Tuesday 4th February 2020, 1945 Kick Off
Chertsey Town FC vs Ashford Town (Middlesex) FC
The Build Up
It may only be a week since I’ve made an entry on these hallowed pages, but it seems that in those seven days the world as we know it has changed irrevocably. We’re all dying of a virus caused by (apparently) eating raw bats, the Thames has more cocaine in it than the average banker’s pocket, and the UK is officially out of the EU’s nefarious grip, and back on our way to the sunlit uplands – down a path lined with Union flag bunting. However, you’ll be reassured to know that as I write this, I have The Chase on in the background – and despite all this change and uncertainty, you can still rely on some absolute throbbers to take the minus offer.
So, feeling slightly uncomfortable with all this flux, I decided to visit somewhere where surely all was still quaint and as should be – the Surrey commuter belt, and specifically Chertsey Town, where the same curfew bell still tolls as it has for over five hundred years. Not continuously, obviously – that would be a nightmare for house prices. Established in 1890, Chertsey Town were coming into this fixture nicely placed in the Isthmian League South Central Division, one of three Step Four leagues managed under the Isthmian System. With three wins and two draws in their last six matches, the Curfews (named for the aforementioned bell) sat in 7th place, with a game in hand on Waltham Abbey, and a good chance of a Play Off tilt.
It’s been a generally positive return to Step Four football for Chertsey, after cantering to the Combined Counties League Premier title last season – a title they added to with the FA Vase trophy, beating Cray Valley PM 3-1 in the Wembley final to become the first ever winners from Surrey. Having captained the side for that remarkable season, Kevin Maclaren has now stepped up into the hot seat, taking over following Dave Anderson’s retirement in May. It’s fair to say, however, that their visitors Ashford Town (Middx) aren’t having quite such an enjoyable season, lying second bottom coming into this fixture, joint on 13 points with the sides above and below them (Northwood and Staines Town, who were incidentally facing off on the same night…).
Formed as Ashford Albion in 1958, the Ash Trees were renamed Ashford Town in 1982 when they became founder members of the Surrey Premier League. In order to avoid confusing simple-minded FA suits who were unable to differentiate with an Ashford side 77 miles away outside Folkestone, the Middlesex club formally added their famous (Middlesex) suffix in 1990. Of course, the Kent side have since become a United, just to be difficult. Ashford played four seasons in the Isthmian League Premier between 2006 and 2010, before dropping down to Step Four, where they finished 11th last time out. A relatively successful non-league side in the region, Russell Canderton’s side have been champions of the Combined Counties Premier on five occasions, though one would imagine he hasn’t been manager that whole time. Unbeaten in their last two, the Ash Trees really need to put some distance between themselves and bottom spot – with only one side eligible for relegation, and Northwood and Staines really struggling, Ashford certainly should be pulling clear.
I set off for the half hour drive to Alwyns Lane fearing the worst – there’s nothing quite as un-tempting as the M25 during the evening rush hour, but mercifully the traffic was only moderate at worst. Once I got to the ground, with an hour to spare, it was already getting pretty full – but the very helpful ground staff moved cars around and and made space for parking.
Chertsey’s ground is far from the worst in the division and has a capacity of 2,500, which regularly hosts over 300 fans – comfortably the highest average attendance in the division, almost 20% higher than the next highest, Tooting & Mitcham United. The club have made a conscious effort to avoid pricing out the supporters, and at £9 per ticket, it’s pretty consistent with most Step Four equivalents, and the food isn’t overly expensive either – a cheese burger and chips from Lovely Jubblys running to £5.50.
It was very obvious from the opening exchanges that the 285 fans in attendance were going to be watching a home victory, with the Curfews quickly settling into a rhythm of short, sharp passes through the midfield, and dynamic overlapping support from Matt Drage and Bryan Taylor at full back. Ashford, on the other hand, seemed content to attempt to wallop the ball in the general direction of Dan Brown’s head as quickly as possible, or, failing that, to slice it aimlessly upfield.
