The Ryman League Reaches Its Denouement

by | Apr 21, 2017

Sky Sports’ more perceptive staff might be wondering if this season’s final Premier League (EPL) “Super Sunday” might be a super… damp squib. The Ryman League Premier Division’s insane run-in would currently make better telly.

When Saturday Comes magazine’s late, lamented (by me, anyway) diary section used to call the Football League Championship “the mad division,” because…it was. As unpredictable as Donald Trump in a dizzy spell and as competitive as Trump’s senior Whitehouse staff on a tetchy day, while the Premier League/Premiership was a dismal Arsenal/Manchester United duopoly, when Man Yoo weren’t strolling it. The business ends of this season’s Ryman Premier have been a throwback to the Championship days, while the EPL has been, and will likely still be, a stroll.

Chelsea’s EPL lead may have shrunk from ten to four points in 15 days. But their run-in is easier than second-placed Tottenham’s. And for all their current woes, Arsenal could surely torpedo Spurs’ title aspirations at White Hart Lane next week, as Chelsea did last season, after ten-man Arsenal drew at Spurs. If City win the Manchester derby and Liverpool don’t f**k up, the top four is sorted, bar the hardly-gripping battle to avoid the Champions League play-offs, from which no EPL team has failed to progress.

Europa League qualification? “Meh,” at the best of times. Hell, the FA Cup is potentially more interesting. And Sky don’t “have” that, so “meh.” Relegation? Daniel Ayala might have made the battle to join Sunderland in the Football League (EFL) a three-donkey-derby horse-race by netting THAT header against Arsenal. But Hull’s home form looks likely to see off Swansea and keep Sky’s split-screen technology in storage for another year.

The Ryman (Isthmian) Premier Division, on the other hand, had about 94 issues going into last weekend, hence this article. Some were resolved on Easter Monday, unfortunately for the article but a god-send for my shattered nerves as a Kingstonian fan. Yet the title, promotion play-off and relegation battles will all still rage this coming Saturday, the division’s last full programme.

At 5pm last Saturday, Bognor Regis Town topped the table by a point over Havant & Waterlooville, with a three-goal superior goal difference but with a tricky Easter Monday game. Away to… Havant & Waterlooville.

One point separated five teams in the hunt for two promotion play-off places (the away teams in the one-legged semi-finals) and four points separated eight teams in the hunt to avoid the last two relegation spots. Jeff Stelling would have needed all his professionalism to cope. And Paul Merson’s head would have exploded (mind you, two-plus-two could do that on an off-day).

Kingstonian, hurtled into the relegation mire after taking two points from 11 games, starting after a January win at “Jimmy Bullard’s Leatherhead,” to give them their full title, and ending after the April 1st loss to Bullard’s men. Leatherhead were also in said mire, not helped by a three-point deduction for fielding an ineligible player at Harlow on New Year’s Eve.

Both sides are now safe, barring the sort of freakish goal-difference changing set of results normally inspired by betting scams or Communist-era Eastern European politics. Leatherhead by introducing quality players such as prolific striker Charlie Moone and the experienced Luke Moore, Ks by replacing their management team JUST in time, with departees from Billericay Town’s glorious new era (see below), Salvador Dali-moustachioed manager Craig Edwards and assistant Kevin “Rambo” Ramsay.

However, both teams have been replaced in the relegation-threatened sector by sides making even later races to the bottom (four); Metropolitan Police with three defeats in four games, Harrow Borough with one point from six. And the title and relegation battles will adjoin on Saturday.

Havant beat Bognor 1-0 with Wes Fogden’s goal, in front of a huge crowd which was so late getting in that it not only delayed kick-off by 15 minutes, it also increased from the officially declared 2,307 to the more-credible 3,455 on Tuesday morning, “after a final tallying up of gates, figures and monies by the delighted Hawks.” But if they don’t win at in-form Ks, Bognor will become champions by beating plummeting, cacking-it Met Police at home.

Pressure can do the funniest things. Bognor’s boss Jamie Howell had to reproach some fans for giving out after Monday’s loss, despite the team being second by 14 points. “Cloud-cuckoo land,” he said, although it wasn’t clear whether he was referring to the team or the recalcitrant fans. And Bognor have surely rued their 2-1 loss at home to the then (and now) bottom-club Grays Athletic on January 28th. So, a home win on the Sussex coast is likely rather than nailed-on.

Yet three points for a win adds to the drama in such situations. The system, designed primarily to encourage attacking football, was introduced by the Isthmian League in 1973, eight years before it dawned on the Football League that Jimmy Hill (yes!) was still having good ideas in 1973. And it now means that If Bognor win, Havant have to.

But the Hawks, relegated from the National League South last season, have powered to the title edge with five straight victories. And while they needed a 96th-minute equaliser to salvage a point at home to Ks on New Year’s Eve, Ks only have pride to keep and a 10-0 or so defeat to avoid.

The any-two-from-five play-off race had also involved big-spending Billericay before Saturday. However, despite famously/notoriously having shedloads of money thrown at them invested in them recently, ‘Ricay have loused up their seemingly unstoppable charge to the play-offs.

They surrounded their ludicrous 8-3 League Cup final win over Tonbridge Angels by conceding four at home in defeat to play-off rivals Enfield Town and losing at Leatherhead, results which brought joy to the world…perhaps even Enfield’s play-off and Leatherhead’s relegation rivals. Especially after Billericay’s Jamie O’Hara was fined two weeks’ wages (reportedly THOUSANDS of pounds) for a “post-match altercation/unsavoury incident” with a Leatherhead fan.

