Walton Casuals away in the last game of the season was a fixture I was dreading. Not due to any great fear of the area, but the thought of having to go there and get a result to secure survival, which seemed very likely a few weeks ago, was not a pleasant one. Memories of last day survival at Stratford in Craig Laird’s ill-fated spell in charge are still relatively fresh, as are flashbacks of the quite horrific hangover I suffered following that 1-1 draw after we’d sleepwalked into a relegation battle from a position of relative safety (sound familiar…?). And given my Portsmouth loyalty, I’ve known a few last day escapes over the years that have left nerves shredded and promises from various club talking heads of “we’ll never be in that position again” seem very hollow.
As it happened, my fears were totally misplaced as we secured survival with two games to go. We can now start thinking in earnest about next season and how we plan to avoid a repeat performance of this borderline disaster of a season, that saw us reprieved from relegation for the second time in three years by circumstances out of our control. Don’t get me wrong, it was an excellent set of results to keep us up, but the fact we were in this position once more is the real issue and concern. Given the dead rubber nature of Saturday’s game at Walton, this piece will be partly a review of that, partly an end of season review. Much like standing on the Bovril awaiting kick off on a Saturday afternoon, I’ve got no idea what to expect or how this will turn out.
Walton should have been a relatively straight forward 30-minute train journey out of Waterloo for me, but the wonders of track improvement work meant that my 30-minute trip turned into a more arduous hour and 20 minutes train and rail-replacement bus journey, so it didn’t start brilliantly. I was once more joined by The Girlfriend as she somewhat naïvely enjoyed her sole previous outing to watch us win at Kings Langley so much, she fancied another trip. I’m sure she’ll learn soon enough. The replacement buses from Wimbledon were a total fucking farce, but luckily for us, the bus pulled up and opened its doors right next to us, despite the fact we were nowhere near the front of the whacking great queue. Was it a lucky omen? Well, if that was, being stuck next to a trio of walking, talking rich university student clichés was not. Mercifully, the journey wasn’t too bad, and after a short taxi ride to the ground, we arrived to get something to drink and have a look at the teams and our surrounds.
As a ground, Walton is quite pleasant, although given it is part of a wider sports complex, it does have the feel of playing at school about it. The actual stadium part is very nice and modern, and is how Hayes and Yeading’s ground should look and feel if they ever get around to finishing it rather than putting money into the playing budget and not the physical infrastructure of the place. Unlike Hayes, the bar does not feel like it is in the boiler room, and from its elevated position you get a bloody good view of the game. Picking up a couple of drinks, lager for myself and a very fancy looking hot chocolate for The Girlfriend, I was joined in the queue by Callum Buckley and Thiago Sa. This gave me a good indication that they were unlikely to start. They were also joined by Josh Bertie (I think/was told), so it will be interesting to see if he re-appears for us next season. When we did see the starting XI, it showed four changes from the Yate defeat as Calverley, Lowes, Purrington and Koszela all returned. Yemi, Soares, Gunson and Josh Phillips all dropped to the bench.
The turnout from the Magpies fans was understandably small given the nature of the game and the travel involved, but a small band of us headed towards the goal we were attacking that was against a bloody strong wind. Just before kick-off we were joined by a late arriving and somewhat weary Eames, who had to go through the penance of shoe shopping with his children whilst suffering from a hangover in order to get the green light to attend the game. Eames had previously met The Girlfriend and I at Bekenscot Model Village last year. Eames with his wife and children on a family day out, The Girlfriend and I there as we really should grow up. The model village is in Beaconsfield, and the model village trip marks one of the few occasions I’ve enjoyed a visit to Beaconsfield as most other have seen us get soundly beaten there, including another especially unenjoyable 90 minutes there a few months back. Bekenscot Model Village was used a the setting for an episode of ‘Midsomer Murders’, so consider that your useless fact of the day.
As a game, it had the classic end of season feel to it. We started well and despite being denied a penalty from what looked like a good effort to catch a cross by a Walton defender, we took a deserved lead after 13 minutes after an excellent ball from Tom Purrington set Olaf away. Walton’s goalkeeper totally misjudged the weight and speed of the pass in the wind and ran hopelessly out of his area for a ball he was never going to reach first. Once Olaf had done the hard part and lifted the ball over him, the rest was simple as he took his time to slot the ball into the empty net. The quality of the ball from Purrington was exceptional – he is one of the players I would love to see back at the club next season. We were playing well with Olaf, Purrington and Alfie all causing problems. Alfie was twice denied chances by the lineman’s flag despite looking to time his runs well, and we probed and pushed without any real reward.
