Let’s not beat around the bush, our recent form has been dreadful and as a fan, I’m very worried right now that we are teetering on the brink of being well and truly dragged into the relegation mire.
In truth, victory over Merthyr appears to have papered over the cracks of problems that have beset us since the start of the season and bar a few decent, workmanlike victories, these are issues that have made it a pretty miserable campaign to date, which reached a nadir on Boxing Day at home to Chesham. If we’re honest with each other, we could see this coming and maybe were a bit in denial that the corner had been turned. I’m as guilty as anyone. Defeat in Banstead and only just shading it against the other lot in Walton, were the biggest warning signs.
Obviously, the early goal conceded against Chesham set the tone, but the visitors were so much better than us – it was arguably the most one-sided of football matches. From start to finish, they were fitter, had more purpose, identity, shape and verve – just like Hayes & Yeading and Blackfield & Langley who had preceded them as our vanquishers in the triumvirate of successive hellish encounters down here by the River in the 9 days of Christmas between 17th and 26th December.
There were differences, though, against Chesham to the two previous matches. The first was a positive in that rather than berate each other as they had done before, the players actually appeared to not let their heads totally drop and there were hints of encouragement towards their fellow team-mates, even if I suspect the air was rightly blue within the sanctity of the dressing room. The second, disappointingly, was the whole sombre mood around the ground, hardly any of the young faces from behind the goal last season and murmurs of discontent in the seats with a group around me not unreasonably questioning the lack of purpose and attention to basics, such as closing down the opposition and passing to their man and fans being confused as to how our 4G pitch appears to be an impediment to us and an advantage to our opponents. Elsewhere, there was a bit of gallows humour – Charlie Fox’s own goal, for instance, was truly stunning and perversely brought the only hint of mirth, rather than annoyance. Fox has played well for us since joining the Stags, so there was no way we’d get on his case.
At Harrow Borough, the performance was slightly better, though, with confidence at a low-ebb, we didn’t really perform until we had gone a goal behind, as has been the norm quite often this season. Our failure to take clear-cut chances, also, once more, cost us dear. So too, we appear to have suffered with not being able to field the same team more than one week on the trot and the departure of the chirpy and astute Assistant Manager Chris Winton hasn’t helped and so too, I’m sure, Michael Atkinson’s exit will prove a setback. However, we had bad luck last season and just have to get on with it – how can we forget the horrific injuries to our talisman Joe Hicks and ever-dependable Jack Battie or the most incompetent refereeing display in the history of Association Football in our home defeat to Poole or the loss of a key and highly respected member of our coaching staff with our two final crucial games to play? These things happen. It’s football.
So, where do we go from here? As downbeat as this article may seem, one of the pleasures of non-league football is that there’s less self-entitled, micro-analysis of everything. It’s not like West Ham or Arsenal, where every mistake is seized upon online, on TV or at the ground as though it is life threatening and with every point lost, meltdown ensues. I’m not expecting Twitter to be in over-drive if we lose on Saturday, nor do I envisage Stags TV comes back from the dead on a rowing boat to keep up with me on my bike on the towpath home afterwards with a microphone shoved under my nose asking whether apocalypse will ensue if we are defeated the following week at Farnborough. Nor do I envisage the people of Walton will boycott, Mike Ashley style, the businesses of the kind benefactors who keep this Club running until such time as the prosaic football of the last few seasons makes a return. We take it seriously, of course, but fans at this level are more sanguine, it’s all about having a good afternoon out, in the company of fellow supporters of both sides and in a decent, down-to-earth, environment, bereft of VAR, over-priced tickets and beer or where there is animosity between opposing supporters in the ground. I am still enjoying this season despite the results and worst-case scenario we tumble down, then there’s plenty of local games in the Isthmian South Central (assuming that would be our destination) – Bedfont Sports, Chertsey Town, Staines Town, Ashford, to name but a few and we may re-acquaint ourselves with our jolly good local friends, the ever so saintly, paragons of virtue, Corinthian Causals – as they seem destined for relegation! To be honest, as long as Staggers, Jason, Colin, Saunders Junior and co are still here next season – with the drum – then I’m in, whoever and wherever we’re playing.
Anyway, there’s plenty more victories to be had this season and we’ve enough time to get out of this bother. What’s required now, though, is strong, charismatic, dynamic leadership on and off the pitch to galvanise everyone’s spirits as well as a bit of luck. Our players and management team have great pedigrees and experience at this level and in some cases above and they are capable of turning it round. For goodness sake, Rene Howe got voted in Torquay United’s “Team of the Decade”! A scrappy 1-0 win could be all it takes for confidence to return and renewed vigour and when it happens, we should celebrate it as though we’ve won the league and then move on to the next battle.