There must be something in the Suffolk water. Leiston and Needham Market were unlikely top-five sides almost throughout the season, and genuine title contenders for a bit. But both have fallen away dramatically, displaying relegation form worse than already-doomed AFC Sudbury and Grays. And Easter Monday wins gave Enfield and Wingate & Finchley three points so spare over them.

The Suffolk duo have been undermined by defensive frailties. Needham Market’s goal difference effectively rules them out of the top five, thanks to the worst defensive record in the top half of the table. Their only hope of success this season(CHK) lies with the Non-League goal celebration of the year award, for which Luke Ingram has made the 10-strong shortlist

Leiston are the league’s top scorers with 97, 29 from divisional top scorer Matt Blake. But their defeat at Ks last Saturday summed them up. Two shots. Both on-target. Both goals. Yet never in the game. (And their preparations have been undermined by awful allegations that their keeper Ashlee Jones was racially abused by away fans during Easter Monday’s 2-1 home loss to Lowestoft and that a Lowestoft player was assaulted after the match).

Yet…yet, unlikely as winning at Enfield on Saturday might be (Town have won their last SEVEN league games), it would guarantee them a play-off spot, at Wingate & Finchley’s expense if Wingate don’t get something from the visit of Dulwich. Wingate haven’t conceded a goal all month, though. And Dulwich lost 1-0 at home to Grays on Easter Monday, having sealed their own play-off place with a 3-0 win at Burgess Hill Town last Saturday.

Which brings us back to the relegation scrap. Burgess Hill had the unhappiest Easter of all strugglers. Easter Monday was especially cruel. Worthing secured their own safety with Jack Newhouse’s fourth-minute-of-four-minutes-stoppage-time equaliser at home to the Hillians in a noon kick-off, which may have been crueller still on the Hillians. The three o’clock kick-off results ensured Worthing’s survival, so they might not have been as bothered at about ten-to-five, armed with that knowledge.

They would have known, too. One feature of Kingstonian’s season-saving win at Merstham was the number of Ks fans viewing the “Football Web Pages” (FWP) web-site’s Ryman Premier page, which had GENUINE up-to-the-minute scores from every game. We knew the precise, huge significance of Merstham’s 78th-minute penalty…and the precise, huge significance of Ks keeper Rob Tolfrey’s save. Sky Sports could not have informed the drama better.

And FWP will be popular at Lowestoft Town FC as Harrow seek salvation there after losing at home to Hendon in the ultimate (OK…penultimate) “relegation six-pointer” on Monday. Boro’ have been Ryman relegation-threatened regulars but relegation-avoiders in recent seasons. However, their website’s Simon Grigor reports fans being “deeply, deeply worried” at “the 2017 version wading through quicksand.”

In the sharpest contrast, four wins in five have catapulted Hendon to parity with their near-neighbours. The Greens played last season’s home games at Harrow’s Earlsmead ground and have nearly salvaged a season which had looked fatally undermined by not winning at their new Silver Jubilee Park home ground in the league until January 7th.

They must win there again against mid-table Staines to stave off any last-day heroics from Folkestone (where they won 2-1 on April 8th) and Burgess Hill. Folkestone visit Grays, so who knows what will happen there. “We simply don’t DO mid-table finishes,” noted club secretary/programme editor Richard Murrill over a list of Invicta’s recent “last-day dramas,” although the last to involve relegation was in 2008.

Burgess Hill host Merstham, with the tagline “One More Push” dominating the build-up, including a three-and-a-half-minute promotional video snappily-entitled “Calling all Burgess Hill Town FC fans! We Come Together! One Final Push!”, a melodramatically-soundtracked montage of strangely under-celebrated Hillians goals and distinctly un-melodramatic fans going through turnstiles.

And finally…Canvey Island. After a season pock-marked with four, five and six-goal defeats, the Gulls found five league wins on-the-spin down the back of their sofa, from late-February to late-March, to climb to relative safety. However, foreseeable losses to Bognor and Havant have helped leave them bottom of the not-already-relegated heap, with a goal difference worth a point…to everyone else. The space for the league table on their website’s homepage was blank earlier this week. Perhaps wisely.

They host already-relegated AFC Sudbury. Yet even with that highly-obtainable win, that pesky goal difference could yet relegate them on 54 points, an insanely-high safety threshold, even for a 46-game season. As Hendon manager Gary McCann determinedly double-negatived this week: “I did not think that winning our three penultimate games in-a-row would not have got us clear of danger.”

Saturday will therefore put thousands of Isthmian League fans through the ringer. And even if my predictions record wasn’t already abject, I wouldn’t be venturing any opinions. One thing seems certain, though. Sky Sports’ final “Super” Sunday will be deadly dull by comparison.

EPILOGUE

I have one final reason to be glad Ks are all-but safe, as I face a moral dilemma which would have been multiples larger had they been in the unsafe half of the division.

I write Kingstonian match reports for the Non-League Paper. And my bosses have told me that if Havant win the title at Ks on Saturday, I will get paid twice as much for my afternoon’s work. So…do I sacrifice my remaining credibility and integrity for the money? Or refuse to sell my loyalty for just a few quid? Particularly as it is Ks last-ever game at Kingsmeadow, after 28 ‘interesting’ years.

ORRRRR…do I go against my instinctive wish for Bognor to be champions because of the consistently good football they have played in recent seasons and fervently wish Havant win the play-offs, though I’d love to see Dulwich and their mad, massive support rewarded? And don’t get me started on the relegation situation. Regular readers know how I can fashion moral complexities out of them. ALL that said, I wish NO team or their fans any ill. I know how ill I would feel if Ks were relegated.

Alongside all that, voting Labour, despite Jeremy bloody Corbyn, is duck soup.

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