The Ryman League Cup – A Lament
On Monday night Kingstonian, reached the final of the Isthmian League Cup. Or, to give it its full, oh-so-catchy title, the Alan Turvey Trophy sponsored by Robert Dyas. The celebrations of our fortunate penalty shoot-out victory over Wingate and Finchley, in what was awkwardly termed the “Alan Turvey Trophy sponsored by Robert Dyas semi-final,” were aptly minimalist. “An occasion unquestionably befitting of the great Alan Turvey,” noted the “official” match report on Ks’ website, dripping with possibly fine-inducing sarcasm about the league’s president, who has immodestly had “his” league’s trophy named after him while he’s still alive.
It appeared from the press box that approximately none of the 30-ish players and coaching staff had any idea that Ks keeper Rob Tolfrey’s second shoot-out save had clinched the final spot. Ks fifth penalty taker wasn’t inching forward nervously to take his kick. In fact, there was no movement at all, none of that rushing to embrace the heroic glovesman nonsense that usually marks such occasions. And only the audible delight of Ks’ tannoy announcer (off-mic, which spared our eardrums) gave any indication that anything of note had happened at all. This could have been the product of footballers’ stereotypical ignorance. But more likely it was because they genuinely didn’t feel that anything of note had happened at all. It wasn’t always thus.
Three of my first four Kingstonian matches were League Cup semi-finals. And my memories might as well have been in black-and-white for all the connection there was between March/April 1982 and February 2016. In 1982, the two-legged semi-final of the “Hitachi” Cup was a big deal… for Ks certainly. The club’s potted history, published in away programmes, include the gargantuan understatement “the 1970s were not good years for the club.” And Ks were still languishing in the Isthmian League’s second tier in ‘82. So the visit of high-flying Premier Division Wycombe Wanderers recalled far greater days. Like many league colleagues, Ks attracted regular four-figure crowds until the late 1960s, when, as mysteriously as dinosaurs disappeared, crowds dwindled to gatherings, smatterings even, spawning a million “What time’s kick-off?” “What time can you get here?” jokes. Wycombe’s first-leg visit brought four figures back to Ks’ now-demolished Richmond Road ground, resulting in a turnstile queue (I use the singular correctly) for the first time since decimalisation.
Ks responded with a glory-days performance. Speedy striker Jester Williams (whose “unorthodox” running style matched his first name) twice sped clear of the defence to give Ks a 2-0 lead to take to Wycombe’s now-demolished Loakes Park. More remarkably, Ks stretched their aggregate lead to 3-0 five-and-a-half seconds into the second leg. It wasn’t quite the fastest-ever goal… and had to be called the fastest-ever goal in an ill-defined “South-East of England” to have any record-breaking status at all. But it was remarkable for other reasons. Ks then centre-forward was the… ahem… “rotund” Jim Baptie. So how he reached the 18-yard line from the halfway-line so quickly is something I still cannot fathom. Loakes Park had its “famous slope”, sharing the cliché with Yeovil Town’s now-demolished Huish ground. But it sloped from side-to-side, as we discovered on our climb to the tea bar, hundreds of feet above sea level alongside a stand.
Such questions were relegated by the next 36-and-a-half minutes, by which time we were… ulp!… 5-3 down on the night. As remarkably, that was the final score, even after extra-time. And with the Isthmian League eschewing the away goals rule, a third match was required. A coin toss brought us back to Richmond Road. And my clearest memory of our 2-1 victory was Baptie celebrating his winner with an unfit schoolkid’s forward-roll… leaving a dip in the Richmond Road pitch where he landed. Leytonstone-Ilford (now demolished) completed a league and cup double by winning the final 2-0. And my only Ks league game that season was an altogether lower-key affair, in front of a resolutely three-figure crowd, a 1-0 win over Aveley every bit as glamorous as it sounds.
A similar-sized smattering, 178, gathered for Monday’s semi-final. Our League Cup has suffered the same fate as the much-maligned, Football League affair. Many teams, especially those without reserve sides (such as Ks), use it to give playing time to “squad” players. Like Ks in 1982, teams from outside the top flight get regular chances to shine… see Bradford City in the Football League Cup. And Isthmian League Division One South play-off contenders Faversham Town are Ks fellow-finalists, on April 6th at Carshalton Athletic (not likely to be all-ticket, I’m guessing). It is fair to say that cup fever didn’t grip Kingston on Monday, unless the main symptoms require sufferers to stay indoors. Mind you, with average league gates of 250-300, the league fever vaccination programme must also be considered a success.
