Saturday 22nd September 2018, 1500 Kick Off
Staines Town FC vs Hartley Wintney FC
The Build Up
Winter has now officially arrived, cunningly disguised as Autumn, and I joined a hardy hundred or so at Staines Town’s Wheatsheaf Park for the visit of in-form Hartley Wintney, in the only Evo Stik League South Premier Division South fixture taking place on Saturday. That’s still a ridiculous name for a league, by the way. Originally scheduled for December 8th, the match was rearranged after both clubs were knocked out of the FA Cup – sensibly taking the option to get the match played before the winter postponements kick in.
The Swans were formed in 1892, and were founder members of the Hellenic League back in 1953, before bouncing around the Athenian and Spartan Leagues (amongst others), until they made the Isthmian League home in 1972. In only their second season, Staines Town secured promotion, and eventually made it to Step Two in 2009/10, in the Conference South. There they stayed until 2014/15, when a bottom placed finish saw them relegated to the Isthmian League again, a division in which they finished 8th last time out.
With the leagues being restructured in the summer, Staines Town joined neighbours Harrow Borough and Met Police in moving across to the Southern League system, giving them longer trips and – in my opinion – a harder league. Two wins and five losses had seen Staines dismiss the newly appointed Cristian Colas in midweek, and interim manager Adam Wickes would be charged with dragging the Swans higher than their current 18th spot.
Visiting Hartley Wintney, on the other hand, have started the season well. Coming out of the blocks firing, The Row stormed up the league initially, but a run of 4 games without victory, including an unexpected loss to Dorchester Town, had left them in 8th place. Still an impressive start considering this is their highest ever level of competition, the village side from Hampshire (apparently, I genuinely couldn’t place it on a map) would be hoping to get back on track against a Staines side who could be in disarray with the change of management.
Formed in 1897, Hartley Wintney won the Combined Counties Premier two seasons in a row, on account of being unable to take promotion the first time (ground grading again, what a surprise), but when they did eventually go up, made it two on the bounce. Finishing 4th in the Southern League Division One East last season, Play Off victories against AFC Dunstable and Cambridge City took them to Step Three for the first time.
After dropping Mrs Grass Roots Tourist at hockey, I battled my way through London’s Surrey and Middlesex sprawl, as the rain brought all the inevitable idiots onto the road. Pulling up at Wheatsheaf Park, and thanking whatever deity is responsible for traffic safety that I had made it there alive, I was ushered through to the car parking.
Situated on the same grounds as the Thames Park leisure centre, the Wheatsheaf has decent facilities and a lovely pitch. Capable of holding an oddly specific 3,009 fans, with covering for 800 (that would be necessary today), entry is only £10, which makes the low average attendance of only 203 quite surprising. I picked up a programme for £2.50, but have only just managed to open it, as the rain caused it to turn to mush in my bag, and it’s only just dried out on the radiator.
The café offered a good range of options, and I plumped for the egg burger, chips and diet coke, for £6.50 bringing it to below the magic £20 total. The lady behind the counter kindly threw in some extra napkins, for when I inevitably ended up wearing the egg… A word to the DJ/playlist compiler as well – the Ramones are always a brilliant option pre-match.
A minute’s silence was impeccably observed pre-match, in honour of Gordon Phillips. The former Brentford goalkeeper also had a close association with Staines Town, and sadly passed away earlier in September.
Hartley Wintney started the better of the two sides once we were underway, and on eight minutes their right back Jacques Kpohomouh had the first chance from a right wing cross. He got into space well in the box, but never really connected with the header, and it bounced through harmlessly to Louis Dixon in goal.
Two minutes later, Kpohomouh was forward and looking dangerous again, and this time his shot was a harder test for Dixon, but one the ‘keeper still passed. The home side really hadn’t got started, and by quarter of hour, their only chance was a snapshot by George Fry from around thirty yards. He’d seen Adam Desbois off his line, but couldn’t keep his effort on target.
Good work from Claudio Herbert a minute later gave him the space to cross, which he did with accuracy. Finding Mike Campbell, the centre forward who finished last season at Sutton Common Rovers shot high and wide under pressure from the defence. On 22 minutes Hartley Wintney created another half chance, when a Josh Webb free kick from wide on the right was punched behind by Dixon.
From the resulting corner, Webb again delivered, and there was centre back Liam Eagle to head home. In his fourth year as a Row player, Eagle looks like he’d be more suited to the Second Row, but met his header well, directing it down and into the goal. One nil to Hartley Wintney, and it had been coming.
Ten minutes later the Row had doubled their lead, when skipper Nic Ciardini smashed a free kick home. After a six of one/half a dozen of the other type foul on Mike Campbell, Ciardini lined the ball up on the edge of the box. He smashed it straight down the middle, through a gap in the wall, and Dixon could only parry it up into the top corner of the net.
The Swans were really struggling at this point, and genuinely couldn’t string two passes together. Five yard passes were going straight out of play, and were simply unable to get out of their own half. On 40 minutes they almost fell further behind, when a loose back pass was seized upon by Campbell. He rounded the ‘keeper, but had gone too wide – by the time he was in a position to shoot, Dixon was back in position and able to gather easily.
