At the end, I was almost sorry Kingstonian’s 2017/18 season finished. I’d imagined roaring “thank f*** that’s over” near the press-box microphone left on by Ks outstanding matchday announcer Robert Wooldridge at the final whistle of our final ‘home’ game last Saturday.
Yet, nothing became Ks in 2017/18’s life like the leaving of it (apart from the start of it, see below); taking a play-off-form 17 points from nine games, rounded off by a staggeringly swaggering 4-0 win over a Needham Market side dreaming of whatever non-league footballers dream of when their filthily-overpaid professional counterparts are ‘on the beach.’ And one including a ‘James Carragher’ at centre-back, happy for now to be the ‘other’ James Carragher, I’m sure.
But ‘almost’ is the key word. It was never going to be a straightforward season for Ks, however well things went. And ‘things’ often ‘went’ not ‘well’ at all.
Ks spent 2017/18 sharing Leatherhead’s Fetcham Grove ground, which often merged with the nearby River Mole to form ‘match postponed due to waterlogged pitch’ signs. But the Tanners have been friendly, accommodating hosts, directly responsible for none of our tribulations. That award goes to what fell from the sky, seemingly just before every ‘home’ match since the end of 2017’s British Summer Time. And at the season’s end, Leatherhead have best wishes from many Ks people.
If there’s a hosepipe ban in the Mole Valley before 2026, Thames Water jobs should go. Most of 2017/18 was filmed in black-and-white, so overcast was the weather and muddy-grey the Leatherhead pitch. Programme inserts were de rigueur by March, with so many re-arranged games. Ks/Worthing was postponed about 94 times, due to atrocious weather and the atrocious prioritising of County Cup over league games. And when it was played, kick-off was delayed by traffic problems emanating from London’s all-too-adjacent M25 Orbital Motorway.
When the weather improved, I envisaged referees wandering the pitch in a daze, bereft of inspections to hold. And, as rain poured from suburban Surrey skies last Friday, the prospect of not finishing our season loomed like the clouds. The postponements proved costly, denying Ks ‘bumper holiday crowds’ on Boxing Day and Easter Monday, against Staines and Dulwich Hamlet respectively. Indeed, the Dulwich crowd took a double whammy.
There was a brief prospect of Ks hosting another title-winning party, after Havant’s celebrations last April. Big-spending Billericay’s big-mouth boss/owner Glenn Tamplin oversaw some thrilling spring defeats, giving the title-chasing pack the snookers they’d needed for months. And Hamlet were title contenders when they were due at ‘the Grove.’ But enough rain fell on Easter Sunday to keep Noah’s Ark indoors. Then, publicity-addict Tamplin had a rare moment of clarity, finally resigning as manager after aborting a previous failed stab at humility.
Ergo, when Dulwich played Ks, Billericay were already champions. And the crowd was nearly outnumbered by disgruntled ‘Slimmers’ World’ members who didn’t know their regular Thursday Fetcham Grove meeting had been moved to accommodate the football. “The exercise will do them good,” none of us said out loud.
The Brightlingsea Regent game WAS played at the first attempt. It shouldn’t have been. But the heaviest rain fell after Regent, and their fans, started their great trek from the Essex coast. And the referee declared the pitch playable but “one heavy burst of rain” from unplayability, leaving one Ks steward checking the BBC Weather website on his phone, increasingly frantically, every nine seconds, in-between asking us (combined meteorological experience: absolute zero) whether “one dot on the BBC’s rain symbol” meant “heavy.”
Whatever about the pitch, the ground entrance was waterlogged by two o’clock. I’m a Ks’ turnstile operator (oh, the glamour) and I had to leap to dry land by three o’clock. Indeed, the referee might have considered abandoning the match, as Ks outfield players resembled ten giraffes on roller skates, until one wag told him “it’s OK, we play like that EVERY week.” And the pitch was perfectly playable when Brightlingsea had possession.
God…the football. No avoiding it, I guess. Whether weather-assisted or not, Ks home form was abysmal until April. Current manager, Leigh Dynan’s strategical mantra is “pace and power.” But this became an increasingly ironic call from the terraces, as pitches increasingly mitigated against pace, power and good football generally.
Mercifully, Ks away record was surprisingly good, only the division’s top three bettering our ten wins. This included an opening-day cat-amongst-Billericay’s-pigeons, tosser Tamplin’s only league defeat until mid-February. Hence my skewered view of Ks on-field season, with work and life commitments restricting me to a handful of away games, all defeats (we didn’t draw ONCE away), while I all our home horrors.
After masterminding Ks Houdini-esque escape from relegation last season, boss Craig Edwards failed to bring that momentum, or any semblance of a plan, into this. And after Billericay (where he’d managed until Tamplin arrived), he oversaw crushing defeats to Leatherhead (0-4), Staines (0-5) and Burgess Hill (1-5), which have become no easier to explain since for a manager who majored on defensive stability. Mind you, there was also a 6-0 HOME thumping of Harlow Town which has become no easier to explain since.
