New Year’s Eve is, for me, the shittest night out of the year. On the face of it, it should be brilliant. Loads of people about, all the pubs open, Bank Holiday the next day and it is pretty much a free pass as everyone is expected to be hungover the next day. Yet it is nearly always a big fucking let down. Someone peaks too early and needs to go home by ten o’clock, the group gets spilt up as some want to visit a different pub to others, there’s an argument about who has the most convincing Mexican costume, and before you know it, it’s gone midnight, no one noticed and you’ve then got the prospect of a extortionate taxi for one home as everyone else has disappeared. It is a night that can never live up to the hype and expectation and is invariably a big disappointment that promises much and delivers little.
This brings me neatly on to the first game of the season, very much the New Years Eve of sporting events. After a very fortuitous coronavirus based escape when the likes of Melksham and Bristol Manor farm beckoned, we were given a reprieve and have another shot at having a respectable season in the Southern Premier League. I say respectable, the oracle that is Berry informs us we are yet to finish in the top half of this league since our relegation from the Conference South, so anything that doesn’t see us looking over our shoulder with six games to play would be an improvement. So with the new season starting on Saturday following a close season period of squad overhaul and off as well as on field changes, we got back into old habits as the new season dawned. Would the first game back up the most cautious sense of optimism we had beforehand? Would it fuck. That said, it wasn’t all bad and even we’re not naïve enough to judge the season based on one game.
After months of lockdown and the writing of several blogs looking back on more successful times in the clubs past, it was nice to be able to fall back into the old habits of meeting before the game, talking nonsense, having a few beers and being fully prepared for the game to kick us in the balls by ten past three. There was a unique twist to this occasion though as we were the match sponsors. Any dress code, I asked. No, was the answer from Cam. So as I made my way back home from London on the Friday, Cam would the tell us that actually it was smart casual. Having come home with nothing but shorts, t-shirt and a jumper, the half smart trousers I had as a teenager were inexplicably still at Mum’s home in Dorch, so they were utilised as I attempted to polish the turd that is my outward appearance. In truth, they were totally unnecessary as we all looked as smart as you’d expect a bunch of non-league football fans to appear.
But as we met as Spoons and Cam, El Generale and the lesser spotted Phil met up, the conversations went as if there had been no enforced break from football at all. Over beers and my lattes, the usual topics of VAR, Steve’s undying love for Eddie Howe and Phil’s flip flops dominated the discussion, but it was the state of the club that unites/divides us all, DTFC, that was the obvious underlying topic. In truth, we have no real idea of what to expect from this season. From the recruitment and limited friendlies that have been seen, we can draw some conclusions about our side, but the rest of a league remains somewhat of a mystery. Our knowledge of other clubs is limited mainly to players who we’ve heard of signing for clubs around us, regional knowledge, and we can guess some clubs have more money than others. But with the pandemic altering pre-season, finances, recruitment and almost every facet of the game at all levels, it’s a guessing game as to how the league will go. With Blackfield and Langley withdrawing from the league and rumours about another potential drop out, nothing is certain in terms of relegation places, all we can comment on with any authority is our own side and club. And even then, we’re hardly the best judges of these things…
Here, I’ll praise the club for some of the work done during the pandemic and in the sawn off pre-season we’ve had. With long term figures and hand shaking tag team champions, Matt Lucas and Dave Ring stepping down from their roles after years of service for the club, there has been movement of personnel on and off the field, but we seem to have got a lot done despite the upheaval. ‘The Magpies Fund’ raised good money when the club was unable to use its chief revenue stream of the 3G pitch, the snack bar is now ran ‘in house’ so no more fucking WFC polo shirts there, efforts have been made to ensure the stadium is kept in better shape as it was starting to show its age to say the least, although the drainage in the gents could do with being looked at, the youth set up and team behind it has been improved (it will take a brave player to mouth off to either Dan Claxton or Brian Churchill…) and the manager has been able to go about his recruitment for the first team early and in his own manner. The club does genuinely seem to be moving in the right direction and appears to be making efforts to ensure the foundations are sound as well. Saturday was always going to be a tough game as Weston-super-Mare are one of the few clubs who we see to know anything about.
In the bar at table reserved in our name as we’re basically corporate sell-outs, we mused as to what we expected. The consensus was that we’d be good at the back but potentially not offer as much as we maybe should going forward. A draw was largely accepted as being a reasonable expectation given the WSM would likely be one of the better sides in the division and we were still finding out feet. As we got the team sheets, it looked like we’d be playing wingbacks with Plymouth loanee Rubin Wilson being the main attacking outlet. As we trudged out onto the terrace with our beers (Dabbs, the two other freebies from the match sponsorship shall be claimed at a later date!), it was just nice to be back watching live football. It was also a competitive game which took on a double meaning for me as not only was it a league fixture, we’d also been humped 5-0 and 3-0 in the two previous ‘competitive’ league games I’d seen. The game would soon settle into what would be its familiar pattern of Weston having more of the ball, but not doing much with it as we sat and defended well, sometimes dropping back to our won 18 yard line but rarely further back. 10 minutes in though and we’d take the lead with what was actually a good goal.
