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Walton Casuals away. Another eagerly anticipated fixture, and one that we rarely missed, back in that parallel universe when the team was known as “Ashford Town”, and playing at a level below the Isthmian League was unthinkable. Back in those days, Walton Casuals were perennial fellow strugglers, and one of the few teams that we felt we might actually beat.
Those matches, on the banks of the Thames, always seemed to be relegation six-pointers. Looking back in my archives, I discover that I filed a match report for this fixture in each of the last five seasons of Ashford Town’s existence, from 2005-6 to 2009-10, inclusive. We didn’t collect many points in the first three of those games, with the scores being 1-0, 1-1 and 2-1, but crucial points were then picked up in 2008-9, with a 0-3 victory, and then in that final year, when the lads won 1-4. I notice that two of those four goals were scored by young centre-half Laurence Harvey, who, certainly up until last season, was playing for Canterbury City.
During this period, Walton Casuals played at a crappy little ground which would not have looked out of place in the Kent League. All that has now changed, as the site has been redeveloped considerably, with the creation of Elmbridge Sports Hub. The whole facility is very impressive, with a public swimming pool, a gymnasium, one of those climbing wall things, etc. The complex also includes an athletics stadium, which is separate from the football ground – which means that Walton & Hersham FC, who also share the ground, don’t have an athletics track around their pitch, which used to be a source of irritation for many when visiting their old ground of Stompond Lane.
The pitch itself looked immaculate – like a brand new artificial pitch, which is exactly what it is. The one mystery, today, was that, in spite of the seemingly state of the art facilities, there were no PA announcements at all.
It’s probably no coincidence that Walton Casuals FC’s progress in terms of developing the venue has been mirrored by progress on the pitch. With ex-West Ham United defender Tony Gale leading the club (as Chairman) off the pitch, and his son, Anthony, as Manager, The Casuals are now one of the best teams in our division. Starting today’s game in sixth place, they are likely to be leading contenders for at least a play-off place at the end of the season.
It’s also fair to say that Ashford United, in spite of having been very near to the bottom of the table all season, can no longer be regarded as ‘relegation fodder’, given the improved form that they have been showing of late, following a number of quality signings. The lads went into today’s game having gained 11 points from their previous five games. With relegation now no longer a realistic threat – touch wood! – what we are intrigued to know is how good the current squad actually is. Today’s game against a genuine top-six team promised to shed some light on that question……
A look at the team sheet revealed that we were a little short of defenders, both on and off the pitch. The on-the-pitch issue is by choice, as Manager Jason Whitmore has consistently shown a preference for a three-at-the-back formation – and this approach has certainly been paying dividends in recent games. Today’s back three, in front of Michael McEntegart, were Cheick Toure, James Fitchett and Tom Cooney – in the absence of John Difford. But it was the absence of defensive cover on the bench that was a little worrying. Apart from forwards Matt Day, Ira Jackson and Clark Woodcock, the bench was made up of reserve goalie Aaron Lee-Wharton and coach Gareth Williams, who may or may not have had some kit on under his tracksuit.
Of the starting line-up, our five-strong midfield had Kwabena Osei starting the game just in front of the back three, with skipper Joe Bingham and Ryan Richefond in the centre, and George McLennan and Max Watters out wide. Shomari Barnwell and Andrew Dalhouse continued their partnership up front, with Shomari going into the match with a record of having scored a goal a game, and Andrew not far behind him.
And to complete the roll call, it is my duty to name and shame today’s glove wearers: they were Cooney, T., Dalhouse, A. and Toure, C.
The line on the far side was run by Paula Wyatt, a very fit-looking lady lino. Not wearing gloves. (Just saying).
Although there were some 15 places between the two teams, at the start of play, that difference was never very evident during the first half. As one might expect from two teams used to playing their home games on a plastic pitch, both sets of players set off trying to play on-the-ground, passing football. Ashford matched the home side in midfield and in defence, but achieved little in the ‘business’ third of the field. Very little seemed to ‘stick’ up front, and the lay-offs and through-balls generally failed to come off today. It’s fair to say that Walton Casuals clearly shaded a first half in which neither goalkeeper was required to make anything more than a regulation save.
Ashford ‘keeper Michael McEntegart was the first to get his gloves dirty, having to field a weak shot by Casuals’ bearded right-back, Harry Mills, in the opening minute. In the fifth minute, a break from defence resulted in the ball being worked to Youseff Bamba, who was Casuals’ spare man on the left. He carried the ball into the Ashford penalty area before unleashing a shot with his left foot, but McEntegart made a comfortable save.
The first time that the home side actually managed to get behind the visitors’ defence was in the 20th minute, when Bamba danced his way to the by-line, but his cross went harmlessly through the penalty area. A few minutes prior to this, James Fitchett received a stern lecture from Referee Adrian Harris, for a tackle from behind – which had implications for what was to happen later in the half.
