A year to the day, Dunstable Town had been beaten 1-0 away at Leverstock Green and sat uncomfortably a place above the relegation zone. December defeats at home to Leighton Town and away at Eyensbury Rovers had eaten away at some of the optimism the away win at bottom club London Colney had brought a month earlier.
It had been a frustrating season in many ways with the Team struggling for consistency and being unable to find a way of turning some decent performances into points. Things finally turned for the better with a very professional and polished performance away in the local derby at Crawley Green on the 18th January which saw the Blues get a deserved three points, followed by an exhilarating display of attacking football a week later in a 5 -2 victory against Oxhey Jets. To coin a phrase from a certain Mr Powers, the Team had found their mojo.
Further victories over Harefield & Eyensbury and creditable draws against Broadfields and Biggleswade and, but for a controversial decision to rule out a goal at Edgware the Team would have had a better tally than 14 points from the last seven games. At an average of two points a game
over the course of the season, this would equate to promotion-chasing performances.
The players had adapted to a system and a style of play which clearly suited them; management duo, Gareth Jackson & Ryan Sturges had recruited experienced Coach, Ivan Arapov to work alongside them. The mood in the camp was positive and optimistic and the squad looked ready to deliver the goods and achieve their potential.
Then along came Coronavirus, and the world as we knew it turned upside down and took the lives of two of the most respected SSML Officials in Isaac Jempeji and Mike Appleby.
Football rightly took the Spring and Summer off as the nation battled the spread of the Virus and families mourned the passing of so many loved ones.
When football returned Gareth & Ryan needed to re-build the squad yet again as key players were lost to rival clubs, a family tragedy and also in a very positive light, Eric Ameyaw’s signature at Craven Cottage on a professional contract was greeted by all associated with the Club with great excitement as had been Peter Kioso’s move to Luton Town, Nathan Harness’ signature at Charlton Athletic & Nick Hayes move to Norwich City a year or two earlier.
News also that former Dunstable player David Longe-King had signed for Newport County gave the Club the proud record of seeing five former players sign professional contracts with League clubs under three different management teams. David played over 60 times for Dunstable perfecting his craft before moving to St Albans City in 2017 where he captained the Bedfordshire FA X1 in their centenary match against National League opposition also winning an England C cap.
The re-build has not been easy or straightforward. Losing six players on the eve of the new season has proved to be a herculean task coupled with potentially season-ending injuries to Chris Vardy and Dylan Fitzpatrick. On the eve of an important match, Gareth Jackson had thirteen players either injured, suspended or unavailable due to work. Such is life at the coal face for Gareth & many other Non-League managers who need to survive on meagre resources and limited playing squad numbers.
Off the field changes at Committee level saw the departure of ten valued and respected colleagues. Each had contributed invaluable work, time and energy into keeping the Club afloat during the difficult early years of being a Fan owned and managed club. With a mid-thirties average age of the new Committee, the Club is very much looking forward to the future and strategically planning short term goals to achieve long term ambitions.
When the season did re-start it was behind closed doors for five of the eight pre-season friendlies. Creasey Park developed a one-way system for spectators and the main stand capacity was reduced from 250 seats to just 61 in order to ensure spectators remained socially distanced.
We became experts in the writing of Covid-19 risk assessments and learned new vocabulary and expressions. “Zoom” no longer just meant the song by Fat Larry’s Band but became the standard way of holding meetings. PPE sounded like another financial scam chased by “no win no fee” legal firms, but in reality was of life-saving importance.
The Club’s supporters were unable to watch any of the pre-season friendly wins against Aston Clinton, MK Gallacticos, Berkhamsted Comrades and Berkhamsted Raiders. There was a commanding first-half performance against ground sharing rivals, AFC Dunstable, who ended up claiming local bragging rights coming back strongly to win an evenly matched, well contested game 3-2.
A second-half collapse against Winslow saw Dunstable snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and a polished performance from North Leigh saw Dunstable complete their round of pre-season friendlies with Gareth & Ryan still looking for that elusive Je ne sais quoi to have the Team firing on all cylinders.
The first competitive match of the season, the Extra Preliminary Round of the Emirates FA Cup against lower league placed Thame Rangers was played under the Creasey Park lights on a Wednesday night in front of a partisan and noisy crowd of 137. Thame clearly hadn’t read the script and went into stoppage time a goal ahead. Dunstable’s blushes were saved by the head of Davide Pobbe who got on the end of a Dan Blackman free-kick over on the left-hand side. Cue scenes of unadulterated relief and joy as Dunstable went through to the next round on a penalty shootout.
