Saturday 2nd March 2019, 1500 Kick Off
Tiverton Town FC vs Metropolitan Police FC
The Build Up
Having originally planned to go to Sunderland to watch Plymouth Argyle, extenuating circumstances on Friday morning meant there was absolutely no way I could makethe seven and a half hour coach journey to the north east. So, I switched my plans, and decided to head down to Devon to watch two teams at opposite ends of the Evo Stik Southern League Premier Division South.
Once again, the management team at Met Police very graciously allowed me to travel down on the their team coach, so I headed to Imber Court for 0900, and boarded the bus to head down the A303. The destination was Tiverton, a town of around 20,000 people nestled just off the A361 in Devon. Formed in 1913, Tiverton Town were initially known as Tiverton Athletic, and after the name change joined the Western League in 1974. Twenty six years, and four divisional titles later, Tivvy took promotion to the Southern league system, and then gained promotion to the Premier Division the following season. A club with a strong pedigree, Tiverton are also one of only three sides to have won back to back FA Vases, in 1998 and 1999.
Tiverton have spent time this decade in both Step Three and Step Four, achieving their most recent promotion through the Play Offs in 2016/17. A strong season followed, in which Martyn Rogers guided Tivvy to 6th place in a very strong division. Of the top seven, due to promotion and restructuring, only Tiverton and Weymouth remain, so expectations would have been high. A good start to the season, however, has been undone by 2019’s form, as Tiverton approached the Met Police fixture in 20th place, with two draws and three losses in their last six matches. With Staines down if they lost today (which they surely would), Tiverton occupied one of the two remaining relegation spots. Only a point away from Dorchester Town and Walton Casuals and safety, a win against the Met could prove a catalyst.
That would be easier said than done, however, as the Old Bill have been a revelation this season. After finishing 10th in the Bostik Isthmian League Premier Division last season, restructuring saw them lose a manager and almost an entire squad. However, the new regime (built on the old one) have transformed the mentality at the club and came into today’s fixture in 4th place. A 5-0 win over Staines Town last week ended a difficult run of four without a win, but the Met still have nine points and two matches in hand over Harrow Borough just outside the Play Offs. With only two points and a game in hand separating them and Salisbury in third, Gavin MacPherson would surely have his team looking upwards, and not down the table.
Tiverton Town play at Ladysmead, a 3,500 capacity ground, which opened in 1946. Prior to that, the club called the Athletic Ground their home, until they were ousted by the Rugby Club, and then played at Elm Road until that was destroyed in the war.
I met my parents in the car park as they had travelled to watch the game as well (mum’s a big fan of nonleague football, obviously), and waited as they paid the £7 for OAP entry. At £10 for regular entry the concessions rate does make a difference. The programme is good and carries a lot of interesting features, particularly with the “Players Past and Present” feature – well worth the £2. Another £4.10 secured a sausage roll and curried chips and I was set.
I typed up the pre-match notes whilst watching Tottenham Hotspur steal a point at home to Arsenal, and awaited kick off along with 205 other attendees. Well below the season’s average of 282, this is explained in part by the Met Police’s long travelling distance, but also by Tiverton’s form in the league.
As soon as referee Phil Staynings (more on him later) got us underway, the match roared into life, with Tiverton flying out of the blocks. It was under a minute before the Yellows got the ball in the net, when left back Callum Hall sent a deep cross in to Levi Landricombe. The hosts’ top scorer finished well on the half-volley, but saw the goal disallowed for offside.
Only two minutes later, the visitors were up the other end, threatening Liam Armstrong’s goal, but Luke Robertson put a gilt-edged chance wide. After good interplay between himself and Jack Mazzone, the midfielder who returned earlier in the season after a short break with Farnborough, found himself in the middle of the box, eight yards from goal. He shifted the ball onto his left foot and tried to clip a shot into the corner, but sliced too finely across the ball, missing the target by around a foot.
That was as close to the threatening Tiverton as the Met got for the first fifteen, as the Yellows dominated the opening exchanges. Landricombe was running hard, and everything was sticking to the extensive limbs of his strike partner Tom Bath. On five minutes, a clever chest down by Landricombe – Tiverton’s top scorer for the season with 16 found the onrushing Max Smallcombe. I watched the Exeter loannee at Bideford last season and found him a direct runner who could threaten the defence, and he proved so again here. On this occasion, his low shot was well saved by the feet of Fulham/Met Police ‘keeper, Berti Schotterl.
