The handful of Tunbridge Wells supporters who had arrived relatively early for this FA Vase tie at The Lashmar didn’t seem to be filled with confidence. “The pitch is a bit small. We don’t like small pitches,” exclaimed a man accompanied by a black Labrador to his companions, getting his excuses in early to general agreement. Even the dog seemed to be nodding his assent, although in hindsight he may just have been nodding off. It was rather warm in the front row of the stand.
Wells perhaps had reason to be worried. Their opponents, Southern Combination Division One East Preston, seemed to have decided to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary by knocking higher ranked sides out of cup competitions. With the season not two months old they had already disposed of Tooting and Mitcham United, Horley Town and Crawley Down Gatwick, and were making similarly good progress in the league, with only one defeat so far. Wells, by contrast, were having a shocking season and were second bottom of the SCEFL Premier, although had perhaps turned a corner with two successive victories; one in the league at a newly rehomed Fisher, and another in the Vase, over East Preston’s neighbours Steyning Town. Given these were their first two victories of the season it wasn’t difficult to understand why some of their fans would be a little concerned.
East Preston supporters were feeling far more positive, and attempting to put behind them the nightmare of the previous season. Three victories and a total of twelve points had seen their side, champions only two years beforehand, unceremoniously ejected from the SCFL Premier Division. Manager Bob Paine had decided to put his faith in youth, and so far the results had been rather impressive. The Lashmar had rediscovered its bonhomie.
As kick off approached the level of optimism amongst the away fans also increased markedly, as did their numbers. Whether this was influenced by the quantity of beverages being consumed in East Preston’s fine clubhouse- or by the quality of the sausages and chips being served in little green plastic bowls- was difficult to tell; but truth be told Wells supporters tend to be an irrepressible bunch no matter what happens on the pitch. Indeed, if their team mirrored the performance of their supporters they’d be champions every year. As the teams wandered out onto the pitch just before kick off they gave out a roar of a magnitude unfamiliar to many of us who regularly watch sides from Step 5 and 6. They remained noisy for much of the next ninety minutes.
Their side seemed determined to give them a great deal to be noisy about, and it took them only six minutes to take the lead. Tom Mackelden won the ball in midfield and then drove forward, scattering defenders, before flicking a lovely pass to Josh Biddlecombe. Biddlecombe decided to move the ball to his right foot allowing the home defence time to block his eventual shot, but the ball was only deflected towards Ryan Crandley. Crandley controlled, swiveled and hooked the ball expertly across keeper Jimmy Punter into the far corner of the net. “You must be shocking, we’re winning away,” sang the travelling contingent.
Whilst that was a little unkind, the East Preston who had averaged almost three goals a game before this point were sorely absent. If they were going to add any more goals today they would need the ball, and time and again they won it in defence only to give it away almost immediately. Wells winger Ollie Bankole was often the recipient of their generosity- well it was apparently his birthday, it was nice of them to keep giving him gifts- and he managed the next shot on target in the 12th minute, before laying the ball to Mackelden to set up a shot from Biddlecombe a few minutes later. East Preston, when they got the ball, were determined to hit long diagonal passes towards their wingers, Dom Taylor and Hayden Hunter, which on almost every occasion were either easily won by Jason Barton and Perry Spackman at the heart of the Wells defence or simply ran out of play.
It was no surprise when Wells went further ahead in the 23rd minute. A sustained spell of pressure ended with a corner which was poorly cleared and eventually the ball fell to Barton on the edge of the six yard box. There wasn’t a defender near him as he poked it home, and indeed his celebration was rather muted, as if he felt he’d not had to work for his reward. Two minutes later it should have been three, as Crandley got clear of the home defence before squaring it unselfishly to Biddlecombe, but the Wells number nine took far too long to get settled and Punter was able to charge out of his goal and save with his feet.
The home side attempted to rally. They could have pulled a goal back in the thirty second minute, when a corner almost found Matt Hardman unmarked at the back post, but he just failed to connect and had to watch as the ball bounced agonizingly wide for a goal kick. That was to be their best- indeed, only- real chance of a first half during which they were entirely dominated by the visitors, although they could also bemoan two injuries, to Hunter and Tyrell Brown, which forced substitutions and altered the shape of their side. That said, Wells had already scored their two goals before these injuries occurred.
Half time arrived with the Wells fans universally content and the Labrador- Diesel, who had a red shirt with his name emblazoned on the back- even happier, as he had fortunately found himself positioned between the majority of the away supporters and the snackbar. He gave them his best forlorn puppy impression, and they supplied him with bits of hamburger and stroked his ears. Everybody seemed familiar with this arrangement.
Wells began the second half as they’d played most of the first, playing with confidence and in almost total control. Within nine minutes they were three goals up and the match seemed as good as over. Mackelden again sent a defence splitting pass through to Biddlecombe who shot well, bringing an impressive save from Punter, but sadly for the home side the ball rebounded back to Biddlecombe who kept his cool and set up Crandley for a tap in. Four minutes later and it was four-nil, as Spackman powered the ball home from twelve yards after a cross from Biddlecombe. “The Queen likes us, she doesn’t like you,” sang the royalists of Tunbridge, whilst home manager Paine perhaps contemplated sending his defence to the tower.
Wells continued to dominate without ever really threatening to add to their lead, and then, with around fifteen minutes to go, East Preston left back Jacob Parazo seemed to decide that he’d had enough of being dominated and began to do what his attackers had not yet managed, and run at the Wells defence. First he forced a foul from Bankole, who resorted rather bizarrely to wrapping a long leg around Parazo’s neck in an attempt to stop him from getting away. Then a mazy run set up substitute Dylan Barnes just inside the box, the forward setting himself up rather well before firing wastefully over the bar. The two combined again when a through ball saw Barnes chip Steve Lawrence in the away goal- and unfortunately the bar- before, two minutes from full time, Parazo again set up a chance which, on this occasion, Barnes took, reducing the arrears. “Wake up Wells,” came a shout from the sidelines. There was still time for Wells full back Kieron Tarbie to block a goalbound shot on the line with his face before the referee brought the game to a close, with the home supporters wondering why their side hadn’t shown the endeavor demonstrated during the last ten minutes during the previous eighty.
East Preston should soon get over their disappointment. This season was always about rebuilding, and the evidence so far- if not for much of this match- suggests that the foundations are coming along nicely. Wells, despite their terrible start, should have loftier ambitions, and certainly there is enough talent in their side for them to be realistically thinking about a return to Wembley, three years after their last visit.
Perhaps manager Jason Bourne’s side is finally finding its identity.
Published on in Cup.