Ten days later Banbury based Easington Sports were the opposition in the next round of the Emirates FA Cup and again Dunstable were grateful to Dan Blackman for converting the all-important final penalty and to Dan Gould for a vital penalty save in the lottery of a second penalty shoot-out.
Dunstable got a creditable draw at home to Baldock Town on Tuesday 15th September as the Spartan South Midlands League Premier Division finally kicked off in earnest over a month later than normal. Extremely promising young full-back, Dylan Fitzpatrick, who had impressed everyone with his pre-season performances, suffered a horrific leg break in the game and Dunstable fell at the final hurdle conceding an equaliser as the game was about to enter stoppage time. A first goal for the Club from Louis Octave and some more heroics from Dan Gould looked as though Dunstable might get their League campaign off to a winning start only to be pegged back at the end.
Next up was an away trip to Ampthill Town in the FA Vase. If it is possible for a Team to have a collective “bad day at the office” this was it. Ampthill belied their lower division status and despite an early second-half goal from Teddy Daniels to reduce the deficit & which sparked some life into the Team, Ampthill regained composure and deservedly won 4 – 1 on a gloriously sunny September afternoon.
And just in case you thought things couldn’t get any worse, results in the next two games against Barking (L 1-6) which knocked Dunstable out of the FA Cup and then a four-nil reverse at Oxhey Jets had heads being scratched and supporters fearful of another long campaign at the wrong end of the table.
So who better than to play in your next match than the team at the top of the table, unbeaten thus far and with a well-oiled machine with an effective style of play. Enter Colney Heath. And cue Dunstable’s best performance of the season as we more than matched the league leaders every step of the way. Leo Pedro struck in the first half to give Dunstable a deserved lead which we carried into the latter part of the second half only for former Blue Harry Shepherd, on as a second-half sub, to get his team’s equaliser with Dunstable down to nine men following an on-field brawl which saw straight reds for Joe Hankins and George Mulonda. Respect to young Shepherd who chose not to celebrate his equaliser against his former teammates.
It may have only been a point but it lifted flagging spirits and it proved that the Team could compete, could defend and could play attractive football when the stars aligned. How then to get the stars to align more often then became the all-important question?
Aylesbury Vale came to town on Saturday, October 10th and went away having bagged all three points as Dunstable weren’t able to hang on to a hard-fought lead, Once again conceding a goal right at the death which undid so much good work. The performance deserved something more than just a commiserating pat on the back. Many of the crowd of 172 in Creasey Park that afternoon saw plenty of effort and endeavour but no alignment of the stars.
It was a similar story three days later away at Arlesey Town when a gritty and hard-working performance was rewarded with zero points. Two points from the opening five games suggested to many onlookers that a long hard season beckoned.
Two points became three the following Saturday as Dunstable picked themselves up, brushed themselves down and went out guns blazing against Crawley Green. In an exciting end to end match, Dunstable again surrendered a lead and ended up with a solitary point when really they should have had all three.
The game will be remembered by many for the way the local football family chose to support the Club’s efforts by sharing a portion of the gate receipts with our visitors who have been forced to play home games behind closed doors. Treasurer, Matt Carrington, came up with the idea and our thanks to AFC Dunstable, Biggleswade Utd, Leverstock Green & Kings Langley for matching pound for pound the Club’s donation and to Edgware Town for their generosity.
Having seen such a spirited and determined performance on the Saturday, many of the DTFC faithful watched aghast a few days later as their heroes were subjected to a brutal examination at the hands
of League leaders, Eyensbury Rovers. It was difficult to draw any crumbs of comfort from such a heavy defeat and with just three points from the first seven games the Club sat in the dreaded relegation places.
What followed next could not have been a better tonic for flagging spirits. Had anyone described the sequence of events that took place down the A1081 at Rothamsted Park in Harpenden it would have been described as either fantasy or fiction or most likely a combination of both.
A glorious display of attacking football was rewarded with three goals in a devastating fifteen-minute first-half display only for Harpenden to narrow the deficit with a stoppage-time first-half penalty.
