Greenwich Borough lifted the Southern Counties East Football League trophy with two fixtures remaining, after a 2-0 victory over Croydon Athletic at Dartford FC’s Princes Park. This was their twenty-first consecutive league match without defeat, and a club record eighth consecutive clean sheet, and an undeniably deserved title.
On a day of triumph, the only sour note was that just seventy-five people turned up to see them win it.
Dartford is patently not Greenwich. Step Five of the Non League Pyramid isn’t generally known for its enormous crowds, unless it’s hosting a former Football League team on the way back after experiencing hard times. Yet despite all of that, it is only fourteen miles from the Royal Observatory to Princes Road. Fourteen miles, a title victory, a squad led by former Millwall, Brentford and Crawley Town striker Gary Alexander (and containing three further ex-professionals) which is undoubtedly deserving of acclaim, and yet the Borough drummer stood on his own for the entire match, accompanying himself forlornly to little effect. It must be hoped that the return of the club to the Royal Borough which bears their name, when they take up residence- and ownership- at Cray Valley PM FC, spurs the locals into supporting their side and gives the Greenwich Cozy Powell a little company.
The home side started brightly. In the third minute a long ball out of defence saw Mohamed Eisa outpace the Athletic back four only to be upended on the edge of the box. Whilst the free kick was fired wide, the approach which earned it was repeated regularly and was obviously the Borough tactic of choice. Eisa and his strike partner Yacine Gnahore- recently seen at East Grinstead Town in the Ryman League South- played on the shoulder of the Croydon defenders and caused havoc, the former with his electric pace, the latter his physical presence and impressive hold up play. The only surprise was that it took Greenwich seventeen minutes to profit from this approach.
For much of the first half Eisa was virtually unplayable. He jinked his way into the box after winning the ball by the corner flag, leaving defenders chasing shadows, before setting up Peter Sweeney to fire into a defenders legs; he shot against a defender after a run which should have earned his side a corner but was inexplicably given as a goal kick, and then, finally, he cut inside from the left, evaded two challenges and fired the ball into the net. It was no less than he- or Borough- deserved.
Despite this, Alexander wasn’t entirely happy. Naming himself as a substitute gave him the opportunity to use the entire touchline as a technical area, and he jogged up and down whilst delivering advice, instruction and occasionally reproach whilst supposedly warming up. Perhaps this might catch on; it would certainly have saved Neil Lennon a few bookings in his time- although in retrospect it would probably have killed one of Alexander’s former managers, Steve Evans.
With half an hour gone Borough went further ahead. Once more Eisa outpaced the defence, this time down the right hand side, but was surely at too tight at angle to get in a shot when Fred Fleming inexplicably tackled him from behind and sent him sprawling. There were no complaints from the Croydon defence and Eisa picked himself up and put the ball firmly past Dan Burnett from the spot.
The second half was rather an anti-climax. A number of Croydon substitutions gave their team more fluidity and a made them far more difficult to break down, whilst Borough prodded and probed but without anything like the purpose of the first period. It seemed that Athletic were happy enough just to prevent a repeat of the six-nil hiding they received from Greenwich a month ago, and that Borough were content to allow this. The crowd seemed to lose their focus a little too. “Penalty,” shouted a home supporter level with the eighteen yard box after Tom Youngs went sprawling, before his friend pointed out that, firstly, the defender won the ball, and secondly that the challenge was a clear ten yards outside the box. “Go on Borough,” bang bang, bang bang, bang bang, went the drummer. There may actually have been an additional bang. Certainly there was little rhyme and no apparent reason.
Eisa should have secured his hat trick in the seventy fifth minute, inexplicably shooting wide from around ten yards and proving that he was fallible after all. Substitute Ryan Dolby was then set up by Youngs but managed only to fire directly at the keeper from twelve yards. At the other end a header from Callum Maclean- Athletic’s stand out performer- looped over the bar, before a free kick from substitute Fergus Ward, taken from around twenty five yards, cleared the bar by around the same distance. By this point Alexander had brought himself on in place of Gnahore, and he jogged around giving instruction and advice, but it was obvious that his main purpose was simply to be on the pitch at the final whistle.
Full time brought the expected celebrations, the presentation of what seemed to be a contender for the World’s Smallest Trophy award, and a rather half-hearted spraying of champagne. There appeared to be more people on the pitch at this point than in the stands, and that delivered a jarring note to proceedings.
Greenwich Borough absolutely deserve to be champions. They have been, without doubt and despite the slightly unexpected challenge of Hollands & Blair, by far the best side in the SCEFL this season; and having spent much of their free time over the last week or so wielding paintbrushes- to ensure that their new home passed its grading for the Ryman League North- there was reason to admire the squad not just for their ability but for their commitment to the club. You just have to hope that, now they’ve built it, they will come. For Ryman League stability- and, indeed, long-term sustainability- won’t happen without the people of Greenwich finally getting behind their team.
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Published on in Steps 3-6.