading for the bar, looked resigned to another year of endeavour.
Bravado induced judgments aside; this was anything but a game of concentrated cup excitement. Yes a large handful celebrated but watching those faces at the whistle, clearly no-one had actually enjoyed this encounter… so why was it played?
Where once promotion and relegation were straightforwardly determined on league performance alone – ground grading permitting – the current ups and downs of the football pyramid are a tragically inconsistent myriad of hoops to jump through.
I’d endeavour to outline them all but I’d probably confuse myself more; just thinking about them hurts my head. Of course the lucky few will win their respective leagues however, suffice it to say, promotion in round-ball England can be achieved by anything from installing turnstiles to winning at Wembley.
“We all know the rules” I hear you say. Well yes, we do. Being a tad OCD, I like these rules too (and may others too). The trouble is the rules are a bit shitty, and thus make the play-off a bit shitty too. I shouldn’t swear (my mother will read this) but, the existing Pandora’s promotion box is most inconsistent.
How the hell can the governing bodies justify three-down-two-up and one from the play-off at one level and, one-up-one-down at another? How can league promotion be governed by success in a cup rather than the league? I’m sure the press love the elated crying men shots as Deeney grabs a last second winner but, what of the devastated crying men in the away end? I don’t want to hear about you “richest game on the planet” – the whole thing sucks – I just want my team to play well over 38-46 games and be rewarded for that alone, and I want the same for everyone else too. I WANT EQUALITY.
I want the consistency of three-up-three-down at EVERY stage of the pyramid. If the last place must be determined by a cup competition, make it the same number of teams in every league.
If you must have your ghastly play-offs, I want the same format from top to bottom; be it two leg semis and a neutral final or, home advantage for the higher placed teams.
We don’t want a random figure between one and four going up and/or down. De La Soul thought three worked, why can’t all you league heads?
This is “the people’s game”… whatever format you come up with treat us all the same.
And if, just, if it’s sooo exhilarating, why not rustle up some play-offs in the top division too? Ask Mr Scudamore if Arsenal wouldn’t mind playing off against 7th place United for the final “champions” league place? Imagine how excited their fans would be with all that end-of-season concentrated cup excitement; the drama, the intrigue, the headlines and hoopla… Or are these activities just here to patronise those lower down the pyramid?
As a final thought – bearing no malice towards AFC Hornchurch’s success – its not hard feel truly sorry for Alan and his team. In any four of the six leagues above Kingstonian’s, finishing second would mean automatic promotion…