Rocks Review: The inside story of a remarkable revival
There's a row of 14 asterisks on page ten of the Rocks matchday programme that tell a story.
They are next to 14 different names and denote ‘player no longer with club’. And the story they tell is that the Rocks shouldn’t have won promotion.
The names they’re next to include Jason Prior, Luke Nightingale, Michael Birmingham, James Fraser, Chris Breach, Matt Whitehead, Perry Ryan and Osa Obamwonyi.
Other asterisks are next to the names of players who were bit-part squad members, but that’s eight key players who at one time were available to Jamie Howell and Darin Killpartrick – and then weren’t.
Further up the squad list there are other telling statistics next to familiar names. Tim Bond – 11 league starts, for example. That’s last season’s player of the year, ruled out by injury a third of the way through the season. Dan Beck, the captain – 27 league starts. It would have been at least ten more had he not broken his collarbone and missed seven weeks of the run-in.
Just over a year ago, the Rocks missed out on the Ryman one south title by one goal. One more measly goal would have allowed them to pip Met Police to the prize.
So devastated were they by a final-day draw at Chatham, when a win was needed, that the play-offs were a disaster waiting to happen. Duly enough, heads still down, they were dumped out of the semi-finals by a Dulwich Hamlet side who’d finished 31 points below them.
There was a consolation: it was that, if they could keep that team together, there was no reason why they shouldn’t challenge again.
And despite worries over a summer swoop for Prior, who’d scored more than 40 goals in the season, and a trial at Dagenham & Redbridge for winger Ben Johnson, keeping the team together is exactly what they did.
Little did management and fans know when they began a new campaign with an unconvincing 2-1 home win over Chipstead, though, that at least two major rebuilds of the team would be necessary in the months to come.
If you’d told anyone at Nyewood Lane that day what lay ahead, they’d probably have been tempted to go and start supporting Pagham.
What did lay ahead was that the inspirational Birmingham would leave eight days later, that midfield maestro Fraser would be tempted away by Whitehawk’s money and location the following month, that fans’ favourite Nightingale would limp out of a League Cup game at Walton in October never to play again, that left-back Whitehead would leave rather abruptly before the clocks went back, that goal machine Prior would score his last Rocks goal just before Christmas and then move to AFC Wimbledon via a trial with Newcastle, that centre-half Bond wouldn’t start a game from November onwards, that skipper Beck would break his collarbone and miss the whole of March and half of April, that defenders Axten, James Crane and Jon Marzetti would also pick up three-match bans for red cards in the second half of the season.
What could go wrong next? It became a running joke; not that it was very funny.
Even some of the replacements needed replacing. Breach returned to the Lane after Fraser left – only to be snapped up by Lewes in January. Obamwonyi brought his considerable presence on loan from Sutton – only to be recalled just when he was needed most. Ben Andrews made a cavalry-like arrival before Christmas – and was injured after three games.
Some teams would have buckled long before the end of the season, but which fan was it a couple of years ago who suggested this club’s theme tune should be Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping – “We get knocked down, but we get up again.”
Every time their squad was disrupted, Howell and Killpartrick either repaired it from within or, with the blessing of general manager Jack Pearce, went out and replaced whoever had left.
Some of the losses could be covered from existing resources. The only major summer signing was prolific Worthing striker Terry Dodd, whose early and late-season form went a long way to covering the loss of Prior and Nightingale. And Kane Wills – often left out while Birmingham and Fraser were still at the Lane – hardly missed a game and had an immense season.
But new recruits were needed too. Andrews was brought in as much for his leadership and inspirational qualities and, either side of a couple of injuries, he didn’t let anyone down. Steve Harper, who arrived on loan mid-season from Met Police and enjoyed himself so much he said he didn’t want to go back, was another versatile player who weighed in with key contributions.
Arguably the signing of the season, though, was Ashley Robinson. He came with rave reviews and a long list of former clubs, among them Crystal Palace. Howell admitted when he signed him he was a gamble but he was one that paid off handsomely with 13 goals and some trickery on the ball rarely seen at this level.
If you take Robinson as Prior’s replacement, the Rocks effectively got 41 goals from one position.
So just how did the Rocks keep ripping up their teamsheet and keep the promotion bid going?
Howell and Killpartrick feel the fact they have such a clear system and structure in the way they play helped.
