Tuesday 25th August 2020, 1945 Kick Off
Ashford Town (Middlesex) FC vs Hampton & Richmond Borough FC
The Build Up
The pre-season friendlies are coming thick and fast now, and with the change in government guidelines (did they actually change, or did the FA just interpret them differently?) fans are now officially allowed back in – with a few provisos. No fans at Step Two or higher, and below that, there are strict attendance criteria based on the minimum capacity at each step. So it’s football, Jim, but not as we know it.
In my new role as the Hampton & Richmond Borough club photographer, I made the trip to their first scheduled friendly, away at Hanworth Villa, however that was called off on account of an obligatory English summer rainstorm. So, change of plans, the first friendly would instead by away to Isthmian League South Central side, Ashford Town (Middlesex). It was an interesting coincidence, as the Tangerines had also been involved in my final pre-COVID match of the season, away to Chertsey Town in February.
Founded in 1958, Ashford Town started life as Ashford Albion, before being renamed in 1990. The (Middlesex)/(Middx) is part of the club’s official moniker, having been included to avoid confusion with the Kent-based side of the same name – now, even though their Kent kin are named Ashford United, the geographical parentheses remain. Having spent much of their post-renaming history between the Combined Counties and Isthmian Leagues, the Ash Trees have now firmly ensconced themselves as Step Four regulars, although they flirted close to the line last season. Only a late campaign run of form which boosted them to 17th spared their blushes. Well, that and the season being cancelled. In April, mid-lockown, Russell Canderton stepped down as manager, before stepping up to the boardroom, and was replaced with up-and-coming manager Luke Tuffs. Having been part of the success story at Hartley Wintney, Tuffs was on course to finish second in the Combined Counties Premier with Knaphill, before a pandemic rudely interrupted things.
For the hosts, the visit of Hampton & Richmond Borough represented their fourth pre-season tune up, having already beaten Thatcham Town 2-1, Cobham 3-1, and lost 2-1 to neighbours Southall. The visit of the National League South side, therefore, represented a significant step up in their preparations. Gary McCann’s side had more reason than most to rue the early termination of the non-league season, as they were surging up the table. After a difficult start to the season, where the Beavers had undergone a complete summer rebuild, they had turned fortunes around, losing only four league matches after the 16th of November. As February turned into March and football turned into no football, Hampton & Richmond were closing down Dorking Wanderers in the Play Offs, and when PPG was announced, they ended up missing out on the post season campaign by a miserly 0.182 points. This summer, however, had been much more positive, with the majority of the squad retained (although Danilo Orsi-Dadomo would undoubtedly be missed after moving up a division to Maidenhead) and a few marquee signings announced – including the return of one of McCann’s former charges, Niko Muir.
Ashford Town (Middx) play at the Robert Parker Stadium, in Stanwell – a suburb historically in Middlesex, but recently transferred to Surrey (thanks Wikipedia). Therefore, not only is the (Middx) in Ashford Town no longer necessary, it’s also apparently a lie. I digress. The Robert Parker stadium is named after the club’s former chairman, who held the role for a remarkable 28 years. A 2,250 capacity ground, the current limit is set to 200 under the FA’s guidelines, and I’d imagine that the attendance was quite close to that figure – a much needed boost to the club’s coffers after the enforced lay off.
On arrival at the ground, I was immediately struck by the attention to detail the club had paid to their COVID preparations. With fans directed to a register in place, a one way system through the clubhouse to the bar, and seating cordoned off to maintain social distancing, it was clear that the hosts were doing the level best to avoid falling foul of the guidelines. Even in the driving rains, a number of supporters stoically held their ground in the onslaught, remaining appropriately socially distant from those fortunate enough to be in the covered areas. Being pitchside, I was not one of that number…
Hampton & Richmond Borough lined up with a number of triallists in the first half, but there was no sign of any disjointed play (for the sake of reporting ease, where I don’t know a name, it’ll be “Triallist Number”. Within two minutes, Sam Deadfield had sent Triallist 10 through on goal when the linesman raised his flag, before Ryan Hill then sent Danny Bassett, formerly of Tooting & Mitcham United clear. ‘Keeper Jake Maddock was out quickly, but the ball ended up with Ryan Hill, whose shot was saved.
The game evened out a little after ten minutes, and Ashford had their first chance following some rusty play in the Beavers backline. Kane Fitzgerald almost got a shot off, but the Hampton ‘keeper, named Triallist 1, was alert to avert danger. Also alert, was Ryan Hill, who was everywhere in the first opening fifteen. On 10 minutes he set up another chance for Triallist 10, so it was no surprise when the former Stoke prospect opened the scoring with twelve on the clock. Triallist 10 broke down the right, before cutting back, and when the ball arrived at the feet of Hill, he made no mistake, driving the ball home to make it 1-0 to the visitors.
