“It’s like a jungle sometimes. It makes you wonder how you keep from going under.”
I wasn’t at the Hertford away fixture last year, and I’m not one to use hyperbole, but I’m pretty sure they haven’t cut the grass since that game. This feels like a tactic a few sides will use when The Stripes are coming to town. Leave the grass long, make it difficult for a good team to play good football. And, I suppose, if it’s a good enough strategy for Premier League teams to employ against the likes of Man City and Liverpool, it’s a good enough tactic for a team predicted to be languishing in the lower reaches of the South Central to employ against a side similar sources have claimed will at least be in and around the playoffs. Pre-season friendlies are meaningless, we’re told, and are about fitness and gelling sides together. But if you were to ask me if I thought the management team at Hertford had looked at the results of Tooting and Mitcham’s pre-season programme and ascertained that we have a thoroughly decent side, capable of doing some damage to good teams- I’d be bound to say that the Hertford management *had* done that, and made plans to mitigate against our boys doing what they do. So the groundsman gets the week off, but not before he’s been given a bottle of Blue Nun as he’s marking the pitch out.
“It’s like it’s been laid on corrugated facking iron”, mused one of our as-ever eloquent travelling party.
Yeah, the pitch was shit, the grass was too long, and I bet this happens a fair bit on our travels. The travels will often be the pain in the arse journey made yesterday. The line from Tottenham Hale to Hertford went through Cheshunt, Ware and Waltham, so another three of those journeys this season, bearing in mind where F.C. Romania play their home fixtures. Hertford’s a nice town, no doubt, and I’m pretty sure a lot of folk there are totally brilliant at the Mail on Sunday crossword, so it wasn’t too much of a chore being there. The travelling committee enjoyed the local hostelries, too, and I know that one of our party in particular enjoyed the fashion retailers in the town. Details of that on request.
Much of the fan discussion in the run-up to this fixture was who would play. What 11 names would make up the first team on the first day. The pre-season had seen a fair amount of turnover in the squad, coming and going (and coming again, in one famous case) and the fixtures played had reflected a management team trying to get to grips with what they had- who were the options, the combinations, who was nailed-on, who was in contention… Of course, certain names were nailed-on for the support. No combination of the 11 men in stripes didn’t feature the names of Shaw, Sol, DMG and Daryl. Other positions seemed far less obvious.
Having seen a lot of the friendlies, a number of folk had impressed. Kyrique Garvey-Williams took to the club quickly, and his desire and ability stood out instantly. Hady had played brilliantly in the pre-season, and the arrival of Nebay Haile mitigated for the departure of Danny Bassett. But then Danny came back. And Didi Castanho arrived. And Shamal and Omari and Razzaq demanded to be in contention for the first team in their performances. But 7 or 8 options into 2 or 3 positions won’t go, right?
Wrong, actually. As demonstrated in Hertford.
Tooting were frustrated. We’d made some chances and looked assured at the back, but their ‘keeper (on loan, apparently, from a club in the professional leagues) had made a number of decent saves and a goal was looking less and less likely. We had started in our normal 3-4-1-2 formation, with Alex and George as wing-backs and Didi playing off the front two of Danny and Hady. The bench didn’t necessarily reflect sticking with this formation with different personnel, as aside from Aukeem Belford, it strained under the weight of 4 of the ladswe thought would be competing for the two positions up front. Well, fuck that, and fuck expectations.
Didi subbed at HT for Razzaq. A midfielder for a nominal forward. Nothing unusual in that. Next sub, George, right wing back, off for Omari Hibbert. A forward. Ok. Next sub, Alex, left wing back, off for Sham Edwards. A forward. In the closing phases of the game, a game which was threatening to fade into a scoreless draw, Tooting and Mitcham United had 5 forwards on the pitch, 2 midfielders, 3 defenders and a goalie.
Now, I don’t know anything about tactics or shape, but I *think* that if your team has 5 forwards on the pitch, regardless of where they’re nominally positioned, your team wants to win the football match. And your team’s managers want to win the football match. And are possibly willing to risk the defensive balance of the team- and risk the point that the other team were happy to take- in pursuit of three points. That’s our team, they’re our managers. They throw forwards on at wing back, because they’re not happy with coming to Hertford and having the home team’s shocking pitch shithousetheir fans out of the win that is owed to them by virtue of being better at football. And so we get to the last 10 minutes and the lads in the stripes do-not-stop-playing-football. And they get their reward. A strong centre forward, who came on for a wing back, scores by blamming in the loose ball from a corner. A corner probably won by some sort of combination of a forward playing at wing back aggravating the fuck out of their lads. How the corner was won is gone from my memory in favour of how the game was won.
Game one. Expectations being set- shit away pitch, shit wait at Tottenham Hale, shit train into Hertfordshire. Expectations being chucked out the window- another frustrating draw, a team with the requisite number of players for each position.
I hope, in some ways, this match sets our stall out for the season- Tooting and Mitcham United will throw it all at you to get the win. Hopefully, of course, it mostly won’t be necessary to do that, and the Plan A football we play is able to put teams away earlier than minute 83. But how fortunate arewe to have a team of young men, led by two other young men, who are not willing to settle, not willing to play it safe? To have 4 forwards on the bench, each of whom is ready, willing and able to play wing back to bring the points home?
Come on, the season. We’re ready.