Saturday 1st September 2018, 1500 Kick Off
Woking FC vs Billericay Town FC
The Build Up
We may only be seven matches into the season, Woking and Billericay Town had already set their stall out as potential champions. It’s exactly why I jumped at the opportunity to get down and watch them going head to head for the first time of the campaign. The fact that there was confusion and controversy surrounding the position of Billericay’s manager, Harry Wheeler, only added to the allure.
Formed in 1889, Woking had spent the last few years up in the Vanarama National League, but getting progressively worse. Successive finishes of 7th, 12th and 18th showed the Cards’ trajectory as only going in one direction. Then, as that downward spiral peaked after Christmas 2017 (only 14 points gained from a possible 66 from January…), manager Anthony Limbrick was dismissed, and Woking limped to the finish line. A 2-1 defeat to Dover Athletic on the final day consigned them to relegation, and the Surrey side went into the summer looking to rebuild.
Which they did. With some speed and efficiency. With the news of Hampton & Richmond’s defeat to Braintree Town in the Play Off Final still sounding round the National League South, Woking announced the Beavers’ Alan Dowson as their new manager, and with him came a substantial element of his old unit. The former secondary school teacher was joined at Woking by his coaching team of Ian Dyer and Martin Tyler (of Sky Sports fame), along with the likes of Josh Casey, Charlie Wassmer and Max Kretzschmar. Having been one of nonleague’s most recognisable names in the 90s, when they reached the 4th Round of the FA Cup and won three FA Trophies (still a joint record), Woking would be aiming to bounce back immediately – and a good start would be crucial to that. Coming into today’s match in pole position, having won six from seven, it’s fair to say they have indeed started pretty well.
As have their visitors, Billericay Town. The Essex side, formed in 1880, have achieved a notoriety in footballing circles far beyond most Step Two clubs, mainly down to the exuberance and influence of their co-owner, Glenn Tamplin. Having taken over in 2016 along with his partner Andrew Cosias, Tamplin has invested heavily in the playing squad, signing Premier League stalwarts such as Jamie O’Hara, Jermaine Pennant and Paul Konchesky (recently released by East Thurrock United) – oh, and former Pilgrim Simon Walton. Under Tamplin’s ownership the club have gone from strength to strength, dominating the Isthmian League Premier last season, winning back-to-back Isthmian League Cups, and reaching the National League South for the first time since 2012-13 – only the second time the club have ever played at this level.
However, to say it’s all been plain sailing would be misleading. Whilst in the middle of the club’s most successful ever season, including reaching the Quarter Finals of the FA Trophy, Tamplin – who had installed himself as manager – threatened to sack himself, then did sack himself, and then assumed the role of assistant manager. Despite Billericay’s fine start to the season – five wins, one draw and one loss – manager Harry Wheeler was (allegedly) sacked after a 2-0 reversal at Chippenham Town, his first loss in 312 matches (that figure may not be accurate, but it is indicative of a suitably large number). None of this should detract from the success of the playing squad though. Spearheaded by Jake Robinson with his 9 goals so far this season (to add to a casual 57 last year…) Ricay bounced back from that defeat at Chippenham to beat St Albans 3-2, coming from behind in a tempestuous match.
Woking’s Kingfield Stadium, or The Laithwaite Community Stadium, is a National League South ground in circumstance only. Particularly the vast main stand, which houses the bulk of the ground’s 2,500 seats. Able to hold 6,036, Woking’s early season average attendance is 1,582 – substantially down on last season’s, which was over 2,000. That is still large enough to place them 18th overall on the non-league attendance tables, which shows the level to which this club should be aiming.
A £15 ticket is followed up by £3 on a well-produced programme and £9 on a cheeseburger, chips and Diet Coke. That felt steep, but then again, this is Surrey, home to eight of the ten most expensive council tax boroughs in the country and general over-pricing for most things. I miss Cornwall at times like this, where for £9 I’d be able to purchase the same meal and a house to sit in while I eat it.
A word for the pitch itself, which was perfect, and one of the best pitches I’ve seen at this level (aside from the consistently gleaming 3G surfaces that are scattered across the division), so a big chuck up to the ground staff.
The game started off at a frenetic pace, and the tone was set in the first minute when Billericay captain Danny Waldren was adjudged to have fouled Max Kretzschmar. His free kick was easily deflected by the wall, but the match would turn into a story about official’s decisions and their outcomes. Two minutes later, Sam Deering misjudged a ball in by Jake Howells, and when the ball fell to Ricky Modeste he lashed wide from the side of the box.
After eleven minutes, Billericay were awarded a clear penalty when Kane Ferdinand fouled Modeste, with the Grenadan international causing problems. Jake Robinson was the man with the penalty responsibility, and there was never any doubt of him scoring. Billericay’s record signing up until Dean Inman joined from Maidenhead, Robinson now has ten for the season in only eight matches.
They weren’t ahead for long though, as referee James Durkin again found himself at the centre of the action. A slightly more dubious decision, it was difficult to see what the actual foul was, and there was more than a whiff of “evening things up” about the award of a penalty. However, that made no ends, as Max Kretzschmar, who had scored four penalties from five attempts up to this point. Alan Julian’s attempt to save saw him diving over the top of Kretzschmar’s shot, and the man from Kingston-upon-Thames had his fifth goal of the season. One all.
