Sunday, 7 September 2008

Game 1: Oakwood 3, Chertsey Town 3

First Round Qualifying ~ Saturday 6th September 2008
Venue: Tinsley Lane, Oakwood, Sussex
Attendance: 65

Distance travelled: 70 miles

If the rest of the FA Vase has as much incident as this game, then I'm already totally convinced that I made the right decision in opting to follow this season's competition. I've been watching the beautiful game far longer than I care to remember and, up until today, I thought I had seen it all. My football viewing over the years has been littered with classic never-to-be-forgotten games and mind-numbingly awful ones. I've seen breathtaking goals and comical own-goals; appalling refereeing decisions; shocking tackles; slapstick comedy and acts of great sportsmanship; and much, much more. But yesterday's game, on a patch of green hidden away round the back of Crawley, was something else and it ended in a manner that I am still struggling to fathom.

The game finished 3-3, after the visitors had led 3-0 with only 5 minutes on the clock; certainly plenty to write about there. But the major talking point - one of many - arrived at the conclusion of proceedings. Played out in torrential rain (interspersed with a few dry spells) the game ended in something close to farce. The referee abandoned the game, but did so after he had blown the full-time whistle on 90 minutes.

But I need to explain more than merely that. Please bear with me.

Yesterday morning, as I was preparing to set off to Tinsley Lane, home of Oakwood, I had doubts that the game would go ahead. Most of the country was being lashed with heavy rain and equally heavy winds, and I could see that many FA Vase games were falling victim to our British summer climate. I had been told that the Oakwood pitch wasn't the best and was prone to a touch of waterlogging. Keen not to make a wasted journey, I checked a few times before I left. In the course of doing so, I noticed that on the FA website a number of the FA Vase ties were annotated with a brief description of how they would be completed, should they be level at 90 minutes. Some simply said "extra-time if level at 90 minutes" whilst others had "extra-time and kicks from the penalty spot if level after 90 minutes". The majority of ties had no additional notes whatsoever, including the Oakwood v Chertsey Town encounter.

This confused me somewhat (I know, I know - not difficult, before you say anything). My understanding was that all games, if level at 90 minutes, would go straight to a replay. And that if the replayed game was level at 90 minutes, extra-time and possibly penalties would follow. Well, I was wrong (again). Upon arrival at Oakwood, I met Chris Gay, the Chertsey Town club secretary. I mentioned this in passing, and he said that the majority of the games would go to a replay if the match is drawn at full-time. However, clubs have the option to make other arrangements, as long as both clubs agree before kick-off and the FA are informed. I had never heard of this before, but it certainly explained what I had read on the FA website. Naturally, I asked Chris what the arrangements were for this, the Oakwood v Chertsey Town tie. The agreement was that extra-time would be played, but no penalties. You learn something new everyday.

5 minutes into the game, the idea of extra-time could not have been further from my mind as Chertsey bolted into a 3-0 lead. Playing down the slope and with the wind and rain behind them, I envisaged a rout. But to Oakwood's immense credit, they fought back to 3-3 in the second period. At the final whistle, both teams gathered on the (by now) very heavy, rain-sodden pitch, huddled around their respective coaching staff, preparing for an additional 30 minutes of FA Vase action. As I took the opportunity to answer the call of nature and head for the clubhouse, one could sense amongst the small crowd a little uncertainty as to whether the game had actually finished or not; some perhaps didn't realise that extra-time had been agreed between the two clubs; the matchday programme carried no clues. But as I reached for the loo door, I heard someone exclaim that the referee had called the game off.

Eh?? Surely not?

With a quick about-turn and back out onto the touchline, both sets of players were indeed trooping off the pitch, in various states of bemusement/bewilderment/emotion* (*delete as appropriate). Some Oakwood players had surrounded the ref and were pretty animated (the home team by the latter stages of the game were in the ascendancy) but there was generally a degree of confusion amongst players, club officials and fans from both sides; what was going on?

The beauty of watching football at this level is the sense that you are 'right in there', amongst all the action. Not quite on the pitch, but the next best thing. And in the immediate aftermath that followed, I certainly felt this. Players and club officials, and even some fans, continued to question the referee. Was it really abandoned or had the game simply ended at 90 minutes? Thoughts amongst all concerned quickly turned to the 'replay'. If the game had been abandoned, would the second game take place at Oakwood? Would it be a trip back to Sussex again for me? If the ref had simply halted proceedings at 90 minutes (was he unaware of the agreement to play extra-time?), then should the replay be at Chertsey? Too many questions for me; I was starting to feel faint.

Both club secretaries, with utmost professionalism, were on the case immediately. Chris produced a well-thumbed copy of the FA's rules whilst the Oakwood secretary was on the phone to speak to the FA.

