Potters Bar Town beat Barking 3-0 to confirm promotion to the Bostik Premier Division. We were there to soak up the atmosphere.
Back in the summer, before a ball of the 17/18 Bostik League season had been kicked in anger, we asked a supporter from each of our 72 clubs to predict the final places in their respective divisions at the end of this season. The supporters of clubs in the North Division, almost without exception, predicted that Potters Bar Town, back in the Isthmian league after four years away in the Southern League Central Division, would finish in the lower reaches of mid table- indeed, in eighteenth place.
There were raised eyebrows at the Pakex Stadium at this point. The Scholars had much greater ambitions than demonstrated by the outcome of this survey, and a number of their supporters said so, whilst fans of their opponents smiled and made comments about the strength of the division and a ‘learning curve.’
They may not be smiling now.
To give our fan representatives from the other 23 sides some credit, for many of them Potters Bar Town would have been an unknown quantity, and their memories were perhaps tainted by recollections of the side who finished no higher than tenth during their previous six seasons with us. But that side was long gone. The team put together by Head Coach James Duncan along with manager Steve Ringrose and the rest of the management team for this campaign didn’t resemble those of the past. Strong in attack and mean in defence- only champions Hornchurch have conceded fewer goals- the Scholars were always likely to pose a challenge. Their survey representative, Alan Evans, suggested that they would “look to improve again on last seasons 9th place in Southern League Division One Central and hopefully challenge for a playoff spot.” A look at today’s table demonstrates quite clearly that they’ve done far more than challenge.
Arriving at Mayesbrook Park today and entering the ground after negotiating the queue of learner drivers in the car park, the Bar Army were in confident mood- although there was an air of slight bemusement. To go into the final match of the season knowing that victory would guarantee their side promotion to Step Three for the first time in their history must have seemed like a dream little more than two months ago. The Non League Paper’s league table on Sunday 25th February showed the Scholars in fifth place, eleven points behind second place Bowers & Pitsea. That gap would have been eight points but for a three point deduction just applied- after the club had inadvertently played a player who should have been suspended in a victory over Norwich United in November. With only thirteen matches to go, eleven points seemed like a chasm- but the twelve games played since had resulted in nine wins, two draws and only one defeat- to champions Hornchurch- whilst Bowers have faltered, squandering their games in hand to start today a point behind Bar- one of four sides who could theoretically grab the second promotion slot if Potters Bar were to fall at the final hurdle, the others being Haringey Borough and Heybridge Swifts. The most anticipated final day in years saw nerves not only at Mayesbrook Park but at the Len Salmon, Ram Meadow and the Aspen Waite Arena.
Former Scholars chair Mark Martyn was amongst the early arrivals. Admitting to having had a night with “no sleep whatsoever,” he also admitted to being slightly incredulous about the way the season had panned out. “We hoped to be in with a shout of the playoffs, but to come into the last game with promotion in our own hands…” He left the sentence hanging in the air. Mark was the architect of the Scholars free season ticket policy which so captured the imagination of the national press four years ago, a policy which some on his own board felt was optimistic but which has been an enormous success. “We can’t be worried about the costs associated with promotion. If we achieve it we just have to embrace it and enjoy it. The club is doing well, the bar is in use seven days a week, the ground being used for cup finals, and people in our own town who didn’t used to know where we were now come and watch.” He paused, and grinned. “We even took 50-60 fans to shout on Hertford Town against Bowers the other night. They made such a noise, and it was wonderful!” Perhaps that could be another income stream for the Scholars, hiring out their supporters when their own team don’t have a game? Potters Bar rent-a-crowd; you read it here first!
Potters Bar’s hosts today, Barking, have had a fantastic first season at this level for many years- and the Scholars perhaps owed them a debt of thanks. Following last season’s promotion from the Essex Senior League manager Justin Gardner’s side at one point hauled themselves into the playoff places before falling away, now sitting in tenth place but with the possibility of climbing as high as eighth with victory today.
They had been inconsistent of late, but during the season had taken four points from Hornchurch, beaten high flying sides such as Dereham Town and Canvey Island, and most importantly for todays visitors despatched Bowers & Pitsea 2-0 here five weeks ago. 'Potters' management team was undoubtedly hoping that the Barking who lost to Tilbury in midweek would turn up today, rather than the side who defeated Norwich United and Hertford Town the week before.
There was an air of optimism about the home side, too. Andy, running the snack bar with his family, was full of positivity in between serving burgers and worrying about a lack of cheese. “We’d have been happy when the season started just to avoid relegation, but we’ve done so much more, getting into the playoff positions earlier in the season, and beating so many top teams. And the success runs through the club- the Under 23’s are doing well, all Academy side have won their league, the youth teams are doing great things- it’s a really good time to be a Blues fan.” This attitude was repeated all across the club- a lovely bunch of friendly, happy people who were welcoming to all visitors and hadn’t forgotten what was important.
