The FA Trophy: Kingstonian Play Their Cards Right
Fifteen days earlier, AFC Fylde, then 14 places lower than fourth-placed Woking in the National League, knocked Ks out of the Cup with a deserved but hard-earned 2-0 victory. At no stage during those 90 minutes did a shock result seem on the cards. And against the Cards, a shock result seemed even less on the cards. Even when it was happening before our very eyes. But it did.
Ks and Woking are age-old Isthmian rivals, a rivalry briefly renewed during Ks’ three years in non-league’s top division, then called the Conference, twenty years ago. But they hadn’t met since January 2002, a 2-1 home win for Woking, also in the FA Trophy first round, against a Ks side firmly rooted in plucky territory. They’d not even met in the Surrey Senior Cup. Though, like the old London buses joke, a second meeting will come along at once, at Woking’s Kingfield ground in that showpiece (no laughing) county FA tournament next month.
Like other age-old local rivals, Sutton United, Woking have orbited a different footballing planet since Kingstonian went into administration in October 2001. So when the Trophy draw sent the Cards to Tolworth’s King (George’s) Field ground in suburban Surrey, where the nomadic Ks currently play their home games, the general consensus was ‘here endeth the Trophy run.’
The Trophy is arguably taken a little less seriously by National League high-flyers than once it was, given that even teams finishing seventh have cracks at promotion from the Non-League Paper (NLP) to the Football Paper. Although not the lightness with which the top clubs take the FA Cup by fielding near-second-strings in their early rounds. But at this stage of the season, National League clubs are not necessarily taking the competition lightly at all. Especially if, like Sunday there is something extra on a particularly pairing.
The clubs share a “most successful manager,” Geoff Chapple, who led both teams to Isthmian League titles, and promotion to the Conference, in the 1990s, and to five Wembley Trophy triumphs (Woking 3 Kingstonian 2) between 1994 and 2000. Geoff was well-liked when he left Ks, despite presiding over their Conference relegation in 2001. He was at Sunday’s game, as Woking’s current football secretary. And the clubs’ most recent shared supremo is current Cards boss Alan Dowson, hence the game’s portrayal (in the NLP offices, anyway), as the “Dowse Derby.”
Dowson also led Ks to a promotion, albeit the less glam move from Isthmian Division One South to the Premier Division in 2008. He also led Ks to two promotion play-offs, a controversial final defeat at Boreham Wood in 2010 and a 2014 semi-final defeat to AFC Hornchurch in his last Ks game. He was also well-liked when he left Ks, despite his teams not being particularly well-liked for their stylishness. And he won the Isthmian League Premier, taking Ks neighbours Hampton and Richmond Borough up to the National League South in 2016, before taking Woking up from the same division last season.
Dowse would not, therefore, have taken Sunday’s game lightly. And he might have been after a fractional revenge, after his Hampton team were unexpectedly thumped 4-1 at Ks late in their Isthmian title-winning campaign. In the end, though, a more unexpected thumping was on the way, especially unexpected given how the first half panned out and more especially given how it ended.
One of football’s cliched ironies is a pitch being a ‘great leveller’ when it is the opposite of level. And last weekend was particularly difficult for King George’s Field groundstaff. Casuals played on Saturday afternoon, quite late in the afternoon after seven second-half stoppage-time minutes. And the groundstaff had limited opportunity to work any magic after overnight rain so heavy that Noah might have thought “I’m not taking the Ark out in THAT.”
Thus the pitch was unrolled between games, with the state of certain areas nudging the referee into a semi-precautionary 1pm inspection. Ks’ speedy left-sided attacker Dan Hector is only a wee fellow. But when one crossfield pass ‘along the ground’ met him at chest height, it confirmed the playing surface as an illustrated dictionary-definition of ‘bobbly.’
Woking’s attitude had to be right, then. And, at first, it was. Often held up by a pluggy as well as a bobbly pitch, the Cards still created the half-chances that were going in the first quarter. Ks were battling. But their one effort would have swung quickly towards the corner flag even if the cries of “it bobbled” were probably accurate, rather than the usual sarcastic excuse for inept shooting.
And Ks’ ability to play out from the back was hampered by conditions and a referee failing to sanction examples of National League “physicality” which would be clear fouls in the snowflake Isthmian League. “Bloody liberal,” one wag (me) was moved to shout, when a free-kick was at long last given when a semi-concealed tug turned a hooped Ks jersey into stripes.
Then, on 25 minutes, a game-changer. Ks’ Fabio Saraiva’s left-foot free-kick from the right-corner of the penalty box arrowed towards previously unused Cards keeper Craig Ross, until it nicked off former Ks player Josh Casey, wrong-footing Ross so fundamentally that even though he barely had to stick out a foot to stop it, he couldn’t. And a potential Trophy shock nestled in the centre of the net.