After about ten minutes, in which time I managed to have a brief chat with the Chertsey Town manager Spencer Day (who was still unhappy about some of the referee's decisions during the game itself, let alone the ultimate decision to call the game off), news filtered through from the FA that the second game would be played on Tuesday (9th September) at Chertsey. Oakwood were understandably not happy with that. It didn't really make much sense to me either, particularly as the referee was saying he had indeed "abandoned the game due to a waterlogged pitch". But by this stage, I was losing my sanity and would barely have blinked if Fabio Capello had wandered down Tinsley Lane to ask me if I fancied a game Saturday evening. Well, maybe I would have, but you get my drift.

Roll the clock forward twenty four hours, as I write this on Sunday afternoon, I am still no nearer understanding where I will be off to on Tuesday evening. The official websites of both Oakwood and Chertsey Town are describing the next match as a 'replay' to be played at Chertsey Town. The non League press have also called the next encounter a 'replay' and have the venue for the tie listed as Oakwood. The FA website (normally the last to respond) hasn't even got the game listed in their fixtures.

Amazing scenes at the end of the game, something I've never seen before, let alone felt part of. In all honesty, the events on the pitch during the game were quickly pushed to the back of my mind. With some reflection, the footballing action was just as enthralling and it was a real surprise that the game ended level.

I arrived at the ground down a single-track lane. A most hospitable youth wearing a red Oakwood tracksuit (who, it later transpired, was the son of the Oakwood manager) greeted me at the gates and explained that it was £5 to get in. I assumed that this was the Car Park fee, but it turned out this was the cost for entry to the game, including the programme. I parked behind the goal and could have comfortably watched the game from inside the car.

What of the match? I can tell you now that the first Chertsey goal was scored within a minute of the kick-off, by Leon Johnson. I can also tell you that two more were scored for the visitors by the prolific John Pomroy before barely 5 minutes had elapsed. What I cannot tell you, with any degree of accuracy, is what these goals were like. For the first goal I only saw the net ripple; I was in the middle of taking a photo. And the next two goals were scored as I was getting some details from Chris about the first goal. By all accounts, the first was a gift courtesy of a misplaced back-header from an Oakwood defender, whereas the other two were the result of some neat approach play which resulted in decent crosses (one from the left, one from the right) which were both well converted. I won't give up my day job.

The rain, which had started at the kick-off, increased in intensity throughout the first 45 minutes. Chertsey Town players were marginally quicker to every ball, particularly in midfield. This, combined with the awful conditions, provided a recipe for mistimed tackles. Tempers frayed on more than one occasion and a little before the half-hour mark, the experienced Chertsey midfielder Paul Brooker was sent off following two quick-fire yellows; one for a push, the other for a trip. This proved to be the turning point of the game. The expected rout of the Sussex side did not materialise, and Oakwood hung on to half-time.

The Chertsey keeper Jimmy was the centre of attention in the second half, but for all the wrong reasons. Oakwood scored quickly after the restart; with 46 minutes on the clock, Jack McNab sent in a looping shot, possibly deflected, which left Jimmy rooted to the spot and he could only watch as the ball floated high over his right shoulder into the net. The goal seemed to galvanise Oakwood and from this point they began to make the extra man count. 'The Oaks' piled on the pressure down the slope and on 58 minutes reduced the arrears yet again. Jimmy made a hash of trying to punch a ball clear and managed only to squirt the ball forward a few yards. The ball was returned towards goal and after a number of deflections and wild attempts to clear a Chertsey defender on the line made a solid connection only to watch in dismay as his clearance rebounded into the net off the back of Scot Bidwell's head. The Oakwood number 5 didn't know much about the goal, but he claimed it.

From thereon in, it was nearly all Oakwood. Chertsey resorted to hitting their hosts on the break, but as the pitch got heavier and the rain continued, running with the ball proved more and more difficult. Chertsey were visibly tiring. With a sense of inevitability, Oakwood equalised with five minutes remaining. Oakwood got beyond the Chertsey defence, and with the ball holding up on the pitch, Jimmy rushed from his goal and upended an Oakwood striker as he advanced into the penalty area. Pat Massaro stepped up to convert the spot-kick and against all my earlier expectations the game was level at 3-3. By now the conditions really had the upper hand and players from both sides were struggling to play any decent football; the game drew to its conclusion amidst a flurry of water splashes and spectacularly long sliding tackles.

So to that final whistle and those bizarre scenes. Good grief, what a game. What a conclusion. What an afternoon. I think I need a lie down. To think we will have to do it all again on Tuesday night. I'm just not sure where.


Dave Cooper said...

You found it then!

chopper said...

What a brilliant start. Might have to talk to Mrs H and see if I'm free on Tuesday evening!

Anonymous said...

good spot on report, is there any more pictures that can be viewed?

Ollers said...

Coops - yes, found it OK, but only with some expert advice beforehand!
Chop - see you there then!
Anon - I have alot more photos, and it took me some time to decide which ones to publish. Will try and get them loaded onto Flickr in slower time...