Potters Bar Town 0-2 Bognor Regis Town (Isthmian League Premier Division)
Only in England would you agree to a 250-mile eight hour round trip to watch a seventh-tier part-time football match with less than 200 in attendance.
I've been scratching around for a game since the middle of last week for my Tuesday fix, although tonight's match has been plucked randomly by a computer at HQ it seems... Anywhere within a 120 mile radius... Just don't go further south, than the M25.
They gave me... Potters Bar!
It's my first viewing 'ever' of Isthmian League football. The Scholars are up against Bognor Regis Town, nicknamed the Rocks, in a thirteenth v fourteenth mid table battle that will probably mean little come May... But Potters Bar were at one stage top of the Premier Division this season, their fall from grace down to previous manager Sammy Moore doing them dirty to take a drop down in division with Faverham Town for what I’m told was money, taking four or five of his best assets with him too.
Founded in 1960 as a team made up of former school pupils, Mount Grace Scholars eventually became Potters Bar Town in 1991 as the side began to climb the regional league's thus changing their name to highlight that success on the very town the club kicked its balls in.
The Isthmian Premier which they've been in since 2018 is about as good as it gets in their history charts, not so for Bognor Regis, formed in 1883 who've had a few seasons previously at step 2 Conference & National South.
They've spent the last five in the Isthmian Premier and are managed by former Bradford and Burnley striker Robbie Blake, who is by far the biggest celebrity in the building tonight.
I’ve left little before 4pm as I head down the A46 onto the M1 and start the 115-mile drive south from Nottingham.
The roads aren’t bad as I listen to the world’s number one sports radio station in my car. I’m onto the M25 and take a pit stop at South Mimms Services before 6pm where I have a Waitrose wrap and packet of crisps.
Finally reaching the Hertfordshire town of Potters Bar. I’m impressed with its High Street, turning right at a boozer called Potty’s, I’m on the A1000 passing a nice looking pub called the Cask and Stillage and a number of tasty looking eateries before turning left onto The Walk and right into the venues car park.
There’s a BMW one series parked next to me and two lads getting out in green jackets, one has lost his phone, it’s Bognor’s Danny Howick who I tap on the shoulder and say ‘give it a call on mine’. He uses my torch and eventually finds it down the side of his passenger seat, panic over but it’s twenty to seven, I tell him “You’ll probably get a fine for being late now”.
I’m not sure where the turnstile is? There’s a brick building which looks like a clubhouse but it doesn’t even have a front door? I opt for the left side of the building where I find a couple of doorways etched into breeze blocks painted in claret, a sign saying ‘The Lantern Stadium Welcomes You’ and below that some A4 framed admission prices lent up against the wall.
I opt to pay contactless and to the surprise of the operator request a receipt. £12 entrance I’m through the gates (which I read were originally passed down after the demolition of the old Wembley Stadium) and into an open space which has a large marquee where a border collie is barking like mad.
I take a walk around the ground which is a bit of a mish mash, but much better looking than I had thought and seen (through google images), my only worry is that one of the floodlights is out, it’s awfully dark, but I’m told by a fan, “the clubs saving energy and it’ll be on by kick-off.”
The left-hand goal has a tiny roofed terrace with overly tall scaffolding used as barriers. Tree lined back drop it’s a leafy quaint venue, the length of the pitch far side has apartments overlooking the playing surface, this near side a couple of seated stands three or four rows high, standing room only behind the other goal, the right-hand corner of that, has the players changing rooms hidden away in a brick building attached to the main bar and boardroom.
I’m joined twenty minutes or so before kick off by the two Peter’s from Rocks Radio. They cover Bognor Regis games home and away and tell me the ‘burgers here are great’. Already full from my Waitrose wrap I declined to participate but could smell and see the masses of onions frying when I ordered my coffee, the burgers did look good… Another time maybe?
The two teams are out as a sparse crowd fills around us, the press seats level two between the eighteen yard box and centre circle, the pitch in front slightly sloped up hill towards those apartments and dugouts on the far side, not the best surface, muddy and bobbly, there’s a bit of wind too so I’m not expecting it to be an attractive encounter.
But the maroon shirted Potters Bar start well. I’m told only a couple of their players have been here all season, midfielder Theo Alexandrou glides well on the undulating floor, he’s number ten on his back and despite the healthy growth of facial hair is said to be only seventeen. He’s a Stevenage Academy player with guile and intelligence, one of the few that can operate at high pace without losing possession on this bouncy uneven pitch.
Another one who does well on the surface is Max Granville who’s an eighteen year old midfielder also from the academy up the road at Stevenage, he’s looking to play progressive passes into the strikers feet as the home team push forward, the away side happy to clear their lines early doors as a blood nosed Howick and Cameron Black at centre half head, block and launch away from danger at will.
That defensive resilience pays off for the away side as a shot at the other end is saved and smashed home on the rebound by the lively Dan Gifford. A youngster on loan from Portsmouth he’s busy with his back to goal and works hard for the team and to create chances for himself, only small but stumpy, quick off the mark, he reacted fastest to put his side ahead.
