Westleigh Park, Havant
In the last week, we strolled to a scoreless point at Chelmsford, and followed that up with two further away games, a 1-0 defeat at Staines Town on Tuesday and a deflating 3-1 bump at Sutton United. We’d been waiting for this moment, for our brave boys to hit the wall and the eight games a week to finally take a big bat to their over-exerted legs.
However, just as we can think we can relax and stop getting ourselves at it about the pipedream playoffs, just as we think we can enjoy the rest of the season with a resigned yet contented shrug, they only go and ruin it all by winning again. Gits.
Earlier in the season we went to Bromley and were given an examination as thorough as any crime scene. We had no answer to it. Ruthless efficiency was their raison d'être, and they comfortably led the Conference South by ten points at Christmas, only to then sink faster than the Lusitania once the de-facto-winter-break rains had passed. However, given they’ve only been required to play two games a week to our three, one might imagine they spied this game as an opportunity to claw back some of the ground they’ve lost to new leaders Eastleigh, and indeed Sutton, in the past couple of months.
With good reason too as we spent the first half looking not only tired, but out of sorts, delivering our least cohesive performance since the debacle at Gosport back in February. Benji Büchel, “Liechtenstein’s number one”, was once again required to impress between our sticks, with the crossbar also doing some of the work, as Bromley pressed repeatedly.
However just as we believed we were doing well to be getting to half time at 0-0, we did even better. An excellent ball by Nic Ciardini reached our lively loanee Aristide Bassele, who beat two defenders with his pace and charged down upon Bromley keeper Joe Welch. A cheeky feint to the keeper’s left unsteadied the gloved goon, and with the side of the heel, Steed brushed home with all the confidence of a Hyde Park squirrel fresh off a line of cocaine.
With this keeper and this goalscorer currently on loan from ‘em, AFC Bournemouth have been really spoiling us. Although they only send us things that sound vaguely similar, in the gift hamper with Büchel and Bassele was some Bassett’s, a Boost and a Babybel. Thus we spread out our picnic blanket for our second half cheese n’ sweets party, knowing full well that a sourer taste could easily follow.
Whilst being much improved from the first half, and having a few opportunities on the break, nothing made Welch work particularly hard in the second period, although a Nic Ciardini belt skidded mightily close to the far post. Once again though we dug in, made life difficult for a Bromley side who, like a new-build railway network, have a fundamental need for points.
No let up from them and we had to hustle and continue to show the spirit that has allowed us to overcome most of our hurdles in the past month, and in doing so fortune favoured the brave. Late in the game, Louis Dennis dropped a header, unmarked and from close range, over our keeper only for the ball to hit the bar, then the post, then ricochet back into Benji’s clutches like a baby being dropped from a burning building into a relieved fireman’s arms.
So, once more, we held on when it might have been easier for our lads to drop to the floor to suck their thumbs and have a well-earned nap. We expected set-backs within this fixture congestion, and have had them, but not nearly as many as we thought. The last time we had a set of games on this scale the pattern was that after a four game winning start, low scoring draws and defeats by and large became the norm. This time round 1-0 winning grinders are very clearly dominating the median.
With this result, and Dover being pegged back to 2-2 at Bishop’s Stortford, courtesy a 90th minute penalty, we have dipped our toes into those warm play-off waters for the first time. Fifth place. Aaaaah, that feels good. Not that we can relax of course, there remains three weeks and seven fixtures still to go.
As much as the play-offs are like slipping into the hot tub, the floors around it are filled with the impatient, aggressively demanding their turn. Dover Athletic, Concord Rangers and a few others are all scrabbling around to get a bit of purchase on our swimming trunks and pull us right back out of the temperate soak. It’s going to be all kicking out, sharpened elbows, limbs akimbo, for the next twenty one days, like some hideous merging of Game of Thrones and a game of Twister.
Gird your loins people, and get ready, for we have territory to defend.