Non-League Football Is Back
Report by Rupert Cane, photos by Simon Roe.
Gale-force winds, inexplicable refereeing decisions, inspired goalkeeping: non-league football is back.
K’s huffed and they puffed but they couldn’t blow the Cray Wanderers wall down in their opening game of the 2019/20 Isthmian League Premier Division. Were you a betting man, perhaps called Victor, then snaffling up any odds on a goalless draw would have seemed sensible considering not only the players’ ring-rustiness, but the conditions in which they were forced to operate.
It feels odd to be writing not about extreme heat affecting a game in mid-August, but rather a powerful wind that swept across the pitch remorselessly. The size of King George’s Field offered little protection but in the first game under new manager Hayden Bird, K’s showed impressive commitment to keeping the ball on the floor, particularly in the first half.
Bird has stated passing football is the way he wants his team to play and that was apparent from the off, with Rob Tolfrey playing goal-kicks short or lofting them wide to the full-backs. From there K’s often looked fluid moving through midfield even if the tempo of the match, well contested as it was, occasionally felt like no more than a pre-season friendly.
Louie Theophanous, back once again in the no.9 shirt, struck an early effort wide on the stretch and then thought he had won his team a penalty after cutely dribbling past a couple of Cray defenders. He fell a couple of yards inside the box, and the referee whistled up for a foul but to the surprise of players and supporters alike, gave a free-kick on the edge of the box. Dan Bennett, making his second K’s debut, curled over.
On 35 minutes, K’s created their best opening of the first half. Theophanous was picked out running into the box and his fierce drive was well kept out by Lewis Carey, Cray’s keeper. The ball was recollected by the striker and shifted into Bennett’s path. His shot was going well wide before it took a mighty deflection, looping over Carey and being cleared off the line as far as Fabio Saraiva. He acrobatically volleyed wide from five yards out.
The first half was full of purpose and promise, and Cray’s threat was limited to a couple of shots that whistled wide of Rob Tolfrey’s posts.
The second half was more of a struggle as the visitors imposed themselves on proceedings. Still, they barely created anything, and despite a more laboured performance K’s mustered two golden opportunities to finish the day with three points.
The first owed much to Theophanous’s strength and skill, as he held the ball up before shifting away from his marker and shooting goalwards. Carey stood tall, saved and gathered at the second attempt.
That was on the hour and 15 minutes later Bennett looked set to head K’s in front. The ball was moved quickly from left to right, spreading the play out to Sean Clohessy, one of three remainers from 18/19. He had an impressive afternoon and so nearly capped it with a fine assist, but he and everyone of a K’s persuasion could only watch in frustration as his clipped cross was met by Bennett’s forehead but somehow tipped over, one-handed, by Carey.
A couple of very late set-pieces came to nothing and so goalless it finished. Kingstonian’s last 0-0? 2 January. The opposition? Merstham, managed by Hayden Bird…
Cray Wanderers: Lewis Carey, Barney Williams, Tom Carlse, Mitchell Nelson, Tom Phipp, Lee Lewis, Joe Taylor, Freddie Parker, Tom Murphy, Karl Dent, Andre Coker.
Subs: Jerome Federico, Aaron Rhule (for Tom Murphy, 67m), Charles Etumnu, Joe Vines, Grant Hall.