Woking’s long, LONG centre-back Jack Cook did himself a mischief fouling Ks striker Louie Theophanus to concede the free-kick. And his injury-based unease upon his return after treatment spread throughout the Woking side. Wideman Dave Tarpey made an artform of taking the wrong option whenever Woking won space to attack down the right. And Ks keeper Rob Tolfrey made two fine saves low to his right.
Then, on 45 minutes, another game-changer. Woking’s lively Jamar Loza wove in-and-out of Ks defence, with already-booked right-back Harry Osborne unable to intervene cynically BECAUSE he was already-booked. Ks’ own centre-back Cook, Ollie, got in a block tackle. The referee thought about his decision but, having nothing to think WITH, gave the penalty. Viewed live, it looked a shocking decision. But viewed more closely on replay, it looked like a shocking decision; one with which even a controversy-phobic Premier League video assistant might have demurred.
Max Kretzschmar made his spot-kick conversion look far easier than spelling the middle part of his surname. Ks were gut-punched in first-half stoppage-time for the second big FA competition game in 15 days. And the half-time consensus (between me and my Irish mate Peter anyway) was that the final score would be three-one, as Woking’s National League stamina would eventually tell on such a pudding of a pitch.
How right AND wrong we were. We certainly looked wrong as Woking hit top-form, and the post and crossbar, immediately after half-time; if they’d hit Tolfrey’s left-hand post they’d have had the set. But when Ks weathered that storm, helped by an atrocious offside decision against a clean-through Jake Hyde, the game underwent a huge man-made climate-change. Ks started winning the midfield battles and fashioning openings, Dan Bennett firing the clearest inches wide, with Ross looking on from some distance. And six minutes later, they led.
Ks fans of certain ages go misty-eyed when recalling speedy Ks wingers such as Robin Lewis, Richard Smart, Mazim Ahmad and Dean Lodge. Not all had game intelligence to match their pace; they wouldn’t have spent long in the Isthmian League otherwise. But current incumbent Hector used his fast-developing intelligence to set up Bennett to side-foot home. Striker Louie Theophanus was announced as the scorer and no-one seemed to quibble, as celebrations ensued.
Four minutes later, it was 3-1. Regular Ks fans waited knowingly for designated free-kick blaster Theophanus to blast a 20-yarder into the top corner of the net or halfway to Tolworth Broadway. However, Bennett nipped in to float the free-kick past Ross (again looking on from a distance) before an injury-threatening but photogenic celebratory somersault. “We need a fourth,” regular fans thought, and some said, as we awaited Woking’s onslaught. And awaited…
We’re still a-waiting. Ross remained busy. And there was little of the standard last-ditch defending, goalkeeping heroics or goalmouth stramashes (unseemly or otherwise), as Ks’ stamina improbably outlasted Woking’s, with the starting eleven finishing the 90 minutes. The countdown to full-time was eerily calm. The added-time substitution of the two Dans was superfluous time-wasting. And when Ks won a free-kick with 90 seconds left, even the most nerve-wracked (PA announcer Robert Wooldridge) could say “we’ve won this, you know.”
The enormity of the result didn’t immediately sink in. The players were too tired to on-field celebrate as wildly as they did at Macclesfield in the FA Cup. And Ks’ dominance of a team 66 places above them in the non-league ‘pyramid’ looked as unreal as it sounds, especially as Woking were as minimally understrength as Ks themselves. I never saw it coming, though the ineffectiveness of the King George’s Field floodlights in the half-light of a mid-December mid-afternoon meant I never saw much of the game, hence my earlier Theophanus error.
Dowson was alliteratively distraught in his post-match interview. “Disgusted, devastated, disgraceful” and “done by everybody,” he said in increasing, and increasingly Geordie, incomprehension at his team’s display. And he was as admirably willing to take the blame as he always was at Ks, even when offered mitigation for his team selection (“you didn’t have many options, really, did you?”).
If Dowse got more Geordie with rage, Ks boss Hayden Bird got more cockney with delight, before recalling his rage at the penalty decision (wait ‘til he sees the replay). Eventually, he thanked the referee for making Ks “really angry” so that “the intensity went up from the players in the second half and we worked the ball even better.” Meanwhile, a five-foot brown teddy bear in red-and-white colours waved frantically in the background. No…really.
Kingstonian haven’t reached the Trophy’s second round since 2001. And they won’t be second-favourites by much, if at all, when they host National League North Leamington on January 11th for a place in the, ulp, last 16 (only 24 places between the teams this time). This was Ks’ best result in any competitions in nearly twenty years. Ks weren’t beating fourth-placed Conference sides even when they were, briefly in October 1999, top of the Conference, let alone ultimately deserving to as convincingly as 3-1 suggests.
So, forgive my self-indulgence. And prepare for more if Ks continue to get it so right in FA competitions.