Football Shaped

Notes and News by Leo Hoenig

The European Game

Fourth April 1998.

While changes occur gradually, there are often defining moments that mark the boundaries between one state and another. When I was young (under 22), I started watching football and was supporting Southern League Hillingdon Borough. The defining point here was at work one lunchtime, getting ready for an early departure to head to the Kent coast to watch a Hillingdon team that for once were doing well. I received a phone call to say that the game was off, as Hillingdon could not raise a team.
The match must have been either at Dover or Margate, but it escapes my memory now. (It was not Folkestone as I had already been there a month earlier). It had to be possible to get the train back to Portsmouth, although quite likely changing at Eastleigh and arriving at 02.00!

The club was on the verge of folding, but the directors decided against accepting outside help. There was a move that could have made Hillingdon a fan owned club, years before it became fashionable (although the numbers were never calculated), and there was a person who offered to join the board with a financial injection. It turned out that the covenant on the ground use was key, as it specified it could not be sold while the football team continued. Once the team had folded, some of the directors sold the ground (conveniently owned by a different company under their control), and raked in a tidy profit for themselves.

At that point, my football interests became groundhopping only, but after moving to Cheltenham, I started to make friends at the club, that stayed with me as I moved away for work, and by 1998 I was London based. I would by now be defined as a groundhopper with a favourite club.

Cheltenham had been relegated from the Alliance Premier in 1992, and spent five years in the Southern League before returning as runners-up, one point ahead of the dreaded rivals from Gloucester. After the first game of 1997-8, I recall discussing with Chris Coote (RIP) on how difficult the season would be for Cheltenham, concluding that mid-table would be good. Maybe there could be a cup run. No doubt we discussed Carshalton’s prospects as well. Cheltenham lost on the opening day, by 3-0 at Dover.

So, by January 1998, Cheltenham were going well, and I watched both their third round FA Cup games against Reading, and then the Trophy run would start. The Cup game against Reading had been postponed on the 3rd of January, and re-arranged for the 13th, so Enfield away predated the cup match, a 1-1 draw. Thanks to a replay at Reading, the second game against Enfield was a Thursday – two days after the anti-climax of a defeat in the FA Cup. Cheltenham won 5-1. Rishden & Diamonds, Ashton United and Hayes were all beaten at the first time of asking and so it was the semi-final.

I know I wanted to go to the first leg, I know I did not see a game at all that day. I cannot remember what the event was that removed me from the scene, but at least Cheltenham won 2-1 to take a narrow lead down to the Kentish coast.

Any nerves before the match were quickly forgotten as Dale Watkins opened the scoring for Cheltenham after 7 minutes, while Jason Eaton, who had scored both goals in the first leg, added another. At the break, Cheltenham were 2-0 up on the day, 4-1 on aggregate. Enough surely.

Dover put Cheltenham under a lot of pressure, but they held firm until the 69th minute when Neil le Bihan pulled one back. A few minutes later and it was 2-2. The last quarter of an hour was incredibly tense, and the final whistle came as a relief as a well as a celebration at the away end.

It was not the result that was so important to me, as the sense of community and belonging that came with it. Groundhopping can be a lonely hobby. I normally talk to someone local (at least when I know the language), but one never belongs. Nine years earlier, visiting foreign grounds allowed me to escape the feeling that hopping would just take me to more and more roped off fields. Now, there was to be a partial break and I had something I could be part of.

As the team came around at the end, they were followed by officials and directors. I recall in particular the tears of joy on the face of former chairman Arthur Hayward as we hugged and shook hands.

FA Trophy, Semi-Final, Second Leg
Dover Athletic 2-2 Cheltenham Town (aggregate 3-4)
Admission £9. Programme £1.50. Attentance 3240.

Dover Athletic: Mitten, Munday, Palmer, Budden, Shearer, Stebbing, Dobbs, Strouts, Ayrionde, Le Bihan, Henry. Subs Jones (Dobbs, 68), Wilson, Davies

Cheltenham Town: Book (current goalkeeping coach), Duff (current manager), Victory, Banks, Freeman, Milton (current assistant manager), Howells, Walker, Eaton, Watkins, Bloomer. Subs: Knight, Smith, Wright (Milton, 74)