Saturday 6th February 2021, 1500 Kick Off
Tonbridge Angels FC vs Hampton & Richmond Borough FC
The Build Up
It’s that time of year again. You know what I mean, the time where matches are being called off for snow and rain on a weekly basis, and it’s impossible to make weekend plans with any certainty. Every year, we football fans go through the routine of checking twitter in the morning before setting off, looking for updates on pitch inspections, and developing a knowledge of the weather that would put Michael Fish to shame.
And then there’s this year. 2021. After 2020 this was a new start, we had been told repeatedly that by the spring we’d be approaching normality, able to plan as usual again. Fat chance. As sure as shit’s shit, the promises from various bodies and public speakers have proved to be false, and so on the 6th of February Tonbridge Angels hosted Hampton & Richmond Borough on a weekend where across the country numerous clubs were unable/unwilling to fulfil fixtures. In fact, all present at Longmead on this cold, drizzly afternoon knew that this could very well be the end of the line for the 2020/21 season.
If indeed that is to be the case, then a post-mortem will need to be held, and I don’t think many parties across the government, the league board and others in positions of authority will escape justified criticism. But for now, we must take what we can get, and so it was with that mentality that I travelled around the M25 for a first time visit to Tonbridge. Steve McKimm’s Angels have adapted well to Step Two, since winning promotion via a Super Play Off win over the Met Police in 2019. Despite being many pundits’ tip for the drop in their maiden season, the Kent side were sitting comfortably in 15th when the season was halted. Formed in 1947, and renamed Tonbridge Angels in 1994, the club have spent their entire history at Step Three or below, aside from four seasons in the Conference/National League South. 2020/21 is their fifth attempt at this level, and having retained top scorer Joe Turner, they started the season well, coming into this fixture in 13th place, despite a recent run of four defeats in six.
That difficult spell included two home losses, so the visit of the country’s form travellers Hampton, with more consecutive away victories than any club in England, was exactly what they wouldn’t have wanted. In sixth place, but looking upwards, Gary McCann’s side had both Hungerford Town and Oxford City above them in their sights.
Tonbridge Angels have had problems with their pitch over the last few seasons, and have invested in a pitch cover to great effect. Despite the recent deluge, and freezing temperatures, the Angels’ pitch was in better condition than most would see in autumn. However, as has been the case all season, those present to enjoy the match were once again limited to players, coaches, club officials and staff – it really is football without the soul.
The club moved to the Longmead Stadium in 1980, after a protracted legal battle with the local council over tenancy of their previous home. A 3,000 capacity venue, the ground has a variety of standalone stands, and a quite unique wooden building which houses the scoreboards and (I assume) a media room of some description. In 2008, the North Stand was renamed the Jack Maddams Stand, in honour of the club’s U18 player who died of an undetected heart condition.
The visitors made their intentions clear early on, when Niko Muir flashed a dangerous cross along the six yard line on four minutes, but neither Ruaridh Donaldson, nor Mauro Vilhete could make up the ground to reach the ball. If that was a warning for Tonbridge, it was one they didn’t heed, as just one minute later, Aylesbury’s finest Jake Gray had the first shot on target, which was easily held by Jonathan Henly. Hampton were on top, and growing in confidence, and when David Fisher fired over from the edge of the area eleven minutes in, it felt like the opener was only a matter of time.
The attacking quartet of Muir, Fisher, Donaldson and Vilhete had sparkled and linked up well in open play for the first quarter of an hour, so naturally, when the deadlock was broken on fifteen minutes, it came from a dead ball. After a season blighted by injury, Charlie Wassmer opened the scoring in only his third league match of the campaign. As the ball was lofted in to the back post by Deadfield, the former England C international got up above Rian Bray to loop a beautiful header over Henly, who could only tip it into the roof of the net.
There was no let up from the Beavers, as Gray drew another save from Henly, before a short corner between Deadfield and Kyron Farrell forced Bray into a good clearance. On twenty minutes the Angels got out of their half for what felt like the first time, as Khale Da Costa whipped a dangerous cross just out of reach of Tommy Wood. The former Fulham and Luton Town prospect, Da Costa, then drilled a free kick into the wall five minutes later.
Back in the Tonbridge half, and some of Hampton’s football was sensational, with first time passing and one-twos making a mockery of the idea of nonleague football in February. David Fisher again brought the best out of Henly on half an hour, as the former Scotland U21 international got down well to block his shot from the edge of the area. Fellow Jock Ru Donaldson was closing in, and when his challenge broke to Jake Gray, he steered it home from a tight angle before the flag went up correctly.
