Journalistic instinct. You just can’t buy it. Which is a pity. Because I could have done with some on February 23rd when Kingstonian goalkeeper Rob Tolfrey leapt momentarily into the gathering of Bognor Regis Town fans to “confront” one of them as they celebrated their 2-1 win. When it happened I was already striding purposefully away from the Ks’ Kingsmeadow Stadium, with my last direct bus home 15 minutes purposeful striding away and due in about 16. So, despite being in the press area almost throughout the game and yards from what was momentarily a national news story-ette thanks to a nearby video camera, I could offer no first-hand account.
One thing we have learned from the incident is that crowd-surfing immediately after Ryman (Isthmian) Football League games carries a seven-match ban. It is not a common occurrence, of course. If you tried to crowd-surf most Ryman League away followings, especially in midweek, you’d more likely land on concrete than anorak. After considerable conjecture and puzzlement, Tolfrey requested a personal hearing and pleaded guilty to the relevant disciplinary charge, Rule E3, prior to last week’s FA Regulatory Commission hearing. So, we have also learned that the reason Tolfrey went so uncharacteristically ballistic was and is…none of our business. Kingstonian have said simply that they “will continue to support Rob through this difficult time.” And that’ll do for me, forget journalistic instinct or trying to sniff out a story.
The ban covers this season’s closing two games, rendered meaningless by Ks’ disastrous recent results after they were one of nine teams chasing two promotion play-off places, and extends to the first five of 2015/16. So the punishment WILL punish, will be a deterrent and represents a case of the FA doing the right thing. The incident was bizarre, though. That night, I reflected on a disappointing-but-fair result and on our then still tangible play-off hopes, while my woolly-liberal persona felt pleased for the Bognor fans who had made two journeys to Kingston (see below) and came away with the right result. I assumed that was what the evening would be remembered for, if at all.
Even when I saw stills of the incident on my twitter feed the morning after, it didn’t occur to me that the crowd-bound keeper was the subject of the “don’t you wish your keeper was Rob Tolfrey?” song Ks fans have often sung (or “don’t WE wish OUR keeper was Rob Tolfrey” on the night a Tolfrey-light “KIngstonian XI” faced County Cup exit to a late Corinthian Casuals penalty). I’d clocked the police van and cars hurtling towards Kingsmeadow as I lengthened my stride in the opposite direction. And I joked to myself that “it must have gone off after the game,” as the second van roared by, siren at full tilt. I’d even heard a bit of a kerfuffle shortly after leaving the ground right on the final whistle but put it down to the usual reception referees get after home defeats.
Despite the four minutes twenty-six seconds of video footage on various websites, including national newspaper ones, it was unclear what happened after Tolfrey leapt the barrier into the Bognor faithful. There was an “unseemly stramash,” as BBC rugby union commentator Bill McLaren used to say. But it appeared not to develop into the “wee bit of fisticuffs” with which McLaren would herald the sort of free-floating violence that occasionally (dis)graces rugby matches. There was more unseemly stramashing among players who rushed over to try and help matters, with Bognor players looking particularly dischuffed at events. And, as ever with a lot of adrenaline-fuelled athletes descending on an already confusing scene, they didn’t help matters at all.
Thankfully, matters DID calm down within a couple of minutes. And the last minute of the video footage was of a still-fuming Tolfrey being guided away from the scene by stewards and Ks officials…all before the police, who would have outnumbered the stramashers if their vans were remotely full, had time to get out of their vans and car. On a scale of one-to-ten, with one being Bjorn Borg and ten being Joey Barton, Tolfrey is a bit of a four. He has been known to give out to referees and never shirks his captaincy duty when it involves running 50 yards to get an explanation for a referee’s decision. However, his reputation in the game is decent; a number of players from other clubs tweeted their surprise at his actions. And such things are leaps away from leaping into crowds. There was certainly a little extra zing from the noisy and, for a cold Monday night in February in the Ryman League, impressively large gathering of Rocks fans, especially as many of them had had a wasted journey three weeks previously.
On February 2nd, in his finite wisdom, the match referee had called the game off approximately three-and-a-bit minutes before scheduled kick-off time. This went down not at all well. Indeed, one Sussex local newspaper was onto the club shortly after eight o’clock to demand an explanation for Kingstonian’s fuck up. Ks had, as per procedure, asked a local referee to inspect the pitch at four o’clock. At 4.53, Ks tweeted that said referee had declared the pitch playable, which some Bognor people said was too late, and showed scant disregard, for them. So their anger was palpable and understandable when the match referee decided that, sometime between his arrival and 7.42, the pitch became unplayable. And that sense of injustice fuelled a particular delight, three weeks later, at Ollie Pearce’s 81st-minute winner after Ks had led at half-time. Yet it is hard to imagine that slightly-vengeful delight translating into something to trigger Tolfrey’s reaction.
The Bognor fans were a very good-natured bunch when faced with a “keep your ticket so you can claim a refund” quip from a smart-arse turnstile operator (yes…me). And unless inter-Sussex rivalries are far more fierce than previously thought (Ks signed Tolfrey from Horsham), it is now impossible to attach any blame to them. The FA’s early exoneration of Bognor as a club was also the right thing, even if the early trumpeting of this by the afore-mentioned eager local newspaper irked the Ks fans who heard and identified one Bognor fan spouting allegedly-racist unpleasantries that evening. Some of these fans wanted FA action on this supporter too. But their conflation of the two incidents was as misplaced as their touching faith in the FA to take said action.
As regular readers may remember, the roles were reversed in May 2010 at Boreham Wood when a home supporter thumped Ks’ then centre-half Francis Duku on the pitch 65 minutes into the Ryman League promotion play-off final, with the game still scoreless, before sauntering back unchallenged into the semi-crowded anonymity of the Wood terraces. Despite the clear potential effect on the game’s outcome (Wood eventually winning two-nil and currently challenging hard for a Conference National place), Wood received no sanction beyond a warning on future conduct – EXACTLY what they had received after previous crowd unpleasantness. Thankfully, this time, the FA have got it right. And though we will never know why Tolfrey did what he did, fairness has, for once, prevailed.
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