Two further goals shortly after the break put Harpenden 4-3 up only for Dunstable to further up their game and be rewarded with all three points as Leo Pedro headed home the most perfect of crosses from Evans Lamboh. The stars had aligned and the boys had delivered. Gareth was rewarded with a spot on the Ollie Bayliss show.
Harold Wilson’s famous quote of “A week is a long time in Politics” was echoed around Creasey Park as Edgware Town were defeated 2-1 in the next midweek game and then, for the first time in five long years, the lads made it three wins on the bounce with a solid 2-0 victory at Tring Athletic.
If ever a man deserved the credit for the turn around in performances and results it was Gareth who has stayed loyal to the Club since its transition to becoming Fan owned and Fan managed. Gareth being one of the Club’s coaches and supporters who had packed into the HQ Sports Bar in May 2017 to learn the Club’s fate and to be part of those committed to keeping the Club alive.
A Tuesday evening away trip to Potton Utd followed as America went to the polls. Although Dunstable were beaten the overall performance had been a good one & the players were able to receive the applause from the travelling support with heads held high.
This was to be the last of the action until Saturday, December 12th as the country battened down the hatches to try and reduce the transmission spread of the Virus.
During this break in the season, the Club announced a partnership with Pro Direct Academy Luton (PDA Luton) which will see the Club field a new U18’s side next season in both the FA Youth Cup and the National League U19 Alliance. The venture has been the long-standing dream of Matchday Manager, Wayne Upton and PDA Luton supremo, Kevin Randal and promises to be an exciting development for the Club and a pathway for young talent into the First Team.
In another one of those perfectly non-scripted moments PDA Luton graduate and newly signed attacking midfielder, Tyler Fry, came off the bench in the second half and terrorised the Eyensbury backline. Talisman Captain & striker Chris Stapleton scored possibly the goal of the season with a delightful volley from Fry’s inch-perfect cross to secure his hat trick. Dunstable ended up sharing the points in a game they could and probably should have won when for the third time this season a stoppage time goal denied them all three points. The Team were still warmly applauded off the field by the travelling 30 or so Dunstable supporters who had travelled into Cambridgeshire for the match.
The performance and the result earned Gareth another slot on Ollie Baylis’ show and three days later the players got the all-important victory against Broadfields Utd. Although the performance lacked some of the panache and eye-catching style the players had displayed at Eyensbury it was still enough to get all three points and lift the Club into 13th place as we entered the pre-Christmas lockdown.
It’s like Groundhog Day as the last six games have produced thirteen points in an almost equivalent run prior to the first lockdown in March last year where the final seven games had produced fourteen points. Hopefully, this is not going to be an omen that the season will reach a premature conclusion.
Gareth & Ryan have recruited wisely and the squad has a well-balanced look and appear more than capable of a decent top half finish. The “bad days at the office” seem a long time ago and a goal tally of fifteen goals from the last six games compared to just six from the first six games demonstrates the positive changes that have occurred.
Credit has to go to Gareth, Ryan, Ivan, goalkeeping coach Rory McMullan & Physio, Rebecca Hawtin for turning the fortunes of the Club around this season.
The Club has gained many new fans and it’s been gratifying to see the numbers of fans coming forward to volunteer their time behind the scenes and on match days. Dan, Nick & Ken on the merchandising stall and Sam as Head Steward.
Club membership and home attendances are up on last season’s figures and despite the loss of major sponsors the Club’s fans have been truly outstanding in rallying around and supporting the Club’s fundraising efforts, whether it’s trudging 20kms around the town’s streets or making sure all thirty of the playing squad and coaching staff have been sponsored for the season.
Which leads me nicely to my final note on the season so far. The Club appointed Peter Bottom to become its first Fundraising Manager in the autumn. The £20K for 20K appeal didn’t achieve its ambitious financial target but in terms of engaging with the Club’s supporters and a section of the town we had no prior contact with it had been a huge success. With the full backing & blessing of the Luton & Dunstable Hospital who will receive nearly £3K from the summer appeal, we launched a Christmas raffle and will continue to fundraise for the Oncology Dept at the L&D for the whole of 2021.
In such uncertain times, it would be unwise to speculate when football will return as so many families battle the Virus and its consequences across society. What I can assure you all is that whenever football is allowed to re-start, Gareth & the players will be ready to pick up where they left off and climb as high up the table as possible to reward the Club’s faithful and loyal support.