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The EPL and La Liga may be going down to the proverbial “wire” but they’ve had nothing on the race to follow Wealdstone into the Conference South. Here, Mark Murphy offers a Kingstonian perspective on the titanic tussle to leave the Isthmian League behind… at least for a bit.

It was a confusing text. Where there was usually a timeous score update from fellow Kingstonian fan Phil, I was reading words like “replacement,” “outfield” and “Cronin.” By the time I’d joined the jumble together, my football-watching world had changed. Kingstonian (Ks) were playing at recently-confirmed (and worthy) Ryman Isthmian League Premier Division champions Wealdstone on Easter Saturday, a fixture in which Ks recent record has been little better than Birmingham City’s at home.  All we dared hope for was that the Stones would be de-mob happy and let us away with a point. Phil’s text said “Cronin” was centre-half, and therefore “outfield” player, Sean Cronin and that he was not only “replacement” keeper but had indeed “replaced” regular keeper Jonathan North. Oh, and by the way, Ks were two-nil up after 22 minutes. AND Phil hadn’t mentioned that North had required “replacement” because he’d been sent off six minutes earlier – there’s only so much good news you can pack onto a mobile phone screen without your head exploding.

So, after some weeks hanging on the coat-tails of an unfeasibly close race for the four Ryman Premier play-off places, Ks were “right in it,” even more so when they ended up winning four-nil and play-off rivals Dulwich Hamlet, AFC Hornchurch and Maidstone had all LOST…at HOME. These were prayers I hadn’t even said, let alone expected God to answer “Yeah, alright.” This year’s Ryman League title race threatened to be a tight one. Wealdstone had almost patented being “there or thereabouts” in recent title races, being undone by cup exploits and/or a pitch which seemed to be able to get waterlogged if it rained in Eastenders. And two of the division’s newbies, Maidstone United and Dulwich Hamlet, were rapidly upwardly mobile. Maidstone romped to the Division One South title backed by 2,000 crowds and playing on one of those new-fangled “3G” pitches that you either swear by or swear at, depending on whether you are Maidstone or the opposition.

Dulwich, meanwhile, had been playing superbly watchable, high-tempo football for some years – as witnessed all-too-often for Ks liking in our cup-ties against them – which had brought in the crowds too, if not at Maidstone’s level then certainly a fair few notches above the Ryman Premier standard, let alone Division One South. So when some Ks fans said last August that we “should” be promoted this year, I could point to a number of other teams who could say the same. Ks had impressively revamped their squad last summer but so extensively that you could imagine them taking time to hit peak form. I’ve often had cause to write in my Non-League Paper match reports that Ks had played “as if they’d only just met.” At the start of this season, most of them HAD.

The race for the title was as tight as a gnat’s chuff (whatever that is) for the early part of the season. It was a six or seven-horse race which turned into show jumping once Wealdstone properly hit their stride after Christmas. But the chasing pack quickly huddled together for warmth. The afore-mentioned Maidstone, Dulwich and Ks remained in the hunt, although Ks gradually slipped down the rankings as early defensive impregnability gave way to something more familiar to Kingsmeadow Stadium regulars. Bognor Regis Town soon joined in. Their two-one win at Ks was surely the most convincing victory ever to be decided by a controversial 87th-minute penalty – three-nil wouldn’t have flattered them on the night.  Lowestoft Town, “there or thereabouts” merchants to almost the same extent as Wealdstone, were…well…there or thereabouts.  AFC Hornchurch were fixtures in the top six. And this hardy group saw off spurts from teams such as Hendon, Met Police and Hampton and Richmond Borough – the latter turning into Bayern Munich over Christmas when they hammered Ks and Wealdstone, before returning to mid-table mediocrity as fast as they’d emerged from it.

Ks had kept in touch by largely eschewing the “how did you lose to THEM?” results which blighted many a campaign down the years. The ability to lose to relegation candidates while beating promotion rivals wasn’t exclusively Kingstonian but we did seem rather better at it than most. But this year started out differently. Maidstone, Wealdstone and Bognor flicked us away “like dust off a cuff” as the afore-mentioned Phil once wrote of our regular defeats to Sutton United back in the day. And, bar an inexplicable draw at home to Harrow Borough when two-nil up and a man up with nine minutes left, we’d beaten the sides we should have beaten. Former Ks chief executive Chris Kelly (the “Leatherhead Lip” to those of an age) once said it didn’t matter how you did against the “big” teams if you won the games you should. And this year’s league table was proving him right (Kelly was a disastrous administrator who led us into administration in 2001 but he knew his football).

