Potters Bar Town are having a great first season back in the Bostik League. We watched them take on Mildenhall Town, and concluded that the Scholars needed more gentlemen...and women...and children...
Ten minutes’ walk away from the Pakex Stadium, home of Potters Bar Town, and the streets were filled with football related colour. You could tell it was matchday. It was just a shame, however, that although these football fans were predominantly gentlemen, none of them were Scholars.
Potters Bar is a commuter town. Thirteen miles from London, fifteen minutes from Kings Cross, nine minutes from Finsbury Park and the delights (such as they are) of Arsenal FC, it has a football team of its own - a football team who on current form are far more entertaining than their Premier League neighbours. And yet, sadly, the crowds of red shirted folk heading towards the railway station and a trip into London were far larger than the crowds heading to watch Potters Bar Town FC.
That’s the difficulty of trying to run a Non-League football club in an area close to traditionally larger neighbours, and particularly in an area where much of the population is effectively Metropolitan overspill. People move to Potters Bar with attractions already formed; attractions that are still within easy reach. Many of our clubs have exactly the same problem; if you read last week’s Bostik Matchday feature then you will have noted that Brentwood Town had similar issues, and they are one of many.
Yet few have been quite so inventive as the Scholars in trying to attract the floating supporter, or the London football fan looking for a local fix when their club is away from home. You see, Potters Bar Town are prepared to literally give their football away. For free.
In 2014/15 the club decided to offer complimentary season tickets in a drive to boost their attendances, an experiment which continues.
The idea was that if they could get people into the ground then they’d enjoy the experience, spend more money on refreshments, attract more advertisers, and - and this is crucial - be motivated to come back.
It has undoubtedly worked, given that the average attendance now is almost double what it was four seasons ago; and yet it currently sits at 118, putting the Scholars in fourteenth place in the Bostik North attendance league table - although on the field they currently sit in eighth, one point off a playoff position.
In the form table - although it’s difficult to argue that such a thing is important to anyone other than a statistician - Potters Bar were in even better health. Of the last six league matches they’d won four and drawn two, and that becomes even more impressive when you consider that the last two victories were against promotion favourites Canvey Island and Haringey Borough.
The club were something of an unknown quantity to most Bostik League fans, having spent four years away from our league in the Evo-Stik South Central Division, and supporters from across their division predicted in the summer that their first campaign back would see them finish in eighteenth place.
Scholars followers were rather taken aback by that suggestion and said so on social media, and at the moment it seemed very much that the rest of us didn’t know what we were talking about.
Brendan and Dylan, home supporters taking their seats in the main stand just before kick off, were also convinced that much grander things than a lower mid table finish were on the cards for their side. Both new fans, amongst those attracted by the season ticket offer in the summer, they were now both hooked - indeed, as Brendan explained, they were long term Spurs supporters but had even given up the chance of a trip to nearby Watford this afternoon to watch football closer to home.
“The Premier League has got really superficial. The football here is at a good standard, the people are friendly, and we’re so taken with it we’ve even been bringing other friends and family members to matches to watch. We could have gone to Vicarage Road today but decided this was better.” Predicting a 3-0 and 3-1 scoreline respectively, they were also confident that the season would have a positive end. “We can make the playoffs, we’re definitely good enough.”
Trying to stop Bar’s march to glory today were Mildenhall Town - also new to our league, although in their case entirely new, not just returning after an exotic holiday elsewhere. Winners of the Eastern Counties Premier Division last season - indeed, double winners, they captured the League Cup too - The Hall were enjoying a mixed season, some inconsistent results in the League being offset by superb cup form, with the club only bowing out of the FA Trophy last weekend at Evo-Stik Premier Division Lancaster City courtesy of a last minute goal, having already defeated higher league opposition in the form of Kings Lynn Town and Barwell. After travelling home from Lancashire they experienced a cup hangover on Tuesday night, as AFC Hornchurch travelled to Suffolk and thrashed six goals without reply. None of the visiting Suffolk hordes wanted to give their name - perhaps they are all part of a winning Euromillions syndicate and want to avoid begging letters - but they were a positive bunch despite their side not being on the best of runs.
One such supporter, who was concerned that if he gave his name his friends would take the micky out of him via social media, summed up the thoughts of the rest.
“I've lived in Mildenhall for six years. I don't get to every game because I work in the racing industry and that takes up half of my Saturdays, but I watch them every time I get a Saturday off and all midweek home games. I’m a little obsessed - during the match I kick every ball.”
He went on:
"I'm a West Ham fan, have been for my whole life, but the experience has changed. It's impersonal, overpriced, and there's little atmosphere in the new stadium. I had the chance to go to Manchester City for the match tomorrow, but I couldn't get to two matches this weekend so decided to come here. Do you know how much they charge for burger and chips at the London Stadium?” He changed the subject and became incredulous. “Twelve quid! Twelve quid for burger and chips! When we used to walk down Green Street to Upton Park we could get all sorts of food, chips and curry sauce and things like that, for a few quid. We didn’t have to pay stupid prices. It’s not the people’s game anymore, not at that level.”
Getting back to all things Hall, he was content with the way things were going.
