“It’s a Mickey Mouse competition with Mickey Mouse officials. Next season I’m fielding a reserve team.” They were words of an embittered loser. And when Isthmian League Kingstonian’s then-manager Chris Kelly said them, he probably never imagined he was foreseeing future attitudes towards “senior” cup competitions. I write this after Kingstonian lost 2-1 to Conference South side Bromley in the 2012/13 London Senior Cup Final. There were no “reserve” teams on display, although it looked like it during a mistake-addled, if entertaining first half. But it was a low-key affair, scant consolation for teams whose league seasons ran completely out of steam in March and April. It was Kingstonian’s second consecutive London Cup final defeat (“back-to-back defeats,” they’ve been called, as if last year’s final, a 2-0 loss to an excellent Hendon team, was played backwards… though that would have explained our second-half performance…). Ks lost 2-1 at Chertsey Town in the 1987/88 Surrey Senior Cup, when Kelly suggested the Walt Disney Corporation as competition sponsors. And Micky Droy (yes, Chelsea fans, the very same) was sent-off late on – for a tackle better suited to a martial artist than a veteran centre-back for whom the word “lumbering” could have been invented, even when Droy was at his physical peak, a decade earlier. Kelly was being harsh on the officials, which was not uncommon for the one-time “Leatherhead Lip.” But his attitude towards future team-selection is more prevalent now – in domestic cup competitions in general.
Being in a London borough, Ks are effectively in two counties, and are therefore affiliates of two County FAs, London and Surrey, and eligible for two county cups. And as Ks have no reserve team, the county cups provide valuable match practice opportunities for squad/’fringe’ players. More veteran Kingstonian fans than I claim that the London Cup was a very senior one indeed back in the 1950s and 1960s. And pictures of 5,000 crowds for a midweek London Cup replay in February 1964 bear this out. When Ks reached the 1984 final, our then-manager Billy Miller claimed the competition had been “the second most important after the FA Amateur Cup.” Whilst that seemed improbable to us children of the 70s and 80s, a Sutton United/Dulwich Hamlet final that year was earmarked for Brentford. We pooped that particular potential party by beating Sutton in the semis. And the final was eventually played at the Imber Court ground of fellow Isthmian Leaguers Metropolitan Police. The crowd was still four-figures, though, both for the drawn game and the replay (another 2-1 defeat).
Both last year’s final and this were played at Imber Court too. But the crowds were barely four-figures between them. The competition was losing lustre even by 1984. When Ks reached the final again in 1987, the lustre loss had not abated. And our view of it wasn’t helped by the match arrangements. Ks, three miles from Imber Court, met Hampton, three times the width of the River Thames away. So the final was staged at… Enfield, in very North London indeed. Kelly didn’t publicly invoke Walt Disney after this game – partly, perhaps, because we won (2-1 again). But Ks decision not to defend the trophy was probably partly-inspired by a cartoon mouse. Senior non-league sides had little time, metaphorically and literally, for the competition in the 1990s. The London FA had always insisted that ties in what is nominally their “Saturday Senior” Cup were played on Saturdays. And as county cup-ties rather archaically took precedence over league fixtures, the only way clubs could avoid fixture clashes was not to enter. Thus Tottenham Omada romped to a victory in 1996 that, with all due respect, might not otherwise have been theirs.
Senior teams returned in 2000, with midweek ties accepted. But the 2012 and 2013 finals were still filed in the scant consolation column, after league let-downs. Back in the mid-1980s, “we’re going to finish eleventh” was a chant of semi-celebration by the Ks faithful (just me and Nigel at some distant midweek away trips). Eleventh didn’t inspire any songs last year or this. Last year’s final had numerous moments of quality. Unfortunately, most of them came from Hendon, finalists five times and winners twice since 2006. They under-achieved this year, leaving Bromley to emerge as finalists. And for 45 minutes, there was the prospect of a repeat of 1987’s circumstances, as Cray Wanderers, who have played at Bromley for some years now, were Ks opponents in the other semi-final. Ks beat Cray 5-2 in last year’s semi. And, as I may have mentioned once before, we beat the Wands 9-3 in the league in early February this year. Unfortunately, Ks subsequent league form was little better than Cray’s, which left our promotion hopes in ruins… and left Cray in the relegation dogfight when they returned to Kingsmeadow.
Despite a team selection which confirmed their priorities lay elsewhere, Cray were one-up at half-time and could/should have been further ahead. But they lost two players through first-half injury, which meant an appearance – at centre-half – for FORTY-EIGHT-year-old striker Gary Abbott. Abbott had enough nous about him not to look foolish. Yet Ks ran lanes through Cray’s defence after half-time. And only embarrassing finishing denied them the lead until seven minutes from time (“he doesn’t miss from there” aren’t words often applied to our otherwise lively striker Wade Small). But if Ks late-season form was mediocre, Bromley’s was shocking, losing nine of their last ten league games. It showed too. For much of the first quarter we were wondering how many first-teamers Bromley had ‘rested’ for the occasion, only to discover that, much like Ks, it largely WAS a first-team except for goalkeeper and top-scorer.
