Third v second. The best defence in the Bostik South Central Division versus the best attack. Two teams competing in their fourth differently named division in four years. Marlow- Southern South & West, Southern Central, Southern East (which was technically Southern Central with a new name) versus Hayes & Yeading United- National League South, Southern Premier, Southern East. Last season the sides played each other twice in the Southern League, with both recording a victory, and United ahead 4-3 on aggregate. There was much to recommend this match, not least the fact that it was taking place in beautiful Marlow, home of the river Thames, Olympic rowing, Swan Upping, a fabulous suspension bridge, and the house where Mary Shelley finished writing Frankenstein. Although some of us might have preferred the Mel Brooks version.
But we weren’t here for the culture, the river, the architecture nor to ‘up’ some swans (you catch them, and then put a ring on them, an activity that famously inspired a song by Beyonce). No, we were here for the football, and what a unique and historic stadium the Alfred Davis Memorial Ground is in which to watch some. First opened in 1928, the grandstand dates from the 1930’s and, unlike some others, is entirely worthy of its name. It looks grand from a distance, and is still fabulous upon closer inspection- if so high that you’re in danger of getting vertigo if you climb to the very top. A scene from football history- and Marlow FC have a history worth recounting.
The club’s heyday probably came in the 90’s. That’s the 1990’s, not the 1890’s, although the last decades of the 19th century were also pretty big news for the Blues, who at one point got as far as the Semi-Finals of the FA Cup, before losing to the Old Etonians, who were led by bosom buddies Boris Johnson and Karl Marx. No, not really- although the opposition may have been cheered on by the Aga Khan, future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, Lord Randolph Churchill- father of Winston- and Julian Sturgis, the first American ever to be part of an FA Cup winning team (sadly not this one, he played for Wanderers in 1873, but was an old Etonian nonetheless). Anyway, we digress; the 1990’s saw Marlow reach the First Round of the competition, where they lost to West Bromwich Albion, and then the Third Round twice, losing to Tottenham Hotspur and Swindon Town. Throw in victories over Oxford United and FA Trophy winners Woking, and the first half of that decade- which also included a 3rd place finish in the Isthmian League- were a magnificent time to be a supporter. The rest of the decade, not so much- and in truth the club are still on the climb back. Perhaps this season would be their time to shine.
Welcome to Marlow
Less than 25 miles separate Marlow and their opponents. The other thing that separated them, however, was twenty goals- with United having a positive goal difference of thirty two. That was- and here, insert your own fanfare- the best goal difference of any club in the top eight levels of English football. If you were to add in their results in cup matches- and of course we can’t, but we will for the sake of making a point- that goal difference would be plus FIFTY TWO. If Hayes & Yeading United had offered money back to any of their supporters who hadn’t been royally entertained this season, there would be no queue.
Both clubs today were hoping to go top of the table with victory. That Waltham Abbey, in fourth, and of course first place Bracknell Town were also hoping to occupy the summit at 5PM demonstrated quite how close the promotion race in the South Central Division has been- indeed, only six points separated first from eighth. So, given both sides had experienced such a positive start to the season, had that positivity spilled over to infect their supporters?
Home fan Paul was certainly filled with optimism. A lifelong Blues supporter, born and bred, these days he commuted from Woking for every home game and most of the away games. What is it about the club that brought that level of commitment?
“I’ve been watching them my whole life, and couldn’t see myself not watching them. It’s a great club, with a great history.”
Asked about his hopes for the rest of the campaign, he was certain of success.
A moment of glorious Marlow history
“Promotion is the goal. We got to the playoffs a couple of seasons ago, and we have a far stronger squad now, far more strength in depth, more flair. It might take us into another playoff campaign, but we’re good enough to go up.”
Another who was confident of promotion was away supporter Alistair. A Hayes supporter who these days lives in Manchester (“a stones throw from Old Trafford, not that I’d ever go there- football is better at this level”), he was here with his sons Matthew and Thomas, and as we caught up with him was devouring a minted lamb pasty, courtesy of the fabulous snack bar. Watching Hayes on and off since 1993, apart from when kept away by geography and- for a while- by Hayes lack of a home ground in their home town- he was sure of a 3-1 win, which he later downgraded to 1-0. Youngest supporter Thomas went for 2-0, whilst Matthew predicted a 1-0 win for Marlow, much to the amazement of those around him. There was every possibility that Matthew may have been denied more chips based on that opinion.
“We’ve been very good going forward, and we’ve got the best ground in the league, but we’ll always be handicapped by a lack of money. Hayes has a big population, but they are more interested in watching cricket or heading off to QPR than supporting their local club. Perhaps that might change with promotion- I’d like to see us back in a National League with away matches in the North, I’d get to more of them. We’re not ready for that yet, mind- but it isn’t impossible in the future.”
The players emerged into bright sunshine just before three o’clock. A pair of red kites glided serenely above the ground, a slight haze hung over the hills behind the far terrace, and the smell of hot food filled the stand- unlike most of the supporters, who eschewed the idea of sitting down in the hope of a November suntan. There seemed to be a fairly even number of red and blue, and a great deal of good natured banter and optimism. The United supporters behind the left hand goal sang the sides onto the pitch, United in white, Marlow in their traditional colours, then, after a minute of respectful silence in memory of Isthmian President Alan Turvey, punctuated only by cries from the birds of prey, Marlow got us underway.
