Barbecues and fireworks, flares and pitch invasions, tears and tantrums. Football, particularly on the last Saturday of a league season, has a habit of putting supporters through the wringer; but Saturday at Kingsmeadow took this to new heights. A home side playing their last ever match in a stadium which they built and which will soon be home solely to sides from outside the borough, an away side needing a victory to be sure of clinching promotion, a mix of resignation, bitterness and a pig-headed determination to have a good time no matter the circumstances meant that this occasion managed to be unique on every possible level.
Tantrums? That was a small child when his father gave up his twenty minute wait for a burger so that he wouldn’t miss the second half, there only being one refreshment kiosk with a single member of staff available for a crowd of twelve hundred. And those who failed to get a programme as they had all sold out a full seventy five minutes prior to kick off.
Kingstonian have crammed some history into their time in this stadium. Promotions, relegations, two FA Trophy wins; if walls had musical ability they’d be singing songs of Geoff Chapple, Tarkan Mustapha, Geoff Pitcher and Eddie Akuamoah. They’d also be singing laments about Rajesh Khosla, who sold the K’s ground to AFC Wimbledon from under them, and, if some fans present had their way, about AFC Wimbledon themselves. The Dons certainly didn’t have universal popularity amongst the Kingstonian faithful on Saturday; whilst there were some who were philosophical and felt that Wimbledon had treated them well, there were others who had quite the opposite view, including a group distributing stickers suggesting that AFC Wimbledon were no different from MK Dons. Added to that, songs about clapping your hands if you hated the Wombles and suggestions that supporters shouldn’t use the bar and “line the Wombles pockets” would suggest that the usual AFC love-in wouldn’t find favour amongst many in red and white.
Havant (or Havent, as the fixture board outside the ground described them) and Waterlooville, their opponents, had an entirely different outlook. Win, and they’d be promoted. Equal the result of second place Bognor Regis and they’d also be promoted. A large number of happy Hawks turned up to witness the proceedings, although there were moments when they weren’t quite so happy- particularly for fifteen minutes midway through the second half when their team was being held 0-0 and Bognor were winning. And for a moment during the first half when the K’s supporters teasingly sang, “1-0 to the Bognor boys” even though the match at Nyewood Lane was still goalless, the scamps.
Kingstonian have been transformed under new manager Craig Edwards. Firmly ensconced in the relegation places, three wins and a draw from the last four matches had taken them to safety, and watching the team now you had to wonder how they’d got into such a mess in the first place. They began by taking the game to their more successful opponents, with Aaron Lamont and Ryan Moss particularly impressive. Indeed the league leaders were lucky not to fall behind after seventeen minutes, when keeper Ryan Young drove a clearance against K’s winger Joe Turner and could have been made to pay had the ricochet not favoured the away side. “No teams in Kingston, there’s only no teams in Kingston,” sang the home supporters. Which is a little unfair on Corinthian Casuals, but you could understand what they meant. Casuals have been wandering nomads for most of their existence, but now it’s K’s who have to do the wandering- off to Leatherhead, for next season at least. “Stand up if you hate Bognor,” they sang next, perhaps out of solidarity with their visitors, or perhaps remembering an incident when keeper Rob Tolfrey jumped into the stands to have a row with some Rocks fans back in February 2015. You can be sure that Tolfrey, in goal today and wearing a kit that suggested someone had badly mixed the colours in his washing machine, would rather forget Bognor altogether.
And, in any case, they were already standing up.
Half time arrived without a goal, and with the expectation that The Hawks would have to step up a gear after the restart. The team attempted to comply. Within three minutes Rory Williams had a shot blocked at the back post after great work from Theo Lewis, and shortly afterwards a cross to Jason Prior left those present waiting for the net to bulge, but somehow Prior’s header went wide, much to his disgust. News of Jimmy Muitt’s goal for Bognor saw the Hawks redouble their efforts although without reward, and there was an element of panic about them for thirteen minutes until news filtered through that Metropolitan Police had equalised at Nyewood Lane.
“Play up ‘looville, ‘looville play up,” went the Havant chimes, perhaps pandering to the large number of their supporters dressed in Portsmouth FC leisurewear. They certainly tried to play up. Lewis, particularly, was involved in everything; first a clash with K’s skipper Lee O’Leary which left the midfielder bleeding from a head wound, before a bicycle kick that hit the bar, a scuffed shot that ended up in the arms of relieved Tolfrey, and a shot that skewed wide. A selection of fireworks burst skyward just behind the stand; they’d have been rather impressive had it been dark, but instead were just rather noisy. And then the result from Bognor became known and the Hawks faithful began to celebrate, knowing that they only had to hold out through added time to be champions. The pitch invasion on the final whistle was both predictable and joyous.
It was almost a shame that the match had to have this level of importance for the away team. The K’s faithful certainly didn’t begrudge them their celebrations, and indeed the home supporters and their team wholeheartedly applauded the champions, but this was a day filled with emotion for both sides and the Kingstonian agony was somewhat overshadowed.
There is some reason for Kingstonian optimism. Manager Craig Edwards has apparently announced his decision to stay with the side despite their enforced move to Fetcham Grove and his need to share an office with Jimmy Bullard. The K’s owners, led by co-chairman Mark Anderson, seem an honourable bunch and do have some money to spend on purchasing their team a new home; although it must be said that the amount apparently available is more likely to purchase a detatched five bedroom house than a football ground.
The Hawks have had a mixed few years, experiencing the play-offs, the pain of relegation, and now the elation of being crowned champions. Manager Lee Bradbury seemed rather emotional at full time, but he must be confident that his side is well placed to push on from this success.
Our final thoughts, however, should be with the K’s. Twice FA Trophy winners to financial meltdown, owner occupiers to tenants, and now being evicted from their own ground and their own Borough, all within less than two decades.
That’s an awful lot to say goodbye to.
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