Ashford’s first real chance came in the 21st minute, and came as a result of Max Watters running with the ball on the right flank – which looked to be the visitors’ best means of creating something, all afternoon. Max cut inside, and squared the ball to Andrew Dalhouse, who flicked the ball into the path of Joe Bingham, inside the penalty area. Joe’s shot was on target, but comfortably saved by Walton Casuals goalie Denzel Gerrar. A minute later, Watters again fed the ball inside to Dalhouse; this time, the Walton Casuals defence failed to close him down, and so he chanced a shot from about 25 yards out, which flew just wide of the angle of post and bar.
In the 25th minute, James Fitchett committed a foul which appeared to be fairly innocuous, but, having had a ‘friendly’ warning from the ref, it was no surprise to see him receive a yellow card this time.
It appeared that worse was to follow in the 34th minute, when young James brought down Youseff Bamba just outside the Ashford penalty area, with what looked a far more obvious foul. What didn’t help the Ashford centre-half’s cause was that Bamba was pointing at him, reminding the referee that he was already on a yellow card, almost before he had hit the ground – but Mr Harris erred on the side of leniency, and gave him a lecture that would undoubtedly have been about ‘Last Chance Saloons’.
Ashford Manager Jason Whitmore took the sensible option, and substituted Fitchett at half-time, replacing him with Ira Jackson, with Kwabena Osei dropping back and looking distinctly vertically challenged in the middle of the back three.
Max Watters also found himself booked, in the 37th minute, but this was for a fairly trivial ‘offence’. After the referee had blown for a free-kick, Max just dinked the ball over the low, green perimeter fence, to give himself time to get back into position, rather than to waste time or to show dissent. However, Mr Harris took great exception to this, and angrily produced a yellow card. Both sides had opportunities to score during the closing minutes of the first half.
In the 38th minute, Youseff Bamba did well on the right-hand side of the pitch, turning and getting the ball onto his left foot, but blazed his shot well over the bar. Four minutes later, a long ball from the Ashford defence found Andrew Dalhouse, who showed great physical strength to get the better of Dominic Ogun, before shooting straight at the Casuals ‘keeper, from close range. With a minute to go to half-time, Michael McEntegart found Max Watters with a good throw, and Max carried the ball as far as the edge of the home side’s penalty area, before hitting a shot that was saved, but not gathered, by Denzel Gerrar. However, the goalie recovered in time to prevent Shomari Barnwell from turning in the rebound. But the best chance of the half to either side came well into the 45th minute. The Stags put together a well-constructed move, with Ashford seemingly short-handed at the back. It was either Josh Kelly or Sean McCormack who finished the move with a shot from an acute angle, which rebounded off the foot of the far post.
So the half ended goalless, and, with both defences and both goalkeepers seeming to be fairly comfortable, this was not a huge surprise, nor was it a false reflection of the first 45 minutes.
It was during the second half that the gap between the two sides really showed. In fact, it reminded me of watching a cup tie between two sides several levels apart in the football pyramid, in which the under-dogs (that’s us) do well to achieve parity at half time, only for the better side (that’s them) to change up a gear and blow them away in the second period. Generally, Walton Casuals appeared to be a division or two superior to Ashford. I have seen us lose 3-0 to Corinthian-Casuals, 5-0 to Greenwich Borough and 4-2 to Carshalton Athletic, this season, (and they are all title / play-off contenders), but this is a considerably better Ashford side than played in any of those games, so I’d have to say that Walton Casuals are the best side I’ve seen this season.
The turnaround happened fairly quickly, with the home side almost scoring in the first minute of the half. A long kick-out from the Casuals ‘keeper bounced beyond the Ashford back-line, and Josh Kelly, an 18 year-old striker on loan from Maidenhead United, got to the ball ahead of the retreating defenders. He hit a low shot, first time, but missed the target.
Casuals continued to knock the ball around at a higher tempo than they had in the first half, and took the lead as early as the 49th minute. Slick interplay resulted in Sean McCormack, also on loan from Maidenhead, chasing a through-ball into the Ashford area. Rather than being up-ended, he was sort of eased off the ball by the chasing George McLennan, and the referee, who had a good view, had no hesitation in awarding the penalty. For the offence, George became the third Ashford player to receive a yellow card this afternoon. Youseff Bamba waited patiently to take the kick, and then hit a powerful shot, which was brilliantly saved by Michael McEntegart – but Josh Kelly reacted quickest, and turned in the rebound. McEntegart furiously berated his team-mates, presumably for being slow to follow up on his excellent save.
Walton Casuals soon went 2-0 up, in the 54th minute. Quick passing on the left flank resulted in Josh Kelly finding his way inside the Ashford penalty area. He beat Kwabena Osei (I think it was), to get to the by-line, before forcing the ball under the body of the advancing McEntegart, and into the far corner of the net. Kelly very nearly completed a hat-trick, in the 60th minute, after Harry Mills and Sean McCormack had combined well down the right. The latter crossed the ball, from inside the Ashford area, to Kelly, in the centre, but the No.9 smashed his shot against the crossbar. But it was McCormack who put the game to bed with Casuals’ third goal, just two minutes later.