Tiverton have a reputation as a strong, robust side, but in the first quarter of an hour, they were belying that reputation, playing some intricate link up stuff, particularly down the right hand side. The Exeter combination of Smallcombe and Josh Key (also on loan at Bideford last term) were doubling up on left back Alex Fisher, and when joined by Landricombe or Bath, were causing many problems. Equally, former Plymouth Argyle and Saltash United left back Hall was bombing forward down the left, eager to whip crosses in to a waiting Bath. That sounds like some sort of weird training drill you could do in the home wares section at Trago Mills, but it’s not.
After the initial onslaught, the match became more even, potentially even with the Met Police on top. The game was very much a clash of playing styles, and was difficult on the eye at times. A young, incisive squad, the Met Police have relied on technical ability and quick interplay to get the ball forward, and achieve their high league position. By contrast, Tiverton are a physical side, who play using quick transitions from the back, or deep crosses from their wing-backs. Jamie Price in particular, has a really accurate diagonal ball from the back, and used it to put pressure on Jeremy Arthur and Mekhail McLaughlin in defence – who stood up well to the test.
Speaking of Arthur, the big former QPR academy player was causing problems from corner in the Tiverton box on 35 minutes. The tussle between him and Price was worth the admission fare alone every time he came forward, but it was nice to see that the two players were fighting and scrapping but retaining a good humour at the same time. On one occasion, with Arthur causing problems, the ball was half-cleared to young Ethan Chislett on the edge of the box. The youth team product settled himself, and crashed a fine shot against the crossbar. Recently named one of the most exciting young players in non-league, Chislett’s fine technique was in evidence here.
He tried again from range moments later, when he spotted Armstrong off his line, but the 18 year old on loan from Bristol Rovers back-tracked and ended up making a comfortable save. For such a young ‘keeper, Armstrong had a good match, and was particularly effective with his big kicking game.
On 42 minutes the match swung in Tivvy’s favour, as Tom Bath grabbed the opener. As Fisher and McLaughlin switched off at a Tiverton throw in, Key’s restart ended up at the feet of Tom Bath in the Met Police area. He drove towards goal, and then fired a low, hard shot across Schotterl into the far corner. No chance for the German ‘keeper, and the hosts were one up.
However, they wouldn’t take that lead into half-time, as the Met Police struck back almost immediately. Again it was the former captain of QPR U18s, Jeremy Arthur, causing the problems. A bad tackle by Tiverton’s skipper Price on Luke Robertson gave John Gilbert a free kick on the edge of the area. His effort hit the wall, but with the ball not properly cleared, young winger Ollie Knight crossed, Jack Mazzone knocked it down, and Arthur swept the ball into the net to even the scores.
Level pegging at half time, and it was probably a fair score. Both sides will have gone in thinking that the game was there for the taking – Tiverton had put the ball in the net twice, but the Met had also hit the crossbar and missed a glaring opportunity. The key to the second half really, would be whether the Old Bill could play their own game. For the first half, Tiverton had dragged them into an aerial scrap, and Price and Jordan Dyer were happy sweeping those up all day – unless the Met could play their natural style, it was difficult to see them getting more than a point. The other talking point from the half was the referee, who was really poor. I’m often loathe to criticise refs, as I find they typically make fewer mistakes than players (and photographers who miss goals…), but this guy was genuinely poor. His decision making was erratic, letting bad tackles go and punishing clean ones. I can only imagine how frustrating it is to play, manage or support with someone like that running the game.
The second half started in the same vein as the first, with Tiverton on the front foot. A good cross from Josh Key had his opposite number, Josh Webb, back-tracking to head behind for a corner after only a minute of the restart. It was then all quiet on the south western front for around ten minutes, as the game receded into a match of midfield scrap and long-ball chess. Not unlike watching Ireland play rugby.
On 57 minutes, Michael Landricombe was influential in keeping the scores level. As Alex Fisher, who was getting more and more room to roam and link up with Ollie Knight, got forward, he slipped a neat through ball to Jack Mazzone. The former South Park striker, who has scored 21 already this season, had been kept quiet up until this point, but as he surged through to pull the trigger, Landricombe got back excellently, and even guided his block off Mazzone’s shin to secure a goal kick.
