Stones hunt points this Easter as an ill-timed slump in form leaves the blues flirting nervously with the division’s trap door and an unthinkable return to the Ryman.
Defeat against Margate on Saturday would equal Wealdstone’s worst consecutive losing streak of three league matches – something a resilient if at times uninspiring Stones side have done well to avoid since August.
Victory, on the other hand, and Stones would breathe easier come 5pm safe in the knowledge that only one team in Conference South history has ever been relegated with a tally of 44 points (Hornchurch, 2012/13).
Whatever happens between now and the season’s end, the campaign will be remembered as one of underlying change.
35 players have donned the crest and recent weeks have seen the exit door revolve open at an alarming frequency as the club seeks to slash the wage bill and trim the squad ahead of next season. But at what cost?
A comfortable win over Hayes just two weeks ago saw Stones cap a fine period of 3 wins from 9 games – drawing the other six. That run represented a points return that would almost justify any decision to begin preparations for next season.
Ball, Hutchinson and Harriott have all been shipped on, meanwhile Martin and Duffy have disappeared, Connor Calcutt has become a distant memory and Corcoran who assisted Wealdstone’s revival last year departed in acrimonious circumstances. And whatever happened to Dan Brown?
The door has of course revolved both ways, Jack Smith, Marvin Morgan, James Bransgrove, James Demetriou and now Watford’s Matt Hall have all come in, but continuity remains something of an issue for a side that has fielded six keepers in competitive football over the course of the campaign.
One thing is clear – Stones are not yet safe. And the loss of Harriott in particular, apparently off to pursue a career in the States, leaves the midfield devoid of both goals and legs. Any concern?
“It will always be a struggle as we’ve not got the biggest of budgets, but we’ll be okay. Two more wins should see us safe, and then we can start planning for next season.” That was the view of Scott McGleish this week and you have to agree if Wealdstone can make Monday evening with 47 points in the bank they will return a Conference side again come August.
If Wealdstone achieve that then Bartlett would again be congratulated for notching a third successive campaign in a league that continues to get harder as each season passes. Something McGleish was quick to acknowledge.
“Some clubs in this league are full-time, which is where we start finding it harder, especially when you can have players missing games because they have to work. Just being in this league is an achievement for a club our size.”
And whilst change continues to be the underlying theme with many off-field situations hanging in the balance (most notably the lease and the imminent arrival of a new chairman) will the current management be the benefactors of next season’s £40,000 ring-fenced war-chest?
There’s no doubt that supporters’ have delved generously to raise £17,000 so far – an excellent milestone achieved as part of the “100:400 campaign” – but with money comes accountability. And if a new chairman provides a face-lift for a club that has dealt handsomely in stability for the past 20-odd seasons then change could be felt across other areas, too.
One club that hasn’t struggled with money, or change, is Margate. Last season then-manager Terry Brown was backed with the highest budget in the Ryman League Premier Division as Gate clinched promotion via the play-offs, and in January of this year the club agreed a new 25-year lease with Thanet District Council to continue at Hartsdown Park.
In December the club sacked Brown after they made a disappointing start to the season and when popular Margate keeper Nikki Bull took over the club won 8 of their first 11 to raise hopes of a late play-off charge. That didn’t materialise, and Bull’s troops have nose-dived since – losing their last five and worse, the club was hit by the news that former-Wolverhampton Wanderers benefactor Bob Laslett was to stand down as chairman. An announcement made as recently as this week.
Laslett gave generously during his tenure, reportedly investing £2.5 million in the club since he took over in December 2013, and his departure places Gate under a cloud of uncertainty again. John Webb, who replaces him, insists “nothing has changed.”
Margate star Ladapo Premier League bound?
On to Saturday and if Wealdstone are to get anything out the game the man to stop is Nigerian front-man Freddie Ladapo (assuming he’s still there). The Romford-born powerhouse began his career at Colchester where he amassed almost a goal a game at youth level. Post Colchester the 23-year-old toured non-league taking in spells at several clubs before joining Gate in January last year where he was instrumental in helping the club secure promotion to the Conference.