We were wondering this, though, from a vantage point of a goal down. Second-choice keeper Louis Bragg played all three games in the run-ette to the final, so got the nod for the big game. This looked a mistake as Elliott Buchanan’s 90th-second drive made its way towards the corner of the net without any sign of a goalkeeper even approaching it to ask where it was going, let alone stop it. Both sides huffed and puffed at some pace, with sliced clearances and chaotic defending, from what looked like second-choice centre-backs, giving Ks fans hope, even if centre-forward Jamil Okai’s apparent unfamiliarity with the offside law strangled many attacks almost at birth. But, as the old Chinese proverb says, better to be chaotic than out-of-position when the ball comes in from the flanks, as Ks centre-backs often were. Indeed, for much of the first half, it wasn’t clear who Ks centre-backs were… or if there were two or three of them.
Whoever, and however many they were, they were nowhere in the 38th minute when Aaron Rhule made it 2-0 from “even Wade Small wouldn’t miss from there” territory – probably the teenage Rhule’s easiest goal since his last back garden kickabout. I wasn’t exactly getting downhearted, but I was contemplating going home and watching a couple of episodes of the BBC drama The Village just to cheer myself up a little. “Not much in it… apart from the goals,” was the confusing half-time consensus. But after the interval, Bromley looked well able to keep their noses – and the rest of their face – in front. Then… drama. Okai had just surprised us with a couple of nifty turns and a left-foot shot which brought the first save of the evening from Bromley’s back-up custodian George Howard. And a third turn sent him clear of floundering centre-back Helge Orome. Unfortunately for Ks, Okai’s next touch, off his knee, propelled the ball safely into Howard’s arms. Fortunately for Ks, this was unbeknownst to Orome, who pulled Okai back by his shirt, and the referee, who sent Orome off. “He can’t have any complaints,” said a Ks fan. But he could have had one. “According to the letter of the law,” he shouldn’t have been sent-off, as Okai’s “air-traffic” control denied him the all-important goalscoring opportunity.
It made for half-an-hour’s one-way traffic as Bromley reverted to an 8-0-1 formation, seemingly determined not to score again as well as not to concede. And Ks deserved credit for fashioning some decent chances against this blanket defence. Young winger Luke Wanadio pinged one against the crossbar. And not-so-young emergency striker Simon Huckle bulleted a header against both post and unsuspecting full-back on the line before Okai slammed home the goal his performance deserved. But he had barely started his rush back to the centre-spot when the referee blew for full-time. There was plenty of “if only we’d scored earlier” from the Ks faithful afterwards. But I suspect Bromley fingernails will have been bitten closer to the quick than they were during Tuesday’s closing stages.
Both teams have, rightly, been effusive in their praise of their fans. Ks full-back Tom Bird tweeted that “the fans were ledge last night” (an odd abbreviation for “legendary” until you realise that “the fans were leg last night” would have looked odder still). While, unless I’ve misunderstood Bromley’s website match report, the dismissed Orome spent the later stages “amongst the supporters behind the goal.” This probably breaches some regulation or other. But you should warm to a guy who so appreciates “being with those who love the club with all their heart” and asks “how can you not want to give 100% for them?” And it was a good-natured occasion, even if supporters unity most passionately manifested itself in a mutual loathing of AFC Wimbledon, and one pre-teen Bromley fan’s wide-eyed delight on discovering that “oooh, Kingstonian hate Sutton too.”
Yet it was a low-key occasion. On the train home, there was quiet satisfaction from Bromley fans – all the chatter and laughter was from the Ks contingent. And whilst there was no doubting the delight on Bromley faces at the cup’s presentation, it never felt to me like a “real” cup final and I’m genuinely not sure I’d have thought so even if we’d won. Ks have been a bit spoilt by recent appearances in ‘minor’ finals. Our 1996 League Cup triumph was at Aldershot, against Aldershot, in front of 3,000 Shots fans and 800 of ours. Our Surrey Cup final in 2003 was against Sutton – and they are never small games, as the young Bromley fan above now knows. And our 2006 Surrey triumph was against Wimbledon, in front of 3,500 Dons fans and 800 of ours – a big occasion for any number of reasons. So was it a “Mickey Mouse” Cup final? Well, yes. Cup finals shouldn’t be “low-key.” They shouldn’t be THAT good-natured; tension ought to appear somewhere. And, for me, it didn’t. I was disappointed by defeat. But I’d got over it before Bromley’s players had lifted the cup. That’s not to say we wouldn’t be back next year, given the chance, whatever Chris Kelly may have thought.
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