Kicking against the wind didn’t seem to cause us too many issues, Walton initially struggled with the wind in their favour as they overhit several passes and looked unsure of how to use it to their advantage. The home side picked up a bit as the half rolled on, a hanging cross causing issues as Jack Bycroft had to be alert to claw the ball away. Better was still to come from Bycroft as he made an excellent stop down low to his right to keep out a stinging shot from Walton’s Rohdell Gordon. It was a far better save than I’ve made it sound, and Jack’s performances have been key in seeing us nudge towards safety. I’d imagine it is unlikely he’ll return to the club next season as his parent club will probably seek to loan him to a club in a higher division, and we wish him all the best. We’ve not had many better keepers than him, loan or otherwise, over the past few seasons.
The second half didn’t exactly burst into life, but from a game that was played at training pace, it all of a sudden had some needle to it. Walton looked to press more and missed a couple of reasonable openings, and we struck a free-kick from a good position into the wall, before an odd flashpoint saw temperatures on the pitch raised a bit as the referee started to lose control. Walton’s number three, a limited footballer with a seemingly unlimited temper, got himself into a bizarre shoving match with Alfie, of all people, and appeared to throw the ball at him. There was a small huddle with some more argy-bargy from players of both sides, but it seemed to act as a catalyst for the game to breakdown into a more verbally spiteful, if not physical, encounter. The turning point of sorts came shortly after as our friend the limited three and another Casuals defender came together to clumsily foul Billy Lowes (I think), to give us a penalty. Harvey Bertrand clapping and laughing in three’s face would be as good as it got though as Alfie uncharacteristically screwed his effort wide of the keeper’s righthand post, the keeper himself having gone to his left. The miss seemed to deflate us, with Alfie soon after getting a booking for a rash challenge, likely one borne out of frustration, and he was soon replaced by Yemi.
Around this time there was once again an odd flaring of tempers, with assistant manager James Wood getting a yellow card and both benches clashing. I had initially thought it had been Brian Churchill who had been carded which would have capped off quite the week for him as he had already received a red card for the under 23’s this week. Special mention to Kriss Radivojsa, TSOF sponsor, and the under 23’s for getting through to a couple of finals this season. Best of luck to them for those. Also, worth acknowledging the shithousing celebration of U23’s goalkeeper, Cameron Pike, who scored the winning penalty in the shootout during the week, and gave the vocal home support some back. You’ll go far.
Back to Walton and we’d dropped a touch deeper and were coming under increased pressure as missed chances and good defending/goalkeeping kept it at 1-0, but with injury time approaching, Walton got the equaliser they merited, albeit in a fortunate manner. Jack Bycroft misjudged a looping ball, his fumble turned into the gaping net and we were level at 1-1. It was unfortunate for Bycroft, who has done as much as anyone to ensure our survival, to gift them such a goal. Thankfully, it wasn’t his last touch in a Dorchester shirt as he had one final top drawer stop in his bag, his right leg denying Walton a certain winner in injury time, and the final score of 1-1 was probably a fair reflection. The players thanked the fans for their support as we applauded them for their efforts these last few weeks, and in the end, it was job done by the barest of margins. After a few handshakes, or in the case of The Girlfriend, missed high fives, with the players and staff, we retreated to the bar for a quick natter. Luke, Lee and I chatted about what next season may bring, while Keith Kellaway was quite rightly more concerned with why I was taking so long to bring The Girlfriend’s drink back and took matters into his own hands, delivering it to her personally. Finishing those up, it was off back to London and that was the 2021/22 season done, ending as it started, with a late goal costing us points. A 1-1 draw was a neat summary of the season, good in patches, ultimately not getting the result we wanted, and being stung late with only ourselves to blame.
There will be a few players there who have played their final game for the club over the past two fixtures against Yate and Walton, and a clear-out is certainly in order. Even with our improved performances and form, we’ve still only survived due to a reprieve this season. Four sides were supposed to go down from each step three division of non-league, of which we are a member of, at the start of the season, but multiple vacancies in the non-league football pyramid saw that drop to three relegated sides from each division as the murky mathematic based Points Per Game method decided one of those spots. Thank fuck we didn’t have to get something or rely on other results going into the Walton game. El Gen would have been frantic in this scenario, calculator, walkman radio and Flashscores his companions as he tries to work out the permutations. This seasons reprieve, alongside our Covid based escape the season before last, mean we’ve stayed up due to circumstances we don’t control twice in three seasons, which is nowhere near good enough. Add that to previous lucky escapes, we’ve won the ‘AGM Cup’ at least five times, possibly more. We have a better recent record in that than the Dorset Senior Cup.