Edwards left in mid-October, citing business and travel issues, after budget cuts followed Ks customarily early FA Cup exit. Many fans were up-in-arms, although Edwards had genuine business and travel issues and the budget cut was as customary as our early FA Cup exit. Popular ex-Ks boss Kim Harris oversaw one win and one plucky, unlucky defeat before vacating the managerial hot-seat with his well-deserved popularity well-deservedly enhanced. Given how unattractive the job must have been, Whyteleafe boss Leigh Dynan was a better appointment than some feared. But it disappointed others, feelings which the bizarre next five months hardly dispelled.
Dynan fundamentally revamped the squad and arguably didn’t stop until league loan regulations stopped him. Ks club secretary Phil Whatling was on season-long alert in case Ks loaned out any player we’d only borrowed ourselves. Over the season, Ks fielded 70+ players, putting on-field coherence beyond reach. One disoriented fan labelled Ks “Nebulous FC.” I half-expected to see my name on the appearances list in the programme. And, given my intermittent match attendance, I missed some players completely.
In my Ks Non-League Paper match-report notes, I identify Ks players by initials, recognising them by various determining features (hipster beards, WAY too often). Opposition players, bar those who “must be good because I’ve heard of them,” I identify by shirt number. Between November and mid-March, most Ks players were shirt numbers. And even last week, I had to check Daniel Ajakaiye’s name…AND I’d misspelled it.
Initially, Dynan almost had to select two squads, as ‘his’ players were ineligible for FA Trophy games. This conundrum was solved emphatically, 5-1, at Bostik Division One Heybridge Swifts. But only after Ks thumped Premier Division Thurrock 4-1 away. And this inconsistency pock-marked the season, as Mole Valley mud took increasing toll on Dynan’s ‘pace and power’ ambitions, after early displays suggested an exciting side. A consensus developed even among his non-critics (among whom I reside) that he might not have survived a ‘normal’ season.
A 1-0 home defeat to Tooting in February meant Ks took one point from 12 against the Terrors and Burgess Hill, the two sides fighting relegation in April. And it summed up Ks at home under Dynan. Plenty of possession but less cutting edge than a sponge knife in a wistful mood.
It was no co-incidence that Ks home form improved as the mud disappeared. And, ahem, ‘gangly’ striker Muhammadu Faal, took full advantage, ending the season one glaring miss from being joint-top-scorer with Tom Derry, who left just before Christmas, despite only joining on-loan just before Easter. Faal’s ‘plan’ was that if HE didn’t know what he would do next, defenders had no chance. Football as chaos theory. No better personification of Ks season.
Except, possibly, Evan Green. The Gibraltarian international’s international clearance took an age. And he made…one competitive appearance. Still, Ks played IN Gibraltar during pre-season, searing south-of-Spain August heat being ideal preparation for Leatherhead in February. Anyway…Ks notoriously-divided fans are largely united about wanting Faal to stay. But Faal’s future is as predictable as his playing style. And the gods alone know what 2018/19’s squad will look like.
Ever-present keeper Rob Tolfrey will likely be there, though, reportedly keen to break Kingstonian’s appearance record, which is his if he wants it. He played well this season but was almost player-of-it simply by BEING ever-present (‘Bradley’s mum’ came fourth in the supporters’ club vote). And, next year, ‘there’ will be Corinthian Casuals, who nabbed a Bostik South Division play-off spot from Hythe Town with a 90th-minute equaliser last Saturday at…Hythe Town and now face their Walton namesakes in the final.
Casuals were famously nomadic until merging with Tolworth FC, at Tolworth FC, in 1988 to form…er…Corinthian Casuals. But the groundshare at Casuals’ King Georges Field will return Ks to Kingston borough and should end our nomadic existence. In January, the clubs revealed “advanced talks” on “a partnership…and the consequent development of shared facilities,” while stressing that they would “remain independent,” lest anyone envisaged a ‘merger’ to form…er…Kingstonian.
And vitally, Casuals is dead-handy for me. See over my right shoulder? It’s just there. But it won’t be easy for others. Opponents of the Leatherhead move suggested it would be “quite difficult” for “older fans.” So, Ks then-director Mark Anderson provided his travel firm’s coaches for (free) rides to and from Leatherhead, with a nice camaraderie developing among its users. And “older fans” may still need these coaches, as public transport stops some way from Casuals’ ground, which is on a dual-carriageway slip-road.
Generally, though, Ks fans are eagerly anticipatory. Buoyed by finishing bottom of the top half of the table, rather than simply bottom, and by Casuals’ pitch NOT being near any river. Uncertainty persists about away trips, as the latest over-complicated non-league restructure could make us Southern (Evo-Stik) Leaguers for the first time (what is it with semi-pro league sponsorship and glue?), after 90 years as Isthmians or above. But home trips will be genuine ‘home’ trips. In the Borough. On dry land.
Goodbye and heartfelt thanks, Leatherhead. But goodbye to 2017/18. And good riddance.