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Getting to Know You for Next Season
By: Andy Stephenson
Date: 15/03/2010 (Last updated: 16/03/2010)
WITH the worst GTFC team in 100 years and the club's most unsuccessful manager in 125 years, stumbling towards the BSP without a whimper I thought I'd dip my toe into the top end of non-league footie; forewarned is forearmed and all that.
I persuaded my girlfriend that a pub lunch followed Oxford United - Kettering Town was the perfect way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon.Luckily she's a football fan and thought she might as well find out what she's letting herself in for next season, with so many games in the South. The journey to the Kassam must be one of the most picturesque in football, driving along the lanes over the rolling Oxfordshire hills, with a choice of several lovely old village boozers in Wheatley or Garsington for your pre-match pie and pint. Coming down from the hills we immediately realised that we had, for the first time this season, encountered a 'big crowd'. We were forced to park over a mile away from the 3-sided Kassam, which even on a mild day has a bitter wind whipping through it.
Despite it being a promotion clash and Kettering being an easy 40 mile journey they had brought less than 250 for such a vital game out of the near-6000 gate. The prices were another surprise - £19, although these were for the better seats high in the Main Stand. The Kassam is probably the best stadium in the Conference, with the largest crowds and consequently for most of the BSP teams a visit to Oxford is a mini cup final. Talking to my mates who go, and the locals who we sat with, this actually creates some problems for Oxford. The away team will generally raise its game and the worse they are the more they will pack the defence and midfield. Of course the level of creativity at BSP level is not great and many games end up with Oxford pounding the massed defence with crosses and long balls. They felt that we would definitely experience the same next year, and maybe even more so as we would be the new 'big kids on the block'. The thought of GTFC of being a big fish and having to use skill and guile to break teams down is a faintly worrying prospect!
They also said that we'd have to get used to the inevitable defeats by the likes of Eastbourne and Histon, as they had been the victim of various smash and grab raids. Oxford are lucky in that they have the biggest playing budget by far in the division, but the secret was to have a good non-league manager who knew how to use the money. They were of the opinion that the money is best spent on bringing in the best the Conference has to offer rather than experienced league players on the way down. This was rather borne out by the 2 teams, who are 2nd and 5th in the division. Of the 27 players used 3/4 were Conference regulars, half who started at lower league clubs and half from the lower echelons of non league. The remainder were either old pros or youngsters. The fans said interestingly that there seemed to be large group of players who 'did the rounds' of the Conference clubs, many of whom we'll have never heard of!
The Oxford and Keetering sites will give you a full match report so I'll just give you a few of our thoughts.Unfortunately Chris Hargreaves and James Constable (17 goals in 24 games) were both missing. Best player on the park was Darren Wrack, playing right midfield for the Poppies. Now 34 and in his 2nd Conference season he hardly wasted a pass and was up and down the park a like someone 10 years younger. The other outstanding players were the 2 Oxford central midfielders,Danny Bullman and Lewis Chalmers who are ex Crawley and Altrincham (which rather illustrates the point about getting the best BSP players.)The rest were as you might expect a mixture of the pretty good and the fairly ordinary. Was heartening to see Ian Roper(ex Walsall) keeping the old tradition of cumbersome, slow, dirty and fat non league centre halves going! What struck us was the amount of space available, particularly in the centre of midfield and the lack of poor decision making. A player would do something good and then make completely the wrong choice of pass. The 1st half was much better than we'd expected- quite open with both teams using the time and space to pass the ball around. Unfortunately the locals were quick to tell us that this half was the exception rather than the norm, with kettering being one of the few teams who had come wit the intention of playing , rather than just shutting up shop. Although they played a time wasting game from the moment they equalised there were few of the rugged challenges which you can expect to se at most BSP games. The referee was surprisingly good as well, keeping the game flowing as much as possible.The 2nd half was more like we'd expected. Both teams seemed to tighten up and neither had the skill or ability to break down the others defence. The lively Oxford starlet Sam Deering never got going in the 2nd half and the game took on the level that we have witnessed at many of Towns duller matches.It was enlivened by the ongoing spat between the 2 benches which almost ended in fisticuffs! and this hostility leaked onto the pitch, resulting in a 15 man confrontation, which apparently is another fairly regular event at a BSP game.
Conclusions? - BSP generally. At the top end it seems like a Division 5, with full time players, decent stadia and crowds not far off what we expect at many of our present opponents. This Division 5 concept is strengthened when you consider that next season there will probably about 14 ex-league clubs out of 24. Whether we'll think the same playing in front of 400 at Ebbsfleet or Hayes is another matter.... for GTFC - this is going to be a whole new world with a whole new set of problems, some good ,many bad. The fact that you would appear to succeed with hard working battlers bodes ill if we keep the same bunch of spineless losers. The Oxford fans thoughts (which is backed up by the stats) that you need a good non-league manager who uses the money to buy the best Conference-standard players would suggest that we are going to need a new manager and an almost complete new team. You only have to look at Dean Saunders and the composition of the under performing Wrexham team for further confirmation of this and to see what may well be our fate if there are not big changes in the summer
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