“After last season's success this season was always going to be more difficult, but we'll stay up comfortably. Many of our problems are caused by injuries - we've six players out today and as you can see we've only three on the bench. We've had no luck - the game against Barwell three players broke bones - how on earth do you plan for that? We'll be fine though- and we've a big match midweek, a Suffolk derby against Bury Town. We're good at derbies - we beat Newmarket three times last season- and I think we'll win this one too!”
By this point the teams were on the pitch and having a last warm up as the referee tossed a coin, and the spectators along the touchline - from both sides - were debating the likely outcome of the match. It wasn’t easy to predict.
Bar’s form so far had demonstrated strength at both ends of the field. Up front, the strike partnership between Eoin Casey and Michael Murray had conjured up an impressive 28 goals. At the other end they’d conceded only 22, giving them the fourth best goal difference in the Division, with only leaders AFC Hornchurch, third place Canvey Island and fourth place Bowers & Pitsea boasting better records. Their home form was also exceptional, with only one defeat. Did that make them favourites? Undoubtedly, and yet The Hall had already demonstrated what they were capable of when not expected to do well, and looking at league form were better away than at home, twelve of their nineteen points coming away from Recreation Way.
The match kicked off, and the pattern for the first half was set within the first five minutes. Bar passed, passed and passed some more, Mildenhall chased and harried, closed down and denied the home side space in which to work, whilst looking to break at speed. The Scholars patient work wasn’t pleasing all of their supporters, however. “Quicker, quicker, quicker,” came a shout from the touchline as they probed for an opening. Behind the away goalkeeper there was more of the same.
“Move it forward, forward, NO, forward!”
“Come on Bar!”
“No, forward, forward, that’s not good enough!”
They were a difficult bunch to please. Perhaps they’ve been spoiled recently.
It was the away side who created the first clear cut chance with twenty minutes gone, and it could have been a thing of beauty. A free kick around five yards inside the opposition half was taken quickly, and the entire Potters Bar team switched off, with one exception. Nicholas Ingram for Mildenhall, entirely unmarked and ignored, received the ball on the left hand side of the box and only home keeper Berkley Laurencin was awake to the danger. He charged out, made himself big, and managed to somehow deflect Ingram’s shot wide for a corner.
Seven minutes later Bar tried a similar trick, and the outcome was the same, Ismael Ehui being thwarted by Jacob Marsden, as the Mildenhall bench came close to apoplexy whilst shouting at the defender who had played the forward onside.
The match remained even as we approached the break, and then in the thirty ninth minute some lovely skill from Michael Murray led to a breakthrough. The striker, operating in midfield at this point, held up the ball, stepped inside a challenge and then played an inch perfect pass for Ehui to run on to. Keeper Marsden tried to get to the ball, but only managed to trip the forward and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Murray himself placed the ball, and confidently fired home goal fourteen of his season.
Mildenhall heads didn’t drop. They provided some pressure of their own, and right on the stroke of half time almost got back on level terms. Matthew Green received the ball on the edge of the box, controlled it and moved it to his right, and then fired a beauty which was just about to drop under the bar when Laurencin, arching his back and stretching to his full length, managed to get his fingertips to it and direct it onto the bar and out for a corner.
Bar could have extended their lead three minutes after the break, a flicked header from skipper Lee O’Leary cleared off the line, but then the away side began to dominate. Sadly for the travelling contingent, however, they dominated in all the wrong areas, not once forcing Laurencin into a save. Time and time again they moved the ball forward, showing some lovely passing interplay on occasions, only for the move to break down and the ball to be cleared. A cold mist had descended over the stadium and it almost seemed as if you could see steam rising from the players as they worked themselves into the ground, Hall trying to get back into the game, Bar looking to remain strong and catch them on the break.
The home fans had by now massed on the covered raised terrace at the far end of the ground and were attempting to encourage their team, with chants of “Bar Army,” and “Scholars, Scholars,” but neither side really looked like scoring despite their efforts.
Hall used all three of their substitutes as they chased the game, but despite much effort expended couldn’t create a single clear-cut chance and had the final nail hammered home with one minute to go. A free kick was played quickly into George Nicholas twenty yards out, and the playmaker turned the defender paying him attention inside out, sending him both left and right before firing a fabulous shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. Two nil, game over, and the cue for a number of yellow scarved supporters to head towards the exit, as the home fans sang of “Super Michael Murray.”
As we wandered away into the cold Hertfordshire night, PA Announcer/Club Secretary/Programme Editor/Press Officer/Safety Officer and today Matchday Secretary Jeff Barnes was just announcing the attendance - 115. Now the match coincided with Arsenal being at home and Tottenham playing at nearby Watford, but even taking that into account it was clear that the Scholars didn’t have the support that their efforts deserved. That’s a real shame, but just perhaps there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Every week we hear tales of supporters becoming disgruntled and disenchanted with the Premier League experience - indeed, we’ve recounted two such stories today. If that is to continue then Potters Bar Town are in an ideal position to teach the denizens of their town to fall back in love with the national game; and if you visit the Pakex Stadium you might well find that there is much worth falling in love with.
For the moment, though, and to paraphrase that saying made famous by JD Salinger and an eighties beer advert, the Scholars need more gentlemen. And women. And children.
And if you fill in a form and ask them nicely, they’ll even let you in for free.
Updated 10:27 - 6 Feb 2018 by Steve Ringrose