Two home games in successive Saturdays – whatever is the world coming to? They don’t come any easier though and it’s another of the big teams down here at our idyllic setting on the banks of the River. If ever there is a reminder of the high level in which we are competing, then it’s the visit of Poole Town followed by Salisbury City – sizeable clubs with large catchment areas and a good reputation in non-league football.
My only fear for the division in which we reside is that, as much, if not more so, than even the Premier League, it is in danger of being rather polarised. Whilst the old adage of “anyone can beat anyone on their day” still, just about exists, the league table tends to reflect the gulf in size and pulling power of the big clubs against those of us relative newcomers at this level. It’s inconceivable really that you could get in the same division, a Salisbury City with their very decent crowds and expansive stadium and also the likes of Beaconsfield and Blackfield and Langley – with respective crowds of 72 and 60 in their games against us in the past month (figures which will have been massaged of course by our notoriously huge away following, of course). There are others with fairly small followings, including ourselves – Metropolitan Police, Harrow Borough, Yate to name but a few. The situation is compounded by the travelling distances – without the luxury of being able to stay overnight in some swanky hotel and having to travel down on the day, it feels at times as if we are lambs to slaughter going westwards on these long journeys to big clubs.
Maybe my pessimism is unfounded, after all, last season down here at the Home of World Football we turned Salisbury over in what was my favourite game of the season. It was probably one of our highest points in the history of Casuals. For me, it was made better by me only realising towards the end of the game that Steve Claridge was (and still is) the Salisbury manager. Now, I don’t have anything personal against Steve, it’s just that being a lifelong Crystal Palace fan, he was responsible for my lowest point in my football supporting history – that deflection from 35 yards out off his shin in the final minute of extra time at Wembley in the Championship Play Off Final in 1996 which ended up in the back of the Palace net as he took Leicester into the Premier League. My hero Nigel Martyn’s last act of a distinguished career for Palace was picking the ball out of the net and I’ve never forgiven Claridge for that.
The joy of our victory at home over Salisbury was in stark contrast to our 4-2 defeat in the third from last game of the season at their place. It was such a crucial game for us, yet our first half performance was the most dispirited, incompetent and all-round pathetic display I have ever seen from our beloved Stags. It was at that point, I think we were all utterly convinced we were dead and buried and consigned for relegation. How we managed to turn it round in those last two games after such a feeble showing at Salisbury was quite incredible really. Not wishing to be controversial but our misery was a little compounded by some fairly unsophisticated behaviour by the home fans – which contrasted to the pleasant folk who had come to our place earlier in the season. As we tried to cheer on our team behind the goal, we were subjected to uncalled for obscenities and provocation that was more befitting of an old school football league match. In the absence of us having replica kits for fans, at the time, one of our own wore an orange hi-visibility vest instead which, admittedly caused mirth amongst the home supporters, but the overall welcome felt a bit uncharitable – not in the Basingstoke league, of course, but less witty and gracious than others’.
Anyway, it was good to get another point on the road last Tuesday at Blackfield and Langley with another late salvo from the Legend that is the ebullient, charismatic, iconic Rene Howe. We seem to be digging out fairly good performances away, though we’ve got some difficult games to come. It remains a bit of a mystery why we can’t replicate these at home – particularly as you would think that we’re better prepared on our 4G pitch. Maybe we need to bring a psychologist in to analyse our pre-match routine, potentially there’s some kind of superstition we need to introduce – it’s really baffling. In truth, though, we do need to solve this quickly if we are to keep away from those dreaded relegation places and build a bigger fanbase so that we can more effectively compete against the big clubs. Hopefully, our three new signings from midweek will gel well and inject a bit more spark and vigour into the place, as we really need it between now and Christmas during what is going to be a crucial period to define our season. If we can stay up this season then that would be an almighty achievement for a club of our relative size – two campaigns at Step 3 would really help us kick on and realise my own personal dream of National League South football, crowds of 400 and a nice new stand along the dug out side of the ground – maybe even a small shelter behind a goal! I don’t ask a lot and all this is achievable if we can just pull through this season, I feel.
Anyway, for now, let’s get behind the team. The support in adversity was, once again, fantastic last Saturday and if we can match that again today, we’ll stand a better chance of helping the lads turn the corner down here.