Conor Bennett sees two re-born non-league stalwarts clash at the top of the Isthmian League South Central
Walton and Hersham FC 5 - 1 Basingstoke Town FC
Saturday 1st April 2023 – Isthmian South Central – Elmbridge XCEL Sports Hub.
The scrap between Walton & Hersham and Basingstoke Town for promotion to the Isthmian Premier has been a close fought and relentless one. Prior to Saturday’s first v second six-pointer ‘Stoke had led the way at the top of the table for much of the campaign, putting together a staggering fifteen game run of wins between defeat by Walton in the reverse fixture in December and a narrow 1-0 loss to Hanworth Villa on the last weekend of March.
Meanwhile, North-West Surrey’s finest were on a fourteen-game winning streak of their own that had kept them within touching distance of their opponents from neighbouring Hampshire.
These are golden times for two famous non-league names from this part of the world. Walton’s Swans enjoyed halcyon days in both the FA and Amateur Cups in the seventies. Basingstoke were in the Conference South Play-Offs for promotion to the National League as recently as 2016. But familiar non-league tales of mismanagement, conflicting local interests and diminishing support left both clubs hitting rock bottom prior to the pandemic.
Walton left their Stompond Lane home of eighty years in 2017 and were demoted to the Combined Counties Division One (the tenth and bottom level of the non-league pyramid) two years later. Basingstoke meanwhile suffered a painful and bitter eviction from their Camrose Ground in 2019 which coincided with their relegation to Southern League Division One South.
So, their respective resurgence on-and-off the pitch is both heartening and not altogether dissimilar. Both clubs are now based at smart ‘community hub’ stadiums with 4G pitches. Both are steered by bright and highly regarded young coaches (Dan Brownlie at ‘Stoke, the duo of Scott Harris and Billy Rowley at Swans) playing football that’s easy on the eye and attracting new followers. Both identify as ambitious clubs on an upward trajectory serving the towns they represent.
Walton so too boast a huge social media following, latching on the success of media platform TikTok where they share highlights and ‘behind the scenes’ footage. Hitting 1million followers on 26th February 2023, they became the first English club outside of the Premier League and championship to hit this milestone on any social media platform.
That Stoke defeat against Hanworth – amid relentless consistency from both sides – therefore presented a window of opportunity for the hosts. Three points would be enough to leapfrog them ahead of the title favourites and cement themselves into the single automatic promotion spot with just four games remaining.
Walton’s confidence was high in the run up to what would be without doubt the biggest game of both sides’ respective seasons. Spearheading the Swans’ title charge was record-breaking Eddie Simon, a goal scoring dentist plucked from British Airways FC in 2021 in the form of his (and indeed arguably any centre-forward’s) life. Simon’s three-goal contribution against Uxbridge seven days previously made him the first player in the the history of England’s top eight divisions to net four consecutive hat-tricks. Basingstoke may have the best defensive record in the league, but Simon’s form would surely have weighed on the minds of the Town’s back five ahead of the game.
With a club record attendance of 1,651 in attendance at the XCEL Sports Hub (Walton’s smartly appointed home since 2017) atmosphere pre-kick-off was alive, those lining the perimeter fences and packed into the impressive main stand eager for the outcome.
As one may predict for such an occasion, both sides started slowly. In possession both sides nervous and hesitant to risk a ‘final ball’ in behind or out wide. Out of it, they sat deep forcing their attacking opponents around them and down the wings. When Town defender Callum Winchcombe was directed by his bench to, ‘put a foot on it, be arrogant!’ when under pressure, that confidence felt fraudulent amidst the more general caution.
With ten minutes on the clock the home side picked up some momentum with the discovery, and then resultant success of diagonal balls in behind Basingstoke’s respective full backs. It proved enough of a catalyst for a surge of tempo from the Swans.