Winning the ball on the right hand side just inside our own half, Tom Blair would run at and beat two defenders and his ball across goal was turned in by the sliding Wilson for a debut goal and we’d find ourselves 1-0 up. This was a rare position to find ourselves in given our last seasons form, so the novelty for us fans was quite welcome. The game would then go back into the holding pattern of a lot of Weston possession but no real threat. A shot from 20 or so yards hit the post with our debutant keeper Will Buse scrambling, but shots from distance was all Weston really mustered deepest having the bulk of possession. We offered very little going forward, save for one curling Blair effort that went just over, but with Weston limited to pot shots and a few corners, that although causing Buse an co a few problems as they quickly realised he wasn’t looking overly comfortable with dead balls put into the six yard box, never caused any real danger, we looked like we might make it to halftime with a lead. This was not to be the case.
A lengthy stoppage after an injury to Weston’s Nick McCootie would see several added minutes of stoppage time and as that was approaching, Sam Poole would knock a back pass to Buse. Buse had time to take and despite setting himself, scuffed his clearance straight to the impressive James Waite, who was able to control and curl the ball into the unguarded net. 1-1 and it was probably a fair reflection on how the game had gone, but we couldn’t take that score into halftime as after causing problems with corners into the box, Chris Knowles headed Weston in front six minutes into injury time and it was all too easy. Charlie Madden (we think) was quick to hold his hand up an apologise, but in truth, we’d looked shaky from set pieces all game.
The halftime chat mainly centred on how we needed to offer more going forward as we’d been dominated in terms of possession and although we looked more than competent defending in open play, set pieces had been a concern. Sure enough we’d concede another header from a corner 8 minutes into the second half, and as the inquest went on at the back as to who should have claimed the ball, who missed a header or lost a man, the game was effectively over. Weston could afford to sit a bit deeper and we lacked a creative spark to get us going. The introduction of Tom Bath, Harry Hodges and Ashley Wells didn’t really make a huge difference, and although we had some better possession and got a few crosses in, we never looked like scoring. In truth we could have conceded more had it not been for alert defending and good goalkeeping, but a 3-1 defeat was probably a fair reflection of what was a disappointing opening day.
So where did it go wrong, what was promising, what needs improvement. Well despite the score line, I actually thought we looked okay defensively in open play. Set pieces were a worry and Will Buse will not want to see the goals back, but as a unit, I though that Oakley, Dunston, Poole, Madden and Sa looked tidy and never unduly worried when defending from open play. We look a far more imposing side physically, something we’ve not looked in years, and there is definitely more of an edge to the squad. It may sound daft, but having at least one or two adult males over the height of six foot has been a rarity in previous seasons. If we’re lucky enough to avoid another lockdown and suspension of the season, I can see this side not folding against teams in midweek fixtures on cold shitty night in suburban London as in previous years. WSM will probably be one of the better sides (their numbers 6 and 9 were excellent, I thought) and playing on a surface like our 3G suited them better than us it seemed. But after one game, it can’t be all doom and gloom. We’ve no doubt the manger has targets in mind as to who he thinks can improve us and one game won’t define the season.
With that said, we offered very little going forward and were disjointed throughout. Rubin Wilson got his goal but was starved of service, we were unable to get Tom Blair in possession as often as we’d have liked as he was our most dangerous outlet by far, Bayston, Clarke and Lowes all struggled to get a foothold in the game, and our subs weren’t able to influence it too much. We are a new side, we have had some positive results in pre-season and there are some encouraging enough signs on and off the field that we are moving in the right direction. This season is going to be a strange affair with all that is going on in the world and there is a genuine chance we may end up pausing the season again as restrictions change. But I don’t think a season of consolidation is a bad thing. After five to ten games, the league will start to take a bit more shape, the odds and the results at the weekend not really giving any real indication of what to expect. But I think the upper reaches of midtable would be a solid foundation for us to push on from as we try and turn the club around from being hindered by an overly generous mind-set and ethic into being a bit more of a bunch of win at all costs shithouses who aren’t really that keen on the opposition having a nice day out.
Bar conversation was a predictable debrief of what we’d seen, a few pearls of wisdom from the chairman that aren’t suitable for broadcast, and Cam nearly falling asleep as the night went on. We were joined by Spud who not only had not been seen at the avenue for a while, now looks suspiciously like a more rounded version of the ex-Spurs midfielder, Stuart Nethercott, from the 90’s with his blonde brows and complexion. Spud and Cam ended up assisting Shanks with some parenting by democracy as Otis and Inzi asked questions that evidently only those tow could answer, and our musing went on until about ten when we all decided we’d had enough. For what its worth, Oakley got our vote for man of the match, and as we all filed out, us in the direction of the Chinese, Shanks and his two rascals in tow off home, we all said how we had enjoyed being back for a proper game, but would love to see something more to be enthused about. At least the kit looked nice.
We have a chance to get the season going properly tonight as we head to away to Christchurch (managed by former DTFC player and league winner, Ollie Cherrett) in the FA Cup, before two winnable games away at Yate and home to Wimborne this Saturdayand next Tuesday respectively. Hopefully we’ll have something positive to report back on from those, in the meantime I’ll be off to look at possible historic blog topics for any second lockdown and hope that Steve gets over the double blow of Eddie Howe leaving Bournemouth and Brian Stock joining W*****th. SV