Non League Daily

BLOG: Agony and ecstasy The Evo-Stik Southern Premier League season finale

Stories of heroes journeying towards a goal, triumphant one minute, plunged into disaster the next, have been popular for thousands of years writes NLD writer Colin Bradbury

The roller-coaster ride, not knowing until the last moment whether the hero will reach their ‘promised land’, keeps the reader gripped. Not unlike the scenario that plays out at the end of most football seasons really and in this respect, the Evo-Stik Southern Premier league delivered again this year.

Rewind a couple of months to the end of March. Viewed from down here in the South West, things are looking pretty good, with three west-country teams in the top four. Weymouth Town are in 4th, Truro City in 3rd and leaders Poole Town, look to be running away with it – a point ahead of 2nd place Corby Town and with three games in hand over the chasing pack.

By the last game of the regular season on April 25th though, everything has closed up again. Corby and Poole are both on 91 points, meaning that the championship and the automatic promotion that goes with it are wide open. In one of those ‘you couldn’t make it up’ coincidences, the two meet in that final match. Needing just a draw thanks to their superior goal difference and playing at home, Poole are favourites.

But after a barren first 45 minutes in front of a record 2,200 crowd, Corby tear up the script with two early second half goals. By the 76th minute though, Poole have fought back to 2-2 and are champions-in-waiting. Football is rarely that straightforward, however, and with just nine minutes to go, Corby score the winner to take the title to the Midlands.

There’s another west-country hard-luck story as well in Weymouth Town, who were in the top five for so much of the season but missed out on a play-off place at the last minute, losing five of their last seven matches.

And so to the playoffs for the second promotion spot. I have no idea whether the statistics support this, but I suspect that the team finishing just outside the automatic promotion place rarely goes on to win the play-offs. The crushing sense of ‘so near yet so far’ must make it nigh impossible to muster the resolve to triumph in the play-offs to regain the prize which has so recently slipped from its grasp. And so it proved for Poole Town this season, surrendering 1-0 to St Neots in the semi-final.

In the other play-off semi-final, Truro City faced Hungerford Town at the Cornish side’s Treyew Road ground. It was another cagey, tense affair and despite long periods of dominance, Truro City failed to score. The turning point came in the 69th minute when Truro manager Steve Tully brought on Isaac Vassell. His plan to use the speedy former Plymouth Argyle striker as an ‘impact substitute’ came to fruition just five minutes from time when Vassell rose to head home a Shane White cross and take his team to the final.

So to the Bank Holiday Monday play-off final. Truro’s opponents, St Neots Town, have travelled from Cambridgeshire – an east-west journey of such magnitude that they risk jet lag – and have brought a sizeable contingent of enthusiastic, good natured supporters.

As club photographer for Truro City, I have a touchline view of the clash, though the size of the occasion and the roar of 1,500 spectators make it hard to concentrate on my job. The first half is, for Truro City, a repeat of the semi final. They dominate but, with the match goal-less at the break, have nothing to show for it.

St Neots are much stronger in the second half and create some good chances. Then comes a brief period of play which will define the afternoon. Sitting on the touchline at the St Neots’ end, I have a perfect view down the middle of the pitch to the Truro goal. I watch the ball fall to St Neots striker Lee Clarke on the edge of the area. He chests it down and sweeps the ball towards the un-guarded right side of the net. My horror turns to relief as the ball bounces off the outside of the post.

A short time later, in the 67th minute, Truro’s Isaac Vassel charges into the St Neots area and is hauled down. Penalty. Shane White steps up to convert it and all hell breaks loose. The Truro players are in a big pile in the right hand corner of the pitch and I rush over, machine gunning the celebrations with my camera’s motor-drive. Agony to ecstasy in the space of minutes. On such small margins – a matter of inches in the case of that St Neots shot – do triumph and disaster rest.

Truro survive renewed St Neots pressure and as the clock ticks down, the announcer goes through the ritual of asking spectators to stay off the pitch. But everyone knows this is in vain and as the final whistle signals Truro’s promotion, a human wave spills over the barriers to engulf the players who are already bouncing manically in the centre circle.

Ah yes, the players. Club captain Jake Ash, a ten year Truro City veteran, who a few weeks earlier had marked his 350th game with the club at almost the same time as the birth of his first child. Shane White, whose cross led to the semi-final winning goal and who had coolly dispatched the penalty that sealed the promotion, living up to his Player’s Player of the Year award. The young goalkeeper, Tom McHale, thrust into the limelight after the on-loan ‘keeper’s unexpected departure, who had grown into the job almost before our eyes. Ed Palmer, the midfield colossus whose towering performances in the latter part of the season had helped to seal Truro’s play-off place.

And the others; Matt Wright, Craig Duff, Cody Cooke, Isaac Vassell, Dan Green, Rob Farkins, Shane White, Ryan Brett, Shane Krac, Arran Pugh, Les Afful, Barry Hayles. Heroes all. There too, amidst the champagne-fuelled mayhem on the pitch, the two architects of the club’s success, Manager Steve Tully and Coach Wayne Carlisle look impossibly cool and collected.

Finally, the two people without whom Truro City as a club would no longer exist. Chairman, Pete Masters, club scarf tucked into his jacket, embraces the players one by one as they leave the pitch. The vice chairman Pep Perryman, the quiet half of the duo that intervened in the club’s darkest hour in 2012 to save it from financial extinction, is there as well. A rare moment in the limelight for him, but his delight is equally obvious.

So that’s the season done. In 2015-16, Corby Town will play in the National League North and Truro City in the National League South, while at the other end of the table, Banbury Town, Arlesey United and Burnham were relegated. And we mustn’t forget the sad story of Hereford United who collapsed into administration just before Christmas. A reminder of how close to the edge many clubs at this level of non-league football live.

And now we look forward to the new season. People who don’t ‘get’ football wonder what all the excitement is about. ”They’ll only have to do it all again next year”, they cry. Maybe. But the beauty of sport is that the journey never ends, the story is never over. At the start of a new season everyone is equal, everyone can dream. And best of all? There’s no script.

 

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