Monday 10th August 2020, 1945 Kick Off
Sutton Common Rovers vs Tonbridge Angels
The Build Up
Last time I put a match report on here, things looked a little bit different. As I watched Chertsey Town dispatch Ashford Town (Middx) back in February, people were predicting that drastic action would need taking to offset the impact of some extra curricular bat eating in a place called Wuhan that (if we’re honest) 90% of us had never heard of before.
Fast forward to mid-August, and it’s fair to say quite a bit has changed. Without going into the societal, health and economic effects which have been huge and tragic for so many, the impact on football has also been profound. Seasons declared null and void or settled on Points Per Game (a calculation we’re all now experts at…), footballers skipping curfew and catching the virus, and now matches behind closed doors – these have been just some of the stories we’ve seen at the highest levels. But now, as the Champions League of one season still has three rounds to run, whilst the first stages of the next season have already kicked off, non-league teams across the country start to prepare for the advocated restart of competitive football next month.
For Sutton Common Rovers, this is their second pre-season friendly, following a 0-0 draw with Epsom & Ewell last week, and I was invited to cover for their regular photographer to ensure that supporters can at least see something from their matches. After breaking records in 2018/19, when SCR recorded their highest ever finish (2nd in the Combined Counties Premier League, behind all-conquering Chertsey), whilst also winning the League Cup, 2019/20 was a bit more a jolt back to earth. With the league much more competitive, the Commoners were duking it out at the right end of the table, but when COVID rolled up and all football at Steps 3-7 was voided, SCR were sitting 8th (admittedly with quite a few games in hand). Had PPG have been invoked at that level, SCR would have ended the campaign in 5th, with Ascot United taking the title.
Tonbridge Angels, of Step Two National League South, did register a completed season for 2019/20, with the National League clubs voting to end the season with PPG deciding final standings. Tonbridge, 20th in the league at the time, but with games in hand were immediately catapulted up to 15th – a fine showing in their return to Step Two football. Since changing their name to Tonbridge Angels in 1994, the Kent side had spent only three seasons in the National Leagues prior to that campaign, and were predicted by many to go straight back down. The Angels, who beat Haringey Borough, Merstham and Met Police in the extended (and absurd) Play Off system of 2018/19 to win that promotion, were in or around the relegation zone for the first half of the season, but a fantastic run post-Christmas, saw them lose only two league matches in 2020, resulting in a deserved surge up the table.
That run was built around the goals of Joe Turner, who recently gave Steve McKimm a massive boost, by resigning for the coming year. He’ll be joined by much of the squad from last season, along with Alex Akrofi and Kristian Campbell who signed from Aveley and Bognor Regis Town respectively. On Saturday, Akrofi and Turner gave the (absent) fans a glimpse of what they can expect, bagging three between them in a 6-0 thrashing of Loxwood.
Which brings us to the most contentious issue of these pre-season friendlies. The fans, or rather, the lack thereof. At the end of a week where Dover Athletic have transfer listed their entire squad as a desperate bid to stave off extinction, and Droylsden and FC Romania both succumbed to that fate, the non-league community has ramped up pressure on the government and the FA to allow fans back into the game. With people furloughed, business closing their doors, and those that have survived running on reduced cash flow, sponsorship is difficult to come by, meaning that now – more than ever – clubs are relying on gate receipts and bar takings.
Considering pubs have now been open for almost a month, restaurants are full, and the beaches and parks are busier than the M25 at rush hour, it seems absurd that football is given a blanket “behind closed doors” dictat. Gander Green Lane, today’s venue, has a capacity of slightly over 5,000. Sutton Common Rovers average attendance last season was 59. Their largest crowd was 83. Now, I’m no scientist, but I strongly suspect in a venue that size, 83 people could socially distance about ten times over. It might not seem a lot, but a pre-season friendly against a team three leagues higher could conceivably pull in 100-150 people, with friends and family wanting to watch their loved ones – that surge of cash through the tills could keep the doors open for a few more months for clubs at this level. If, like me, you think that it’s time to allow fans back into football matches, in a sensible, socially distant manner, please show your support on twitter and other social media platforms for the #letfansin campaign.
