The Angels have a semi-final to look forward to on Tuesday evening, against London’s most fashionable non-league club.
Dulwich Hamlet have enjoyed rocketing attendances in recent years and the visiting team, including several former professional players, will be aiming for a cup and promotion double.
The same goal is also a target for Tonbridge, but, given a choice, the midweek dugout rivals, Steve McKimm and Gavin Rose, would almost certainly settle for the latter.
The pair are in the play-off hunt and meet again on Saturday for a vital clash in the Ryman Premier. (An article covering the weekend tussle will appear in the run-up to the match.)
The first hurdle to be negotiated is a semi-final of the Alan Turvey Trophy sponsored by Robert Dyas. Despite the possible camouflage of a mouthful-moniker, the competition is one worth winning. Once known as the Isthmian League Cup in “old money”, there is a lengthy list of esteemed winners, including several that later joined the ranks of England’s full-time set-up.
The current holders are Kingstonian and carved into the roll of honour are also names that were once the south east’s most successful semi-professional representatives.
Not on the list are Tonbridge and Dulwich. (No laughing at the back, just in case anyone thinks this writer is deluded enough to believe the Angels ever held top-notch status!) Joking aside, Hamlet could be classed as former greats, although the glory years were mainly between the two world wars and briefly afterwards.
The absence of the trophy in club-history is a situation the promotion chasing duo are probably hoping to rectify – probably, probably being the optimum word.
Cup football these days often presents non-league managers with a conundrum, usually involving selection and balancing the needs of small squads. The considerations are particularly important when teams are in the running for promotion or avoiding relegation.
One decision to be pondered includes whether a boss keeps faith with the players that earned the last-four place – if first picks have been rested in earlier rounds. The general trend for competitions staged midweek is to provide promising talent with valuable experience, or assist the rehabilitation of people returning from injury.
At the semi-final stage, a boss is less likely to take a pragmatic approach – after all a trophy is a trophy. At Longmead, the cabinet housing silverware has mostly only attracted attention when dusting is required! Apart from a spell in the Kent League during the early 1990s, which netted a title and two league cups, Tonbridge largely settled for runners up medals. The last big achievement, earning a place in Conference South in May 2011, involved second in the final table and play-off success.
Even during the purple patch of the 1950s, when crowds in the thousands crammed into the old Angel Ground, additions to the honours’ list would frequently read “finalists” rather than “winners”. Indeed, one of the more significant trophies almost lifted – the majority of successes were countywide contests – involved the Southern League equivalent of Tuesday’s tussle. The Angels twice reached the final but lost to outfits that later joined the 92 full-timers – Hereford and Yeovil.
The last occasion when a semi-final was reached in a cup competition for counterparts in the third tier of non-league football, the evening ended in disappointment. Thirty years ago, Phil Emblen’s swashbuckling side faced the powerful Waterlooville. In 1987, the attack-minded Angels were underdogs and the first leg was staged at the since-demolished Jubilee Park. It finished in narrow defeat but there were high hopes for the return at Longmead, in front of a sizable, partisan crowd. Unfortunately, an early goal from the eventual trophy winners left Tonbridge with an uphill struggle against an efficient and robust defence.
The team participate in the Isthmian version these days and previous holders include once giants of the non-league game, such as Wycombe, Yeovil, Dagenham and the original Enfield. Steve McKimm’s former employers, Sutton United, have earned the most victories (four) and in recent years the taste of triumph has helped inspire elevation to the National South. Concord Rangers and Maidstone United clinched the trophy in 2012/13 and 2013/14, respectively.
So, adding the name Tonbridge would be a significant achievement and might provide a platform for promotion – hopefully sooner rather than later.
Of course, standing in the way of a possible final appearance are Dulwich Hamlet – one of those very giants. At one stage, the South Londoners were the biggest and best team in amateur football boasting a lengthy honours’ record. The current side are aiming to revive the glory days and provide a modern enhancement to the distinguished tradition at Champion Hill. Among the list of non-league accolades, such as the Isthmian championship, FA Amateur Cup plus a host of other trophies, there is a gap. Dulwich have not clinched the league’s cup competition. Yet!
There has been much excitement in 2016/17, including a high-profile run in the FA Trophy as well as the midweek semi-final outing. In the former, Hamlet reached the quarter finals and eventually lost to ex-Football League outfit Macclesfield Town at Moss Rose. On Tuesday March 7, two goals in as many minutes (18 and 20 mins.) from the Cheshire club’s Rhys Browne settled the tie that required a replay. The first tussle, in the capital, was watched by an attendance of almost 3,000 and concluded 2-2.
Cup progress means there is catching up required in the Ryman Premier and the Pink & Blues have a handful of games in hand on several rivals targeting the play-offs. Hopefuls include Tonbridge and the pair lock horns again on Saturday for another vital clash.
In the league cup, Dulwich are crossing fingers for third time lucky after twice reaching the final under Gavin Rose. Defeats were at the hands of Concord in April 2013 (2-3, after extra time) and Wingate & Finchley (0-2) two years earlier.
Archivists at Champion Hill, like their Angels’ counterparts, will be hoping, eventually, to add the word “winners” rather than “finalists”.
The Isthmian League Cup semi-final (Alan Turvey Trophy sponsored by Robert Dyas) between Tonbridge and Dulwich on Tuesday (March 14) at Longmead Stadium is a 7.45pm kick-off.
Updated 23:59 - 14 Mar 2017 by Jim Rowe