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AFC Croydon, in yellow, defend a Whitstable Town corner.

At the same time on Saturday afternoon that the ‘richest league in the world’ got under way in earnest with such pulsating and high-octane fixtures as Burnley versus Swansea and, er, Middlesbrough v Stoke City, Whitstable Town kicked-off their new league campaign at home to AFC Croydon.

The game itself, competitive and reasonably entertaining given the soaring temperature, ended in a convincing 3-0 victory for Town, thanks to a barnstorming second half that featured goals from Darren Marsden, youngster Harris Rodgers and the outstanding Aaron Quain, whose half-volley was the pick of the bunch.

Now to compare the Barclays Premier League and the Southern Counties East Football League is to compare different galaxies: The former is gigantic, global, all-conquering and the plaything of billionaires; The latter is provincial, sometimes parochial and more often than not hand to mouth.

But if you were to ask me – a lifelong fan who has become increasingly disillusioned with the circus that top flight professional football has become – which of the two represented the true essence of the beautiful game then it would be Whitstable Town and their ilk who would get my vote every time.

 

I should perhaps explain my own relationship with Whitstable Town FC. When I moved from London to Whitstable in March, 2003, I was determined to show allegiance to my local club and the first Town game I attended was towards the end of the 2002/03 Kent League season. It was, if memory serves me correctly, a 2-0 home win against Sporting Bengal.

The following season I attended home games regularly, and saw some away fixtures too. Soon, and I am still not entirely sure how, I found myself co-editing the match day programme while also becoming a member of the club committee.

Towards the end of 2006 I was appointed Sports Editor of the Times series of local weekly newspapers. As my remit included covering Canterbury City, Faversham Town and Herne Bay, in addition to Whitstable, there was clearly a conflict of interests so I stood down from the committee.

All of which meant that when Whitstable were crowned Kent League champions for the 2006/07 season I was there to witness it in a professional capacity.

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Whitstable Town attack during a second half that they dominated.

The club’s subsequent promotion to division one south of the Ryman League was to prove a challenging one. Exciting? Yes. Difficult? At times, certainly.

For me Whitstable just about held their own in step four football. They struggled at times, and relegation often loomed, but over the years they became an established Ryman League side, growing in confidence with each passing year.

Their best season was the 2014/15 campaign when under the stewardship of Jim Ward they finished a highly credible eighth.  Unfortunately Ward was lured back to his beloved Ramsgate for the start of the 2015/16 season and, to makes matters even worse for the Oystermen – to give Whitstable their most endearing nickname – he took several players with him, most notably prolific striker Ian Pulman.

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The Oysterboys in full flow. They still hate Herne Bay.

The following season would prove disastrous for Town. They finished second from bottom with just eight league victories from 46 games played.

As a result they now find themselves in the aforementioned Southern Counties East League, which is essentially a slightly pimped-up version of the Kent League.

Although relegation marked a return to step five football for the club for the first time in almost a decade, the overall mood among the majority of the 131 present at Saturday’s Croydon game (“Our biggest league crowd of the season,” joked the match announcer) was a positive one, if perhaps also a little stoical. Stoicism and non-league football have always gone hand in hand.

Certainly the early signs are that under manager Scott Porter Whitstable are more than capable of bouncing back to the Ryman League at the first time of asking.

When things started to go wrong last term a few people did depart the sinking ship, so to speak, including a couple of committee members who have since washed up at other Kent football clubs.

However I am pleased to report that at the core of the club are a band of diehard supporters who, one gets the impression, would follow Town no matter what level of football they play at.

These are people such as Joe Brownett, whose long association with the club has seen him return once again as chairman. Other committee members such as Doug Bubb and Dave Robinson have also shown they have staying power. No flouncing off to a rival club when the going gets tough for these chaps.

Then there are the supporters, including the ever-vocal Oysterboys. They remained in the Bruce Smith stand for the whole of Saturday’s game and sung their way through the full 90 minutes. They still hate Herne Bay.

And then there are the likes of Richard Tennant. Tennant, an unassuming and amiable chap, has been following Whitstable for many years and for Saturday’s game stepped in as master of ceremonies. He is the very essence of positivity at a time when Whitstable Town need it most.

“We have been relegated, and that hurt,” he told me after the game. “But with the current manager and team structure we are looking good this season. It’s good to have Joe back in charge and under him a lot of work has gone on in the background.

 

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Richard Tennant remains positive about the season ahead.

“Scott is an experienced manager and I think we can go a long way. There is still a great community feel about the club and once we get a few wins under our belts the fans will start returning.”

You will certainly struggle to find a friendlier club than Whitstable. With five minutes to play on Saturday Brownett, resplendent in club tie, prowled the Gasworks End terraces asking for man-of-the-match nominations from the Town fans scattered before him. You don’t get that at White Hart Lane.

So forget Pogba. Erase Costa and Ibrahimovic from your memory. And whatever you do pretend you’ve never even heard of Jose Mourinho. Because if it’s the real soul of football you are searching for, avoid the Emirates and Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. Get yourself along to the Belmont instead. Forget executive boxes and prawn sandwiches, here you’ll find bench seating in the main stand and chips served in a polystyrene tray. This is football at the heart of the community, which is as it should be.

Oh, and the chips are delicious.

 

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