As Ashford pressed forward, a swift break put the visitors’ defence in a 2v2 situation, with McCormack attacking down the right. Plenty of green shirts managed to get back, but Kwabena Osei fluffed a chance to head the ball clear. Eventually, a cross found McCormack on the right side of the penalty area, and he did well to turn the ball in.
With the confidence that a three-goal cushion always gives, Walton Casuals then controlled the remainder of the game, playing some nice football. Ashford were not without chances, with Ira Jackson dragging a shot wide, after a particularly good move, in the 67th minute, and then Shomari Barnwell being gifted the ball on the edge of the Casuals’ area, after a complete aberration from a defender, in the 70th minute, before pulling his shot across the face of goal.
The visitors cannot be faulted for their effort, this afternoon, with Joe Bingham driving the team forward from the deep midfield position he adopted during the second half, and Andrew Dalhouse manfully leading the line, but it looked far more likely that the home side was going to score more goals. As steady pressure was applied to the Ashford defence, Michael McEntegart had to be alert in coming off his line to thwart some slick passing movements.
Casuals Manager Anthony Gale made a double substitution in the 78th minute – which allowed Jason Whitmore to replace Shomari Barnwell with Matt Day, at the same time – but the biggest impact was made when one Tyrell Richardson-Brown replaced Sean McCormack, in the 82nd minute. Against a tiring Ashford defence, Tyrell did a very passable impersonation of Marcus Rashford, with his pace down the right flank. (So it’s interesting to recall that Tyrell scored only three goals for Ashford United, earlier this season, at a rate of 501 minutes per goal – which is a worse strike-rate than that achieved by the oft-maligned Sean Bradshaw!).
Tyrell first out-stripped the Ashford defence in the 84th minute, when a swift break from the back sent him on his way with a 2 v 1 situation. He squared the ball to Youseff Bamba, who shot wide. Two minutes later, Tyrell had a similar opportunity, again showing great pace, but this time his cross failed to locate a teammate. In the 88th minute, Jason Whitmore made his third and final substitution, replacing George McLennan, who had had a quiet game, with Clark Woodcock.
It’s always good to see Clark getting a run-out with the first team, but it seemed that insufficient time remained for him to make an impact – but this was actually not the case. Within seconds of coming on, Clark was found by Max Watters, wide on the right. His first attempt at a cross was blocked, and it appeared that the ball was going to bounce out for a throw-in, but it instead spun back to Clark’s feet. This time, he delivered an excellent cross into the Casuals’ goalmouth, where Matt Day did very little wrong with a header from close range – except that it went straight at the goalkeeper. As consolation goals go, that would have been a gem – it would have been good to see the two Ashford youngsters combine for a goal. So there was to be no consolation for the visitors.
In fact, Ashford went 4-0 down with what was, quite literally, the final kick of the game. And it was no surprise to see Tyrell Richardson-Brown getting onto the scoresheet, doing what he had threatened to do since he had been introduced, by Anthony Gale, for his impressive cameo. Running onto a sharply delivered through-ball, he lifted the ball over the advancing Michael McEntegart, and was no doubt delighted to see it bounce into the net, off the far post.
My view is that the final score of 4-0 did not flatter the home side – but it was no disgrace for the Ashford boys to be beaten by a better team, this afternoon. The lads’ next game will be away to second-placed Cray Wanderers, on Wednesday night. That will undoubtedly be another stiff test for Jason Whitmore’s much-improved side.
1. Michael McEntegart 2. Cheick Toure 3. Tommy Cooney 4. Kwabena Osei 5. James Fitchett (⬅ 45) 6. Ryan Richefond 7. Max Watters 8. George McLennan (⬅ 88) 9. Andrew Dalhouse 10. Joe Bingham (C) 11. Shomari Barnwell (⬅ 78)
12. Gareth Williams 14. Matt Day (➡ 78) 15. Ira Jackson (➡ 45) 16. Clark Woodcock (➡ 88) 17. Aaron Lee-Wharton
1. Denzel Gerrar 2. Harry Mills 3. Dominic Ogun (⬅ 76) 4. Alex Kelly 5. Joe Hicks 6. Max Hustwick 7. Sean McCormack ⚽(63) (⬅ 82) 8. Sonny Black 9. Josh Kelly ⚽(51) ⚽(55) 10. Lartey Sarpong (⬅ 79) 11. Youseff Bamba
12. Tyrell Richardson-Brown (➡ 82) ⚽(90) 14. Stuart Baldwin (➡ 76) 15. Alfie Taylor 16. Calogero Scandella 17. Jack Battie (➡ 79)
Nuts & Bolts beaten by The Beavers.
Well done to our Kent Youth League side!
The young Nuts & Bolts fight back twice from behind to win the match versus Raynes Park Vale Under 18s.
3rds win again with 3-1 victory over Singleton Barn.
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