The children’s play area in Mile Oak Recreation Ground was rather unique. Not for the collection of swings and slides it contained, they were rather as expected, but for the animal left forlornly tied up outside.
It was a rocking horse.
Just beyond this imitation equine lay the entrance to ‘The Rec,’ the home of Mile Oak FC, where the home side, fourth in Southern Combination Division One, were warming up before taking on promotion rivals Little Common. A chap with an overweight beagle was just wandering through the gate, past the large sign proclaiming ‘No Dogs’- although, on closer inspection, someone had painted out the red circle containing dire warnings for canine interlopers and written, in felt tip, ‘All dogs Allowed.’ So that was ok, then. The turnstile was unstaffed and shuttered, and the gate at the other end of the ground was also open. It seemed that the locals were using the terrace as a mud-free cut though.
Mile Oak is an almost entirely residential area sandwiched between Portslade and the A27 on the northern edge of the City of Brighton and Hove. It has a fabulous view of the South Downs, and is perhaps best known in the city for being the destination listed on the front of the number one bus as it wends its way from Whitehawk via Churchill Square Shopping Centre and Hove Town Hall. It is the type of place you’d be unlikely to visit unless you lived there or were a bus spotter with limited ambition, perfectly pleasant whilst not particularly remarkable; a label that could undoubtedly also be laid at the door of its football team.
Consistently finishing within touching distance of the promotion places over the past few years without ever managing to quite get amongst them, that pattern looked likely to be repeated this season, with The Oak two places behind third place Common, having played two games more. Were they to crash the party then victory today was essential, a point made by Director of Football Anthony Whittington in his programme notes. Whittington had also taken the opportunity to be complimentary towards today’s opposition and their manager, and you were left in do doubt that he meant every word. Mile Oak FC may not be cash rich but they are very generous in spirit; this was a place full of warm and friendly folk and an afternoon in their company was never going to be anything other than enjoyable.
As kick off approached the Little Common keeper, Matt Crutwell, was attempting to boost the home side’s confidence by repeatedly booting his practice goal kicks out of play. The first couple of times it could be put down to coincidence, but when the fifth almost decapitated a boy with a bicycle standing by the covered terrace we all began to wonder whether he had some grudge against the home supporters. Full back Don Bristow, supposedly the intended target of these missiles, wandered over repeatedly to retrieve the ball and apologise. “Sorry,” he said, looking embarrassed. “It isn’t me kicking it at you.” He gestured at his keeper, attempting to ensure that anyone who hadn’t been watching knew exactly who was to blame. “I hope he’s better when the game starts,” came a voice from the crowd. At this, Bristow looked worried. “So do I,” he exclaimed, booting the latest misdirected ball back to his keeper. He then moved infield, perhaps in the hope that if even if the next kick was off target it wouldn’t decapitate a spectator. Crutwell, if asked, may well have blamed the wind; and indeed there was a crosswind forcing the spectators to fasten their coats in the early spring sunshine, lifting the advertising banners and rustling the corner flags. One of these banners was quite unusual, in that it displayed four half naked men and advertised the delights of ‘Butlers with Bums.’ Apparently, according to the match programme, these gentleman provide a ‘professional, conscientious and high quality service whilst wearing not much more than a smile.’ They certainly had very small dickies.
This was a match with much riding on it, and perhaps that knowledge impacted on the players as they kept giving the ball away. Mile Oak’s passing game wasn’t helped by the extremely bumpy pitch, and Little Common didn’t really get going either, as play was continually broken up by wayward distribution or niggly fouls. The referee was rather busy, yet this wasn’t a dirty game and it was played in the right spirit if, initially anyway, without a great deal of quality. The best chance came right before the break. A nervy back pass was played towards Crutwell and the ball seemed to bobble at just the wrong moment, forcing the keeper to miskick. Oak forward Michael Gould was on it in a flash, but he couldn’t quite control it either, allowing defender Dan Cruikshank- not to be mistaken for the archeologist in the long overcoat often found on BBC4- to nip in and make a smart tackle. The whistle blew for half time, and the entire crowd shuffled through the gate towards the nursery school which also serves as a clubhouse.
The second half surely had to be better than the first, but it began with a comic moment as the otherwise impressive home midfielder Enzo Benn fired a shot which went out for a throw in before bouncing off a floodlight. The spectators laughed, the players laughed, and Benn grinned, embarrassed. The match then stepped up a gear. A period of Mile Oak pressure ended with a long punt out of defence, and home keeper Aaron Stenning needed to clear, but the ball bounced wickedly and he was only able to nudge it to Common striker Lewis Hole. Before Hole could capitalise on his good fortune, however, Stenning recovered to dive on the ball.
Chances came and went at either end. Jamie McKenzie fired a volley just wide for Oak, before team mate Liam Austin-Slade got between two defenders and managed to chip both the keeper and the bar. Common responded by fashioning two chances for Wes Tate, both of which brought saves from Stenning. The away side then saw Rosh Wells fire wide of the left hand post before Tate brought an excellent point blank save from the home keeper. And then came the breakthrough.
Mile Oak fullback Craig Stevens went on a mazy run through the Little Common defence, which was ended by a foul on the edge of the box. Joe Benn, scorer of eighteen goals so far and Oak’s most potent attacking threat up to this point, stood over the ball before whipping it over the wall. Keeper Crutwell was beaten, but the shot bounced back off the post and everybody stood and watched; everybody except Gould, who was entirely unchallenged as he hammered the ball home.
Both sides made changes and two of the substitutes, James Seltzer for the home side and Dan Tewksbury for the visitors, came close to making immediate impacts. Seltzer even tried the acrobatic, with a bicycle kick which was on target but blocked before team mate Damon Pollard’s shot was deflected over. As keeper Stenning watched this action from the edge of his box, the beagle from earlier meandered slowly across the pitch behind him, before wandering behind the covered terrace and stealing chips from the boy with the bicycle who Crutwell almost poleaxed prior to kick off.
Little Common piled on the pressure, and Stenning had to make another excellent stop from Russell Eldridge before once more thwarting Tate. Then, with four minutes to go and just as it looked as if Mile Oak would hold out, referee Dave Smith, who had been almost flawless beforehand, decided that a challenge on away midfielder Brad Pritchard was illegal. He pointed to the spot, to the disgust of the Mile Oak players and supporters. Even the away fans seemed surprised, one of them commenting “that makes up for the one we didn’t get earlier.” The decision did seem difficult to understand, but that didn’t matter as Tate stepped up with a great chance to level the match. Stenning, however, guessed correctly, and pulled off another excellent save in what was undoubtedly a man of the match performance. Tate looked crushed, and Common saw their chance slip away.
The result saw Mile Oak leapfrog Little Common into the third promotion spot, one point ahead having played two games more. The Commoners must still remain favourites to reclaim that place, but look to have a far tougher run in with visits to Langney Wanderers and Saltdean to come, as well as a home derby with Bexhill. Whatever happens, on Saturday night it was the Mile Oak changing room that was rocking; and they go into their final three matches with confidence. They may need nine points from those matches to have any chance of going up, but if Benn, Benn and Stenning can repeat the form they showed in this match, they must have a chance.
And if either team need any domestic help for their promotion party, well, they know exactly who to call.
Published on in Steps 3-6.