Basingstoke’s game plan seemed far less ambitious than the home side’s, reluctant to take risks in the final third, their counter-attacks amid Walton’s growing dominance unconvincing. A mix-up and collision between Town teammates Paul Hodges and winger George Reid stifled an opportunity for an opener, the groan from the travelling fans summing up their sides’ start to the game.
The first real chance of the game came in the 18th minute. Walton midfielder Teo Kurturan (all alice band and athleticism) showed his ability from range with a stinging effort that was met with equally excellent save from the Basingstoke keeper. It was the best chance of a goal in largely cagey opening twenty minutes.
Four minutes later and the game came alive. Joe Pratley-Jones locked his left foot onto one of the Swans’ signature diagonals before delivering an enticing cross into the area. ‘The corridor of uncertainty’ conjured a short scramble in the box that concluded with a bulging net; deadly dentist Simon wheeling away in celebration. His quick thinking allowing him to react fastest on a loose ball for his 33rd league goal of the campaign. One nil to the home side, a reaction from Basingstoke was needed to hang on to that top spot.
Alas Stoke’s efforts didn’t amount to much aside from two shots from Sunbury schoolteacher Paul Hodges – one which cleared the 4G cage behind the goal, the other which trundled into the side netting. Not much to encourage the Basingstoke Massive gathered behind Swans keeper Liam Allen.
But Walton weren’t content with a one goal lead and set about netting another before half time. A pinpoint Kurturan corner in added time gave them the opportunity. Flying over a clustered six-yard box it met the top-knotted head of centre half Mitchel Gough, who sent it back across the goal and into the bottom right corner. Two-nil and Swans were sitting more comfortably.
Possibly stinging from some half-time words from snap-back wearing Brownlie, ‘Stoke started much the better side, not hanging their tails between their legs just yet. Fifty-three minutes in and they had one back; Reid calmly slotting the ball into the bottom left, leaving Allen with no chance. Game on. Basingstoke Massive awoken, singing once more.
The next big move would decide the game. After winning a free kick on the half-way line, Walton’s John Gilbert took it quickly, sliding a perfectly weighted through ball to the reactive Alex Kelly who let the ball run beyond his deadly right boot before unleashing a snappy right footed shot past the keeper. Three-one.
While Walton addressed their jubilant supporters, Basingstoke’s players surrounded referee Will Briers, begrudged at the speed at which the free kick was taken. But Briers not only dismissed their allegations of a moving ball, but also a dissenting Billy Upton, brandishing a second yellow card to the Town centre-back. ‘Stoke down to ten and the climb back looking too steep.
Following Upton’s sending-off, the afternoon simply fell apart for Basingstoke. The Swans smelt blood and on eighty-two minutes they pulled further away. Simon felled, penalty for Walton. Spot-kick specialist Harry Mills made no mistake. Top spot and a superior goal difference almost certainly secured.
Gilbert’s passing ability and hard running was a feature of the game and on eighty-seven minutes his cheeky cross landed at the feet of Jordan Adeyemi who tapped home a fifth. Down the other end, the Basingstoke Massive responded to their general despondency by the dispatching of a yellow flare into the Walton box. In a scene of theatre that only non-league can conjure, Gough briefly held the pyro aloft to the cheers of the home crowd before dispatching it back from whence it came. In fairness, he and the outstanding Joe Hicks alongside him had repelled everything that was thrown at them all afternoon.
Minutes later and Walton & Hersham’s fourteenth consecutive win was secured along with the league’s top spot. A proper ‘awayday’ lies await for Walton as they fly to Guernsey over the Easter weekend, whilst Basingstoke may have the more challenging fixture a day earlier as play-off chasing Southall travel to Winklebury. Plenty of room for twists and turns in the final four games. And still just a point in it.
However pivotal this appeared to be for Walton and however painful for ‘Stoke, this high quality game played out in front of a noisy, colourful and record-breaking crowd told of good times for both clubs. Whatever happens between now and the end of April in this title race, you wouldn’t bet against the Swans Rise and the Stoke’s surge carrying on for some time yet.