Hassan Jalloh forced the first save in the third minute, turning a Marlow defender inside out before firing at goal from a tight angle. Simon Grant was equal to it, and the ball was cleared, Marlow the next to shoot as Kameron English fired well wide. The first five minutes saw plenty of attacking endeavour from both sides, which surely boded well for an entertaining game. The Blues came close to opening the scoring three minutes later, Junaid Bell getting clear of his marker to force a smart save from Jack Smith, and indeed if the rebound had fallen kindly for English the outcome may have been somewhat different.
Marlow remained on top, whilst the opposition put up a resolute defence and looked to break quickly when the chance arose. On one such break Duncan Culley pulled a shot wide, but on the evidence of the first thirty minutes, if you’d been pushed to decide which was the best attack in the division and which the best defence you’d have got them the wrong way around. Smith had to push away another Marlow effort, from Tristan Campbell, as the home side remained in the ascendency.
The view from the top of the stand
The breakthrough should have come in the 32nd minute. A driving run down the Marlow left from Isaac Osei-Tutu-one of many from the player in this first half- saw the winger deliver a cross to the back post, and find English in acres of space with the net gaping. Perhaps he had too much time, perhaps he was distracted by the keeper moving across, but he mishit the ball and it flew wide. The striker held his head, and the home support acted similarly.
Hayes responded, and great work from Scott Donnelly and Culley earned a corner, followed by another, but Grant went untested- and then came the goal the game needed. A ricochet fell kindly for Marcus Mealing, and he raced forward before crossing intelligently to the back post. Osei-Tutu ghosted in unmarked, and forced the ball home. Hayes protested, but the referee was having none of it, and with eight minutes to go until the break Marlow were ahead. On the balance of play, they deserved to be- and despite the best efforts of the opposition remained ahead at half time.
United made a change prior to the restart, Lewis Toomey on to boost their attacking options, and they spent much of the first few minutes of the half on the attack, without really troubling Grant. Then it was Marlow on the attack, English sidestepping a lunging challenge before firing a powerful shot across goal and past the far post. Nine minutes after the restart, the away side were level. Culley found himself advancing on goal with Grant off his line, and he lifted the ball expertly over the keeper then wheeled away as it bounced into the net. A great finish, and game on. “Come on the ‘Ayes,” came a lone voice from the back of the stand- but there was a hubbub of noise from around the ground as the 288 in attendance came to life.
English came close to restoring the Marlow lead on the hour, swivelling and shooting in one movement but just missing the target, then at the other end Grant had to make a smart save from Culley as the game went from end to end. Hayes were perhaps just shading the encounter, and now you could see clearly which side had the best attack and which the best defence as the team in white streamed forward, whilst a blue wall drove them back. But as we entered the final twenty minutes there had been no further breakthrough, and the game had become somewhat fractious, with a number of niggly fouls and stoppages. A foul by Osei-Tutu on Curtis Chapple led to a yellow card and six Hayes players around the referee protesting it should be more- but in truth, whilst it was a deserved yellow, it was no worse than fouls committed by both sides in the previous quarter hour and the histrionics were unnecessary.
Matthew and Thomas, almost as camera shy as their dad!
Hayes were soon back on the attack, and Toomey had two good chances, first shooting past the far post and then forcing Grant into a diving save. Could the Marlow rearguard hold out? Perhaps they should have been breached, as Culley got ahead of his marker only to head over. We entered the last ten minutes, and the traffic was all one way. Another ball forward, and Grant hared out of his goal to stop Toby Little from getting in a shot- but disaster! The keeper caught the man, the referee pointed to the spot, and Scott Bridges had the chance to surely win the match for Hayes. Down to his right went Grant, and the chance had gone begging- a great save, whilst Bridges looked on, aghast.
Two minutes to go, and Marlow went on what was- for the second period, anyway- a fairly rare foray. Two substitutes, Kelvin Bossman and Paolo Giamattei were involved on the edge of the Hayes box, and the ball somehow found its way to a third sub, Allen Bossman, at the far side. It seemed to be behind him, but he controlled it well, moved inside, then fired an unstoppable shot past Smith into the far corner of the net, before charging towards the corner flag, shirt whirling around his head like a dervish, whilst his teammates clamoured to join him- and the home fans went wild. A finish that deserved to win a game- but would it? Hayes weren’t done. A free kick into the box seemed to hover in the air, refusing to come down- but when it did, the point blank shot was saved by Grant and the relief was palpable.
Added time ticked by; four minutes, five minutes, and still Hayes pushed on. But finally, after what seemed like an age, the whistle- and Marlow had the points!
The news came through that Bracknell Town, ahead with only three minutes to go, had conceded a late equaliser. Marlow had not only won, but they were now top of the Division. The cheers got louder, and they were deserved.
Marlow Paul- man and boy, always Blue!
Rather like Mel Brooks version of Mary Shelley’s monster, Marlow had ended the show by Puttin’ on the Ritz. And on the evidence of today's encounter, they may well still be on stage when the Bostik South Central Division season enters its finale.