The Ryman League Denouement: Close Shaves At Both Ends
Sky Sports would have LOVED it. The title in doubt until minutes from the very end? Play-off and relegation places decided by stoppage-time action? And controversy? Just step this way. Easter Monday simplified the Ryman Premier’s various issues, although it still left only one game, Tonbridge Angels v Worthing, with nothing at all riding on it. Saturday’s extraordinary events reintroduced the chaos theory. To quickly-ish recap, Havant & Waterlooville led the table by two points from Bognor Regis Town, who had a better goal difference. So, if Bognor won at home to relegation-threatened Metropolitan Police, Havant HAD to win at all-but-safe Kingstonian (Ks). The formbook suggested two wins. Someone left a window open.
Meanwhile, Enfield Town and Wingate & Finchley were three points clear of Leiston and Needham Market in the chase for two promotion play-off spots, with Leiston visiting Enfield knowing victory would guarantee them one spot and leave their hosts reliant on Dulwich Hamlet avoiding defeat at Wingate and all-but-guaranteeing themselves play-off semi-final home advantage. The formbook favoured the incumbents, especially as the Marketmen’s goal difference was prohibitively poor (and they lost to big-spending Billericay Town anyway). The proverbial window was still open.
But, christ on a bike, the relegation battle? “Kafkaesque?” Maybe. A critic’s description of American painter Jackson Pollock artworks: “unorganised explosions of random energy”? Certainly. With a delayed kick-off and post-weekend points deduction thrown in. In the end, five points separated… TEN teams, nearly half the bloody division. The formbook might as well have been a Franz Kafka novel.
Half the title race unfolded in front of my eyes, with live, increasingly anguished, commentary from “Hawks Radio’s” three-man team. Their anguish was infectious, especially that of the impossibly-young Henry Deacon, “a 16-year-old sports journalist,” according to his own (undated) website profile, “starting to make strides into the local industry” with the club. Remember the name, Henry Deacon?
Havant and Bognor deserve the two available places for promotion to National League South, from which Havant were relegated 12 months ago, Bognor eight years ago. They went into Saturday respectively 16 and 14 points clear of third-placed Dulwich.
League officialdom pre-empted a Havant title triumph by bringing the Championship shield to Kingsmeadow, rather than hire a helicopter to fly it up and down the skies over the A24 as the matches progressed (Older readers may recall the John Player Sunday Cricket League trophy travelling from the BBC’s Birmingham studios at Pebble Mill in similar circumstances in the 70s. And Rangers fans still go misty-eyed at the term “Helicopter Sunday” for reasons upon which this Celtic fan will not dwell).
And Havant showed certain signs of title-shield-worthiness, defending rock-solidly against a Ks side determined not to leave their Kingsmeadow home of 28 years defeated (article on THAT soon). But their attack, led by ex-Bognor striker Jason Prior, struggled to find any fluency, with their only first-half chance being Prior’s header acrobatically tipped over by the Ks keeper, to the accompaniment of “Don’t you wish your keeper was Rob Tolfrey?” (for it was he) from the traditionally-atonal Ks faithful.
The atmosphere strongly resembled “proper” football, with both sets of fans having the motive and opportunity to commit crimes against music. But Hawks nerves became more frayed and, purely co-incidentally of course, refereeing decisions more incomprehensible, after Jimmy Muitt put Bognor ahead on 58 minutes.
Havant were already putting increasing pressure on the Ks goal, increasingly desperately. And while news of Will Salmon’s 72nd-minute equaliser for Met Police was cheered from the terraces and press-area like the Havant goal it effectively was, the team, wisely, didn’t let up. And Theo Lewis’s spectacular 76th-minute overhead kick was a crossbar’s width away from the winner.
However, infuriatingly for all Hawks, Ks began to defend as rock-solidly as Havant had earlier. And even I was occasionally thinking, “for goodness sake, just get out of the way,” as Ks rearguard threw themselves in front of anything remotely goalbound, my attitude NOTHING to do with my Non-League Paper (NLP) match report fee doubling if Havant were champions. Oh no.
Infuriatingly for everyone, a Ks fan set off a firework display behind Kingsmeadow’s main stand, which would have been weapons-grade stupidity even if it wasn’t in bright sunlight and two minutes BEFORE the end of normal time.
Thankfully, before the Hawks Radio guys could visibly age any further (even teenage sensation Deacon was going grey), Bognor had a late penalty appeal turned down. And with the Kingsmeadow ref having added hours of first-half stoppage-time, news that Bognor had drawn 1-1 spread like wildfire minutes before the end of the 0-0 draw Havant could not have imagined being enough at three o’clock.
For Bognor, it was horrible deja-vu. In 2010/11, they were two points clear of… Met Police at the top of Ryman League Division One South on the final day, only to draw with lowly Chatham Town, miss out on goal difference by ONE goal and lose in the play-offs to… Dulwich. They gained play-off revenge on Hamlet in 2012 and have been unsuccessful Premier Division play-off participants three times.
