The world of Football, it must be said, loves a good cliché and a healthy dollop of touchline philosophy. I think Eric Cantona demonstrated this best when he said the words I try to live by every day; “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea”. “Ah”, we all said at the time, nodding, “wise words from the great man” (while in Whitstable of course they were all horrified that anyone would consider throwing decent fish back into the sea, especially tinned) but the reality is that while Cantona is undoubtedly a footballing genius, he probably should’ve stuck to the more traditional philosophical nuggets of the beautiful game to get his point across. Most of them, possibly all of them (and, yes, I’m tempted to make a list) apply to this game but without a doubt one of the great classics is right there, front and centre; a week is a long time in football.
As you know, and as I’m sure I’ve done to death, there are so many variables to consider in a game of football, ranging from the players available each week, to the weather, to the pitch, the referee, luck in all its guises, ley lines, the alignment of the planets and of course, my lucky underpants, but while a lot of those are things that generally can’t be easily affected (I could change my underpants I guess…), you should then be left with the things that can be affected – things like organisation, attitude, desire. What we saw at Chatham was nothing less than a wholesale team personality change, from a group of players that were beaten lining up in the tunnel before the game at Beckenham, to a group of players that collectively decided they were all going to do their jobs, give 100% and then find 10% more. I can only imagine the dressing room conversations last week but while I may have been critical of the tactics we deployed in South London, I am in awe of the transformation that the management team has produced from predominantly the same group of players for this fixture. Jekyll and Hyde doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface and I hope that we’ve cracked the code to the winning formula because this performance was special.
It’s at this point that I need to damn Chatham Town with faint praise because they’re a very good side and from what we’ve seen so far, my original promotion prediction of Beckenham and Chatham still stands, despite this result. They passed the ball well, looked generally organised but their issue was that they had clearly underestimated their opposition and I guess you would, as we were coming off the back of a 1-7 tonking. A classic error of judgement and something I think last season’s Crows suffered from at times, but to embrace another great footballing cliché, I’m sure the Chats will have learnt a tremendous amount from this game. They looked visibly shocked at the end, but they’ll bounce back, and it will be Beckenham’s turn to be complacent and drop points very soon.
The Crows made several changes to the team that capitulated at Beckenham with a few new faces joining this season’s great adventure. Normally, this would be something that potentially unsettles a side, but we definitely needed to unsettle last week’s team, so some fresh blood was very welcome. In all, we made six changes to the side that started last week, with Dan Ellis and Luke Leppard returning from a bender and a suspension respectively, Franco Mici and Lee Jules being promoted from the bench (Lee’s first start) and two completely new faces in Callum Jones at wing back and Stefan Joseph up front, both acquitting themselves admirably on their debuts. I don’t know the background to these changes, but the team looked balanced and well drilled from the off, and even after the first five minutes of play, we could see that we were going to be a different proposition this week, closing the Chats down and competing for every ball. The heavy rain added another welcome dimension from our perspective as the ball zipped across the sodden surface, making it harder to control in theory but suiting a nippy one-touch passing Crows side rather than a more physical kick-and-chase approach. Chatham did initially look like they were going to be more direct, lacking the patient build up of Beckenham in the early stages, but Crowborough coped well and settled enough to take the lead after 15 minutes.
