Wednesday, 6 July 2011

All change in the Garden of England

Mishi Morath offers his two penn'orth on the new league being formed in Kent (his own personal opinions, and not those of Dulwich Hamlet Football Club)

Some Dulwich Hamlet fans could be forgiven for knowing little to nothing about some of our Kent League pre-season opponents, such as Holmesdale or Erith Town; nor much at all about the level of football they compete in, despite only being one rung below us in the non-league pyramid. After all there is nothing more important in life than our boys in Pink 'n' Blue, with the rest fading into insignifcance.

And back in the pre-professional days of the Isthmian League there were relatively few Kent sides we would encounter, as the Kent League tended to be openly proessional, rather than the majority 'Shamateur' Isthmians. Kent League sides, not being amateurs, tended to join the Southern League if they progressed upwards. That 'gateway' continued, with the official scrapping of amateur status in 1974, & over the next decade, as the Isthmian League expanded into four divisions on a non-geographic basis, there became a serious anomaly in the non-league pyramid. As Kent League champions an ambitious outfit could jump into the Southern League Premier Division, one below the Conference back then as that only consisted of one division, after only one promotion; whereas a Combined Counties side who started on the upward curve would have to go through three Isthmian promotions to achieve the same level.

Eventually divisions were 'equalised' & our Isthmian League now has two divisions of equal status, in Division One North, & south, which we compete in. Now the Kent League champions are promoted, & visit Champion Hill, rather than having to battle through two more divisions to do so.

The Kent League is understrength,numerically. For a number of reasons. As ground gradings kicked in over the last twenty years, with clubs needing floodlights & stands, teams dropped out, some well established, others newer members. Some off the top of my head, Snowdown Colliery Welfare; Metropolitan Police (Area Four); Darenth Heathside; Danson; Kent Police & Crockenhill....I'm sure there are more who have either fallen by the wayside or dropped down to lower leagues.

Then there was the problem of clubs moving upward, without the equivalent going the other way. Think of the Sussex County League. Some of their sides have gone back down, such as Horsham YMCA & Crowborough Athletic, but the Kent Leaguers have progressed onwards & upwards, think Maidstone United & Cray Wanderers; or gain a foothold in Ryman One South, like Whitstable Town; Faversham Town & Ramsgate.

Further to all this there is no relegation from the Kent League, as there was no 'step six' league to 'buffer' the huge gap between the county league & the much lower level Kent County League.

Unitil now! Mooted for many years, talked about over many a fuggy boardroom as chairmen chewed on cigars & knocked back tumblers of whiskey, for many moons. Under the 'gentle pressuring' of the Football Association, the new campaign will see the birth of the Kent Invicta League, to bridge the chasm between basic roped off 'parks' grounds to lit up stadia that can host FA Vase & Cup football in the Kent League.

The make-up of the new league is a strange one. Eminently sensible if you're a blazer from the County FA I'm sure, but how they came to the constitution of the sixteen team division is anyone's guess! You would expect the majority to have been lifted from the Premier Division of the KCL. Nine of them have. Our near neighbours Lewisham Borough are included, who play at the floodlit Ladywell Arena, despite not initially being included! They only got their invite after Cray Valley Papers Mills, who were in it, were parachuted over it (hmmm....can you actually be parachuted over something? I though parachutes floated down, but I digress!) & into the Kent League itself. The other Premier sides from the County League with them are Bearsted; Bly Spartans; Bridon Ropes; Hollands & Blair; Phoenix Sports; Rusthall; Sutton Athletic & Woodstock Park.

The others are a strange mix! Previous status has been ignored, & it's been a bit of a 'free for all' as clubs further down the County League divisions & even brand new senior clubs are accepted. I am guessing anyone who has expressed any sort of ambition to move upwards & establish themselves at Step Six could apply, regardless of how low down the pyramid they were.

Below the Premier Division the Kent County League had been split north & west in their divisions one & two. From the First former Kent Leaguers Crockenhill, who I mentioned earlier, are in. As are their near neighbours Orpington. The numbers are then made up from the two Second Divisions, with Lydd Town; Meridian; and Seven Acre & Sidcup. The latter will be based at the old Cray Wanderers ground in Sidcup, at Oxford Road. A former Kent league venue, which the Wands left as they were unable to get lights there. So what chance have this outfit got of erecting some?

The last two sides are new outfits. One will be huge favourites for the title, playing at a stadium well known to Hamlet followers. Ashford United, based at Homelands, are the club that has finally arisen out of the ashes of Ashford Town, who folded prior to the start of last season. The other will be groundsharing at VCD Athletic, which is in Crayford. But their name is Erith & Dartford Town. Not playing in either, & both really seperate places in their own right, despite the Football Club being called 'Town',as in singular!

Most will be happy to establish themselves at this new level in the pyramid. A few others will be wanting to use this to 'test the water' & push on for Kent League status. Ashford United will clearly see this as their first step to consecutive promotions 'back' to the Isthmian League. the new side Erith & Dartford Town are expected to be the only ones to really challenge them, as they have a wealthy backer. It reamains to be seen if he will be in it for the long hual, or get bored 'boom & bust' style a year or two down the line. Of the others I would expect Bly Spartans; Hollands & Blair; Lewisham Borough & Phoenix Sports, at least, to have Kent League aspirations.

Where does this new league leave the 'old' Kent County? Well it's still going strong, despite losing a division. A brand new sponsor, Haart estate agents, the very same that we proudly wear on OUR shirts! And the 'Dulwich' connection doesn't end there! New, in Division Two West, is an outfit called Dulwich Village FC, based at Dulwich Sports Club in Turney Road. I know nothing about them, but believe they have grown from a junior organisation called Dulwich Magic FC. New kid on the block? Could they be our local rivals one day, if ever the current Hamlet go the same way as Ashford Town? I'm sure the Dulwich Hamlet Supporters Trust wouldn't complain, as they sit on their '100 Club' 'war chest', for such a scenario, instead of helping the Club today!

So how will this new level pan out? Only time will tell, I am no 'Mystic Mishi'! Other Isthmian feeders have had a Step Six for many years, as in the Sussex County League & Combined Counties Leagues first divisions. With the formation of the Invicta League the only part of the country now without a step six is the gap below the Essex Senior League. Hopefully this new level will make the jump up more manageable & easier, for clubs who want to progress slowly but surely, without breaking the bank. This can only be good news to 'kick start' & rejuvenate Kent grass roots football. Who knows, I hope not from our point of view, but it may not be too long before Lewisham Borough make the short journey on the 185 bus to Champion Hill for an Isthmian League match!

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