Saturday 18th August 2018, 1500 Kick Off
Slough Town FC vs Torquay United FC
The Build Up
Having had a somewhat extended summer break, I returned to the UK – and non-league football – just in time for the fifth match of the nascent season. After five weeks away, I’m sure my girlfriend was looking forward to a pleasant weekend together, so it was with much trepidation that I broached the subject of my travelling to the home of David Brent for a Vanarama National League South match. Being the dutiful football widow that she is, Mrs GRTourist took it like a champ, and I found myself once again approaching the M25 in anticipation of watching a good 90 minutes.
When I looked around the fixture list this one stood out to me as a chance to watch two sides who have entered the division from opposite directions, at a ground I’d never visited before. Slough Town are one of a surprising number of non-league clubs featuring a management duo, and Neil Baker and Jon Underwood’s Rebels were promoted from an incredibly competitive Evo-Stik League Southern Premier Division last season. As Hereford strolled to an astonishing 113 points, the sides who would contest the Play Offs (King’s Lynn Town, Slough Town, Kettering Town and Weymouth) finished on 100, 99, 97 and 97 points respectively. A 3-1 victory over Kettering in the semis took Slough to an away final against King’s Lynn – a fixture that the side from Berkshire won 2-1, thanks to an 89th minute winner from Manny Williams to secure their promotion.
Last season’s top scorer, James Dobson, is still around, and Slough Town have managed to keep the bulk of the side which earned their place in the National League South. Having added experience and quality in the form of Louie Soares and Sam Togwell, it’s no surprise that the Rebels have acquitted themselves well in their first season back at Step Two since relegation in 1998 (around the time they sold the legendary Lloyd Owusu to Brentford for £25,000 – still a record sale). Winning two, drawing one and losing one, Slough’s victories have come against two of their likely rivals in the bottom half, Gloucester City and Weston-super-Mare. However, today’s visitors, the Gulls up from the English Riviera, were likely to provide a much sterner test.
Torquay United have also won two, drawn one and lost one this season, but that is where the comparisons end. Gary Owers’ side are playing at their lowest level since 1927, a far cry from their record finish of 21st in EFL League One a mere 13 years ago. Formed by Sergeant-Major Edward Tomney in 1899, Torquay United have been a mainstay of the football league for large periods of their 119 year history. Unfortunately, a 2014 relegation to the Conference (as it was), was followed by successive finishes of 13th, 18th and 17th. The gradual decline was confirmed last season, when a year-long struggle to survive ended with Torquay 22nd, and relegation to Step Two followed, for the first time in 89 years. Grappling with the spectre of an unpopular ground move, Torquay have seen their squad face a massive overhaul, with only six of those who finished last season starting this. Out the door went star midfielder Luke Young, but some good players have also arrived. Samir Nabi from Carlisle United, George Essuman from Dover and Ben Wynter from Bromley are all solid signings, and of course Saltash Comp footballing superstar Ryan Dickson has joined too, fresh from shackling Alexis Sanchez for Yeovil in last season’s FA Cup. Torquay were sure to provide a good test for Slough Town, and this fixture would give some indication as to the Rebel’s ambitions for the season, with it being the first time they came up against one of the league’s biggest sides.
For once the drive around London’s car park was relatively pain free, and I arrived at Arbour Park to find a delightful ground, which instantly became my favourite thing about the town of Slough. Situated next to a school/college (I can’t be bothered to research), there was ample free parking, and the stewards were helpful and friendly. I arrived early enough to see the Torquay coach arrive, and judging by the stiff-legged gait as their players collected bags and headed in to the changing rooms, their journey from Devon was a long one…
Tickets were a fairly standard £13, and a well-stocked programme cost a further £2. A nice touch about the programme (beyond the fact it’s actually printed on paper unlike a lot of clubs further up the pyramid…) was the invitation to a fan from the opposition to write a segment. I parted with another £5.50 to get a chicken burger, chips and Diet Coke, and settled down to wait for kick off.