Then in the spring, after a two-one win over a Dulwich side who had been simply brilliant in the first half but hadn’t showed it on the scoresheet, we started with the silly results. Visits to relegation-haunted Thamesmead Town and East Thurrock United yielded just one point out of six. And a one-nil home win over just-as-struggling Wingate and Finchley might as well have been a defeat, given that Ks had breached a thoroughly shambolic Wingate defence after only three minutes, then failed to do so again despite playing against ten men for fourteen first-half minutes and… NINE men throughout the second half. The run significantly threatened Ks play-off chances for the first time. That they weren’t damaged beyond repair was due to inconsistencies elsewhere…and remarkable consistency from Dulwich and Maidstone. At one stage, the latest form guide covering teams’ previous six games showed those two with eleven defeats between them, the only victory being Dulwich’s over… Maidstone.

With the Stones being genuine title contenders until then, there was a considerable struggle to allow them into next season’s Conference South. The Conference refused to sanction their 3G pitch so they had to make groundshare arrangements, since when their slump knocked them out of play-off contention entirely. And as quickly as it had disappeared, Ks’ defensive mojo returned. Manager Alan Dowson came to the club in 2007 with a reputation for building defensively-solid teams – largely in his own image as a Football League left-back with Millwall and Darlington among others. He had won promotion into the Ryman Premier with Walton and Hersham, based on 18 (EIGHTEEN) one-nil victories.

His Kingstonian teams have never lived up/down to that reputation, combining individual brilliance with defensive deficiencies which must have driven him half-mad or more over the years. This year started out differently. It was six-and-a-bit games before Ks conceded a goal, with rhyming centre-backs Matt Drage and Sam Page at the heart of a very solid unit. But having finally conceded, at Maidstone, the flood gates occasionally opened, with the four goals shipped at Hampton, having been one-nil up in first-half stoppage-time, being particularly galling. Dowse tried all sorts of re-jigs and re-shapes – the biggest “reshape” being to try and (fail to) plug the considerable gaps with former Hastings United player-manager Sean Ray.

The strengthening of the midfield, though, seems to have been the catalyst for the return of the clean sheet, including the loan acquisition from Chelsea of Daniel Pappoe, a member of the Ghanaian under-20m squad which occasionally lit up that age group’s World Cup last summer. Since Ks underwent this mini revamp, they have conceded five goals in their last dozen games. And Easter Saturday almost turned the play-off fight upside down. On April 12th Ks beat Lowestoft Town one-nil at Kingsmeadow in a match regarded as genuinely “must-win” for both sides’ play-off hopes.  Despite Lowestoft’s defeat (in a game where they had the clearer chances), the sides will meet at Kingsmeadow again next Wednesday in the play-off semi-final, should league positions be unaltered by the end of the regular season this Saturday.

Admittedly this is not something on which to bet with any confidence after Easter Saturday. Indeed, teams changed positions with alarming regularity during Easter Monday’s second halves… and after some of them, which led to confusion and arithmetical lapses under pressure.
Ks’ intrepid tannoy announcer and press box chief Robert Wooldridge announced after Ks’ five-one win over already-relegated Carshalton that Ks would be in the play-offs if AFC Hornchurch did not equalise at Canvey, where they were one-nil down.  As I respectfully pointed out to Rob: “You might as well have thrown the ****ing ball in Canvey’s net.” So of course AFC Hornchurch equalised. But fortunately, others among the Ks faithful had cool heads…and mobile devices with timeously-updated league tables. Ks were in the play-offs anyway. And if they avoid defeat at Dulwich, they’ll get a home semi-final too.

I’m old enough and more to remember the introduction of play-offs into the Football League. And I’ve never been a huge fan, even though I am well aware how much life the system consistently breathes into the final weeks of league seasons. The prospect of promotion being decided on penalties will never appeal. But even with two automatic promotion places and no play-offs, this year’s Ryman League race for the runner-up spot would have been tight and to the wire. So I am grateful that I am not quite as involved in Kingstonian, physically and emotionally, as once I was. Otherwise this year’s play-off race would have shot my nerves to shreds. It has been a truly remarkable campaign. And there are plenty of nerves still to be shredded and shot.

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