If they can recover psychologically from, frankly, blowing it on Saturday, they should finally win promotion, perhaps after a “best-of-three” meeting with Hamlet in the play-off final, if they overcome (spoiler alert) Wingate & Finchley in their home semi-final. But that first “if” is a biggie.
Leiston, who could hardly beat a carpet during their run-in, were two minutes from ending Enfield’s run of seven straight league victories and nicking Wingate’s play-off place, a league position which had been the least of their ambitions for eight months of the season.
Gareth Heath gave them a first-half stoppage-time lead. And with Wingate crumbling 3-0 at home to Dulwich, after a goalless first half, it would have been understandable if the closing stages at the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium were less than 100% competitive. However, when there’s a “Devyne Intervention” headline to inspire, Enfield’s Bobby Devyne is your man… the only man if you’re spelling it that way. On 86 minutes, substitute Devyne… intervened, volleying home fellow sub Samir Bihmoutine’s cross, to set up a play-off semi at Dulwich.
But, christ on a bike, the relegation battle? Well, first, the all-but-safe. Leatherhead/Kingstonian will be a Premier Division fixture next season, when Ks start their south-of-the-M25 exile at the Tanners’ Fetcham Grove ground. Leatherhead leapt to an unlikely 13th in the table with two late goals in a 3-2 win over Harlow Town.
Folkestone Invicta leapt to an unlikely 15th, with a 3-0 win at wildly-inconsistent bottom-club Grays, who won at Dulwich on Easter Monday and have won away more times than at their Aveley FC “home.” Grays effectively kept Bognor in the Premier Division by winning there. They kept Folkestone in it by losing here, Invicta waiting an hour to score before riding a wave of undoubted relief with two more goals.
Met Police survived by becoming everyone’s second-favourite team in two particular Hampshire towns (see above), as their predicted defeat at Bognor would have relegated them. But elsewhere, the story got messy.
Three o’clock passed without a peep from Hendon’s home match with Staines Town. Not a “peep” from a referee’s whistle anyway (sorry), as both his assistants were heavily delayed, necessitating a 4.20 kick-off. This meant the Greens knew exactly what they had to do after they went in at half-time a goal down. They did what they had to do, equalise, within a minute of the restart and the game curiously died a death thereafter.
Sky would have REALLY loved it… and might even have insisted that the other key games be similarly delayed, given the “advantage” Hendon gained. Greens supremo Gary McCann suggested, a little disingenuously, that the delay was “only an advantage if the other results went our way.” So, it was only an advantage if there was an advantage. Right-o. As he, typically eloquently, added: “Five minutes before half-time we were safe and we didn’t give a hooey.” Then (spoiler alert again) “Burgess Hill scored their late winner and suddenly we were back in the relegation zone.”
Ah yes. Burgess Hill’s “one final push” proved as final as it could get… for a three o’clock kick-off anyway. At three o’clock, the Hillians’ opponents Merstham were safe (to which, you might not be surprised to learn by now, we shall return). And for 70 minutes, Will Miles’ header strongly resembled job done for the Sussex side.
Two minutes from time, though, that job was undone by Merstham captain Tommy Kavanagh’s goal. Panic on the streets of Burgess Hill? Not a bit of it. Sam Fisk kept and used his head in the 98th minute to inspire the Hillians’ website headline “Fairy Tale End At The Green Elephants As Hill Beat Drop.” And if that’s a combination of words you have heard before, you are WEIRD.
This left Harrow Borough waiting on Hendon’s result, after Boro blew it against a Lowestoft side which has recently stretched the definition of “injury-ravaged.” The Trawlerboys had only 12 players available last Saturday and the bare 11 against Staines Town a week earlier. And whatever “advantage” Hendon accrued, it is hard to deny them survival after beating relegation rivals and failed play-off chasers Billericay, Leiston and Needham Market in getting 22 points from their last 10 games.
Canvey blew it even harder, having to come back from two goals down at home to already-relegated AFC Sudbury after 80 minutes to even salvage a point when the expected three would have saved them. Their website match report philosophically noted that “other results” would have relegated them “even had they have won.” An eight-goal victory over the sunk Suds would have kept them up on goal difference. But that wasn’t happening.
However, news filtered through on Monday that Merstham were to be docked three points for fielding an ineligible player during their 2-1 win at Leiston on February 28th. This was the Leiston that missed the play-offs by two points. And, more significantly, the points deduction left Merstham on 53. Canvey’s draw gave them 52.
So, when Canvey equalised against AFC Sudbury after 85 minutes on Saturday, they thought they needed eight quick goals to survive. Turns out they needed only one, at any speed quicker than five minutes plus stoppage-time. And news of Merstham’s 88th-minute equaliser at Burgess Hill might have inspired them that extra inch to beat Suds custodian Marcus Garnham, who made three late saves to keep the score level.
My head is hurting just typing all that. So, I have every sympathy if reading it is having the same effect. There may be too many imponderables for Canvey to appeal the situation. But even that is an imponderable. The only current certainty is that Sky would really, REALLY have LOVED that. As a far heavier drinker than I once said: “Football, eh? Bloody hell.”
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