Wednesday 12th September 2018, 1945 Kick Off
Leatherhead FC vs Worthing FC
The Build Up
After watching an FA Cup First Qualifying Round replay between Walton Casuals and Beckenham Town on Tuesday night, Wednesday saw me heading down on the train from Waterloo to take in a different cup competition – this time the only slightly less famous Alan Turvey Trophy. Won by Billericay Town for the last two seasons in a row, Mr Turvey’s trophy is destined for new owners for the first time in three years since Ricay’s promotion to the National League South. The cup competition also known as the Velocity Sports Trophy for sponsorship reasons, was named in honour of Alan Turvey in 2015, when the FA 150 Grassroots Hero stepped down after an incredible 60 years’ involvement in the Isthmian League.
Competing on Wednesday night were Leatherhead and Worthing, both Bostik Isthmian League Premier Division stalwarts. The home side, Leatherhead, were formed in 1907 as the poetically named Leatherhead Rose, and then merged in 1946 with Leatherhead United to form today’s club. Managed by former Aldershot ‘keeper Nikki Bull, they currently sit 17th in the South East’s Step Three division. After a 6th place finish last season, the Tanners’ then boss, Sammy Moore, departed for pastures new on Canvey Island with National League South’s Concord Rangers, leading to Bull’s appointment as Player/Manager.
Leatherhead have a proud history, including being the reigning champions of the Corinthian League (the league was disbanded following their 1962/63 triumph…), whilst they have also reach the FA Cup Fourth Round in 1975, and the Second Round last season, losing to Wycombe Wanderers. They also have a decent record in this competition, having taken the Trophy back in 2010. Their league form, however, leaves something to be desired, with one loss, two draws and three losses in their opening six fixtures.
The visiting Rebels could not be in more different form, sitting pretty in 2nd at this early stage of the season. After arriving from Hastings United in 2017 for his second spell, 34 year old manager Adam Hinshelwood has overseen an upturn in Worthing’s fortunes, after they looked doomed for the drop at the beginning of 2017/18. A significant improvement in form saw the West Sussex side finish comfortably in 16th, but 12 points from a possible 15 at the start of this campaign will have them dreaming of more. Like Leatherhead, the Isthmian premier League is their highest ever level since formation in 1886, and they were last promoted here in 2016, after winning their Play Off semi and final by an aggregate 11-0 scoreline.
Emphasising their improved fortunes this season, Worthing’s average attendance has risen from 601 by over 50% to 972 so far this season – the highest in the league, and fifth highest at Step Three.
I arrived in Leatherhead by train, and took the short walk through the tidy town centre to Fetcham Grove. A snug ground encircled by trees, Fetcham Grove has a 3,400 capacity, and is a proper non-league ground – with proper non-league prices.
Tanners Tea Bar serves sausage and chips with curry sauce (plus the obligatory Diet Coke) for £4.50, a fact-packed programme is £2, and entry is only a tenner, which means Leatherhead comfortably meet the holy grail of an evening out for under twenty quid. The food was decent too – particularly the chips and curry sauce.
Leatherhead was also exceptionally friendly. Regular readers will note this is something I say about a lot of clubs, and it’s generally true – most non-league grounds are friendly places to visit, but Leatherhead particularly so. After being warmly welcome by Alex, the media officer, I proceeded into the main stand, and was immediately accosted by the Leatherhead replica shirt-wearing Jamie, replete with a glorious ginger beard. Jamie asked me if this was my first visit, introduced me to his stepsons and proudly stated that Leatherhead were all-welcoming. Jamie – if you’re reading this, you’re a top bloke.
With 166 fans (unsurprisingly well below the average of 345) braced against the surprisingly chilly and increasingly foggy September evening, referee Neil Morrison got us underway…
A scrappy first five minutes proved to be a harbinger for things to come as Leatherhead’s young team tried to get to grips with a confident Worthing. Indeed, it was the visitors who had the first chance of the match in the 8th minute, when U21 team graduate Andrew Blake tried to shepherd the ball out of play for the Tanners. His pocket was picked by a Worthing forward, who then teed up Jesse Starkey to shoot but the former Gillingham man was leaning back and sent his effort skywards. On twenty minutes, Ollie Pearce, who arrived in the summer after a successful spell at nearby Bognor Regis Town, was put through well by Starkey. Pearce’s first touch was immaculate as he got himself into a shooting position, but he slipped his shot wide. This would prove to be the best chance of a first half slim on real opportunities.
The incredibly vocal Zaki Oualah did get his gloves dirty in the Leatherhead goal a couple of minutes later, with Ollie Pearce again to the fore. He got free through the left channel, where he was having some joy off the shoulder of another Academy graduate, Will Seager. His cut back was into the path of Ricky Aguiar, a regular for England Colleges, who shot straight at Oualah. Manager Nikki Bull, a ‘keeper with over 200 appearances for the Shots, would surely have been impressed with his saving technique – sitting on the ball.
Pearce was having a busy first half hour, and was front and centre once more when anther dart down the left channel resulted in a cross-cum-shot which Oualah dived out of his goal to field well. Then, five minutes later, top scorer David Ajiboye provided his first contribution to the match. Since Kieron Pamment departed for Burgess Hill Town in the summer, Ajiboye has taken up the goal scoring slack with four so far this season, and his 39th minute cross into a dangerous area was steered wide by a firm touch from Pearce.