And the burgers were very good, even without cheese.
By around five to three the Bar fans had taken up their positions behind the goal and were merrily ripping off the Banana Splits. Their theme song, they hadn’t dressed as oversized beagles. That’s next season.
Barking kicked off, and the away fans broke into a rendition of ‘Just can’t get enough.’ One of them, as if to prove this correct, was holding three burgers. The first chance came to Bar, and took only two minutes, George Nicholas shrugging off challenges to burst into the box, but his shot from a tight angle cleared the bar. It was, perhaps, a statement of intent.
Three minutes later a ball into the box from Sandro Costa Dias Fernandes almost found the head of the same player, but it was just too high- but the away side seemed determined to apply pressure right from the off, regularly having three attackers on the edge of the Barking box.
In the tenth minute Bar thought they’d gone ahead. Another searching ball from Fernandes found two players in maroon (although the Dulux paint chart would undoubtedly say burgundy) ahead of the home defence, and Lee O’Leary hammered home, only to be stopped by the Assistant’s flag. The away supporters were irate, but the official was right. Barking responded by earning a corner, their number seven, the gloriously named Quentin Monville, causing havoc. This was a cue for some pressure, and a minute later Monville perhaps should have done better when meeting an Alan Taylor cross at the far post, but his header hit a defender and proved easy pickings for keeper Berkley Laurencin.
The match then descended into a midfield stalemate, with Nicholas, Fernandes and Billy Adcock (“here, there, and ginger everywhere,” apparently) probing for an opening. News had just come through that Bowers were already 4-0 up over Brentwood Town, and indeed that all of Bar’s promotion rivals were ahead, when the away side earned a corner on the right. Whipped in, and James Budden leapt skywards, head and shoulders above the opposition. A moment later the net bulged, and the away fans broke into delighted yells and began to jump up and down, as well as waving a number of inflatable bananas. Once more Bar were back in a promotion spot- and perhaps soon should have been further ahead, when Sean Grace got ahead of the home defence at a free kick but was only able to lift his volley over the bar. With seven minutes to half time Bar had another chance, Eoin Casey somehow beating the offside trap to the annoyance of the home supporters before squaring to Michael Murray, who got the ball stuck under his feet and allowed a defender to clear.
As we approached half time the usual Murray turned up, a vicious shot from outside the box requiring a fingertip save from Chris Clark, but the first period ended without any further breakthrough. Barking had certainly played their part, working hard across the field, but they hadn’t unduly troubled the away keeper. The teams headed for the dressing room with Potters Bar Town firmly in control of their own destiny- but not entirely comfortable just yet.
Both sides were out for the second half long before the officials, keen to get on with the game. The first chance once again came to Potters Bar; Eoin Casey thwarted by Chris Clarke at his near post in the 48th minute, to the excitement of the away fans making their way to the far end of the ground. They were even more excited two minutes later, as Casey on this occasion did manage to beat the keeper, sparking wild celebrations. Two-nil; surely that was promotion confirmed?
Barking continued to work hard. Monville- perhaps their best player- teased the Bar defence and the home side piled on the pressure, but the wall of maroon (burgundy) held firm despite their best efforts, regularly pulling everyone back behind the ball in an attempt to hold on to what they had. At the other end the away fans had moved from Depeche Mode to Wham and were now delivering a rather masculine impression of Bananarama. “Na na na na,” they sang, as if hosting their own ‘80’s festival, whilst a lone Barking fan in the stand replied “come on Barking.” Monville responded to the encouragement by firing in a half volley, but once more the ball was blocked and cleared. The lone Barking vocalist, by the way, was with his nephew Jack Donaldson- who was at his very first football match. Keep singing, Uncle Tom!
Fifteen minutes from time a rare Potters Bar foray saw Clarke save magnificently from Fernandes, a curling shot seemingly heading for the top corner, but it was a momentary respite. From the corner Casey once more beat the home defence and the keeper. Three-nil, and the celebrations behind the far goal started in earnest. Indeed, within ten minutes they were singing Agadoo, having moved on to Now That’s What I Call Music- The Songs They Should Have Banned, Volume One. They kept singing until the final whistle sparked riotous celebration, and were still doing it twenty minutes later. And who could blame them?
The season tickets at Potters Bar Town won’t be free next season. But they will be rather cheap, and the attractions will include the finest teams that the Bostik Premier Division have to offer- as well as some of the finest football folk you’ll find anywhere. Good luck to all at the Pakex- and many congratulations.
Updated 10:41 - 9 May 2018 by Steve Ringrose