Who to keep and who to let go is a tricky question, and we’ve been caught out in seasons past by keeping on too many members of an underperforming squad. Thommo, Callum Brooks and Leigh Robinson were all guilty of keeping too many of a side that had not performed one season but hoping that would change the next. The definition of insanity etc… That’s not to say there isn’t talent in this squad, but we do need a good number of new faces if we want to avoid being in this situation again. Buckley and Stanley are contracted for next season, we believe (the latter with caveats but that is both fair and understandable), and there are others who I would happily see back involved. But this is the very clichéd Big Summer © for the club as Glenn has to really do a pretty big rebuild job. I don’t think anyone is demanding or expecting us to win the league next season, but to be closer to the playoffs and not be in the relegation mix at Christmas would be nice, and then we can have a look from there at where we are. Hopefully Glenn can bring his own people in, be it on the pitch or off it, as he wants and build a side and a squad that means we won’t find ourselves scrapping for survival again. The league table doesn’t lie, especially after 42 games. This season hasn’t been anywhere near good enough.
So, season review and some ‘awards’ into the bargain. Player of the season was a reasonably straight forward one for me, Callum Buckley getting the nod ahead of Alfie, for my money. Defensively, we’ve really not been that bad this season. 58 goals conceded over 42 games isn’t an awful return at all, especially by our standards. And although the personnel around him has changed, Callum has been almost ever present in our XI, wearing the captain’s armband and even becoming the first player we’ve paid any sort of fee for in many a year. He also changed his very outdated claret and blue based Twitter profile and cover pictures after we spotted them; that alone deserves recognition. Congratulations, Callum, you win our warmest wishes.
Signing of the season could quite conceivably have gone to Callum as well, but that doesn’t seem fair. Jack Bycroft has been almost faultless and will surely go onto better things, Harvey Bertrand has been absolutely excellent in the games I’ve seen him, and Oakley’s consistency deserves noting. But, for his vital goals and quite delightful haircut, Alfie Stanley is crowned signing of the season. Alfie’s return of 13 league goals is our highest in the league since we don’t know when. Quite possibly looking back to late spell Groover unless we missed someone more recent who just bettered Alfie’s tally. Of those 13 goals, 11 of them came in games we got points from (I think), with several vital ones in amongst them. His match winning hat-trick in our 3-2 victory against Tivvy included what is the undoubted goal of the season with his strike from the halfway line, but other goals have been equally important. His brace against Swindon broke a 10 game winless run, his equaliser at Kings Langey followed up with another brace at home to Hendon helped us secure vital points, and he finished off his scoring with the goal that kept us up as he netted the only goal of the game at Salisbury. Goal, signing and trim of the season go to Alfie, all three well deserved.
For every good signing, there is an equal and opposite flop. Poor Michael Green. A no doubt very good player, and man described by Mark Derrien as “far too good looking to play football”, may have the distinction of having one appearance in the undoubted season low point of our 3-1 home capitulation against Merthyr. Rudi Plummer looked like someone who could be really useful for us on debut at Harrow with his quite obscene pace winning a penalty before he tailed off badly and left under something of a cloud, and many others seemed to leave as quickly as they arrived over the season as a whole. I’ll let Rudi and Greener fight this one out and will instead award the season low point to the Merthyr horror show as we gifted the rock bottom Martyrs only their third win of the season. This was bad on a par with some of the Brooks/Robinson games of the ill-fated Covid season, which is an incredibly low bar to match. Survival seemed a million miles away at full-time that day, so full credit to Glenn, James Wood and the rest of the side for pulling clear.
High point is the full-time whistle at Salisbury, both securing survival and ending a truly abysmal run against that lot and their scarecrow of a manager. We hadn’t beaten them for over a decade, so winning there and under the circumstances was a great feeling. Hopefully we can win more games next season and make it more of a habit. Other moments of the season go to the improvement in the food available in the snack bar and the prices of it. The WFC snack bar was long due a transfer, this season’s version with excellent gravy to boot is an upgrade on a par with what parts of our squad require. Most improved player goes to Oakley, who has performed well and really made that right side position his own this season. Tiago Sa was in the running for this as he became a totally different player to the one who seemed to struggle under Callum Brooks and Leigh Robinson.
And the unsung hero award goes to Glenn’s three quarter length shorts. A curious fashion choice that initially appeared to be a pair of Robbie Herrera’s old trousers, they have remained in favour and a dependable sight on the touchline, even in our most dire run of form. Credit to them, they were still there at the end of the season despite not providing much protection for the ankle – it will be interesting to see if Glenn elects for actual shorts or trousers next season. It’s a big summer for the club in so many ways Glenn’s wardrobe included.
Thanks for reading our nonsense across the season, it is much appreciated. We’ll be back next season for more droll musings, and there might even be a historic lookback or two over the summer months – suggestions for DTFC topics yet to be covered always welcome. Up The Magpies, here’s looking forward to next years open top bus parade down South Street. SV