The game had been quite bitty up to this point, but for the five minutes before half time it really came alive. First, a loose back pass by a Worthing centre back put Lacas Cavagnari in trouble, but he looked to have done well, darting out to beat Antonio Dembélé to the ball. However, revelling in his success, he forgot he was a goalkeeper and took one too many touches, allowing Alfie Cue to steal possession. The Dartford loannee’s shot towards an empty goal clipped a defender, taking the pace out, allowing another Rebel to get back and clear.
Immediately from that clearance Worthing attacked, ending with an Ajiboye cross. The former Brighton Under 23 never connected right through, and instead of crossing, it sailed towards the top corner, where Oualah had to react and did so well. In first half stoppage time Alfie Cue glanced a header yards wide for Leatherhead, and Aaron Racine actually got the ball in the net after a deep Worthing free kick ran through to him, but saw it correctly ruled out for offside. Shortly afterwards, the man in the middle called time on the first period, which had grown into an entertaining clash. Worthing had probably had the better of it so far, but Leatherhead weren’t without threat, and the youngsters and academy graduates were acquitting themselves well and 0-0 was probably fair.
An early second half chance came Leatherhead’s way when midweek arrival D’Sean Theobalds lashed a shot narrowly wide from the edge of the area after John Ufuah’s cross was deflected into his path. This was as good as it got for the next quarter of an hour though, as the game became long on effort and short on quality, and the referee started to blow his whistle a lot more (more frequently in Worthing’s benefit it seemed) which naturally broke up play.
It wasn’t until the 63rd minute that the next action of note occurred, when Leatherhead created their first real chance of the match. Again it was Cue at the heart of it, and the 21 year old from Kent was having a good match. A neat slide-rule pass from him set former-Shrimper Reece Deakin free, but he still had a lot to do, 90% of which he did brilliantly. He slipped past one defender and worked room to the left of another to shoot, but let himself down there, with a sliced effort straight at Cavagnari.
The remaining 25 minutes of the match followed the pattern set, with Worthing having the majority of the ball and getting behind the Leatherhead full backs well, particularly when Joel Colbran and David Ajiboye combined down the right. However Leatherhead were finishing strongly with the energy of Cue, Deakin and Dembélé (all good football teams need a Dembélé) giving them options on the counter.
On 68 minutes some combative midfield play by Cue resulted in the both a knock on the head for the Dartford man and the ball breaking to substitute Travis Gregory. Gregory, who looked good when he came on (and seemed a pretty likeable lad to boot), skipped past one and shot, but again in was straight at the ‘keeper. Who must have been pretty grateful that everything was right down his throat tonight.
Good interplay between Aguiar and Colbran led to a shooting chance for Worthing, but it was bravely blocked by an unnamed Tanners defender, before Cue had another effort from ranger which skidded a foot wide of the post. Then, on 81 minutes, I was treated to a Green Army chant by the Leatherhead fans, which immediately endeared me to them, being a paid up member of the real Green Army down in PL3.
D’Sean Theobolds had a driven effort right footed from the corner of the box after a flowing counter attack, where maybe a cross would have been the better option on 81 minutes. It was representative of his performance really, as he had regularly gotten into good positions, but often delayed, or decided against, the cross. Then, just as it seemed as though the youthful Tanners would be able to take it to penalties, David Ajiboye struck.
I’ll be completely honest, I didn’t see it at all. I was cleaning mist off my lens hood when a roar went up from the travelling Rebels. I looked up, and there was Mr Ajiboye celebrating with his teammates. Particularly frustrating having sat in the cold and fog for 83 minutes, but there we go. Ajiboye had looked dangerous for Worthing, and ever since Ollie Pearce went off, if they were going to score it was likely to be him, but it was still pretty galling for Leatherhead.
That was about it really, although Leatherhead did push hard for an equaliser. Gregory was a bustling presence in attack, and Alfie Cue’s long throws looked like causing problems, but in the end a backline well marshalled by Aaron Racine. The assistant manager showed his leadership on the pitch, and was well bolstered by the arrival of substitute William Miles, who didn’t put a foot or head out of place when he came on.
The Wash Up
0-1 the final scoreline, and Worthing advance as they seek their first ever Alan Turvey Trophy. It was obviously a disappointing result for Nikki Bull, but having sent out a side containing only three of those who started on Saturday, he was pleased with the performance he got. I spoke with Bull post-match, and he understandably proud of his younger players who had battled hard and well against one of the better footballing sides in this division.
Bull has made some changes to his squad this week, and having had only one senior player when he arrived in the summer, is still very much in the stages of getting a nucleus of players he can work with. But he believes in his process, and the team clearly believe in him – I strongly suspect that in the coming weeks it will click at Fetcham Grove and they’ll rise up the table. Zaki Oualah had a good game in goal, and his arrival will crucially allow Bull to take a more regular place in the dugout, instead of having his hand forced into playing.
Worthing did what they had to do in reasonably difficult circumstances at Fetcham Grove. They’re a passing side, who look to build through the thirds, and the surface didn’t help them tonight. There was nothing wrong with it, but the slickness caused by the fog meant first touches were difficult and passes skidded more than usual. Still, with the likes of Ajiboye on form, and a solid defensive performance from Racine and Edwards, they managed to hold Leatherhead at arm’s length for most of the match.
Man of the match today goes to Alfie Cue. He may have ended on the losing side, but his energy and enthusiasm were crucial to Leatherhead remaining even as long as they did. He’s highly regarded at Dartford, and Leathehead have him for a month initially. If he can maintain these performances, they’ll surely be banging on Adam Flanagan and Jamie Coyle’s door (or do they have a door each? Should that be plural?) to ask for an extension.