It wasn’t long before that lead was extended, when Triallist 10 got the goal his performance warranted, and it couldn’t have been any easier. A shot from a player I didn’t see struck the base of the post, and with the ‘keeper prostrate post-dive, it rolled a foot off the line straight to where 10 was standing. With minimal fuss, he slotted the ball home, and walked back to the centre circle. 2-0.
Whilst Ashford were very much involved in the game, the gap in quality was clear, and the hosts were struggling to really test the backline. Sam Deadfield and Tyrell Miller-Rodney had a firm grip on proceedings, and Razzaq Coleman de-Graft and Ryan Hill were dovetailing nicely with the two triallists (Messrs Bassett and 10) up front. In truth, they could have been three or four up by the half hour mark. At the back, Triallist 1 in goal was looking to play out where possible, and Dean Inman – captain for the first half in Luke Ruddick’s absence – and Triallist 5 were willing recipients at centre back. Outside them, Cole Brown and debutant Rene Steer were composed on the ball, and regularly set runners free down the wings.
On 39 minutes, a lovely bit of play by Hill sent Triallist 10 free. Having chased down a lost cause on the left wing, Hill thundered into a 50/50 (touch of the two footed about it mind…) before spraying the ball cross field to Mr 10. Unfortunately, his finish was soft, and didn’t do the build up justice. The third was coming though, and it was a second triallist goal, this time for Danny Bassett. Bassett picked the ball up in midfield, and advanced forward to around thirty yards, before unleashing a dipping shot, which bounced just in front of Maddock’s dive. In the slick conditions, the ball skidded off the turf, and Maddock could only palm it up into the roof of the net. 3-0.
That was the final notable act of the half, and the Beavers conducted a full change of personnel (excluding in goal) in the break, with Jake Gray taking over the armband. Playing in central midfield, his first contribution was to plant an inch-perfect corner on the head of Christian Smith, who angled his header downwards past Maddock to put the Beavers 4-0 ahead. It was a fine connection from Smith, who was trialling at centre back, having been surprisingly released by Dulwich Hamlet earlier in the week.
Again, the Hampton forward line was linking up nicely straight away, with Tyrone Lewthwaite and Niko Muir up front being ably supported by new arrival from Kingstonian, Eddie Dsane, and triallist Jonny Giles, recently of Chelmsford Town. In midfield this half, Gray was partnered by another triallist, Jack Connors, whilst the back line consisted of three triallists – Sutton United Academy graduate Ezra Ikebuasi, the aforementioned Smith, and HRBFC Academy graduate Imran Uche – and then Kyron Farrell on the left.
The match was slightly more even in the second half, and Ashford did create a few more chances. A 71st minute free kick was whipped just wide of Triallist 1’s goal, before a Connors strike from outside the box was well held by Maddock. Shortly afterwards, Ashford did get their goal, when a long ball over the top was caused confusion between ‘keeper and defender, and Dan Brown was set through on an empty net. Uche did his best to prevent Brown getting a shot away, but Ashford’s top scorer from last season was too strong, and held the centre back off easily, slotting into the unguarded goal.
As the game entered the last ten minutes, Eddie Dsane, Johnny Giles, Kyron Farrell and Tyrone Lewthwaite all had half chances at Ashford’s goal, but the visitors did add a fifth on the stroke of full time. Dsane broke down the left, and slowed up to allow Jake Gray to join him. Gray assessed his options from the corner of the box and fed Muir in acres of space around the penalty area. The former Hendon and Hartlepool man was never going to miss when afforded that sort of time, and duly buried his shot in the bottom corner. 5-1 to Hampton, and no sooner had the restart been taken, the referee blew to signal time.
The Wash Up
It’s always foolish to read too much into pre season friendlies, and having seen almost forty players across the ninety minutes, it’s impossible to award the customary Man of the Match. The most important aspect, for Ashford Town, was that they were able to successfully test their COVID protocols, in difficult weather, and can move towards the league with confidence that they have a robust way of conforming to the guidelines. However, on the playing side, there will have been nothing to overly concern Luke Tuffs. More minutes and miles in the legs was always the aim, but as he said on Twitter post-match, it was a learning experience for him and his team, and an eye opener in terms of the performance levels required higher up the pyramid.
In the Hampton dugout, Gary McCann will surely be quietly pleased. His first team players got their first proper football fitness in the bag, and the hard running the squad have put in over the recent weeks was in evidence in the work rate on the pitch. The triallists performed well to a man, and it will have been a useful opportunity for the Hampton & Richmond coaching staff to nail down the areas to fine tune ahead of Saturday’s match away at Gosport Borough.
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