Jake Robinson was looking dangerous as the first half progressed, and in particular Kiran Khinda-John looked uncomfortable whenever the pacey striker was around. Despite his busy approach to the half, and Billericay having the majority of the possession, they were unable to create anything to worry Woking’s Berti Schotterl in the first half, in what was becoming a tempestuous affair. Whilst the interaction between the players was relatively needle-free, the Billericay approach towards the referee (led by their esteemed manager for the day, Mr Tamplin) was anything but. I’d also like to note that the loudest crowd response of the half came when Billericay right back Tambeson Eyong advised an opposition player to “Shut the f**k up you c**t” and drew a delightful gasp from around 200 people sat right behind him.
Woking’s fans also scored decent points for a couple of their chants during the first half. A good rendition of “you’re getting sacked in the morning” to owner/manager Tamplin which drew (ironic?) cheers from the Ricay fans behind me, as well as an amusing “[deleted on legal advice] what’s the score, [deleted on legal advice], [deleted on legal advice] what’s the score?”
As the second half kicked off, Jamie O’Hara had a decent half-volleyed effort from the edge of the area blocked, before secondary school teacher Paul Hodges drove from deep and shot from around 30 yards for Woking, but the shot was soft and straight at Alan Julian in goal. Hodges was growing in confidence in the match (having been man of the match in his last two outings, he should have been confident), and his ability to run through the middle at pace was testing for the Billericay defence.
On 58 minutes, this paid dividends as Hodges advanced with the ball at his feet. He drove at Dean Inman, who was unable to stop him, and then moved on to Eyong. Having been booked in the first half, Eyong could see Hodges advancing at pace, and his only option was to take another yellow, as he hacked the diminutive secondary school teacher. There could be no arguments about the card, and Billericay would face the last half an hour with ten men.
Five minutes later Hodges set up a half chance for Jack Cook, when he stood up a cross to the back post. The big centre back who came over from Beveree with Alan Dowson got up well but could only head wide. On 64 minutes, Dean Inman – a player who impresses me every time I watch him – picked up the yellow card his dissent had been begging for for the last half an hour when he brought down Armani Little, and then six minutes later Duane Ofori-Acheampong picked up a yellow for a swinging arm at Inman’s head. The referee was in danger of losing control at this point, but more on that later.
Although Woking were in the ascendancy at this point, much like Billericay in the first half, they weren’t creating any clear opportunities, but that all changed on 73 minutes. When Oxford United loannee Armani Little shot from range, Julian could only parry where Kretzschmar was waiting. With the departure of Charlie Carter to Chesterfield in the summer, Woking were in the market for a goalscoring midfielder, and Kretzschmar added his 6th for the season to put the Cards ahead.
Around the 85th minute, the pressure was still all Woking, but they were also, erm, minimising the time left to them. Even when celebrating the goal, it was noticeable that the players were keen to take as long as possible before restarting, and every foul by a Ricay player (and there were a lot of them) was followed by some rather obvious and deliberate time wasting. Which the visitors did not take well, particularly Alan Julian who took to throwing himself to the floor dramatically every time he felt a Woking player went down a little easily. Which the Woking fans enjoyed a great amount.
With four minutes of regular time left, Billericay put together a gilt-edged chance to equalise, and it fell to my pick for top goalscorer, Adam Coombes. The summer arrival from Sutton United was lurking when a deep free kick was nudged back to him by Simon Walton. But, in time and space, Coombes produced the sort of header back to Schotterl that draws polite applause when defenders do it. It looks like I’ve picked the wrong Billericay striker for top scorer…
There was still time for Kretzschmar to threaten again, and deep into added time, he struck from the right corner of the box, but he was denied a hat trick by a good stop by Julian. That was the last real action of the game, and as Durkin blew the final listen, all that was left was to watch the chest pointing show to come from Tamplin.
The Wash Up
It would be remiss of me to write about this match without discussing the officiating and the response from the Billericay players. To be absolutely clear, both the ref and (some) of the Billericay team/management come out with little credit on this front. The dissent from a group Billericay’s players for around 70 minutes was beyond the pale, typically limited to four letter words, and was continuous. However, when the referee (allegedly) calls one player a “little prick”, and is seen to tell Woking captain Josh Casey to go away when he is pointing at his armband and asking to talk, it is easy to see how the respect and authority is eroded. The FA’s Respect campaign is an important one, but it has to go both ways. However, as the great Julius Campbell once stated, attitude reflects leadership, and I can’t help but think that if Tamplin conducted himself better then his players might have dealt with the perceived injustice in a more considered manner.
To be frank, Tamplin was embarrassing on the side of the pitch. Regularly screaming abuse at the referee and his assistants, the Billericay owner toed a dangerous line throughout, then topped it off by finger jabbing the referee in a crass display after the final whistle. I promised I would come to this match with an open mind, and I did, but I’m afraid he has made it up for me with his display. As for the other aspects of his conduct at and around the match, I’ll let other people talk about that. It’s a real shame, because he has done a huge amount for Billericay, and there is undoubted talent and tenacity in his team, who fought tooth and nail with a very good Woking side.
Speaking of whom, I was quietly impressed by their performance, and it was chalk and cheese to when I saw them away at Gander Green Lane last season. Alan Dowson and his team have come in and instilled the value of being the hardest working team on the pitch. Seven wins from eight, and five points clear at the top is testament to that. It is obvious that he has placed great faith in his former-Beavers stalwarts, and Cook and Kretzschmar in particular were magnificent today – with Charlie Wassmer still to return from injury, they’re only likely to get better. That said, Kiran Khinda-John was also crucial to a solid defensive performance.
Man of the match though is undoubtedly Paul Hodges – for the third game running. His aggressive running from deep was the catalyst for Woking’s improvement in the second half, and got them playing in the right parts of the pitch. It’s a good job he cycled to the game from his home nearby, because at least he’ll be able to drink his MotM champagne.