Some great passing and movement on the near touchline involving Mici, Jones and one or two others saw the ball eventually laid back to Tom Penfold who looked up and picked out Luke Leppard with his cross. The Chats keeper half-came to collect the ball but decided against it and Luke was able to loop a terrific header over him and just under the bar for an early lead. At this point, fearing the worst after last week, we were all very happy on the side-lines just to have scored. Anything else would be gravy. However, the Crows now had something to build on and Chatham now had a game on their hands. They certainly created chances, with Dan Ellis making a decent block after about half an hour in, but I’m hard-pressed to recall anything really clear cut. Again, we were well drilled at the back this week, catching the Chats wingers offside regularly and anything that did make its way across our box was usually dealt with by Tom Boddy who had an absolute blinder, clearing anything that looked like it might make Dan Ellis break into a sweat. Lee Jules and Tom Penfold did their jobs well, Penfold in particular looking very assured with time on the ball, and Callum Jones and Harvey Killick tucked in efficiently, creating a back five when we needed a back five but bombing forward when we were on the attack. Chatham really struggled to find a way through and we reached half time still 1-0 up through sheer effort and determination. There was no doubt that we looked more of a threat going forward this week and that gave the Chats more to think about with Leppard and Joseph prepared to run at them and chase down lost causes. Matt Coleman had tried to do the same at Becks but he was a lone figure at times, and I’m sure he would’ve relished the support of either one of the new striking partnership. Stefan Joseph was a handful and a good focal point for the attack while Luke is Luke – he must be a nightmare to play against because he just doesn’t give up, on anything, it doesn’t matter how the odds are stacked against him in any given situation. Behind the front two, Franco Mici buzzed around pretty effectively in the “hole” but the hard-grafting work was done by Dom Welsh and Connor Pring in the midfield, with Connor having his best game in a Crows shirt for me.
Half time was a bit of a blur as I caught up with some old local mates but the Crows faithful all felt a bit sheepish about being 1-0 up. Certainly, the locals were very optimistic for the second period, but we’d already seen the Crows dig in a few times this season and we knew that with the improved performance and the goal in the bag, it might not be quite the formality they were expecting. And so it proved, with Chatham committing more men forward as the clocked ticked down, and Boro happy to defend deep but counter attack when the opportunities arose. We were just settling in for a half of nail-biting heroics and heart attack inducing near misses when we scored again, following more great build-up play and an exquisite finish from Stefan, coolly scooping the ball over the Chatham keeper (again slightly caught in two minds, positioning wise) from the edge of the box.
2-0 now and the realisation spreading that we could actually get something from the game – with hindsight I think that the players and management believed this from the very start, but with half an hour to go, the Crows faithful were now fully onboard and delighted with what we were watching. Ollie Bankole came on for Franco, who’d run himself out and the Chats made subs of their own, including a very speedy winger who caused a few problems down the left-hand side and eventually provided a killer cross for Town to pull a goal back with a stooping header and around 20 minutes to go. The Chats got eggy and the ref took a couple of names, but the Crows held firm and could’ve had another goal, Leppard drawing a great save from the keeper this time, tipping a late shot over the bar. Ollie Welbourn came on for Stefan Joseph and the Chats continued to pump the ball down the wings, looking for an equaliser and deciding that the only way past Tom Boddy was to try and go around him on the flanks. We edged into time-added-on, and Dan Ellis produced a fine save at the death to turn the ball around the post for a corner, but there was no way the Boro defence was going to allow a second Chatham goal and we even saw the game out on the front foot to some degree.
The contrast in the faces of the Crowborough players leaving the pitch this week compared to last week could not have been more dramatic. The grins were wider than the Medway estuary and I thought Dan Ellis was going to rupture a blood vessel or two with his celebration. I really should’ve filmed the players exit. I’ve seen a stupid amount of games over the last few seasons but it’s hard to recall a more pleasing one, one where expectations were so low beforehand, but the team delivered so much. Given everything, we were quite simply superb. It’s not really possible to point to one thing but I hope the management team know what they did, so they can bottle it and pour it out again next week and the weeks after that. Everyone deserves great credit for what will undoubtedly be a contender for performance of the season and it’s certainly grabbed people’s attention on social media. No one quite knows what to make of it.
Suffice to say, the journey home this week was a little happier than the one last week, and the EV purred all the way back to Crowborough. I was over the moon, sick as a parrot and we’d avoided a potential banana skin, got the bragging rights and seen a dramatic U-turn, without parking the bus. Have I left any out? Oh yeah, football’s a funny old game, isn’t it?