While most Ks regulars knew there was a game on, the reduced admission prices (themselves an indication of the competition’s standing) were unexpected. “It’s a big cup semi-final…of course we’ve put the prices…er…down,” joked one of the waggish turnstile operators. And even that dopey git (ah, you recognise me from the description now) didn’t know that the tie went straight to penalties if it was level at 90 minutes, as I further ‘joked’ that £6 to get in wouldn’t seem such a bargain if it was 0-0 after two hours in the freezing February cold. However, it was an incident-packed journey to those penalties, although my turnstile duties meant that I missed the first three of the night’s four goals (I’m glad the Non-League Football Paper, for whom I write Kingstonian match reports, didn’t want one for this Sunday’s edition). Andre McCollin made us wait 24 and-a-half seconds longer than Baptie in 1982 for Ks’ opening goal. And they soon led 2-1.
Then Wingate keeper Bobby Smith suffered a freakish neck injury which required an overnight hospital stay (best wishes to him for a speedy recovery, if there’s any Wingate fans reading). And there wasn’t a keeper among the trio sat on Wingate’s under-populated substitutes’ bench. So thin-as-a-goalpost midfielder Rob Laney donned the gloves and Wingate followers started praying. Their prayers were answered as Ks struggled before half-time over whether to adjust their game plan to exploit Laney’s hypothetical netminding deficiencies. They solved this by abandoning the ‘game plan’ concept entirely, thereby rendering Laney’s netminding deficiencies hypothetical during the 90 minutes. The one shot he had to save was from 40 yards out, by our substitute right-back…and wouldn’t have reached the goal-line even if Laney hadn’t got his lanky body behind it.
“You’d fancy us in a shoot-out, though” became something of a mantra after Wingate were gifted a 53rd-minute equaliser by a dross defensive header. And it became something of a prayer as the visitors dominated the rest of the game. Our prayers were answered too, however (at least God cares about the Alan Turvey Trophy sponsored by Robert Dyas), as Wingate didn’t fashion the volume of chances their outfield play merited. A Wingate official wondered aloud whether Ks would get a shot on-target during the shoot-out, a thought which should have caused some offence… except that we’d all been thinking exactly the same thing.
However, Ks’ four penalties were on-target, although one, possibly two, found the net due to Laney’s actual netminding deficiencies. And Ks custodian Rob Tolfrey saved Wingate’s first and fourth kicks, the latter from Laney himself. Ks tannoy announcer let out a guttural roar, loosely-based on the word “yes,” and then asked “we have won, haven’t we?” as nobody else joined in. Instead, the result was greeted with moans from Wingate fans that “the linesman forgot the laws” amid suggestions that Tolfrey “narrowed the angle” before making his first shoot-out save, and…moans from Kingstonian fans that “we’ve missed our bloody bus now,” as the shoot-out dragged on past ten o’clock. As for “celebrations.” Well, I’m sure some younger Ks fans (i.e. most of them these days) allowed themselves a wry smile before the night was out.
A prevailing thought was that the Wednesday final would be a damaging addition to Ks’ run-in, as they are in the Isthmian League’s packed play-off chase. And the lustre of reaching a cup final doesn’t suppress that thought. Mind you, cup football at Kingstonian’s level is an oddity. The most important competition is the one we have no chance of winning, the FA Cup. The only other important competition is the FA Trophy, which is only occasionally within the grasp of clubs outside the National League, such as Ks’ divisional colleagues Bognor Regis Town this season (good luck in the final, to any Rocks fans reading). And even that success could conceivably be viewed as a damaging addition to Bognor’s run-in, as they have 17 fixtures to fulfil in the remaining seven weeks of the regular season. The gods help them if there’s one true cold snap this winter.
Meanwhile, County Senior Cups, legacies of different, amateur football days when County FAs mattered a damn at our level, now attract minimal or no interest (see Tales from a Mickey Mouse Cup, 200%, May 2013). And the League Cup is catching up. When we won it in 1996, our home semi-final second leg attracted exactly 100 more people than last Monday, an increase mostly, though not entirely, accounted for by Ks’ higher average crowds. And that year’s final, like our 2006 Surrey Senior Cup triumph, was only a big deal due to the fan bases of opponents Aldershot Town and AFC Wimbledon respectively. The League Cup is now a near-irrelevance. For fans and, to judge by the underwhelming almost non-existent reaction to Monday’s victory, for just about everyone else involved. Sorry Mr Turvey.
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