Arbour Park has a capacity of 2,000, and the Rebels averaged 666 in their promotion season, a figure more than doubled with an attendance of 1,244 today. A glass fronted grandstand behind the dugouts forms the focal point of the ground itself, and the pitch is an absolute delight. A plush 3G surface owned by the council, today was the first time I’ve received a pre-brief on what footwear to bring before I attended. Another first was achieved today, as Slough Town provided the first dance-based warm up I’ve seen at a live sporting event. Like a National League knock off of Remember the Titans, the side from John Betjeman’s favourite town clapped and danced their way to match readiness.
When I spoke to Scott Davies and Jon Underwood post-match, both told me how Slough’s fast-paced, high-pressing game would be an important leveller for them against some of the bigger, full-time squads in this division, and it was in evidence right from the off. Within four minutes, centre forward Chris Flood had the first chance on goal, when he headed over from a long throw. Then, just two minutes later, Slough had another headed chance, this time former England Universities central midfielder Simon Dunn directed it straight at Alex Bass in the Torquay goal with his bonce.
The Rebels were exerting some good early pressure, but it was Torquay who created the first genuinely good chance. A fine ball by former West Brom, Delhi Dynamos and Carlisle midfielder Samir Nabi released Brett Williams. The skipper cut inside his man, Sean Fraser, but could only strike against the foot of the post and wide.
On 25 minutes, Slough Town again threatened from wide positions, when George Wells bombed forward and swung in a tempting ball from the left. Right through the corridor of uncertainty, unfortunately, none of his teammates had gambled, and the ball passed right through. This was the first of many good forward runs from the former Kingstonian man, who played well throughout.
Three minutes later, it was Torquay threatening, when a slick move, started by left back Liam Davis, culminated with Samir Nabi being pulled down. Ryan Dickson shaped up a free kick, and the man with almost 400 professional appearances to his name whipped in a testing delivery. Again, like Wells’ cross earlier, it was threatening, but none of his teammates were equal to it. Ten minutes later, another crossed delivery – this time by Slough’s James Dobson – came to nothing when Flood headed high and wide.
One minute later, Torquay made the first substitution of the match. Ben Wynter, a summer arrival from Bromley, made way at right back as forward-cum-winger Jason Banton came on in his place. Whether Wynter was injured, or this was purely a tactical switch wasn’t entirely clear. The left wing partnership of Dobson and Wells had been causing problems, so it was possibly an attempt to deal with them.
On 41 minutes, another foul by the Slough defenders, this time on captain Brett Williams, gave Dickson the chance to threaten again. Having captained Yeovil from the left full back position last season, Dickson has been signed as a central midfielder by Owers, and looked dangerous with his set pieces, and whenever he drove forward in possession. On this occasion, a decent flick on from George Essuman found Jamie Reid at the back stick. The local lad, born in Torbay, couldn’t find the net though. In fact, he couldn’t even find the goal line, as somehow, from two yards out, he managed to put it so wide, the next action was a Slough Town throw in.
There was still time for another two Torquay chances before the half, one falling to Nabi, and the other to the subbed-on Banton. Neither of the players connected properly though, and Jack Turner between the sticks for Slough remained untested. As referee Steven Hughes blew for the break, neither ‘keeper had been forced into meaningful action, despite some promising attacking play by both sides.
Slough’s main issue was that their main attack vector – getting around the back and swinging in crosses – played into the hands of Essuman, Davis, Cameron and Koue-Niate, Torquay’s quartet of giant defenders. Torquay’s was that none of their players could shoot. Either the kit man needed to replace their Toblerone boots, or the Gulls desperately needed to find Ruari Keating at half time – last season’s top scorer not in the match day squad.
In the second half, two players in particular came more to the fore – James Dobson for Slough Town, and Ryan Dickson for Torquay United. It was Dickson, in the 54th minute, who started an attack from which the visitors should have scored. His partnership in midfield with fellow summer arrival Asa Hall looked good, with Hall winning possession and Dickson using it. On this occasion, the former Argyle youth product drove through midfield and spread it wide to Jamie Reid. He took one touch and slipped in Brett Williams, who appeared to be through on goal. The No 9 never seemed to get the ball under control though, and as he stumbled through/into a pair of defenders, Turner came out bravely to smother the ball, getting a ribcage full of studs for his troubles.
