Thursday 04th March 2004

Go Travel Kent League title race hots up

Midweek defeats for top two sides gives hope for challengers

Whitstable Town manager Matt Toms was a happy man after seeing his side come back from a 2-0 deficit to beat second placed and defending Go Travel Kent League Premier Division champions, Cray Wanderers at Hayes Lane on Wednesday night, writes Stephen McCartney.

Speaking after the game, Toms said: "After the awful disappointment of Saturday losing to Sevenoaks Town we are back on track to push for a top four or even top three finish. I know a lot of people were surprised at us losing at the weekend but this will make them sit up again.  To come here and take on the best team in the league, then go 2-0 down after we had 60% of the first half then snatch it in injury time shows character."

The race for the Go Travel Kent League championship has opened up intriguingly as a result of two midweek games in which the two pacesetters at the top were defeated.  Maidstone United beat leaders VCD Athletic on Tuesday and Cray Wanderers lost to Whitstable Town 3-2 just 24 hours later.

Largely written off as potential champions after their poor results earlier in the season, Maidstone and Whitstable have forced themselves back into contention, although the Oysterman may have to accept that their rivals have too many games in hand for comfort.

Thamesmead Town also cannot be ruled out and much will hinge on the games in which Cray have to play Maidstone and VCD Athletic twice, plus an away trip to Thamesmead during a hectic last nine weeks of the season.

When Whitstable beat Cray 4-2 at the Belmont on 20th January, it was said that the Wands were jaded after their big FA Vase game on Tyneside three days before.  But on Wednesday night at Hayes Lane as the Oysterman convincingly completed the double over Cray, there could be no doubting that manager Toms has assembled an impressive and powerful team whose recent run of thirteen games unbeaten before Saturday's surprise defeat at Sevenoaks Town speaks for itself.

Cray's line-up included twenty-six year old winger Mark Hammond who has returned after signing for Ryman League Division One South tenants Bromley at the start of the season.  Hammond failed to live up to his expectations for Stuart McIntyre's side, scoring only once in twenty-four starts in the higher grade of football.

In an lively end-to-end first half it was Cray who snatched a two-goal lead.

Jamie Kempster nodded in the opener after 27 minutes when Ross Lover's well-flighted free kick reached him at the far post, and Ricky Bennett expertly chipped in the second goal on the stroke of half time as the ball popped up in front of him on the edge of the penalty area.

In truth the visitors had kept Dean Mann the busier of the two goalkeepers, and also it had needed blocking tackles by defenders to deny former Slade Green player Sam Prett from close range on a couple of occasions.

There seemed to be a non-stop flow of corner kicks and free kicks gained by Whitstable - a trend that continued after the interval and proved to be a decisive factor in the end.

Mann, who recently played two games for Bromley, made a point-blank tip-over from Steve Aslett's header on 50 minutes but the England schoolboy thrashed a 25 yard shot through a crowded penalty area four minutes later to bring the visitors back into the game.

Cray were incensed when no spot-kick was awarded after Kempster seemed to be clumsily felled after breaking into the goalmouth, and then Cray were dumbfounded when great work by Lover and Kempster set up a chance that just needed a tap home at the far post but ended with goalkeeper Mark Lane simply gathering the ball.

Perhaps those were the turning points in the game, for Whitstable's height and strength was beginning to take it's toll and when Cray couldn't clear a corner kick on 79 minutes youngster Seb Brimstead produced a cracking finish with a high cross-shot from the right.

If a winning goal was to come, a set-piece looked to be a likely option.  James Taylor nearly got it for the home side but sent his header way too high after meeting a corner kick.

Whitstable captain Marc Seager, who by now was merely hobbling as his legs were giving way after the heroics he and others had showed all over the pitch, had one last part to play in the game.  His floated free kick, after a needless tug on the arm against Scot Price gave Town the chance to press with added time running down, was knocked out behind goal.

His legs carried him far enough to take the corner kick, whipped in at pace it was met by the powerful head of Andy Keir who smashed the ball into the net amid utter scenes of utter jubilation from all the visiting players and their substitutes bench.

The win puts Whitstable Town in second place, seven points behind leaders VCD Athletic, although Vickers have a game in hand over the Oystermen.  Meanwhile, Cray Wanderes, in third place, have four games in hand over VCD and five over Whitstable and are now two points behind Whitstable.  Thamesmead Town are sitting in fourth place with 47 points from 22 games and fifth placed Maidstone United (46 points from 22 games) are back in the hunt.

Additional reporting from Jerry Dowlen (Cray Wanderers) and Tony Rouse (Whitstable Town)