Fringe players knew how they’d be asked to play when called upon – and new faces soon got the message too.
And the fact that, for all the departures, the team still had a backbone of players who’d taken the club so close in 2010-11, was a huge factor. Craig Stoner in goal, Axten at centre-half, Wills in the engine room, Johnson on the wing, Crane wherever he was asked to play – they’d all played their part the previous year and, to a man, maintained their standards or improved on them in 2011-12.
Others like Darryl Wollers, Jon Marzetti, Sonny Cobbs and Harvey Whyte joined in and looked like they’d been there for years.
In many ways the two campaigns were similar. Each contained just four defeats in more than 40 games; each contained around 100 goals scored.
Where this season differed is that it featured two periods where results dipped below the Rocks’ own high standards.
In October they lost their first league game – 3-1 at Corinthian Casuals – then were beaten by Mangotsfield and Sutton in the FA Trophy and FA Cup. When a straightforward-looking home game with Whitstable ended 2-2, some fans feared the season would go off the rails. Howell and Killpartrick needed reinforcements.
Andrews and Harper arrived and the team went on a league run of nine wins and two draws, scoring 36, letting in four.
Even in January they rode a run of three games without a win and the sale of Prior by launching another winning run, five games long, that saw them enter March with high hopes of the title.
But all the season’s difficulties were catching up with them and three out of six games in March didn’t bring wins – a flat 1-0 loss at Eastbourne was a low point, as was a visit to Crawley Down when a 2-0 lead turned into a 3-2 deficit and only a late Johnson strike saved a point.
April was similarly up and down: handsome home wins sandwiched a first defeat in many years to Worthing, then Axten got himself sent off one Saturday and the next, a team patched up once too often gave probably their worst display of the season in drawing 1-1 with Walton & Hersham when a win would have put one hand on the title.
Throughout the testing final couple of months of the season the Rocks half-expected to be in the play-offs – neverthless at half-time in the final game of the regular league season, they looked a team destined to suffer play-off heartache again.
In the mud and rain against Maidstone at Sittingbourne, the half-time mood among the players and the scores of fans who’d made the trip was as bleak as the surroundings. They were 2-0 down, lucky not to be 3-0 or 4-0 down, and were looking at finishing third.
In the dressing room, the players were asked if they wanted that first-half display to be the sort by which they’d be remembered – whether they always wanted to be known as chokers ... whether they did really have the heart and desire to get over the line. Apart from anything, leaders Whitehawk were only 1-0 up in their game so a win in Kent could yet have yielded the title.
Some argued back in that dressing room, bristling at the quite-personal criticism. But the real response came on the pitch in the second half as they showed that heart and desire in spades – as they showed their true selves.
Within 20 minutes it was 2-2, another few minutes 3-2, then 4-2. They’d reminded everyone, not least of all themselves, that they were actually a rather good team, maybe a little too good for Ryman one south.
They still didn’t win the title but victory meant they finished second, ensuring they’d be at home in a play-off final as well as the semi-final. And it also meant they went into those play-offs in the polar opposite manner to that of a year earlier.
Godalming’s visit for that most epic of semi-finals could easily have gone either way. But without that turnaround at Sittingbourne in their minds, it’s doubtful whether the Rocks could have recovered from going 2-1 and then 4-3 down to the Gs. That would surely have been a fight too far.
By the time last Sunday dawned, the Rocks were more than ready for another tussle with Dulwich, this time a sudden-death one for promotion.
They were still buzzing, not only from the semi, but from the Stones game too.
And they had Axten back in the team after his three-match ban – a man who’d tasted play-off defeat four years in a row, with Worthing in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and the Rocks in 2011.
Axten couldn’t have beaten Dulwich single-handedly but he probably went out thinking he could.
Defeat wasn’t an option for the big man and it showed in his every header and tackle – and it showed when his determined and well-timed run ended with him getting his head on a 17th-minute corner to score what proved the only goal of the game.
Howell said before the final that if Dulwich won, he at least wanted to be able to say the Rocks had given it everything. But in reality, being able to say that wouldn’t have been much consolation for Axten, nor for anyone else in green or white, nor any of their fans.
They all woke up last Sunday as they had woken up on August 20 last year – wanting promotion.
The fact they achieved it through the play-offs and not through finishing first ... that matters not a jot.
The fact they achieved it at all ... that means everything.