The match started busily in the early evening heat, with both sides delivering dangerous crosses inside the first five minutes. First, Ben Greenhalgh drove in low from the left for Tonbridge, which was well swept up by Aaron Goode. His sweep upfield was picked up by SCR’s Jean-Luc Kinsaba, who swung in an equally testing, which was narrowly missed in the middle by Kyle Henry.
Shortly after that, SCR won a corner, which was taken short by Brendan Murphy-McVey to Mal Robinson. He swing the ball far too deep, but it was picked up by Adam Allen – scorer of 13 goals last season – who in turn fed Kinsaba. The former Staines Town winger jinked infield, and struck a firm, low drive between two defenders, which whistled narrowly wide of Ryan Botley’s Tonbridge goal. So the first flash of the teeth came from the Step Five side, and it was a pattern that would continue throughout the first half, as Tonbridge – playing with five triallists and two new signings – struggled to gel.
After eight minutes, the Angels put together a good throw in routine down the right hand side, when James Folkes found the boot of a right wing triallist. The winger, who along with a diminutive central midfielder was probably the pick of Tonbridge’s triallists, he beat Tutt with a flick of his right root, and found the head of Tom Derry. The big number nine considered a bicycle kick, but this early in pre-season decided maybe the joints weren’t up to it, and instead flicked goalwards, were Alex Akrofi worked hard to get a easily saveable shot off at skipper Michael Eacott in the SCR goal.
By fifteen minutes the hosts were very much on top, with Ayling and Goode at centre back setting the tone, and the lively interplay of Robinson and Twum causing problems down Tonbridge’s left flank. Often deployed in midfield, Nathan Ayling was alert, regularly nipping in ahead of strikers to win the ball, before launching it into the hard to defend channels behind full back Campbell and Folkes. It was one piece of interplay between Robinson and Twum which led to Botley getting his gloves dirty, when Twum was sent through. The lively winger got a toe to the ball, aiming to poke it wide of Botley, but the number one stood up well to come out on top.
Three minutes later and SCR should have had a penalty. Recent arrival from Bognor Regis, Kristian Campbell, was having a bit of a torrid afternoon trying to deal with Malachi Robinson and Ollie Twum, with Robinson adept at finding exactly the right patch of artificial turf that Twum could run into. On this occasion, with Twum in behind, Campbell had had enough, and shoved Sutton’s number seven to the deck, just inside the area, but the referee, looking like an extra member of Blink 182 – and the linesman who was mere feet away – weren’t interested. They were clearly saving their energy for later…
On 23 minutes we went to the now de rigeur drinks break, with SCR comfortably on top. With a large number of last season’s squad, albeit a very different looking frontline (no Daryl Cooper-Smith, Mike Campbell or Phil Page), they looked a much smoother unit, and were communicating more effectively. On around the half hour mark, Adam Allen had a sighter from 25 yards, before Kyle Henry showed impressive core strength to hold off one of Tonbridge’s centre half before playing in Twum, who really should have scored. Henry’s cross was invitingly in front of the number seven, but his effort was loose, and easily cleared behind.
However, from that corner, the hosts went ahead. Murphy-McVey whipped in a teasing delivery, which was attached by Ayling at the near post. He arrowed his header down and goalwards, just beating Botley inside his near post. 1-0 to Sutton Common Rovers, and you couldn’t say it wasn’t coming.
For the last five minutes before half time, a little frustration started to creep into the Tonbridge ranks. Campbell hammered Twum late after the ball had gone, and it was clear that the players in blue were struggling to get a foothold. Ayling, Goode and Tutt were happy to clear long, knowing that even when Tonbridge won the first ball, Murphy-McVey, Adam Allen and Bradley Williams were always running onto the dropping ball. As the first half drew to a close, it was a comprehensive forty-five from the Combined Counties team, whilst the visitors were playing like exactly what they were – a side full of triallists a week into pre-season.
For the second half Tonbridge Angels changed both their entire line up and their kit (for COVID non-contamination reasons I’d assume), but unfortunately for Steve McKimm and his staff, they couldn’t change their performance levels. Although Khale da Costa and Christ Tiehi did manage to establish more of a foothold in the midfield, they still failed to threaten the SCR goal. That wasn’t just down to Tonbridge though – the Sutton players worked hard as a unit marshalled by their big centre backs, and closed down both players and space effectively.
