This year’s Blue Square South title race is shaping up to be as tight as last year. With eleven matches now played, only five points separate the top five clubs, and two of them meet this afternoon as Woking played Newport County at Kingfield. For Woking, the BSS may feel like a little bit of a culture shock after seventeen seasons in the Blue Square Premier. They were only relegated on the last day of last season, and three months isn’t long to acclimatise to the concept of visiting the likes of Weston-Super-Mare and Staines rather than Oxford and Luton.
Newport County haven’t played Conference football for a shade over twenty years. The original Newport County club had reached the quarter-finals of the 1981 European Cup Winners Cup (they had qualified by winning the Welsh Cup) before losing narrowly to the East German side Carl Zeiss Jena. They were, however, relegated from the Football League in 1988 and went to the wall in February 1989 with debts of over £300,000, failing to complete their first season outside of the League. It has taken them two decades to get back to this level. Somerton Park, their original home, is long gone, replaced by the council owned Newport Stadium, and Newport have been playing one division below the Conference since 1995.
This season sees Newport and Woking joined near the top of the table by the moneyed Dover Athletic, and the surprise packages of the season so far, Thurrock and Basingstoke Town. The other pre-season favourites, Chelmsford City, sit in tenth place in the table, but they are only ten points off the top of the table. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this match attracts the biggest crowd in this division of the season so far, over 1,800, and this includes around 300 that have travelled to Surrey from South Wales. It’s only the middle of September, but it feels like a big match for this early stage of the season.
Kingfield is an idiosyncratic ground, a hotch potch of stands look as if they have all been parachuted in from other grounds. At the Kingfield Road End sits a large, seated stand that wouldn’t look out of place two or three divisions above the Blue Square South. Along the side to the right of this stand is a long, open terrace which is uncovered, presumably because it is hemmed in by an industrial estate behind it. The majority of the travelling supporters are congregated here, but is apparent from early on that a group of them are intent on causing trouble. What is slightly odd is that this is not the usual Stone Island clad teenagers that many non-league clubs seem to have following them around. Several of these people are over forty – old enough to know better. It’s possible that some of them have banning orders from all Football League grounds. One of them at least is wearing a ludicrous wig which could only be rationalised as a feeble attempt at a disguise.
On the pitch, things start slowly. The match has the feel of a sparring fight, with the two teams prodding and pushing at each other rather than going in with their fists flying. For Newport, a long clearance is only half-cleared and Henry volleys just wide whilst, at the other end of the pitch, Delano Sam-Yorke finds himself a good position on the left hand side of the penalty area but is off-balance when he shot and sees the ball fly wide of the post. In a match of few chances, the feeling is growing that one goal might be enough to win this match, and everything hinges on two incidents in the first half.
After twenty-nine minutes, Newport score, when Paul Bignod’s low shot is well saved by the Woking goalkeeper Ross Worner, but striker Sam Foley is the quickest to react and sweeps the rebound into the net. A minute before half-time, however, Woking are gifted a golden opportunity to level the scores when Cochlin and Moses get tangled up with each other on the edge of the penalty area and the referee awards a soft penalty. Sam Sloma steps up to take the penalty, but he drags his penalty a foot wide of the Newport goalkeeper Glyn Thompson’s left hand post and wide. The Newport manager Dean Holdsworth is sent to the stands for his complaints about the award.
The second half is scrappy affair, with both teams frequently lacking a good final ball into dangerous positions and, on the occasions when the ball did get into the danger zone, strikers from both teams were guilty of poor ball control and allowing the ball to run away from them at critical moments. It looks as if Newport are going top of the table, as Dover Athletic are being held at home by Bath City, but a late goal from Adam Birchall for Dover means that Newport will only be in second place this evening. Woking, meanwhile, have missed out on a chance to stay on the tails of the league leaders. There are four points between Newport and Woking now, and Woking have lost two and drawn two of their opening six league matches. They need to improve if they are to bounce back into the BSP at the first time of asking.
Newport look more like championship challengers than Woking, and it feels as if the most work that they will have to do is off the pitch. A small proportion of their travelling support is pretty vile, and their behaviour before, during and after match only really brings embarrassment on their club. Perhaps it is time for the rest of their support to face up to these people and tell them that this sort of behaviour is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. The club should certainly take decisive action against people that act like this. The Blue Square South and Newport County Football Club don’t need them, and they are likely to come under closer scrutiny should they win the league this season. For now, though, the BSS title race remains likely to stay wide open for some time to come and Woking, for all their faults this afternoon, certainly have the potential to improve and aren’t out of things yet. It should be an eventful season in the Blue Square South.