His form has continued to blossom in Margate blue and no fewer than 12-clubs were reported to have expressed an interest in the star during the recent January window. One of those clubs was Crystal Palace where the striker has been on trial; featuring twice for their U21s – a hat trick against Watford in his first outing was swiftly followed up by an appearance against Leeds where, despite another impressive performance, he failed to score. Still under contract with Margate the rumour mill is rife with suggestion that he has given the Palace hierarchy something to think about. Regardless, given events this week at Hartsdown Park his future remains very much uncertain.
Bull also recognises what a talent he is, telling Kent Online: “We ask a lot of Freddie but I wouldn’t ask him to do that if I didn’t think he could. Even at League 2 or League 1 level you’d struggle to find a player that can play the lone striker role so well. The ball can come out of the sky, he brings it down on his chest, he twists and turns and defenders don’t know whether to twist or stick. He buys us good free-kicks and relieves a lot of pressure. I’ve said since I took the job, and having played with him this season, that when it all does click for him, the boy’s a real player.”
STOP PRESS: as late as Thursday evening (24 March) Kent Online suggest Ladapo is now in advanced talks with Palace and speculation is rife that a deal may already be done. If the striker does miss out, 19-year-old on-loan Colchester winger Dion Sembie-Ferris is likely to go straight into Gate’s match day squad. Sembie-Ferris has featured 21-times for the U’s – but not since December and he completes his move to Gate today in the anticipation that Ladapo is likely to move on.
Stones team news
In the Stones camp meanwhile there could be a debut for on-loan Watford star Matt Hall. The centre-back, a third year scholar at Watford, will be vying for a place in a defence that has shipped 54 goals in 34 league outings.
One good news story for Bartlett ahead of the Easter fixtures is the imminent return of Jonathan North. Stones boast a better win ratio when he plays and the belief is the high-scoring Vale would have been akin to more home victories over the past three months had the stopper been available.
Player of the season talk…
As we move into the season’s twilight months talk turns to player of the season. Much of that will be decided on how the Stones perform over the coming weekend. Two names that dominate conversations are Bradley Hudson-Odoi and Scott Davies – and both rightly merited.
Davies has withstood a lot of intermittent criticism throughout the season and that was evidenced again on Monday night when tweet-gate caused a bit of a stir.
But, despite being guilty of a slow start, the playmaker possesses genuinely qualities that earmark him as one of the most exciting players Wealdstone have had in recent years. On and off the pitch, Davies has been a positive role model for the club and his professionalism and maturity is something that Wealdstone should look to benefit from for the foreseeable future.
In Bradley Hudson-Odoi, who bookies would have you believe is narrow favourite for the players’ crown, Wealdstone have unearthed another genuine talent. At 27 his chances of football league are likely to be slim but there is no denying 10-goals from left (or right) wing is a very impressive return for a player who began the season on the bench. The winger has turned defences inside out and has been instrumental in the final third.
Expect a raucous atmosphere at the Vale as kids U16 get in free – and you floating pro-fans benefit too; it’s half-price (£6 instead of £12) for anyone who can present a pro-season ticket at the turnstile.
The Vale has not seen a stalemate since 12 September and in recent weeks has been one of the go-to grounds for goals. That has rarely benefitted the hosts who ship almost at the same rate they score. For the visitors, Margate, they’ve endured a miserable run – one so bad that any harbouring hopes of promotion are on hold until next season at least. A win for Gate would almost certainly see them safe but that seems unlikely for a club in free-fall.
Please continue to show your appreciation for our very own Wealdstone Raider and continue to vote for him in the Marathon Bet non-league challenge. Torquay currently lead the vote so your vote is invaluable to ensuring Wealdstone can challenge for the £10,000 prize fund.
And if eggs aren’t your thing, Pete Worby and Mick Fishman’s excellent 70-year history book is well worth a read. Available to buy for £30. Read more here.