Not to worry for Gray, as he would assist the second just a minute later, with a pinpoint through ball for Fisher. After brushing off a challenge in midfield, the summer signing from Woking spotted Fisher’s run, and as 19 year old Fisher raced onto the ball, he outmuscled Tom Hanfrey, rounded Henly, and then clipped his finish in off the post. It was a second league goal of the campaign for the signing from AFC Wimbledon, after his last minute winner against Ebbsfleet in the previous match.
On 35 minutes Tonbridge had a good chance to get in behind, when a long ball exposed the Hampton defence. As Tommy Wood bore down towards goal, Dean Inman got back to make a fine sliding challenge. A few minutes later Tom Hanfrey picked up a yellow card for what seemed an accidental mid air collision with Sam Cox.
With five minutes left of the half, Sam Deadfield shot over following another short corner routine, before Joe Turner fired narrowly over the bar for Tonbridge. At the whistle, Hampton had a well deserved lead, but Turner’s latest chance had shown that the game was far from over, and that the next goal would probably be crucial. And so it was.
Almost immediately, Hampton got their third goal, to kill off any hopes of a comeback. When Sam Cox found David Fisher down the right, he looked to have few options, but a delightful first time cross was met at the back post by Donaldson, who headed back across Henly for his third league goal of the season. Donaldson has a real knack for arriving at the back post, having scored against Corinthian, and had a goal wrongly disallowed against Chelmsford, in a similar manner.
Steve McKimm made a double substitution to freshen things up, bringing on former Derby County striker Javaun Splatt and D’Sean Theobolds, recently returned from a spell in Poland with Korona Kielce. The changes made little difference though, with Deadfield having a shot saved, and Niko Muir flicking a header wide. Da Costa, however, remained a bright spot for Tonbridge, and he had a shot which drifted wide around the hour mark.
On 65 minutes the Angels had probably their best chance of the match when Jack Parter crossed towards the back post, but Sam Cox was in the right place to head off his own line under pressure from Alex Akrofi. Then, back at the other end, Mauro Vilhete went close twice in quick succession, after some wonderful football involving him, Niko Muir, Ru Donaldson and Sam Cox.
As the game wound to a conclusion both sides made their final changes, the hosts bringing on Zak Guerfi, whilst the Beavers introduced Wilson Carvalho, Tyrell Miller-Rodney and Nathan Minhas. There were a few half chances left, as Farrell hit the side netting from a driven shot, before D’Sean Theobalds hit a rasping effort over the bar. Finally, Wilson Carvalho got high to meet a Farrell cross, but was unable to get his head over the ball. Final score, 3-0 to the Beavers.
The Wash Up
A big win for the Beavers, which sees them leapfrog both Hungerford Town (lost 3-2 to Eastbourne Borough) and Oxford City (busily progressing in the FA Trophy) into fourth place. McCann’s side came out pumped up, and stayed that way for pretty much the entire game – indeed, as Tonbridge striker Alex Akrofi admitted after the match, the hosts “never laid a hand” on Hampton.
For Tonbridge, Khale da Costa showed some glimpses of his undoubted ability, and Jonathan Henly made some good saves, but beyond that it is difficult for McKimm to draw individual positives. It was an off day for the Angels, but it was one that Hampton forced, and they will have much better games. Still in 14th place, they can at least draw solace from the knowledge they never let their heads drop, and their best spell came about after 80 minutes – a sign of the fighting spirit McKimm fosters.
It was a different story for the visitors, who produced a completely dominant performance, built upon a central midfield partnership which was on top of their game from start to finish. Jake Gray and Sam Deadfield were in sparkling form, both showing off the full range of their ability, and Tonbridge simply couldn’t cope. David Fisher was an aggressive, pressing threat throughout, and his work rate was matched on the opposite flank by Ruaridh Donaldson. As for Mauro Vilhete – he may never actually have been tackled in his life. At the back, the Beavers defence held firm, and Dean Inman was nigh on flawless.
Man of the match, though, was Sam Cox, the flying right back. Absolutely tireless, he was an overlapping danger from the first to the last minute, and was imperious defensively. Some of his link up play with Fisher on the right was first class, and his on field leadership is clearly much valued by the Beavers staff.
Up next for the Beavers is another visit to Kent on Tuesday, to play a rearranged fixture at Ebbsfleet, following Chippenham’s decision to withdraw from league fixtures at this time. Tonbridge will have have the week off after another deluge of snow rendered the pitch unplayable. Hopefully, this won’t have been their last match of the season…