The next quarter of an hour became quite frenetic, as both sides began to make substitutions, trying to get that crucial goal. On 57 minutes, yet another headed chance came and went for Slough Town, who must have been ruing the decision to never, ever practice headers, when James Dobson headed off target from another accurate Wells cross. Dobson was at the centre of attention again six minutes later when he drove at the Gulls backline, but dragged his shot wide from 25 yards.
A minute later, Torquay went close, but again wasted a gilt-edged chance to score. Another swift break, this time through Brett Williams, resulted in a fizzed left-wing cross. With Nabi arriving in the middle, having timed his run to perfection, it looked certain that Torquay would take the lead, but Turner stuck out a strong hand, and made a fantastic save (one that I managed to capture, but literally only his hand…). As the rebound dropped, surely Reid would bury the chance, but no – with the goal at his mercy and Turner off-balance, Reid managed to slice his shot with all the finesse of a drunk toddler wearing snow shoes, and the ball flew wildly off target.
Next up it was the chance for substitute Bobson Bawling to have a go at this shooting lark, but he proved to be just as ineffective as his teammates. The summer signing from Woking had just come on, when a lovely dinked pass from Nabi put him in the clear. His shot from the right hand channel was scuffed though and turned into more of a cross for the onrushing Asa Hall. He looked clear to slide home, but bafflingly – and I still don’t really understand how – Jack Turner appeared to fall over in front of Hall, and blocked the former Barrow man from scoring with his back.
More changes were made, with Neil Baker and Jon Underwood bringing on Scott Davies, who added poise and drive to the midfield, whilst Owers pulled Brett Williams, handing the captain’s armband to Dickson. On 84 minutes, another substitute, Slough’s Ben Harris chopped past a defender inside the Torquay box. Big George Essuman slid in to dispossess the winger, but got his timings all wrong, and took precisely none of the ball but all of the man. Our esteemed referee was in no doubt, and correctly awarded the penalty. With five minutes left, Simon Dunn placed the ball down and struck firm and accurately to the ‘keeper’s left. Firm and accurate, sure, but also a good height for a ‘keeper, which allowed Portsmouth loannee Bass to save at full stretch. Not a bad penalty, but a very good save.
At this point, I think everyone present knew this was going to finish 0-0, and even a late chance for George Wells couldn’t convince me otherwise. When he was sent clear by Scott Davies, the energetic left-back shaped up well for his shot, but drove it high into the side netting.
The Wash Up
A point each at full time, and I think that was probably a fair result. The home side had probably had more of the ball, and certainly looked the most likely to score into the last ten minutes, but Torquay created more clear cut chances across the ninety minutes.
Both sides were dogged by an inability to finish, and for Torquay this is a problem which will need to be solved, and quickly. The rearguard looks solid, with four big, strong players, all of whom can read the play, and only one goal conceded this season is testament to the defensive set up. Kyle Cameron was the most eye catching of the group today, but the whole quartet impressed. In front of them Ryan Dickson (who was probably my man of the match today) and Asa Hall were an effective midfield partnership, whilst Sami Nabi added a nice spark when he got on the ball in space. They were lacking up front though, and none of Williams, Reid, or the substitutes Banton and Bawling really looked confident inside the box. Eight points from five games, with only three goals scored, isn’t a particularly good look for one of the division’s biggest clubs, who have remained full time. On top of that, some audible “Owers out” chants from the travelling supporters won’t have gone down well in the dugout.
As for Slough, the result has a slightly different complexion. With only 18 players, the Rebels have one of the league’s smaller squads, and will have to eke out every drop of work rate and quality. Both of those traits were in evidence today, as they went toe to toe with Torquay, and could easily have come out on top. They have a conscientious and diligent squad at Arbour Park, with sprinklings of quality throughout. I was impressed by Dobson, and by Davies when he came on, whilst Dunn has ability in midfield. Jack Turner in goal has the ability to be a real key man this season, whilst George Wells was the official man of the match for his combative play from full back. Also on eight points from five games, that tally looks a whole lot different for a promoted side, and Baker and Underwood will be quietly pleased with today’s work – and that of their first three weeks in the division.
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