As such, it was no surprise when the hosts took a deserved eighth minute lead, through top scorer Jake Baxter. I say it surprised no-one, it clearly surprised me, as I was still fiddling with the camera settings and got precisely zero shots of the goal… An experienced centre-forward, and one of a few former Hartley Wintney players on display, Baxter had started the match with 62 Chertsey goals in 65 matches, and would finish it just one off a 100% scoring record. On this occasion, he struck into the far corner after he was well found by a cross-field pass by Bryan Taylor.
Andy Crossley in particular was having a great time of it in the middle of the park, with both Baxter and Scott Day dropping deep as required to provide pivots all the way up the field. In the (shockingly vivid) yellow shirts of Ashford, they were looking shellshocked after the first ten, with pass after pass going astray and more bad touches than a Bloodhound Gang cover band competition. On 12 minutes, Chertsey went close again, when Sam Murphy swung a free kick in from the right. It landed at the feet of Michael Peacock, and the current Players’ Player of the Year had time to control, air kick, control again, and finally shoot on target, but it was easily – if a touch acrobatically – tipped over by Aaron Bufton, making only his second Ash Trees appearance.
A minute later, the Curfews had extended their lead. When Murphy whipped in another corner it was half cleared to Peacock who had taken up a position on the edge of the box. He looped in a testing ball, which dropped to a sadly unidentified player, who in turn slapped a tame shot goalwards. Bufton appeared to stumble as he stooped to collect, spilling the ball at the feet of probably the man he’d least like to see in front of him given the circumstances. Jake Baxter happily prodded the ball home, to rack up his 15th league goal of the season, taking him third behind Max Blackmore and Liam Hope in the scorers’ charts (other results pending).
Baxter should have had his hat-trick in the 22nd minute, and indeed it was such a bad miss, I was convinced the net must have had a (bigger than usual) hole in it. Once again, Andy Crossley, who debuted for the club over a decade previously against Wembley, was key in midfield, spreading the play right, before a dangerous looking cross found Baxter all alone at the back stick. With the goal emptier than a Love Island contestant’s brain, Baxter just had to hit the target, from about 8 inches out. But no, clipped the post and wide. Devastating.
Within sixty seconds later, they were threatening again. An inch perfect ball drilled from right back by Matt Drage dropped just over the head of Darryl Harrison in the defence, where it was controlled perfectly by Sam Murphy on his chest, at full pace, on the turn. So far, so Premier League. Unfortunately, as Murphy was just imagining his place on a Soccer AM highlights reel, he hammered his volley well wide of the target, leaving the former Edgware Town midfielder cursing what could have been.
With half an hour played, Ashford’s closest sight of the Chertsey goal had been a free kick which was cleared by Quincy Rowe before Dan Brown could make anything of it. It had been a dispiriting opening third for the Ash Trees, and almost got worse when Andy Crossley curled a free kick just wide from the edge of the D.
The match was so comfortable for the home side, it was almost inevitable that when Ashford eventually did create a chance it was likely to come from a Chertsey error than anything else. With 38 on the clock, their defence overplayed and a loose pass to a defensive teammate was latched onto by Samad Kazi. He went wide of the defence, and pulled it back to Sam Humphreys. Jupp could only parry his shot, and with Dan Brown quickest to the ball, he looked certain to bag his 11th of the campaign. But, out shot a telescopic leg from Rowe, to nick the ball away.
Finally, finally, Ashford Town were waking up, and for five minutes before the break it looked as though a contest might occur. With two minutes until the whistle, Brown did well to win an aerial duel against Quincy Rowe, and flicked on to legal consultant Samad Kazi. He controlled brilliantly with his studs whilst sprinting, but the quality of his control was matched only by the quality of Bryan Taylor’s recovery, who put in a textbook slider from behind to avert a certain goal.
So that made half-time, with Chertsey two goals to the good, but looking very good value for it. Not only was it clear that the likes of Jake Baxter, Scott Day and Andy Crossley had too much quality for the opposition, they were better organised too. When it possession, Kevin Maclaren clearly had his squad playing with a clear game plan, to play tight, one-two touch passing in midfield, and support that with runners from the full-back position. It was difficult, looking at the team in yellow, to discern the same clarity of vision in the preparation.
