Pitching Above our Weight
At various stages of the preseason, the list of Tooting personnel leaving the club left us all a little concerned. As I pointed out in my bit called “Wobble”, I suffered especially from anxiety caused by the departures of some senior figures at the club. With the benefit of hindsight, however, we’ve worn it all quite well. It’s hard to imagine Wedgie deftly lobbing the ball over a ‘keeper’s head after a blistering run from wing-back as Razzaq has done. I can’t see that Eddie Dines would have kept DMG or Daryl on the bench, or even that he might have been selected over young Kyrique Garvey-Williams. Danny Bassett’s goals seemed hard to replace until he came back and just scored different ones. Players come and go, that’s football. How our lads have responded to first team responsibilities in order to mitigate for those losses have been to the huge credit of both the players themselves and the coaching and management team.
However, one announced departure over the summer months filled us all with dread. Rich the Pitch decided to step down from his position as groundsman effective September, and we all breathed a heavy, heavy sigh of dejection.
During the summer, the Isthmian League’s social media presence ran a project to get fans of the clubs in our league to give their predictions of how the season ahead would pan out (we’re comfortably tipped for a playoff place at least), speak about their club’s strengths, weaknesses etc and also asked which away ground they liked to visit. Tooting and Mitcham featured high in those lists too.
My experiences of away grounds at this level are minimal, but I know this- we are spoilt. Three well-covered stands, a well stocked bar, the best jerk chicken in football at any level, the best looking men in blue hi-vis at the entrance, great merch, printed programmes, well served by public transport with tram and bus options, a reasonable walk to a tube station and, crucially, plenty of parking for those who choose not to avail themselves of the aforementioned bar selection. The facilities we have, as we all know, are befitting of the club being at least a division or two above where we currently lie.
Of course, I’ve not mentioned the pitch yet. The pitch. The gorgeous green baize of Imperial Fields, lovingly tended by Rich the Pitch- until he announced his departure. The pitch, let’s have it right, is absolutely gorgeous. Not to say it hasn’t had its issues, with some kind of horticultural disease infecting certain patches of it, and the linesmen‘s tracks a bit worn sometimes- but bloody hell. Some of the photos posted of the pitch could fool you into thinking we were a league club.
First game of the season, we went to Hertford. Most of those travelling were shocked by the state of their pitch, to the point where many (myself included) concluded that the coaches there had done their homework and decided that if they were going to have a chance against us, it wouldn’t be on a football pitch. So they left it. An arid, bumpy mess it was. We were subsequently told by a fan that, in fact it wasn’t a game plan, just that they had a) no mower and b) no-one to use one anyway. Think of the number of times Molesey postponed matches at the slightest hint of precipitation. I remember also being shocked by the states of the pitches at Banstead and Colliers Wood Utd. Although, admittedly, these teams play a division below us- it still underlines a point. Banstead was like a football pitch on the moon, and Colliers Wood’s pitch looked like it doubled as a pit for the triple jump. Lunar landscapes and a bunker. This is what else is out there.
Even sides with greater resources have succumbed to pitch concerns. Dorking Wanderers, for example, play their matches on an artificial pitch these days, as do many professional clubs, particularly in continental Europe. Judging by the consternation with which the fans met the majority of the pre-season being played on our back pitch, I imagine that Tooting and Mitcham making a similar decision would go down very poorly.
Perhaps it’s the case that for other sides at our level, the state of the pitch is not so important. As demonstrated frequently in the early part of the season, Tooting and Mitcham want to play football. “Lumping it”, to the chagrin of some sections of the support, is not an option unless it’s the only option. Of course, Daryl Coleman is able to spray diagonal balls around the park, but these are not hit and hope efforts. They are balls looking for runners, often the dynamic young attackers who have somehow ended up fitting into a system where they not only play as nominal wing backs, but also as practical inside forwards. How the ball bounces, runs, holds up on the pitch is part of the game plan. A fast pitch enables flowing football. This is important. Also, somewhat more crudely perhaps, the idea of watching players charge around at pace on our pitch is far less of a worry than on some of the other pitches I’ve mentioned. I remember Danny Bassett at full tilt in the Surrey Himalayas being utterly taken out by some kind of undulation on the pitch. One of our fine young athletes turning an ankle on a poor pitch doesn’t bear thinking about. Neither does the side having to change their game plan to accommodate a poor surface. Other sides, of course, are entitled to play long, to seek to hit a big man up front, to look to slow down an opposition’s attack by keeping a poor pitch. Let them do that. But we don’t turn up to watch a side like that.
With the arrival of Tooting Bec’s two teams to Imperial Fields, the pitch looks like it’s going to have some heavy use this coming season, with our own three sides using it as well. For this reason, and for many, many others, it was a huge relief to learn that Rich the Pitch reversed his decision to leave and has stayed with the club. I believe credit goes to our Chairperson for that change of heart. With Rich the Pitch looking after the ground, one feels hopeful that even in the face of five teams playing their home fixtures on it, and indeed in the face of the type of torrential outbursts that postponed the Velocity Trophy fixture vs Whyteleafe (even with the great drainage we have, I don’t think even many professional pitches could have coped with that deluge), we will have a playing surface befitting the side playing the best football in the division. And that it will, in turn, help us to get out of the division and back up towards the levels our set-up deserves.
COME ON THE STRIPES