The opener gives confidence to Bognor who I end up impressed with at the break, I tell the two Peter’s on commentary ‘defensively they look solid’ as the Bishop Stortford Manager comes over and asks “where’s the lad from Pompey?” Alfie Bridgman is the boy in question, another on loan from Portsmouth, he’s on international duty as one of the Peter’s replies, “he’s playing for Malta”. Bishop play Bognor next (without Bridgman), and might be impressed with what they’ve seen tonight during their scouting mission.
The away side are at scratch I’m told with only two fit subs, they usually struggle to keep clean sheets but with something to defend they look solid second half and enjoy the battle as the game starts to become more niggly as the home team look for ways to upset their combative visitors balance.
Josh Rusoke out wide looks to be their creative threat but is not having the best night, he’s overhitting balls into the box which are often dealt with by the Rocks solid back line. I’m impressed with Matt Rowley in the Regis goal who does make one terrific stop, diving to his right to tip over a super long range effort by Finlay Titchmarsh.
A free kick on 70 however provides the relief that the boys from Bognor need, a ball played into the box finds that man again, Dan Gifford eventually on the end of some scraps inside the area to put the game to bed.
Bognor grow with confidence late on and might even add to their tally, a good stop from Charlie Taylor saves further embarrassment as the final seconds see fouls and niggles it’s all very stop-start, the referee who has a good game, eventually blowing for full time before a Potters Bar player Wilson Chingoka retaliates to something said, it’s all a bit messy but soon calmed down, the players still arguing on the pitch as the fans filter out the ground.
Bognor’s solidity is something they haven’t been accused of getting right in the past this season, but in nineteen-year-old Danny Howick and twenty-year-old Cameron Black they have two defenders that look to be beyond their years in maturity. Doing the simple stuff well. Enjoying the battle and enjoying the basic art of defending which is always good to see. Another teenager, eighteen-year-old goalkeeper Matt Rowley on loan from Reading has also made an impact defensively, he kicks huge and his reflexes are sharp, a good thick set and size for a professional league star to be.
Another one I expect to stomp his feet on the professional circuit is Dan Gifford, a true workhorse and a player with a proper strikers instinct, a good attitude that can only bode him well for the future. Nathan Odokonyero is actually the clubs top goalscorer and looked threatening in parts, with plenty of pace on the right wing, whilst Walter Figueira shown a couple of classy touches from an inside left midfield position.
For Potters Bar, a largely young team with some talented footballers, pretty small in size, they have classy technicians in Alexandrou and Granville and whilst I believe there’s more to come from former ex-Arsenal youngster Josh Rusoke, I wonder where his best position is? He started the game at right wing and ended it at left back. He took every set play, but didn’t take them so well.
In defence, Wilson Chingoka was committed and feisty which I liked. Joe Russell at centre half their only player that looked over 6ft. Finlay Titchmarsh in particular at right back and Calvin Dickson at left back, two of their longest serving players, both having good games, despite the result, on the night.
Whilst both teams may be stalling to a season finish of mid table obscurity, for Bognor Regis at least, there’s a Sussex County Cup final at Brighton’s Amex Stadium still to play for. Their injuries and lack of squad depth meaning they’ll most likely be full strength for the later rounds of that competition which is currently at the semi-final stage, the small hurdle of beating Premier League Brighton & Hove Albion for a shot at silverware.
For Potters Bar who themselves have the Velocity Cup final against Aveley still to play for in April. I’m told by their PA and one of their Directors that recently ‘it’s the best they’ve played in years’ a good footballing side that with time, and a proper pre-season gelling together under new management, could ensure they come back stronger over the summer.
First and foremost, both teams will unquestionably be in the Isthmian Premier Division during 2023/24 where they’ll meet again home and away. It’s a two hour drive from the Sussex coast either way around the M25 but that journey back for the coach load of players, staff, the two Peter’s on radio duty and their fourteen travelling fans on the night, will be sweetened by those two Dan Gifford goals and a workmanlike performance by the boys in white and green.
As for me, well i'm back up the M1 and home for midnight, ready to do it all again soon... Next Tuesday's trip.. Even further than this... But before then, England, at Wembley, on Sunday, where it's not business, but pleasure, for eyes on Gareth Southgate's men against Ukraine.
Potters Bar Town: Charlie Taylor, Finlay Titchmarsh, Calvin Dickson (Emmanuel Okunwobi 71), Max Granville, Wilson Chingoka, Joe Russell, Josh Rusoke, Lewis Smith (Connor McShane 82), Chancey Dash (Cheyce Grant 46), Theo Alexandrou, Makise Evans.
Bognor Regis Town: Matt Rowley, Calvin Davies, Joe Rabbetts, Florian Kastrati, Cameron Black, Danny Howick, Josh McCormick, Sam De St Croix, Nathan Odokonyero (Matt Pearson 84), Dan Gifford, Walter Figueira (Tom Holland 90).
7:45pm Kick Off. Tuesday 21st March 2023, Parkfield, Potters Bar (att 171).