However, Ashford had shown some signs of life in the last five minutes before the break. That didn’t continue. In the second, Chertsey regained their dominance of the match, and of 54 minutes Scott Day fought like the 300 in the box, losing it twice and winning it back both times. He took a shot, which was blocked, and eventually returned to Jake Baxter. His cute backheel nutmegged the defender, and found Matt Drage charging into the box as though he’d just been told someone had started on his mate in the smoking area. Brought down by a combination of Aaron Bufton and Samad Kazi (I thought it was fair for what it’s worth), Chertsey appealed for a penalty, only to be saved the argument by the offside flag.
However, it didn’t take long for them to get their third, and it was Scott Day with the finish. The former Whyteleafe man was apparently signed to play defence according to the Chertsey website, but came into this match with four goals, and looked more than comfortable up top. From Sam Murphy’s outswinging corner, the big number ten got to the ball first with a thumping header past Bufton for 3-0.
And then just like that it was 4-0. On 62 minutes, Crossley got the goal his performance deserved, slotting low past Bufton. Chertsey were threatening to run riot, and the dovetailing front four of Crossley, Baxter, Day and Murphy were interacting at will. When Jake Baxter got the ball down the left he beat one man, and waited for his supporting runners. Like an inside centre hitting the deep line outside a fly half, Crossley burst through two defenders to meet Baxter’s slipped pass, and then slotted calmly past Bufton.
Now four goals to the good, Maclaren decided to use his subs, bringing on former Met Police winger Jonathan Hippolyte, nine-goal Lubomir Guentchev, and Football Icon Sam Hurrell. The fresh legs gave them impetus to really stretch the match, and Johnny ‘Cash’ Hippolyte had a half chance we struck over, before creating an opportunity for Baxter to get his third, but the number nine was just offside.
Matt Drage and Bryan Turner were still bombing up the line, and the last potentially key moment of the match came from the right back. When played into the box through a short corner routine, he chipped the ball over the onrushing keeper, but Scott Weight’s best NBA double dribble prevented the goal. No penalty said the ref, who to be fair, had probably just given up.
The Wash Up
An emphatic and completely deserved 4-0 victory for Chertsey, which sees them move up to 6th on the night. They still have a game in hand on Uxbridge above them, with a win putting them into the Play Off positions. With goals from across the pitch, and a solid looking defensive partnership between Peacock and Rowe, it’s clear that Kevin Maclaren has built a well-functioning Step Four side.
Ashford Town (Middx), however, are in a pretty ropey position. With the Staines Town vs Northwood match postponed, they are now joint with their rivals for last place, but in the unenviable position of having played more matches. This was but one difficult night in a season of difficult nights, where they appeared not to have a game plan of sorts. Dan Brown did his best in the aerial duels up front, whilst Samad Kazi worked hard on the right. Beyond that, it was difficult to identify the better performances, as they were so thoroughly outclassed on the night. That said, credit also to Sam Humphreys and Darryl Harrison, who did more than most to stem the tide.
In the blue and white of the Curfews, any of the eleven could have taken man of the match, from #1 Nick Jupp’s direct and incisive distribution, right up to #11 Sam Murphy’s livewire running and interplay. However, for me, there are three front runners. Jake Baxter ended the game with two goals, but should really have had three, and his touch and incision was too much for the opposition throughout. Just behind him, Andy Crossley’s link up play was a step above the level he is playing.
The winner though, is Matt Drage. Having played for Hartley Wintney last season, he has been persuaded to step down with Chertsey, and to be honest looks to have too much for teams at Step Four. An impressive engine allowed him to get up and down all match, and his range of passing from right back was a match highlight. However, his main asset was his drive, which is clearly something Kevin Maclaren would have identified when bringing him in. At 4-0 up, at half nine on a cold night, he was still berating team mates to make better choices, pick better passes, and that is exactly the attitude which could see the Curfews reach Step Three.
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