Nic Ciardini had the ball in the net again on 42 minutes, but this time Amadou Jallow’s flag saw the goal ruled out for offside. Then, a minute later, Staines had probably their best chance of the half. Andy Ali, who had been energetic up front, was sent into the box, and looked to be clear. Youth team graduate Louie Paget had other ideas though, and made up great ground to get back and put Ali under enough pressure for him to shank his shot.
0-2 at half time then, and the only surprise was that it was only two. Without hyperbole, Staines had been awful. Genuinely bad. I’d go so far as to say it was the worst 45 minutes of football I’ve seen at Step Three – indeed the only half of football I’ve seen worse was Plymouth Argyle away at Bristol Rovers, and that is not a good thing. Hartley Wintney, by contrast, had been decent, but not brilliant. They had dominated possession, and kept almost a monopoly on chances, but they should have taken advantage of how sloppy their opposition had been and killed the game off.
Interim boss Adam Wickes must have had some harsh words at half time, because his Staines side came out like a completely different team in the second period. More eager all over the pitch, all of a sudden it was the away side who didn’t look to have any time or composure on the ball, and it was all down to the more aggressive pressing that Staines were doing. Harry Agombar and Andre Odetola were getting on the ball more, and Thomas Gogo began to play with confidence, demonstrating his full array of tricks.
On 48 minutes, Mike Campbell received a solid knee in the back as Louis Dixon came out to claim a high ball, and was substituted for Ross Cook around fifteen minutes later. On 50 minutes Staines Town almost scored, when Andy Ali shot, and despite beating Desbois in Hartley’s goal, saw his effort saved on the goalline. By a teammate. The ball then worked its way out to Agombar, who curled an attempt off the crossbar. The Stepney-born midfielder showed some real quality on the ball at times, and was often at the heart of things when Staines were in the ascendancy.
On 58 minutes Staines halved the deficit, and it was skipper Ryan Handelaar with the goal. He went up for a corner, and stole in at the front post ahead of his marker, glancing a header in past the dive of Adam Desbois.
On 59 minutes Mike Campbell had a chance, but with the defenders forcing him to the left, his firm shot was well parried by Dixon in goal. Four minutes later, and that save became even more important. Instead of two goals behind, Staines were level, and it was a home debut goal for George Barker. Having scored away at Poole Town in his first game since joining from Salisbury, on this occasion, he weaved his way through a packed defence, and slotted the ball home for 2-2.
Then, on 69 minutes, the turnaround was complete – Barker again, after Andy Ali had broken free. Ali got in on the right hand side of the box, and the striker of Nigerian heritage faked right and cut left, and rumour has it that Steve Noakes is still trying to intercept the cross somewhere in Chertsey. Ali shot, and Desbois saved at full stretch, but there was Barker sliding in to make it 3-2.
Both sides sought out another, and although it was clear the scoring wasn’t done, it was difficult to guess who would get the next goal. As it happened, it was the visitors, on 80 minutes, and it was a fine finish by Josh Webb. A long throw by centre back Steve Noakes – which had been a dangerous weapon all match – was headed on by Ciardini, and then half cleared by Staines. It dropped invitingly twelve yards out though, and there was Webb to smash home a first time volley with his left foot.
On 84 minutes Thomas Gogo caused problems at the back for Hartley Wintney again. Having joined following his release by Crawley, the former Hackney & Tower Hamlets Schools’ player showed his quick feet and sharp change of direction to get into the box, and set up Ali, who shot wide.
With only three minutes left to play, Hartley Wintney seized the initative again, after substitute Cook was quite clearly brought down by Leyton Orient loannee Alfie Fleming.
With absolutely no doubt as to the award of the penalty, Tyron Smith stepped up and confidently side footed the spot kick home.
Surely that would be the end of the scoring I thought, and looked forward to putting away the notepad, which was by now mostly just splodges of wet ink. However, Ross Cook wasn’t done, and when a neat no-look pass by Louie Paget found Cook in space, he promptly stood on the ball and fell over. Not to be outdone, though, the tracking Staines defender then also stood on the ball, and it squirmed to where a grateful Cook had just stood himself up. He took a touch, got the ball out from his feet, and blasted into the bottom corner. 5-3 to Hartley Wintney, and that was that.
The Wash Up
Frankly, a bit of a batshit mental match in the rain. A terrible first 45 minutes by Staines Town, a poor spell by Hartley Wintney between 45 and 75 minutes, and then a helter skelter final fifteen.
For Adam Wickes, there were enough positives to be taken out of the second half to feel confident moving forwards, and the arrival of George Barker – with three goals in two matches – will be a shot in the arm to the Swans. I think the initial lethargy and struggles for the players in the first half must be in part due to the difficult week that the club have had, but by sixty minutes they looked to have put that behind them.
Harry Agombar was in good form, and when Andre Odetola dropped deep to pick up the ball, he was able to quarterback the play effectively. Staines had a very clear playing style, and wanted to play out on the ground from the back, which on the slick, rainy surface, was difficult at times.
Hartley Wintney also had a distinctive style, with joint managers Anthony Millerick and Daniel Turkington happy to look for the head of Ciardini when the opportunity presented itself. The centre forward isn’t the most mobile of players, but there aren’t many defenders who will beat him in the air, or shake him off the ball. Claudio Herbert and Josh Webb on the wings also looked dangerous, and got into good positions regularly.
With this being the only match played today, Hartley Wintney have sailed to the top of the league – could the Row be looking at a third straight promotion come May?