There are three vital games remaining and it is possibly not worth using the phrase “must win”. People know that, and for Tonbridge to have a fighting chance of making the play-offs others need to slip up - even if the team net the maximum return.
Before facing AFC Sudbury on Saturday, the Angels are seventh, with Enfield Town (fifth) and Wingate & Finchley (sixth) just above them. The rivals have played the same number of matches.
Steve McKimm’s men are only one point behind the North London outfits, but further adrift of Leiston (fourth) and Dulwich Hamlet (third). Bognor Regis Town and Havant & Waterlooville are way ahead, vying for the championship and automatic promotion.
The current positions of the top half-a-dozen in the league table are likely to be the concluding places – especially when one team just outside the zone concede eight goals in a cup final! (Please see Billericay match report.)
The Towners seem to specialise in strong finishes, following sluggish starts, and at the end of one campaign were only denied a play-off because of mistakenly fielding an ineligible player (points’ deduction). This could well be their year, especially after defeating a suddenly wealthy Billericay side by 4-2 on Saturday (April 7). That triumph was the fifth in a row, with the previous outing a 1-0 success over title-hopefuls’ Bognor. Enfield next host Folkestone, then travel to Harlow, before welcoming Leiston on the last day of term.
Of those chasing fifth, the UK’s first fan-owned football club have the edge where goal difference and goals scored are concerned - if that comes into play.
The current top four can probably plan for matches beyond the normal 46-game season.
The Finchley-based Blues have form as dark-horses too, almost achieving a top-five berth a couple of seasons ago until fading near the end. Earlier in 2016/17 a relegation battle looked on the cards, especially when the Angels secured a comfortable 3-0 win at Longmead on the opening day. The result was repeated soon afterwards, away in the FA Cup, suggesting this writer’s rather positive assessment of the first guests had been way off the mark.
The team from historic Middlesex are managed by former Northern Ireland international Keith Rowland and he has concentrated on building his own squad. It just took time for the players to gel and they did not really get going until September. Scoring boots had definitely been found in late-October – the Angels were thrashed 4-0!
Wingate did stutter last month, with just one win, but both matches in April ended in victory (Grays 1-0) and Merstham (2-0). The remaining opposition are Worthing (home), Staines (away) and Dulwich (home) on the last day of scheduled fixtures.
Needham Market, in the running for most of the season, until recently, are equal on points with Tonbridge (68). The Marketmen have only won once in the past seven league contests and their outstanding matches are Harrow (home), Sudbury (away) and Billericay (home).
At Longmead, if top five is not achieved, the damage was really done during a mad March and the last day of February, when Havant (1-1) and Needham (3-4) grabbed crucial points after our favourites seemed on course for victory. However, arguably, the most devastating blow to the campaign occurred when Harlow – Ryman North counterparts of Sudbury last year - inflicted 3-0 misery. The only bright spot of an otherwise winless month involved a league cup semi-final triumph over Dulwich.
Before considering the next visitors, some opinion on the wider picture. First, because only the champions secure automatic promotion, it does not really matter if a team finishes second or fifth. The only difference would be a contest on home soil. And, in light of the two aforementioned defeats in recent weeks that might not actually be an advantage for Tonbridge!
The next matter concerns the increasing quality of the Ryman Premier’s top clubs. Those reaching National South, in some cases, now seem capable of enjoying life among promotion challengers, not merely consolidation. And there are teams in the higher division that were way down the pecking order not long ago – Hungerford perhaps one example. The Berkshire side earned promotion via Southern League play-offs last year, after finishing fourth, and have been in the running for a similar finish in the semi-professional second tier.
The Isthmian top flight is an extremely tough proposition and will be even harder next season. Billericay will be investing heavily under new ownership and already favourites. Also, teams missing out this time could include Havant or Bognor, Dulwich, Enfield plus the usual challengers, such as Leiston. And, there could be fierce competition from clubs relegated from National South, or North, but that almost certainly depends on their financial positions.
So, it is worth one final push for the last three games of 2016/17 and supporters can play a big part. On the field, pride, at the very least, should be motivation for those selected.
The initial test is from AFC Sudbury, last year’s Ryman North champions. The “Suds” made a bright start to their debut in the Premier but, as the campaign progressed, they have drifted into a scrap to avoid a rapid return. They are four points adrift of safety at the moment and rivals include Folkestone Invicta, the Angels’ opponents on Easter Monday.
The Suffolk side bring a largely experienced squad, including some former Football League players. The latter category might not include big names once valued in millions, but solid ex-professionals who grafted in the lower divisions of the full-time set-up and subsequently became familiar with the rigours of the non-league game. Sudbury’s struggle of late is further testament of the quality of the Isthmian Premier. In the previous 10 outings the Yellows only managed one win, against Neil Cugley’s Invicta (3-1), and a draw (0-0 at Worthing).
Incidentally, the visitors are not a phoenix outfit. Although AFC in a title often indicates a new set-up - in this case it stands for Amalgamated, following the merger of Town and Wanderers in 1999.
After the mad March, the Angels beat Hendon 2-1 on the first day of the month, followed by a 0-2 loss at Havant last weekend.
Billericay were faced in the league cup final on Wednesday evening with the outcome a shocking 3-8 defeat.
The crucial Ryman Premier match between Tonbridge and AFC Sudbury on Saturday April 15, at Longmead Stadium, Darenth Avenue, is a 3pm kick-off.
Updated 17:30 - 14 Apr 2017 by Jim Rowe