On 56 minutes, I made a note about how solid Michael Eacott had looked – installed as SCR’s captain, the goalkeeper is too good for Step Five really, and had been dominant aerially, and never looked threatened. Then, clearly distracted by his burning ears, he rushed out to clear a long ball, and was caught out, with it bouncing clear of him. Jason Williams, on for Tonbridge though he was clear, but a fantastic last ditch challenge kept the scoreline at 1-0. Two minutes later, da Costa danced through three or four challenges, but when he pulled it back to his Tonbridge number 10 (another triallist), the player delayed and the opportunity was lost.
Khale da Costa probably looked like the Angels’ most effective player in the second half, and was certainly happy to put himself about, getting into tussles with Murphy-McVey and Twum. On 62 minutes, another Tonbridge triallist shoved Twum, having been tormented much like Campbell was in the first half, sending Twum flying (a touch dramatically it must be said) and both players received a dressing down from referee Billie Joe Armstrong.
As the time wound down, Tonbridge started to establish themselves in the match more, and Sutton’s players seemed to tire (unsurprising considering they were playing a completely fresh side…). On 77 minutes, a long ball towards the right channel was chased down by both Jason Williams and SCR sub McKimm, and when Williams put his hands on the back of McKimm the Sutton players stood and appealed for a free kick. Nothing was forthcoming though, and Williams happily skipped through to level the scores, beating sub keeper Theo Theobold.
From that point took on its fair share of farce. A speculative punt downfield from SCR was chased by Shawn Lyle, and when he and seventeen year old Tonbridge ‘keeper Ted McDonald went head to head in the air, there was only ever going to be one winner. The referee rightly blew up, to award a free kick to Tonbridge, except he actually awarded one to SCR, and sent off the Tonbridge goalie. Confusion reigned, McDonald starting walking towards the touchline, and then as quick as it had been given, it was overturned. Free kick to Tonbridge, and let’s say no more about it.
Five minutes later though, there was an actual red card, and this one stood. Substitute Aaron Bogle wrestled Angels’ Williams to the floor off the ball, and as the referee blew up, Williams kicked out at Bogle. Bogle reacted furiously, and I think that, coupled with the sheer stupidity of the kick, made up the referee’s mind, and Williams saw red.
That should have given SCR the impetus to kick on for the last few minutes, but it was actually Tonbridge who turned the screw. One of their triallists went through, but again took longer than he should have, and his shot was deflected wide, before another Tonbridge triallist, drew the save of the match from sub ‘keeper Theobold with a thumping header from a corner. A minute later, the same player sent a deep corner in towards the back post, where Christ Tiehi had a free header, and the perfect opportunity to win the match. He didn’t. He sent it well over, and that felt like about all we had time for.
But it wasn’t. Almost straight away, SCR went up the other end, and as the clock ticked past 89, substitute Ky Brown picked the ball up on the right wing. With nothing threatening, he drove infield, beating the first two men. An attempted tackle ricocheted luckily for the SCR man, and the ball stayed with him as he slipped inside the box. He carried on going, and as he reached the penalty spot, he shot low, beating McDonald close to his feet, to give SCR their second goal, and ultimately the win.
The Wash Up
Of course, the result is never the most important thing in a pre-season friendly, something Steve McKimm will be reminding his team of, but he was clearly unhappy with the performance. Despite a few bright moments, it was a largely forgettable performance for the National League South outfit, who grew frustrated as the game went on, resulting in an unnecessary red card and suspension to follow. This will be a teaching occasion for McKimm, and a useful insight into how he wants to build his squad.
However, for Sutton’s management team of Darren Salmon and Donny Rennalls, this was all positive. A confidence boosting win against a side three leagues higher, and good fitness work for the whole side, they’ll be most pleased by how solid their team looked at a unit. When Twum and Robinson and dovetailing like that they’re a handful for ay defence, whilst Adam Allen put in a complete midfield performance. The stars of the show though, were Nathan Ayling and Aaron Goode, who completed bossed the Tonbridge attack, and marshalled their teammates well.