Also influential was Louis Birch, on his birthday. A student of sports rehabilitation, and today sporting significant scaffolding on his knee, Birch is a player I often watch but rarely see, as he does the dirty work in the centre of the park. Up against two experienced operators today in Michael Landricombe and Steve Colwell, Birch defied his years and more than stood up to the challenge. He was regularly winning the ball in tackles, but showed good positioning to intercept play on numerous occasions. When he had the ball, his pass completion was high, as he took the simple option, moving it on to the team’s direct runners such as Robertson and Gilbert.
Robertson showed that direct running on 62 minutes, when he broke past three in midfield, before shooting narrowly wide of the post. Then again, on 71 minutes he had a chance to break the deadlock, which a lovely reverse pass by Gilbert found him unmarked eight yards from goal, but his glanced header again went wide.
The Met Police were starting to get on top, and the vast majority of the play was in Tiverton’s half, but the Tivvy defence were standing firm. Alongside Price, another on-loan Exeter defender, Jordan Dyer, was getting his head under every ball he could, and defending as if his life depended on it at times. Tiverton were also threatening on the break. With the pace of Smallcombe and the skill of Davis, they possessed danger from deep, whilst Landricombe cemented his status as one of Step Three’s most bastard-like players in my eyes, with a hassling, harrying performance.
On 75 minutes, Tom Bath had a chance almost identical to his first half goal, but on this occasions Schotterl made the save, and there were a few half chance efforts and headers too. Then, on 86 minutes I thought I was seeing the winner. When Mazzone managed to shake free of Price for just a minute, he teed up substitute Jonathan “Cash” Hippolyte with the goal opening, but the son of former Maidenhead manager Johnson didn’t catch the shot right and it skidded harmlessly wide. It was unfortunate for Hippolyte, who had threatened since coming on, but would also prove costly for the Met.
As the clock ticked over to 90 minutes, Levi Landricombe held the ball up well, and presented it to Harrison Davis in space. With time to compose himself, the on-loan Southampton midfielder took a touch out from his feet, and struck a rasping drive into the bottom right corner. His second goal of the season, it was a great strike to surely win the match.
Substitute Rhys King had a late chance to salvage a point, when Armstrong spilled a high ball, but King couldn’t get over his volley and sent the ball wide. Shortly after, the (terrible) ref called an end to proceedings, and Tiverton had taken all three points in a combative fixture.
The Wash Up
For the Met Police, it is situation no change in terms of league position. With Poole Town, Salisbury, Weymouth and Harrow Borough all winning, there is no let up in the fight for the Play Offs. A six point buffer to Harrow in 6th can be increased with a game in hand against Kings Langley on Tuesday, but they will have to play better than they did today to achieve that. With Taunton now eight points clear at the top, but the Met still two games in hand over them, the title is also still not out of reach. However, three draws and two losses in their last six is not title-winning form (it’s 18th as you’re asking), and Gavin MacPherson will surely be putting the work in on the training ground to rectify that.
He’ll also be desperately hoping for the returns of Max Blackmore and Olly Robinson from injury. Both players were keenly missed against Tiverton, and for different reasons. The experience and aggression of Robinson would have made for a very different type of match for the abrasive Bath and Landricombe, whilst Blackmore’s aerial ability would have enabled Mazzone to play his more natural game as well. There were good performances in Met blue, where I felt that Jeremy Arthur, Mekhail McLaughlin, and especially Louis Birch, all put in good shifts.
The winners though – in the match and league position – were Tiverton, who jump three places out of the relegation zone. Up to 17th, and now a point clear of Dorchester Town, Tivvy should never be as far down the table as they are, and I’m certain they will use this result as a catalyst to surge back up into the pack. It really is tight, with only six points separating Dorchester in 20th and Wimborne Town in 11th, so a good month could see them right back in the mid-table mix.
There were hard, combative performances across the park from Tiverton, with a sprinkling of class as well. I knew what to expect from Key and Smallcombe and wasn’t disappointed, whilst the centre forwards both worked hard all match. Michael Landricombe was a bustling presence in midfield, and Harrison Davis produced a wonderful strike to win the match. My man of the match though is Jamie Price, who delivered the archetypal captain’s performance. Jack Mazzone is the third top scorer in the division, and Price kept him quiet all afternoon, whilst also organising a back five with an average age (excluding him) of 19.
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